Themes From A Scene

Matthew 20:17-34

And as Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way He said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up.” Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, bowing down, and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.” But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to Him, “We are able.” He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. “It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” And as they were going out from Jericho, a great multitude followed Him. And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” And the multitude sternly told them to be quiet; but they cried out all the more, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” And Jesus stopped and called them, and said, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Lord, we want our eyes to be opened.” And moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.

We are building on a foundation. We are constantly considering the continuing context, seeing the sublime string. Nothing written by Matthew, to his first-century audience, is irrelevant because the story is building, the conflict is growing in the background, tensions are about to rise, and the plot thickens, with a bit of foreshadowing because Matthew’s gospel is literary gold. Consider the following: And as Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem… Okay, the cliffhanger is mine.

“And as Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way He said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up.’” “A bit of foreshadowing” is a bit of an understatement. Perhaps I should have written, “a bold prediction,” but even this can’t come close to defining the statement made by Jesus. He is out-right and accurately telling the disciples the future. This doesn’t read like the Old Testament prophets, the parables or the book of Revelation. Jesus, leaving nothing to interpretation, tells the disciples what is about to happen, alone.

We notice that Jesus “took the twelve disciples aside by themselves.” He stopped along the way, pulled his disciples aside and privately fortold of his coming crucifixion and resurrection. (We assume that Jesus is traveling in a large caravan.) This is not the first time, he’s told them before. Yet each time he tells them, he reveals more details than the previous time. This time, he is very specific. Jesus progressively and fully reveals himself as the Messiah to the disciples. In the same way, Jesus has progressively and fully revealed the details to the disciples, concerning his death. Though he hasn’t revealed all of the details, yet.

We must remember where we are in the context. Matthew is written chronologically, for the most part. However, it is likely that Jesus has been to Jerusalem several times since he became an adult. But Matthew’s composition uses the entering of Judea and Jerusalem to highlight and amplify greater truth. Matthew’s aspiration to his first-century audience is that of Jesus as the true Israel, the Messiah, we see this unfold by the manner of composition that he employed. Matthew leans heavily on our Old Testament tutor and demonstrates, more than any other book, the numerous times that Jesus fulfilled prophecy. He also shows that the footsteps of Jesus mirror those of the nation, Israel. Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham, Born in Bethlehem, fled to Egypt, “out of Egypt,” baptized, tested in the wilderness, giving of the law on the mountain, and now, finally, he is about to ascend into Jerusalem. Has Jesus been there before? Of course. Has Matthew recorded words said by Jesus while there? It appears that way. Nevertheless we must consider the context of the composition. Matthew uses locations to help tell the story so that the symbolism sinks in. Because of the way in which Matthew writes, going up to Jerusalem is huge and progressively so. Everything else that Matthew has written, points to this place. Jesus has been all over Galilee and the surrounding districts and was welcomed with mixed results–rejected being the most prominent.

But now he is in the belly of the beast and is heading to the heart–Jerusalem. And on this trek, to the top of the world, is where John’s mom comes to Jesus with her two sons. Yes, I believe Matthew intended his for his audience to think–“you’ve got to be kidding me!” Notice: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, bowing down, and making a request of Him. And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’ She said to Him, ‘Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.'”

Talk about still not getting it! However, if one desires to dig deep, one may find that James’s and John’s mother is the aunt of Jesus. It’s a fair hypothesis but certainly not certain, though it would help explain this exchange. Still, wrong time, wrong place and wrong understanding. Especially considering the context of Matthew’s composition. For the last several paragraphs, Matthew’s theme has revolved around forgiveness, humility and the first being last.

Matthew’s first-century audience, who had a fuller, more meaningful comprehension of the composition, must have been flabbergasted by her request. Yes, that’s conjecture on my part, but I have good reason. The reader understands that Jesus is about to be berated and beaten, crushed and crucified, handed over by the Pharisees and scribes, to the chief priests and killed by the gentiles. It seems that no one is on his side. The man is making his way up the mountain to meet his maker and mother Zebedee wants to be assured that her sons will sit on either side of Jesus. And not only that, but more importantly; mama’s request is contrary to the recent teachings of Jesus. Like many modern pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers, mama is taking Jesus’s words about 12 thrones literally and out of context, missing the mark of the first being last.

But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you are asking for. [Clearly; (sorry)] Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to Him, “We are able.” He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” Mark’s account doesn’t include James and John’s mother. Here, Jesus speaks directly to the two of them. Whether their mother put them up to this is not relevant, for the disciples should know better, as should the majority of the caravan. Directed to James and John, Jesus says, “My cup you shall drink.”

