Even when we don’t really know what we are asking, Jesus invites us to ask. He invites us to take the risk of hoping, and trusting him.

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Matthew #71. Matthew 20:17-34

Please read Matthew 20:17-34. I don’t have space to put it here. If you are listening, of course, I’ll read it to you, but you still might want to follow along in your Bible.

Matthew does not tell us the name of the mother of James and John (who was the wife of Zebedee). Therefore, for convenience in writing, I will refer to her as “Mother Z.”

Matthew begins chapter 20 by telling us that they were going up to Jerusalem. This is significant. Starting with chapter 21, everything we read takes place in and around Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion. Matthew records that right after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God, Jesus began speaking to them of his upcoming death (Matthew 16:21). Matthew records a second prediction in 17:22-23. Here in 21:18-19, he reminds them for the third time that he will be killed, mentioning for the first time that it will be by crucifixion. Obviously the disciples didn’t understand it the first time, because Peter tried to rebuke Jesus over it. The second time, Matthew records that the disciples were distressed, while both Luke and Mark record that they didn’t really understand what Jesus was talking about (Mark 9:32 & Luke 9:45). About this third prediction, Luke says:

34They understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. (Luke 18:34, HCSB)

Matthew, in our text for this time, doesn’t tell us explicitly that the disciples did not understand, but I think it is clear from the request of James and John they did not grasp that Jesus was speaking quite literally. I would guess that it “went over their heads,” so to speak, and all they really understood was that something big was about to happen. The way I picture it is this: James and John went to say goodbye to their family, since they were leaving Galilee (their home region) for a while. Like any good mother, Mother Z asked them where they were going, and why, and so on. I think their response was probably something like this:

“We don’t know for sure, but Jesus seems really serious about it. He keeps talking about big stuff happening in Jerusalem. He says he’s going to die, but we think that’s just him being negative, or maybe trying to get us hyped up for the big push to make him King, you know, to get us ready for the struggle. In any case, we think he’s going to ‘go for it,’ when we get to Jerusalem.”

Here’s what I think is quite clear: Crucifixion was not their paradigm. They didn’t get it because it wasn’t what they were looking for, it wasn’t the way they were thinking. It didn’t fit what their vision for what was supposed to happen, so it more or less went over their heads.

Anyway, Mother Z, being a good mother, decides that before all the big stuff goes down in Jerusalem, she needs to make sure her boys get what they deserve. When she says she wants them to sit at the right and left of Jesus, what she means is, she wants them to be the “top” two, after Jesus. James, the elder, would be at the right, in the number 1 position after Jesus. John, at the left, would be number 2.

Although this is Mother Z’s request, clearly, James and John are in agreement with it, since they were right there with her when she asked of it of Jesus. Jesus’ response to them comes in three parts.

First, he says: “You don’t know what you are asking.” Their paradigm is not crucifixion. Do you think Mother Z would have asked to have James crucified on the right of Jesus, and John on the left? Obviously not. They had no real grasp of what was coming. They were looking for earthly glory, and soon. Jesus knew that nothing of the sort was in store for him, or for any of his followers. They had no idea what they were asking for.

Next, Jesus asks if they are able to drink the cup he is about to drink. I doubt this would have been clear to the Zebedee family. In the Passover celebration, four cups are shared by all those present: the cup of instruction, the cup of sanctification and blessing, the cup of instruction, the cup of redemption and the cup of thanksgiving. The cups represent Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption and Thanksgiving. None of these sound too bad. I’d be ready to drink of those cups.

But Jesus had another cup in mind: the cup of God’s wrath against sin:

6Exaltation does not come from the east, the west, or the desert,

7for God is the Judge: He brings down one and exalts another. 8

For there is a cup in the LORD’s hand,

full of wine blended with spices, and He pours from it.

All the wicked of the earth will drink, draining it to the dregs. (Ps 75:6-8, HCSB)

17Wake yourself, wake yourself up!

Stand up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk the cup of His fury

from the hand of the LORD;

you who have drunk the goblet to the dregs — the cup that causes people to stagger. (Isa 51:17, HCSB)

32This is what the Lord GOD says:

You will drink your sister’s cup, which is deep and wide.

You will be an object of ridicule and scorn, for it holds so much.

33You will be filled with drunkenness and grief,

with a cup of devastation and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria.

34You will drink it and drain it. (Ezek 23:32-34, HCSB)

This is the “cup” of which Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane:

42“Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me — nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42, HCSB)

James, John and Mother Z had no idea of this when they made their request. Again, it wasn’t their paradigm.

