Matthew 20:20 – Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something.
The sons of Zebedee were James and John. They, along with Peter, were the ‘inner circle’ of the disciples. These three were with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. John was the disciple Jesus loved. So we find that the sons of Zebedee were very close to Jesus.
Their mother’s name was Salome. Although Salome’s husband was deceased, he appears to have left her a wealthy widow. She was one of the women who followed Jesus and the disciples, supporting them financially (Mark 15:40).
Salome wants something. Either she feels very comfortable asking because of her service to Jesus, or she is a very bold woman! Either way, she approaches Jesus and kneels before him as a sign of respect.
Matthew 20:21 – 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.”
This seems like a strange request because it immediately follows the revelation of Jesus that he will soon suffer a horrible death on the cross. Who would be asking for honors at a time like that?
However, it may not be that strange when we consider the mindset of James and John. The brothers (along with many other Jews) believed that once Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, he would immediately set up the kingdom they had long expected.
According to their timetable, Jesus would die, rise again and take over the world within a week!
The good news is that they had enough faith to believe that Jesus would rise from the dead. They also had the faith to believe that he would successfully establish his kingdom, even though there was no sign of it at that time.
The bad news is that their request shows their ignorance and reveals their sinful ambition. They still believed that Jesus’ kingdom would be an earthly one with great splendor, glory, wealth and power. They wanted to be the first applicants for the top positions of honor in this new kingdom.
Their ambition also reveals an element of pride. They feel they are superior to the other disciples, and thus entitled to the highest positions of honor. After all, aren’t they Jesus’ closest friends? Hasn’t Jesus already shown them special favor?
So we see that even the disciples struggled with letting the things of this world go, in order to take hold of heavenly things. This is an issue that all Christians must constantly deal with.
We are citizens of heaven, fulfilling a temporary assignment here on earth. But sometimes, we get so focused on our temporary situation that we start to lay down roots here. We start to store up treasure here, rather than in heaven. We start to plan and work to have places of honor here, rather than in heaven. We want to make our mark on this world, rather than the world to come. We develop our own agenda for a good life here, rather than embracing the agenda that God has for us.
Even the apostles fell into this pitfall of the enemy. Is there a way for us to avoid it?
I believe we can circumvent this problem by following the example of Jesus:
Philippians 2:5-7 – Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, … taking the form of a servant…he humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death…
Notice that this scripture tells us that Jesus ‘emptied himself’. In other words, he put all of his human dreams, desires, ambitions, rights, and goals aside. Once he was emptied of his own desires, there was room for God to fill him with the desires of the Father, through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Because he was committed to fulfilling the will of the Father and not his own will, he was able to face the cross:
Matthew 26:42 – He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, your will be done.
I believe that God wants each of us to do the same thing. He wants us to empty ourselves by surrendering our plans, goals, dreams and desires to him. If we are seeking the will of God, and not trying to complete our own agendas, we will not fall into the trap of loving the world and neglecting heaven. Embracing God’s plan for our lives will ensure that we lay up all of our treasures in our permanent home (heaven), not here on earth.
During the next few days, will you give this idea some consideration? The Holy Spirit is standing by right now, just waiting for you to empty yourself, so he can fill you with the plans and purposes of God!
Matthew 20:22 – 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.”
Interestingly, Jesus does not respond to Salome, but directly to James and John. This indicates that the request originated with them, not their mother; she was probably making the request because they asked her to.
Jesus plainly tells the brothers that they don’t understand the full impact of what they are requesting. James and John are only thinking about the honor and happiness that would belong to them, if they occupied the seats on either side of Jesus. What they don’t realize is that the path to those seats is filled with trials, suffering and pain.
James and John speedily assure Jesus that they are quite capable of handling any trials or suffering that might come their way – no problem! They have great confidence in their own strength and ability to endure suffering.
But as we would expect, those who trust in the flesh always fail. It was no different for James and John. Their abject failure is clearly documented in the scriptures. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled like cowards (Mark 14:30)! After the death of Jesus, they were hiding in a room together for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).
Yet, in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, we find that James was the first of the 12 apostles to be martyred. His death is recorded in Acts 2:12. He was executed in AD 44 by King Herod Agrippa I of Judea.
