Matthew 20:24-28 (NIV) When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The other disciples were understandably upset when they heard that James and John were lobbying Jesus for the top spots in His administration. Even though Jesus had shut them down, the fact that they had done it in the first place only fueled the spirit of competition that simmered below the surface.
Jesus immediately gave all of them a three part teaching: a poor example, clear instruction, and a better example.
The poor example was the Roman government. Their governmental structure was based on authority and power. There was a lot of competition for the top spots, from which those who were successful literally lorded it over all of those who were beneath them. But it was a cutthroat way of doing things, with hatred, resentment, and even murder fueling the process. This was so outside the ways of the kingdom of God that the contrast was easy to see. But the similarities to the hopes, schemes, and methods of the disciples were also easy to see.
Jesus clear teaching wasn’t new, but it had a chance to make a fresh impression on the disciples in this teachable moment. The way to the highest positions of glory and honor in the kingdom of God is not through power, plotting, and upward mobility. Instead, the greatest are those who serve best, and with the least self-interest. This is communicated by Jesus’ choice of wording. The Greek word used for “servant” is diakonos, from which we get our word “deacon.” It means an attendant or servant of someone in authority. The word for “slave” is doulos, which simply means a slave or bondservant, someone who is owned by and serves someone else. Neither of these terms indicate any kind of authority or power; quite the opposite, in fact. They were positions of complete servitude and powerlessness. But Jesus used them as the model for the disciples that God would consider great in His kingdom.
The better example of those who are great in the kingdom is Jesus Himself. Jesus, the Son of Man as well as the Son of God could have come in the form of a mighty warrior or king and exercised divine power to vanquish all of His enemies and seize control of the reins of authority. But instead, He laid all of that aside, and lived a life of sacrifice and selfless service to those that many in authority had written off as worthless and beneath their dignity to even notice. Jesus not only ministered to those people, He served them, often putting aside His own agenda and His own needs to meet the needs of those who came to Him for healing and teaching (cf. Matthew 14:13-14).
Of course, Jesus took this self-denying service to the ultimate degree when He laid down His life to serve as a ransom for the people of the world, even when He knew that many of them would reject both Him and His sacrifice on their behalf. In the end, that didn’t matter. Jesus’ love for the people and His servant’s heart drove Him to His ultimate act of love and service, even for those who hated and despised Him.
Father, how quickly we can lose sight of the mindset of Jesus, and focus on what is best for us. We forget that we are servants of Jesus, not His masters. We come to Him with demands for what we want instead of humbly requesting just what we need each day. And we resent when the needs of people threaten to get in the way of our priorities and our agendas. Forgive us, Lord, and change our hearts, transform our minds, until we have the mind of Christ, servant minds, and grow into all of His fullness. Amen.