As it happened, of course, about ten years later, James was beheaded for preaching about Jesus. Many years after that, John was imprisoned. They did indeed drink the cup of suffering, but by the time their sufferings came, they understood that the Kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, and his glory is not usually here and now. They understood then that Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath that should have been directed against all humankind and our sin.

The third part of Jesus’ response to the Zebedee family came when the other ten apostles heard about the request. I’m sure an argument broke out along lines like these:

Andrew: “But I was the first one to follow him!”

Peter: “And I was next. Plus I’m the only one besides Jesus who ever walked on water.”

Philip: “Sure, boys, but I started following him the very next day after you guys, and I brought Nat the day after that.” (Nathaniel nods vigorously).

Thomas: “What kind of evidence do you boys have, to back up those claims?”

And so on…

Jesus settled them down, and said this:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. 26It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:25-28, HCSB)

He knows what James & John and Mrs. Z were after. But his kingdom has a completely different set of values and rules. This is perhaps one of the most counter-cultural teachings of Jesus, particularly in the world as it is today. When I was a kid, I remember reading about famous artists, thinkers, writer and composers and realizing that most of them were not well known until after they died. Their considerable achievements were only appreciated later. I think even just during my own lifetime, our culture has swung almost to the opposite end of the spectrum. We glorify and honor people while they are alive for achieving almost nothing. What have the Kardashians accomplished? What lasting positive contribution to society have they made? Even as soon as a few decades from now, people will wonder why they were famous, and possibly even look at it as a sign of the decline of Western civilization. I could name dozens of other examples. Even the actors and actresses we venerate – what have they done? They’ve made millions of dollars by pretending to be people who do important things. They look terrific because they won the genetic lottery, and in some cases, because they spend upwards of two hundred thousand dollars per year to look good. But why do we honor them?

Years ago (this will show my age) I was talking with a friend about the pop-star, Madonna. He said, “I know her message is awful, but you’ve got to admire her for doing it what it takes to sell records and become seriously famous.”

No, I don’t have to admire her for “doing what it takes.” Jesus says that’s not how the kingdom of God works. The world admires people who go out there and make things happen for themselves, who are bold and audacious. Sometimes it seems almost as if the world will believe anyone who says, “Look at me – I’m great!”

Even in the Christian culture, we have begun to focus on “Christian celebrities” as if they are somehow great in the kingdom of God. We give our admiration to Christian singers and certain Christian preachers as if they are great just because they are well known. Jesus says those people are nothing. The great ones are the humble servants.

In fact, if you want to be great in God’s kingdom, you probably won’t be well known in the world. Awhile back I bought a book called “Embracing Obscurity.” I haven’t finished it yet, but the reason I bought it is because of the author’s name: Anonymous. I don’t know who wrote the book. But I love the fact that she or he was willing to take these words of Jesus so seriously that it meant not allowing his or her name to be published.

See, that’s something important for us to remember. I always kind of romanticize being God’s servant leader. I imagine that, really, lots and lots of people are going to see what I humbly do for God’s kingdom, and recognize how great I am for being so humble.

Seriously, I am that bad. But I think we need to consider that when we are truly great in God’s kingdom, we truly will not be recognized for it. Even in the church, humble servants – which Jesus calls greatness in his kingdom – are not usually recognized as great. We can take comfort in this: our Father in Heaven sees, and is preparing our reward (Matt 6:1, 4, 8, 18).

In verses 29-33, Matthew describes the healing of two blind men near Jericho. When I first began to study this passage, verses 29-33 seemed almost like they were tacked on as an afterthought, as if Matthew thought, “Oh yeah, that’s when the blind men were healed.” And, though the gospel writers are sometimes not very concerned with the exact order of events, the healing of the blind men probably did take place on the way to Jerusalem. In order to avoid going through Samaritan territory, Jews traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem often traveled down the valley of the Jordan river to Jericho, and from there went up to Jerusalem. Since the blind men were healed outside Jericho, Matthew probably records it at this point because that’s when it happened.

But there is something else that connects the two stories, though it may not be obvious at first. Both incidents reveal how Jesus responded to specific requests from someone. In each case, the response was different, and I think perhaps we can learn something from these two incidents, taken together.

