Matthew 20:17-34 (ESV)
17 And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them,
18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death
19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
This is the third time Jesus announced His arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. In the previous announcements, He had not specified how He would die. But now He clearly mentioned the cross. He also clearly mentioned His resurrection, but the message did not penetrate the disciples’ hearts.
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something.
21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
In contrast to this announcement of suffering and death, we have the request of James and John and their mother, Salome. There may have been a very natural reason for this request. It is probable that James and John were closely related to Jesus. Matthew, Mark and John all give lists of the women who were at the Cross when Jesus was crucified.
- Matthew’s list is: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matt 27:56)
- Mark’s list is: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger and of Joses, and Salome (Mk 15:40)
- John’s list is: Jesus’ mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene is named in all the lists; Mary the mother of James and Joses must be the same person as Mary the wife of Clopas; therefore the third woman is described in three different ways.
Matthew calls her the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mark calls her Salome; and John calls her Jesus’ mother’s sister. So we learn that the mother of James and John was named Salome, and that she was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. That means that James and John were full cousins of Jesus; and it may well have been that they felt that this close relationship prompted this request for a special place in his Kingdom.
Before we criticize what they did, let’s notice some commendable features in this event. For one thing, they did believe in prayer, and they dared to believe the promise Jesus had given about sitting on thrones (Matt. 19:28).
Their mother also wanted her sons to be involved “on the front lines” in service to our Lord! What better things could a mother want for her sons?
It must have taken faith on their part to believe He would establish these thrones, because He had just told them that He was going to die, even if they had a misconception as to the kind of kingdom He was going to establish.
This is one of the most revealing passages in the New Testament. It sheds light in three directions. First, it sheds a light on the disciples. It tells us three things about them. It tells us of their ambition. They were still thinking in terms of personal reward and personal distinction; and they were thinking of personal success without personal sacrifice. They wanted Jesus with a royal command to ensure for them a princely life.
Every man has to learn that true greatness lies, not in dominance, but in service; and that in every sphere the price of greatness must be paid. That is on the debit side of the account of the disciples; but there is much on the credit side.
There is no incident which so demonstrates their invincible faith in Jesus. Think of when this request was made. It was made after a series of announcements by Jesus that ahead of him lay an inescapable Cross; it was made at a moment when the air was heavy with the atmosphere of tragedy and the sense of foreboding. And yet in spite of that the disciples are thinking of a Kingdom.
It is of immense significance to see that, even in a world in which the dark was coming down, the disciples would not abandon the conviction that the victory belonged to Jesus. In Christianity there must always be this invincible optimism in the moment when things are conspiring to drive a man to despair.
Still further, here is demonstrated the unshakable loyalty of the disciples. Even when they were bluntly told that there lay ahead a bitter cup, it never struck them to turn back; they were determined to drink it. If to conquer with Christ meant to suffer with Christ, they were perfectly willing to face that suffering.
It is easy to condemn the disciples, but the faith and the loyalty which lay behind the ambition must never be forgotten.
But there were several things wrong with their request. To begin with, it was born in ignorance. “Ye know not what ye ask,” Jesus replied. Little did Salome realize that the path to the throne is a difficult one. James was the first of the disciples to be martyred, and John had to endure hard days on the Isle of Patmos. These three believers wanted their will, not God’s will, and they wanted it their way.
Another factor was their lack of heavenly direction. They were thinking like the world: James and John wanted to “lord it over” the other disciples the way the unsaved Gentile rulers lorded it over their subjects. Their request was fleshly (sensual), because they were selfishly asking for glory for themselves, not for the Lord. No doubt they felt relieved that they had gotten to Jesus with this request before Peter did!
Finally, the request was not only of the world and the flesh, but it was of the devil. It was motivated by pride. Satan had sought a throne (Isa. 14:12-15) and had been cast down. Satan had offered Jesus a throne and had been refused (Matt. 4:8-11). Satan magnifies the end (a throne) but not the means to that end. Jesus warned Salome and her sons that the special thrones were available to those who were worthy of them. There are no shortcuts in the kingdom of God.
