Next week we will be studying about Jesus' triumphal entry in Jerusalem, about a week before His death. By just studying Matthew, we miss some of the beautiful stories of the few months leading up to this glorious week, so I'd like to take a few minutes to coordinate the other three gospels into these last months to try and get it all into perspective before getting into today's lesson.
At the beginning of chapter 19 we are told that Jesus and His followers left Galilee and entered the region of Judea. On the way from Galilee to Judea, Luke 9 tells us they pass through a Samaritan village that did not welcome Jesus. James and John, the sons of thunder, are eager to call down fire from heaven to consume this Samaritan village. Jesus rebukes them, and they go on. It is shortly after this that Jesus tells the story of the GOOD SAMARITAN (Luke 10:29-37), an illustration all the more remarkable in view of Jesus' own rejection by the Samaritans.
This is a time of transition for the Master. Initial excitement among the masses is followed by doubt and even hostility as Jesus refuses to accept the role that most people want Him to play. In a way it is characteristic of the turnabout which inevitably comes when people accept Jesus into their lives for any number of wrong reasons --the excitement can give way to disappointment.
Matthew does not mention the next to the last time Jesus goes to Jerusalem, but John 10 does. Jesus had gone into Jerusalem in December for the Feast of Dedication/Hanukkah. There the Jewish leaders ask whether He is the Christ. He reminds them of His miraculous works as proof of His Deity. He tells them He and the Father are One. This infuriates the Jews. They call it blasphemy and start to stone Jesus and try to have Him arrested. Jesus escapes, then goes to Perea. This is toward the end of one of our calender years.
In Perea, region east of Jordan River, Jesus is in Herod Antipas' province. This is the Herod that had John the Baptist beheaded. Jesus is warned that Herod also wants to kill Him, but Jesus does not fear Herod because He knows His death will only occur in Jerusalem. It is here in Perea that Jesus teaches through numerous parables, including the cost of discipleship, the value of lost souls, the rejection of His kingdom, the need for humility, and the unrighteousness of hypocritical religion. Luke 13-18.
While Jesus is in Perea, He learns that His friend Lazarus is ill in Bethany. Jesus sets out for Bethany which frightens His disciples because He is going so near to Jerusalem where the Jews had tried to stone Him last time. This doesn't deter Jesus. But He does arrive four days after Lazarus' death, and we are told the beautiful picture of Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha, and of course, Jesus goes to the tomb and raises Lazarus from the dead. This is such a dramatic and conclusive demonstration of Jesus' power that His opponents call a hasty conference and immediately plot to kill Him. The Jerusalem High Priest and the Pharisees tell the people to report where Jesus is so they might arrest Him. Jesus is aware of the danger and no longer moves publicly among the Jews, but withdraws northward into Ephraim.
Now we are on a countdown of Jesus' final weeks on earth as a man, and into our lesson today. In this period, sometime between January and March, we get a microcosm of His entire ministry. There's more teaching to be done, more confrontations, more reminders of the burdens His disciples must bear. As He has done twice before, Jesus tells of His impending death. More parables are told and more people are healed.
Surely it is a constant source of discouragement to Jesus - even in these last days, and after repeated lessons on humility - that His disciples are still seeking personal glory in the kingdom. James and John, prompted by their mother, Salome, ask that they be given special positions. Jesus admonishes them once again, pointing to the spiritual nature of the kingdom and to the need for humility and service.
Romans 8:28 and 29 tells us that God's goal for us on earth is to conform us to the image of His Son. What was that Son like? He tells us in Matthew 20 that He came to serve, to be a servant, a slave. Now if your mind conjures up visions of Kunta Kinte or Sparticus when you hear that word slave, you're not alone. That's the last thing James and John want to become The laborers hired early in the morning and the rich young ruler, from last week's lesson, don't want to become slaves either. They had let their goal become what should have been their reward--"I'm serving, so what do I get out of this?"--instead of serving God because God had served them. What is the goal of a Christian on earth? TO SERVE GOD AND OTHERS. There is a subsequent reward--Heaven, but we should never let the reward become the goal. When we let the reward become the goal, we're leaving out the SERVICE and therefore are no longer in Christ's image.
What is a good doctor's goal? Have you ever been to a doctor of whom you thought, "He doesn't really care about me; He only wants my money"? His goal should be to serve you, but instead he is only out to serve his pocketbook. He's gotten the goal and the reward confused.
