TRUE GREATNESS IN THE KINGDOM DERIVES FROM HUMBLE SERVICE AS MODELED BY JESUS, NOT THE SELFISH AMBITION OF THE WORLD
Donald Hagner: After the immediately preceding announcement of the suffering and death that await Jesus, the two disciples’ quest for power and status in the present pericope seems all the more shocking and objectionable (note Matthew’s τότε, “then” [v. 20]). It provides the occasion for yet further teaching from Jesus concerning the nature of greatness and priority in the kingdom. The sons of Zebedee are thus shown to be completely wrong in their concept of greatness. They demonstrate that they have not understood Jesus’ teaching in the preceding material about the first being last and the last being first (19:30; 20:16). True greatness, the greatness of the kingdom, is reached only through service and self-sacrifice. Jesus is himself the supreme model of that kind of greatness.
Stu Weber: Our human efforts at earthly greatness display our ignorance and misunderstanding of kingdom greatness.
R. T. France: The question “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” was raised and answered in 18:1–4 and in the portrayal of the “little ones” which followed in ch. 18; it was more obliquely addressed in the passages about the blessing of the children (19:13–15) and the rich man (19:16–26), and has come to the fore again in the discussion of rewards in 19:27–29, especially in the repeated slogan “The first will be last and the last first” in 19:30 and 20:16 together with the illustrative parable which comes between them. Now the same question arises in its most memorable form in the request of the sons of Zebedee and is dealt with definitively by Jesus in vv. 25–28; it will be broached again in 23:8–12. The natural human concern with status and importance is clearly one of the most fundamental instincts which must be unlearned by those who belong to God’s kingdom.
David Thompson: THOSE WHO WILL END UP GREAT WHEN CHRIST REIGNS AS KING WILL HAVE BEEN THOSE WHO SERVED OTHERS WITH THEIR LIVES AS HE DID.
Van Parunak: Her request reflects two failings on the part of the disciples, failings that we must be careful to avoid.
- First, in spite of the Lord’s gentle introduction of the gruesome suffering that awaits him, the disciples still don’t get it. The only thing they hear is “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,” and their minds are so preoccupied with the coming glory of the kingdom that they miss his detailed prediction of his passion. He has just told them, twice, that those who would be first must be the last (19:30; 20:16), and reminded them of the repeated OT teaching that the saints who will rule the kingdom must first suffer. But they cannot see the suffering, and think only of the glory. It is wonderful and good for us to contemplate the glory that the Lord has in store for us, but we should not be surprised when the road to that glory must lead through suffering and tribulation.
- Second, in spite of his example of humility, they continue the error of 18:1, seeking to be the greatest. They have not caught the lesson he has twice presented (18:1-4; 19:13) that they must be like little children.
The Lord gives two answers: clarifying what their request involves, and pointing them to the one who has the authority to make such appointments. Then, in vv. 25-28, he exhorts all the disciples once more concerning humility, presenting himself as the central example.
I. (:20-23) THE ARROGANCE OF SELFISH AMBITION
A. (:20-21) Selfish Ambition Seeks Positions of Prominence
- (:20) The Approach
“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons,
bowing down, and making a request of Him.”
Charles Swindoll: Although their mother was the mouthpiece of the request, James and John were the originators and instigators. The Gospel of Mark makes this clear, leaving the mother out of the account completely and noting that the request came from the two brothers (Mark 10:35-37). R. V. G. Tasker notes, “It is clear that, in fact, the request emanated from the brothers themselves, for the remaining ten apostles, when they hear about it, do not in Matthew’s narrative any more than in Mark’s turn in indignation upon the mother but upon her sons.”
- (:21) The Ask
“And He said to her,’”What do you wish?’
She said to Him, ‘Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.’”
Scott Harris: How could this woman be so bold to ask such a thing. One reason, other than sheer audacity, is her relationship to Jesus. By comparing the accounts of the crucifixion we know that her name is Salome, and she is the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is Jesus’ aunt, and James and John are Jesus’ first cousins. This closeness of relationship explains to some degree the boldness she has in coming to Jesus with this request. . .
James, John and their mother desired to gain the prominent positions from Jesus. It was a wrong thing to seek that for several reasons, among them
- the inappropriateness of asking for this right after Jesus had told them He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die;
- they had not considered the price that would have to be paid;
- it was not Jesus’ place to appoint those positions; and most of all,
- it was wrong because it demonstrated that they – and the other disciples – were still largely infected with the world’s values.
Donald Hagner: The request is not merely that the sons might rule with Jesus (a promise already granted in 19:28) but that in that glorious manifestation of the reign of Jesus, they might enjoy the most exalted positions of importance, first and second in the kingdom, on his right and left hands, respectively (in keeping with the custom of ancient monarchs; cf. Jos., Ant. 6.11.9 §235). ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ σου, “in your kingdom,” means the overt and thus eschatological manifestation of that kingdom (cf. “your glory” in Mark 10:37), which the disciples apparently associated with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. The kingdom is referred to as Jesus’ kingdom also in 13:41; 16:28 (both referring to the Son of Man; cf. Luke 22:29; 23:42).
