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Sermon Message


"With Jesus on the Road to Greatness"

Matthew 20:17-28
Theme: The road to greatness in Jesus' kingdom is through following His example of humble service.

(Delivered Sunday, January 13, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

As we come to this morning's portion of the Gospel of Matthew, we find that we're drawing very near to the story of our Savior's sacrifice for us. In fact, this morning's passage tells us of our Lord journey with His disciples on the very road that led Him into Jerusalem—and shortly thereafter, to His cross.

* * * * * * * * * *

The twentieth chapter of Matthew's Gospel tells us of that time of year when people were traveling in pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the annual feast. Passover was only a few days away; and many Jewish people from around the world were making their way to the holy city. The pathways were unusually busy. If you traveled the road, you would have heard the sounds of feet crunching along on the gravel paths, of animals plodding and panting along, and of families and friends chatting excitedly.

In the midst of all the sojourners were Jesus and His disciples. But their mood was different from everyone else's. When Mark tells us the story in his Gospel, he says that as the disciples were on the road going up to Jerusalem, "Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid" (Mark 10:32). Perhaps they were watching their Master carefully; and couldn't help noticing the strangely sober, strangely determined attitude with which He made His way to the city. Something about it gave them a chill.

They should have known the reason for this foreboding mood. Jesus had told them about this journey long before, and about what would happen at its end. Back in the sixteenth chapter, we saw that He began to show His disciples "that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day" (Matthew 16:21)—an idea so offensive to Peter that he affirmed, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!" (v. 22). Later on in the seventeenth chapter, Jesus again told His disciples, "'The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up'" (Matthew 17:22-23)—an idea so distressing to the disciples that, on hearing it, "they were exceedingly sorrowful" (v. 23).

Luke, in his Gospel account, lets us know that—even during the events described in our passage this morning—the disciples "understood none of these things". These things were "hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken" (Luke 18:34). Their expectation of Jesus was that He was going up to Jerusalem to behave as the mighty, conquering King of David. They were looking for Him to be the victorious Messiah, who would throw all the foreign oppressors out of the land, and would restore the glorious kingdom of their forefathers to them (see Acts 1:6). And what's more, they expected to reign with Him. But on this day, as they went along on the road to Jerusalem, they were "amazed"; and they followed behind Him "afraid".

What they didn't yet fully understand was that the Savior's pathway to greatness didn't follow the pattern they expected. They didn't know that "greatness" in His kingdom led first through the path of suffering and sacrifice. It hadn't sunk in yet that the way to His glorious crown required a stop first at the gruesome cross.

They didn't understand then that this was how true “greatness” in His kingdom would be accomplished. And even we, today, easily forget it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The disciples had their eyes on "greatness". They looked to Jesus to enter Jerusalem and display His greatness as King of kings and Lord of lords. And they hoped to be great with Him in His reign. And there was no sin in this. "Greatness" in Jesus' kingdom is a good thing. There can be no higher or more worthy ambition than to be truly “great” in Jesus kingdom. He condemns no one for seeking it.

But the sin comes in when we try to grasp this good and noble thing in a bad way. The sin comes in when we fail to keep Jesus' example before us. The sin comes in when we keep our focus on the examples of "greatness" that this world sets before us; or hold to this world's measure and standard of "greatness"; or set about to achieve "greatness" through this world's means.

This morning's passage teaches us that, as followers of Jesus, we're to seek "greatness" on completely different terms than on those of this world. It shows us that the road to greatness in Jesus' kingdom is through following His own example of humble, sacrificial service.

* * * * * * * * * *

First, let's consider . . .


Jesus Himself describes it for us in this morning's passage. In Matthew 20:17-19, we read;

Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again" (Matthew 20:17-19).

Out of all the portions of Scripture in which Jesus told His disciples in advance of His sacrifice, this one is the most detailed. And as we will see as we study further into Matthew's Gospel, every detail of what Jesus says in it truly happened to Him: He was betrayed (Matthew 26:47-50), and was given over into the hands of the chief priests and scribes (26:57); He was condemned by them to death (26:66); He was handed over to the Gentiles (27:1-2); He was mocked (27:27-31), scourged (27:26), and crucified (27:32-50); and, after three days, He was gloriously raised from the dead (28:1-10).

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; these are words from our Savior's lips that ought to move us to take the shoes off our feet; because in handling them, we are—as it were—treading on very holy ground. But let me point out just three observations about them.

First, notice what the Lord calls Himself in them. He refers to Himself as "The Son of Man". This is a name that would have drawn the disciples to the Old Testament prophecy of Daniel. In the seventh chapter, we read of Daniel's vision of the end-times and of the future reign of the Messiah:

“I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:13-14).

