Friday, February 8, 2008

The Kingdom of Servant Greatness

Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant … just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:26,28)
On the heels of the parable about the landowner and the laborers, where the punch line is “So the last will be first, and the first last,” Matthew records this account, where the symbolic language of parable gets fleshed out:
Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.” (Matthew 20:17-19)
Here is Jesus, preeminent as king in His own kingdom, giving Himself over to be treated as anything but king. He is rightfully the first and the greatest, but He trades that for the place of the least and the lowest. The first was willing to become last that the last might become first. But that is not the end of the reversal, for because He joined Himself with the last, God performed the greatest reversal of all, making Jesus the first above all firsts.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
There is more to reflect on in this story, however, for the mother of James and John came to see Jesus:
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?”

She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20-21)
The request actually came from James and John, as the parallel account in Mark 10:35-45 shows, but they enlisted the help of their mother. They were seeking the place of preeminence, the place of being first—greatness in the kingdom of Heaven on Earth. The lesson of the parable had not yet penetrated their hearts for, clearly, they did not yet comprehend the true nature of what they were asking.
But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

They said to Him, “We are able.”

So He said to them, “You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.” (Matthew 20:22-23)
James and John answered accurately, though not out of understanding, and Jesus recognized it as prophetic: Not only were they able, but they would indeed do so. But what they wanted was not in Jesus’ hand to give, but the Father’s. For Jesus did not even seek to exalt Himself, but was exalted by the Father.

Now, the other disciples caught wind of what James and John had done, and the situation might have turned ugly — as if the others did not desire the same thing for themselves — except that Jesus took it as an opportunity to enlighten them on the nature of true greatness, making explicit what had been veiled in the previous parable.
And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:24-28)
Jesus turned everything upside down. In the world of the Gentiles, greatness was about being able to lord oneself and exercise authority over others, and the disciples had been infected with that kind of thinking. But it is not so in the kingdom of Heaven on Earth, where those who desire to be first must be willing to become last, and those who want to be great must take on the role of the servant.

Carefully note what Jesus is saying, but also what He is not saying. He is not saying how to become great; He is describing greatness itself! That is, He is not telling us how, by serving others, we can eventually rise to the place of greatness where we no longer need to serve but can exercise authority over others. That’s a power trip that comes from the bowels of hell, not the heart of the Father. No, Jesus is teaching us that serving others is greatness. Paradoxically, when we take the place of the servant and become the last, we become the first, for the first is the servant of all.

It is the way of God Himself. I call it the algebra of love: God is love; love gives and serves. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16). It is the way of Jesus, for He did not come to be served — to lord it over people and exercise authority over them — but to serve. Not only to serve, but to give up His life for the sake of others. It is as an obedient bondservant that He has been highly exalted by God and given the name that is above every name.

Jesus, who made Himself the last, the servant of all, has been made to be “the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18). God has raised Him from the dead and seated Him at the right hand of the Father, “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21). Not only that, but Paul teaches us that God has also made us (believers in Jesus) alive together with Christ, and raised us up together, “and made us sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:5-6).

Notice the time and the place. The verbs are in the past tense. That is, they do not describe a future event for which we wait, but an accomplished fact, a present reality out of which we live. We are now seated with Christ in the heavenlies. Where is He seated? At the right hand of the Father, far above all principality, power, might and dominion. Then that is exactly where the Father has seated us, too — at His right hand, far above all principality, power, might and dominion. Isn’t that what James and John desired?

Greatness in the kingdom of Heaven on Earth is in being a servant. For we rule and reign with Jesus, the Servant King, and “as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).



The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth
Keys to the Kingdom of God
in the Gospel of Matthew

by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.