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True Greatness Wears an Apron

Back to all sermons MATTHEW: Jesus King of Heaven and Earth

Date: September 2, 2018

Speaker: Erik Raymond

Series: MATTHEW: Jesus King of Heaven and Earth

Category: Biblical Exposition

Scripture: Matthew 20:17–20:28

What is greatness?

Dictionary dot-com has several definitions for greatness: 

“Unusual or considerable in degree, power, or intensity.”

“Wonderful; first-rate; very good.”

These are descriptions, but what actually makes someone great?

It’s common for people to speak of personal accomplishments. Consider here in Boston the transformation of an unsightly swamp into a jewel of the city. Architect Arthur Gillman is credited as being the architect behind the Back Bay project in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Others might speak of someone’s talent and abilities. People compare Lebron James to Michael Jordan to debate who is the greatest basketball player ever. 

Still others speak of power in terms of influence. Consider Steve Jobs’ transformation of Apple from a small company to one of the most recognizable brands in America and also is responsible, through the iPhone, for changing how many people communicate.

There is also the perspective of greatness as it relates to power and authority. Some world leaders, like Alexander, were even called great as if it was a suffix to their name.

What’s so interesting about the conversation about greatness is how Jesus weighs in on the topic. When Jesus discusses greatness he says, Whoever wants to be great needs to be a servant. In other words, Jesus says greatness is shown through humility.

This really is quite shocking.

When we think about greatness we think about accomplishments, power, influence, and ability. When Jesus talks about greatness he talks about humility and service.

Once again Jesus shows us that his kingdom is radically different than this world. It has a very different value system. It has different goals. It has a different God.

The point I want to persuade you of this morning is simply this: greatness does not come by making much of yourself, but by humbling yourself to serve others.

To do this we’ll look at 3 takeaways about service in God’s kingdom

  1. If we clamor for personal exaltation we reveal a misunderstanding about God’s King and kingdom
  2. In God’s economy greatness comes through service
  3. Jesus is the model and motivation for our service

(1) If we clamor for personal exaltation we reveal a misunderstanding about God’s King and kingdom

In verse 20 we are invited in to overhear a fascinating dialog between Jesus and a couple of his disciples and their mother. 

So we have James and John, along with their mother. And they come up to Jesus to ask him a question. 

And you’ll notice that they come up kneeling. We shouldn’t suppose they are worshiping him here but more likely showing Jesus honor. 

And so after Jesus asks what she wants, the mother says, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”” (Matthew 20:21).

This is really some statement. It’s a big ask. It’s a request for seats of prominence and power. But, let’s think a little more about what they might have been thinking. They are going up to Jerusalem. Jesus has repeatedly said he is going there to die, even in the verses just prior to this, but they don’t get it. They still have their minds stuck on a political kingdom. They’ve skipped the suffering of the cross and pushed right on ahead to the reign of Christ. And what’s so striking is that each time Jesus announces his impending death, the disciples respond with some form of selfishness that reveals their misunderstanding about God’s king and kingdom. 

Here in Matthew 20, they are looking forward to the reign of Christ and are trying to get dibs on the preferred cabinet positions in Christ’s administration. They want to take positions of leadership and authority. 

Their clamoring for personal exaltation really shows their misunderstanding about Jesus and his kingdom. Think about this, the words where Jesus predicted his death were still hanging the air, and they are talking about themselves. Jesus is showing them what is essential to the kingdom and they are showing what is central to them. They can’t see. 

This is one reminder that selfishness can obscure our spiritual sight and understanding. In their minds, they have fantasized about themselves. In doing so, they have built monuments to themselves. And sadly, these monuments are pretty big. They have obstructed their view of Christ. Jesus has just told them he is going to die and they are fixed on themselves. It’s like a friend telling you that they have a terminal diagnosis but instead of interacting with an appropriate response, you just scroll through your social media feed. With death in the air, they are launching their political campaigns. This is ugly.

Friends, one reminder we can take from this is that self-glory can mask as discipleship. This is as scary as it is nauseating. These guys were humming How Great Thou Art while gazing upon themselves in the mirror. We have to acknowledge the dangerous and ugly tendency to use Jesus as a trojan horse to smuggle in our own selfish agenda. 

Do you see Jesus simply as the means to get what you want? 

The Bible doesn’t present Jesus as a means to an end, but the end himself. The treasure of the gospel is Christ. The chief benefit we get out of being a Christian is Christ! Never forget this. 

