Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 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.” 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.” 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.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 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. 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, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Understanding And Applying the Text
This passage holds up a mirror to our vanity. Often we hide our selfish ambition under a veil of righteousness. It may look like we are striving for holiness when in reality we are self-centered.
The two sons of Zebedee were sincere in following Christ. But then corrupt ambition crept in. Jesus chose them as apostles. They were part of Jesus’ inner circle. They were special, or so they thought. Christ said His reign was almost here. They allowed selfish ambition to overcome service to Christ. They were no longer satisfied being part of the inner circle. They wanted the highest places in the kingdom. And you don’t get if you don’t ask.
Mark also records this event. The two accounts agree in substance but the details are a little different. Matthew has the mother asking. In Mark, James and John ask for themselves.
The two accounts are easy to reconcile. Their timid approach showed they knew something was amiss. So they had their mother ask. But in reality, the request was from them. Christ responded to them, not to their mother. He knew what was up. This was so thinly veiled as to be transparent.
It is also possible they were trying Jesus. Jesus taught, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14). But the problem was they were not asking in Jesus’ name. They asked for their own sake. They asked in their own name. They were the first to ask. How many times have you lost out because someone else asked first?
Their faith was not at issue. James and John had faith. The Kingdom was not yet visible. They saw Jesus held in contempt. They saw him despised. Yet they believed Jesus. They believed He was the Son of God and that He would reign as king. And the kingdom of heaven was at hand. But it had not yet appeared. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) They had faith. It was a noble example of faith. Even so, we see how pure faith can degenerate.
You may ask, “Well what is the harm in asking? If you want something you have to ask for it. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” That makes sense to us. It was wrong on two counts. First, their ambition caused them to request more than was proper. Second, they tried placing themselves above all other men. They did not understand the idea of servant leadership. This is a reminder the apostles were sinful men, like us. God used sinful men to bring His Gospel to the world. But we are not to venerate or worship the apostles as Rome would have us believe. Their righteousness came wholly and completely from Christ.
Christ corrected their selfish ambition by saying, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” Their response was an ignorant, oh yes! Jesus responded with, well you’re gonna.
In the Old Testament “cup” signified the outpouring of God’s wrath. (Psalm 75:8 Isiah 51:17, Jeremiah 25: 15,16). Saying the disciples would drink His cup meant they would experience suffering. James and John were good Jewish boys so they understood that. They thought they would go through a period of suffering then they would rein. A little bit of suffering for a whole lot of a life of ease.
Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath for us. As believers, we do not receive the wrath we deserve. Christ drank it all, to the last drop. In and through Christ’s suffering we have already undergone judgment. We are now justified in Christ and heirs of His glory (Romans 8:17). Yet it is our privilege to be identified with Christ in His sufferings (1 Peter 2:21)
But drinking from the cup did not qualify James and John for the honor they requested. And the suffering we endure does not qualify us for honor either. What James and John requested was not Christ’s to give. Only the Father gives it. And He gives it to whom He chooses. That does not diminish Christ in any way. He had one role to play and the Father has another role.
Here is an inadequate analogy. But here it goes anyway. An offensive lineman on an American football team does not catch or throw the ball. He does not carry the ball. Throughout the whole game, he may never even touch the ball. But that does not diminish his role on the team. Without him, the team could not score. Playing different roles does not imply greater or lesser. The Father is not greater than the Son. The son is not greater than the Holy Spirit The Holy Spirit is not greater than the Father. And vice versa.
When the other apostles heard what James and John had done they were angry. “Who do they think they are?” The other disciples’ indignation was unfounded. You may argue they had a right to be offended at James and John’s presumption. James and John left in disgrace. The remaining disciples’ indignation was out of line. It revealed their selfish ambition. The difference was, James and John took the initiative. They were all sinful men.
Christ seized this as a teaching moment. First He showed disputing among themselves over primacy had no place in His kingdom. Jesus called them to the office of teaching. It had no resemblance to the government of the world.
Many mega-church pastors don’t get this. They rule with an iron hand. Christ appoints pastors to serve and teach not rule.
How are we to govern the church? Here Christ placed the apostles at the same level as everyone else. Paul, described Church government (Ephesians 4:11). He outlined different departments of the ministry. In doing so he ranks apostleship higher than the office of pastors. Paul tells Timothy and Titus to exercise authority over others. Even a king’s rule is unjust and unlawful unless they serve. But that the apostolic office differs from the earthly government in this respect. The way kings and magistrates serve does not prevent them from governing. Nor does it prevent them from rising above their subjects. David, Hezekiah, and others in the Old Testament were servants. Nonetheless used emblems of royalty. But the government of the Church is not to allow anything of the sort. Christ allows pastors to only minister. They are to abstain from the exercise of authority. Christ distinguishes between the ranks of apostles and kings. Kings have a station of royalty. That is different from the apostolic office. Both are to be humble.
Christ established His kingdom by His own service. His own death. He paid the debt we owed God for our sins. The only payment for our cosmic treason is death. Christ paid that price for us. That was the ultimate service. Christ gave His life as a ransom for us.
The term ransom refers to the price paid to deliver someone from slavery or imprisonment. The price of freedom from sin and condemnation was Jesus’ life, given for us (1 Peter 1:18-19). Christ ransomed the elect from the wrath of God. The idea that Jesus paid a ransom to Satan is false. The ransom was offered to God Himself. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath, not for His own sins, but for ours. He ransomed us from the wrath of God.
The Greek preposition translated “for” can also be translated as “in the place of.” It expresses the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ suffering.
Note Jesus says “many” not “all”. This shows a specific or definite focus on His redemptive activity. But it is also “many” and not “few.”