Although Jesus plainly predicts his death and resurrection, the disciples - illustrated here by James and John - do not yet understand what he means. They have OT teaching and their own expectations.
Although Jesus plainly predicts his death and resurrection, the disciples - illustrated here by James and John - do not yet understand what he means. They have OT teaching and their own expectations.
Hello, and welcome to Series 10 and Episode 9, in which 'Jesus predicts his death and resurrection'. We're going to study from Matthew 20: 17 - 28, and there are parallel accounts in Mark and Luke as well.
Introduction and Recap
If you've been following Series 10, you'll know we're quite far on in the story of the life of Jesus and in that part of the story in which he is travelling to Jerusalem. That is the first thing that Matthew states at the beginning of this passage, ‘Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem.’ He's reminding the readers of this general context. That journey has been long; it's involved moving backwards and forwards. It wasn't a straight line to Jerusalem by any means. He was travelling through all the territories south of Galilee, the northern territory, where Jesus was based for his first three years and which was his home area. He spent quite a lot of time travelling through parts of Samaria, in the centre of the country, and in the southern province of Judea, and the neighbouring province of Perea, which is on the eastern side of the River Jordan and associated with Galilee because it had the same ruler, King Herod Antipas. He's travelling around all these different areas and we can't work out the exact itinerary and distances that Jesus travelled from place to place, but we pick up different comments of the writers through these series in this part of the story, and we find that he's travelling around. Frequently the writers, like Matthew does here, will remind us that the basic journey is to Jerusalem, and he's heading there for his final visit, which will involve a showdown with the religious authorities.
Jesus Predicts His Death
That, of course, is the topic that Jesus is speaking about in the first part of our passage today, where he's making a prediction, not for the first time, but he is predicting what is going to happen shortly when he gets to Jerusalem. Let's read the first section - Matthew 20: 17 - 19,
‘Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, "We're going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the Teachers of the Law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked, and flogged, and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!"’Matthew 20:17-19, NIV
If you've been with us through earlier episodes, you'll know that the writers record two earlier similar predictions and they're recorded in Matthew's account in Matthew 16: 21 - 28 and Matthew 17: 22 - 23. This isn't the first time that Jesus has made this startling prediction. Let's look at the details for a moment. Jerusalem is going to be the venue; ‘We are going to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man’ (that's a title for Jesus) ‘is going to be handed over to the religious leaders’ ‘the chief priests and the Teachers of the Law.’ We've come across these already from time to time. ‘They will condemn him to death’ - they're going to put him on trial, formally, and ‘hand him over to the Gentiles’ - the non-Jewish rulers of Israel at the time, who are the Romans. They have the authority of life and death; they can execute citizens for breaking the law, or going against Roman rule and Jesus said he'll ‘be mocked, and flogged, and crucified’ by the Romans, and then he'll be raised again to life on the third day.
This is a remarkable prediction and it goes against everything that seems to be happening in Jesus' life, which shows the success of his ministry, the level of popular following, the increasing fascination with his personality and his ministry, especially in the southern parts of the country where he was spending a lot of time visiting and speaking. This is all very challenging but it's not the first time he's said these things. If we go back to the time when this process of preparing his disciples took place, we'll notice that it's back in the time when he was still in the north of the country. He'd taken them aside out of Galilee, to a nearby territory, to the east, to an area called Caesarea Philippi, and he had conversations with them about his identity and his future. Then he took Peter, James and John, up a high mountain and there was an experience which is called the Transfiguration. The reason I'm going back to this is that this is the moment that these predictions began to happen. Just before he went up this high mountain with his inner circle Peter, James and John, he started predicting that he was going to die and be raised again from the dead. Then when he was on this high mountain there was a miraculous appearance of Moses and Elijah, which we discussed in an episode several series ago, when we looked at the transfiguration. Peter, James and John are amazed. They're in awe, they see the glory of God coming upon Jesus; he's transformed in front of their eyes. Luke 9: 30 - 31 describes a conversation that takes place, which is exactly connected to this prediction.