Well, Jesus responds to the question. Look at verse 22, “Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”

Jesus tells them they don’t know what they are asking for. They are clueless about the kingdom and certainly about the cross that precedes the crown.

Did you see the question Jesus asks? Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?

What is the cup?

The cup in the Bible refers to judgment or suffering, and especially because of God’s wrath (Psalm 75:8; Isaiah 51:17-18; Jeremiah 25:15-28). Jesus is asking them if they are prepared to suffer intense persecution and rejection for following Christ. Can you drink the cup? Jesus asks.

And brimming with confidence that is perhaps only exceeded by their ignorance, they say, “We are able.” This is embarrassing self-confidence. 

Jesus answers them back in verse 23, “He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”” 

First, Jesus tells them that they would suffer. And, in fact, they did. In time, they would learn the cost of discipleship. In Acts 12:2, James becomes the church's first martyr, as the king chops off his head. And, John, after learning the lessons of discipleship, writes the gospel that bears his name, three epistles, and then the book of Revelation. And he did bear the scourge of following Jesus with persecution.

But secondly, Jesus says that he is not able to even grant their requests. Instead, this privilege is the Father’s. Some have taken this to mean that Jesus is not equal to his Father. Is this verse teaching that Jesus somehow lacks in his divinity? No, I don’t think it does at all. Let’s remember that the members of the Trinity are coequal and coeternal; each person fully God. In the incarnation or the time when Jesus came to live as a man, he remained fully God but also put on humanity. In this position, Jesus exists with a functional subordination to his Father. This is some of the glory of the incarnation, Jesus, though God, humbled himself and became a man. This does not disrupt them being equal in essence. After the resurrection, we read in Matthew 28:18 that all authority has been given to him. This verse does not speak of Jesus lacking anything but instead, it is about him taking a position of functional subordination to his Father.

The other disciples respond to this. We read in verse 24 that the other disciples became indignant at the other disciples. It’s possible but doubtful that they were operating out of a right understanding of the kingdom and become angry about James and John’s foolish question. More likely, they are upset that they were beaten to the punch. 

And now we have the disciples at odds with one another. This is the typical pathology of selfishness, it puts us at odds with one another. When everyone wants to be number one its hard to accept not measuring up. So they jockey for position and prominence. 

This scene here is a bright mirror of human vanity. The disciples are jealous, arrogant, and bitter. And these symptoms stem primarily from two sources, a misunderstanding of the king and a misunderstanding of his kingdom.

It’s unlikely that any of us have asked Jesus to reign on his right and left.

However, we can probably all identify with the disciples' desire to put ourselves first. 

This is the default position of humanity from birth. We come out of the womb with a reflex to say “mine!” Then we go about our lives evaluating others, measuring ourselves against them to see where we rank. And sadly, when we don’t measure up, we can even find ourselves attacking others in our minds or with our words to ensure that we are supreme. It’s these dangerous selfish evaluations that give birth to all kinds of trouble.  

With such a focus on ourselves, there is little wonder we feel so little obligation to serve others. We are too busy serving our first love; ourselves.

Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t leave them alone—and he doesn’t leave us alone.

Calvin says about this verse, “…our Lord intended to seize on this occasion for laying open a disease which was lurking within them; for there was not one of them who would willingly yield to others, but everyone secretly cherished within himself the expectation of the primacy; in consequence of which, they envy and dispute with one another, and yet in all there reigns wicked ambition.”

Jesus will go on to show us that greatness does not come by making much of yourself, but by humbling yourself to serve others.


(2) In God’s economy greatness comes through service

How does Jesus respond? With tender compassion. After all of this time he has been with them, the disciples are still pretty thick. They don’t get it. They seem to be shamelessly selfish. 

This is good news for us, Christians. See how Jesus responds to the disciples when they are neck deep in the swamp of selfishness. He wades into it to pull them out with tender instruction.

Look at verses 25-27, “But Jesus called them to him and said, “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,” (Matthew 20:25–27)

Jesus is teaching them about greatness so he points to the leaders of the day. He points to the Gentile rulers or those in authority. He says, Look at them. See how they lead. What was common then is common today. There was corruption, manipulation, oppression, and other forms of mistreatment. This type of selfishness was common then and it is today.

