Clarification: If you have read past the title, perhaps you will read farther still. No, this has nothing to do with racism, or historical revisionism, or trying to guilt anyone into feeling shame for her skin tone. This is a gut check for people who think they are Christians. And it is for people who are Christians. And it’s for people who are open to Jesus’ teaching about discipleship. And it’s for the pagans who could not care less.
Context: Matthew records a conversation that Jesus had with the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in Matthew 20. The context was that of a mother asking Jesus if her sons could have places of prominence in God’s kingdom:
She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand
and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you
are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)
The disciples, and the mother of James and John, all had a superficial understanding of what it meant to be a Christ-follower. They were concerned about their prominence. They wanted recognition. They longed for the world’s applause. They longed to please men.
Jesus’ rebuke stung:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones
exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be
great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you
must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
Connections to today: I don’t know anyone who does not like to be commended. We seem designed to crave approval—from parents, friends, peers, supervisors, our spouse (if applicable), etc. But Jesus was teaching His people about what it means to be a doulos (a slave). In our sinfulness, we tend to crave approval from the wrong sources. We tend to try to please men instead of laboring to please the Lord, the One whose approval is most important.
He inverted the humanistic understanding of greatness. The Christian is the one who is over himself. He is crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). His life is to be consumed with the redemption wrought by Christ. His ministry is to be Christ-exalting, not self-exalting.
I think this is particularly difficult in our day when the temptations are to call attention to ourselves. Follow me; see pictures of me; let me show you my spiritual resume, etc. Even the disciples had to learn why slavery is necessary. Why? Because Jesus is Lord, not me. Because Jesus is the Savior, not me. Because Jesus accomplished redemption for His people, not me. Jesus is the hinge of history, not me.
Even Jesus, the God-Man came “not to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28a). Jesus rebuked those He loved, telling them, “It shall not be so among you.” Want to be first? Be a slave. It’s not an option for the believer. To be great in the Christian life is to be small in this life. Want to be exalted in the kingdom of God? Serve faithfully and humbly now. Christian slaves are to be like their Master. Ultimately—in the end—we will reap if we do not give up (Gal 6:9).
Jesus’ clarity of expression was unparalleled. “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:11-12).