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

[October 14, 2012] The title here summarizes this last segment introduced by Jesus’ third announcement of His coming passion, death and resurrection. There is a question in my mind about whether verses 29-34, about the healing of the two blind men, belongs to this segment or introduces the following section, 21-25, or whether, even, the third announcement in verses 17-19 introduces the entire section, 20:20—25:46, followed by the fourth announcement in 26:1-2 which introduces the passion itself. Perhaps all of this is going on simultaneously.

Leaving this third possibility aside, for housekeeping purposes, let us first consider the pivotal place of verses 29-34.

The Two Blind Men Having Their Eyes Opened as Witnesses to Jesus (Matthew 20:29-34)

A number of markers lead our interpretation. Jericho was, of course, the place where Joshua (Jesus in Greek) led Israel across the Jordan and began to take the Promised Land. The city had long lain under a curse, symbolizing the long exile of Israel from its Promised Land. Its being in the land after the return from exile was not the fulfillment of the great prophecies but a provisional sign of that fulfillment. The fulfillment to which the prophets so looked forward awaited the coming of the Messiah, in judgment and glory. Now the Messiah has come, but before He judges the nations of the earth, He must judge His people. When He enters the city of Jerusalem, David’s royal city, it will be to take the throne of the kingdom, but the stewards of the city, the chief priests and the scribes, and the inhabitants of the city, reject Him and do not acknowledge His title. The symbolic act of cleansing of the Temple, the confrontation with the stewards, the tenants or “vinedressers” of 21:33-41, and His prediction of the destruction of the Temple and laying waste of the City, are His pronouncement of judgment on them, for they did not recognize the Day of Their Visitation (Luke 19:44). They did not acknowledge the Son of David, but the judgment was not going to fall on them for that reason alone. It would fall on them because they refused to hear His call to repentance, and the call of the Baptist before Him. Their refusing to recognize the Son of David was only symptomatic of their unwillingness to repent. That unwillingness made them blind. Before the King comes in glory to judge the nations, He must first bear the judgment of His people Israel, and the gentiles who believe in Him. That is the reason He has come, to pass judgment on them, and to bear that judgment, “to give His soul as a ransom for many.” The historic judgment on the Temple and City will still come (notice this), but for those who believe “there will be an opened fountain for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity” (Zechariah 13:1). Jericho …

“And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’ And the crowd rebuked them so that they would be silent, but they cried out the more, saying, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’” They were sitting by the road and heard Jesus passing by. The road for Jesus is the way of the cross, the way (odos, “road”) that He follows to the cross and on which we follow behind Him. As blind men they represent Israel, who throughout the gospel do not “get it.” “for the heart of this people has become fat, and with their ears they have heard heavily, and with their eyes they have closed, lest they perceive with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart, and they turn around, and I will heal them” (Matthew 13:15). But the two blind men do recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David, and call on Him. Already, as they call on Him, they are spiritually those whose eyes have been opened. “Blessèd are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (13:16). “Blessèd are you because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in the heavens” (16:16). This word, “blessèd” takes us back to the Beatitudes in chapter 5—the blessèd are those who enter the personal sphere of Jesus by allegiance to Him, but it also takes us back to Deuteronomy and the promise of blessing in the Promised Land if they would keep the Lord’s covenant. Jesus is the Promised Land when we come to know Him through faith in Him. The two blind men already see spiritually, but they are few in Israel, because, as Jesus prayed to the Father, “You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for thus it has been well-pleasing in Your sight” (11:25-26; see 21:15). So the crowd, the majority, rebuke them and try to get them to be silent.

As they call on Jesus as the Son of David, they precede the crowd on Palm Sunday (the next story) who welcome Him into David’s City, hailing Him with “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and the crowd rebuking them foreshadow the chief priests and scribes who want the crowds rebuked. That crowd was mostly festal pilgrims from Galilee and friends from Judea, and was not well represented by the people of Jerusalem. The inhabitants of the City are mostly blind still.

