Imagine that you’ve just received news from your doctor that you have a life-threatening illness. A close friend drops in, you share the news, and the response is something like, “I’m sorry, but I did come over to ask to borrow your lawnmower.” That insensitivity faintly reflects James and John’s request of Jesus in Matthew 20:20–28.
Jesus Christ came to serve. Jesus came as the Son of Man. Matthew paints a dramatic picture of Jesus leading his disciples towards Jerusalem, verses 17–19. He has repeatedly warned his disciples that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem (are they wondering why he keeps traveling towards the place where he says he is going to be arrested and killed?). As he once again tells his disciples that he is going to suffer and die (this explanation includes the element of being handed over to the Gentiles), he identifies himself as “the Son of Man.” This title resounds with glory and authority as you look back at Daniel 7. At the end of the incident, in the text that so clearly speaks of his substitutionary work, verse 28, he again uses the title to describe himself. In both places it sharpens the contrast between the position he gave up in order to enter the world to serve, to suffer, and to die. If you want to really know the Lord Jesus Christ, appreciate both his infinite glory and the depth of his humiliation for you.
Against the background of that title, Jesus reminds you, that he came, not to be served, but to serve. James and John came, with typical Middle Eastern circumlocution, to ask Jesus for the positions at his right hand and left in his glory. Perhaps they focused on the title and screened out references to suffering. Along with Peter they had been selected by Jesus to be with him on several important occasions, and now they want to solidify that for the future—but there are only two sides, right and left, and they ask for those for themselves. Be cautious about selective hearing of the message of Jesus! Don’t be so focused on a framework or way of thinking you have adopted that you don’t really hear all that Jesus is telling you. Jesus asks if they are able to drink of the cup he will drink of. The term is associated with suffering and judgment—as well as coming to have a sacramental meaning slightly later in the life of the church. Naively, they assure him that they can. But Jesus then responds that, though they will drink of the cup, granting the positions of honor in his kingdom is something reserved to his Father to grant according to his plan. The indignation of the other disciples seems to be triggered, not because of James and John’s insensitive request, which totally misunderstood the purpose of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, but by the fact that these two had gotten their request in ahead of the rest of them. In response Jesus contrasts his kingdom with those of the Gentiles. Once again, his kingdom turns upside down the standards of the world. Perhaps some of the acrimony surrounding contemporary debates about offices in the church and who may serve in them grows out of a mistaken view of what office involves. It is not first of all the exercise of authority (Jesus attributes that attitude to pagan Gentiles), but rather a matter of being a servant, and then Jesus uses the even stronger term, of being a slave. If you want to really know the Lord Jesus Christ, appreciate both his infinite glory and the depth of his humiliation for you. Jesus came as the Son of Man (the term is full of honor, glory, and authority), but as such he came to serve. He would wash his disciples feet, he had expended himself healing and teaching. Jesus clearly has in mind the portrayal of the suffering described in Isaiah 53 as he speaks of giving his life as a ransom for many. He may well have the earlier chapters in view as he speaks of his calling as a servant. His path to Jerusalem will culminate in his resurrection. He is the heir of all the glory implied in the title, Son of Man. But the path to that is via the cross. “The pagan princes exploit their subjects for their own ends. But in the Kingdom of God the opposite principle is to prevail: ‘Whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister, and whosoever would be first among you shall be servant of all.’ Then Jesus represents himself as the ideal example of such conduct, and for this purpose points to His own death as the consistent carrying out of the principle of self-sacrifice in the service of others…. He who suffers and dies for another does a great thing, but he who suffers and dies for another by putting himself in the place of the other as a sin-bearer, and submitting vicariously to the punishment due to the other, does a far greater thing. Jesus has done the greater — the greatest — thing, and this is what lends supreme force to His example.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, pages 281–282)
