Matthew 20:17-34, The Working Out of the Kingdom in the Church

[May 11, 2008] After Easter we began the journey with Jesus from His transfiguration in the north to His entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in the south. During this “Way of the Cross” (see 16:24), His last journey with His disciples (the Gospel of Mark calls it “the Way”), Jesus taught His disciples extensively in preparation for His departure from them. This “Way” actually began in 16:21 when He first announced to them His coming death and resurrection in Jerusalem.

During this time Jesus continually taught them about the CHURCH, which He first revealed to them in 16:18, but always the church in connection with the KINGDOM. They are not the same, but they are always related. The church is a matter of gift and grace. The church brings about the kingdom within itself. The kingdom has to do with the rule of God that overcomes all opposition and brings about God’s purpose. We must live the life of the church in the light of the kingdom. If we care about the church we must care about the kingdom. If we care about the kingdom we must care about the church. And if we care about Jesus, we must care about both.

Matthew 20:17-34 brings us to the end of this journey:

—Jesus announces His death and resurrection for the last time, mention­ing for the first time the role of the Gentiles.

—The first story is about how the church must be in the midst of the Gen­tiles where “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great exer­cise authority over them” (verse 25). We must “shine as luminaries in the world” “in the midst of a crooked and perverted generation” (Philippians 2:15). This is the work of the kingdom IN the church.

—The second story is a sign pointing to the end of the age when Israel will open its blind eyes to see their Messiah. Paul says, “By their misstep salvation has come to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy. But if their misstep has become riches for the world, and their loss, riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fullness be! … For if their being cast aside is the reconciliation of the world, what will their being received back be, if not life from the dead?” (Romans 11:11-12, 15). This is the effect, the working out, of the kingdom within the church.

—After this Jesus enters Jerusalem as the King and Judge, a foreshadowing of His coming again.

There Is a Price to Pay for the Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28)

Probably the mother of James and John was there when Jesus told Peter that the twelve disciples would  be rewarded with twelve thrones, and that everyone who have left all to follow Jesus would receive a hundred times as much and shall inherit eternal life. Maybe she thinks Jesus owes her some­thing because she has given Him her two sons. She might also think that the kingdom is about to come as soon as Jesus gets to Jerusalem (Luke 19:11). In any case, she approaches Jesus and asks that her two sons may have first place in His coming kingdom.

Jesus does not say no. He turns to the sons and says that there is a price tag. This is not a matter of pure unconditional, unmerited grace. “Are you ABLE,” He says, “to drink the cup which I am about to drink?” In Acts 14:22 Paul exhorted the disciples “to continue in the faith,” saying “that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.” What does Jesus mean by “the cup which I am about to drink”? He mentions this cup again when He is in the Garden of Gethsemane (26:39): “Let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” It is the particular form that His obedience must take. The cup is the cup of suffering unto death, of giving up His soul unto death (20:28; see Revelation 12:11).

At the beginning of this long section of Matthew, when Jesus first told them of His coming death, He told the disciples, “If anyone wants to come af­ter Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoev­er wants to save his soul shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul for My sake shall find it. For what shall a man be profited if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is to come in the glory of the Father with His angels and then He will repay each man according to his doings” (16:24-27). Jesus knew that not every disciple can pay this price. But he did know that what He said to James and John, “My cup you shall indeed drink” (20:23), would be true for Peter, James and John. It was to them alone that He revealed the coming of the kingdom on the Mount of Transfiguration.

We are ALL called to pay this price if we would bring about God’s kingdom in the church, and we shall all be judged at the judgment seat of Christ con­cerning it. Paul describes this work in 2 Corinthians 4:8-12: “We are pressed on every side but not constricted; unable to find a way out but not utterly without a way out; persecuted but not abandoned; cast down but not destroyed; always being about in the body the putting to death of Jesus that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who are alive are al­ways being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death operates in us, but life in you.” This “life in you” is the working out of the kingdom in the church.

Leaving the Reward to God

Of course, Jesus does not promise them anything. “This is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father” (20:23). The mother of James and John may have heard the first part of Jesus’ answer to Peter—the part about reward—but she did not pay attention to the second part about how many who are first will be last and the last first (19:30; 20:16). Jesus was rebuking Peter for having a bargaining attitude, the same attitude that James and John now have. It does not work this way, Jesus says.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard is about how you must be sat­isfied that the Lord of the Vineyard will give you what you deserve. Anything more than that is entirely at His own discretion, not ours. Moreover, we can­not have an envious eye on others, because we do not know how the Lord will measure their labor. He does not see things the way we do. The only attitude we ought to have is that we are all unworthy servants and the Lord will be justified no matter what He gives us.

You must labor, and drink the cup of suffering, but you must not bargain for it. We must do it out of loyalty and devotion to and love for Christ and leave the reward to God, whatever it may be. I think whatever reward we get, it will be more than we deserve. We must labor and suffer with this attitude.

