Matthew 20 17-28: HE PAID THE RANSOM FOR ME

Introduction. Read Matthew 20 17-28.

This passage continues the theme of the last few studies. The disciples continue in their mistaken belief that Jesus has come to establish an earthly kingdom. Such is their impassioned but mistaken belief in Jesus the warrior king that they are deaf to all Christ's teaching to the contrary. The disciples continue to jostle for power and influence in the new kingdom. They have belief in Jesus but it is a mistaken belief; it is a weakness shared by many today.

(1) The crisis approaches.

The twelve disciples, along with others, were on their way to Jerusalem with Jesus striding out in front. The disciples were astonished at Jesus' decision to head for Jerusalem while others of his followers were afraid of the direction he had taken.

Jesus was striding ahead to be free from distraction - going about his business single-mindedly. He was preparing himself for the ordeal ahead; the great work that would involve: withstanding his foes, conquering his fears and satisfying his Father.

The disciples were astonished that Jesus was marching on Jerusalem with so little support. This was no way for a king to claim his throne! He should have been going up to Jerusalem at the head of an army raised in Galilee - not leading what was little more than a rabble.

Jesus' other followers, including doubtless many women, were just plain scared that Jesus was heading for danger, a danger that they shared.

All over the world Christian activists are following in the footsteps of Jesus. In militant Muslim countries like Pakistan a Christian evangelist has good reason to be fearful. His life is at risk. Muslim fundamentalists are only too willing to intimidate him and attack his family. His fellow Christians are frightened. There is no one to help!

(2) The future foretold.

Jesus took his disciples aside and told them what laid ahead. In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay writes: There is a strange inclusiveness in the suffering to which Jesus looked forward; it was a suffering in which no pain of heart or mind or body was to be lacking. Consider:

  • Jesus' distress at the disloyalty of Judas who betrayed him. This deeply troubled Jesus; more so than might be expected. See story of the football match.

  • The gross injustice Jesus suffered when condemned to death by the Sanhedrin - a council made up of political and religious leaders.

  • The mockery by the Gentile soldiers who, stripped him, clothed him in an old scarlet robe, crowned him with thorns, spat at him and struck him again and again. What men will do for a laugh!!

  • The scourging inflicted on Jesus; a procedure that inflicted terrible pain.

  • How he finally endured the agony of crucifixion along with its humiliation and shame. Jesus must have felt for those women who loved him and whose misery was overwhelming.

Our immediate reaction to this catalogue of woes is to ask, "Why did God allow it?" However, we need to remember that it wasn't God who inflicted all this vicious, brutal, callous, gleeful suffering on Jesus. No, it was men! Jesus' treatment by men, both Jew and Gentile, shows the depraved depths to which humanity can sink. Jesus went about doing good; he didn't deserve the wicked treatment he received. The crucifixion of God's Son reveals, as nothing else, the corruption of the human heart.

(3) Absolute incomprehension.

In Luke's gospel we are told that the disciples did not understand any of the above. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what Jesus was talking about. See Lk18v34. This is incredible to me as Jesus described so explicitly what the future held. So why didn't the disciples understand? There are three possible reasons:

  • The disciples had a completely different agenda to Jesus. They were convinced Jesus was the Messiah and that he had come to set up a kingdom on earth in place of the Roman empire.

  • The disciples could not conceive of Jesus being defeated. He had the power to: Still the wind and waves, feed the 5000, heal the leper, walk on water, change water into wine, cast out demons and raise the dead.

  • The disciples were convinced Jesus was God's anointed, his one and only Son. It was inconceivable that God would abandon his Son in time of need.

Today, there are plenty of people who call themselves Christians, who have a blind spot about Jesus' death and resurrection. There is a faction for whom Christianity is all about love. That being the case, God most certainly did not require a sacrifice for sin. So, for them, Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to the cross to identify, in love, with sufferers everywhere.

Then there are others for whom Christianity is just about ethics. These are the rationalists. They strip the gospel story of the miraculous including the virgin birth and the resurrection. All that is left is a teacher ahead of his time.

(4) Unworthy ambition.

It is likely that the mother of James and John was Salome, the sister of Mary, Jesus' mother. William Barclay draws this conclusion from the lists of women who were at the cross as recorded by Matthew, Mark and John.

So, Jesus' aunt comes to Jesus with her two sons, Jesus' cousins James and John, and requests special places of honour for them in his forthcoming kingdom. Points to note:

  • Salome and her two sons knelt before Jesus. Even though he was 'family' they showed Jesus the greatest respect. Sometimes a man or woman deserving respect is not shown it by their family. It is easy to overlook virtue, or to take it for granted, in our nearest and dearest.

  • The desire for pre-eminence is not a motive Jesus desires in his followers. He said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. Not so with you."

    I am afraid the desire for status in churches with a hierarchical structure of leadership still exists. There are probably a few Anglican clergymen who would quite like to be Bishops! Even in independent churches where the membership appoints pastors democratically, some of the chosen soon set out to assert their own authority. Their word is law!

  • The pursuit of selfish ambition is divisive. When the remaining ten disciples heard about James and John's bid for promotion they were highly indignant. They doubtless thought the two brothers were trying to steal a march over them. Perhaps, they considered James and John were exploiting their family connection with Jesus.

