Loving as Servants
Passage: Matthew 20:20–20:28
How do we become great in Jesus' kingdom? Because Jesus gave himself for us, we love as servants.
How many of you have seen the show Undercover Boss? In the show, the boss of companies like DirecTV, Subway, and 7-Eleven go “undercover” within their company. They dress like a normal employee and sometimes put on a disguise. They come in as a new person to get trained.
The goal is for the boss to see what life is like as an employee of their company. They receive unbiased, unfiltered feedback about what it is like to work at the company they oversee. Usually they do three different jobs in the company to get a variety of experiences and interact with a variety of people. As other employees train them, the boss experiences what it is like to enter their company at the bottom of the ladder instead of sitting at the top. Some employees impress them with their work ethic and attitude as they do even the most menial and insignificant of tasks. As they work side by side, the bosses often hear stories of how these employees are struggling at home or with health issues.
At the end of the show, the boss reveals who they are to the employees who are often shocked. The employee had no idea they were talking about the company and about their lives with the boss. Often, the boss has sympathized with struggles their employees are going through and does something special to bless them and lift them out of their situation. The boss’ experience of going down to the ground level gives them a chance to know their employees on a personal level and help them in a really specific way. They are able to do this because they step out of their role as boss and put on the clothes of regular employees.
Today, we are continuing our series called “Living the Good News Together.” As a church, we are learning how we can live in light of the good news about Jesus together.
Take a moment to flip to the graphic on the last page of your song book (the same graphic is on our What Are We All About page). This is the roadmap for what we are covering. First, we covered our mission: as a community we are surrendering all of life to Jesus and inviting others to do the same. Two weeks ago we began covering our Community Practices. Our mission tells us what we are doing. Our Community Practices answer how we are going to do our mission. How do we surrender all of life to Jesus? How do we invite others to do the same? By practicing Believing the Gospel, Living as Family, Loving as Servants, Going as Messengers, and Relying on the Spirit.
And why do we do all of this? Our vision at the bottom tells us so that as the family of God we can show and tell the good news of Jesus to every man, woman, and child. Today, we are focusing on our third Community Practice of Loving as Servants.
Last week, we said that when we surrender all of life to Jesus, we are given a new identity. We are no longer defined by sin, death, darkness, and selfishness. God gives us a new identity. We leave our old selves behind to live a new life.
This decision to give our lives to Jesus and leave our old life behind is marked by baptism. If you attend a wedding ceremony, you are witnessing and celebrating two people commit to each other before God and their guests. In the same way, baptism publicly declares our commitment and surrender to Jesus with other people there to witness and celebrate it.
Baptism is done in deep enough water so the person can fully go under the water. As you go into the water, it is a picture of your life of sin being buried in the water. When you come out, it is a picture that you have been cleansed of your sin and renewed to live a new life for Jesus.
Jesus said that his disciples should be baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The bible teaches that there is only one God, but that one God exists in a loving unity of three equally divine persons: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but one God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. When we commit to Jesus, we are baptized into the name of this God. He now defines who we are. We are given a new name, a new identity, and a new purpose.
Last week, we learned that because the God the Father adopts us, we live as family. This week, we are focusing on the identity we are given in connection to Jesus, God the Son.
We are going learn this from Matthew 20:20-28. The big question this passage answers is: How do we become great in Jesus’ kingdom? How do we become great in Jesus’ kingdom?
We will look at this passage in two parts.
First, let’s look at the request for greatness in verses 20 through 23 of Matthew chapter 20.
Request for Greatness (Matthew 20:20-23)
At the time of this request for greatness, Jesus has been traveling around Israel for about three years, teaching people about the kingdom of God, offering them forgiveness for their sins, and calling them to follow him. The people closest to him now believe he is the Messiah, the Christ, the one that the Old Testament prophets said would come.
This is big news! God allowed his people to be conquered by other nations and taken out of their land because they refused to be faithful to him. But God said he would send a king to bring salvation, restore them, and provide forgiveness for their sins. After centuries of waiting, they think God may have finally sent the one to make this happen.
Nearing the end of his ministry, Jesus begins moving toward Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. On the way, he gives his disciples this lesson about his kingdom: the last will be first, and the first last. What does that mean?
With this lesson in their minds, Jesus continues going up into the hills toward Jerusalem and tells his disciples for the third time what is going to happen when they get there. He says in verse 18 of chapter 20:
18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Matthew 20:18-19)
Even though Jesus is preaching about God’s kingdom and the forgiveness of sins and demonstrating his authority over all things and accepting the title of Messiah, he is also telling his disciples that he is is going to suffer and die. How do both these things work together? How can he be a king who brings salvation and at the same time die? How can he save others if we can't even save himself?