In both situations, Jesus said, “What do you want?” I think this should encourage us, when we pray, to ask the Father for what we really want. Even though he was not going to give Mother Z and her boys exactly what they asked for, he still encouraged them to ask. And it does not seem like he was upset over their thick-headedness. He had every right to be. He had just finished saying he was going up to Jerusalem to die, to give his life for others, and here they come, requesting glory for themselves when he claims the crown. They were impossibly obtuse and thickheaded. There are other times in Matthew (and the other gospels) when Jesus says something like: “You of little faith,” or “Why are you so slow to understand?” But not here. He welcomes their request, even though it is misguided. The request eventually results in a conversation that was very important.

Outside of Jericho, the blind men make a ruckus, and Jesus says the same thing to them that he did to Mother Z: “What do you want?” I’m not sure what to make of this. I should think it was obvious what they wanted. But for some reason, Jesus was inviting them to ask specifically for what they wanted.

Sometimes this might be a little harder than you realize at first. If we say a kind of general prayer about something, we can hedge against disappointment. We can pretend that we just wanted God involved in some way; we don’t have to admit what is really going on with us. But put yourself in the shoes of the blind men. They have really had no hope for anything to change in their lives. But now, by inviting them to ask, Jesus is inviting them to hope, and when we hope there is always the possibility we will be disappointed. Jesus is asking them to take that risk, the risk of trust.

They take the risk, and tell him specifically what they want. This time, as opposed to the incident with Mother Z and the boys, he simply and directly answers their request. Matthew records that not only were they healed, but they began to follow Jesus. I think we can assume that these two were probably among the 120 Jesus followers who were still together after the crucifixion.

All of this encourages us, I think, to be direct and specific with the Lord in prayer. Ask for what you really want – take the risk that praying in this way involves; the risk of trust and hope.

In the case of James & John and Mother Z, they didn’t get exactly what they were asking for. In fact, they didn’t even know what they were asking. Sometimes, I think I am like that. I ask for something, and actually, I don’t really have any idea what all it might involve. This incident shows me that I can trust Jesus not to give me what I ask for, if I’m asking for the wrong thing. It also shows me I can trust him to use my prayers, even so, perhaps to help me learn something.

But I am also encouraged to take that specific risk of trust, to ask for what I want, to admit I want it, and can’t get it for myself. I am inspired to risk hope. When what I want is good and right, Jesus may answer me like he did the blind men, and simply and directly do what I have been hoping, even if it seems impossible.

Let’s pause now in prayer, and allow this text to continue to speak to us. Is there some way in which you need to allow the Lord to challenge your paradigm? Are you thinking of things the way the world does, or the way the kingdom of God works?

Is there something that Jesus is inviting you to ask of him? He doesn’t promise to automatically do what you want, but even when he doesn’t, he can make the asking productive. Is inviting you into the risk of hope and trust?


toddler wide eyed


Only those who abandon control and learn to trust can truly let Jesus give them his grace. To the extent you do not trust, you cannot receive.

There is something else we need to get from all this. Jesus’ main point to his disciples about being great is that great Christians don’t look like “great Christians.”


To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 61



Matthew #61. Matthew 18:1-14

Thanks for making use of Clear Bible. We’ll be talking this time about true greatness, and the willingness to give up whatever we need to in order to enter the life that Jesus offers us. Before we get into all that, however, I’d like to remind you that we deeply appreciate your prayers for this ministry. Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive everything we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. Click on the “Donate” at the top of the page for more information about how to give. But if the Lord doesn’t want you to give financially to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances and the ministry as a whole.

Now, on to the main message.

This teaching of Jesus begins, as so many of his teaching do, with the disciples messing up. That’s a happy thought for me. I think when I mess up that I have, well, you know, messed things up. But Jesus sees the mistakes of his followers as opportunities to help them grow.

In this case, their way of messing up was to seek greatness for themselves. It is just possible that Matthew was slightly ashamed of this incident: he merely records that the disciples raised the issue with Jesus. Mark and Luke both record that in fact, the disciples were arguing about it while away from the presence Jesus, and Jesus, finding out, spoke with them.

It is also encouraging to see how gentle Jesus is with them in this particular instance. He brings a child into their midst, and says basically, “turn from your ambitions and become like this child.”

