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Kingdom Greatness

February 5, 2024 Speaker: Jim Davis Series: Matthew

Passage: Matthew 20:17–28

As you read the gospel of Matthew and come to Matthew 20, you can feel the tension rising. Matthew has our sights set on Jerusalem and we know that, there, something bad is going to happen to Jesus. The disciples, though, still don’t seem to get that even though Jesus has been pretty clear twice already and now, in our passage, a third time. The disciples see Jerusalem and they can almost taste victory. The problem is that they don’t understand what victory in the kingdom of God means.

This passage is one that has spoken particularly clearly, convincingly, and convictingly to me for many years. Most of you know that when I was in college, before I became a Christian, I had a singular goal to make myself great. My goal after college was to get on a track to become governor of the State of Florida. By my senior year, I had the kind of resume that would more than set me on that track. But, I remember putting that resume together and becoming frustrated because that resume didn’t satisfy me. I remember thinking I have more on this resume than I could have hoped for my freshman year, why am I so unsatisfied? 

Well, the answer to that question is in this passage. This whole passage is a message about what greatness is in the world’s eyes and what it is in the kingdom of God. And they are very different things. In this passage we clearly see what worldly greatness is and what kingdom greatness is. So that is how we are going to break it down. 

  1. Worldly greatness

We see the pursuit of worldly greatness beginning in verse 20. The mother of James and John went to Jesus and asked him if her two sons could sit at each side of Jesus in his kingdom. Now, this request is clearly in light of what Jesus said in the last chapter. He said that when the Son of Man sits on his throne, those who have followed him will also sit on twelve thrones of their own judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Clark taught that last week and gave a clear answer about what that means. I think his answer went something like this [shrug]. Well, it doesn’t look like it was much clearer to the disciples.

In Mark’s account, we see that the mother isn’t just your average helicopter mom, but she is put up to this by James and John. Some scholars think this woman isn’t just their mother, but Jesus’ aunt. Maybe James and John thought Jesus might turn them down, but who could turn down sweet aunt Salome? 

But before we throw James and John under the bus (and we will:), I want us to appreciate something. They believe in Jesus. They are taking Jesus at his word. They have followed Jesus and seen him do things they could never have imagined. They know Jesus is the Messiah and victory feels so close. They can taste greatness. The problem is that they have no idea what kingdom victory and greatness is. 

We would do well to remember that if this can happen to James and John, it can, and does, happen to Christians today. Worldly greatness seeks things that bring us power, authority, and good standing. At its core is a desire to exalt ourselves which is what makes this kind of greatness inherently worldly. And it isn’t just James and John who are feeling this way. The other disciples do too. We read that when they heard what James and John had done, they became indignant. This is not some sort of holy indignation here, this is pure jealousy because they feel threatened by James and John asking for something they want too. They don’t want James and John to be greater than they are in the kingdom.

We could take this passage a lot of different directions, but what I want to drill down on is the fact that we have people in this passage who believe in Jesus looking to use that association to gain worldly greatness or worldly power. Man am I glad we’ve progressed past that in the 21st century. There are basically two types of people this passage hits here. One type who is not a true believer, but still desires to wield the name of Jesus for their own pursuit of worldly greatness.

A scriptural example of this is that funny story in Acts 19 we looked at in the fall when these itinerant Jewish exorcists wanted a little bump in their business so they decided to do their thing in Jesus’ name which didn’t work out well for them. They weren’t believers, but they believed the name of Jesus could still give them worldly greatness and success so they tried to cast out demons in Jesus’ name and the demon possessed people beat them up so badly that they ran away naked. This is just another form of the prosperity gospel. Jesus exists to give you more of the worldly things you want. 

The other type of person this hits is a genuine believer who is misguided in some way and using Jesus for their own worldly exaltation. And if worldly greatness is the exaltation of one’s self, then the result can’t be anything other than division. That’s what’s happening with the disciples and that will happen to any group of Christians doing the same thing. I think this is especially important for us to wrestle with during an election cycle. I have been praying and talking with other elders about how we can experience unity during this election cycle that we did not experience during the last election cycle. And I mean all of us because I learned ways that I can more helpfully serve OGC this time than I did last time. 

So, how did the American church as a whole, and us in particular, fail at our understanding of greatness in the 2020 election cycle and become divided as a result? It’s important to learn from our mistakes so we can do better this time. I have four thoughts that are all rooted in this passage. First, we let the immature lead us. This is what happened to Mama Zebedee. She should have known better than to let her sons influence her in this way. She should have been wiser. Likewise, we should not let the immature spirit of the world we live in rattle our cages, egg us on, or lead us down the path of division. We should wiser.

