Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 20:28 - 20:28

Online Resource Library

Commentary Index | Return to | Download

Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 20:28 - 20:28

(Show All Books | Show All Chapters)

This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

The Ministering Master

Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.—Mat_20:28.

The whole scope of the teaching and example of Jesus from the beginning went to show that greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven is a different thing from that which is accounted greatness among men. The pagan ideal of life, the semi-barbaric and old Roman conception, finds the dignity and serviceableness of life in the influence of one man over another. From the days of Nimrod it has crowned the men of strong will. As Jesus said, They that wield authority over the nations have been hailed as their benefactors. In the form of military or physical mastership, or in the less brutal form of intellectual rule, rule by law, or the assertion of brain-power over feebler races and feebler men, this ideal of human life has played a great part in history and is destined still to play a great part. The ages of “blood and iron,” of the domination of the strong over the weak, and of ruling over subject peoples, are not yet done.

The Christian ideal is the precise contrast. Christ came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister; not to enrich Himself, either with nobler or with baser wealth, but to impoverish Himself that He might make many rich. With Him first, and with His followers in proportion as they actually do follow Him, self is subordinated into a minister to others; while the good of others and the honour of God in others’ good become the end, the centre, the dominant and rewarding goal, towards which, in labour or in endurance, the whole life tends.

Louis XIV., in his spirit of tyranny, could say, “I am the state.” This was the pagan view. Frederick the Great, of Prussia, gave fine expression to the modern and Christian view in that noble utterance, “It is the business of the king to be the chief of the servants of the state!” This is the new standard, and has taken firm hold of the thought and life of Christian civilization, and today, without argument, he is conceded to be the greatest who is greatest in service to the cause of human progress and the advancement of the Kingdom of God.1 [Note: W. F. Anderson.]


The Pattern of Service

“The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”

1. The Master here finds occasion to teach His disciples the profound lesson that the way to spiritual greatness is by service. It seemed an inversion of the ordinary rule by which princes exercise dominion and the world’s great men exercise authority. For here it is the opposite—“whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” He takes Himself as an illustration of the law; for even the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” The lesson is that we should follow in His steps, and make our religion not merely a getting but a giving, the service of Christ and of the brethren.

The notion of rank in the world is like a pyramid; the higher you go up, the fewer there are who have to serve those above them, and who are served more than those underneath them. All who are under serve those who are above, until you come to the apex, and there stands some one who has to do no service, but whom all the others have to serve. Something like that is the notion of position, of social standing and rank. And if it be so in an intellectual way,—to say nothing of mere bodily service—if any man works to a position that others shall all look up to him and that he may have to look up to nobody, he has just put himself precisely into the same condition as the people of whom our Lord speaks,—as those who exercise dominion and authority,—and really he thinks it a fine thing to be served. But it is not so in the Kingdom of Heaven. The figure there is entirely reversed. As you may see a pyramid reflected in the water, just so, in a reversed way altogether, is the thing to be found in the Kingdom of God. It is in this way: the Son of Man lies at the inverted apex of the pyramid; He upholds, and serves, and ministers unto all, and they who would be high in His Kingdom must go near to Him at the bottom, to uphold and minister to all that they may or can uphold and minister unto.1 [Note: George MacDonald, A Dish of Orts, 299.]

2. Now in order to appreciate the significance of that life of service, we must take into account the introductory words, “The Son of man came.” They declare His pre-existence, His voluntary entrance into the conditions of humanity, and His denuding Himself of the glory which He had with the Father “before the world was.” We shall never understand the Servant-Christ until we understand that He is the Eternal Son of the Father. His service began long before any of His acts of sympathetic and self-forgetting lowliness rendered help to the miserable here upon earth. His service began when He laid aside, not the garments of earth, but the vesture of the heavens, and girded Himself, not with the cincture woven in man’s looms, but with the flesh of our humanity, and “being found in fashion as a man,” bowed Himself to enter into the conditions of earth. This was the first, the chief, of all His acts of service, and the sanctity and awfulness of it run through the list of all His deeds and make them unspeakably great. It was much that His hands should heal, that His lips should comfort, that His heart should bleed with sympathy for sorrow. But it was more that He had hands to touch, lips to speak to human hearts, and the heart of a man and a brother to feel with as well as for us. “The Son of man came.”