Now, like any of Jesus’ parables or analogies, he has just a few main points in mind. If you can remember your own childhood, or if you can remember being the parent of young children, you know that children come with their own sets of issues. They can be selfish, angry, easily upset, stubborn, rebellious and so on. But Jesus didn’t mean that his followers should become like children in every possible way. Other places in the New Testament tell Jesus-followers not to be like children – at least not in our thinking:

Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. Ephesians 4:14 (HCSB)

I think probably Jesus had three or four characteristics of children in mind. First, I believe, is humility. A young child does not usually have ambitions to rule the world, or to be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Particularly in the presence of adults, a child knows his limitations and accepts them humbly. Jesus is telling these men who are jockeying for position in the kingdom of heaven: “Forget all that. Instead, be humble, like a child.” In fact, he mentions humility specifically in verse 4. Psalm 131 portrays this childlike humility:

1LORD, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I do not get involved with things too great or too difficult for me.2Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself like a little weaned child with its mother; I am like a little child.3Israel, put your hope in the LORD, both now and forever. (Ps 131:1-3, HCSB)

Another characteristic of children that Jesus might have had in mind is innocence. I don’t mean children don’t sin – obviously, they do. But they usually haven’t been exposed to the full depth of evil in the world. So Paul writes:

Brothers, don’t be childish in your thinking, but be infants in regard to evil and adult in your thinking. 1 Corinthians 14:20 (HCSB)

A third possibility that Jesus might have meant us to understand is that a child’s main job is to learn. A child has not mastered any subject, but humbly learns from others, and in fact, at least until we ruin it with school, most children are naturally inclined to learn. Peter puts it this way:

Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk, so that you may grow by it for your salvation, 1 Peter 2:2 (HCSB)

So, the followers of Jesus should regard themselves as learners.

Finally, I think one thing Jesus definitely meant by “become like children” was to learn to trust. Children know how to trust – they have to. Unless a child has been very unfortunate, trusting is the one thing that very young children are better at than anyone else. They are dependent upon adults for their entire survival. I think this is precisely what Jesus means when he says, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Only those who abandon control and learn to trust can truly let Jesus give them his grace. To the extent you do not trust, you cannot receive. Psalm 131(quoted above) connects childlike humility to trust.

There is something very important we need to get from all this. Jesus’ main point to his disciples about being great is that great Christians don’t look like “great Christians.” I don’t mean they look like bad Christians, but what Jesus does mean is that He judges greatness based upon entirely different criteria than the world.

I think this is very relevant. We live in a culture that is obsessed with celebrity. The world reveres people who have managed to become famous, no matter how they achieved it. A large number of famous people today, regardless of their notoriety, have achieved almost nothing worthwhile. Think about it: the people we most admire and talk about either play games for a living (athletes), or pretend to be other people for a living (actors). Their lasting contributions to the human race are almost worthless. It would be hard to argue that the world will be a better place one-hundred years from now because of Leonardo DiCaprio or Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Anniston.

It’s almost impossible to over-emphasize how backwards our culture’s view of greatness has become. Recently Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner won an award for courage. What did he to do to merit the award? Rather than face his own brokenness with the courage to pursue healing, instead of learning to accept himself how he was, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to physically change the body he was born with, all the while knowing that the media would be eager to praise him for it. That’s not courage. That’s not greatness – but we have called it such.

Unfortunately, many Christians have bought into society’s model for greatness. We don’t necessarily honor the same people as great, but we honor “Christian Celebrities” as great, and often they have done just as little or less than secular celebrities. We merely replace the Kardashians with the Robertsons (of Duck Dynasty fame). Or instead of admiring One Direction, we admire Hillsong (or, more probably, both). In fact, recently I saw an ad for a movie about the success and fame of the musicians at Hillsong. It looked like any other movie about a bunch of celebrities; these just happen to be Christian ones.

You know what I am talking about. You know that the Christian celebrity culture is alive and well. Chris Tomlin and Matt Redmond are celebrity worship leaders. Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer are celebrity preachers. David Platt is a celebrity author. Christian culture in America thrives on this stuff, because “Christian culture” is not very different from secular culture in how it judges greatness.

But Jesus said, “this is not how greatness looks in the kingdom of heaven.” In heaven, greatness looks like a child: humble, willing to learn, not caught up in the entanglements of what the world has to offer, and above all, trusting the Lord for everything. I doubt we will know who the real celebrities in God’s kingdom are until we are resurrected in the new heavens and new earth. If we could somehow see it truly, I think we would be surprised at who the great ones are in our present generation. I doubt it is anyone we have heard about from our Christian Celebrity culture.

I am not judging the ministries of the people I have named. I am merely saying that even we Christians have lost sight of how Jesus defines true greatness.