That there are two of them (Luke and Mark report only one blind man, Bartimaeus) alludes to them as witnesses. Matthew has several pairings where Luke and Mark have but one. In 9:27-31 has a similar story where Jesus healed two blind men, who also cried out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” There the meaning pointed to the future healing of the nation, and it has that meaning here too (see below), but then the miracle took place inside a house and “Jesus sternly charged them saying, ‘See that no one knows!’” Now the miracle takes place in broad daylight and there is no prohibition. It is the time now, as He makes clear on Palm Sunday, for Him to become known. It is the time now for His rejection to become manifest. The two blind men whose eyes are opened bear witness to the coming of the Son of David. They represent the crowd of people who will process with Him into the City. Likewise, the two animals which Jesus will ride, the ass and the colt (Luke and Mark have but one), bear witness on behalf of the creation to the coming of the King, who in His resurrection will be the Firstborn of All Creation.

Jesus is moved with compassion, touches their eyes, and immediately they received their sight and followed Him. Before we can follow Jesus our eyes must be opened to who He is. Mark tells us explicitly that they followed Him on the road, that is, the way of the cross, which is the pathway of discipleship (this is the major theme in Mark’s gospel).

This story then introduces the story of Palm Sunday. For before the crowd can spread their garments in the road and cut branches from the trees and do the same, and cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessèd is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” they must be those who have had their eyes opened, who recognize that Jesus is more than John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets (Matthew 16:13-14). The Gospel according to Mark, frames Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem (the way of the cross) with the healing of two blind men, one in 8:22-26 and the other 10:46-52, to accentuate the importance of spiritual sight and its connection to taking the pathway of bearing the cross.

The Prophetic Significance

Like the story in Matthew 9:27-31, however, this story also points to the final repentance of Israel when the Son of David comes in glory. Indeed, they will repent (of their sins) and turn to Him before He manifests Himself to the world, and they will welcome Him. Jesus says in 23:39—notice that He says this after Palm Sunday—“You shall by no means see Me from now on until you say, ‘Blessèd is He who comes in the name of YHWH,’” meaning, “Welcome!” He will not come without such a welcome. “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven”—we do not know what that sign will be—“and then all the tribes of the Land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His chosen together from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other end” (24:30-31). Jesus is referring not to the rapture but to the gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel which the prophets promised will happen when the Messiah comes. It is hard to imagine what this can mean when the northern kingdom is now lost in history. At the time of Jesus they were still identifiable, but that is (with some exceptions) no longer the case. In any case, Jesus refers to the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10, when “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and of supplications; and they will look upon Me, whom they have pierced; and they will wail over Him with wailing as for an only son and cry bitterly over Him with bitter crying as for a firstborn son. In that day there will be great wailing in Jerusalem … In that day there will be an opened fountain for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity … And someone will say to Him, ‘What are these wounds between Your arms?’ And He will say, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of those who love Me.’”

I do not say that the long exile of Israel is because of their rejection of the Messiah. I do not think that is what the Bible teaches. It is because of their sin, being God’s elect, and their unwillingness to repent. The prophets called them to repent. John the Baptist called them to repent. Jesus called them to repent. It was their failure to do so that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the continuation of their exile. The coming of the Messiah would have enabled them to repent, and many did. Instead, they insisted on the way of violence and attempting to establish their own kingdom by “zeal,” imagining that by this way of “their own righteousness” they were establishing God’s kingdom. This is what brought the disastrous war of 66-70 CE, not their non-recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, though their turning to Him in His way would have prevented the disaster. The destruction of the Temple and the end of worship at the Temple was inevitable, a sign of Israel’s helplessness in the face of human sin apart from God’s grace.

Nevertheless, the apostle Paul tells us that when the fullness of the gentiles comes in, “all Israel will be saved” for “the Deliverer … will turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:25-26). This is represented by the opening of the eyes of the two blind men just outside of Jericho, the city under a curse. The two men who once were blind now accompany the King into the City of Jerusalem. This story and the story of Palm Sunday allude to when Jesus comes again and Israel welcomes Him as their King.