22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”
23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
Jesus said that those who would share his triumph must drink his cup. What was that cup? It was to James and John that Jesus spoke. Now life treated James and John very differently. James was the first of the apostolic band to die a martyr (Ac 12:2). For him the cup was martyrdom. On the other hand, by far the greater weight of tradition goes to show that John lived to a great old age in Ephesus and died a natural death when he must have been close on a hundred years old. For him the cup was the constant discipline and struggle of the Christian life throughout the years.
It is quite wrong to think that for the Christian the cup must always mean the short, sharp, bitter, agonizing struggle of martyrdom; the cup may well be the long routine of the Christian life, with all its daily sacrifice, its daily struggle, and its heart-breaks and its disappointments and its tears.
A Roman coin was once found with the picture of an ox on it; the ox was facing two things—an altar and a plough; and the inscription read: “Ready for either.” The ox had to be ready either for the supreme moment of sacrifice on the altar or the long labour of the plough on the farm.
There is no one cup for the Christian to drink. His cup may be drunk in one great moment; his cup may be drunk throughout a lifetime of Christian living. To drink the cup simply means to follow Christ wherever he may lead, and to be like him in any situation life may bring.
This passage sheds a light on Jesus. It shows us his kindness. The amazing thing about Jesus is that he never lost patience and became irritated. In spite of all he had said, here were these men and their mother still chattering about posts in an earthly government and kingdom. But Christ does not explode at their obtuseness, or blaze at their blindness, or despair at their unteachableness. In gentleness, in sympathy, and in love, with never an impatient word, he seeks to lead them to the truth.
It shows us his honesty. He was quite clear that there was a bitter cup to be drunk and did not hesitate to say so. No man can ever claim that he began to follow Jesus under false pretences. He never failed to tell men that, even if life ends in crown-wearing, it continues in cross-bearing.
It shows us his trust in men. He never doubted that James and John would maintain their loyalty. They had their mistaken ambitions; they had their blindness; they had their wrong ideas; but he never dreamed of writing them off as bad debts. He believed that they could and would drink the cup, and that in the end they would still be found at his side. One of the great fundamental facts to which we must hold on, even when we hate and loathe and despise ourselves, is that Jesus believes in us.
24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.
25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.
26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,
27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,
28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The result of this request was “indignation” on the part of the other disciples—probably because they had not thought of it first! Selfishness will only result in dissension and division.
This disagreement gave Jesus the opportunity to teach a practical lesson on leadership. In His kingdom, we must not follow the examples of the world. Our example is Jesus, not some corporation president or wealthy celebrity. Jesus came as a servant; therefore, we should serve one another. He came to give His life; therefore, we should give our lives in service to Him and others.
The word minister in Matthew 20:26 means “a servant.” Our English word “deacon” comes from it. The word servant in Matthew 20:27 means “a slave.” Not every servant was a slave, but every slave was a servant. There are many who want to “exercise authority” (Matt. 20:25), but few who want to take the towel and basin and wash feet.
The key to greatness is not found in position or power, but in character. We get a throne by paying with our lives, not by praying with our lips. We must identify with Jesus Christ in His service and suffering, for even He could not reach the throne except by way of the cross.
To improve our praying we must improve our serving. If we are serving Him and others, then we will not be praying selfishly. If our prayers do not make us better servants, then there is something wrong with them.
Do our prayers make us easier to live with? The two disciples prayed selfishly and threw the fellowship into an uproar! Do our prayers make us more like Jesus Christ? Do our prayers cost us anything? Prayer in the will of God does not mean escape; it means involvement. If our prayers do not bring us nearer to the cross, they are out of God’s will.
Salome learned her lesson. When Jesus was crucified, she was standing near the cross (John 19:25, “his mother’s sister”) and sharing in His sorrow and pain. She did not see two thrones on either side of her Lord—she saw two thieves on two crosses. And she heard Jesus give her son, John, to His mother Mary. Salome’s selfishness was rebuked, and she meekly accepted it.