Category Archives: Gospel of Matthew

Kingdom Leaders – Part 1

 

In this Series

Recently we asked the question, “Who are your leaders?” a post in which two critical passages on Kingdom leadership were introduced,  Matthew 20:20-28 and Matthew 23:1-12.  After that post, we looked at how Jesus established a Kingdom Paradigm through which the believer is supposed to view this world and function within a Christian Community.  In this post, we’ll drill down a little more into the first of the two passage cited above and move from its introduction, in the previous posts, to its exposition in order to help us understand the nature of leadership that our Lord Jesus Christ came to establish in His kingdom.

Matthew 20:20-28 – Gentile Leadership

In our previous introduction of Matthew 20, we noted that the context is the prophetic announcement of our Lord’s pending death (Matt. 20:17-20).  It is out of this declaration of Christ’s suffering that the stench of desire for positional authority arises with the request from the mother of James and John that her sons may sit one each at Jesus’ right and left hand  in His kingdom.

The background for this request comes from Matthew 19:28,

“Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

However, despite their mother’s belief in the fulfillment of this promise, the request reveals some improper motivations and aspirations or at best a failure to understand the timing of the fulfillment.

Jesus’ reply, directed to the brothers, is to test the sincerity of the request (Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?), but then to deny it on the basis that it’s not a position for Him to give, to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”  It’s likely that the cup of the Lord here is the cup of suffering that He would soon drink.  What our Lord would endure by drinking the cup of God’s wrath and enduring suffering on the cross, would, with regard to suffering, be expected of those who would follow Him (Matt. 20:23; 16:24-26).

With this principle firmly established, Jesus turns His response towards a rebuke of their desire for positional authority by appealing to the leadership of gentile nations

“But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” Matt. 20:25

In the midst of this rebuke, Jesus looks towards the worldly leadership structure of the Gentiles (pagans), emphasizing that they “lord it over” and in doing so He provides a negative example for authority.  This particular phrase, lord it over, is also used in 1 Peter 5:3, specifically in the context of shepherding the flock of God, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”   We must ask, does this refer to the character of the authority or to the authority itself?

The word, translated as lord it over (katakurieuo), used in both passages, means “to bring under ones power; to subject to oneself; subdue; be master of”.  It appears to speak less to the character of the authority and more to the authority itself.  This becomes particularly evident in the context with the second statement, “their great ones exercise authority over them.”  Here there’s little confusion as to whether the character of authority is in view or whether authority itself is in view.   Clearly, the latter is the focus.  With this in mind, the establishment and dissemination of power in the Gentile world is held up as a an example, one not to be followed by Christ’s disciples, “It shall not be so among you.”

This passage, as I’ve been guilty of, is usually interpreted to mean that when in positions of church authority or leadership you are not to lord it over people or be domineering over people, much like a taskmaster.  However, that is not the main point, if it’s even a point at all, as we alluded to above.  Clarity is added by the kingdom paradigm that Jesus provides as an alternative to Gentile authority

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave”  Matthew 20:26b-27

In opposition to the negative example, this statement sets forth a positive example of servant and slave that speaks not so much about the character of the authority, but to the position of authority itself.  The contrast is between master and servant, not between a domineering attitude and a servant-heart attitude.  Additionally, we must note that the word servant used here is the same word that is sometimes translated as deacon.  Literally it says, “whoever desires authority among you, [eimi – must be] your deacon.”  (I’m retaining deacon here for a point we’ll discuss in another post) The contrast could not be more striking.  Instead of being masters, believers are to be servants and slaves.

However, the passage does not end here.  Our Lord is not content to hold up an errant model of leadership and authority nor to simply give a commandment for His disciples to follow.  No, He provides the pattern and example of leadership through His own life as the Suffering Servant, “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Literally this says, “even as the Son of Man came not to be deaconed but to deacon, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus provides a negative example, a command, and the positive example for how He has structured authority and leadership in His kingdom and it is precisely the opposite of the world’s pattern.  Genuine leadership always leads by example.

