Matthew 20:20—28

There are two very important aspects of stewardship that cannot be stressed enough. First, before any Christian can think about being a good steward he must receive something from God. The Bible declares a truth that makes all Christians stewards:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)

No matter where that “good and perfect gift” seems to come from, its ultimate source is God! Whether you realize it or not, if you are a Christian, you receive things from God all the time. Given this, you must be a steward of all the “good and perfect gifts” you have received.

Second, stewardship is not a “church thing,” it’s a “life thing.” In other words, stewardship must be a way of life, not just something we do on Sunday. Giving of your finances is certainly part of stewardship—an important part—but it’s not the only part! God has called all believers to live as His stewards all the time, every day, in whatever activity they may be involved.

Those are things most Christians believe. What may surprise a lot of Christians is that the Bible teaches how God serves us and how we are obligated to serve others because we, ourselves, are served.

1. Perspective, perspective, perspective, Matthew 20:20, 21

In this incident, we are allowed a fascinating glimpse into the personal ambition of two of Jesus’ followers, James and John. It is recorded in Mark’s Gospel with a difference. There James and John make this request:

Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (Mark 10:37)

Here in Matthew, it is their mother who makes the request:

Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:21)

In all probability, all three individuals were making the request of Jesus. But that’s not the really interesting thing about this incident. The really interesting thing is what came before the request. For that, we look at back at Mark’s account:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” (Mark 10:35)

Three things need to be noted about this strange request. (1) It reveals just how unspiritual these men really where! Can you imagine even thinking you have the right to ask this of Jesus? (2) They have very short memories in light of this teaching:

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33—35)

And finally, (3) they were totally selfish. However, before we judge these brothers too harshly, we should take a look around at the state of modern Christianity, starting with ourselves. Are we any better than they? How many selfish prayers have we prayed lately? How many of us judge God sinfully because we are ignorant of His Word? We pray for things we have no business praying for, then we blame God instead of our own shortcomings.

These brothers and their mother, like so many believers today, viewed Jesus as a shortcut to getting what they wanted. Notice that she (maybe even the sons) couched their request of Jesus while worshiping Him:

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. (Matthew 20:20)

No doubt a lot of us worship Jesus with the exact same motive: to get something out of Him. Of course, we don’t word it like that! We think that if we make Jesus feel good with some singing or speaking in tongues, and telling Him how wonderful He is and how much we love Him, He’ll be more predisposed to giving us what we think we need. This mother’s request, by the way, was a perfectly natural thing for a mother to want for her children. What parent doesn’t pray for their child’s success, in school or in life?

The disciples had no perspective because they missed the teaching back in chapter 18. Back there, Jesus asked a probing question:

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1)

Jesus answered His own questing using a young child to drive home the point:

I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3, 4)

The fact that two chapters later they’re asking the same question shows that they missed Jesus’ point completely! They did not notice Jesus’ attitude about His impending Passion and the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. James and John and their mother still thought it was all about NOW; all about THIS WORLD.

The three of them couldn’t have been more wrong.

2. Jesus tries again, Matthew 20:22, 23

We have to marvel at the patience of Jesus. His answer is short and priceless:

You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)

Jesus had been talking about His coming death but their minds were stuck on their “proper place” in the Kingdom. Our Lord told them they were asking their question in ignorance; they had no idea what He—or they themselves—were talking about! What Jesus said next should have hit them between the eyes: were they ready to die with Him? James and John wanted to share in their Savior’s glory, not understanding that part of being glorified was to suffer.

It’s a valid question that Christians should be asking themselves even today. Are we willing to suffer as Jesus suffered? Most of us want all the “good stuff” we can get out of a relationship with Jesus Christ, things like: eternal life, forgiveness of sins, promise of blessings, and so on. Rarely do we ever think that part of that relationship often involves suffering. Yet it does. We want to do all we can to avoid suffering and mitigate its effects on our lives, never stopping to consider that when we suffer for our faith or on account of our faith, we are being treated as Jesus was treated and that itself is cause for praise.