R. T. France: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, have featured alongside Peter as, with Andrew, the first disciples called (4:18–22) and as the core group whom Jesus singled out to accompany him up the mountain in 17:1, as he will again in Gethsemane (26:37); Mark adds two further such occasions (Mark 5:37; 13:3). In 10:2 their names follow Peter (the “first”) and Andrew at the head of the list of the Twelve. But only one of that leading group, Peter, has featured prominently in the story so far, and has been given a special accolade in 16:17–19, while James and John have not received any individual attention. Their open bid for leadership now is therefore a direct challenge to Peter’s leading position: if James and John are at Jesus’ right and left, where will Peter be? It may be that the brothers have detected in 19:30 a rebuke of Peter’s assumption of a leading role in the kingdom of heaven, and regard this as a good opportunity to press their counterclaim. Peter’s gaffe in 16:22 and Jesus’ sharp rebuke of him in 16:23 may also have raised their hopes of supplanting him. At any rate, the egalitarian picture of the “twelve thrones” in 19:28 is now challenged by the brothers’ concern for personal status.
Grant Osborne: There may well be a deliberate irony, since Matthew changes Mark’s wording slightly (cf. Mark 10:37) to conform to 27:38 (the two thieves at the cross “on his right and on his left”). This produces a sense of irony; the place of honor they sought would be fulfilled in an entirely different way by the two criminals.
D. A. Carson: What the sons of Zebedee want and their mother asks for is that they might share in the authority and preeminence of Jesus Messiah when his kingdom is fully consummated—something they think to be near at hand without the cross or any inter-advent period.
B. (:22-23) Selfish Ambition Displays Presumptuous Ignorance and Unrealistic Expectations
- (:22) Presumptuous Ignorance
“But Jesus answered and said, ‘You do not know what you are asking for.
Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’
They said to Him, ‘We are able.’”
Charles Swindoll: My guess is that they thought Jesus was talking about some kind of festive banquet, or the spoils of victory associated with the crown and the kingdom. But He was actually talking about the suffering He was facing with the agony of the Cross ahead (see 26:39). Had they fully grasped the point of Jesus’ repeated warnings of His coming death and resurrection, they would have known that to follow Him as a disciple meant that suffering comes before significance, brokenness before usefulness, humility before authority, the bitter cup of pain before the sweet glories of promotion!
Craig Blomberg: “Cup” was a common Old Testament metaphor for suffering, especially that caused by God’s wrath (e.g., Ps 75:8; Isa 51:17). Jesus asks if John and James are prepared to experience rejection and persecution for their faith. They may not literally die for their discipleship (James did— Acts 12:2; reasonably strong church tradition suggests that John did not), and they will not experience God’s wrath (only Jesus could atone for the world’s sins), but they can expect to encounter a variety of hostilities in response to their Christian testimony (recall 10:16-25). Their affirmative reply, that they can “drink the cup,” simply shows that they still do not understand (v. 22b).
Donald Hagner: It is questionable, however, whether the brothers understood at this point that drinking Jesus’ cup meant their own martyrdom. Their easy answer, δυνάμεθα, “we are able,” comes too quickly to conclude that. When they heard the metaphor, they probably thought only of a limited suffering prior to glory (cf. 26:56c).
Grant Osborne: The Cup of Suffering
We must be willing to drink the cup of Jesus’ suffering (see on 10:17–31), but the clear message here is that we seek no greatness but the path of Christ, which will often involve suffering and persecution. As Jesus said in 16:24, we must “take up [our] cross,” and that means a willingness to die if God so wills. In Phil 3:10 Paul talked about “participation in his suffering,” and in Col 1:24 Paul discussed filling up “what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” Paul meant that suffering was a participation in Christ’s life and a special eschatological event connected with the eschaton.
- (:23) Unrealistic Expectations
“He said to them, ‘My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.’”
Robert Gundry: James died an early martyr (Acts 12:2); and though John died a natural death according to tradition, he first suffered exile on the island of Patmos (John 21:22; Revelation 1:9).
Charles Swindoll: Jesus then attempted to set the record straight regarding those coveted high positions in the future kingdom. Those places of honor would be given to those whom God the Father chose. A high position in the kingdom isn’t something that can be earned. And it certainly isn’t something that can be inherited through close family connections. Those are the ways of the world. Jesus’ words suggest that those places “have already been assigned” in the plan and purpose of God. Therefore, the way the disciples were wrangling and jostling among themselves over such positions was utterly futile.