Kingdom leadership as defined by our Lord is not one of ascension to a position of authority, as with the Gentile nations, but one of descension existing among those who are functioning as servants and slaves.

 

A Kingdom Leadership Paradigm

 

In our Lord’s earthly ministry, there is much that could be commented on from the records that we have in the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John.  In fact, it is this latter gospel account that informs us that had everything about Jesus’ ministry been written down, there wouldn’t be enough books to contain them.  However, there is one particular theme about Jesus’ ministry that touches everything else He had to say and came to do, a theme that we’ll summarize as a Kingdom Paradigm (pair-a-dime).

A paradigm, in it’s most common meaning and usage, is defined as a clear or typical example, properly speaking an archetype or pattern.  Under the administration of the Old Covenant, there were certainly patterns and examples as well, but those reach their completion in Christ Jesus.  Not only did the Lord come to fulfill those old patterns and examples, but by establishing a kingdom paradigm, He came to upset or alter how we view this world and each other in His Kingdom.

Perhaps more than the other gospels, Matthew is intent upon describing and defining the Kingdom of God (properly, the “Kingdom of Heaven”).  This is summarized with the verse highlighting the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”  Additionally, the founding principles of this Kingdom Paradigm are found in Matthew 5:1-7:29, which is commonly referred to as The Sermon on the Mount.

By the time we reach Matthew 18 in the account of our Lord’s ministry, we are given the Kingdom Paradigm regarding relationships in the Christian Community.  One aspect of these relationships that’s specifically addressed is leadership and authority within the community.  The baseline for this particular facet of the Kingdom Paradigm comes by way of a question asked by the disciples, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1)  Depending on how Jesus answered this question, would define for us the paradigm, or pattern, of the kingdom.

Notice our Lord’s response below

And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of themand said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:2-4

This instruction on humility, as the entrance requirement into the kingdom, sets the tone for the next three chapters which outline and describe the nature of kingdom relationships, including kingdom leadership.  Likely because Jesus had yet to fully open their eyes to this unfolding paradigm, the disciples fail to grasp the simplicity of this reordering, that one must become like a child, and are given second opportunity to comprehend it in the chapter that follows

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”15 And he laid his hands on them and went away. Matthew 19:13-15

Reiterating the statement made earlier on a humble child being the greatest in the kingdom, on this occasion the disciples were given a tangible example, but again failed to fully comprehend the message.

A third example for the establishment of this new Kingdom Paradigm, comes by way of a parable, but nevertheless brings us to the same conclusion.  This parable, referred to as the “Laborers in the Vineyard” is found in Matt. 20:1-16 and addresses the principle of equality in the Kingdom, regardless of when someone enters.  Jesus’ concluding statement on this parable serves again to highlight the paradigm we’ve been discussing, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:16

A fourth example for this re-ordering of cultural structure and one which lands more clearly on the nature of leadership in the Christian community, builds on both the two earlier passages where Jesus indicates that that one must become like a child to enter the Kingdom and the third passage, where last is first and first is last.  This particular example comes from Matthew 20:20-28

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Such a request from a misguided, albeit well-intentioned mother, harkens our minds back to the opening question in this section from Matthew’s gospel account, “Who is the greatest?”  This question had already been answered, those with the humility of a child are the greatest.  The low are high, the high are low.  The rich are poor, the poor are rich.  The last are first, the first are last.  This is the Kingdom Paradigm and it most certainly applies to leadership, the servants are the leaders.

While we will look at this particular passage from Matthew 20 in greater detail in a follow-up post, suffice it to say that the Kingdom leadership paradigm, outlined here by our Lord, was  contrary to the nature of worldly leadership then, “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority” and it is contrary to the nature of worldly leadership now.  Summarily, kingdom leadership is not top-down, authoritarianism, but bottom-up, servant-hood.  This, as we will see, is not the same thing as the popular, modern notion of a servant leader, or more clearly that  leaders serve.  Instead, it is that your servants are your leaders.

