The Pattern for True Greatness
just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (20:28)
The emphasis of this verse is in the words just as the Son of Man. What Jesus says about Himself should also characterize His followers. “I am your perfect Pattern,” He was saying, “your supreme Example. My attitude should be Your attitude, and My kind of living should be your kind of living. If you want to be great as God wants you to be great, be like Me.”
To discover what it means to become a godly servant and slave, the disciples had only to look at the Son of Man Himself. Many years after John presumptuously asked to be seated at Jesus’ side in the kingdom, the now humble apostle wrote, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6). As once his life had centered in himself and his great desire had been to lord it over others, now it was centered in Jesus Christ and was abandoned to the selfless service of others in His name. He no longer sought to manipulate Jesus but only to emulate Him.
In His incarnate role as the Son of Man, Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve. “Although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:6–9).
Jesus is the supreme example of humility and servanthood, because, as the sovereign of the universe and of all eternity, He subjected Himself to humiliation and even to death. He is the most exalted because He faithfully endured the most humiliation. Although He was the King of kings and had the right to be served by others, He ministered as a Servant of servants and gave His life to serve others.
During the Last Supper, after the disciples had again been arguing about which of them was the greatest, Jesus asked, “Who is greater, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). It was probably at this time that Jesus gave them the beautiful object lesson of servanthood recorded by John.
[Jesus] laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. … And so when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments, and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master; neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:4–5, 12–17)
Jesus’ ultimate act of servanthood, however, was to give His life. “Greater love has no one than this,” He said, “that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Some years ago, Joe Delaney, a star football player for the Kansas City Chiefs, saw three young boys out in a lake, crying out for help and struggling to stay above the water. Although he was himself a poor swimmer, Joe dived into the water and tried to save them. One of the boys was rescued, but Joe and the other two boys drowned. He willingly laid down his life in an effort to save those boys, making the ultimate sacrifice in their behalf.
Although such heroes are lauded, the world understands little of that kind of selflessness, which runs counter to man’s natural inclination to self-preservation. But self-giving is to be the normal pattern for Christians, just as it was the normal pattern for Christ.
In His next statement, Jesus presents the first explicit New Testament teaching about the redemptive work of the Messiah. He would vicariously suffer for the sins of mankind as a ransom for those who trust in Him. He did not simply give His life an example for others. He was no mere martyr for a godly cause, as some claim. Nor was He merely an example of life-giving selflessness, although He was indeed the supreme example of that. Jesus not only lived and died for others but died as a ransom for others.
In that redemptive aspect, of course, His followers cannot follow His example. Nothing that a believer can do will have any direct spiritual benefit for himself or others. If he could not merit his own salvation, he surely cannot merit the salvation of someone else.
Lutron (ransom) was the term commonly used for the redemption price of a slave, the amount required to buy his freedom. It is used only twice in the New Testament (see also Mark 10:45), both times in reference to Christ’s giving of Himself to redeem others. Here it is followed by the proposition anti (“instead of”), expressing an exchange. In 1 Timothy 2:6, the word used for “ransom” is antilutron, which simply combines the two words used here. In both cases the idea is that of a price paid for a life.
The unbeliever is a slave to sin, the flesh, Satan, and death, and it was to redeem men from those slaveries that Jesus gave His life a ransom in exchange for sinners. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul explained to believers in Rome. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:1–3). “Having been freed from sin,” the apostle had told them earlier, “you became slaves of righteousness” (6:18). Christ’s sacrifice bought us back from the slavery of sin.
And although the noun lutron is used only twice in the New Testament, other forms of the root word are used frequently, as are numerous synonyms. “For you have been bought with a price,” Paul reminded the worldly Corinthian believers; “therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). To the Galatians he wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13; cf. 4:5); to the Ephesians he wrote, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7; cf. v. 14; 4:30); and to Titus he wrote, “[Christ] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). Peter reminds believers that they “were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold, … but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19). In John’s magnificent vision on Patmos he heard the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders proclaim of Christ, “Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
Jesus’ ransom was paid to God to satisfy His holy justice, and it was more than sufficient to cover the sins of everyone who has ever lived and ever will live. His death was sufficient for “the whole world,” says John (1 John 2:2). It is not the Lord’s will “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). And because He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), He has therefore provided atonement for every person. “For this is the will of My Father,” Jesus said, “that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).
Although His ransom is sufficient for every person, it is valid only for those who believe in Him. It is in that sense that His redemption is for many, rather than for all. The Lord was not teaching limited atonement, the idea that He died only for the sins of a select few. Paul makes it dear that Christ died for the whole world: “The man Christ Jesus … gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5–6).
The basic idea behind anti (for) is that of being set over against something else, and the word was often used to denote an exchange or substitution. In becoming a ransom for many, Jesus exchanged His life for the lives of the many who would believe in Him. It became His death for the deaths of those many, His undeserved punishment for the punishment they deserved. As Isaiah had predicted 700 years earlier, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; … He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:4–5).
Christ, then, is the pattern for all to follow in being servant leaders. By giving His life He gained the eternal glory and esteem of God and men. That is the path to greatness.
MacArthur New Testament Commentary
28 At this point, Jesus presents himself—the Son of Man (see comments at 8:20)—as the supreme example of service to others. The verse is clearly important to our understanding of Jesus’ view of his death. Three related questions call for discussion.