Scientists tell us that, by the arrangement of particles of sand upon plates of glass, there can be made, as it were, perceptible to the eye, the sweetness of musical sounds; and each note when struck will fling the particles into varying forms of beauty. The life of Jesus Christ presents in shapes of loveliness and symmetry the else invisible music of a Divine love. He lets us see the rhythm of the Father’s heart. The source from which His ministrations have flowed is the pure source of a perfect love. Ancient legends consolidated the sunbeams into the bright figure of the far-darting god of light. And so the sunbeams of the Divine love have, as it were, drawn themselves together and shaped themselves into the human form of the Son of Man who came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.2 [Note: A. Maclaren, Christ’s Musts, 57.]

Sir Walter Scott says that the most beautiful scenery in Scotland is where the Highlands and the Lowlands meet. Not in the Highlands, nor yet in the Lowlands, but at the meeting of the two. And it is as true in the spiritual kingdom, when the beaten track becomes the highway of God, and the heavenly places in Christ Jesus are connected with the common duties and everyday business of life.1 [Note: L. A. Banks.]

3. He came to minister. His service was to be utterly unstinted. He would go the whole length with it. He saw that we should demand from Him all that He had; that we should use up His very life; that our needs and necessities would press upon Him so sorely, so urgently, that He would spend Himself, and be spent, in this hard service; that we should never let Him stop, or stay, or rest, while we saw a chance of draining His succouring stores. He foresaw no light and easy giving, no grateful and pleasant ministry; He saw that it would cost Him His very life. And yet He came: even that He would lay down for our profit; even that He would surrender at our demands. And just because the work of the faithful service would indeed involve this surrender of life, which is the final and utter proof of all loyal and unselfish devotion, He had found it a joy and gladness to enter a world that would ask so much of Him. In this hope He came. “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister”; yes, and so to minister, so to serve, that He would “give his life a ransom for many.”

Christ had always found His happiness and His honour in serving others and doing them good; but the supreme illustration of the principle on which He conducted His life was still to come—His final service was to consist in giving His life a ransom for many. This image of a ransom does not appeal to our minds as forcibly as it would to those of the disciples, because the experience of being ransomed, in the natural sense, is much rarer in modern than it was in ancient times. In the British Isles at present there do not probably exist a hundred persons who have ever been ransomed, whereas in the ancient world there would be such wherever two or three were met together. War was never a rare experience to the countrymen of Jesus, and in war the process of ransoming was occurring continually, when prisoners were exchanged for prisoners, or captives were released on the payment by themselves or their relatives of a sum of money. Similarly, slavery was a universal institution, and in connexion with it the process of ransoming was common, when, for a price paid, slaves received their liberty. The Jews had, besides, numerous forms of ransoming peculiar to their own laws and customs. For example, the firstborn male of every household was, in theory, liable to be a priest, but was redeemed by a payment of so many shekels to the actual priesthood, which belonged exclusively to a single tribe. A person whose ox had gored a man to death was in theory guilty of murder, but was released from the liability to expiate his guilt with his life by a payment to the relatives of the dead man. Such cases show clearly what ransoming was: it was the deliverance of a person from some misery or liability through the payment, either by himself or by another on his behalf, of a sum of money or any other equivalent which the person in whose power he was might be willing to accept as a condition of his release. It was a triangular transaction, involving three parties—first the person to be ransomed, secondly the giver, and thirdly the receiver of the ransom.1 [Note: J. Stalker, The Christology of Jesus, 179.]

