The Cross of Christ and the Root of All Service, Matthew 20:20-28

Friends, here is part three of what was a planned four week series of sermons on Servanthood in the Church. This sermon comes from Matthew 20:20-28. It discusses the seeming absurdity of what Jesus calls us to as Christians: Serving for nothing else but the glory of God. Jesus models this in His own life, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.” –jerry PS–All Scripture references in this message are from the ASV.

The Cross of Christ and the Root of All Service or The Imitation of Christ
Matthew 20:20-28
Spiritual Disciplines 1.3


Our Father,

You created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. You created the sky and the seas and all that is in them. We thank you O God for blessing upon blessing that you have released upon us in and through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sovereign Lord, the world has risen up against you in all their fury. But You, O Lord, sit enthroned in heaven—you scoff at the petty and meaningless rattling of the sabers of men.

Holy God, it is because of your providence that we live and move and have our being. It is because you send the rain and the snow on the righteous and the unrighteous alike that we can continue enjoying the blessings you also send.

You are righteous in all your judgments, perfect in all your ways, you are just in all your decisions. What is left for us to do but surrender to your will, to cry out for mercy, to serve you with gladness, joy, and humility. We, the Body of Christ, your saints, your saved ones, surrender ourselves to the scrutiny and judgment of your Word.

May you be exalted and glorified in all that we say and do here this day. Amen.


Matthew 20:20-28 Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, worshipping and asking a certain thing of him. (21)And he said unto her, What wouldest thou? She saith unto him, Command that these my two sons may sit, one on thy right hand, and one on thy left hand, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink? They say unto him, We are able. He saith unto them, My cup indeed ye shall drink: but to sit on my right hand, and on myleft hand, is not mine to give; but for whom it hath been prepared of my Father. And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation concerning the two brethren. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

“There were thirteen men in an upper room—how many servants and how many Lords? ‘One Lord and twelve servants’ sounds like the right answer, but is it? The truth is, there were twelve lords and one Servant! Only one man in the room knew anything about service.”—Jim McQuiggan, God of the Towel, 127


I can probably think of more jobs I would rather not do than do. I would probably rather not be a preacher. I know how that sounds, but it doesn’t sound quite like it is meant. Preaching is the easy part, and I have consistently said through the years that I love preaching and teaching, but all the other stuff gets in the way.

I have to confess that lately church has been getting in the way of service. Lately, church has been getting in the way of ministry, of faith, of Christianity. What James and John found so easy in this episode I understand well. Don’t you?

Jesus said, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

And James and John confidently answered, “We can.”

Who of us would have answered differently? Frankly, you have to admit, it is a lot easier to think of going down in a blaze of glory than it is to imagine laboring away for many, many years and seeing no real achievement or accomplishment. Serving in obscurity is a lot more difficult than dying for a cause.

Then Jesus confirms for them, “You will drink the cup I will drink. But you won’t get out of it what you want.”

Jesus turns this whole ‘dying for a cause’ thing upside down. Thus I suppose it is a lot more difficult to die for a cause when you won’t get out of it what you want than it is to die for a cause and get everything you want. James and John wanted fame, power, the right and the left. Jesus said they would drink the cup and still remain in relative obscurity.

In other words, their death’s wouldn’t gain them anything in Jesus’ Name.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think James and John were sincere. This is why Matthew tells us, “When the other disciples heard…they were indignant.” I read this like, “They were jealous that they hadn’t thought of it first.”

This just leads me to think that the opening quote is correct: there were 12 lords, and one servant.

And so Jesus says that their lives are not to be conducted like that of the ‘gentiles.’ Jesus said that if they wanted to achieve the sort of power and fame and ambition they were seeking by sitting at his right and left then were going to have to do things that did not involve his right and left, did not involve even drinking the cup that Jesus was drinking.

So I don’t think Jesus is saying anything like, ‘Don’t have ambition,’ or ‘Don’t seek greatness.’ No on the contrary, Jesus has no problem with his people seeking greatness or having ambition. He says as much doesn’t he, “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.”

