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THE HIGH COST OF FINISHING FIRST
Intro: I once heard the story of a rice farmer who saved an entire village from destruction. From his hilltop farm he felt the earth quake and saw the distant ocean swiftly withdraw from the shore line. He knew that a tidal wave was coming.
In the valley below, he saw his neighbors working low fields that would soon be flooded. They must run quickly to his hilltop or they would all die. His rice barns were dry as tinder.
So with a torch he set fire to his barns and soon the fire gong started ringing. His neighbors saw the smoke and rushed to help him. Then from their safe perch they saw the tidal wave wash over the fields they had just left.
In a flash they knew not only who had saved them but what their salvation had cost their benefactor. They later erected a monument to his memory bearing the motto, “He gave us all he had, and gave gladly. This poor farmer finished first in the eyes of his community, but it cost him everything he had.
There are not many people in our world like that farmer. He willingly sacrificed himself that others might succeed. Most people do everything they can to better themselves, and think nothing of the people they step on behind as they climb to the top of the heap.
This text is designed to teach us the truth that not everyone who finishes first is victorious. Sometimes those who take the last seat, those who willingly finish last, are the real winners in the game of life.
I think it is clear from reading the Gospels that our Lord’s disciples were anything but humble men. They were always in the business of trying to promote themselves. On several occasions, Jesus sought to combat that mentality, but they never seemed to get the message.
In this passage, we see selfish ambition in all of its ugliness. James and John come to Jesus asking for the top seats in His kingdom. Jesus uses this event to teach us all some valuable lessons about leadership, service to others and forgiveness.
As we move through this text today, I want to preach about The High Cost Of Finishing First. I want you to see the thoughts that come out of this passage. I want you to see A Selfish Petition; A Somber Proclamation and A Spiritual Pattern.
As we consider these thoughts, I hope you will see that being first can cost you all you have. I want you to see that being a servant to others is more of a blessing, in the end, than being served by others.
I. v. 35-40 A SELFISH PETITION
A. v. 35-37 The Request James and John approach Jesus asking that they be allowed to sit with Him in the highest positions of His coming kingdom. The right hand seat was reserved for the person who was second in rank, while the left hand seat was reserved for the person who was third in rank. These men saw themselves as the leaders among the disciples and they wanted their positions made permanent.
They were literally asking for three things. They wanted Preeminence. They wanted the glory and honor that came from being elevated to a throne. They wanted Proximity. They wanted to be close to Jesus in the Kingdom. They also wanted Power. These men wanted to have positions of great authority in the coming kingdom.
What made them think that they could ask for such things? There are several reasons why they made such a request.
First, they based their request on their relationship to Jesus. Matthew tells us that Salome, their mother, made the request first, Matt. 20:20-21. Salome was Mary’s sister. Thus, she was the aunt of Jesus and James and John were His first cousins. They appealed to their relationship as family.
Second, they were merely claiming the promises they had been made. Matt. 19:28. These men had been promised thrones, power and position in the kingdom and they were making a claim on that promise. That may be why Jesus did not rebuke them for their request. They were asking for what would be given to them, but they did not understand the Lord’s timing in the matter.
(Note: What bothers me about their request is the timing of it. Jesus had just finished telling these men that He is going to Jerusalem, to be betrayed, rejected and killed, v. 33-34. All these men can think about is climbing to the top of the pile. All they can see is their position on the totem pole. Jesus is about to die for sin and they are playing “who’s on first? It is a cold-hearted, self-centered, unsympathetic request!
These men never did grasp the idea that their leader, the Lord Jesus Christ, was headed to a cross. All they could see was the crown. They wanted the crown without the cross. They wanted the glory without the pain. They wanted the reward without having to pay the price.
The problem with the disciples is the same problem people have today. Most people are not concerned with the glory of God. All they care about is finishing first. All they care about is their own power, position and prestige. The problem with the disciples, and the problem with many of us, is that we are filled with pride. Pride always leads to defeat, Pro. 16:18; 1 Cor. 10:12. What if God gets more glory from my finishing last? A humble, submissive spirit will prevent many failures.)
B. v. 38-39a The Response Jesus responds by telling them that they have no idea what they are asking for. He confronts them by asking them if they are willing and able to experience all that He is about to endure, Ill. v. 33-34.
When Jesus uses the word “cup He is talking about a life experience. When He uses the word baptism He is referring to being submerged or immersed in that experience. Jesus is saying, I am about to be immersed in an experience that you cannot imagine. Are you able to go through it too?
They tell Him that they can. But these men do not understand what awaits Jesus. Their response reveals a complete lack of understanding concerning what Jesus is about to suffer and of the load He was sent to carry.
Jesus is on His way to Calvary where He will bear the sins of His people on a Roman cross. Jesus is about to experience the undiluted wrath of Almighty God against sin and sinners. Jesus is about to die at the hands of the Heavenly Father, Ill. Isa. 53:1-6; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24.