    The ten disciples obviously did not think that James and John were the best candidates for such high positions in Christ's kingdom. Whenever men and women compete against each other for advancement there we will be ill will, jealousy, resentment and disunity. This is very evident in politics with M.Ps jockeying for power. It can also be a distraction in the church.

    My three brothers and I, for all our weaknesses, have a least one virtue in common. None of us have been guilty of selfish ambition. We just did our jobs with little thought of advancement.

  • The disciples were very slow learners. Jesus consistently and repeatedly taught his followers the benefits of being poor in spirit. He had taken a little child and said: "For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Mt19v14. On another occasion Jesus asserted: "I tell you the truth unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Mt18v2. Even earlier in his ministry the Master announced, "I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children. Yes Father, for this was your good pleasure." Mt11v35.

    For all this teaching, still, James and John didn't get it! Here they were making an early play for positions of status, power and influence in Jesus' earthly kingdom.

    After teaching Geography for 37 years I am not surprised at the wooden-headedness of the son's of Zebedee. Over and over again pupils paid no heed to the excellent advice I gave them on how to prepare for examinations.

    So, today, Christians who attend Baptist chapels totally ignore calls to: Be baptised and join the church; attend the mid-week prayer meeting; help in the young people's work - and so on.

    The sad fact is that people are inclined to ignore the truth if complying with it results in any personal inconvenience.

(5) Commendable faith.

William Barclay observes: There is no incident which so demonstrates the disciple's invincible faith in Jesus.

They believed in him and were determined to stand by him:

  • Despite all he said about suffering and death.

  • Even though they couldn't understand his decision to go up to Jerusalem. Later, Thomas said of Jesus' decision to go to Bethany: "Let us go and die with him." Jn11v16.

  • In spite of the prospect of having to suffer with him. When Jesus asked James and John, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" "We can," they answered.

The disciples could not conceive that ultimately Jesus would fail. In this they were right. Today we need the confidence, the optimism, that in the end all will be well. I can remember my dear Uncle David writing to me after he had been diagnosed with Motor Neuron disease and affirming, "I have Jesus, what more could I ask for? All is well; all is well with my soul."

(6) A revealing incident.

The passage reveals some very important characteristics of Jesus:

(a) His honesty. Jesus did not make unrealistic promises. He warned his disciples of the way ahead. He would never be the leader of a great political movement - both able and willing to reward his followers with earthly power and glory.

Jesus told James and John that they would suffer as he suffered, but that honour and glory was not in his gift.

(b) His perseverance. James and John had a mistaken conception of the Kingdom of God and Jesus' role in it. However, Jesus did not write the two brothers off. He conceded that they would suffer on his behalf - as, indeed, they did.

Jesus persevered with them because he knew the depth of their love for him. He did not despair of them. In the same way we should be careful not to write our fellow Christians off because of immaturity and mistaken ideas. There are many in error, who are none the less devoted to Jesus and willing to give their all in his cause.

(c) HIs commitment. Jesus was a teacher to the end. He takes the opportunity given to him by the squabbling disciples to teach them a very important lesson: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 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." v27.

William Barclay observes: The world will respect, and admire, and sometimes fear, the man of power; but it will love the man of love." This is true of the pastor, the teacher, the doctor, the politician who puts the interests of others before their own and who truly serves without thought of reward. See my story about Old Wilky.

(7) The ultimate servant.

The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. v29.

Jesus did not come as the conquering king but as the suffering servant. Throughout his life he served; he satisfied the thirsty, fed the hungry, healed the sick, restored the fallen and washed his disciple's feet. Finally, on the cross, despised and rejected by men, the ultimate loser, he gave his life a ransom for many. This short phrase poses three questions:

(a) What is a ransom? It is a payment made to release a person from captivity and its attendant consequences. An individual might be in captivity because they are in debt. Only if the debt is paid will the captive be freed.

(b) Who needs ransoming? The answer is simple: We all do, because we are in debt to God. We owe our Maker for all the times we ignore him, forget him, fail him and disobey him.

(c) To whom does the ransom need to be paid? Surely it needs to be paid to the one we are in debt to, God. He sets the terms and conditions.

(d) What was the ransom payment? Jesus paid the ransom when he offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross. A sacrifice is a token payment for sins committed which depends for its efficacy on the one to whom it is offered, accepting it. God, in grace, accepted the payment Jesus made upon the cross.

(e) What was the result of the ransom being paid and being accepted; paid by the Son and accepted by the Father? It means, all those who believe in Jesus will be set free from the consequences of their sin; set free and given new life in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

          Why did they nail Him to Calvary's tree?
          Why? Tell me, why was he there?
          Jesus the helper, the healer, the friend.
          Why? Tell me why was He there?

          All my iniquities on him were laid.
          He nailed them all to the tree.
          Jesus the debt of my sins fully paid;
          He paid he ransom for me.

Many years ago, during my years as sports organiser at Pioneer Camp, I can vividly recall a boy with the sweetest treble voice singing the refrain over and over again. He sang the chorus with intensity of feeling always finishing distinctly, emphatically and with joyful assurance: "He paid the ransom for me." As far as I was concerned he couldn't sing the words often enough. It is one of my abiding memories of Pioneer Camp: HE PAID THE RANSOM FOR ME.