If you have kids or are around children you care about, you’ve seen how heartbreaking it can be when one kid you care about pushes the buttons of another kid you care about and the provoked kid responds to the immature provoking immaturely. Or if a kid you care about is led into trouble by some other immature kid at school when you want better for them than that. The church should never be influenced or led by the immature. 

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying we can’t have political opinions, but we can do it in a mature way. Maturity means having wisdom in how we engage and nowhere do we need it more than on social media. I doubt anyone in this room, me included, will change anyone else’s political opinions through social media. And if that’s the case, we have to ask ourselves a hard question: Why then are we posting in the first place?  

And this leads us to the second failing of the church in 2020: We exalted our own wordly tribes above our heavenly citizenship. Again, this is exactly what’s happening in the text; only the clan is the Zebedee clan. It’s fine to be associated with groups or movements other than the church, but we have to put those associations in their proper place. Last week Clark, very pastorally, talked about how our association with Christ is greater than even our family units. If that’s the case then how much less important is our political affiliation? And if we agree that it’s less important, then why would we let it divide us? 

Human nature is such that when we are fearful, insecure, or uncertain and we are not running to Jesus for that security, we will run to something else. We can’t help it. We will exalt something else to that level of importance to find security and in all the uncertainty of 2020, many Christians did that through politics. And exalting something we are associated with to that top spot is another way of exalting ourselves. It is human pride that causes us to think that our security and happiness is going to come through our political ideology. 

And here’s the most controversial thing I’ll say today. I look at the candidates in 2020 and I see two people who are just like the itinerant Jewish exorcists trying to tack Jesus on for their worldly success. Now, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have some good ideas, but it does mean that we’re not going to exalt them and the tribes they lead to that top spot because we have a more sure foundation on which we stand. In 2020 there was a lot of talk about whose side God was on. Do you know what Abraham Lincoln asked? Was he on God’s side. There is a big difference. One is using God for worldly greatness and the other is humbling himself for kingdom greatness. 

Third failing of the church in 2020: we misunderstood the nature of the kingdom. Certainly the disciples misunderstood this. They tasted victory and wanted to seize it for themselves. Jesus says in verse 25 h“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles ilord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. - Matt 20:25. Jesus isn’t denigrating authority, but simply saying that in the kingdom, the power dynamics are different. Jesus never said blessed are the powerful, blessed are those in authority, blessed are those who get their way. So why would we be overly rattled at the thought of those in power not propagating a political view that makes life easier for us? Again, I’m not saying it’s bad to be well represented in government. I’m just saying that most of the Christian world is not and their ultimate hope is not shaken by this and is probably stronger because of it. 

Lastly, the church failed in 2020 because winning became more important than piety. Again, we can certainly see this in all the disciples in our passage. James and John are going behind the other disciples' backs. What they are doing is likely a direct affront to Peter who they perceive as a threat because most of the people were going to Jesus through Peter. They are not doing to others what they would want done to them. They are posturing to win a worldly game of politics. 

Ronald Ragan was great at many things, but his theology was sometimes lacking. The US is not the city on the hill, the church is. The church is supposed to be the city on a hill that leads people to safety. And the church is often strongest when it is not, in a worldly sense, winning. The church father Tertullian did not say, “The success of the brothers is the seed of the church.” He said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” 

It’s fascinating to me that if you followed Christian Twitter in 2019 and 2020, it was solidly six months ahead of Fox News, MSNBC, and all the other mainstream media in terms of what it was talking about. This means that the church had an amazing opportunity to lead the way through that season, but we failed massively. I think this summer and fall can be different, but it will only be different if we hear what Jesus says in response to the Zebedee clan’s request. 

  1. Kingdom Greatness

Jesus hears the request of Mama Z and then speaks to James and John and simply asks if they are able to drink the cup that Jesus will drink. Jesus’ tone here doesn’t seem to be harsh. He doesn’t seem to be rebuking them. He’s just asking a question the way a loving parent would to a child. So, what is that cup? I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not the cup Indiana Jones pursued that Jesus bled into which will give you long life if you drink out of it. James and John don’t seem to know what the cup is, but they assure Jesus, “Oh, yes. We will drink that cup.” Jesus essentially tells them, “Oh you will drink it… but you don’t know what you’re saying right now.” It’s at this point in the story that the other disciples get so angry. Jesus then turns to them and makes it clear what the cup is and what greatness in the kingdom means. 

The cup Jesus is referring to is the cup of suffering, service, and sacrifice. In the kingdom, suffering, service, and sacrifice for the sake of Christ and greatness go hand in hand. And there is a double meaning here that we need to understand. Drinking this cup means something different for Jesus than it does for us. It’s still a cup of suffering, service, and sacrifice for him and us. But, we drink of our cup only because Jesus drank his. This is why this whole story begins with Jesus telling the disciples how he would die. 

