As we enter the Lenten season, I find myself thinking about the thematic connections among Jesus’ birth, his life and his death. In Matthew, the connection might be most evident in the kingship motif. In Matthew’s birth narrative (chapter 2), the magi say, “We are looking for the one who has been born King of the Jews.” And clearly the reason for such lavish gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – is that they are gifts befitting a king. By introducing the infant Jesus as a king, Matthew invites the reader to speculate about what Jesus’ life will be like.
The implied question is: what does this mean? The traditional answer is: power. When we think of a king, especially in Jesus’ time, we think of words such as power, authority and control (see King Herod in Matthew 2). Second, being king means being served. When the king gets up in the morning, who makes the bed? Who puts away the royal pajamas? Who makes the king’s breakfast? Servants. Servants do all of these – and a hundred other things – for the king throughout the day. Do you remember Nehemiah from the Old Testament? He was a king’s servant, specifically the king’s cupbearer. For one thing, that meant he helped prepare the king’s meals. But more than that, whatever the king was going to drink, Nehemiah tasted it first. Why? To make sure that it hadn’t been poisoned.
Being king not only means that others serve you, but it also means that others take risks and make sacrifices on your behalf. So here’s the list: being king means power; it means being served; it means that others sacrifice for you.
That list couldn’t be more different from the life of Jesus. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is built not by power but by love.” He said, “The Son of Man came not be served but to serve others.” He said, “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.” Then he lived – and died – according to his words.
If Matthew’s birth narrative introduces the theme of Jesus’ kingship, Matthew’s passion narrative brings his Gospel full circle. In Matthew 27, the soldiers put on Jesus a purple robe and a crown, and they cry out, “Hail, King of the Jews” (the same title the magi had used). The governor, Pontius Pilate, makes a sign that says, “The King of the Jews.” And just below the sign hangs the broken, bleeding body of the one who changed everything about what it means to king. Instead of power, love. Instead of being served, serving others. Instead of having others sacrifice for him, he sacrificed himself for others – including you and for me.
Leo Tolstoy, the brilliant Russian writer, tells the story of a Russian nobleman and his servant traveling through the snowy countryside on a sleigh pulled by horses. As it became dusk, they had the frightening realization that they were not going to reach their destination before dark. As the sun touched the horizon, the nobleman looked behind them to see a pack of wolves coming out of the woods in pursuit of the sleigh. The servant drove the horses relentlessly, but they were tired from a long day of traveling. The pack closed in on the sleigh so that the men could hear the throaty growls of the wolves.
Knowing that they would never reach safety before the horses collapsed of exhaustion, the servant handed the reins to his employer and friend, and before the nobleman quite realized what was happening, the servant leaped from the sleigh. Predictably, the pack converged on the servant, taking his life, as the sleigh and its rider escaped unharmed.
A Christian editor named Jon Allen said he first read that story when he was a freshman in college, and right away, he recognized it was an illustration of what Christ has done for us. But throughout the years, Jon realized that what would make it an even better illustration of what Christ has done for us is if the nobleman had jumped from the sleigh in order to save the servant. Jon is right, of course. This is our Lenten confession: Jesus, the King of all kings, chose to die so that we, his servants, could have life.
Tony Hopkins is the senior pastor of Greenwood First Baptist Church. He can be reached at email@example.com.