If you have your bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 20. The first 16 verses of this great chapter contain the parable of the landowner. When we studied it a couple of weeks ago together, we said that that parable is basically a gigantic illustration of the very last verse of Matthew chapter 19, verse 30: Many who are first will be last and the last first. Jesus uses that story to explain to His disciples the principle that in His kingdom the last are first and the first are last.
Now that means a lot of things, but we learned from the parable at least these things. We learned first of all that we shouldn't work in the kingdom with the spirit of a hireling, thinking that we've got to do certain things in order for the Lord to bless us. Thinking that somehow He's going to shortchange us. If we serve in the Lord's kingdom like that, not only will we be miserable, but we are endanger of missing the kingdom itself. Our Lord is generous and gracious, and He promises to reward His children far more than we deserve, and we need to work with that spirit in mind.
But it also teaches us, that parable also reminds us that God's reward are not according to human and earthly measure. The human and earthly measure would expect those who worked longer in the day in the parable of the landowner to get more than those that had only worked an hour. But human measurements don't apply in the kingdom of heaven. God is sovereign, all His gifts are gifts of grace, and therefore we need to bow before that and acknowledge that. And so it's important for us as we serve in the kingdom not to serve with the spirit of wanting to get more honor and more recognition and more authority given to us than to our brethren. And so Jesus in this great story is really getting at an issue that He has been discussing with the disciples for many chapters, the issue of what true greatness is. And it's no mistake, is it, if you'll cast your eyes on verse 20 of Matthew chapter 20, that they go right back to that same issue of what greatness is in the kingdom after the passage we're going to study today. And so though this passage highlights what Jesus is going to do in Jerusalem, it also tells us something very important about how we ought to respond to the example that Jesus has given us in His life and death. So having said that by way of preface, let's hear God's holy word in Matthew chapter 20 verse 17.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word, and we ask that by the Spirit You would open our hearts to it. Search us, O Lord. Find out the depths of our hearts and draw us to Christ even as we see His word. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
As we've said in the immediate context here Jesus has been interacting with His disciples about what true greatness is–what kingdom greatness is. And in the parable of the landowner He reminded them that the blessing of service in the kingdom and our attitude about life are both directly related to what we think about God–to our view of God and to our estimation of His fairness and generosity. But He had also warned them against measuring God's reward according to human perception, lest being first they actually find themselves last. And Jesus' timing and teaching in this passage where He again warns the disciples about His upcoming death in Jerusalem is directly related to that lesson about greatness in the kingdom, which is really a lesson about servanthood in the kingdom. And so as He speaks to His disciples about His death, He has at least two things in view. He wants them again to meditate on the meaning of His death, and He also wants them to learn in their own lives from the example of His death what true greatness is. Now, let's look then at this passage together, and I’d like to show you three or four things as we work through the Scriptures.
I. Christ manifests His love for His people even in the manner of His truth-telling.
First, beginning in verse 17, you'll see this private announcement that Jesus gives to the disciples on the way. And we learn even in this announcement that Christ manifests His love for His people even in the way that He tells them the truth. Even in the manner in which Christ tells the disciples this truth about His upcoming death, He shows His love and His concern for them. In this passage we come face to face with Jesus' third prediction in the gospel of Matthew of His impending death, His passion, His resurrection. And in this prediction in verses 17-19, Jesus sets forth the details of three striking experiences that He is going to undergo in Jerusalem. He is going to be ill-treated by the Jewish authorities, those who are the spiritual leaders of God's people are going to treat Him wrongly. He is going to be crucified. And He is going to be raised again. And He has brought the attention of the disciples to His death and to His passion, and to His resurrection before. But never as clearly as He does in this passage. If you were to look back to Matthew 16, which the first time where He makes this announcement to the disciples and then look at Matthew 17, as we're going to do in a few moments, you would see that He was not nearly so clear there, as He is now in this passage about what He was going to undergo.
Now, as usual, there was a large company of people following Jesus as they were on the way. And you remember, they were on their way to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. There was a large crowd of followers with Him, but on the way He takes His disciples aside to speak to them about this particular matter. And the very fact that He takes His disciples aside is filled with significance. This was an exceedingly hard truth to swallow. What Jesus was going to tell the disciples – you remember before had struck them with dismay, it had absolutely unnerved them – how kind it was of Him to take His disciples aside and to explain in detail what was going to happen to them so that they did not have to hear this news in front of everyone else.