Foxe goes on to record this: “The eminent writer, Clemens Alexandrinus, wrote that when James was being led to his execution his extraordinary courage impressed one of his captors to such a degree that he fell on his knees before the apostle, asked his forgiveness, and confessed that he was a Christian too. He said that James should not die alone, whereupon they were both beheaded.” [Quote from The New Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, page 5, published 2001].
What about John? While in the city of Ephesus, he was arrested and sent to Rome, where he was cast into a large vessel filled with boiling oil – that did not harm him! As a result, he was banished by the Emperor Domitian to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. Eventually, he was released and returned to Ephesus where he died a natural death in AD 98. He was the only apostle who did not die a violent death.
What could account for the miraculous transformation in James and John? How do you go from running away at the arrest of Jesus to courageously facing a vat of boiling oil for your faith in Christ?
The difference was the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which the disciples received on the Day of Pentecost. They no longer operated in the strength of their flesh, but in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 4:31 – And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
Have you ever wondered if you would have the strength to stand firm if you had to renounce Christ or die?
The fact is, we have no ability in ourselves (our flesh) to walk this path. However, if we have been filled with the Holy Spirit, we can rely on his strength and power to give us boldness, even to the point of death.
Matthew 20:23 – 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.”
Jesus reveals that both of these men will ‘drink his cup’ or in other words, they will share in his sufferings. They will be persecuted for the sake of the gospel.
However, that suffering does not guarantee them the places of honor they are seeking.
So to answer the original request of James and John, Jesus replies that the seats of honor they are seeking have been prepared for someone specific, and when the time comes, God will give them to the proper people.
Matthew 20:24 – And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.
The reaction of the other 10 disciples reveals what was in their hearts. Their indignation is not a righteous indignation against sin, but a jealousy of rivals. They were angry because they had the same hidden ambition as James and John! So all of the disciples have been ‘infected’ with the desire to be honored and esteemed higher than anyone else.
This is a problem that Jesus is going to have to address.
Matthew 20:25 – 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.”
Jesus does not angrily reprove the disciples, but tenderly and patiently he gives them instruction and revelation about the inner workings of his kingdom.
In the earthly realm, it is customary for kings to exalt their friends or relatives to positions of high honor and authority within their kingdoms. This was the type of position the disciples desired.
However, the government of the church (or the kingdom of heaven) is far different. It is like no other kingdom that has ever existed. It is founded on humility and brotherly love, which stem from our relationship to Christ.
Therefore, the positions desired by the disciples simply do not exist in the kingdom of heaven. All of their ambition and jealously were worthless/meaningless.
Matthew 20:26-27 – “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and who ever would be first among you must be your slave,”
The disciples were to be servants to the entire body of Christ. They were to teach, to comfort, to encourage and to counsel. They were to labor to bring other believers to a state of spiritual maturity. This mandate was not just for the disciples.
All the members of Christ’s kingdom have a duty to serve one another for mutual edification. If you and I want to be great in Christ’s kingdom, we must:
- submit to one another (Ephesians 5:18-21)
- have humility towards one another (1 Peter 5:5)
- bear with one another (Romans 14:13-19)
- build one another up (Romans 15:1-3)
- live in harmony with each other (Romans 15:4-6).
So the way to greatness in the kingdom of heaven is to be humble and serve our brothers/sisters.
Matthew 20:28 – “…even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
As always, our lives should be patterned after our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ who provided us with the ultimate examples of:
Humbleness – Jesus has ultimate authority, yet he submitted to his earthly parents. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, yet he relinquished all earthly wealth, humbly depending on others to meet his needs. He is the head of the church, but never held an office or ruled in the Jewish community. He deserves all of our respect and admiration, yet he bent down and washed the feet of his own disciples. Ultimate power belongs to him, yet he submitted to a painful, humiliating death by the hands of his own creation.
Service to others – When Jesus went into a city or town, he healed EVERYONE who came to him. There were times when he was tired and hungry, but he never turned anyone away. He came into this world as a man for a specific purpose: to give his life as a ransom for us all. What greater act of service is there?
In light of the example of Christ, how should we live our lives?
Matthew 20:29-30 – And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, the cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to sacrifice himself on the cross. He will never again pass this way during his time on earth. For these two men to be on the path that Jesus is walking is no accident – it is a divine appointment!
