Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:20-28)
Jesus has just predicted his death and resurrection for the third time. He is on the way to Jerusalem. His face is set like a flint towards the cross (cf. Isaiah 50:7).
No better time for Momma Zebedee to come and put a good word in for her boys. But in this curious exchange, there’s a lesson for us in Christian greatness. Or, a rebuke against the principled mediocrity of much of evangelicalism.
With New Year’s resolutions still lingering in the rear mirror, I suppose it’s obligatory to write about self-discipline and achievement. But the lesson of this text goes far beyond the sort of Instagrammed preening that today passes for true self-discipline.
The disciples, understandably, are indignant against the sons of Zebedee. Not, we should note, because they have yet attained to the doctrine of the cross. At this point, they’re all essentially blind to what Jesus is really up to. Their motives for consternation are probably far more base. Think of the groan you let out when you overhear a lazy coworker kissing up to your supervisor.
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t rebuke the sons of Zebedee for aspiring to kingdom greatness. As the ESV renders Matthew’s conjunction, “…they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said…” (vv. 24-25). Attaining to honor in the kingdom of God isn’t inherently evil. The manner in which it is often sought, though, is fraught with corruption. The disciples had it exactly backwards.
If you’re the type who enjoys barking out orders and padding their resume with positions of authority (who doesn’t?), beware. Not even the Son of Man—yes, that Son of Man who receives global worship in Daniel 7:14—availed himself of those rights in his humiliation.
Do you want to be great? Devote yourself to meeting the needs of every single other person around you. Do you want to rule? Become a slave to all.
In contrast to Zebedee’s overly-aspirational preacher boys—decked out in plaid and skinny pants, carrying leatherbound ESVs and sporting low fades, no doubt—a better example of greatness comes in the next pericope, where we meet two more men who, like James and John, recognize Jesus’ Davidic kingship (cf. vv. 21, 30). What makes these men truly great is that they, suffering from blindness, aren’t afraid to make fools of themselves to cry out to Jesus for healing (vv. 29-34). Jesus pities them and heals them instantly. True kingdom greatness, we conclude, is helplessly throwing yourself at Jesus’ feet for mercy.
Jesus’ topsy-turvy definition of greatness is the foundation of the Christian life. The cross always precedes the crown. We humble ourselves to receive the riches of salvation. We repent of our sin to find forgiveness. We deny ourselves and find ourselves the heirs of eternal pleasure. This redefinition of greatness is why Jerusalem and Rome fell and the Church of Jesus Christ remains to this day, unassailable by Hades’ gates.
I fear, however, that we often stop short of this as evangelicals. We teeter in roughly the same state as did the disciples in verse 24—general indignation against the idea of boastful, arrogant greatness, without truly apprehending the deeper, better greatness.
As Christians, we know what greatness isn’t. But that’s no excuse to fall short of what biblical, others-focused, Christ-dependent greatness is.
We know that self-seeking and domineering are bad, so we assume that mediocrity is good. We’d never call it mediocrity, of course, but any time Christians start disciplining themselves, denying themselves, using scary words like “repentance,” and generally acting like men (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:13), we smear them as legalists who’ve somehow lost the gospel of grace. We fear the men in rough clothes and their diets of grasshoppers and honey.
That’s not to say that we don’t have a fair share of modern-day Pharisees. Note that the New Testament warns us both of the legalists (1 Timothy 4:1-5) and lechers (Jude 4) who both somehow end up making livings as professional Christians. But we cannot commit the fallacy of “because B, hence A.” Self-discipline makes you a Pharisee the same way whitewash makes you a tomb.
One need not look far within our churches, ministries, blogs, publishing and all the other evangelical fiefdoms to see this sort of principled mediocrity on display. Let’s not be too controversial or too off-putting, leaders in communicating advocate. We hashtag our activism, dub our ice cream socials “outreach,” toss our tithes into the plate and reassure ourselves, That’ll do. Mention the Great Commission too much take Jesus’ saving reign too literally and you’ll probably have a critic take aim at your eschatology.
Meanwhile, the goats outnumber the sheep in our pews, millions of children are aborted, 2.9 billion or so remain unreached, and “10 Ways Jar-Jar Binks Points to Christ” is what’s trending.
Where does this leave us? First, we ought to aspire to the anti-greatness embodied by the two blind men of Matthew 21. We need to throw ourselves down at the throne of grace, period. Jesus saves all who come to him with empty-handed faith, no matter how self-disciplined or mediocre we may be. He takes the best of us and the worst of us. Thank God for grace (especially now that I’ve almost made it through this article which condemns virtually every Christian, including myself most of all).
But we must press through to also, in view of this grace, pursue the true greatness that endures the cross to achieve the crown. Paul modeled this. Knowing he had the righteousness of faith, he “press(ed) on toward the prize for the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). A first-century Jewish terrorist redeemed by grace, Paul went on to work harder than the other apostles—albeit, not him, but grace working in him (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Before we’ve all regressed on our resolutions and resumed the monotony of wintertime, let’s remember that Scripture call us to an active sort of discipleship. Our honor in the kingdom should be from a cross-carrying, others-serving, grace-dependent greatness.
What becomes of our “self-improvement,” then? If we exercise, let it be to make our bodies stronger to serve our neighbors. If we study, let it be to sharpen our minds to meditate on the things of God. If we would aim for that promotion, let it be so that we can be more effective bondservants. If we diet, let it be to steward the temple of the Holy Spirit and, Lord willing, seek to prolong our lives so that we can continue to serve and love our family.
And still, we will fall short. Like the sons of Zebedee, we can’t even come close to downing the cup that Christ himself drank—nor would we want to. He alone was the perfect servant, who drank the Father’s wrath down to the dregs so that rebellious sinners like us could live. He alone possesses true greatness.
We must live self-disciplined, upright lives in view of this great and gracious Savior. We must forsake mediocrity.