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. Matthew 20:27-28
In Matthew chapter 19, after encountering a rich young man, Jesus proceeded to teach his disciples about the danger of pursuing riches and the blessing of surrendering all to follow Him. He concluded this teaching in verse 30 by saying, “but many who are first will be last, and the last first.” This statement summarizes the teaching that those who pursue financial gain may be counted first in this world, but they are last in the kingdom of God; while those who, like the disciples, surrender their lives for the name of Christ, are counted first.
There is a close connection between the stories of chapter 20 and those of chapter 19. This is clear as Jesus repeats the same phrase in verse 16: “the last will be first, and the first last.” Chapter 20 also begins with the Greek conjunction gar, which emphasizes the continuity. Just how the parable of the hired workers in the vineyard (chapter 20) is related to the teaching on riches (chapter 19) is not immediately clear, but what is clear is that Matthew uses this illustration as a segue to the events he reports later in verses 20-28, where he teaches about the value of being a servant.
“The last will be first, and the first last,” is a summary of the counter-cultural way the entire Gospel of Matthew calls the Christian disciple to live. In this present order, those who are first are the rich and famous; as Jesus puts it in verse 25, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” In our society, “the first” are served; “the last” are the servants. But Jesus calls us to a different life, saying in verse 26, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Jesus demonstrated this as He who is “the king of the universe” turned the world on its head, by coming “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Christ’s servant’s nature is most demonstrable on the cross where He gave His life to save others. In preparation for Sunday read and pray through Philippians 2:3-11.
We concluded last time in Matthew 19 verses 13-15, with Jesus receiving the little children unto himself, surprisingly announcing in verse 14, “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” In stark contrast to the poor and weak nature of these children, Jesus was approached next by a rich young ruler who seemed to be living quite a good moral life. Perhaps more surprising than the nearness of the children to the kingdom of heaven, is the shocking discovery that this moral nobleman would find himself outside of the kingdom of heaven.
What is it about this rich ruler that is separating him from eternal life? After all, in his own estimation, he has kept the commandments well for his whole life. As a rich man, he probably gave a lot of money to charities and religious causes. He is even kneeling before the good Rabbi Jesus, in order to pursue what he must do to gain eternal life. If this man were to enter our church today, we would most assuredly embrace him, perhaps lead him in a prayer, pat him on the back, and assure him that he was on the right track to gain eternal life. But we learn in the text that both this man, and Jesus, knew that there was something he lacked.
What was it that he lacked? First, he had a poor understanding of his own sinful nature, particularly when contrasted to the One God, who alone is good. Many today fail to understand that goodness lies outside of themselves, and any goodness within is only the result of God’s gift. Second, his approach to gain eternal life was wrong; he saw it as something he could get by doing. Many evangelicals hold this view, thinking about eternal life as something that they attain by doing something themselves, for example, by praying a sinner’s prayer. Thirdly the young man asked about “eternal life,” whereas Jesus referred simply to “life,” demonstrating that following Jesus is not merely about the future, but is living life now. Again many fail to realize this, making the Christian faith all about a future heaven and nothing about life on earth today. This man was hoping to work his way into heaven by doing something, but what was needed was for him to become child-like and abandon all to follow Jesus. The sad conclusion is: When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Mt. 19:22).
So far in this sermon in Matthew 18, Jesus employed five accounts to teach Christian disciples how to love: 1) those in the world by limiting our freedom (17:24-26); 2) fellow-Christians with humble service (18:1-5); 3) weaker brethren through self-denial (18:6-9); 4) wandering Christians with relentless concern and outreach (18:10-14); and 5) sinning Christians by confrontation, and if necessary discipline or excommunication (18:15-20). What may be striking to us as we have been studying Matthew 18 is the seriousness with which sin is dealt with. No measure is to be left untaken in our effort to put sin to death in ourselves and in our brothers and sisters in the church. This shows us the importance of our “mission field” within our own local church. Our integrity as a church depends on our placing an equal emphasis on outreach to the world and “inreach” within the church. When we join ourselves to a local body of Christ, we become “our brother’s keeper,” as we strive together to make it to our final destination. So mortification of sin is a group-project, where we help each other to identify and root out sin.