That's what James and John are tending to do, they are getting their reward confused with their goal. When we let the reward take the place of the goal, we find we are serving God only because we must do so to reach our goal of getting to heaven. This is the same mentality of the "bad" doctor that no one wants to see. If no one wants to see you, the light of Christ is not in you--you're not in His image.
The vineyard workers' goal should have been to serve the owner, but they had let their reward--the pay--become the goal. They didn't realize that they had become slaves to power and money and rewards, as the world had taught them. Jesus attempts to teach them a more meaningful slavery. Listen to His words: "Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. . . ." The way to the top in God's kingdom is not to climb the corporate ladder, but to be a servant to God and others. That's our goal. I understand this. I'm not sure I understand it well enough to explain it. Do I understand it enough to live it? How can I tell?
Charles Swindoll, in his book Improving Your Serve, says there are three characteristics of this servant image. We can see them when we look at the ministry of Paul, a once proud Pharisee climbing the Jewish ladder to success, who gave it all up to serve Jesus and his fellow man.
So, let's serve in spite of our weaknesses--our HUMANITY, with sincere HUMILITY and HONESTY.
In a society where we've had it drilled into our heads that we want to be free to do what we want, that "you deserve a break today" and "it may cost a little more, but I'm worth it" and "I must look out for #1," weakness, humility and servanthood are hard concepts to swallow.
One man puts it this way: "I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please."
Do you know anyone like that? Someone who doesn't want to dump God entirely, just keep Him at a comfortable distance. Wants just enough religion to keep the guilt level below the threshold of pain, just enough to guarantee escape from eternal flames...but not enough to make him nervous, to nit-pick his lifestyle, not enough to make him serve someone else, just enough to get his reward. He has let what should have been his reward become his goal.
"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others." Philippians 2:3-4.
Swindoll showed us three characteristics we can observe in a servant. Now let's look at three ingredients that make up that servant.
Forgetting not only includes forgetting offenses committed against us, but also FORGETTING OUR OWN GOOD DEEDS. Once they are done, they're done. No need to drop little hints on how thoughtful we were. That's contrary to the servant's mentality. IMPROVING OUR SERVE MEANS FORGETTING OUR SERVE and forgetting our past glories, as Paul did in Philippians 3:4-9. "...But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count EVERYTHING as loss because of the SURPASSING WORTH of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him..." Paul understands the fleeting glory we might receive here on earth for our deeds is NOTHING compared to knowing the Glory of Christ. It is worth giving everything up for and counting it but loss.
We've been talking about forgetting offenses and forgetting our past deeds. Our minds are like a glass. When we pour water out of a glass, we think of it as empty, but it's not. It immediately fills with nitrogen and oxygen molecules--air. It doesn't leave a void. Our minds are the same way. You can't remove something out of it without replacing it with some other thoughts. God personally wants to take the place of those memories. Awful memories, sad memories, prideful memories should be replaced with thoughts of God. FILL THE VOID WITH GOD. We must be determined to let God replace the pain with His presence and power so we can "forget what lies behind and press on toward the Goal." Philippians 3:14.
When Jesus gave His followers the eight beatitudes, He was giving us a portrait of a Servant. These beatitudes were not a multiple choice list to pick and choose our favorite from. It takes all eight for a balanced Christian life that opens the door to inner happiness. He follows the beatitudes with "You have heard it said... but I say unto you..." In Matthew 6:8 He sums it up with, "Therefore, do not be like them." Pride and hypocrisy have no place in a servant's mind. Jesus says, "BE DIFFERENT."
God wants to make us over into His Son's image. When men speak of Jesus, they describe Him as the most awesome man in such glorious terms. The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives 20,000 words to this person, Jesus, and does not even hint that He did not exist - more words, by the way, than are given to Aristotle, Alexander, Cicero, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon himself said, "I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ was no mere man: Between Him and whoever else in the world there is no possible term of comparison." Men are impressed with this Son of God.
But Jesus didn't describe Himself that way at all. He gives us His own picture in Matthew 11:28-29 "...Come unto me...Take my yoke [a sign of servanthood]... for I AM GENTLE AND LOWLY IN HEART..." Gentle because He has His great strength under control and Humble enough to SERVE MANKIND as a servant and wash filthiness from not only the feet of men, but also the soul of man. "I AM GENTLE AND LOWLY IN HEART." Those are servant's words. Jesus came to serve us - we must serve others for Him.
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR