The audio recording of this sermon is not curently available.

1. Know what you are seeking (verses 20-22a).
2. Be willing to suffer (verses 22b-24).
3. Refuse worldly methods (verse 25).
4. Be a servant and a slave (verses 26-27).
5. Follow the example of Jesus (verse 28).

The title of my message this morning is "How to be Great in the Kingdom." This is actually the second time within Matthew that I have preached a sermon with this title. And so, I'm adding a "... Revisited" to the end of my sermon title. The first time was only four months ago when we were in Matthew 18. In that chapter, Jesus' disciples came to Him and asked, "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Matt. 18:1). Jesus placed a child before them and said, "Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:4). The key thought that Jesus was communicating was that the greatest in the kingdom is the one who is humble.

In our text today, the situation is a bit different than came about in Matthew 18, but the outcome in similar, and the principle is the same. Jesus said in verse 26, "whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant." The key thought here is that the greatest in the kingdom is the one who is the humble servant. In other words, the way to be great in the kingdom of heaven is to be low here on earth. The way up in the kingdom is actually down. The path to greatness is servanthood. Borrowing the words of verse 16 of Matthew 20, to be first, you need to be last.

For some reason or another, the disciples didn't quite get it the first time back in Matthew 18, so Jesus repeats His teaching. And we will repeat it as well. [1] I trust that this message will be good for us as well. We are certainly like the disciples and need another reminder of how to be Great in the Kingdom of Heaven. I've pulled five things out of our text this morning.

1. Know what you are seeking (verses 20-22a).

This story begins in verse 20, "Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, bowing down, and making a request of Him." If you do a bit of study in the other gospel writers, you will quickly discover that the names of the sons of Zebedee are James and John (Mark 10:35), and the name of their mother is Salome (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40). She came to Jesus much like you approach a king: in a submissive posture, and seeking a favor. It's good that she came in such humility as a beggar, because her request was huge. In verse 21, we read, "He said to her, 'What do you wish?' She said to Him, 'Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.'" This would be a great honor for anyone. Those who sit to the left and right of the king are his closest counselors, subordinate only to the king himself.

This mother had great desires for her two sons to rule and reign in Messiah's kingdom. But it wasn't just Salome who thought this. She didn't act independently of her sons. Nor were her sons far off when this request was made. In verse 20, we discover that her sons were "with her" when she made the request. Furthermore, in verse 22, Jesus turns to question James and John directly. So, them must have all been there together when this request was made. In Mark's account of this same story, we are told that that James and John were the ones who made this request of Jesus. Certainly they all had discussed the situation among themselves and finally gathered up the courage to ask Jesus all together.

In some sense, their request wasn't so unwarranted. Back in Matthew 19:28, Jesus had already promised His disciples a prominent position of authority, "Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." That sounds to me to be pretty high in the kingdom. James and John and Salome were simply requesting the best thrones in the kingdom. It's like they were seeking an upgrade from coach to first class. They were seeking an upgrade from upper deck seats to box seats. And yet, Jesus gave them a little bit of a rebuke in verse 22, "Jesus answered and said, 'You do not know what you are asking for.'"

As I have reflected upon this text this week, I don't think that desire to be great in the kingdom of heaven is wrong. Jesus has taught us very clearly to seek great things in the kingdom. Jesus told us to forsake our life here upon the earth, that we might find it again in heaven. Rather than collecting up riches here upon the earth, "where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal," Jesus instructs us to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal" (Matt. 6:19, 20). He told us to seek riches in heaven. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions, Jesus promised him "treasure in heaven" (Matt. 19:21). In the parable of the nobleman, Jesus rewards those who are faithful in little things with authority over ten cities (Luke 19:17). So, I don't think that the desire to be great in the kingdom of heaven is wrong. In fact, if you look closely, Jesus never rebukes James and John for seeking greatness in the kingdom.

Let me ask you. Do you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? When eternity dawns, and you consider where you will spend your eternal destiny, do you want to be in a place of prominence? Do you want great treasure in heaven? Do you want great reward in heaven? I believe that everyone of us should desire greatness in the kingdom, because the greater your position in heaven, the greater the glory that Jesus will receive. But you need to know what that entails.

The problem with these disciples (as is often the problem with us) is that they didn't know what they were seeking. The disciples were seeking for greatness in the wrong way. They wanted the glory, without counting the cost. They wanted the authority without paying the price. In some ways, it's a bit like a child wanting to become the president of the United States. It may look glamorous and powerful and fun. But actually it is a very time consuming, difficult job. The hours are long, you are always on call, and everyone always wants a bit of your time. And the work is perhaps the most stressful of any job in the world. Have you ever noticed what presidents look like when they enter office and compare that to when they leave? Many of them appear to age twenty-five years! It's no wonder in light of the incredible stress they experience. The president has people who want to kill him and entire countries who hate him. He will be slandered in the press, every decision he make will create new enemies. He controls the fate of millions. Plus, he have no private life. There is no escape from the press; every slip of the tongue will be broadcast across the world. These are just some of the difficulties with being president of the United States. I would contend that most who say that they would like to be president of the United States have no clue in understanding what that actually means. In some ways, it is a bit like being a doctor. Sure, it sounds glamorous. But few are ready and willing to make the tremendous sacrifice of time and effort that it takes to be a doctor. Few are willing to undergo the years of study, the responsibility of the work, and the demands upon your time.

I believe that this was the cases with James and John. It's not that their desire to be great in the kingdom was wrong, any more than desiring to be the president or being a doctor. It's that they didn't know what it would mean for them to sit on the right and the left of Jesus in the kingdom. That's where Jesus rebuked them: "You do not know what you are asking for" (verse 22a). So, Jesus seeks to give them a little lesson in how to be great in the kingdom, which leads us to our next point. If you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven...

2. Be willing to suffer (verses 22b-24).

Jesus said to James and John, "Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" (verse 22b). The language that Jesus uses here is a bit cryptic, but for these disciples who knew the Old Testament fairly well, it shouldn't have been too difficult. The Old Testament often uses the word, "cup" to describe judgment. Consider Psalm 75:8, "A cup is in the hand of the LORD, and the wine foams; It is well mixed, and He pours out of this; Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs." Isaiah 51:17 describes the cup as "the cup of His anger." Some texts add the phrase, "Are you able ... to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" It's talking about the same thing: the sufferings that Jesus anticipated in verses 17-19.

To some extent, I believe that James and John understood that Jesus was referring to some of the difficulties that would come upon Him. However, I don't think that they fully understood what Jesus had just told them in verses 18 and 19. Jesus had just told them that He would die in Jerusalem. And then, He said, "Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" In other words, "Are you able to die as well?" They answered Jesus with incredible quickness, saying, "We are able." When you are asked whether you are willing to die for someone, it's usually not an answer that can be answered so quickly. Perhaps they were like the child who comes to their father, request to get a dog. And dad says, "Well, do you promise that you will take care of it?" "Of course I will!" "Will you feed it and take it for walks?" "Of course I will!" "Will you clean its messes?" "Of course I will!" It doesn't really matter what question dad asks, the answer will certainly be, "Yes! I'll do that!" It's because the child wants a dog so badly that any concessions will willingly be made. And yet, what actually happens when the dog comes? After a few weeks or months, the novelty wears off and the child quickly realizes that the promises made are a lot more difficult to keep than originally thought. ... And mom ends up caring for the dog. This is what James and John were like, "Yes! We'll do that!"

Perhaps they were like Peter, when Jesus told His disciples, "You will all fall away become of Me this night" (Mat. 26:31). Peter quickly said, "Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away" (Matt. 26:33). Jesus told him that "before a cock crows, you shall deny Me three times" (Matt. 26:34). Peter still insisted, "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You" (Matt. 26:35). And yet, you know what happened, Peter denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted (Matt. 26:75). Perhaps James and John were worked up like this, ready and willing to agree to anything to get those precious seats on the right and on the left.

In verse 23, Jesus said to them, "My cup you shall drink;" And drink it, they did. James became one of the early martyrs in the Christian church. Under the direction of Herod Agrippa, James was arrested and put to death. You can read the story in Acts 12:1-2. John suffered greatly for His Lord. Rather than being martyred for his faith, John was exiled to the island of Patmos, which was frequently used by the Romans to punish criminals. Patmos is a bit like Siberia was to the Russians, or Alcatraz to us Americans. It was hardly an attractive place to be, with its rocky ground and hot temperatures. James and John drank from His cup.

