Jesus's answer to a question of the mother of James and John is set out here (Matthew 20.20):
20Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. 21And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. 22But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. 23And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of 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 shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.
24And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. 25But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. 26But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; 27And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: 28Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
One day, the mother of the disciples James and John, completely misunderstanding the messiahship of Jesus whose kingdom is "not of this world" (John 18:36), makes a request. She wants Jesus to favour her children by allowing them to sit, one on his right hand and one on his left, in His kingdom, when triumphant over the Romans and their lackeys,, when he would "take power" in Jerusalem.
What mother does not always want the best for her children? What parental pride it would arouse to see them as the most important ministers of the Messianic King! As human beings, we can understand this mother but clearly she does not understand anything of Jesus and his style. This woman reasons as the world thinks. Moreover, the idea may have actually come from her sons. The Gospel according to Mark says that James and John made this request to Jesus. We cannot tell if Matthew introduces the figure of their mother to somehow protect their reputation. But we can certainly assume that this mother and her children were somehow complicit together - because Jesus responds them in the plural and says, "Ye know not what ye ask"(v. 22).
This request is not surprising because at that stage of Jesus' ministry, none of His disciples had really understood much about him. Again, in Mark, there is the comment: “And when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John" (Mark 10:45). Why were they so outraged? Were they outraged to have them encourage favoritism, when they would have liked to have cast lots to determine who would occupy the "glory seats"?
It is worth mentioning again the story in the Gospels where Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem. What did Jesus respond?
- “But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men" (Matthew 16:23).
The disciples of Jesus, undoubtedly, had a long way to travel with Him to acquire a sense of "the things of God". Following the request of the mother of James and John, Jesus continues to teach them about service in God's kingdom, highlighting:
- "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many '" (v. 28).
Like Jesus in the role of "Son of Man", this is the model of authentic humanity, in true communion with God. Jesus came to serve and not to be served. In the same way, His disciples had to learn to think and behave differently from this fallen and corrupt world. In fact, Jesus says to them:
- But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister (v. 25, 26).
Later, Jesus will demonstrate this visibly when he begins to wash their feet as a "despised" servant, by saying:
- If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet (John 13:14).
The perspective outlined in "you do not have a sense of the things of God, but the things of men" continues today. It is even a problem in the churches, not only with regard to the particular misunderstanding in this passage, which is to miss the point that true greatness before God is in serving, but also in relation to the purpose of Christ's mission:
- “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (v. 28).
Some preachers today effectively use these words of Jesus to justify the concept that God in Christ is at our service. This idea teaches that God came in Christ to serve us as if we are "so important to him" as if God "had to bring salvation in Christ" to us. From this comes an idea common in some modern churches, that "down here", God himself, or "religion" is something substantially to our service and for our well-being. Sometimes, it certainly is, but it is really evil to turn the teaching that we are in the service of God to "God is at our service"!
But today, a misguided sense of God's “love” holds that God goes out of his way to come to the rescue of humanity. This is often preached in churches and distorts Christian teaching that humanity is, as some authors have expressed it, "a lost race", justly condemned by God and abandoned to its fate, for having rebelled against His authority and law and for wanting to be God, himself.
The picture in the Bible is that God rightly condemns this "vile and damned race" which is hated by God - and yet, somehow, still loved. Scripture is quite clear in this regard, both in ancient and in the New Testament:
- “Thou hatest all workers of iniquity (Psalm 5:5);
- The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth (Psalm 11:5).
- For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
Readers might say that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life". Yes, but that verse is not translated properly!
It speaks of God's mercy on a humanity justly condemned, yet with a number of people drawn out for grace and salvation - through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. They are people of every age and every country. They, and only they, are "the world" that God loves in Christ, as the verse implies. To show this, Jesus answered Nicodemus Jew who believed that only God rescued the Israelites. No, not just Israel, but also "the world," that is, people of every nation. God saves them because they are not worthy of anything (they are sinners condemned as much as others) and because His sovereignly chooses to grant them grace to regenerate, leaving others to suffer the just condemnation that they deserve. There is nothing deserved, nothing can be viewed as "a human right".
This concept is surely scandalous for followers of modern religious humanism which creates its own comforting version of Christianity by ignoring what Jesus actually said, as well as the whole of Scripture, about the wrath of God. It claims that God is so “good " that he would save everyone putting himself "at the service" of man. In fact, the Scriptures (Jesus himself) says something else.
- “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him”(John 3:36).
What are these imagined "loving" intentions, if not another expression of the humanistic ideas of the mother of James and John who think “according to the world” which is fallen and corrupt, and not "according to God"? This is exactly the same mentality of the disciples in our text who aspired to "honour and glory", sitting next to Jesus, forgetting that the true way of Jesus is suffering and the cross (His) through humility, repentance and a radical change of heart.
It is therefore not that God "is at the service of man" but that the One True God delights to save a part of humanity, but only through repentance and complete trust in following Christ.
Those who find themselves the object of such grace are those who recognize their unworthiness. He or she was once serving him or herself but out of a perception of God's amazing grace then arose willingly, with gratitude, to the service of God who saved him or her, in Christ. In fact:
- “for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness”. (Romans 6:19).
Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake. (Psalm 115:1).
1 March 2013