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.