But Jesus is talking about a kingdom from another world. His kingdom looks very different than the one that is common and familiar to us. Instead of looking like self-promotion and self-worship, the kingdom of heaven looks like selflessness and worship of God. 

To make his point, Jesus redefines greatness. Look what he says, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave”

He is saying very clearly that greatness comes through service. 

Instead of being about making much of ourselves greatness is about serving others.

Jesus is saying that life in his kingdom does not look like life in this world. That’s a nice way of saying that he is telling his disciples to stop living like pagans. We are supposed to be different because we have a completely different value system. We are shooting at a different target. 

“The pathway to true greatness is humble-minded servanthood. This lesson is so counterintuitive that it is not easily learned or remembered. When we think of great people, servants and slaves are not the first images that come to mind. Yet Jesus says that we will pursue true greatness only to the degree that we regard ourselves in such terms.

He doesn’t condemn the aspiration to be great. He directs it along the right path. The lesson is very simple, yet incredibly hard. If you want to be regarded as great in God’s kingdom, then make it your agenda to give yourself in service to others. If you want to attain the highest rank, then start thinking of yourself as a slave to your brothers and sisters in the Lord.” (Tom Ascol)

What do you suppose the impact on our church might be if we took this to heart?

How do you think marriages might change?

How about a relationship with children? Or children to parents?

How might your friendships be different?

How would things look different at work if you lived as a servant?

Or as you interact with unbelievers?

Work out from the identity. Jesus is saying if you want to follow him then you need to serve. True greatness wears an apron. 


(3) Jesus is the model and motivation for our service

Do you find it interesting that Jesus didn’t stop there? He seemed to sufficiently make his point, didn’t he? He was firm but compassionate. He called out their selfishness and redirected them to a kingdom ethic. Serve others rather than yourselves. He’s been clear enough.

But he has more to say. 

Jesus is now going to put some extra torque on his argument. He is going to provide some added force to it. He points to himself as both the model and motivation for our service. In the midst of their selfishness, Jesus slams a cross down in the middle of the road and says, Look at this. If you want to understand me, then you need to understand this. And, if you want to live like a kingdom citizen then you need to live in light of this. The cross casts a long shadow over the passage.

What did he say?

Jesus says, ““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 20:27–28)

Jesus is saying that among his disciples, any pursuit of greatness must be through service. In this sense, the last will be first. Do you want to be first? Serve others.

This is Jesus’ kingdom priority.

Then he takes it further.

Why did he say it?

What is the reason? Why did he say it? Well, Jesus points to himself. He says that the Son of Man, that is he himself, didn’t come to be served but to serve.

Why is this profound? Well, he is the Son of Man. This means he is the king. He is the one referred to in Daniel 7 as the one who shall inherit the world. He is the ruler with all authority and dominion and honor. This is surprising. It’s profound. Who can imagine a king going to serve one of his subjects? It’s counterintuitive. Kings do things that show their sovereign power. But this king, he who has the title deed on the world, he stoops down to a low level to serve others.

This is especially surprising because of how he served.  

This king didn’t just show up for some photo-op. He wasn’t just dishing out soup and bread for a couple hours on a Saturday morning. He didn’t just pop in and pop out. No, this king, Jesus came into the world and dwelt among us. He lived here and entered into the smog and pollution that sin brings in this world. He had a body and experienced pain, hurt, tears, grief, suffering, and rejection. He was acquainted with grief. 

But this is not all. Look again at the text. Look at how this King served. “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

He came to serve. We need to understand the entire earthly ministry of Jesus through the lenses of service. Everything, it was all service. When you read the Gospel narratives and you see Jesus on the move you are to understand that this whole thing was about service. He came to serve. True greatness wears an apron.

But Jesus is very specific here.

He came to give his life. This service involved many healings, sermons, miracles, and patient endurance. But, the chief act of service was the giving of his life. 

We know that not long from this passage Jesus is going to be killed. In fact, he has said as much just preceding this section. Look up a few verses to Matthew 28:17

“And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”” (Matthew 20:17–19)

Jesus is outlining the whole thing. He has his face set like a flint to Jerusalem. He is going to die. And this has been the plan, not only for his entire earthly life but also throughout all eternity. Jesus would go to the cross and die for sinners. He would die on the cross at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders but the actual execution would come according to the will of the Gentiles. But notice, he will be raised on the third day. 