Just a little while after telling them that he will suffer and die, we hear the request for greatness in verses 20 through 23. As Jesus and those following him continue their journey uphill toward Jerusalem, two of Jesus’ disciples along with their mother approach Jesus.
The mother kneels before Jesus, showing honor and respect. She recognizes him as the king God has sent and has a request. Jesus asks her, “What do you want?” She asks that her two sons, James and John, be given seats of honor to help Jesus rule. When he sits on his throne as king, she wants one to sit on his left side and one to sit on his right side.
There is a certain amount of faith to commend in this mother and her sons. They believe Jesus is the king whom God has sent, they are following this king, and they believe this king will be successful in setting up his kingdom. The problem is, they don’t yet see - or perhaps are refusing to see - what type of king Jesus is or what type of kingdom he is setting up. Jesus makes that clear in verse 22 with his response. Verses 22 says:
22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)
In the Old Testament, “the cup” was often used as an image for suffering or for God’s judgment. One day, God would pour out the cup of his wrath on evildoers. Jesus knows what is before him and he has made it clear to his disciples. The mother asks the question but Jesus poses a question to the two sons: “Are you able to go through what I’m going to go through?” They want greatness, but do they understand what the path to greatness requires?
Their answer is, “We are able.” They’ve heard Jesus predict his rejection, sufferings, and death. But perhaps they thought he was exaggerating a bit. Their expectation was that he would kick out the Roman Empire so that they could have their land back and worship God without foreign control. They know that is going to be a difficult road of suffering and loss of life. But James and John think they are up to the task.
Verse 23 gives Jesus’ response:
23 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.” (Matthew 20:23)
During this trip to Jerusalem, Jesus actually told them that when he sits on his throne those who have followed him will also have seats of honor and anyone who has suffered lost will receive back a hundred times what they lost, and inherit eternal life. What James and John are doing is calling dibs early on the best seats of honor. They want greatness. But they have no idea what the path to greatness requires. Jesus tells them they will indeed experience what he is going to go through, but the role of assigning the seats of honor is God the Father’s job.
James and John, the two disciples, desire greatness. But they don’t yet understand what greatness in Jesus’ kingdom is all about. Let’s move to part two of this passage in verses 24 to 28 to hear Jesus’ teaching on greatness.
Teaching on Greatness in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:24-28)
Jesus had twelve really close disciples and when the other ten hear about the request the two brothers made, they are resentful. They are annoyed and angry. They snort with indignance, “Uck, can you believe them?”
This whole conversation about greatness feels a little bit like deja vu because back in chapter 18 verse 1 the disciples asked about greatness in the kingdom. There, Jesus told them that whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Not only this, but as they have traveled to Jerusalem, he’s told them that the last will be first and the first will be last.
Now he gives them a similar teaching. Knowing his disciples are annoyed and angry at the two brothers for trying to call dibs on the seats of highest honor, he calls all twelve of them to him and says in verse 25:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” (Matthew 20:25)
He points to the highest position of worldly power: a king. Kings are at the top of the ladder. They are as high as you can get. You can’t get any higher than that in the world’s terms. He points to those people who have climbed to the top of the ladder and says: “You know that kings, queens, and rulers of nations exercise lordship, and that the great ones of those nations exercise authority. That’s how it works at the top.” The disciples think Jesus is going to be like one of these rulers and they want to be at the top with him. But then Jesus surprises them in verse 26. He says:
26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 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 20:26-28)
First Jesus points to the people at the top of the world’s ladder: “You know what worldly rulers are like, they rule over people. That’s what greatness in the world looks like. You have authority over other people and they serve you.” But he says, “That’s now how it is going to be with people who call themselves my disciples.”
Then he points to the people at the bottom of the world’s ladder and says, “That’s what you are going to be like. If you want to be great, you need to become a servant. If you want to be first, you need to be a slave to others.” Remember what he said before? The first will be last and the last first.
Why? Because that’s what the King you are following is doing. Jesus says that as the Son of Man he has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. A “ransom” is the price paid to free a slave. If you want to redeem a slave, meaning free them from slavery, you pay the ransom price. Jesus says he came to give his life as the ransom price to free many from slavery.
What are we in slavery to? We are in slavery to sin! Without Jesus, we all walk around with chains on our wrists and ankles because we are slaves to sin. We can’t be free of its penalty, we can’t be free of its power, we can’t be free of its presence. The good news is that Jesus came to serve and give his life to buy us out of slavery to sin. He has come to cancel our debt so that we can live free again.
The big question this passage answers is: How do we become great in Jesus’ kingdom? Here’s the answer: Because Jesus gave himself for us, we love as servants. Because Jesus gave himself for us, we love as servants. That’s how we become great in Jesus’ kingdom. We follow the king’s example.
