How do you understand this statement from Jesus?
Matthew 20:28 (NIV, || Mark 10:45):
… just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Many of my friends hear this text saying that, even though I’m a sinner, Jesus paid the price for me. It’s about my salvation. Many theologians agree: in the Gospels, it’s a crucial text on atonement. There’s even been speculation over how the transaction worked: if the devil had us kidnapped, did God pay the ransom (Jesus’ life?) to the devil?
Read the verse in context, and you’ll see Jesus was speaking of his kingship. The previous four chapters (two in Mark) focused on his royal identity: Son of the heavenly sovereign, God’s anointed ruler (the Christ), the Son of Man to whom God gives the kingship (starting from 16:13-28). The immediate context contrasts Jesus’ kingship with how the rulers of the nations exercise their authority by lording it over people (20:24). Jesus’ statement is about the nature of his kingship, and the kind of kingdom he runs.
The king who serves his people
In the Biblical narrative, Exodus is the re-launch of God’s kingdom project. His people were enslaved to another ruler. “Let my people go so they can serve me,” was God’s goal. God bought the freedom of his people without making a payment to Pharaoh. This is how the redemption (buy-back) metaphor works: parallel expressions are liberating from the yoke of tyranny, emancipating slaves:
Exodus 6 6 I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.
Crucially, this is how Jesus became king. Unlike Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Caesar or any of the rulers of the nations (20:24), Jesus did not become king by enslaving people to serve him. In fact, the rulers of this world viewed him as a threat to their power, condemning him to death. He trusted earth’s true sovereign to raise him up — from death to the throne.
The enslaved world had never known a ruler like this: a king who came not to be served, but to serve, giving his life for the emancipation of the many. The kingdom authority God gave to humans in the beginning was restored to the earth as this human descendant (the son of man) who served us all, redeeming the many from the tyranny of evil, restoring us to the kingdom of God.
The kingdom that serves like our king
The nature of the king defines the nature of the kingdom.
Jesus rebuked James and John for seeking power as the rulers of this world do (20:20-24). In Jesus’ kingdom, greatness means serving everyone, as Jesus served us. Instead of seeking to enslave everyone to them, James and John must be everyone’s slave (20:27).
Since our king gave his live to emancipate his realm, he expects the representatives of his government to do the same: to give our lives for the emancipation of the community that belongs in his care (20:28).
Making this text about the benefits of personal salvation is doing violence to this text. That’s the same mistake James and John made. There can be no place for a what’s-in-it-for-me, consumerist gospel sales pitch. Jesus demands we bury the me, and live for the many.
Don’t miss the opening words of verse 28: just as. Atonement theology misses the mark when it makes this verse about Jesus’ uniqueness. The king who became everybody’s servant, giving his life to emancipate the many, this king insists his kingdom lives as he does — giving our lives for the emancipation of his world.
What would it mean for us to live like this? Can we trade our tendency to look after number one for a life spent in liberating the many?
Can we redesign church so it’s not about getting consumers to our gatherings on Sundays, but giving our lives to emancipate the many all week long?
Just like the Son of Man who came not to be served, but to serve, giving his life as a ransom for the many.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 760–761:
The function of this much-discussed pronouncement in context is to illustrate the attitude demanded in vv. 26–27: the Son of Man is the supreme example of putting oneself at the disposal of others. By this stage in the gospel no reader can be in doubt that “the Son of Man” is Jesus, but the title still carries the aura of the supreme authority granted to the “one like a son of man” in Dan 7:13–14. That authority is expressed in terms of the “service” which all peoples, nations and languages will offer him, yet he whose destiny it is to be served will be found in fact to take the place of a servant. Compare Phil 2:6–8 for the same paradoxical role, which there as here culminates in the death of the servant; there too the function in context is to provide a model for Christian living. The death of the Son of Man is therefore portrayed here as the supreme example of unselfish service; he will give himself for others. His specific role as a “ransom in place of many” is of course unique; what is to be imitated is the spirit of self-giving which inspires it.