Two people can look at THE SAME OBJECT, but see TWO DIFFERENT THINGS. It’s not that the OBJECT changes. It’s all about PERCEPTION. Whether you’ve got the eyes to see, or not.
What do you see when you look at THIS? A duck or a rabbit? It doesn’t CHANGE from one to the other. IT stays the same. What changes is the WAY WE LOOK AT IT.
What about THIS one? An old man with a bushy beard, or a person sitting in a field?
Or THIS one? It’s probably the most well-known. Do you see an old lady with a thin mouth? Or a young girl with a tight black necklace?
One picture. Two different perceptions.
Which is just what we’ve got when it comes to the picture of Jesus. Here in Matthew Ch 20. Two conflicting, opposing pictures.
Some people look at him. At what he says and what he does. And they expect ONE thing. They look at him through the lens of God’s Old Testament promises. Promises about a kingdom and about a king. And they expect ONE thing. A victorious king who’ll win military victories and brings earthly deliverance from foreign oppressors.
But the reality is Jesus is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Upside down. And only SOME people see it. Yes, he’s a victorious king who brings deliverance. But it’s from a much greater oppressor than people realise. And he’s going to DO it in a completely unexpected way.
And getting that truth across is what Jesus has spent his whole time DOING.
Setting the scene – painting the picture
Let’s set the scene for where we are TODAY. We’re starting back into Matthew at Ch 20.
All the way through Jesus’ ministry, he’s been teaching about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Back in Ch 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, he said, that in the Kingdom of God things were UPSIDE DOWN. It was the POOR IN SPIRIT, AND THE MOURNERS AND THE MEEK who’d be blessed.
He talked about LOVING, rather than hating your enemies.
He talked about giving so that no one else saw. And praying so that only GOD heard.
And, instead of seeking out the RESPECTABLE people. He hung out with the sinners and outcasts. Upside down to the way religion NORMALLY worked!
And, ch 11, even JOHN THE BAPTIST started to have doubts. Perhaps the guy who knew Jesus best. Who came to prepare the WAY for him. He expected fire and wrath. Expected preaching about vengeance and judgment. But, instead, Jesus came healing the sick and preaching GOOD news. And John just couldn’t SEE it. “Have I backed the wrong horse?” he thought.
And then we get to Ch 16. Jesus asks the disciples what people see when they look at him. What’s their TAKE? And when Jesus asks the disciples what THEY think, Peter gets full marks, v16. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
And yet EVEN THEN, he can’t see the full picture. V21. Jesus explains that being God’s Christ – his chosen king- means SUFFERING, DEATH AND RESURRECTION. But Peter can’t see the full picture. He wants a teacher to follow around the country, making life better. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to YOU!”
Jesus rebukes him. “That’s blindness! That’s talk from SATAN. Get BEHIND me.”
Into the NEXT chapter (17) Jesus tells them AGAIN that he’s going to be betrayed, killed, and then rise three days later. It’s WONDERFUL NEWS. He’ll DEFEAT death! But the disciples were filled with GRIEF. They can’t SEE it.
And as we move through chapters 18 and 19 we see more brushstrokes added to the picture. About how ANYONE in the kingdom has to TAKE UP A CROSS TOO, just like Jesus. Has to LOSE his life before he can SAVE it. And about how the GREATEST in the kingdom must be like little children.
And about how, (end of Ch 19) rather than the rich and successful being FIRST in line to enter the Kingdom of God. (The ones everyone thought God had BLESSED). They were actually LAST in line. The ones LEAST likely to make it.
The disciples are ASTONISHED. “Who then CAN be saved?”
Jesus answers. “It IS impossible. It’s only possible if GOD does it!”
And he tells a story about workers in a vineyard. Some worked all day, others only worked for an hour. But the boss paid everyone the same. One day’s wages. No one was ripped off, but some were graciously given WAY MORE than they deserved.
Which brings us to TODAY’S passage. With the disciples still struggling to see who Jesus is. They’re looking at the picture, but they can only see ONE SIDE of it.
So, verses 17-19 of Ch 20, for a THIRD time, Jesus outlines the road map ahead. Even MORE detail this time. They’re headed for Jerusalem, he’ll be BETRAYED, condemned to DEATH, mocked, flogged and CRUCIFIED. Then, on the third day, he’ll be raised to life.
THIS TIME, we’re not told how disciples respond. The last two times, they haven’t responded well. But here, Matthew moves straight on to the next section. And I reckon that’s because that’s the RESPONSE. The next verses show PERFECTLY WELL how the disciples are understanding things. That is – NOT AT ALL.
It’s a little episode about TWO BLIND MEN.
Two blind men
James and John’s mum has an idea. Or perhaps James and John put her up to it. But she comes to Jesus with a request. V21.
“Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
God’s kingdom: It was a hot topic of speculation. God had promised through the Old Testament prophets that he’d restore his kingdom. And Israel would once more be the centre of the world. Like in the days of King David. And he’d do it through his chosen king, the Messiah, or Christ.
And with Rome ruling the roost, Jews of Jesus’ day were hoping that every new teacher or leader or revolutionary who stuck his head above the crowd would be God’s chosen One to bring in a new national kingdom. That, once more, Israel would be top of the heap.
Including, it seems, the mother of James and John. She’s saying to Jesus, “I like the idea that you’re going to be a KING. When the victory happens, since I asked FIRST, can my two boys get best spots in the new regime?”
It’s like the manoeuvring that goes on in the political parties leading up to an election. No thought about weighing up policies. Or sticking to your word. Everyone tries to work out who the winning horse will be. And then they jump on board. Hoping that, after the election, the new victor will return the favour and hand out some cushy promotions.
And, not for the LAST time in these chapters, Jesus is going to give MUCH MORE than they realise. He answers them all. V22.
22 “You don’t know what you are asking.
They still haven’t got it. He’s spent so long talking about a kingdom of SERVICE and SACRIFICE and REJECTION IN THIS WORLD. But they’re asking for HONOUR AND RECOGNITION AND POWER. To even ASK it means they haven’t GOT IT AT ALL.
He goes on, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
He’s thinking of the cup of SUFFERING. Of God’s judgment. It’s a picture from the Old Testament. A bit later on, in the Garden of Gethsemene, he can hardly bear what’s coming – the suffering of the cross. And he prays, asking that God might take that cup from him.
HE knows what’s in store. V22. But James and John have NO idea. “We can drink it too,” they answered.
Jesus replies that they WILL drink the cup. After he returns to heaven, the disciples WILL suffer for Jesus’ name. Many of them were crucified.
And they’ll do it WILLINGLY. Because THEN they’ll understand the nature of Jesus, and the kingdom he brings in.
But at the moment, they can’t SEE it.
“You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
Every will turn out according to God’s plans.
And the irony is, in God’s wisdom, when Jesus comes in his kingdom the people on his right and left will NOT have any power or receive any glory.
When he’s raised on the cross. When he brings peace and forgiveness and restoration. When he brings his KINGDOM. Who are those on his left and right? Two CRIMINALS. Who die WITH him.
I bet James and John didn’t have THAT in mind when they asked.
And the REST of the disciples aren’t much better EITHER. Look atv24.
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.
This is no righteous indignation. They’re not rebuking the brothers because they’ve got Jesus WRONG. It’s petty envy! They wished they’d thought of it first! So much for humility and putting others FIRST!
So close to the end, and still Jesus’ closest followers have so little idea. He must have been tempted to give up. But he calls them together. AGAIN. V25.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you.
It’s a DIFFERENT sort of KINGDOM. Because I’m a different sort of KING.
Instead, whoever wants to become GREAT among you must be your SERVANT, 27 and whoever wants to be FIRST must be your SLAVE- 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
A ransom. A price paid for the life of a slave. And here, Jesus will offer himself as the one to take the punishment that many deserve. The one to bear the wrath – to drink the cup – of a righteous God against unrighteous people.
And it’s a price that pays for our freedom. Satisfying God’s justice. Calming his anger. That’s how Jesus’ kingdom comes. How Jesus is crowned.
And it provides the clearest picture of Jesus’ character. He IS the SERVANT king.
And it sets the SUPREME EXAMPLE of what his kingdom is LIKE. The giving up of life.
Can you SEE Jesus like THAT? If you CAN, are you LIVING THAT WAY? Are you being a SERVANT? A SLAVE?
Jesus is actually saying it’s a GOOD thing to want to be GREAT. A GOOD thing to want to be FIRST.
Is that YOU? Do YOU want to be great? To be first?
Don’t forget it’s about being great IN GOD’S kingdom. First in God’s kingdom.
And to first and great in God’s eyes. Means being LAST and LEAST NOW. It’s GOOD to want that.
How are YOU working out being last and least NOW? How are you serving God’s people HERE? How are you putting them first, and yourself LAST? And is your ATTITUDE one of putting yourself last? Are you happy if NO ONE ELSE NOTICES what you do? Is it BETTER if no one notices?
How are you putting YOUR FAMILY first, and yourself LAST?
And it’s not just something for the NORMAL everyday Christians to do either. It’s THE LEADERS who should be setting the example BEST.
It’s the leaders. The adults. The parents. The elders. The ministers. The mature Christians among the less mature. The older teenagers at Youth group among the younger ones.
I had a lecturer’s meeting at the PTC on Tuesday, and Ian Smith, the Principal, was a few minutes late because he’d been down the street buying coffees for everyone. The coffee shop owner thought it was surprising. She said, “I thought you were the big boss!