The image of the cup all over scripture connects it with God’s wrath. In Jeremiah we read, 15 Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: z“Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. - Jer 25:15 In Isaiah, pWake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, qyou who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, rthe cup of staggering. - Is 51:17 And again in Revelation, 

9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “Ifanyone uworships the beast and its image and receives va mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink wthe wine of God’s wrath, xpoured full strength into the cup of his anger, and yhe will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. - Rev 14:9,10

This is why Jesus prayed the night before his arrest that if it were possible, that this cup be taken from him. Jesus knew the cup he would drink on the cross would be the cup of God’s wrath that we all deserve in our place. People have wondered why we have so many Christian martyrs who have died exuding an other worldly confidence as they face their death, but here you have Jesus who seems terrified and is so stressed out that he actually sweats blood. Why is Jesus not as confident as so many other Christians who have died? The answer is because for Christians, death is a doorway into God’s grace, love, and mercy. For Jesus, his death meant the full weight of God’s wrath. 

He drank that cup so we would never have to. This is why Jesus said that his sacrifice would be a ransom for many. When we hear this word ransom, it’s not very helpful to think of a Mexican cartel or Mel Gibson in his movie Ransom. A ransom in that day was the price paid to free a slave. And that is what we all are. Slaves to our sin. Jesus paid the price of God’s wrath so we could be freed. All we have to do is trust him. Believe in him. 

Since I’ve already pointed out one theological flaw in Indiana Jones, I might as well point out another. In the last movie Indiana said something like, “In my years I’ve learned it doesn’t matter what you believe. It matters how much you believe it.” That is horribly incorrect. Christianity says it’s not the amount of faith that saves you, it’s the object of your faith. If we have faith the size of a mustard seed, kingdom greatness awaits us. But, this kind of greatness is only for those who put their faith in Jesus and this is why Jesus says he will be a ransom for ‘many’ and not for ‘all.’ 

So then, if that’s the cup Jesus drank, what cup is Jesus saying the disciples will drink? Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath so we could drink the cup of fellowship. And that cup still holds suffering, sacrifice, and service. Our cup is rich with the taste of the certainty of an eternal relationship with him, but it also includes suffering in this life. Not the suffering of God’s wrath, but the suffering that comes with loving Jesus in a hostile world. A suffering that comes from embracing a kingdom ethic that is reversed from what this world values. A suffering and self-sacrifice that we willingly take on because of our desire to live a life that honors Christ. Just look at the disciples. James was killed very early on in the book of Acts and John, even though he is the only disciple who was not martyred, according to tradition, was boiled alive and when he didn’t die, the Romans were so freaked out that they banished him to Patmos to die. That’s what the cup of fellowship meant for them. 

I was listening to an atheist sociologist and he was saying how humanity is drawn to people like Buddha, Gandi, Mother Teressa, and Jesus because we marvel at that kind of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. He said even if we don’t embrace that life, we not only admire it, but are drawn to it. What I would add to that is the reason people are drawn to it is because they give us glimpses (even if they are not Christians) of how the kingdom is designed to work. A beautiful economy of loving others the way we love ourselves, of sacrificing our rights for the good of others, and of doing to others what we would want done to us. 

Two important caveats though. First, we aren’t to look for suffering. The disciples fled persecution when they could. We just embrace suffering how and when it comes. Second, suffering doesn’t make us better than other people. If we look at how much we’ve sacrificed as a way of seeing ourselves as greater then we are just using our suffering as a way of pursuing worldly greatness. We sacrifice, we serve, we suffer out of love for others and love for Christ. 

And the result of drinking from the cup of fellowship will be resurrection, just as Jesus resurrected on the third day. Now, with all that in mind, the last two and half verses should make so much sense. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,3 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,4 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but kto serve, and lto give his life as a ransom for mmany.”

A misunderstanding of greatness plagued me in college and certainly rears its head still as it will for all of us. But, what amazes me is every time I see it and confess it, how satisfying it is to let go of worldly greatness and live in the economy of the kingdom that Jesus brings. It’s one of the many ways a heart attack can be a blessing. 

And we can enjoy this cup even when and especially when we don’t enjoy those ruling over us. Jesus certainly did not have any fair representation in the Roman or Jewish governments. He makes it clear in verses 18 and 19 that these would be the people he would be delivered over to. 

And I would argue that if we are drinking deeply of the cup of fellowship with Christ that the next year can not only be a season of peace, but a season of kingdom fruitfulness if we can abandon the world’s ideas of greatness and embrace what greatness means in the kingdom of God: serving, sacrificing, and suffering, not because we have to to earn God’s approval, but because he has approved us in Christ. He has united us in Christ. He is sustaining us in Christ. And he will resurrect us in Christ. 

More in Matthew

February 25, 2024

The Triumphal Entry

February 11, 2024

The Healing of the Blind

January 28, 2024

What Then Do I Lack?