But Jesus does not want to leave us with excommunication as the final word of this sermon – His last word is, forgiveness. In the course of living life together, individuals in the church will inevitably sin against each another. Part of our growth as Christians involves bearing with one another’s different sinful tendencies, and forgiving one another is paramount. In Matthew 18, verses 21-35, Jesus concludes this sermon on how to love one another with a strong exhortation of the absolute necessity for the Christian to forgive. The illustration of the unmerciful servant in our text reveals that forgiveness is so essential to our faith, that if we do not extend it to others, then we will find ourselves under God’s judgment. This parable stands as a warning to those in the church to examine themselves for the damning sin of unforgiveness. This text, along with parallel teaching from the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13, reveals that extending forgiveness to others is a behavior that comes as a result of the heart-change that we receive when we are forgiven our massive sin debt by Christ. It is with an overwhelming sense of gratitude then, that the Christian’s life becomes defined by charitable forgiveness.
In Matthew chapter 18 Jesus employs six illustrations to teach about the nature of love within the church community. The first three call us to a humble and self-denying love that is relentlessly tough on oneself, so as to not damage the faith of others. The last three call us to love one another in a way that demonstrates passion for other individual disciples in the church. As Matthew reports these stories he is sequentially building to the climax in verses 15-20 – what is often referred to as the process of church discipline. Here Jesus teaches the sin-confronting process whereby straying individual disciples are won back into the family.
Jesus describes a four-step process to apply when a wandering disciple strays from an occasional struggle with a weakness, into willfully participating in something that is clearly sinful. When a disciple goes over the line from weakness into wickedness, Christ commands the covenant community around him to confront the individual disciple and urge him to repent. If there is one thing that is very clear in Jesus’ teaching, it is that He is protecting the reputation of the sinning one; He is in no rush to expose sin. The matter is to be contained first between the one in sin and the person confronting him, and then between the witnesses; ample time must be given to repent. Church discipline is not a matter that is to be taken lightly; to do it right requires time, patience, and energy, as love always does. The ultimate goal of this process is restoration and reconciliation. Even if the final step of church discipline is carried out, and a person is removed from fellowship, the church ought to continue to love and pray for his repentance.
“The church” that Jesus speaks of, refers to the local assembly. This is not a reference to the church leadership. Though the elders are involved in the process, it is the assembled church body that takes the responsibility of the final step of discipline. This shows the authority that Jesus entrusts to local congregations. Jesus authorizes the local church to remove (bind) or allow (loose) someone from their communion, and seals that decision with a promise of His presence with the church, and that wherever this “binding” or “loosing” is done on earth, it has the authority of heaven behind it.
It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. Matthew 18:9
D.A. Carson said, “… precisely because our culture finds it relatively easy to believe that God is a God of love, we have developed notions of God’s love that are disturbingly spongy and sentimental and almost always alienated from the full range of attributes that make God, God.” Sadly, in what Calvin referred to as the “idol factory” of the mind, human beings tend to craft gods who make them comfortable. We readily accept those characteristics and actions that we judge as loving, while rejecting deeds and appearances of harshness. It’s the same with people. If someone is deemed to be “accepting” or “tolerant,” he might be counted as a “loving person;” while a person who confronts or challenges sin in another person’s life, is counted as “judgmental” and “unloving.” Even within God’s attributes, it is difficult for some to reconcile the love of God with His judgment of the wicked in hell. But it is not right to count the doctrine of eternal judgment as unloving, because the most loving Person to walk the earth taught it. And it is the most loving thing one can do, to warn people of the severe consequences that lie ahead of them on their present course. It is unloving to appear “tolerant” while you know a person is headed for his destruction.