We don't know if they ever received the seats that they requested. Perhaps some day, when we enter into glory, we will know. If you able to get your eyes of the wonder and splendor of Jesus upon His throne, by looking slightly to the left or to the right, you should be able to see who it is that sits at Jesus' right and who sits at Jesus' left. We know that somebody is there. For Jesus said, "to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father" (verse 23). The idea here is that God has prepared a special place for those who will sit at Jesus' right and left. But Jesus can't bestow this honor. It is only God, the Father's to give. We don't know who it is going to be on Jesus' left and right. But it appears as if God has already chosen those who will sit there some day.

The key thing to see here is that they were willing to suffer. And Jesus let them suffer. In Acts 5, the story is told of the apostles who were told not to continue teaching in the name of Jesus anymore. They were arrested and brought before the Council to explain their actions. Peter and the apostles answered them saying, "We must obey God, rather than men" (Acts 5:29) and preach. Before they were released, they were flogged. Luke records for us, "So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name" (Acts 5:40). Suffering is the lot of every Christian. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:29, "to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake."

Suffering can come from outside of the church. It can come from inside the church as well. We see this in verse 24, "And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers." They weren't pleased at all with what James and John had done. I've heard many people say that it's because the other ten didn't think of it first. It's probably the case. They were upset that James and John had done this, because they wanted the chief seats. The disciples were always trying to be the greatest disciple. On one occasion when Jesus was gone, they talked about which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:34). Here, James and John tried to be assigned the position of the greatest. Just after they celebrated the last supper with Jesus, "there arose a dispute among them as to which one of them was to be greatest" (Luke 22:24). It was like a big contest among them, and it caused great friction. I'm sure that when one of the disciples began to rise in prominence, the other disciples became jealous and angry, and sought to bring them low. In the business world, this is called Gresham's Law of Conflict. The principle is that those who rise in prominence for doing a good job are shot down by the crowd of mediocrity. It's not so different in the church. For every leader that arises, there are others who grumble and complain that they aren't the ones chosen to lead. Such is the price of leadership. Leaders face battles from the outside and the inside.

If you wish to be great in the kingdom of heaven, you need to (1) know what you are seeking; (2) be willing to suffer, and ...

3. Refuse worldly methods (verse 25).

This comes in verse 25, "Jesus called them to Himself, and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.'" When the battle started to rage among the disciples, Jesus stepped in and sought to give them a proper perspective. He was a bit like a referee in a boxing match, attempting to separate the fighters. Jesus tells His disciples, "Don't do things like the world does." The world grabs positions of authority and then exerts their full authority. There are many times when a person seek leadership to accomplish his own personal goals. People want positions of authority because of the benefits that it will bring to themselves: recognition, social status, promotion, financial benefits, vacation perks, feelings of superiority, or being able to accomplishing their own agenda. In high school, I remember some of my classmates seeking to be leaders in student council or other activities, so that they could write it on their college entrance application. I remember a college friend of my who did a similar thing. He wanted to be president of a particular group, so that he could be able to write it down on his application for medical school. A business man will jump from company to company, attempting to climb the corporate ladder. He concerns himself little with those around him. His only concern is to get to the top. In general, those who lead, lead for their own good. There are many examples of this taking place in the Bible. Let me give you a few.

Shortly after the death of Solomon, Rehoboam, his son, assumed leadership as king of Israel. The people came to him and made a request of him. They said, "Your father made our yoke hard; now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke which he put on us, and we will serve you" (1 Kings 12:4). After seeking counsel from others over several days' time, Rehoboam decided not to grant their request. Rather, he said, "My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions" (1 Kings 12:14). The indictment comes in 1 Kings 12:15, "So the king did not listen to the people." Rehoboam wasn't in leadership for the people. He was in authority for his own good. And so he increased their load. As a result, the kingdom split in half. That's worldly leadership.

