Matthew 20(17–28)


Today’s passage is a kind of sandwich because in the middle of the passage you’ve got the story about James and John and their mother and how the brothers want to sit at the Lord’s right hand in his kingdom. And then there’s the indignant reaction of the other disciples when they hear about it. And that story is sandwiched between these two statements about why the Lord Jesus has come. Although he’s the king, he had not come to be served by us, but to serve us by giving up his life on the cross to pay the ransom to set us free from condemnation. And so, the disciples are thinking about ruling, whereas the Saviour is thinking about serving. They are thinking about sitting on thrones, whereas he is thinking about dying on the cross. They want the place of honour, but they haven’t yet realised that the place of honour in Christ’s kingdom is for those who live as servants and slaves.

Verses 20 to 27

And so, let’s consider the meat in the sandwich first of all. So, we’re looking at verses 20 to 27.

And we’re told in verse 20 that the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to the Lord Jesus to ask him a favour. Zebedee’s sons are James and John. And Matthew tells us that the two brothers have accompanied their mother. So, all three of them have come to the Lord Jesus to ask him a favour. Mark, in his version of the story, only mentions James and John and he doesn’t mention their mother at all. And the fact that Mark only mentions the brothers make it clear that they are with their mother in this. Sometimes family members do things without our knowledge and when we find out, we’re embarrassed. ‘Why did you say that?’ ‘I can’t believe you asked that!’ But that’s not the case here. All three of them went to the Lord Jesus. The mother might have done all the talking, but she’s asking this favour on their behalf and with their approval.

And what is her request? What does she want the Lord to do for her sons? She says in verse 21 that she wants one of her boys to sit at the Lord’s right hand side and the other boy to sit at the Lord’s left hand side in his kingdom. Perhaps they think the reason the Lord Jesus is heading to Jerusalem is to set up his kingdom on the earth. And in that case, they want to be given the seats of honour next to him. So, the Lord will sit on his throne and they want to sit beside him. They want to rule with him and to share his honour and glory. They want to sit in prominent places so that everyone will look up to them.

That’s their request. And the Lord says in verse 22 that they don’t know what they’re asking. That is: They don’t understand what it means to rule with Christ, because the one who rules with Christ has to suffer with Christ first. For Christ, the way to glory leads through the cross; and the cross cannot be avoided; and suffering cannot be sidestepped. And so, are James and John prepared to suffer with Christ? Are they prepared to drink the cup of suffering which Christ is going to suffer?

And perhaps without giving it much thought, they both replied in verse 22 that they were prepared to drink the cup of suffering with him. But were they? When the guards came to arrest the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, these two brothers, along with the rest of the disciples, abandoned the Lord and ran away to save their own lives. And so, it seems that at that time they were not prepared to drink the cup of suffering with him. But then, after the Lord’s resurrection, and after the Day of Pentecost, everything changed, didn’t it? The disciples were given a boldness they did not know before. And according to Acts 12:2, James became one of the first martyrs for the faith. And according to Revelation 1:9, John was exiled to the island of Patmos because of his commitment to God’s word. So, later they were prepared to drink the cup of suffering. But at this time, they didn’t understand that the Saviour was not going to Jerusalem to use his great power to destroy the Romans and to set up an earthly kingdom; he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die on the cross for our salvation.

These are things that would become clear to them. For now, the Lord said to them that they would drink from his cup of suffering, but it wasn’t for him to decide who would sit at his side in his kingdom. He said that those places already belong to those for whom they have been prepared by the Father. And so, God the Father has already decided who will sit on his right hand side and on his left hand side in the place of honour in his kingdom.

And then we’re told that when the ten other disciples heard about this conversation, they were indignant with James and John. They were angry about it. As one of the commentators (Carson) says, their indignation sprang less from humility that from jealousy and the fear that they might miss out. They didn’t want to miss out on a chance to be given the place of honour. And perhaps some of them fancied themselves as contenders for the top seats. So, who do James and John think they are, making a move like that?