Jesus served by giving his life as your ransom. He gave his life as a ransom for many. Jesus freely gave his life for his people. He wrestled in prayer in Gethsemane–but did drink the cup of God’s wrath to the dregs. Jesus gave his life as a substitute in your place. His death was more than an example for us (the “moral influence” view of the atonement). He did not simply move us to be more obedient, and thus persuade the Father to be merciful (the “governmental” view of the atonement). Both of those center on mankind. Rather, understand that Jesus gave his life in your place. Whether or not you remember the names of those mistaken theories, do remember the term substitutionary atonement. Christ died and rose in the place of his people. Isaiah 43:4, 14 emphasizes the way that God visited judgment on other nations in place of bringing it down on his covenant people. Jesus describes his coming death as a ransom. “The word of our Lord himself (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45) should place beyond all doubt three facts: (1) that the work he came into the world to accomplish is a work of ransom, (2) that the giving of his life was the ransom price, and (3) that this ransom was substitutionary in its nature…. Redemption applies to every respect in which we are bound, and it releases us unto a liberty that is nothing less than the liberty of the glory of the children of God.” (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, pages 42–43) The term is used here and in the parallel in Mark, and a related term is used in 1 Timothy 2:5–6. But the concept was portrayed in every sacrifice offered for the sin of an Israelite. It was there in Isaiah 53, and the Suffering Servant, led as a lamb to the slaughter, bore the sin of many, as we go astray, and the iniquity is laid on him. The term “ransom” means the payment of a price. It can have the idea of general deliverance by power and might (Exodus 6:6, etc.). The New Testament also includes the idea of the power and triumph of the work of Christ, see Colossians 1:13–14. But the focus is on purchase by the payment of a price, Numbers 18:15ff. The ransom is paid for many. The sweep of Christ’s redemptive work is in view. The substitutionary focus of the concept is underlined by the preposition. “For” in English is ambiguous. A father, disciplining his son, might say, “I’m grounding you for your own good.” But imagine the father continuing, “Even though you deserve the grounding because of what you did, I am going to serve it for you. I’ll stay home tonight in your place—you may go to the football game from which you were grounded.” That second use of “for” is what we have in Matthew 20:28. It is a payment in place of others. Understand that Jesus is describing the heart of the gospel when he speaks of giving his life as a ransom for many. Grasp that there is something unrepeatable, something that cannot be imitated, something truly unique in what Christ has done. One of the points of 1 Timothy 2:6 is that his ransom actually saves those for whom it was offered. It does more than make your salvation possible.
Christ’s ransom frees you to serve. The outcome of Jesus paying his life as a ransom in your place is that you are set free to enjoy the glorious freedom of God’s children. Jesus, the glorious Son of Man, is still teaching his disciples by modeling service for them. “[T]here is no way of gaining admission into that kingdom and no participation in those benefits except by faith in his name. For it is he himself who give his life as a ransom for many and who, in his death, breaks his body and sheds his blood to inaugurate and confirm the new covenant with all its blessings (Matt. 20:28; 26:28).” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 383) Yes, his service is unique—you can never give your life as ransom for a world of sinners. Yet Jesus is telling you that you can and must have a servant’s heart and hands. He calls you to open your eyes to the person who is lonely, to the neighbor whose talkativeness is a cry for contact. He calls wives to serve their husbands. But he also calls husbands to serve their wives. The glorious freedom of God’s children means that the shackles that bound you in sin have been broken—so that you can now life to serve your Lord and his people. It is easy to talk (or just think) disparagingly of those who are less consistent than we are. How would you respond to people who had been as insensitive and self-centered as James and John making their request? Jesus responds by serving them, by giving his life as a ransom in their place. The moment we start thinking how much better our theology is than that of those poor Arminians, those confused Charismatics, we’ve started down the path of the request of James and John—though perhaps less blatantly than they. Jesus’s words to his disciples are not only a call to serve, they are also a summons to recognize and root out the pride that puts you above others.
Recognize the ugly sin of pride—and remedy it with a healthy understanding of what was involved in Christ giving his life as a ransom for you. When you are convicted of your own sinfulness, turn to the Servant-Savior, who gave his life as a ransom for you.