You must see the cross as central to the purpose as to why Jesus came. And, when you behold the cross you must understand it in terms of service. For if we ask Jesus what he was doing on the cross he would say that this was an act of service that culminated his entire life of service. Truly there are many titles that the Savior could wear, but one of the prominent is that of a servant. Is it any wonder then that Isaiah when predicting the cross of Christ used the word “servant” to describe him? (Isaiah 52:13)

I can’t move on just yet. You must see that it was a voluntary service. This giving of his own life was not something that resisted by Jesus. Do you remember when God was calling Moses to go and deliver his people out of Egypt? Moses resisted this call with several excuses. Jesus did not resist his calling to come and serve. He voluntarily embraced the call and willingly came to serve. 

But how did he serve? Look again at the text, it was to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus’ death was not just a great demonstration of love and service. It was an example but it was more than an example. Many people die because they are serving others. We have monuments in towns throughout New England highlighting the names of those who died in service to their country. Jesus death was a unique type of service. It was a ransom for many. This means it was redemptive. This word translated ransom is connected to the concept of payment and redemption. Historically it had to do with the purchase price or ransom of slaves. It was about freeing people. Jesus service is ultimately about freeing many people from slavery. Jesus said, “…everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34) But, because of Jesus’ service we can be liberated, freed, emancipated from this spiritual bondage. As Jesus says, if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.

How do we understand this concept of slavery? It is not referring to physical slavery but spiritual slavery. Prior to becoming Christians, the Bible teaches that we are enslaved to sin. We have no freedom to obey God but rather are held captive to lusts and desires. We are in bondage.

You might ask, how does the ransom get paid? To whom? This is complicated stuff here and we need to be careful. Let’s be clear: Jesus does not pay Satan the ransom to liberate us but he does liberate us from Satan’s kingdom of darkness. The payment is made to God, the sovereign and all-powerful judge. It is God who has authority over everyone and everything. And based upon his justice he may truly forgive and release those for whom the Son has died. So the payment, the ransom is made to God. Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice to liberate those enslaved to sin. And God the Father liberates us from the domain of darkness. The blood of Christ is the currency that is accepted to liberate those captive to sin.

Jesus is a servant. He serves his people by voluntarily coming as a man, living as a servant, and giving his life as a ransom from many. 

“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:11)

What does this mean for us? This should be obvious. Look at how Christ has served you and go and serve others. Christ is the picture of true greatness. Do you want to be great? It is not about making much of ourselves, but humbling ourselves to serve others. 



I trust you can see that when we take Jesus at his words we can see that service is central to understanding what he was doing. And so service must be central to how we live.

One thing I’ve noticed since we have been here is this is a church that serves. Praise God for this! May we continue to excel still more in this service. But let me say two things quickly in passing about service. 

First, we need more help. The gospel is advancing and this means there are many needs. Some of our members are serving in many different capacities. We definitely need more help. Consider where there are needs and how you can help. Every week on Tuesday an email goes out for updating the roles of service. This is how we make sure the work is getting done. Do fill out the form to make sure we can share this load together. And also, there are needs that aren’t listed on the sheet. There is regular life items. Look for opportunities to serve your brothers and sisters in Christ here at RFC. Look for ways to encourage those who are investigating Christianity. Be a servant.

Second, be careful you don’t skip the motivation. I said that Jesus is the model and the motivation of our service. This means he shows us how to serve (selflessly and faithfully) and he shows us why to serve (he loved us and gave himself for us). Be careful that you don’t just go through the motions, serving because that is what you are supposed to do. I think Jesus speaks the way he does in this passage in order to press down on our affections, our heart, to prompt us to serve others out of a love for Christ. He loved us and gave himself for us. This is the logic of Paul in Philippians 2. Turn there if you would.

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:1–11)

We are to serve others because Christ has served us. 

This is how the gospel presses into us. It changes our hearts and minds.

How does the gospel change the way you think about a job or some type of service you don’t want to do? Think of how unpleasant the cross was. Christ endured such hardship for you, certainly, you can, by his grace, endure this season.

How does it change how you think about serving people that might be more challenging than others? Remember that Christ has loved and served you—and let’s be honest, we are not easy people. So, certainly by his grace, we can be motivated to love and serve people that God has surrounded us with. 

This is an upside-down kingdom. While selfishness characterizes pagan kingdoms, God’s people must model service.  

Greatness does not come by making much of yourself, but by humbling yourself to serve others. We give ourselves away—like Jesus—in service of God and others.