And so, the Lord has to instruct them once again about humility and service. He referred in verse 25 to the rulers of the Gentiles who lord it over them and their high officials who exercise authority over them. That’s what we see in society: those with authority rule over those who are under them. But not so with you. Do you see that in verse 26? This matches what the Lord said before about how his people are to be like little children. We’re not to be like rulers, throwing our weight around. We’re to be like little children who are powerless. In fact, we’re to be like servants and slaves. So, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. Whoever wants to be first must be your slave. The Lord’s people are to be more eager to serve than to rule.

And since we were thinking about teaching-elders and ruling-elders and deacons on Sunday, I should probably make clear that our elders and deacons are appointed not to boss God’s people around, but to serve God’s people on behalf of Christ. They are to govern God’s people as servants of Jesus Christ; and therefore they are to govern according to his pattern of humble service. The members of the church do not exist to serve the minister and elders; but the minister and elders exist to serve God’s people by providing them what they need to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ and to persevere in the faith. But it’s not only elders and deacons who must serve, because every believer is called by God to love and serve the people around them.

Verses 17 to 19 and 28

And so, that’s the meat of the sandwich. Let’s turn now to the slices of bread on either side of the meat.

In verses 17 to 19, Matthew tells us that as the Lord Jesus was going to up Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside to tell them that they were going up to Jerusalem and he — the Son of Man — will be betrayed into the hands of the chief priests and the teachers of the law who made up the Sanhedrin, the Jewish law court. So, he’ll be handed over to them and they will condemn him to death. But because they had no authority to execute the death sentence, they would have to hand him over to the Gentiles. He means the Romans. And they will mock him and flog him and crucify him. But then, on the third day, he will be raised to life.

So, he’s God’s Anointed King, sent to save God’s people. But he did not come like King David to raise an army and to fight against his enemies. He did not come with power to crush his enemies by force. He did not come to lord it over them and to sit on a throne in Jerusalem, which is perhaps what James and John were expecting him to do.

No, he came to submit himself to the high priests and to the teachers of the law and to the Romans and to suffer at their hands. He came to submit himself to them, because this was the will of the Father for him.

And according to verse 28, he did not come to be served like an earthly ruler is served. No, he came to serve his people by giving up his life as a ransom for many. In biblical times, one army might hand over a ransom to the enemy army to secure the release of their soldiers if they had been captured. And so, a ransom was paid to set someone free. Or a slave might be able to pay a ransom to purchase his freedom from his master. And so, a ransom was paid to set someone free. Or if my bull got free and killed someone, the law said that I deserved to die if I had been negligent. In other words, if it was my fault, then I deserved to die. But the law also allowed me to pay a ransom in order to save my life. In the eyes of the law, I’m guilty and deserve to die because it was my fault my bull got out. But I can pay a ransom so that my life is spared. And so, a ransom is paid to set someone free from death.

And all of us are guilty before God, because all of us are sinners who sin against God continually. We were sinners from time we were conceived; and all our life we’ve broken God’s laws and commandments and we’ve fallen short of doing his will. And what we deserve from God because we’re sinners who sin against him continually is death, because the wages of sin is death. That’s what we all deserve.

But the Lord Jesus did not deserve to die. He did not deserve to die, because the Lord Jesus was holy from the time he was conceived; and he never did anything wrong; and he always did his Father’s will. And so, he did not deserve to die. But he willingly gave up his perfect life as the ransom price to set us free from the condemnation and death which we deserve. He died so that we would be spared. He died so that we would live. And so, a ransom was paid to see us free from death.

We’ll still die. But for those who trust in Christ, who gave up his life as our ransom, death is not a punishment, but it’s the doorway into the presence of God to await the resurrection of our bodies and eternal life in the new heavens and earth where we will enjoy God forever. And so, just as the Son of Man was raised to life on the third day, so all who believe in him will be raised to life when he comes again.

And in the meantime, while we wait for him to come again, we’re to follow his example of service. Whoever wants to be great, must be like a servant. Whoever wants to be first, must be like a slave. Do you remember what we read in 3 John about Diotrophes? He was that man in the church who loved to be first. And he threw his weight around and he imposed his will on the others. He sounds like a man who wanted to sit on a throne and to rule the church and to order people around. But the Saviour has set us another example, hasn’t he? He has shown us that we’re to humble ourselves and we’re to love and serve one another.