4. His life was a continued ministry. And it was such by its own necessity. Not as though He chose it should be so, as though He debated with Himself whether He would serve His fellow-men or not, go forth to meet persecution and contumely or lead a quiet and peaceful life, speak the truth that was in Him or withhold it; but simply because there was that in Him which must needs find expression, because feelings so deep and tender must assert themselves, because sympathies so broad and generous cannot confine themselves within the heart, because the great power of blessing or capacity of action is its own incentive to beneficence or action. He would not be ministered to. He saw too many souls about Him to be aided, too many sorrows to be comforted, too many doubts to be answered, too much spiritual darkness to be illumined, for Him to wait for others’ ministering. To see such needs was to long to supply them. To feel within Him the power to serve was to put forth that power. To know the truth for which other souls were waiting was to utter it. To minister was the Divine necessity of His being. It was His soul’s great prerogative, which could not be put aside.

Some can be touched by personal sympathy; they have heart, but they cannot take a comprehensive view and embrace a noble cause—they fail in mind. Others have their imagination fired by a cause, but they cannot sympathize with a wounded heart. We have narrow good men, and we have iron-hearted philanthropists. Christ takes in the tender heart and comprehensive thought—the person and the cause—the woman’s way of looking at it and the man’s. Or take another feature of it. He sympathizes with suffering and sorrow—a bruised heart; and He weeps over sin—a blinded heart. Christianity alone has set these two forth,—it is our glory and our duty—and in One Person; the tenderness of the human with the comprehensiveness of the Divine.1 [Note: J. Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life, 148.]

5. The virtue of His costliest service extended to all. He says here “a ransom for many.” Now that word is not used here in contradistinction to “all,” nor in contradistinction to “few.” It is distinctly employed as emphasizing the contrast between the single death and the wide extent of its benefits: and in terms which, rigidly taken, simply express indefiniteness, it expresses universality. “Many” is a vague word, and in it we see the dim crowds stretching away beyond vision, for whom that death was to be the means of salvation. The words of the text may have an allusion to words in the great prophecy in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, in which we read, “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” Calvin says, “The word ‘many’ here is not put definitely for a certain number, but for a large number, for the Saviour contrasts Himself with all the rest of mankind.” The New Testament meaning of “many” is “all.” “Ye are of more value than many sparrows.” Surely this means than all the sparrows. “If through the offence of one many be dead” (that is, all be dead), “much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.” “That he (the Son) might be the firstborn among many brethren”—that is, among all the brethren. In the ministry of His life He drew no distinctions; in the ministry of His death He encompasses the wide world. “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” If in His life His ministry was, of necessity, confined within geographical bounds, on His cross He stretched out His hands, mighty to save, to the whole world.

The word “ransom,” though not rare in the Old Testament, is used in the New Testament, only in this context; and the English phrase, “a ransom for many,” is not likely to be misunderstood. It means a ransom by means of which many are set free—from bondage, or captivity, or penalties, or sentence of death. But the Greek phrase might be misunderstood; “a ransom instead of many” might be thought to mean that many ought to have paid ransom, but that He paid it instead of them; which is not the meaning. And the indefinite “many” does not mean that there were some whom He did not intend to redeem; that He did not die for all. “Many” is in opposition to one; it was not for His own personal advantage that He sacrificed His life, but one life was a ransom for many lives. Here, where Christ for the first time reveals that His death is to benefit mankind, He does not reveal the whole truth. Compare 1Ti_2:6 and 1Jn_2:2, where the more comprehensive truth is stated.1 [Note: A. Plummer.]

When prisoners were bartered at the conclusion of a war, the exchange was not always simply man for man. An officer was of more value than a common soldier, and several soldiers might be redeemed by the surrender of one officer. For a woman of high rank or extraordinary beauty a still greater number of prisoners might be exchanged; and by the giving up of a king’s son many might be redeemed. So the sense of His own unique dignity and His peculiar relation to God is implied in the statement that Christ’s life would redeem the lives of many. St. Paul expresses the truth still more boldly when he says that Jesus gave His life a ransom “for all”; but the two phrases come to the same thing; because the “many” spoken of by Jesus really include “all” who are willing to avail themselves of the opportunity.2 [Note: J. Stalker, The Christology of Jesus, 184.]