Jesus deliberately chose to put things in those terms. He didn't simply say, "I am going to be betrayed . . ."; but rather, that "the Son of Man is going to be betrayed . . ." He wanted to emphasize the glory of who He truly was; that He was undergoing these things as the promised Messiah.

And perhaps, in the process, the disciples would have remembered what else is promised about the Son of Man; that after a certain time, "Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself" (Daniel 9:26). Perhaps they would have recalled that this promised Messiah would not only one day rule a kingdom that will not be destroyed; but that He must also be "cut off" for the sake of others!

Second, notice that in telling the disciples all this, Jesus was making it clear that He knew in advance what was about to happen. He knew what awaited Him in Jerusalem—even down to the precise details. This ought to be a cause for us to be humbled in awe before our Savior. His humanity would have recoiled from what awaited Him. It would have been natural for Him to avoid going to Jerusalem at all. And yet, He went willingly and resolutely to die on the cross—"not for Himself", as Daniel says; but for us.

And third, notice that He took the time to speak these things—very deliberately, and very personally—to His disciples. In the original language of Matthew's Gospel, it literally tells us that Jesus took the disciples aside "privately" (or "by themselves" as it is in the New American Standard Bible). He pulled them out by themselves—away from the crowd that followed along; perhaps even in such a way as to speak with each personally—and told them about what was about to happen to Him.

Perhaps this was because these weren't things for the multitudes to hear. The crowds had already once sought to make Jesus king by force (John 6:15); and it wouldn't be long before the multitudes would cheer Him as He entered into town—expecting Him to begin His mighty reign then and there. Our Lord wanted His appointed witnesses to know well in advance what He was about to do. But these weren't things for the crowd to hear. He didn't want anyone or anything to interfere with the sacrifice He was about to make.

* * * * * * * * * *

As we read this passage on "kingdom greatness", we ought to keep these things in our thoughts. They were certainly in the thoughts of our Savior as He made His way to Jerusalem. He had us in mind—those He would serve by redeeming from their sins—as He went to the cross. He gave Himself in sacrificial service for us, in order to bring about true 'kingdom' greatness in us.

But "sacrifice" wasn't what was on the mind of those He spoke these things to. And so, let's next consider . . .


Matthew goes on to tell us;

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom (vv. 20-21).

This is the mother of Jesus' two beloved disciples James and John—the sons of Zebedee (see Matthew 4:21). Her name was given to us in Mark 15:40 as Salome. And did you know that when John described her in his Gospel, he didn't refer to her as his mother. Instead, she may be the woman that he referred to simply as the Lord's "mother's sister" (John 19:25); which would mean that she was our Lord's relative through Mary; and that James and John were also related to our Lord through her. This might explain why Jesus was able to turn to John as He hung on the cross, point Mary to him in her moment of need, and say, "Behold your mother!"; so that John took her into his own home and cared for her (John 19:27). Mary was his relative.

Salome had a great faith in Jesus, and was clearly devoted to Him. She was among those women who followed Jesus and served Him in His earthly ministry. She was found among those women who watched after Jesus' crucifixion to see where He was buried (Matthew 27:55-56); and she was also among those women who came early on the Sunday of His resurrection to His tomb (Mark 16:1-8). She understood that He was a King; and that He had a kingdom that was about to be realized. And—as any proud mother would have been—she was eager for James and John to be appointed to places of honor in that kingdom. After all, it would have been a family matter.

I don't think we should be too quick to blame her for this. It was clear that this was James' and John's idea. When their mother wanted to ask a question of Jesus, He spoke directly to her in the first person singular—"What do you wish?" But once He heard her request, we find that, in the original language, He speaks from then on in the first person plural—as if to the two brothers. What's more, when Mark tells us this story, he has it that the two brothers are the ones who come to Jesus and ask this.

When we think of this dear woman coming to Jesus and asking Him to give her sons what amounts to the biggest promotion in all of creation; we shouldn't think of James and John in the background—shaking their heads in embarrassment, and trying to stop her. Not at all! They were the ones who were directly responsible for the request in the first place. They thought they'd have a better chance at getting a positive answer if they put the request in the mouth of their dear, sweet mother!

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; this isn't the first time that the question of "first place" in Jesus' kingdom has come up. In chapter 18, Jesus had confronted His disciples over the debate they were having among themselves over who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (18:1-5). And in this morning's passage, I don't get the sense that Jesus was outraged by this request. It was certainly bold and self-serving; but He doesn't seem to scold them harshly for it.

But He does correct their thinking about it. Matthew tells us;

But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to Him, “We are able.” So He said to them, “You will indeed drink 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 is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father" (vv. 22-23).

Jesus points to the sacrifice He was about to make as the "cup" He was about to "drink". This is a figure of speech for a "portion" or "experience" that He must accept as from the hand of God. In the garden, He prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will" (Matthew 26:39); and as Peter sought to rescue Him, He told him, "Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?" (John 18:11).

The two brothers were rash. They were quick to say that they, too, could drink the cup that Jesus was about to drink. They were, after all, two fiery young men whom the Lord nicknamed "Sons of Thunder" (Mark 3:17). But they had no idea what that "cup" was.

And what's more, the Lord assures them that they would, indeed, drink from His cup of suffering. James was the first of the twelve disciples to lay down His life as a martyr for the Lord (Acts 12:1-2). And though we don't have record of John paying for his devotion to the Lord with his life, we do know that he did pay with the living of his life—that he did experience tribulation for his faith throughout his lifetime, and that he did live out his final years in exile (Revelation 1:9). But even still, Jesus makes it clear that it was not for Him to decide who would be in the places of honor at His right and at His left; but that it was the decision of His Father.

Then we come to verse 24; and I always wince a little bit when I read it;

And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers (v. 24).

The two brothers had to walk back from the Lord and into the group with the other ten. And I'm sure it felt like a very long walk! Their grasp for “greatness” resulted in humiliation. As they walked by, there were probably a few things muttered to the two boys by the others that they thought the Lord couldn't hear! And please don't think that the other ten were angry because they were offended at the two brothers' conduct. They were angry because they didn't send their mothers to the Lord first!

But I have to wonder if there aren't a few times when we have the same attitude as James and John and the rest of the disciples. We easily forget the great sacrifice our Lord has made for us. We begin to think that we're pretty hot stuff; and that we're worthy of great rewards. We all have a little of the spirit of Diotrephus in us—“who loves to have the preeminence” (3 John 9).

* * * * * * * * *

Now, I don't believe that the two brothers sinned in wanting to be "great" in Jesus' kingdom. Rather, what was wrong was that they sought "greatness" in the wrong way.

They thought that "greatness" meant being above all the others in position. They wanted to turn "The Twelve" into "The Two, and their Ten Subordinates". And they thought that true "greatness" in our Lord's kingdom was achieved in the way that it is so often secured in this world—by "schmoozing", by "politicking", by "double-crossing", and by "getting there before the other guy"!

True greatness in Jesus' kingdom is a noble and worthy aspiration. But it must be obtained in His way. This leads us to . . .


The Lord probably saw how much trouble James and John were in from the others; and so He not only defused the situation, but also turned it into a wonderfully teachable moment.

Matthew tells us,

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28).

First, notice that the subjects of the kingdom of Jesus Christ operate under a different hierarchy of "greatness" than unbelieving people do. Jesus speaks of unbelieving people as "Gentiles"—that is, people who are outside of a covenant relationship with the God of Israel. And He says that they operate in a particular pecking-order. Rulers lord it over unbelievers; and the "great" exercise authority over the rulers. It's a "top-to-bottom" chain of command; and the only way to climb up the latter in a "top-to-bottom" arrangement is to crawl over the guy above you.

This is so natural and normal in everyday life that we hardly even think about it. And yet, Jesus shocks us by saying "Yet it shall not be so among you . . ." As His followers, we are not to arrange ourselves in a "top-to-bottom" hierarchy. As His followers, the "great ones" are not "great" because they're the ones on top. In His kingdom, “greatness” is not measured by how many people are serving you!

This leads us, second, to notice that the subjects of His kingdom are to follow a different path to "greatness" than the unbelieving people do. He says, "whosoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave . . ."

When I think of this, I think of what our Lord Jesus Himself did on the night that He was betrayed. John, in his Gospel, tells us;

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded (John 13:1-5).

When He was through, Jesus placed His garments on again, sat down, and said to His disciples,

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (vv. 13-17).

And this leads us, finally, to notice that the subjects of His kingdom are to look to a different example of "greatness" than the unbelieving people. He Himself is our example. He was setting that very example for us as He was going to Jerusalem. We are to seek "greatness" by being one another's servants—"Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear brothers and sisters; let's aspire to greatness in Jesus' kingdom. I believe He wants us to; because following His example of humble service is what will lead us to greatness in His kingdom.

Let's follow the apostle Paul's counsel:

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:3-11).

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