C. v. 39b-40 The Revelation Jesus tells them that they will experience His anguish to a degree. They will die for their faith. All of them died a martyrs death, except for John and he was exiled to Patmos and greatly persecuted for his faith. These men would walk the same road that Jesus walked, but they could never endure what He was about to suffer.
Jesus tells them that positions in the kingdom would not be given out based on selfish ambition, but according to the will of sovereign God. The same is true in life! What a person receives in this world in terms of blessings, usefulness and ministry are all determined by the will of God, Ill. John 3:25-30.
(Note: I see preachers all the time who are trying to make a name for themselves. They are always jockeying for position. If they can just meet this preacher, or preach in this meeting, or preach in that church, then the doors will open and everything will fall into place. That is not how it works! God knows where His men are and He promotes them as He chooses; when He chooses and where He chooses. Blessed is the person who serves where they are and allows the Lord to determine the course of their lives and the extent of their ministry.)
II. v. 41-44 A SOMBER
A. v. 41 The Exasperation When the rest of the disciples heard about what John and James were up to, they became angry. Perhaps they were angry because these fellows were trying to promote themselves over the rest. Or, perhaps they were angry because James and John beat them to the draw and asked Jesus first. Whatever the reason, they are steamed!
Their reaction to what James and John did is no better than the request James and John made. The ten hear what James and John did and they react by becoming angry. People don’t always act like we think they should. And, when they don’t it is easy to become offended with them. It is so easy to allow anger to creep into our hearts.
People will offend us and we will hold a grudge against them. We will put on the front of righteousness while our hearts are full of unforgiveness. Let me just remind you that God cannot work in that kind of environment! When there is a problem between the saints of God, it hinders the work of God in His church.
God’s will is for us to walk in absolute forgiveness, Eph. 4:32; Luke 17:1-5; Matt. 18:21-35. There are people in this room who may be hindering the work of God in this church because you won’t forgive others. You have hard feelings over events that occurred 5, 10, 20 years ago or more. You need to get right with that person, so you can be right with the Lord. Others need to seek forgiveness of those you have offended. When there are hard hearts and hurt feelings among God’s people, there will be no power of God in the church house!
When there is that kind of situation it tells me that we have allowed our relationships to become too fragile. If our relationships can be broken by misdeeds and misunderstandings, then they are too fragile. The Lord said that our relationships were to be marked by love, John 13:35.
I am supposed to love you with an unconditional, unfailing, unquestioning love. When I do, I can forgive you and walk with you as my brother. But, when I do not love you like I should, I will hold the past over your head.
The problem is not with you or what you may have done. The problem is with me. My love is not right, thus, my heart is not right.
B. v. 42 The Examination Jesus doesnt allow their anger to simmer. He addresses the issue at hand and calls their attention to the Gentile world around them. He lets them, know that high seat seeking is the way of the world. Those who rule in this world rise to the top by grabbing power and oppressing their opponents.
We see that mentality all around us in the world today. This is an election year and every candidate is doing everything in his or her power to come out on top.
You can even find that situation in the church. It seems that every church has one or more people like Diotrephes, 3 John 9-11. There are always those individuals who like to think they run the show and have all the authority. Just for the record, I would rather allow the Lord to run His church than I would to try and usurp His authority.
He wants the disciples, and us, to understand that God has a higher goal for His children.
C. v. 43-44 The Expectation In these verses, Jesus simply restates an earlier teaching, Mark 9:33-37. These men didn’t get first the message, and most of us haven’t gotten it either. But, here it is again.
The Lord wants us to know that the path to the top leads through the bottom. If you really want to reach the top, you must start out at the bottom. If you really want to be a leader, you must first learn how to serve.
Jesus uses two words here that are of note. The word “minister in verse 43 is the word that gives us the word “deacon. That word speaks of a person who serves others. The other word is the word servant in verse 44. That word means “slave.
This idea is this: if we want to be recognized and respected, we must give up all ambition and selfishness. We must live out our days serving others.
It means being willing to get none of the glory. It means being willing to do the most servile and menial of tasks with no thought of receiving recognition or thanks. If we want to come out on top, we must first start by being a slave.
(Note: When Jesus spoke to His men about this issue earlier, Mark 9:33-37, He used a child to teach them about service. Why a child? I think there are several reasons.
First, children in that society were at the bottom of the social ladder. They were viewed as mere property and largely ignored by most adults.
Second, Jesus used a child to teach His disciples about service because children really can’t do anything for adults. A child can’t enhance a person’s position in society. A child cannot add to your success. A child can’t make you more important in the eyes of the world. However, a child can teach you much about ministry!
Think about it, every parent in this room knows what happens when you have a new baby. That child demands everything! From day one it must be served, every need must be met by a willing adult. Children come into our homes and they require constant care and attention. If they are ignored, they let you know all about in loud and irritating ways.