The Obligation of Service

“Even as the Son of man came.”

1. He came as a servant, and He has the right to ask service of us. We must give Him what He asks; not only because reason says that His claim is just, not only because conscience tells us there can be no peace till we take up His yoke and follow in His steps, but also because we are bound to the King by ties of gratitude: “The love of Christ constraineth us, … that they which live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again.”

Long ago Lord Wolseley wrote in his Soldier’s Pocket-Book a sentence which deserves to live—“The officers must try to get killed.” The matter could not be more conclusively put. Not in the battlefield alone, but everywhere and always, except among the few lost souls of whom men do not speak, has that great rule won simple unthinking obedience. Every physician goes by it to the haunt of contagion. John Richard Green wrote his beloved history when the pains of death gat hold upon him; Archbishop Temple’s father made provision for his widow and family by taking a government appointment in a deadly climate and leaving them a pension after two years’ service. Undistinguished men and women are spending their slender capital of health and life with but a plain idea of doing right by those they love, and with no talk of sacrifice. So vast and lovely are man’s possibilities when he turns his face to Right—which is God!1 [Note: W. S. Hackett, The Land of Your Sojournings, 126.]

2. The soul finds its life only in action, in going forth out of itself. Neither mind nor heart matures, however fine its training or abundant its resources, if it simply appropriates to itself, giving nothing out. Its strength and power come as it begins to react upon the world. Self-culture, however noble an aim, is never the noblest. Good for our earlier years, it must be replaced in later life by some great purpose beyond—the love of truth for its own sake, the desire for power, or the pure longing to serve humanity. Between the life spent in such intellectual pursuits as will simply gratify the tastes, stimulate the mind, or kill time, and the life spent in some actual service to society is all the distance between the dilettante and the man. The advantage of great qualities of mind or heart lies not half so much in what they directly bring to us as in the larger strength and capacity which we gain through their exercise. The more keenly we learn to realize others’ wants and desires, as though they were our own, the wider the sympathies by which we act, the further away from ourselves our affections are turned, so much the larger and more vigorous does the soul become. The morbid nature, as you sometimes encounter it, at home only with its own griefs, or dwelling solely in its own past, or in love with its own fastidiousness, or finding nothing beautiful save in its own tastes and nothing great or good save in its own ideals, or pursuing any thoughts which circle round and round the little centre of self, becomes the sure abode of weakness and discontent. Its egotism can end only in insufferable weariness and intellectual death.

3. In one of the most beautiful of his little poems, Whittier speaks about “the dear delight of doing good.” He who has not tasted of that delight has been living upon the husks of things. They who spend their lives for others are ever living upon the royal wine of heaven. When God called Abraham to go into a far country He gave him a casket containing seven promises: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” “Thou shalt be a blessing”—this was the jewel in the casket. The man who has not tasted the luxury of being a blessing, who has not felt a vital personal relation to some good cause, and that he is of service to his fellow-men, has not yet sounded the deeps of life. This must have been in the mind of Browning when he spoke of “the wild joys of living.”

Dr. Henry van Dyke has given strong setting to this truth in his suggestive little poem, The Toiling of Felix. In 1897 a piece of papyrus leaf was found at Oxyrhynchus, near the Nile. It bore the fragments of several sayings supposed to be the lost sayings of our Lord. The clearest and most distinct was:

Raise the stone, and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood, and there am I.

Dr. van Dyke has made the historic incident the occasion of the writing of a very significant little poem which exalts the dignity of labour. Felix, a young Egyptian, very early in his life is mastered by a longing for a revelation of the Divine glory. In quest of it he goes to the libraries, takes down the volumes which contain the creeds, studies them long and patiently in hope that, while he studies, the Divine glory will burst from out the sacred page. But after weary months of experimenting he concludes that he has not adopted the right method.