Jesus’ Kingdom Paradigm is intended to cause us to view the world through an upside down or inverted kingdom lens.  What the world perceives as the proper ordering of society is power, class, or wealth.  And what they perceive as the proper ordering of leadership is authority and domination.  What Jesus establishes as the paradigm for the Christian society is to be like a child.  In kingdom leadership it is humility and service.  The very pattern for this is His own life-giving service (deaconing = [diakoneo] – more on this later) which stands as the ultimate paradigm for the kingdom and the model for how we relate to one another in our Christian communities.

 

 

Humble Like a Child

 

Originally published January 6, 2013.

“1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-4

This past Lord’s Day, the pastor of our local congregation challenged us to take time and meditate on what it means to be a child of God, specifically the love of God toward His children as spoken of in 1 John 3:1a, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”

The other night, as I was checking in on my sleeping daughter before going to bed, I paused extra long (I most always pause, just to be thankful, admire, and wonder) and just thought about her sleeping so peacefully.  The mind of this near 3-year old was perfectly relaxed, and at rest.  No worries or stress about the next day.  No anxiety over physical ailments or future ones.  No fear of what tomorrow brings.  No worry over life, job, finances, food, clothing, shelter.  By all respects, not a single worry to distract the mind.  The word free comes to mind.  Free from burden.

As I watched her with tears welling in my eyes, it occurred to me that this is exactly how God wants His children to live, free; free from burden, free from worry, stress, anxiety about what will come tomorrow or what life may bring next.  Not living irresponsibly, mind you, but freely reliant upon our Heavenly Father, much like a child is reliant upon his/her own parents.  Isn’t this what it looks like to be a child of God?

Too often it seems instead of being a child of God, we’re more like a teenager of God.  Rebellious, self-centered, selfish.  We want control of our lives and want so much to break free from the control of our parents.  What do teenagers call this?  Freedom.  Free to make their own choices and do what they want.  But this isn’t freedom, it’s bondage, or better a false-freedom.  This inward focus and inward reliance upon self is the foundation for those things mentioned earlier such as worry, stress, anxiety, or even worse an eerie calm that self-strength and determination can carry you through any problem, i.e. over-confidence.  Each of these are ultimately sin and are in fact the opposite of faith.  To be a child is to be reliant; at its very essence, helpless.

Which brings me to the passage from Matthew cited above.  Note the question of the disciples, “Who is the greatest?”  Isn’t that just like the question of an over-confident teenager holding out hope that maybe they would be the greatest.  Or at the very least, desiring to know who #1 is so that they can work harder to beat them.  But notice how Jesus responds, by placing a little child in their midst and saying, “unless you turn and become like children,” and answers their question accordingly, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

It’s so simple to understand that we miss it everyday.  Why didn’t Jesus point toward one of the disciples?  Why not point out a “righteous” man whom they could model their lives after?  Why not say a teenager, or an adult, or a mom or dad?  Why a child?  In fact, Jesus could have even said unless you become like Me.  Certainly He was the perfect example of reliance upon the Father.  Yet He chose the simplest, most basic example that the disciples (and us) could understand, a child.  The humility of a child speaks of their reliance upon their parent for everything: food, clothing, shelter, basically life.

My little girl does not sit around and worry where her next meal is going to come from.  She relies.  She doesn’t wonder how she will clothe herself or whether she will have a roof over her head.  She relies.  She doesn’t worry about health, her future, what obstacles may or may not come her way in a month, year, or 10 years.  She lives free from day to day.  What a beautiful picture of what it looks like to live as a child of God.  Reliant upon Him, not only for our material needs, but for all sustenance in life both now and in the life to come.  Practically, this is what faith in Christ looks like in the everyday.

We are to humble ourselves as little children.  Turn from our teenage, over-confident, self-reliant ways, and become like a child.  Reliant.  Free.   Such are the greatest in the kingdom.