This narrative becomes all the more interesting when we realize that blindness in the physical realm is a picture of blindness in the spiritual realm. All of us have been born blind to spiritual things because of sin.
But our loving heavenly Father did not abandon us to our fate. He sent his Son Jesus into the world, to heal our spiritual blindness so we can be reconciled to him.
Luke 4:18 – The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised…
Speaking of the Messiah, notice that the two blind men address Jesus as ‘Son of David’. This was a title that the Jews used to refer exclusively to the Messiah. So these two men are not requesting help from a prophet or simply a holy man. They are acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, the person whom God had sent to be the one and only author of salvation.
Matthew 20:31 – The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”
Because most of the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, the cries of these men no doubt made many of them angry. They insist that the men keep silent.
Likewise, whenever a lost soul begins to cry out to Jesus for salvation, the world and the devil join together to try and drown out his cry, or intimidate him into silence.
If people are trying to deter you from calling out to God for either salvation or deliverance, don’t let them hinder or stop you! Those who persevere in seeking the Lord will find that their efforts are not in vain. So do as this man did – appeal to God’s mercy, and cry out until he answers. Never give up!
Matthew 20:32-33 – And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”
Jesus was not going to deny or ignore any man who cried out to him as Savior. He stopped to speak with them, and grant their request.
In the same way, Jesus never ignores a plea for salvation. He is eagerly watching and waiting for the sinner to cry out, so he can grant their request.
However, I think there might be an ‘elephant in the room’. Surely, Jesus knows what these men need/want – for their blindness to be healed. Even you and I could figure that one out! If that is the case, why does Jesus ask them to verbalize their request to him? Why not just do the obvious – heal their eyes?
The Lord knew the desire of their hearts, but he wanted a verbal confession of their needs and the distinct blessing which they desired, so that all those standing by might acknowledge the miracle. Indeed, it confirmed for the man himself that God has answered his petition.
Do you see a parallel here with prayer? God already knows what we have need of before we pray (Matthew 6:8), but he still asks us to bring our requests to him in prayer.
Philippians 4:6 – Be anxious for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
We do not make our request to God to inform him of our situation (he already knows it), or to move him to action (faith is what moves God to action). By praying, we are partnering or cooperating with God in the work which he intends to accomplish in our lives. We are releasing his mercy, wisdom and power into our hopeless situations.
As an added bonus, our own faith is further strengthened when we make specific requests to God and then see him answer them in prayer.
Matthew 20:34 – And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.
This is a testimony to the power of God. Jesus healed the man easily and completely – immediately his eyes were opened. Thus, he confirmed that he was indeed the Messiah and he revealed the mission for which he was sent – to give salvation to the spiritually blind. Aren’t you so glad he did!
Let me give you some encouragement:
The disciples wanted places of honor in God’s kingdom. They did not realize that the kingdom of heaven is made up of those who serve. What service have you done lately?
I am positive that in the midst of these uncertain times, there are many, many people out there who could use a word of encouragement and hope. As a Christian, you carry the author of life with you, wherever you go. Can we make a special effort this week to encourage those around us? Why not reach out to a friend or family member you havn’t connected with in a long time? Your words can make a difference in the life of someone who is scared, desperate or lonely. So reach out and encourage someone this week!
Let me give you some relief:
Maybe you’ve put down a few too many roots in this life. Maybe you forgot that this world is not your home. Well let me offer you some relief – you’re not the only one!
This can happen to any of us. The good news is that once you recognize the problem, you can change the outcome. Right now, go to our Savior in prayer. Surrender all of your ‘roots’ to him. Ask him to fill your heart with His plans and desires; then follow them with all your might. You will once again be storing up treasures in your permanent home – heaven!
Let me give you some strength:
We mentioned in this passage that when the apostles encountered times of suffering and trial, their flesh was not strong enough to get them through. It failed them every time. However, after they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they experienced a new level of boldness and confidence.
Because they were trusting in the Spirit, they were able to stare death in the face and not even flinch. I encourage you to pray for a renewed anointing of the Holy Spirit in your life. Tap into the strength and power that God has made available to each and every one of us. In these days, we certainly need it!