Harmony of the Gospels

 April 20, 2006

Near Jordan
(37) Ambition of James and John
Matthew 20:20-28, Mark 10:35-45

20 Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him.

From Matthew 4:21 we know that the two sons of Zebedee were the apostles James and John, because the verse says, “And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother...” When Jesus taught His disciples, the mother of James and John listened, with pride in her two sons. They were naturally talented and dedicated to the Lord, and they were included in Jesus’ inner circle.
James was a born leader (see Acts 12:17; 15:13), and John was commonly called the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (see John 13:23). Their mother, just like many mothers today, wanted the best for her children, and so a few days before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, she made a request in behalf of her children.

21 And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.

The word “grant”, as it is used here, means “command”; “Command that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.” This mother’s pride and ambition can be seen in her request that her sons set in the seats with the highest honor in Christ’s kingdom. The thought may have come from the revelation that Jesus’ followers will set on thrones. Three times Jesus had foretold that He would be condemned to death, then rise the third day; yet at the crucifixion, most of His disciples deserted Him, proving that they had heard Him selectively. They heard only the promises that the kingdom was coming soon, and His followers would sit on thrones (Matt. 19:28). These two disciples may have asked their mother to make the request, but in any case the request shows a lack of humility on their part. But it should be noted that the request showed a firm faith that Jesus was the Messiah, and that His kingdom was a reality.
It’s faith like that that Jesus is willing to accept and reward.

22 But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.
23 And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.

The cup and the baptism both refer to our Lord’s suffering and death. The cup is God’s wrath that will be poured out on Him at Calvary, where He suffered for the sins of mankind. The baptism refers to the immersion of the Lord into suffering. When Jesus said, “Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with,” He is predicting their future. James, who was beheaded, was the first disciple to die for Christ, and John suffered in a variety of ways over the longest period of time.

What Jesus says here is so important to Christians today. He is not saying that there is no place at His right hand and His left hand for somebody. He is saying that He will not arbitrarily give the positions to James and John or to anyone else, because these places are for those who prepare themselves for them. Keep this in mind: Heaven is for the asking.You do nothing for salvation. You are saved by faith in Christ through His marvelous grace. However, your position and your reward in heaven are determined by what you do here on earth. That’s very important and Christians seem to have lost sight of it. Ask yourself, “What kind of place am I preparing for myself?” Personally, I have missed the right to set on Jesus’ right side or left side—but I am working for a place. All of us should be doing this. In Philippians 4:13 Paul said, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The trouble with Christians today is that too few are even trying to win anything. We need to recognize that salvation is a free gift, but we need to get on the race course to receive a gift.

24 And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren.

They were displeased because they wanted the positions, and they may have been irritated by the two using their mother to plead their case. But the truth is; they would have asked Jesus for the same exalted positions, given the opportunity. So the Lord must teach them another principle, because the method this world uses is not God’s method.
25 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.
26 But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
27 And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:

The Jews used the term “Gentiles” to refer to anyone who was not racially a Jew. It expressed the idea that they were pagans, since they usually did not worship the God of Israel. The Lord warns His disciples against having leadership aspirations, as the gentiles do. God’s method is to take those who are humble and make themselves small by serving, and to place them as the leaders for He says, “whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister. He is saying that greatness in His kingdom is servanthood—the opposite of the world’s view of greatness. Servanthood begins in the heart, and it’s the mark of spiritual greatness. Again, Jesus is concerned more about the attitudes in the hearts of His followers than with their works (see John 13:1–17).

Jesus was always teaching His disciples, and in this discussion the lesson is that the style of leadership and greatness is different for believers. He gives them an example by making a comparison to how governments operate. He says that governments dominate their people in a dictatorial fashion by using their great power and authority. Believers, however, are to do the opposite—they lead by being servants and giving themselves away for others, as Jesus did. In the last verse we are given the key to the gospel of Mark.

28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Jesus came to this earth “to give his life a ransom for many.” The word translated "for" means “in the place of,” underscoring the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death.

"A ransom" is the price paid to redeem a slave or prisoner. "Many" does not necessarily restrict the magnitude of His death since Paul declared that He died for “all”, but it does indicate that not all would respond to His offer of salvation. When we are saved, the ransom doesn’t involve making payment to Satan. Rather, the ransom is paid to God to satisfy His justice and wrath against sin. The price paid is Christ’s own life as a blood atonement. The meaning of the cross, then is this: Christ subjects Himself to the divine punishment against sin on out behalf. He suffered the brunt of divine wrath in the place of sinners.

Just as His suffering and death must come before His rule, so also James and Johns suffering would come before their ruling with Him. Even though they would suffer for Christ, the positions, ranks, and rewards of the kingdom were a matter of God’s sovereign choice (see Matt. 20:1–16). Jesus wanted His disciples to approach Him freely with their requests, but He was disappointed in their inflated view of their own importance and with their lack of spiritual sensitivity in understanding His mission. They were reaching for glory without a willingness to endure the prerequisite sufferings.


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