Another example comes with the leadership of Jeroboam. When Jeroboam took over leadership of the northern ten tribes, he did the same thing. He said to himself, "If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam, king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah" (1 Kings 12:27). And so, he made two golden calves for the people to worship. He placed one in Dan (in the north). He placed the other in Bethel (in the south). He established a new priesthood (1 Kings 12:31). He instituted new feasts, which would be celebrated instead of those that the LORD had commanded (1 Kings 12:32). He did all of this evil to the people, lest they return to Jerusalem, and remember their God. For, when they remember their God, it would mean the end of his life, as the people would revolt. He was in it for himself. He led in such a way as to protect himself.

The shepherds of Israel were in it for themselves. Ezekiel 34:2-4 contain the LORD's indictment against them.

Ezekiel 34:2-4
"Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them."

God says a bit later, "Behold, I am against the shepherds" (verse 10). But Jesus says that true greatness ought not to be this way. If you wish to be great in the kingdom of heaven, you need to refuse worldly methods and ...

4. Be a servant and a slave (verses 26-27).

In many ways, verses 26 and 27 are the core teachings of Jesus on greatness. "It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave." In other words, the path to greatness isn't looking out for number 1. The path to greatness is looking out for others. I want for you to think about a servant. A servant isn't supposed to look out for his own needs. A servant is supposed to look after the needs of his master. Servants cook the food for their masters. Servants clean the house for their masters. Servants wash the clothes for their masters. Servants plow the fields for their masters. Servants pick the weeds for their masters. Jesus says that you ought to be a servant to others. You ought to be looking out for the interests of others, as if they were your masters.

And so, I ask you, "Are you a servant?" What about in your home? Do you like to sit in your chair and be waited upon by others? Or, you like to seat others in their chair and help them with whatever they need? Perhaps the greatest test is this: If you asked your spouse, would he (or she) say that you are a servant in the home? What about in your workplace? Do you like to tell everyone else what to do? Or, do you help others as much as is possible? If I were to go to your workplace and ask your boss, "Is so-and-so a servant?" What would be the response? What about in this church? When you come here each Sunday, what sort of attitude to you have toward other people? Do you look around, seeking those whom you can serve? Or are you seeking to leave this place feeling as if you have been served?

I remember being confronted with my own selfishness one time years ago, before I was married. I was involved in a Christian college group of several hundred students. On one particular occasion, we had a huge, dress-up banquet. We all dressed up in our finest. We were served a nice meal. There was probably some type of speaker. I think that there was a talent show for entertainment. But all of those things are pretty fuzzy in my mind. What I remember is the conversation that I had with those who sat at my table. On my right and on my left were perhaps the most introverted people in the whole college group. Conversation with them was very difficult. I remember trying to ask them questions, and receiving one word answers. I tried bringing up subject of which they might be interested in speaking about, but it was a bit like speaking to a brick wall all evening. I remember leaving that banquet empty, frustrated, and depressed. As I thought about why this was the case, I quickly discovered that much of my perspective was turned toward myself. I like to be in a group of people that will be interested in me! I like to be in a situation where I am served by others. But this particular night, this was not the case. I went away despondent, because I was forced to be the servant all evening long, without any returned favors. It taught me quite a bit about myself and how self-focussed I was (and still am). But, the servant is to be satisfied in such situations.

In your conversations with other people, are you attempting to encourage and build up? Or, are you attempting to tell others all about yourself? I remember when I was in seminary, one of my professors warned us seminary students about all of the knowledge that we were getting in our classes. Paul writes in Corinthians 8:1, "knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies." He told us to view every conversation in light of what we can learn from it, rather than what we can teach others in it. The advice was good and I haven't ever forgotten it. So, in your conversations, are you attempting to teach? Or are you attempting to learn? Are you going to talk about yourself? Or, will you attempt to find out about how others are doing.

When you come to church, do you look to meet and serve others? Or, do you simply want to talk to those whom you know? There are times on Sunday mornings when I see people standing around, not talking to anybody, looking a bit lost, and my heart breaks, because I long that others would see this and reach out and talk with them and love them and care for them. A servant doesn't look out for his own interest, but for the interests of others (Phil 2:4). A servant loves his neighbor as himself (Matt. 22:39). This is humility. This is love. This is greatness in the kingdom.