The disciples think the highest level of greatness is a king. Kings have authority and people serve them. But in Jesus’ kingdom, the highest level of greatness is the one who becomes a servant. Greatness in the kingdom isn’t about how many people are serving you, but how many people you are serving. That’s because King Jesus became the ultimate servant.
In Undercover Boss, the boss steps down from the top of the ladder and puts on the clothes of regular employees to do a job they aren’t required to do. Jesus was at the top of the ladder. He had it all. He’s God! But Jesus stepped down from his throne and put on humanity to do a job he wasn’t required to do. He never sinned. He hasn’t earned the penalty for sin. While he was on earth, he lived to serve his heavenly Father. But no job was too low for him. He took on our sin and the penalty for sins he never committed all so we could be free. He paid our debt even though he owed nothing!
Imagine every time you sinned, every time you did something selfish, every time you did something wrong, you were taking one shovel full of dirt out from under you and digging a hole. And you have just kept digging and digging and digging. You’ve dug a pit for yourself and you are dirty and cold and alone. Jesus went down into that pit. He went down into the hole you dug for yourself. And he lifted you out of it and took your place. THis is the cup he drank - the penalty for your sin. No matter how deep your pit is, Jesus can free you from it.
Or imagine you have a cup of clean water and every time you sinned, every time you were selfish, and every time you broke God's law a drop of poison was put into that cup. For your whole life, every selfish act puts a drop of poison into the cup. You know you are putting poison in and you know you will have to drink the cup eventually, but you do it anyway. Jesus drank that cup for you and he died from the poison you put in it.
It doesn’t matter how sinful you are, how poor you are, how dirty and destitute you are, how bad you are, how ashamed and guilty you are - it doesn’t matter because the kind of God we worship loves you and gave himself for you. Nobody is a job too low for Jesus, or too dirty for Jesus. There is no task too great. He can wash you clean and free you. No matter how bad the cup is, he will drink it.
How many of you have felt hopeless? Have many of you have felt forgotten? How many of you have felt like nobody gets it? “Nobody gets what I’m going through?” How many of you have felt alone and abandoned by others? How many of you have felt like that about God? “He doesn’t get it! He doesn’t care what I’m going through! He doesn’t care about me!”
Those are all lies from Satan because Jesus life’ and death proves: Yes he does! He does get it. He does care about what you’re going through. He does care about you. God loves you and he has the scars to prove it!
And not only does God care, but he knows what it feels like. Jesus became human and he felt what it’s like to be tempted, to suffer, to be rejected, to be alone, to be in pain, to be sad, mad, and scared. And because of that, he can sympathize with what we go through because he has felt it too yet was without sin.
Other gods and other religions require you to be conquerors. It’s up to you to reach enlightenment; it’s up to you to reach god; it’s up to you pull yourself out of your sin to live a better life. You need to climb the ladder. You need to climb out of your hole you’ve dug and clean yourself up.
But with Jesus - with the God of the bible, the one, true God - he climbs down the ladder for us. He gets in the dirt and the garbage with us. He comes down into your anger with your spouse or kids, into your apathy about life, into your despair that life isn't how you'd like it, into your rejection by friends or family. He comes down into it and he lifts us out to carry us up the ladder to be with him.
The big question this passage answers is: How do we become great in Jesus’ kingdom? The answer is: Because Jesus gave himself for us, we love as servants. Jesus’ challenge is for us to get off the throne and stop thinking like kings and queens. Instead, we are to think like servants and slaves. That’s how we become great in Jesus’ kingdom. How do we do that? How do we stop thinking like kings and start thinking like servants? Here’s two ways.
First, instead of demanding God do our will, we do his will. Instead of demanding God do our will, we do his will. This is the mindset we need to have in our vertical relationship with God. This is what Jesus called the greatest commandment: love God with all we have. Put him first in our lives - the #1 priority. But we so often think God exists to serve us. We believe that we are the king and we make demands on him to do what we want.
How often do you tell God what you want from him instead of listening for him to tell you what he wants from you? How often do you get mad at him for not doing what you want instead of saying “thy will be done”? Too often our relationship with God is reduced to giving him our daily list of wishes and wants and nothing more.
God does invite us to come to him with what’s on our mind. He invites us to cast all our anxieties on him and to make our requests known to him. He does this because he’s a good Father who loves and cares about us. But if this is the only way we relate to him, we’ve misunderstood the relationship and are missing out. Kids don’t just tell their parents what they want; they listen to their parents. They receive guidance from them, instruction, correction, affection, and affirmation. We need our heavenly Father’s wisdom as we navigate life. We need to hear his love and affection for us. We need to hear his voice.