After this, Jesus turns the conversation slightly. He was telling the disciples to be like children, and now he goes on to talk about “little ones.” I think Jesus is probably referring both to actual children, and also to those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven like a child.

First he warns against causing the downfall of one of the little ones. I have said before that all sins are equal in that no matter what sin we commit, it separates us from God. However, not all sins have the same earthly consequences. Jesus now says something that is as close as he ever gets to “There is a special place in hell for sinners like that.”

6 “But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me — it would be better for him if a heavy millstone4 were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea!

It seems that when someone corrupts a child, or a naïve disciple, this makes Jesus especially angry. People are going to sin, but if you are the one who leads another person into sin, you have done something particularly contemptible. That sin – corrupting others, seducing them into sin – can be forgiven, of course. It isn’t the unforgiveable sin. If you think you have done this, repent now, quit corrupting others and trust that Jesus has forgiven and changed you. If not, you’d be better off swimming with the giant stone necklace than facing the wrath of Jesus.

Next, Jesus reiterates something he said earlier in his ministry, during the sermon on the mount:

8 If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire!

I think there are two helpful thoughts here. First, sin is serious. Jesus isn’t messing around here. Sin is the cancer of the soul. If your foot has cancer in it, you have an operation to get the cancer removed. If you can’t remove the cancer without amputating, you amputate, because otherwise the cancer will spread, and your whole body will eventually die. When dealing with cancer, we understand, this is life or death. We do what is necessary to get rid of the cancer, including removing major body parts.

Jesus is telling us that sin is just as serious as cancer. If alcohol is causing you to sin, quit drinking. If watching certain TV shows or movies is getting your head into a bad place, quit watching. If friends are influencing you to sin, maybe you aren’t strong enough to keep those friendships at this time. I don’t mean you should never have non-Christian friends. But I do mean that if it becomes a choice between following Jesus faithfully, or having a certain person in your life, you would be better off to choose Jesus. Jesus is telling us that this is serious business. Do what it takes to keep on following him.

There is a second piece to what Jesus is saying here. He says: “It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.” The eternal fire is the serious, scary thing. But there is a serious, good thing too: Life. The promise is that we can indeed enter life. There is something good up ahead – a life waiting for us. This life now is temporary. What’s ahead is the real thing.

Would you give up a thousand dollars right now if you knew it would get you a million dollars when you retire? Of course. A temporary sacrifice is worth a long-term reward.

So, what if you’re never allowed to get drunk and party again in this temporary life – the life is coming that will be better than any party you’ve been to, and you can enjoy it fully without the aid of alcohol, and remember the whole thing clearly, too.

Is it worth giving up a few temporary pleasures (which don’t bring lasting fulfilment anyway) in order to enter eternal life? The answer should be obvious.

There’s an old song written by Rich Mullins, that wasn’t well known, called Heaven is waiting. Perhaps fittingly considering the message today, it is one of his least-known songs, and was only ever recorded once. I strongly encourage you to go listen to the song, and reflect on all these things as you do. Unfortunately the best recording I could find was here, and there is a little bit of distortion; even so, it’s a great song:

Heaven is Waiting (You Tube Music Video)


By Rich Mullins and Mitch McVicker

“I don’t need no woman to kiss me
And I don’t need no man to stand by my side
I don’t need to slake my thirst with whiskey
Don’t need to shuffle cards to pass the time
‘Cause the stars are bright and silvery
And with the dry ache of a lone coyote’s whine
My Savior’s calling and I’m listening
Time to saddle up my pony and ride
‘Cause heaven is waiting
Just past the horizon
Just over the mesas
Across the great divide
And faith is blazing
This trail that I ride on up this mountain
I’m prayin’ I have the strength to climb
I ain’t looking for no seven golden cities
But I know there’s a fortune somewhere to find
There’s a peace that I hear whisperin’ through the
And a love that’s taller than the ponderosa pines
And heaven is waiting
Just past the horizon
Just over the mesas
Across the great divide
And faith is blazing
This trail that I ride on up this mountain
I’m prayin’ I have the strength to climb
So don’t ask for no lengthy explanation
When there ain’t no reason quite wild enough
No words could be as tender
It’s greater than the fears that we imagine
More than the warmth that we remember
It’s always just beyond the pass
And I must go
‘Cause heaven is waiting
Just past the horizon
Just over the mesas
Across the great divide
And faith is blazing
This trail that I ride on up this mountain
I’m prayin’ I have the strength to climb
Oh heaven is waiting
Oh heaven is waiting
Heaven is waiting”