The Form of the Kingdom in the Church

Notice that now all the disciples are envious of James and John. They all want to rule. In fact, we all want to be great. We all want to be first.

If we are living the life of the church in the light of the kingdom, and therefore if we are bringing about the kingdom within the life of the church, then things are quite the reverse.

In the world some people are always higher than others. There is a hierar­chy of position and power and authority. There is always tyranny. The Bible also reveals that this tyranny will only get worse as the world-system reaches its climax and fully manifests itself. The world-system began with Babel and ends with Babylon the Great. In the end, the tyranny of Babylon will be totali­tarian, dominating every aspect of every human being. This was not even possible in the days of the Bible. But we can be sure that we are in the thick of it—now that we are in the “information age”—whether we are approaching the end or not.

However, Jesus says loud and clear, “It shall not be so among you!” (20:26). In the church it must be different. There can be no hierarchy where some rule over others and exercise authority over them. In 23:8-12 Jesus will say, “But you, do not be called Rabbi, for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father, for One is your Father, He who is in the heavens. Neither be called instructors, because One is your Instructor, the Christ. And the greatest among you shall be your servant. And he who will exalt himself shall be humbled, and he who will humble himself shall be exalted.” As Jesus made clear in chapter 18, we all must be as little ones with regard to each other; we are all brothers and sisters of equal rank; we cannot hold a grudge against another nor should we envy one another; and we must all—each one of us—be responsible for one another. We must all protect each other, seek out and restore one another, and minister to and build up one another. You can search the Bible and you will find no hierarchi­cal relationship of pastor and congregation. The pastor is not the boss. Not even elders are allowed to lord it over God’s flock as if it were their possession. We can all only and always be servants and slaves to one another.

This is the reality that Pentecost brings us into. On Pentecost the church was baptized in the Holy Spirit as its element, the way John the Baptist bap­tized people in water by dunking them. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul sheds some light on this:

—12:13 says the Holy Spirit baptizes us into one Body. Before we were in­dividuals. Now we are no longer individuals; now we are the ONE Body of Christ, organically related to one another in life. By the Holy Spirit God puts us in the place—the church—where we are to serve one another ‘from below,’ as it were, as slaves, not as better than each other.

—12:11 says the Holy Spirit EQUIPS each and every one of us with what we need to serve one another (see also 12:7 and 14:12). No one is given a gift for their own benefit; it is for the sake of others, to build them up. Nor is any­one’s gift so small that they can bury it in the ground and not use it. Christ does not give us a choice here.

—However, we can nurture each other’s gifts by an atmosphere of love. 1 Corinthians 12:24 says God BLENDS the members of the Body together by our care for one another (12:25). This also is the work of the Holy Spirit. By each of us exercising our gifts in mutuality and love, God blends us together so that we can BE the Body of Christ.

The only place where we can enjoy and benefit from the Holy Spirit is in the Body of Christ. It does not mean that God is not at work everywhere. But the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is something special. When Christ ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon His exalted humanity, and as a result of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the Head, the Holy Spirit de­scended from heaven and bathes His Body on earth (Acts 2:33; Psalm 133:2). The place where we find the Holy Spirit is in our functioning in the Body of Christ on earth—bringing about the kingdom in the church.

The Testimony of the Kingdom in the Church

By His giving up His soul unto death, Christ paid the ransom price to free the people of the world from their tyranny (20:28). The place where this free­dom is known is in the church. The church displays the kingdom TO the world before the actual coming of the kingdom of God. The existence of the kingdom in the church is the testimony of God to the Gentiles.

The Outcome for Israel (20:29-34)

The two blind men on the side of the road represent the Jewish remnant who believe. They cry out, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” This is a special title that connects Jesus to the Jewish people. Today the Jews (the crowd) rebuke Messianic Jews “so that they would be silent, but they cry out all the more.” One day Jesus will stand still and answer their cry. Though we Gentiles may not share it, we cannot deny that Jesus has a special affection for the Jews. They are His flesh and blood. He has a covenant with their an­cestors and they keep the Law that He gave them. Moreover, “the gracious gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

Eventually the testimony of the church, even if only carried out by a mi­nority of disciples (“he who overcomes” in Revelation 2-3), will result in the turning of Israel to the Messiah. Their eyes will be opened and they all will see Him whom they have pierced, and all the tribes of Israel will mourn over Him (Zechariah 12:10). This is when the two sticks in Ezekiel 37:15-28, Ephraim and Judah, will be united—when “My Servant David will be King over them forever.” (Thus, in the sign of Jesus there are two blind men.) “In that day there will be an opened fountain for sin and impurity” (Zechariah 13:1), and “thus all Israel will be saved, as it is written” (see Romans 11:25-32).

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