Notice also that this truth might well have totally discouraged some of the weaker sheep who were following Jesus. They wouldn't have been ready for this. It was hard enough for the disciples to deal with. Luke will tell us later that the disciples didn't have a clue what Jesus was talking about. Can you imagine what some of those followers, who were not so far along in the faith, would have done with this message from Jesus?
Furthermore, there may have been some in that crowd following Jesus with hot tempers. And if they had heard that Jesus was going to be taken by the civil authorities and that He was going to be put to death, they might have taken up arms and tried to protect the Lord Jesus, and Jesus did not want that. And so, this third warning, because it was more detailed than the other messages, manifests Christ’s pastoral concern for the disciples. He only gave them what they could take in at that particular time. And He added to it, thus bringing them along in the truth.
And so we see Jesus, even in the way He reveals this truth to the disciples, showing a concern for their souls. Jesus is the master pastor, and His pastoral concern here is very clear, even in the way in which He tells them about His upcoming death. And isn't that an example to us. So often we screw up our courage in order to be brave and tell people the truth, but we don't pay attention to how we tell them the truth. And so how we tell them the truth messes up the truth that we are trying to tell them. Husbands are the world's worst about this. I could stand up here for hours and tell you the way that I mess up in this particular area. What I say is good. The way I deliver is really lousy. And we as Christians need to be careful as we present the truth, even the truth of God in Christ that we be careful as to the manner in which we present that truth. There is also a clear connection between Jesus speaking to the disciples about His death and this message about greatness and servanthood that He's been talking about in Matthew 19 in the parable of the landowner and Matthew 20. And which He'll talk about again in Matthew chapter 20 verses 20-28 in the passage where James and John's mother comes and asks for them to be first in the kingdom with Him. In the context of His teaching on greatness, Jesus focuses His disciples on what? He focuses them on His choice to die. What's He saying? If you want to be great in My kingdom, you have to die to self. I am the first in my kingdom. How am I first? I have made myself last. I will die for your sakes. Jesus is showing the disciples here what they must do.
This announcement about His upcoming death, this announcement to His disciples is among other things a thunderous call to self denial. He's saying, ‘You people have been talking about what it means to be rewarded in My kingdom, what it means to be great in My kingdom, and in a few minutes you're going to be arguing with Me about who's going to be the greatest in My kingdom. Let me show you what greatness is. To be great is to die for others, to die to self in My kingdom.’
You see, self denial is a spiritual fruit which manifests our heart obedience to the first commandment. What is the first commandment. You shall have no other gods before you. What is the greatest challenge in our lives to the first commandment? To want to be God. We want to be our own God. We want to put ourselves first. And self denial says what? No, I am not first. My God is first and His people are before me, and I deny myself for their sakes.
You know, there has been no one who has manifested that spirit of care for others over personal preference better in Christian history than John Calvin. Many of you know a little about John Calvin’s life. But many of you don't know that after three years of being in Geneva – he had been called to Geneva by William Farel – after three years the people were so opposed to his reforms that they ran him out of town. You have to remember that John Calvin was a Frenchman in Geneva. And though the place was French speaking, they saw themselves not as French: they were Swiss. And so he was not accepted on that count. His reforms were unpopular. People were so discouraged and so upset with Calvin that they began naming their dogs Calvin and kicking them in the streets. They named their children obscene names so that the ministers would have to say these obscene names when they were baptizing them in the churches. They did all manner of things to show their disapproval for Calvin, and finally they ran him out of town. When he left Geneva, he went to a city called Strassbourg, and he ministered to a congregation of French protestants in exile, and they were the happiest years of Calvin’s life. He loved it. The French exiles loved his ministry. He was able to study. He was writing. He was accepted. He was taken care of. He found himself a wife. Things were going wonderfully, and one day in the mail comes a letter from Geneva. And the city council is saying, “Calvin, we beg you. Come back.” And Calvin tells us in a letter to one of his dear friends that it was the last thing in the world that he wanted to do. Because he had been miserable there when he was in Geneva. But he knew it was God's call for him. So he said, “I am not my own. I belong to God. I must live for Him and die for Him, and if He is calling me back to Geneva, then there I must go.” And he left his golden years in Strassbourg and he spent the rest of his life in Geneva working among a people that never did really totally accept him. He was never even made a citizen until the last four years of his life. But he ministered there for the gospel and if he hadn't, how many thousands and thousands and thousands of people would have never heard the gospel except through his faithful preaching. He is a living example of the kind of self denial to which we are all called in the Christian life even if we're not ministers of the gospel.
