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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

BusinessmanThen the mother of [James and John] came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him . . .  “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” - Matthew 20:20-21

My first major confrontation with authority occurred during my senior year of high school and was accompanied with the following words from my band director: “Get out of here this instant!”  I grew up a fairly obedient kid who never had to truly resist or confront authority until something challenged what I (and my parents) valued highly: my future. With these words, I felt I had escaped an oppressive environment, but in reality I was just reasserting power over my own future in a remarkably un-Christian manner. Jesus uses a similar power struggle in the life of the disciples in Matthew 20:20-28 to highlight the only true way power should be wielded: with the right motives and the right methods. 

The passage starts in a (slightly) surprising place by noting where the request of James and John first came from: their mother! It gives us an indication that the first place that the wrong motive for power can come from is the expectations of others. Those not tripped up by meeting the expectations of others must avoid the alternative tendency of using power to satisfy our own desires. James and John were not thinking at all about what’s best for anyone else in the equation; they were only hoping they got to Jesus first.

In addition to wrong motives, they’ve also sought power with the wrong methods. Even if they understood Jesus’ oblique reference to his death by “drinking the cup” of God’s wrath, their abrupt answer to the question reveals that they were interested in gaining power in the wrong way, hoping to gain all the benefits without any of the cost. Jesus responds (v25), “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” This is the second example of how people gain power with the wrong methods: doing so at the expense of those under their authority.

As is usually the case, the disciples give us a clear example of what not to do. I want to suggest that true Christian authority, described by Jesus, must be achieved with both the right motives and the right methods. This is what Jesus gets at in verses 26 and 27: “... But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus shows us that true Christian authority can only be gained where the motive is love and the method is service.

We must not interpret power struggles from a worldly perspective, because we might interpret what is truly happening through a lens of the world rather than of heaven. Dying on a cross in the world’s lens: dying a criminal’s death; through a heavenly lens: inaugurating the reign of a king. Acting like a slave and washing feet through the world’s lens: being a slave; through a heavenly lens: wielding true power. To achieve greatness is to serve, to be first is to be a slave, to be Lord of all creation is to die at the hands of your creatures. In thinking of power we have to see beyond the surface-level and zero-sum analysis of who won and who lost, who gave up something and who gained something, who suffered and who conquered. If kingship is achieved through suffering, so too must servants of the king achieve greatness by serving others. This is power in its true form.

We don’t know where James and John sit right now in God’s kingdom, but we do know where they weren’t at Jesus’ coronation. Matthew tells us later (27:38) that two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. True Christian authority can only be gained where the motive is love and the method is service, in other words, self-giving love. In the kingdom of God, to achieve greatness is to serve, to be first is to be a slave, to be Lord of all creation is to die at the hands of your creatures, thereby bringing many sons into glory who will rule for all eternity in love and submission to one another and our great God and King, Jesus Christ.

Justin Mills
Ministry Director at Penn
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