When parents have children, they learn what giving and service are all about. When that child is born you give and you give and you give. When that child grows, you give and you give and you give. Often, even after they reach adulthood, you continue to give and you give and you give, often receiving nothing in return.
Jesus used a child because children need to be served, but they cannot serve us in return. That is a lesson we all need to take to heart. Too often, we only serve those who can do something in return for us. The Lord would have us faithfully; selflessly serve others without giving a thought to what we might receive in return.
If you are looking for respect, learn to serve. People respect those who serve them. Respect is earned, it is never demanded.
Far too many people want to be recognized for the things they do. They want their pat on the back. They want to hear “thank you, and good job. They do what they do because they want to be recognized. They have their reward, Matt. 6:5.
We need people in the church who could care less if they are ever recognized as long as God’s work is accomplished. We need people who can see beyond themselves to the needs of others. We need people who willingly become slaves so that others are served. We need people who will graciously step aside when the time is right so that others can serve. That is what we need! Is that what we have?)
III. v. 45 A SPIRITUAL PATTERN
(Ill. Jesus uses His impending sacrifice as the ultimate example of sacrificial service. He sets the pattern all of His people are commanded to follow.)
A. The Prominence The word even reminds us of Who Jesus is. He is the Son of God. He is God in the flesh. If anyone who ever walked on this earth should have been served it should have been Jesus.
He could have commanded legions of angels to do His every bidding. Instead, He walked many dusty miles serving those around Him. He could have come to this world as a King and been born in a palace with servants and great wealth. Instead, He was born in a stable, in abject poverty. He did not come to be served, He came to serve.
If our God is willing to serve sinful humanity, we should be willing to serve as well. Some people think they are too good to serve others. Jesus Christ never thought that! He got down into the mud with fallen man so that He could lift him out and change his condition. May God give us that same heart to serve!
B. The Passion The Lords passion to serve was such that He willingly took the place of a slave. The greatest example of that can be seen the night before He went to the cross.
When Jesus and His disciples finished their meal in the upper room, Jesus put a towel around His waist and washed His disciple’s feet, John 13:1-17. He took the place of a slave and washed the dirty feet of men who would run away before dawn. He washed the feet of Peter who would deny Him three times before dawn. He even washed the feet of Judas Iscariot who would betray Him in to the hands of His enemies that very night.
Jesus freely served those who would break His heart. When the next day dawned, Jesus performed the greatest service of all when He went to Calvary to die on the cross for sinners who hated Him and wanted nothing to do with Him.
Service was His passion. Service was His life. May that same passion grip our hearts! May we freely take the place of slaves and serve others for the glory of God alone!
C. The Price The cost of service for Jesus was extremely high. It cost Him His very life. Jesus willingly went to His death to save those who cared nothing for Him. He suffered the shame, the pain, the humiliation, and the agony of the cross to serve lost sinners. He experienced the undiluted wrath of Almighty God to serve us. He took the place of a common criminal and was judged as rebel so that sinners could be saved. He willingly entered into death so that others might enter into life.
Why did He do it? He did it because He loves me, Rom. 5:8. He did it because He hates sin, Heb. 9:26. He did it to satisfy God’s demand for a perfect human sacrifice, 1 John 2:2. He did it to please the Father, Isa, 53:10. He did it to set me free, 1 Pet. 1:18-19.
What is His reward for this kind of service? It won’t be found among men. The majority of humanity hates the name of Jesus and cares nothing for His service or His sacrifice. His reward won’t be found in the church. Most churches and most so-called Christians have no understanding of Who Jesus is or what He did.
Our Lord’s reward will be found in two places. First, His reward is in the changed lives of men and women who receive Him as their Savior and live out His love in the world, Heb. 12:2. His greatest reward is found in the face of the Father. Because Jesus served humanity so selflessly, God has promoted Him to the pinnacle of glory and worship, Phil 2:5-11.
How did Jesus arrive at such an exalted place? It isn’t because He is God! He is there because He took the place of a slave. He is there because He willingly chose the lowest place of all and God elevated Him to the highest place of all.
While you and I will never reach the same place Jesus occupies, the same principle that caused Him to be exalted is at work in your life and mine. Here is what Jesus said, “for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted, Luke 18:14. The Word of God also says, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, 1 Pet. 5:6.
Conc: It is a paradox, but it is true nonetheless, for the Christian the way up is always down. Is that the path you are walking? Are you actively seeking ways to serve others? We have places of ministry in this church where you can serve, are you serving in them? There are people all around us who need to know about Jesus, are you telling them? There are needs on every hand, are you seeking to meet them? Are you being a servant of God by selflessly serving others? If the Lord has touched your heart about your service, today would be a good day to enlist.
If you are like the ten and you have hard feelings at other for what they have said or done, today would be a great day to make that right. I would make it right with them and then come make it right with God.
If you have never trusted Jesus as your Savior, today would be a good day to bow before Him and receive Him as your Lord. He will receive you, change you and use you for His glory.
Do what He would have you to do today?