II. Christ's prediction is a living illustration of “the last shall be first”
In this passage we see specifically the details of what Jesus is going to experience. This is the second thing I’d like to show to you. If you look at verses 18 and 19, and really the first few words of verse 19, we'll see a warning about the betrayal of Israel's spiritual leaders. Israel's spiritual leaders are going to betray Christ, and the disciples need to come to grips with that. And in this passage, we see here that Christ’s prediction about His upcoming betrayal and death is a living illustration of what He means by the last shall be first. We've already said that this is the third time which Jesus had announced His upcoming passion and death. I'd like you to turn to the first two times. Look at Matthew 16:21. This is the first time in Matthew that we have recorded this warning: “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and raised up on the third day.”
Then turn forward one chapter to Matthew 17:22-23. Here we read this: “Jesus said to them, ‘the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men and they will kill Him and He will be raised on the third day.’”
Now turn forward to Matthew 20:18-19. You'll see two new details which are added to what we've already learned. First, the highest court of the Jews, we are told in Matthew 20:18, the Sanhedrin, will condemn Jesus to death. That is new news. Then we also see that that court will hand him over to the Roman authorities. The mention of Jesus' condemnation by the Sanhedrin indicates that there was going to be a trial, and because the Jews could not administer the death sentence, He would have to be handed over to the Roman authorities. And so Jesus is saying to His disciples, ‘You thought we were going to Jerusalem for the Passover. I want to tell you that I am going to Jerusalem to be tried by your spiritual leaders, to be condemned, to be mocked, to be scourged, and to die.’ Jesus is making it clear to His disciples that He has resolved to die for them. And they, in seeing that, can see a glimpse of true greatness in the kingdom.
Listen to what McNeile says about this phrase, and I’d like you to look at the phrase back in verse 18: “Behold We are going up to Jerusalem.” This phrase,” McNeile says, “expresses the resolve that Jesus had made. The disciples knew that they were going to the capital for the Passover, but they could not know the struggle it had caused Him.” Jesus was going to the capital not simply to celebrate the Passover. It was to die on behalf of His people.
And so He's simultaneously preparing the disciples for the shock of His death, but He's also testifying to His own deity. He knows exactly what is going to happen and He is going to do it anyway because it is His plan, it is God's plan. And so we are reminded here again of the enormity of the burden of this knowledge. Can you imagine living the whole of your life waiting for the moment of Calvary. You know, some of us get a glimpse of this from time to time when we are going through severe illnesses. Some people know that there is a cancer inside their bodies that could kill them, and they go through treatment. And sometimes those treatments don't work. And when those treatments don't work, we know that there is a certain amount of time that we have before the Lord calls us home. And living with that burden can be very difficult. Can you imagine Jesus living the whole of His life with the conscious burden that He was going to die for us? J.C. Ryle has a wonderful phrase describing this. It's haunting, and I want to share it with you. Ryle says this: “He saw Calvary from a distance all His life. And He chose it for His disciples and He is reminding them of it here.”
III. Christ predicts the cross.
Now I want you to see also if you look at the rest of verse 19, He says it's not just going to be the Jewish authorities that are involved in my death, it's going to be the Romans, it's going to be the Gentiles that are involved here. And He also highlights the scandal of His death. Because here in verse 19, Jesus predicts His cross. Now this verse reveals to us two more details which had not been revealed in Matthew 16 and Matthew 17 about the nature of Jesus' death. For one thing, this verse tells us that He was going to be mocked and scourged by the Roman authorities. And more importantly, this verse says that Jesus was going to be crucified. Now those of you who have, like me, grown up in the church, we have heard since childhood about Jesus' crucifixion, and it is secondhand to us. We know it by heart. It doesn't come to us as a surprise. But do you realize that this is the first time in the gospel of Matthew that Matthew has said that Jesus is going to be crucified. Jesus' death has been spoken of for many, many chapters in the gospel of Matthew. And Jesus has used the word cross twice. But both times He used it in this phrase: “Take up your cross and follow Me.” He used it metaphorically.