Nothing wrong with ambition. Nothing wrong with greatness. Nothing wrong with wanting to be noticed. But the way to go about getting noticed is to get unnoticed, to get hidden, to be least. If you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to be the master, you must be the slave. But even within this I sense that Jesus is not saying, “Seek greatness by being least.” It’s not like we are to use selflessness merely as a means to an end.

No I sense in his statements here not ambition, but simply the humility of a life that is so consumed with care and compassion and justice for others that it matters little if anything at all what place we come in or how great of a name we end up having for ourselves. We don’t serve so that when we are dead and gone people will continue to serve in our name or continue to revere our name or continue to honor our name or ever start doing those sorts of things.

We serve with only one ambition and that is the ambition of Christ. There is not a more backward way of looking at things that I can imagine. And how does Scripture, let alone simply preachers like me, convince people in this generation, in this culture, in this country—born and bred as we are on the standard of ‘get all I can while I can get it’—that the way to first is by the last, the way to great is by the way to least, the way to ambition is through an ambitionless service to the least of all people’s on this planet—many of whom, more often than not, will take advantage of your kindness and generosity, and continue to sap your strength until you have nothing more to give?

How, just how does that work in our culture? And what sort of God demands such impossibilities from people like you and me who are the very ones who want to ‘get all we can while we can get it’? And how do you suppose that this God who demands such things is going to convince us?


So Jesus says, in order to demonstrate his justification for demanding such an attitude from us, the following, “Just as the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”


Philippians 2:1-11If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doingnothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; (4) not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. (5) Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross. Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Oh, so it’s just that easy is it? We are to simply have an ‘attitude’ like that of Jesus. I have to be honest with you: I’m not thoroughly persuaded by such an argument. Are we merely to read this statement and accept it and live it? Is it enough?

“Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew tells us that the very path Jesus himself took to exaltation went through Calvary. It went through the cross Jesus said that the very ‘model’ his disciples had to follow to greatness went through the cross; went through death. The disciples are strangely quiet after this episode.

And everything inside of me wants to rage and kick against it. I say, “I don’t mind death if it gets me something.” Jesus says my death will not be about me. He told Peter that in John 21:

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. Now this he spake, signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.

Everything inside me says: this is not the way. Everything inside of me says: You can go your own way. Everything inside of me says: It’s your life and you can live it your way, for yourself, for no one else. You don’t have to serve. Look I’m not talking about merely making breakfast for someone although I’m not excluding that. I’m not talking about merely buffing someone’s dirty shoes although I’m not excluding that. I’m not talking about merelystacking folding chairs. Jesus defined service, Jesus defined servanthood, Jesus defined being last: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” The sort of service Jesus is talking about isthe sort of service that involves the loss of life. I don’t know that you and I are going to give our lives as ransoms in the sense that Jesus gave his life as a ransom. Surely we cannot save the world from sin. But our servanthood is no less a life giving action than was that of Jesus the Son of God.

“Take up your cross, deny yourself, and follow me.” This is the essence of servanthood in the Kingdom of God. This is the attitude we are to have in ourselves. This is the manner in which we demonstrate our allegiance to Christ, our understanding of His commands, and our complete submission to His will. It doesn’t get much clearer than this.


Ye call me, Teacher, and, Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. (14) If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, a servant is not greater than his lord; neither one that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them. (John 13:13-16)

I know you are familiar with these Scriptures. I have read them to you a hundred times. You have read them to yourselves a thousand times. But ask yourself, even as I ask myself: Have I really, actually, truly surrendered my life to Jesus Christ? Have I really given my life for many? Have we drank the cup that Jesus drank.

I’m not trying to guilt you into anything. Remember, this is an attitude Paul says we are to have within us. I cannot guilt you into an attitude that you don’t want. But the Holy Spirit will.

All I am asking you to do this morning is evaluate the nature of your relationship with Christ. The sacrificial life won’t save you. It won’t gain you heaven, it won’t neglect you hell. All you are is all you are because of the grace of Jesus. What I am asking in this short series of sermons on Servanthood is simply this: What are you doing with what Jesus gave you?

Soli Deo Gloria!


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