‘Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour talking to Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem.’Luke 9:30-31, NIV
Peter, James and John heard that conversation and they'd heard a prediction just beforehand. There was another prediction just after they came down off the mountain. Here's the third prediction now, and Jesus is preparing them for the fact that there are going to be some difficult times ahead. In fact, some very difficult times for the disciples.
The Disciples Do Not Understand
The extraordinary thing is that, despite the clarity of Jesus, it's evident that the disciples still didn't really understand what was going on. In Luke's account of this same event we have an interesting little extra statement. Luke 18: 34, after hearing what Jesus said it says,
‘The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.’Luke 18:34, NIV
This is remarkable isn't it? I'm sure you'll agree with me, that what Jesus is explaining is extremely simple and straightforward. I've explained it to you, I've gone through it phrase by phrase and I can understand it easily: there's going to be a confrontation; he's going to be taken prisoner; he's going to be judged; he's going to be condemned; he's going be handed over to the Romans; they're going to crucify him; and he'll be raised again from the dead. It's very clear what he's saying but mysteriously the disciples found this very hard to understand. In fact, they were thinking something very different. They had a completely different expectation of what was going to happen in the coming days, a rather positive expectation in terms of Jesus' power and influence, and the implications for them, and the benefits for them.
As Jesus was travelling south to Jerusalem, there was a growing expectation among the crowds that he was going to do some political miracle and overturn the Romans, and change the government and bring about a just society in Israel, and raise up the poor and bring a time of peace. There was a lot of popular aspiration that Jesus would do something amazing in the country. It wasn't a happy country at the time. People were very oppressed by this sense they're ruled by a foreign power, the Romans. The Romans were not liked at all, and the taxation system was disliked. There was a fundamental disagreement with the Romans about culture, and religion, and the Roman army was extremely powerful and enforced justice, often in a very brutal way. It was an unhappy country and when this Messianic figure, Jesus, comes on the scene, the unhappiness of people, their desire for something to be very different in the country was channelled into an expectation that Jesus was the person who was going to bring that about. This is why Luke adds a comment here to say that whatever Jesus said on this occasion they didn't really understand at all. They were thinking something totally different.
James and John
The ones who were thinking most specifically something different were two out of the inner circle of Jesus. You'll remember from the Transfiguration, and other episodes earlier on, that out of the Twelve, Jesus had an inner circle who were Peter, James and John. James and John were brothers, known as the sons of Zebedee, and they, with Peter were sometimes taken aside by Jesus for special experiences, special training, and a more intimate setting of conversation about things that were happening and going to happen. Peter was the leader of the disciples. For James and John, they felt themselves to be in the inner circle, and they wondered what that would mean. Keep that thought in mind, and then keep all the popular expectations in mind, that as Jesus comes to Jerusalem something powerful may happen in the political realm. You can see that James and John are connecting these things together and wondering if there's some promotion or some role for them. That's exactly the subject of this next section, which we're going to read now. Matthew 20: 20 to 28;
‘Then the mother of Zebedee's sons’ (that's James and John) ‘came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. "What is it you want?" he asked. She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom." "Don't you know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I'm going to drink?" "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right and left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father." When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the brothers. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."’Matthew 20:20-28, NIV
This is a surprising and very tense situation that arises very quickly. James and John's mother is travelling with them on this long journey south to Jerusalem. She's clearly ambitious. She thinks that Jesus is going to pull off some great, political, wonder trick very shortly and bring in God's Kingdom and overturn the Romans. She's got ambitions for her sons, so she very boldly comes to Jesus and asks him a question about places of prominence in his Kingdom. The concept of being on the left and the right represents the highest positions of authority under a ruler, the person closest to them on the left and the right would be considered the next most powerful people in that kingdom. Why ask this question? Was it a mother's ambition? Was it James and John's ambition? Was it a lack of maturity, a lack of understanding? Was it because James and John were in the inner circle of Jesus and they misinterpreted what that meant? We don't know. But the question is clear,
‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in the kingdom.’Matthew 20:21, NIV
Jewish Theology of the Coming of God's Kingdom
In order to understand why the mother of James and John makes this bold request - an inappropriate request - we need to think a bit more about the Jewish theology about God's Kingdom coming, based on the Old Testament. I've mentioned this on a number of occasions in earlier episodes, but this provides an essential framework for understanding some of Jesus' teaching. Let's pause here and think about this for a moment. This would be influencing the mother, and influencing James and John.