Jesus was always in tune with his Father’s will. He said this was his spiritual food. It made him feel full, satisfied, and nourished. Jesus’ family are those who do the will of his heavenly Father. Jesus was attentive to his Father’s voice and we should be too if we are following Jesus. With a servant mindset, we stop demanding that God do our will and we start to do his.
Second, instead of caring most about ourselves, we care most about others. Instead of caring most about ourselves, we care most about others. This is the mindset we need to have in our horizontal relationships with other people. This is what Jesus called the second greatest commandment: love others as we want to be loved. But not only do we believe God exists to serve us, we believe that other people exist to serve us as well.
In reality, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to start focusing on someone other than ourselves. Remember, those who put themselves first will be last and those who put themselves last will be first. Jesus says true fulfillment comes from knowing God and doing his will. And his will is that we would love other people like he loves us.
Jesus calls us to have a servant mindset with others, which means we care most about them. This is what servants do. Their job is to serve. But we do the same with people as we do with God. Instead of asking what others want, we tell them what we want and get mad when they don’t give it to us. Instead of being concerned with the interests of others, we are concerned with our own interests. Instead of seeking to meet their needs, we want them to meet our needs. Jesus calls us to become the servants of other people.
Perhaps you are thinking, “That sounds impossible. How could I ever live that way!” The reality is that if it’s up to you, it is impossible. But know this truth: Jesus has served you more than you will ever serve anybody else. He came to serve and not be served. He loves you and gave his life for you. He has loved more, sacrificed more, humbled himself more, and gave more to us than we even comprehend. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath for us. All the curse of sin, all the pain of sin, all the suffering of sin, Jesus drank it all. Jesus drank all of sin’s penalty so that whoever believes in him would not have to drink it themselves.
We worship a generous God who has given us more than we will ever give anybody else. And Jesus puts that generosity on display most clearly in going to the cross in our place to pay our debt! It’s because of God’s generosity shown in Jesus that we can love others as servants.
But we tend to have either a scarcity or a transactional mindset. With a scarcity mindset, we believe that we have been given very little and must scrape our resources into a vault and not share them with anyone.
Or we have a transactional mindset. When we do something nice for someone, they owe us. Or if someone helps us out, we owe them. That isn’t thinking like servants. That’s thinking like a business person trading with other people.
But the truth is that Jesus doesn’t need anything from us and has given everything to us we could ever want. He is God - we don’t have anything he doesn’t already have. Every spiritual blessing has been given to us in Christ and every material blessing you have is from his hand. All this comes from the generous heart of our God who loves us because he loves us. That’s just who he is. This is love that you could never earn and that you don’t deserve and yet you have it.
This is the good news! And when we love as servants like Jesus has loved us, we show other people a picture of the good news. When we love people with the generous, no strings attached, self-giving love of God, they see Jesus in us.
There are a lot of people in our church who do this well. Let me give some examples of what loving as servants looks like practically.
When Katie and I totaled our car, Nik and Emma let us use one of their cars several times. If you didn’t know, when we first moved to Woodstock Nik and Emma let us live with them for a year for free so that we could save up for a down payment on our house.
Last week, Larry organized the giving of a trunk load of presents to someone who just had a baby because he wanted to bless her. This past summer while serving ice cream on the square - which was loving as servants - Larry gave his rain jacket to a homeless man.
This past summer, our whole church spent hours helping Nik and Emma to sand down the doors in their house and repaint them.
This past fall, Larry, Brian, Jerry, Katie, and I raked leaves in each others’ yards and for our neighbors together.
Also in the fall, when we were matched for an adoption, Laurel and Emma came over and helped Katie paint our kitchen in preparation for the baby. And when the adoption fell through, we didn’t cook for weeks because everyone kept bringing us meals, especially Carol who kept them coming for like two weeks.
Here’s something you can do this week to put loving as a servant into action. First, who is someone that you expect to serve you? It’s easy to tell. Who do you get frustrated with a lot? Who are you harsh with a lot? Who are you disappointed with a lot? Or who does a lot for you that you never notice or thank? Take a moment to think about who that person is for you.
Now, how can you serve them this week? How can you serve them instead of them serving you? What can you do to bless them? What can you do to put a smile on their face and make them feel cared about?
God’s love for us is most clearly displayed on the cross where Jesus suffered and died for our sins. The God we worship gave himself sacrificially in love to pull us out of a hole we had dug for ourselves.
When that love comes into our lives, it changes us. We don’t love people so they will love us. We love them because God first loved us. God loves us because he loves us and we love others because we love them. Not to get something from us; not with strings attached. He just does. And when we show that love to each other and to others, it shows them something different than they are used to. It shows them the love of God.