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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” – Matthew 20:17-28 ESV
For the third time, Jesus brings up the unexpected and unwelcome news of His impending arrest and crucifixion in Jerusalem. Matthew’s placement of this latest announcement is intentional, following closely on the heels of Jesus’ lengthy address to His disciples after their debate about which of them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He has touched on the topics of pride and humility. He has addressed the need for childlike faith. He exposed the dangers associated with the love of the things of this world. He appealed to them about the need for faithfulness in marriage and forgiveness toward those who sin against them. And the last words He spoke to them before bringing up his imminent death were, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Everything Jesus had told them was tied to life in the kingdom of heaven. And He had been trying to get His disciples to understand that things were not going to be as they expected. While they believed Him to be the Messiah, they were defining the term according to their own standards. In their minds, the Messiah was to have been a conquering king. He would come with power and set up His kingdom in Jerusalem, from which He would rule and reign, placing Israel back in a position of political prominence. But here was Jesus, once again, announcing that He was going to Jerusalem – to die. And His death would be the direct result of His betrayal into the hands of the Jewish religious leaders, who would condemn Him to death. Rather than welcome Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah, they would hand Him over to the Roman government to be mocked, flogged and crucified.
While we know how this story turned out, the disciples did not. They were oblivious to the “good news” associated with Jesus’ death. In fact, it seems evident that they never grasped what Jesus meant when He said, “he will be raised on the third day.” The reality of the resurrection escaped them. All they heard was the shockingly bad news regarding Jesus’ death. And, as before, it most likely left some of them dazed and confused. But we know from Matthew’s account, that at least a few of them simply ignored what Jesus had to say, choosing instead to focus on their own self-centered expectations.
Both Matthew and Mark record an encounter between Jesus and the two brothers, James and John. At some point, not long after Jesus’ announcement about His coming death in Jerusalem, they approached Jesus in order to make a request. Matthew adds the important detail that they brought their mother along with them. These two grown men made a shockingly selfish and insensitive request of Jesus, asking, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37 ESV). And their mother put in her two-cents worth, asking, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21 ESV). Perhaps James and John thought that if Jesus refused their request, He would be more prone to listen to their mother. Whatever the case, Jesus responded, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22 ESV).
He didn’t reprimand them. He didn’t express shock or disappointment at their insensitivity and selfishness. He simply let them know that their request was based on ignorance of the facts. They were thinking in terms of power, position and prominence. They were hoping for glory. Their sights were set on an earthly kingdom in which they would rule and reign alongside Jesus. And, in their defense, they probably had the words Jesus had spoken to them earlier, still ringing in their ears:
“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” – Matthew 19:28 ESV
If anything, their request reveals a desire for even greater prominence. By asking Jesus for the right to sit on His right and left, they were jockeying for position over their fellow disciples. It wasn’t enough to sit on thrones alongside their peers. They wanted positions of preeminence. In spite of what Jesus had said, they wanted to be first, not last.
When Jesus asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?,” they quickly responded, “We are able.” Most likely, they were thinking in terms of victory drink, a toast to Jesus’ new kingship. But what He had in mind was His suffering. It would not be long before Jesus would find Himself in the garden, praying to His heavenly father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 28:39 ESV). On that same night, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter would attempt to protect him with a sword, but Jesus would tell him, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11 ESV).
Jesus was going to have to endure the judgment of God in order to pay for the sins of mankind. The cross would have to proceed the crown. His humiliation would come before His glorification. The agony of the crucifixion would have to take place before the glory of the resurrection. And Jesus informed James and John that they too would eventually drink of the same cup. According to Acts 12:2, James would become the first of the disciples to suffer martyrdom. John would later be exiled on the island of Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9 ESV).
Jesus informed James and John that it was not up to Him to assign places of prominence in His coming kingdom. That was up to God. And God, in His predetermined will, had already made that decision.
Of course, this little exchange didn’t remain a secret. Before long, the other disciples caught wind of what had James and John had done, and they were not happy about it. In fact, Matthew records that they were “indignant.” And Jesus, knowing what they were all thinking, responded:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave…” – Matthew 20:25-27 ESV
Once again, Jesus tried to help the disciples understand that the kingdom He had come to establish was going to be radically different in nature. It would not mirror the worldly systems of power and authority. It would not be based on the commonly held views of greatness that seemed to motivate everyone, including the Pharisees. In His coming kingdom, servanthood would take precedence over any thoughts of superiority. Greatness would be associated with humility, not pride. And Jesus let them know that He would be the greatest living example of what it meant to be great in the kingdom of God.
“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV
As the Messiah, Jesus had come to give His life as a ransom for the sins of mankind. His reign would follow His sacrificial death. His death on behalf of sinful mankind was a selfless act motivated by love. Our good took precedence over His own glory. And Peter would later encourage every follower of Jesus Christ to emulate His example.
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 NLT
and English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.