On Sunday we will examine a Scripture text from Matthew chapter 18, where Jesus teaches the nature of love within the church community. We are called to love one another in a way that demonstrates passion for the individual disciple in our church. We find first, in verses 6-9, a love that is relentlessly tough on oneself, so as not to damage the faith of others in the church. Secondly, in verses 10-14, we read of a shepherd diligently seeking after one wandering sheep. From this illustration, we discover that love for one another leads us to relentlessly pursue the straying disciple, seeking to restore him to the fold. Then in verses 15-17, Jesus teaches the sin-confronting process whereby straying individual disciples are won back into the family. When we think of love, our minds rarely run to “cutting off limbs” or “announcing sin to the entire church;” but the love that God ordains for His church is one that relentlessly pursues its object until it makes sure that he or she achieves the common goal of the upward call of God, whatever the cost.
… the sons are free. However, not to give offense … Matthew 17:26b-27a
Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4
With verse 24 of chapter 17 of Matthew’s Gospel, we move into another section of teaching that is relevant for our life together as Christ’s church. In these next three chapters (18-20), we will look at congregational ethics (Matthew 17:24-18:35), domestic and monetary principles (Matthew 19), and servanthood (Matthew 20:1-28). God willing, we will cover this section in the next seven sermons, which will contain some very practical lessons about life in the church, at home, and in the work environment.
Coming out of chapters 13-17 with the call to “walk by faith” still ringing in our ears, in this next section we see what “walking faith” looks like among the people of God. In our text for Sunday we will cover the first two of six accounts in chapter 18, that teach how self-denying love: 1) limits personal freedom (17:24-27), and 2) redirects ambition (18:1-5). In the first story about the payment of the temple tax, we learn that “the children (of the kingdom) are free” (vs. 26); however, it is a central truth of Christian love that freedom is limited out of concern of offending others – that is, of driving them away from the Faith. Of course the non-Christian community around us is going to be offended by certain Gospel truths that we uphold. However, in the application of our Christian walk we must be careful that those around us are not stumbling over the political and cultural views that we may count as important, but are personal freedoms and not Gospel truths. In the second story, Jesus uses a child to illustrate the posture of a true Christian’s faith. Self-denying love takes one’s own personal ambition and success and relegates it to a place behind serving others.
In the first account, we see how as Christians, we have been set free to love others. In Christ we become the free servants of others. In the second story we learn that humility is the path to greatness. Both of these anecdotes are so antithetical to the world’s philosophy and way of living. The world sees freedom as a pathway to do whatever one wants; and the world links greatness with personal ambition. We are called to live with an “out of this world” self-denying humility that considers others better than ourselves.
And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Matthew 17:17
Imagine for a moment the disappointment that Moses must have felt after having been in the presence of the Lord God on the mountain for 40 days, to come down to find the children of Israel steeped in the idolatrous worship of a golden calf (Exodus 32). Moses was so upset by the shameless display that he actually smashed the stone tablets that contained the Law written by the very hand of God (Exodus 32;19). In our text for Sunday we find Jesus, coming down from His communion with Moses and Elijah and the very voice of His Father. As He does He is descending more than just a physical mountain; like Moses, He returns to find the enemy has triumphed over His faithless followers. Imagine how jarring it must have been to His heart to come from the heights of heaven to return to such an unbelieving company of disciples who were unable to cast a demon out of a young child.
There is an eternal difference between the experiences of Moses and Jesus, however. Moses came down the mountain, leaving God at the top; the disciples however, did not leave Jesus on the mountain; He came down with them. Now their failure is transformed into an opportunity to learn from Jesus and grow in faith, as the transfigured Christ who is the “Beloved Son of God,” now comes down the mountain as the “Son of man,” to teach His disciples how to live by faith, suffer, and help and serve others.
Faced with a demon-possessed boy, Jesus teaches that if the disciples had but a small amount of faith, nothing would be impossible for them (17:20). There is one reason that God’s people are not walking an overcoming, victorious walk; there is one reason that God’s people are not serving one another in love; there is one reason that Christians are not living as we ought – it is faithlessness. The good news though is that we can accomplish great things with even the smallest measure of faith. This is where we find the answer to our inability. The Father’s command in verse 5: “Listen to Him,” necessitates obedience, and obedience requires faith. May we exercise our mustard seed of faith to obey the Lord Jesus Christ.