II. (:24-28) THE ANTITHESIS TO SELFISH AMBITION
A. (:24) Cancer of Competitive Jealousy
“And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.”
Grant Osborne: It is a jealous anger on the part of those who are upset that James and John thought of it first and got to Jesus before they could. They are upset that the two are “acing them out” and getting ahead of them in the race for greatness (as also 18:1).
B. (:25-27) Contrast between Worldly and Spiritual Leadership Styles
- (:25) Worldly Leadership Style = Domineering Power
“But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.’”
R. T. France: Human society needs properly structured authority, of course, but Jesus’ emphasis here is on the way that authority is exercised. . . If there is to be ambition in the service of God (note the repeated “whoever wants”), it must be the ambition to serve others (cf. Paul’s similar challenge in a different context, 1 Cor 14:12).
Stu Weber: In the unbelieving world, it is assumed that power and authority define greatness. The rulers and high officials were examples of worldly greatness. The way they demonstrated their “greatness” was to lord it over others and to exercise authority. Jesus was not criticizing authoritative or hierarchical structure but the “strutting.” Such behavior is born out of insecurity and pride. The person who “bosses” others around is trying to prove to himself that he is as great as he hopes. It is only an illusion, for such a person is actually fearful and weak.
Scott Harris: While it may be common practice for those that do not know the Lord to use their power in a tyrannical manner to push around those under them, Jesus tells us in vs. 26 that it is not to be that way among believers. It is a great tragedy in the church when a person comes to power, whether that is by position or by a charismatic personality, and they view themselves as superior and they use people for their own advantage.
- (:26-27) Spiritual Leadership Style = Humble Servant
a. (:26) First Example of Path to Greatness
“It is not so among you,
but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,”
Grant Osborne: “It must not be this way among you” (οὐχ οὕτως ἔσται ἐν ὑμῖν). “Must be” (ἔσται) is an example of the future with imperatival force (cf. 5:21, 27, 33, 43; 23:10). The citizens of the kingdom must never be like the Gentiles in a lust for power.
b. (:27) Second Example of Path to Greatness
“and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;”
Charles Swindoll: You could have probably heard their jaws drop when Jesus uttered those words. The words were revolutionary. They turned the world’s ways on their head. Once again, Jesus was unpacking the meaning of His statement that “the last shall be first, and the first last” (20:16). And with each pass at this confusing teaching, He hoped the disciples would get closer and closer to understanding His mission, which would become their own mission when He departed this world. Only when they fully grasped this mission would they understand what true greatness in the kingdom of heaven really is. He concluded the lesson by pointing to Himself as the ultimate example of what He had just been trying to teach them.
William Barclay: Therein is greatness. The world may assess people’s greatness by the number of people whom they control and who are at their beck and call; or by their intellectual standing and their academic eminence; or by the number of committees of which they are members; or by the size of their bank balances and the material possessions which they have amassed; but in the assessment of Jesus Christ these things are irrelevant. His assessment is quite simply: how many people have they helped?
C. (:28) Commendation of the Example of the Son of Man
“just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,
and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Donald Hagner: But although following Jesus’ example may entail drinking the cup that he must drink (v. 22), the specific way the Son of Man is to serve, as spelled out in the final clause (the καί, lit. “and,” is thus epexegetical and should be translated “that is”), is unique: καὶ δοῦναι τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ λύτρον ἀντὶ πολλῶν, “that is, to give his life as a ransom for many.” “Ransom,” although drawn from the background of purchasing the freedom of a slave or captive (i.e., to free by payment), is here used in a metaphorical sense for a setting free from sin and its penalty at the cost of the sacrifice of Jesus. This is the service performed by the suffering servant of Isa 53 (see esp. Isa 53:10–12, where the servant [v. 11] gives himself up to death as an offering for sin and bears the sin of “many” [v. 12]). Jesus has already been identified with that servant by the quotation of Isa 53:4 in 8:17 and Isa 42:1–4 in 12:18–21.
Craig Blomberg: Jesus himself provides the perfect example of servant leadership (v. 28a; cf. esp. John 13:1-17). Few models are more desperately needed in an age of celebrity Christianity, high-tech evangelism and worship, and widespread abuses of ecclesiastical power for self-aggrandizement or, more insidiously, in the name of “attracting” more people to the gospel— a “gospel” that is thereby badly truncated. D. A. Carson observes: “One of the ironies of language is that a word like ‘minister,’ which in its roots refers to a helper, one who ‘ministers,’ has become a badge of honor and power in religion and politics.
Scott Harris: Proud, boastful Simon was changed into the Apostle Peter who wrote, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:6, 7). The truly great follow Jesus’ example and seek to serve, not be served; to sacrifice of themselves, not seek others to sacrifice for them. If you want to be great, you do not need to exalt yourself. In all humility be the slave of Christ and serve Him and His people and let God be the one that exalts you.