Many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers teach that 11 disciples died a matyr’s death, but not John. Except that he did–Jesus says so right here. Unless you have a better interpretation of this text. “But Russell, Church tradition says that John didn’t die a martyr but of old age.” Possibly, but is this the same church tradition that says Mary was a virgin in perpetuity and that Peter was the first Pope? I have but one source and that source says, more than once, “BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.'” It may be metaphorical but the meaning is clear, the sons of Zebedee will die a martyr’s death. One of which is recorded in the New Testament book of Acts. By the way, none of the others’ are recorded.  I know, little old me, challenging thousands of years of church tradition.

Fine, I’m wrong, the cup of which Jesus spoke is the new covenant in his blood. We are all partakers if we confess him. I won’t get bogged down or lose my joy over metaphors that we simply can’t know, decisively. But what we do know, decisively, is that Jesus is headed to the cross and people persist in pestering him. Good news: he’s Jesus.

We are about to consider two blind men, but at present, we are seeing the response of Jesus to the mother of James and John and the response of the rest of the disciples. Jesus says, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” we’ll get back to this, even though we have already thoroughly discussed it.

Notice: “And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.’” 

There it is! The least shall be great and the first shall be last. Continuing context and sublime strings show us that the disciples still don’t understand that Jesus is turning everything on it’s head. To earthly standards, the Kingdom of Heaven is backwards and Jesus continues to pound this point home. The one who serves is greater than the one being served. Jesus did it and he’s our example. Jesus came as a ransom for many, Jesus has no home, he walks the earth teaching and Jesus continues to heal people even on the precipice of his death.

“And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ And the multitude sternly told them to be quiet; but they cried out all the more, saying, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ And Jesus stopped and called them, and said, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, we want our eyes to be opened.’ And moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.” 

This is no accident! The multitudes and me have something in common. We are getting annoyed. But Jesus is Jesus and he, in the middle of all this earthly misunderstanding, teaches that which he preaches, putting it into practice. Again, Old-Man Dan (eres un viejo), the Bible is not written like a manual to a 2006 Toyota Corolla. This composition is deliberately written to demonstrate how Jesus not only preached but practiced what he preached, in perfect timing. The context is no accident, but completely composed for consideration. Not that an owner’s manual isn’t, but the owner’s manual follows different themes in a different way and in an entirely different genre, which is entirely absent in the Bible, Proverbs included. IMG_20190526_111844733

For example, one section of the Corolla’s manual is about light bulbs and the proper change there of. Another section is about fluids and their required maintenance. But those two themes don’t overlap or build on each other, literarily speaking. Why? Because of the genre. Matthew’s themes and his aspirations to his audience build–such as the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus as the true Israel, the Messiah and they foreshadow his death and resurrection. There ain’t much foreshadowing in the owner’s manual, other than the table of content. Ironically, many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers have attempted to compose a”table of context” for the Gospel of Matthew. That can be helpful to some, but for me, I’ve found that reading and rereading the content, considering the context, aspirations, genre, examples and dividing rightly, work the best. Nevertheless, we all get stuck and bogged down from time to time, do what you have to do to grasp the weight of the Word. However, like my missives, take everything that man says with a grain of salt.

Lastly, turn off the TV and radio. Put down the christian, self-help books. Read the Bible and you’ll find the secret to self-help–kill it. That’s the sublime string of the Bible, man is wicked, only God is good. Jesus is everything and only by grace do the last become first. We cannot do it, Jesus does it. Not only in salvation but every step of the way. It’s not a child-like faith, but humility and dependence like a child.

Therefore, who sits at the right and left hand of Jesus? Problem, the Father sits at his left hand–that seat is occupied. No one can sit down at the left hand of Jesus or they’ll be stepping on the Father’s toes. Psalms says, along with Matthew, along with Hebrews, “The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand.'” There is no room for anyone at the left hand of Jesus. Unless he is speaking symbolism with a metaphorical meaning. Metaphorically speaking, who then sits at the left and right hand of Jesus? The answer is simple, it’s the last two people that we would ever expect. The last shall be first. Whoever does the least with self and the most with Jesus, serving, forgiving, walking humbly, he, probably she, will be first. And yet, there is equality in the Kingdom. Don’t get bogged down with this, see the sublime string and metaphorical meanings. The Kingdom is not about first and last but about being like Jesus, who “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

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