In the Old Testament, the prophets in particular, predicted both the coming of an individual person, who we can describe as the Messiah, known by various names; the Son of Man, the Servant of the Lord. Not only did they predict the coming of the Messiah, but the coming of the Messiah in the context of God's powerful rule in the world being extended and consolidated permanently, sometime in the future, based in Jerusalem. If we take, for example, the prophet Isaiah, we have the fullest account of this expectation. It's an expectation which I've described in some previous episodes as that of the Messianic age, the time when the Messiah is ruling on behalf of God, Yahweh, the God of Israel. I need to read a couple of prophecies from Isaiah. There are many others, but just to give you two sample prophecies that are quite well known, that illustrate the sort of ideas that the prophets put into the minds of Jewish people, which were resonating at the time of Jesus. Let's, for example, take Isaiah 2: 1 - 5. This prophecy is also to be found in Micah 4, by the way. I'll read this prophecy,
‘This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: in the last days the mountain of the Lord's temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, "Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between nations and will settle disputes for many people. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.’Isaiah 2:1-5, NIV
You can see in this vision, Jerusalem is at the centre, the Temple of Jerusalem is a key place, and through God's intervention there's going to be peace on earth, emanating from Jerusalem, so that warfare comes to an end, harmony comes into the world, and the God of Israel is ruling. If we then link that for example with another prophecy of Isaiah, (and by the way there are many other prophecies, I'm just giving you some good examples) the well-known prophecy in Isaiah 9, which Christians identify firmly as a prophecy of Jesus, Isaiah 9: 6 - 7, tells us famously,
‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.’Isaiah 9:6-7, NIV
Here you see the child, the Son, the miraculous Son, who has these amazing names Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God. This Son is going to be the King in the line of King David, who had a permanent covenant of kingship associated with him, in Isaiah 9: 7 ‘He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for evermore.’ If we take Isaiah 2 -Jerusalem, Temple, peace, the nations being harmonious, Israel being at the centre of the world, God ruling from there, blessing all the nations of the world - and we also take this one to save as an individual person, the successor of King David, who's going to rule as a king on David's throne, which basically means in Jerusalem, and that this rule is going to extend permanently across the world, you can see if you put those two prophecies together you get a feeling of what I call the messianic age theology of the Old Testament.