The Role of the Kingdom in the Church (20:17-28)

This great event will not happen in a vacuum, however. It will not happen, that is, with the church playing no role.  In Romans 11, before the salvation of Israel and the resurrection of the dead that will happen at the same time (11:15), the fullness of the gentiles will have come in. Paul warns the gentile believers in Israel’s Messiah that if they become arrogant, “neither will [God] spare you,” for “the kindness of God” falls on you “if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off” (11:21-22). This arrogance that Paul speaks about is the gentile believers’ arrogance towards Israel. But it nevertheless lets us know that there is this possibility that they can be cut off because they do not please God.

Jesus speaks of another kind of arrogance, an arrogance in which the believers lord it over each other like the gentiles do. “It shall not be so among you!” In view of everything that Jesus has taught in 17:22—20:16, we recognize that this is the opposite of the way of the cross that the church should take. In 16:21—17:21 the way of denying the self and taking up the cross and following Jesus in the way of the cross, of losing the soul and the world, leads to the glory of the transfiguration. To take power to oneself and lord it over others is the way to lose or forfeit one’s soul, for “the Son of Man”  when He comes in glory “will repay each man according to his doings.”

Jesus came to serve, not to be served, and in 20:17-19 He describes how He will give His soul as a ransom for many. Now the mother of James and John come asking that her sons may sit on the right and the left in the Lord’s kingdom. She has no idea what she is asking, for she does not know what is the way. Jesus addresses James and John directly. They too have no idea what they (through their mother) are asking. “Are you able to drink the cup which I am about to drink?” As long as they see their own gain in it, they agree to it: “We are able.” But Jesus does not promise them what they ask. Instead He promises them “My cup.” But the thrones—“this is not Mine to give.”

I wonder if we catch this. The cup is the cup of suffering. It is the cup about which Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is also the “Cup of the Covenant,” in which “is My blood of the covenant, which is being poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” His cup of suffering was a bearing of God’s judgment, the draining of which was the atonement of our sins. James and John are not going to bear God’s judgment nor atone for anyone’s sins. Their suffering does not have the same effect as His. Nevertheless, they will suffer and lose their souls by their suffering as He will. They will be “conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10), and so through much suffering and tribulations enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22; 2 Thessalonians 1:5). But they will have to leave the reward to the hidden counsels of the Father (remember the lesson of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, 20:1-15). As John Nelson Darby says, “He can bestow on those who will follow Him a share in His sufferings,” that is all, the rest is up to the Father. “But what real glory for Christ and perfection in Him, and what a privilege for us to have this motive only, and to partake in the Lord’s sufferings! and what a purification of our carnal hearts is here proposed to us, in making us act only for a suffering Christ, sharing His cross, and committing ourselves to God for recompense!”

Jesus, who in His divinity is possessed of all the glory of that divinity, renounced everything in His humanity, renouncing His own will in everything that He might do the Father’s will, taking the lowest place and becoming a servant, even a slave, in His service to others—not doing what they wanted (but only what the Father wanted), but serving them with no will of His own, even bearing their judgment and the alienation and suffering that it brings on them. Can we be possessed of the same motive? This is the way of the cross, the way of the kingdom.

There are few in the church who are willing to take this way. James and John and their mother did not understand the way of Jesus, that it was the way of the cross. When the ten heard what they asked and became indignant, it was out of jealousy. They too did not understand, for they did not want to come after James and John in the kingdom. Yet Jesus, by their measure, would come last of all. Paul was astounded at the Corinthians: “Already you are filled; already you have become rich; you have reigned without us. And I would have it indeed that you did reign, that we also might reign with you. For, I think, God has set forth us the apostles last of all as doomed to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools because of Christ, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are glorious, but we are dishonored. Until the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked and buffeted and wander without a home; and we labor, working with our own hands. Reviled we bless; persecuted we endure; defamed we exhort. We have become as the offscouring of the world, the scum of all things, until now … I exhort you therefore, become imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:8-13, 16).

Those who take the way of the cross in the church are the ones who will enter the kingdom of the heavens, and it is because of them that Christ will come in glory and establish His kingdom among humanity. They are the “overcomers.” Those Christians who live selfish lives, whose love for Christ is less than their love of themselves, will not enter the kingdom but will be ashamed in the day of His coming.

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