Lest you think that I have gone a bit too far in the application of what it means to be a servant, look at what Jesus says in verse 27, "and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave." Verse 27 is a repeat of verse 26. This means that Jesus is really emphasizing this point. But, in verse 27, Jesus goes from a servant to a slave. With this change, Jesus is increasing your obligation to be focussed on others. You might think of a servant as one who performs his duty in return for a wage. But the slave is the one who performs his duty in return for nothing, because his master owns him. He is not free to do anything else. He is obligated to serve his master. He must do this twenty-four hours each day, three hundred and sixty-five days per year. Jesus tells a story about slaves in Luke 17. He says:

Luke 17:7-9
Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, "Come immediately and sit down to eat"? But will he not say to him, "Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk; and afterward you will eat and drink"? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he?

This is a slave. He has duties to do. He has to care for the fields. He has to care for the animals. And after a long day of work, he has to come in and prepare the meal for the master. Only after the master has been fed can the slave feed himself. He never even gets a thank you. Jesus says in Luke 17:10, "So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'" All of us are servants and slaves. This is the call of Christ upon our lives. These exhortations that I have given to you to serve others in your house, at your work, and in this church, are actually your obligation, as a follower of Jesus Christ. These things aren't optional. One last thing, ...

5. Follow the example of Jesus (verse 28).

This comes from verse 28, "just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Of anyone who ever walked the planet, Jesus Christ was most worthy of honor. When He walked among us, He should have been worshiped and adored by all. And yet, He wasn't. Do you know why?

1. Our sinful hearts refused to bow the knee to Him.
2. He wanted to provide us with an example for us to follow.

On only two occasions, the Scriptures speak about Jesus leaving an example for us. The first comes in John 13, where Jesus modeled how we ought to serve. When all of His disciples refused to wash each other's feet, Jesus "poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded" (John 13:5). He said, "I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you" (John 13:15). He modeled humble service. The second occasion comes in 1 Peter 2:21, where we read that "you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps." We are to be servants like Jesus was. We are to suffer like Jesus did. We ought to do these things willingly. Will you follow your Lord in these things? Will you serve and suffer?

My thoughts are drawn to the example of my father. He frequently repeated to us in our home, "I will never tell you to do anything that I have not done first or am willing to do." It was true. There was never anything in our home for which dad was above doing. He was always willing to help and serve. This is true of Jesus. When Jesus calls us to serve, He first put forth Himself as the supreme example for us all to follow. Now certainly, we can't follow in His steps when it comes to atoning for sin, as the last part of this verse speaks about (i.e. "to give His life a ransom for many."). But we can follow in His steps of humility. Philippians 2 spells this out for us.

Philippians 2:6-9
...although [Jesus] existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.

The descent of His humility corresponded exactly with the extent of his exaltation. He went down further than anyone has. He went from exaltation with God to being regarded as scum on the earth. And so, He also was placed higher than anyone else ever will be placed. At the beginning of this text we are told, to "have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5). The descent of your humility will correspond to the extent of your exaltation in the kingdom.

I want to close with the example of William Grimshaw, who was a pastor in England in the 1700's. He once had a friend come and spend the night at his house. Grimshaw welcomed this man in and showed him where he would stay. In the morning, as his friend looked out the window, he was shocked to see Grimshaw washing his friend's muddy boots. Upon coming down the stairs, he discovered that Grimshaw had slept in the hay-loft, while his friend slept in Grimshaw's quarters. [2] Those are little things that are indicative of a humble lifestyle to which Jesus calls us to live.

Do you want to be great in the kingdom? Know what you are seeking (verses 20-22a); be willing to suffer (verses 22b-24); refuse worldly methods (verse 25); be a servant and a slave (verses 26-27); and follow the example of Jesus (verse 28).


This sermon was delivered to Rock Valley Bible Church on September 19, 2004 by Steve Brandon.
For more information see

[1] This passage is yet another example of the value of continuous exposition of the Scripture. Those teachings which are most important are those teachings that are repeated often in the Bible. And, the teachings that are repeated often will be repeated often from this pulpit as we continue through the Bible verse by verse.

[2] The story is found in J. C. Ryle's book, "Christian Leaders of the 18th Century," on page 142.