For the first time right here in Matthew chapter 20, verse 19 we are told explicitly that Jesus' death is going to be death by crucifixion. This must have been an utter shock. When Jesus first told His disciples, “Take up your cross,” you can't imagine how shocking that metaphor would have been to them. Take up the ugliest picture of inhuman torment and death as an example of what it's like to deny yourself and be a disciple. What a shocking illustration that would have been of what the call to discipleship meant. But to go further and say, ‘By the way, My disciples, I’m not just going to be killed in Jerusalem. I'm going to be crucified’ would have been to the minds of those Jewish followers absolute horror. To think that their Lord was going to be suffering on this instrument of inhuman torture which was reserved for the basest criminals in society. That was how He was going to die. It must have blown their minds.
And friends, we cannot appreciate the cross until we ourselves in our own hearts recapture that sense of scandal that the cross was. And I don't just mean it in the human sense of looking upon the cross which only the criminals would endure or looking on the cross in terms of the horrible physical suffering that Jesus underwent. But until we realize the seriousness of God punishing His own son we will not understand the seriousness of our sin or the glory of His love. The scandal of the cross is absolutely essential for us if we are to understand the grace of God. And Jesus is setting that before His disciples even now. He's asking them to contemplate what it is that He is going to do for them in Jerusalem because it will transform their lives. Now of course the disciples were befuddled. Mark tells us that they were amazed and fear fell upon those that followed Him. And Luke tells us that they were absolutely bewildered. They didn't have a clue what Jesus was talking about. And yet Jesus has spoken these words so that after the resurrection their faith will be strengthened.
IV. Christ always holds before us the glory on the other side of the cross.
And so let me show you one last thing. In verse 19 we see this clear prediction of His resurrection and He holds before us the glory which He will experience and which we will share with him on the other side of the cross. His word here as before, those two other times that He's predicted His death, shows the glorious prospect of heaven and it's design to encourage His disciples.
Jesus' resurrection testifies to at least three things. It testifies to His deity. He was raised with power and declared to be the Son of God. It testifies to His righteousness. Jesus was not a sinner and yet He died. But the Bible makes it clear. Why do we die? Because we are sinners. Well then, why did Jesus die? Not because He was a sinner but because He stepped in the sinner's place. God had to manifest that, and so He raised him from the dead in order to say two things: first, I’ve accepted this sacrifice for sin. Second, He had no sin in him. Death had no right to keep him in its clutches. But there's a third great thing that the resurrection testifies to and it's our salvation. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is absolutely essential for our salvation for His resurrection from the dead to newness of life is the resurrection which we experience first in regeneration in which we will experience in the last day in glorification. Jesus' predictions are fulfilled explicitly. If you study the passion narratives in Mark and in Luke and in John, the things that Jesus says in this passage in Matthew 20 come to fruition. They come to fulfillment with absolute accuracy. And we're reminded again by that, that an understanding of Christ’s death is at the very heart of Christianity. We speak about the gospel and the good news. There would be no good news without the death of Christ. And you can't understand the good news until you understand why Jesus died.
Francis Schaeffer is famous for saying this: “If Jesus is the answer, then what is the question?” If Jesus is the answer, then what is the question. My friends, you can't understand why Jesus is the answer until you know what the question is. Until you know why Jesus had to die, you can't appreciate the glory of the gospel and until you have been impacted by the scandal of Jesus' death, you have yet to appreciate the depth of God's love. And when we do experience the depth of God's love, then we simultaneously know what it means that the last will be first. And we also know that we have to give our lives to the Lord to express His lordship over us in both our word and in our living.
So one very obvious response to the Lord Jesus' death is to give ourselves to the spread of the message of His good news in missions. We're approaching the missions conference. If we've been transformed by the grace of the gospel, then our own personal agendas will have been displaced and we will have more concern for God's agenda to be advanced than our own personal comfort, our own personal blessings, our own personal projects and desires. We will long, because of the love of God, because of the love of Christ on the cross, to share His word of the gospel with the nations. May the Lord bless us with a real understanding of the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we ask that You would bless the truth of Your word to our spiritual growth. In Jesus' name, amen.