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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Ambition

Matthew 20:17-28; Mark 10:32-35; Luke 18:31-34

A good mystery is always good reading. One of the things which a good mystery writer always does is save “who done it” for last. Sometimes, however, it’s helpful to look at the end and then return to the beginning. We’ll do both today.

Preliminary: Christ’s Warning

Matthew

Mark

Luke

(Mat 20:17-19 NIV) Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, {18} "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death {19} and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!"

(Mark 10:32-34 NIV) They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. {33} "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, {34} who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise."

(Luke 18:31-34 NIV) Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. {32} He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. {33} On the third day he will rise again." {34} The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

It’s important to see these words as background for what comes next. Jesus has just been talking about humility and putting the kingdom of God first. Our last lesson was about the Rich Young Ruler, if you will recall. He now reminds the disciples that he is about to go to Jerusalem for the explicit purpose of his death, burial and resurrection. Luke tells us that the disciples did not understand these words. There is truth to it, but I suggest there could be no doubt in their minds that Jesus was bringing his ministry to its ultimate climax. Two of them wanted to be “in the right place at the right time” -- they were ambitious.

{Side note: in the passage ahead, there is an apparent conflict between Matthew and Mark’s version. Mark does not mention Salome, the mother of James and John. It is well to remember that the writers of the New Testament were not nearly as concerned as we are with accurate quotation as they were with truthful quotation.}

Ambition

With this prophecy of the death, burial and resurrection fresh in their ears, James and John move in to secure their place in the kingdom:

(Mat 20:20-23 NIV) Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. {21} "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." {22} "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" "We can," they answered. {23} Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."

(Mark 10:35-40 NIV) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." {36} "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. {37} They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." {38} "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" {39} "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, {40} but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."

I once was hired for a three day job at a White Front store. There were about 25 of us, and the manager made it clear that one of us would get a full time summer job. Being convinced of my superior brains (and ignoring my inferior attitude) I was sure I would get it. I was quite disappointed when the job went to a dumb football jock from my school. Of course, I had to admit that he was always the first to volunteer for any dirty job, the last to leave for the day and always willing to take on a little bit extra. Somehow or other I disapproved of so much ambition.

The truth, of course, is that this kind of ambition is not particularly evil. Ambition may be good or bad. It is necessary for us to know the difference in the kingdom of God. In this instance, we can learn from John. Here he displayed selfish ambition. Later, as an old man and the last remaining apostle, he had to deal with it – and showed that he had learned the lesson.

Diotrephes

The man he had to deal with is found in one of John’s later writings:

(3 John 1:9-11 NIV) I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. {10} So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. {11} Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.

It seems difficult to believe that anyone in the early church would resent and defy the authority of the last living apostle, but this man did. It’s important to see how this ambition showed itself:

·         Gossip – the word used in the Greek gives us an interesting picture. It is used of boiling water, particularly a rolling boil, generating masses of useless bubbles. The metaphor is complete when done: nothing accomplished but a lot of hot, sticky air.

·         The love of being first – practically the definition of pride. Have you ever known anyone who just had to be the chairman of the committee?

·         Refusal of hospitality – this, to the ancient world, would be incredible. Hospitality was a sacred duty.[1] This would be a grave breach of manners, at the least – and manners reflect the heart in small things.

·         Dividing the body of Christ – the clear decision that the stroking of my ego is more important than the unity of the church for which Jesus prayed.

John’s reaction shows that he learned this lesson well. How did he deal with this?

·         He says he will “call attention” to it. Often such practice needs only to be pointed out to be condemned.

·         By his other writings,[2] we can conclude that he would gently restore this man to fellowship. (There are no further records of Diotrephes).

Character of those who ask

It’s important to note that James and John are following the custom of the time. Influence is gained by the back door, or by family connections. However that may (or may not) have changed, we need to note that they did this after Jesus announced again his upcoming death. They did not understand what was going to happen – but they understood who he is. By Christ’s teaching, John will now learn the lesson he will apply later.

Jesus’ reaction

Our Lord, in his response, makes three points:

·         First, you don’t know what you’re asking for. How often we tell God what we want, rather than trusting to his wisdom to provide for our needs!

·         Next, it is not his to give! Indeed, our Lord is a servant, and in this he sets us the example of the servant in the kingdom of God.

·         Finally, though you will not (necessarily) get the place, you will get the service – which is much more important than they thought.

Reaction of the disciples

(Mat 20:24 NIV) When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.

(Mark 10:41 NIV) When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.

Can you imagine my reaction to the fellow who got the job? I was indignant too! After all, I was so much better qualified.

Indignant is the word used here.

·         With regard to ambition in the kingdom, it is a worldly attitude. You can almost see Peter asking, “Hey! What about me? Wasn’t I promised the keys of the kingdom?” There is a competitiveness to it.

·         There may just also be a bit of the attitude of, “why didn’t I think of that first?”

Jesus might have replied, “Just what are you people indignant over? Do you have any idea what ‘first in the kingdom’ really means?’ So let’s see how the master teacher handled it.

Christ’s teaching

So what did our Lord say?

(Mat 20:25-28 NIV) Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. {26} Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, {27} and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- {28} 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."

(Mark 10:42-45 NIV) Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. {43} Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, {44} and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. {45} For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
The paradox of servanthood

It is a curious fact of the world of business today that the theoreticians of the business world (the Harvard Business school types) continually urge managers to “empower” their people. Managers take all this in with an agreeing nod – and then continue to manage their people in microscopic detail. They are so unaware of the contradiction that they will complain when their manager does likewise to them, without noticing their own habits. Sound familiar?

It is not so in the kingdom. In the kingdom, you don’t take charge – you take care. Yours is to serve, not caring who gets the credit – for Christ should receive the glory. “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit” goes the sign. It’s even more amazing when Christ gets the credit.

Think of it this way: can you be indignant with a servant leader? One who cares for you, works hard to see that you are able to perform your tasks and sees to it that you are credited for it? It is impossible.

Models in life

Let’s bring this down to current life.

·         Most of us recognize that a minister of the Gospel must be a servant leader. Think what that means. The man who cannot be offended, the man who visits the sick in the hospital, the man who cares about who you really are must also lead this congregation. Perhaps we don’t recognize leadership when we see it.

·         Some of us are privileged to be managers. Are we the manager who enjoys being the big fish in the small pond, crushing others? Or are we the one that the world looks at and says, “If I had his people, I could do that kind of work too.” As a Christian, I submit that a grand measure of your success as a Christian manager is when the world looks at you and cannot understand how a man who is so pushed around by his employees can accomplish so much.

·         Many more of us are privileged to be husbands. We have been fed so much on the doctrine that the husband is head over the wife that we forget that this means that we must love her as Christ loved the church, and gave his life for her. Leadership, for the Christian, means service.

The Imitation of Christ

The ultimate role model for this is, of course, our Lord himself. We are to imitate him. Our usual reluctance for doing this is that “we don’t know what will happen.” This is our desire to control the future – and the future belongs to God. James and John both wanted to be first. It’s interesting to see their fates:

·         James was beheaded, the first apostle to die. Herod had his head cut off with a sword during the early days of the church.

·         John’s fate was just the opposite. He lived (through a lot of persecution) to a ripe old age and died of natural causes.

·         If you are following the Lord who holds the future, then (o servant) would you really care which fate befell you? Follow your Lord, and let him worry about such things. “What is that to you? Follow me.”


[1] See Hebrews 3:2, for example – “angels unaware.”

[2] See, for example, 1 John 5:16

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