What a striking question. It smacks a bit of selfishness. But it’s still a good one. Peter gushed out loud what all the disciples were thinking. We’re the most committed. So what do we get? Those who are wrestling with a call to deeper commitment in mission should ask the same, for the answer will help you. And haunt you. Jesus replied,
Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first, Matthew 19:28-30
To put it more simply, they were gonna get a lot. You know there had to be some high fives after Jesus’ answer. If what he said was true, they had struck it rich—shared glory and thrones and power and multiplied wealth forever. And you can kind of tell they were thinking just that based on the next few things that happens in Matthew’s Gospel.
First, Jesus told the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard to explain how the first and last will be switched up in the kingdom of heaven (20:1-16). That may mean that Jesus was keeping the disciples from thinking that their dandy obedience wasn’t what earned their reward. It was his gracious generosity at work in them.
Second, as Jesus approached Jerusalem for that last time he made it really clear to the disciples what was about to happen (20:17-19). He was to be delivered over to the Jewish leaders and condemned, given to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and raised on the third day. Maybe this was meant in part to balance out the great reward with the great cost. Mark’s version subtly pokes at this when he includes “persecutions” in Jesus’ list of rewards (10:29).
Third, the mother of James and John presented Jesus with what is retrospectively a ridiculous request: “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (20:20-28). But in the moment, however, it totally made sense. Her boys had probably told her about the thrones Jesus had mentioned. So like any good mama, she wanted her sons to have the best ones. Matthew recorded the two sons’ presumption and misunderstanding probably so that he could include Jesus reorienting them not toward recognition and authority, but around the sacrifice of the suffering Servant.
Fourth, amidst a massive crowd Jesus healed two blind men on the side of the road who cried out to him for mercy (20:29-34). Jesus pitied and healed them, and they immediately followed him. Surely it was no coincidence that Matthew included this next, a contrast of two cocky sons following him to see their thrones with two lowly sons following him to behold their Savior. If the passage was chronological, these could’ve been wake up calls to the disciples. Regardless, it echoes over and over the same heavy message for readers like us.
Jesus is the reward. He is the hundred-fold restoration of everything left behind (Matthew 10:39, Philippians 3:8). He is the eternal life (John 17:3, Colossians 3:4). He is the prize waiting at the end of tossing sanity to the wind and carrying a cross behind him.
Is that what you want?
If you answer Yes! or at least I think so, then…you’re crazy. Nik Ripken would say you’re insane. Paul called it being the most pitiful of all people (1 Corinthians 5:19). If you have a realistic idea of what it’s going to cost you to follow Jesus into his mission, then you’re a fool to be jumping up and down saying Here am I, send me (think James and John saying that they could handle Jesus’ cup in Matthew 20:22). Unless…he’s the reward you’re after. And if he’s the reward you’re after, then he has done something in you. An absolutely ridiculous work of grace. His missionaries are those with eyes aflame not simply with a mission, but with a Master.
We’re all after some reward. It’s definitely worth exploring what it is, what’s driving the desire to go on mission. Here’s three of the most common, dating back to Adam and Eve:
Shame – I’m not who I should be. So to be the best me I’ll go do something admirable. The reward: glory.
Fear – I’m not safe here. So to get away from what’s threatening me I’ll go far away. The reward: peace.
Guilt – I’m not doing enough. So I’ll go do something really demanding. The reward: freedom.
Glory, peace, and freedom certainly aren’t bad things to seek. Except that they can only come from Christ. So when we try to get them by being on mission, we become rock-stacking legalists. And the
impact on the rock-stackers is remarkably predictable: either despair or arrogance. They either give up or become stuck-up. They think they’ll never make it, or they think they are the only ones who’ll ever make it, Lucado, 12
By God’s grace we can shudder at the thought of such legalism, not because we might fall into it, but because we are legalists. We are rock-stackers. We are throne-seekers. Our sick hearts are deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). We can’t trust our best motive. But we can trust Christ. We can bring our selfishness before him. We can receive mercy and find grace to help in our need (Hebrews 4:16). And he is able to make mission never less than a journey of desire, desire for him.