To their credit, at least we may say that these two men were as loyal as they could be to Jesus. But even then, the future would show that at this point in time, they were far too self-confident:

But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled. Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. (Matthew 26:56)

What Jesus said next should have been chilling, although these two men probably had no clue that Jesus was basically telling them their futures were bleak:

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

James would be martyred (Acts 12:2) and John banished to the Island of Patmos. This is what Jesus was getting at; they certainly would “drink from His cup.” But beyond that, there is a vitally important meaning in what Jesus said for believers today. In terms of positions in heaven, Jesus would not be handing them out arbitrarily. When Jesus said He was leaving to prepare a place for us, He wasn’t talking about a place at His right or left hand. Those places of authority and responsibility in the Kingdom are places that we are preparing for ourselves.

Understand this: nobody can earn their way into heaven. Salvation itself is wholly a gift from and a work of God. We are saved by faith and nothing else. However, our reward or our position in the Kingdom is determined by what we are doing here and now. It is determined by our stewardship; the stewardship of our salvation.

The thing we must consider is what kind of “place” are we building for ourselves in heaven? How are you doing on racking up your heavenly rewards? Some believers don’t really care about those things. But regardless of what you think, you are determining your position in the Kingdom right now. Paul got it:

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)

The biggest problem with believers today is that there is no sense that anything needs to be accomplished for Christ beyond living a clean life. There doesn’t seem to be an urgency to spread the Gospel and win the lost for Christ. For too many of us, there is a complete disconnect between our life of faith and our life in the flesh. In reality, part of being good stewards is being stewards of all the good things we have received through Christ, starting with our salvation.

In the Kingdom of God, it’s not favoritism that determines rewards or positions, but fitness.

3. A new theology of service, Matthew 20:24-28

The other disciples heard the exchange between Jesus and James, John, and their mother and they were not impressed with James and John. They resented these two “sons of thunder” trying to gain the advantage with Jesus. In response to this indignation, Jesus called the 12 together to explain why the Kingdom of Heaven is so different from what people think it is.

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— (Matthew 20:26, 27)

The Kingdom of Heaven, according to Jesus, is the opposite to any earthly kingdom. From earth’s perspective, the Kingdom of Heaven does everything backwards. The master is the servant. The first is the last. What a radical change of thought Jesus was demanding of His followers! But He demands the same radical change of thought in us today. We cannot apply worldly values to heavenly things or vice versa. We shouldn’t be desiring the same things out of our relationship with Jesus that we desire out of any earthly relationship.

“The way up is down” taught Jesus. The one who is the servant of all, or the one who is a committed steward of all Jesus have given Him, will be honored and rewarded.

Verse 28 is power-packed verse of New Testament theology:

…The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

This new way of looking at serving (stewardship) and greatness was perfectly demonstrated by Jesus. He came to serve, not to be served. This service had nothing to do with feeding the hungry or healing the sick, but everything to do with He Himself being a steward of the the salvation He had for all.

The word for “life” here is psyche; “ransom” is lytron, referring to money paid to a slave owner to buy their freedom. Jesus gave His life a ransom “for many.” Does this mean that Jesus died only for some, as taught by some churches? Not at all. The use of “many” here does not mean that Jesus died for only some (“many”). Paul certainly never thought that:

[Jesus] gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:6)

The preposition anti is used before the word “many.” The very common meaning of anti is “instead of.” In some way that no human being can quite understand or explain, Jesus Christ gave His life a ransom “instead of many,” to set us free from sin and death.

Jesus was a good steward.

Are we?

Jesus is teaching here that He was willing to humble Himself to the point of giving His life. This attitude of stewardship must be reflected in His people. Christ’s sacrifice is unique. It can’t be copied. Our attitude must be the same as His. We, by God’s grace and with His help, must become stewards of the salvation that is ours. If you believe in John 3:16, you must practice 1 John 3:16!

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)

Our gift of salvation is meant to be given away to those who need it.


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