I don’t think Ian had much of a theological reply. But perhaps he SHOULD have said, “It’s just what Jesus did.”
If you want to be GREAT in God’s kingdom that means being the OPPOSITE NOW. Being the least. The LAST. Because Jesus was THE KING. The GREATEST. And he came to SERVE.
That’s the clearest picture we can get of Jesus. Of who he is. Why he came. And what his kingdom is like.
But the two blind brothers can’t see it at all. And the rest of the disciples aren’t any better.
Two MORE blind men
Which takes us to two MORE blind men. From v29. Two men who can’t see PHYSICALLY, but who can see who Jesus is perhaps even BETTER than James and John.
Jesus and the disciples are heading up to Jerusalem. And they’re leaving Jericho – 25 km away. There’s a large crowd following. And they attract the attention of two blind beggars sitting by the road. They hear it’s Jesus, so they yell out (v30) “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
It’s the first time since the genealogy in Ch 1 that Jesus has been called the SON OF DAVID. And it’s come from two BLIND men. But they’ve seen Jesus CLEARLY. God had promised that his Messiah would be a king from David’s line. And he’d be the one to bring in the kingdom. And now Jesus was doing it, and the blind men are pleading for him to have mercy.
Jesus asks them what they WANT him to do (v32).
It’s a question heavy with expectation. Do the men play it safe, and just ask for a few coins to put food in their bellies? Or do they go for broke, and risk it all? He might laugh, and keep on walking. Too busy with his political agenda. Dare they ask for what they REALLY want?
Their answer says something about how well they see who Jesus is. They can see enough of his POWER to suspect he can DELIVER what they want. And they can see enough of his COMPASSION to suspect he’s WILLING to do it.
So they take a deep breath, and answer (v33), “Lord, we WANT OUR SIGHT!”
They might be BLIND, but they’ve perceived Jesus just right.
34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Blind men who want to see. They ask Jesus, and he gives them sight. He has the power and the compassion. And then they FOLLOW him.
It’s exactly the model EACH OF US should copy. Ask Jesus to give us sight. To recognise his power and his compassion. His nature and his sacrifice. And then to FOLLOW him.
And these two seeing men KEEP following Jesus. All the way to Jerusalem. Into Ch 21. Where we see a story of two DONKEYS. Well, if you count James and John as two donkeys, then it’s a story of two MORE donkeys.
They get close to Jerusalem. Jesus sends two disciples into Bethphage, a couple of km’s outside of Jerusalem. He tells them to untie two donkeys they’ll find there. And bring them to him. A mother and her foal.
And then Matthew tells us Jesus did it to fulfil a prophecy from Zechariah. A promise from God that his king would come – would bring in his kingdom – not riding on a mighty warhorse, proudly declaring military conquest. But riding on A DONKEY. No saddle, no stirrups. Not high above everyone else. At eye level. Legs swaying awkwardly in time with the rolling of the donkey’s waddles.
Hardly fitting for A KING. Unless you’re a SERVANT king. Whose kingdom is one of service and suffering and humility.
And it’s just that message Jesus declares as he makes his way down the hill from the Mt of Olives, and up the other side of the Valley of Kidron into Jerusalem. The disciples have spread their cloaks over the donkey for Jesus to sit on.
The rest of the crowd have cut branches down, and spread their own cloaks down on the path for Jesus and the donkey to walk over.
Despite Jesus’ best intentions, despite the message he sends with the donkey, the crowd STILL expects an EARTHLY king. A military conqueror.
Hosanna, they shout – God SAVES! And he does it through his promised Son of David. A revolutionary cry against the Romans! Surely with him coming to Jerusalem, the rebellion is about to start.
The word spreads like wildfire. Who is this, everyone asks? The crowd answers, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
And the city waits expectantly to see what this Son of David will DO.
Which is what WE’LL have to do TOO – until NEXT week.
But it’s the right question to be ASKING? There is no more IMPORTANT question. Who IS this?
It’s a great question to be encouraging your friends who aren’t Christian to be asking. It really is the best way to be evangelising them. Get them looking at who Jesus is. Why not offer to read the Bible with them? Work through part of Matthew’s Gospel once a week.
It’s a great question to be asking with your family. Read through the gospels after dinner. Ask the kids, what do we learn about Jesus from THIS passage? How can we FOLLOW him?
And when it comes to YOU. How well are YOU seeing Jesus? And you can SHOW that by how well you’re FOLLOWING him.
Do you WANT to be great? First in God’s kingdom? Show it by being least and last NOW.
Is it Jesus’ agenda you’re following, or YOURS? Is it about YOUR plans? Your priorities? Your decisions?
Or does it all depend on doing things JESUS’ way. Humbly serving OTHERS. Regularly, habitually putting yourself LAST.
What a great place this church would be if we all lived like THAT in our dealings with each other, and with our community!
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave- 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”