Now he turns away from the libraries and frequents the sacred temples where men are wont to gather for worship. In the early morning and in the evening twilight he becomes a suppliant before the throne of heaven, at the altar of many a sacred fane.

“Hear me, O thou mighty Master,” from the altar step he cried;

“Let my one desire be granted, let my hope be satisfied!”

But after other weary months of seeking he is again disappointed.

Now he is told that yonder in the desert is a monastery, and in that monastery is an aged saint who has meditated long and patiently on the deepest problems of life; that once a year the aged saint comes from out his lonely dwelling and gives his blessing to the individual whom he happens to meet. Felix places himself at the outer wall. One morning he sees the gate open. He presents himself as a suppliant and entreats the blessing of the aged one, who looks at him earnestly but only in silence. He takes a token, however, from his garments and handing it to Felix retires within the monastery. Felix is again disappointed. But as he turns away it occurs to him that there may be something upon this token. He opens and reads:

Raise the stone, and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood, and there am I.

As he wonders what it all means he hears the echo of the hammers of the workmen who are engaged in quarrying out the stone in a stone quarry near at hand. Meantime an inner voice begins to plead with him and to suggest that he must become one of those workmen, and that by the rugged road of toil he will find his way to a vision of the Divine glory. The voice pleads so earnestly that at last he heeds it and presents himself, is accepted, and begins to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. At the end of the first day a new zest has come into his life. This grows on him as the days come and go. He is sure now he is on the right road. One day a fellow-workman is overcome by the burning rays of the noonday sun. In natural compassion Felix shelters his head with a palm leaf, and while doing so it seems to him he catches the vision of a face of wondrous beauty. Another day they are transporting some building material across a stream of water; the workman who stands by his side loses his footing and falls into the stream. In a moment Felix has plunged in after him. Firmly grappling him in one arm, he makes his way to shore with the other, and while he struggles toward the place of safety it seems to him that he sees a form walking on the surface of the water like unto the Divine form of the Son of God. Thus he finds the way to a fellowship with his Lord that is deep and rich, sweet and glorious and divine.

The spirit or the teaching of the little poem is thus beautifully summed up by the author:

This is the gospel of labour—ring it ye bells of the kirk—

The Lord of Love came down from above, to live with the men who work.

This is the rose that He planted, here in the thorn-cursed soil—

Heaven is blest with perfect rest, but the blessing of Earth is toil.1 [Note: W. F. Anderson.]

The Ministering Master


Anderson (W. F.), in Drew Sermons on the Golden Texts for 1910, 199.

Banks (L. A.), Sermons which have Won Souls, 365.

Barry (A.), The Atonement of Christ, 39.

Benson (R. M.), The Final Passover, i. 50.

Black (H.), Christ’s Service of Love, 23.

Burrows (H. W.), Parochial Sermons, 12.

Hackett (W. S.), The Land of Your Sojournings, 121.

Hall (E. H.), Discourses, 14.

Hallock (G. B. F.), The Teaching of Jesus, 145.

Holland (H. S.), Logic and Life, 225.

Hughes (H. P.), Ethical Christianity, 95.

MacDonald (G.), A Dish of Orts, 298.

Maclaren (A.), Christ’s Musts, 55.

Marsh (F. E.), Christ’s Atonement, 73.

Murray (W. H.), The Fruits of the Spirit, 441.

Rashdall (H.), Doctrine and Development, 128.

Ridgeway (C. T.), The King and His Kingdom, 50.

Robertson (A. T.), Keywords in the Teaching of Jesus, 41.

Smith (G. S.), Victory over Sin and Death, 28.

Wells (J.), Christ in the Present Age, 171.

Williams (W. W.), Resources and Responsibilities, 71.

Christian World Pulpit, xvii. 339 (A. Scott); xxiii. 82 (H. W. Beecher); xlix. 226 (L. Abbott); lii. 285 (C. J. Ridgeway).