1. Authenticity. Many reject the authenticity of v. 28, or at least of v. 28b (and, correspondingly, Mark 10:45; most recently, see McKnight, Jesus and His Death, 356–57), on the grounds that it ill suits the context, since Jesus’ atoning death cannot be imitated by his disciples, that nowhere else is he reported as speaking of his death in this way, and that the language reflects the influence of the Hellenistic church. On the contrary, the language has been shown to be Palestinian (Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, 179–82), and Jesus speaks of his death in not dissimilar terms when instituting the Lord’s Supper (26:26–29) and also in Luke 22:37, assuming that it relates to a different occasion. It is quite common in the NT, both in words ascribed to Jesus and elsewhere, to begin with the disciples’ need to die to self and end up with Jesus’ unique, atoning death as an ethical example—or, conversely, to begin with Jesus’ unique death and find it applied as an example to the disciples (16:21–28; Jn 12:23–25; Php 2:5–11; 1 Pe 2:18–25). There are no substantial reasons for denying the authenticity of this saying (cf. S. H. T. Page, “The Authenticity of the Ransom Logion [Mark 10:45b],” in Gospel Perspectives [ed. France and Wenham], 1:137–61), and its nuances seem much more in keeping with the way Jesus progressively revealed himself (cf. Carson, “Christological Ambiguities”) than with a clear-cut, postresurrection apostolic confession.
2. Meaning. It is natural to take “did not come” as presupposing at least a hint of Jesus’ preexistence, though the language does not absolutely require it. He came not to be served, like a king dependent on countless courtiers and attendants, but to serve others. Stonehouse (Witness of Matthew, 251ff.; Origins, 187) rightly points out that the verse assumes that the Son of Man had every right to expect to be served, but he served instead. Implicit is a self-conscious awareness that the Son of Man who, because of his heavenly origin, possessed divine authority was the one who humbled himself, even to the point of undergoing an atoning death. The tripartite breakdown of the Son of Man references (see Reflections, p. 247) is to this extent artificial. The display of divine glory shines most brightly when it is set aside for the sake of redeeming man by a shameful death. This stands at the very heart of Jesus’ self-disclosure and of the primitive gospel (1 Co 1:23: “We preach Christ [Messiah] crucified”).
The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. Deissmann (Light from the Ancient East, 331–32) points out that lytron (“ransom,” GK 3389) was most commonly used as the purchase price for freeing slaves; there is good evidence that the notion of “purchase price” is always implied in the NT use of lytron (cf. Morris, Apostolic Preaching, 11ff.). Others, however, by examining the word in the LXX, conclude that, especially when the subject is God, the word means “deliverance” and the cognate verb “to deliver,” without reference to a “price paid” (cf. Hill, Greek Words, 58–80; McKnight, Jesus and His Death, 357). The matter may be difficult to decide in a passage like Titus 2:14. Is wickedness a chain from which Jesus by his death delivers us, or a slave owner from whom Jesus by his death ransoms us? The parallel in 1 Peter 1:18 suggests the latter, even though (as Turner, Christian Words, 105–7, insists) there is never any mention in the NT of the one to whom the price is paid, and in 20:28, this meaning is virtually assured by the use of anti (“for”). The normal force of this preposition denotes substitution, equivalence, exchange (cf. NIDNTT, 3:1179–80). “The life of Jesus, surrendered in a sacrificial death, brought about the release of forfeited lives. He acted on behalf of the many by taking their place” (ibid., 1180).
“The many” underlines the immeasurable effects of Jesus’ solitary death: the one dies, the many find their lives “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,” a great host no man can number (cf. J. Jeremias, “Das Lösegeld für Viele,” Judaica 3 : 263). But it should be remembered that “the many” can refer, in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the rabbinic literature, to the elect community (cf. Ralph Marcus, “ ‘Mebaqqer’ and Rabbim in the Manual of Discipline vi:11–13,” JBL 75 : 298–302). This suggests Jesus’ substitutionary death is payment for and results in the eschatological people of God. This well suits “the many” of Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
3. Dependence on Isaiah 53. C. K. Barrett (“The Background of Mark 10.45,” in New Testament Essays [ed. A. J. B. Higgins; Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1959], 1–18; idem, “Mark 10.45: A Ransom for Many,” in New Testament Essays [London: SPCK, 1972], 20–26), Hooker (Son of Man, 140–47), and others have argued that there is no allusion to Isaiah in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28. They argue this on two grounds: linguistic and conceptual. Linguistically, they point out that the Greek verb diakoneō (“I serve,” v. 28) and its cognates are never used in the LXX to render ʿebed (“servant” of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs,” GK 6269) and its cognates. But the evidence is slight, and the conceptual parallels close—Isaiah’s Servant benefits people by his suffering, and so does Jesus. Hooker is certainly incorrect in restricting diakoneō to domestic service (cf. France, “Servant of the Lord,” 34). Both France and Moo (Old Testament in the Gospel Passion Narratives, 122–27) have also shown that “to give his life” springs from Isaiah 53:10, 12, and that lytron (“ransom”) is not as impossible a rendering of ʾās̆ām (“a guilt offering”) as some allege. The Hebrew word ʾās̆ām includes the notion of substitution, at least of an equivalent. The guilty sinner offers an ʾās̆ām to remove his own guilt; in Leviticus 5, ʾās̆ām refers to compensatory payment. Thus, though, ʾās̆ām has more sacrificial overtones than lytron, both include the idea of payment or compensation. Most scholars have also recognized in “the many” a clear reference to Isaiah (cf. esp. Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, 171–72). The implication of the cumulative evidence is that Jesus explicitly referred to himself as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (see comments at 26:17–30) and interpreted his own death in that light—an interpretation in which Matthew has followed his Lord (see comments at 8:17; 12:15–21).
Both Mark (10:45) and Matthew (here) tie their understanding of this verse not only to the immediate pericope but to their entire gospel narrative (see Bolt, Cross from a Distance, ch. 2).
Expositor’s Bible Commentary