Jesus in the Light of These Expectations
With all that theology in the background, and it was interpreted in a variety of different ways, but it's there in the background, then if Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus is coming to Jerusalem, Jesus is in the line of David, he's the Son of David as he's often proclaimed to be in the Gospels. Then all this prophetic background starts getting stirred up in the imagination of many of the people who are in the crowds and that of course does include the disciples themselves. They believe he's the Messiah. They want him to bring in the Messianic age and, as I've quoted before and I'll mention it again very shortly in a future episode, some of the mood of the crowds can be described, as in Luke 19: 11,
‘because he was near Jerusalem, the people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once.’Luke 19:11, NIV
James and John were influenced by all these things. They also knew that they were Apostles - appointed, delegated ambassadors of Jesus. They knew they were in the inner circle with Peter. They wondered what position they were going to have in this messianic Kingdom that they were beginning to think that Jesus was going to set up. But they make some mistakes. They don't understand the prediction of Jesus' suffering and death, that we read earlier on. They don't understand that if Jesus suffers, they'll suffer. The cup that's referred to here is a cup of suffering. They fail to see that the messianic Kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament isn't going to arrive now, it's going to arrive in the future, when Jesus returns for a second time. It's going to be associated with the Second Coming, so it's not now that this is going to happen. They also failed to grasp that their role as leaders is a role of servanthood, not power, and Jesus makes clear in his teaching to them that they're not going to be like the Gentiles. If we go back to our passage in Matthew 20 and have a careful look at this again,
‘"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you."’Mattehew 20:25-26, NIV
The Gentiles in question are the Romans. The Jews had experienced Roman authority in their country for several decades, and all the lifetime of the disciples, and they knew it was a hierarchical authority, they knew that the final authority lay with the Emperor in Rome. His authority was delegated to provincial governors, or procurators in different provinces, and they knew that in Judea the procurator was Pontius Pilate, who had an enormous amount of power and discretion. He had a lot of military power at hand and he could make decisions on most things without consulting the Emperor. He ruled over the people with high authority, and his officials ruled over the Jewish people with high authority: they could not be contradicted; their wishes could not be overturned; they could tax to the level that they chose; they could build a road here or a bridge there; they could move people's housing; they could organise people in a certain way; they could put restrictions on religious practices if they wanted; they could recruit people to be slaves or servants if they needed them.
Jesus tells them, ‘You know what this secular authority, this Roman authority, these Gentiles are like - don't think for a moment that the Church is anything like that, whatsoever. You may have the title Apostle, but that title Apostle is one who serves with power and authority to bring life to people, but not one who rules over people in a strict hierarchy’. There's a muddle going on in the minds of the Apostles at this point. They're tempted by a combination of two things to think wrongly about their authority. They're tempted by understanding the Old Testament prophecies of the messianic age in a certain way as if it's going to happen now, on the one hand. They're also tempted by thinking power works in public society, looking at the Romans and how they exercise their power. Jesus is basically saying, ‘The Old Testament prophecies are going to come true, but you've got the timing wrong. It's not going to happen now, so don't get excited by that, because there's a journey of suffering and difficulty lying ahead for me, and for you, and you need to prepare yourselves to enter into that journey.’ He warns them firmly against taking the example of the Romans, and their structured hierarchy; it's not at all appropriate.
Most importantly of all, they should follow the example of Jesus. Here we have a wonderful saying in verse 28,
‘“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”’Matthew 20:28, NIV
Even Jesus, with all the power of heaven at his disposal, came as a servant leader, he's going to give up his life and it's through crucifixion in Jerusalem, as he's just predicted, and is going to act as a ransom for many. It's going to be a death in the form of atonement; it's going to be a sacrifice; it's going to be a substitutionary act; he's going to pay the penalty for sin; he's going to pay a ransom price, as it were, so that people can be relieved of their sins, forgiven of their sins and justified and brought into full relationship with God. Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to know what leadership is. Follow my example. Don't look at any other source of authority in the society around you, because they're approaching it in the wrong way, in a hierarchical way.’
There are some things for us to learn from this story. It must have been very humiliating for James and John, and for their mother, but we can learn that we can't understand Jesus without knowing that his primary mission was to die on the cross, and be raised again from death. That's what brings salvation for us.
We can learn about Christian leadership here. You'll probably be thinking as you're reading this text, that Christian leadership doesn't always function in this servant leadership fashion. Churches can become hierarchies, senior church officials can become very powerful; they can become very wealthy; they can become detached from the church's mission. It's a risk that we always have in the Church, and in order to avoid that risk we need to go back to Scriptures like this, texts like this, teaching of Jesus like this, and remember that those who are leaders are servants. They're there to help other people find their way into the Kingdom of God, and be shepherded in the Kingdom of God through the ministry of the church community, and a leader serves that community, and serves that mission, and in doing so, that leader is simply following the example of Jesus himself.
Let's take away that wonderful verse, Matthew 20: 28. This is one of the most precious things that Jesus ever said about himself and I'm going to read it again in conclusion just to anchor it in our minds and to remind us of the wonderful, gracious person that Jesus was. ‘“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”’