Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Matthew 20:17-28


17As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 18“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, 19and will hand him over to the Gentiles to mock, to scourge, and to crucify; and the third day he will be raised up.”

“As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem” (vv. 17-18). Jerusalem is on a mountain, so Jesus and the disciples are literally “going up” to get there. Jerusalem is the place where Jesus will die, so this is a journey to his death—to the place where he will fulfill the purpose of his life. They will arrive in Jerusalem in the very next chapter (21:1).

“and they will condemn him to death, and will hand him over to the Gentiles to mock, to scourge, and to crucify” (vv. 18b-19a). Jewish authorities will condemn Jesus. The idea that they will hand Jesus over to the Gentiles for mocking adds to the grievousness of Jesus’ death (Keener).

“and on the third day he will be raised up” (v. 19b). Jesus mentions the resurrection in all three accounts of this third passion announcement (Mark 10:34; Luke 18:33), but the disciples appear not to hear it.

Jesus’ announcement says that his “fate in Jerusalem will be no tragic accident of history but the outworking of God’s saving purposes for humanity” (Hagner).

Earlier on the journey, Jesus twice predicted his impending death:

• After the first prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus (16:21-22), only to be rebuked in return (16:23). Jesus proceeded to teach the crowd and the disciples to “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (16:24).

• After the second prediction (17:22-23), the disciples “were exceedingly sorry” (17:23).

• Now, after the third prediction (see also Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34), the mother of James and John asks Jesus for preferred seating for her sons “in your kingdom” (20:21), following which Jesus tells the disciples, “Whoever desires to be first among you shall be your bondservant” (20:27)—and then Jesus holds up his own sacrificial service as a model for all disciples (20:28).

However, the disciples consistently fail to comprehend either the passion predictions or Jesus’ instruction on discipleship following each prediction. Jesus is so different from the expected messiah that they just don’t “get it.” It is as if their spiritual eyes have been focused in one place so long that, now that the messiah appears in their midst, they cannot refocus sufficiently to see him clearly.

Matthew uses Mark as one of his primary sources for this Gospel. Peter was probably one of Mark’s sources for the stories in that Gospel, and may have been the source of this story. As one of the Big Three (Peter, James, and John—privileged to be with Jesus at the Transfiguration and Gethsemane), he must have been acutely aware of James’ and John’s attempt to edge him out—to narrow the Big Three to the Big Two.


20Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, kneeling and asking a certain thing of him. 21He said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Command that these, my two sons, may sit, one on your right hand, and one on your left hand, in your Kingdom.” 22But Jesus answered, “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it is for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

Matthew uses Mark as one of his primary sources. This account is nearly identical to Mark 10:35-45 with two exceptions:

• Mark has James and John making the request instead of their mother. Matthew apparently changes Mark’s account because of his embarrassment at the behavior of these two key disciples. If their mother was involved, we can be sure that James and John instigated her request, because Jesus addresses his response to them rather than her.

• Mark also has Jesus asking James and John if they are able to be “baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38). Matthew omits the mention of baptism.

Along with Peter, James and John were the disciples privileged to be with Jesus at his Transfiguration (17:1) and Gethsemane (26:37).  Their mother will be among the women present at Jesus’ crucifixion (27:56) (Senior, 224).

“What do you want?” (v. 21). This is the same question that Jesus will ask the blind men later in this chapter (20:33). The blind men will respond by asking Jesus to open their eyes, which Jesus will do. They respond by following Jesus (20:34). Their restored physical sight contrasts dramatically with the poor spiritual vision of the disciples.

“Command that these, my two sons, may sit, one on your right hand, and one on your left hand, in your Kingdom” (v. 21). Keep in mind that Jesus has just told the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die (20:17-19). How the mother of James and John can be so dense? She has not only failed to hear Jesus’ prediction of his upcoming death, but regards this journey to Jerusalem as a messianic march on the city to restore its former Davidic glory so that Jesus might assume the Davidic throne.

It would be difficult for us to understand how this woman could fail to hear Jesus’ clear prediction of his passion—except that we see Christians today hearing what they want to hear instead of listening to Jesus’ words about cross-bearing:

• The Prosperity Gospel, with its appeal to believe and grow rich, teaches that Jesus wants us to prosper—to go first class—to wear a Rolex and drive a Mercedes. How can anyone so misunderstand Jesus? How can they fail to hear his teaching about cross bearing, service and sacrifice?

• If we examine our own prayers, we will find much that parallels the request of these two brothers. Is the emphasis of our prayers adoration and praise? Thanksgiving? Confession? For most of us, prayer consists primarily of asking—Lord, give me this and Lord, give me that. Our prayers are not so different from this request of James and John.

It is worth noting that Matthew and Luke report Jesus as saying, “Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”(Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28-30).

Jesus does not rebuke James and John. Instead, he draws attention to the price that he will pay—a price that he has just made clear in his passion announcement (vv. 18-19). “Are you (“you” plural—Jesus addresses the brothers rather than the mother) able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (v. 22). In the Old Testament, “cup” can refer to blessings, judgment, or death, but is a common metaphor for suffering, especially at God’s hands (Ps. 11:6; 16:5; 75:8; Isa. 51:17; Jer. 25:15-29; Lam. 4:21; Ezek. 23:31-34; Zech. 12:2).

“You (plural) will indeed drink my cup” (v. 23). We are not certain that Jesus is predicting martyrdom for these brothers. His words also make sense if they point to persecution rather than death. What Jesus is really asking is whether they are willing to bear the suffering that he will soon endure?

James will be, in fact, martyred by Herod Agrippa—”killed with the sword” rather than crucified (Acts 12:2). John’s fate is less certain. At least one source reports his martyrdom, but another reports his death in Ephesus at an old age. Acts 4 tells of his arrest in Jerusalem, and we can assume that his was not an easy life.

Ironically, the men who will occupy the positions at Jesus’ right and left hands will be two thieves at Golgotha (Matt 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:32; John 19:18).


24When the ten heard it, they were indignant with the two brothers.

25But Jesus summoned them, and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26It shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant (Greek:diakonos). 27Whoever desires to be first among you shall be your bondservant” (Greek:doulos)

“When the ten heard it, they were indignant with the two brothers” (v. 24). There is no reason to believe that the other disciples are angry because of James’ and John’s insensitivity to Jesus’ situation. As Mark makes clear (Mark 9:33-37), the disciples are competing for honors and are offended because James and John are trying to steal the prize from under their noses.

Jesus rebukes neither James and John nor the twelve. Instead, he uses their behavior as a springboard for teaching. We can be sure that he has their full attention. James and John must be embarrassed at the exposure of their raw ambition. The other disciples are indignant, and will listen carefully to insure that Jesus addresses their concern. Instead, Jesus instructs them about the kingdom of God—its rules—how it works.

As usual, Jesus turns our world upside down as he introduces “rules of the road” for the kingdom of God (vv. 25-28). Kingdom Rules are altogether different from the rules of this world—just the opposite in fact. Those who live by the rules of this world honor power, even though powerful rulers are often selfish, petty tyrants who treat their subjects badly.

In the kingdom of God, honors will go to those who serve (Greek: diakonos—those who wait tables—Acts 6:2) rather than to those who exact service from others. First prize will go to the bondservant (Greek: doulos) of all.”  Note the progression here.  A diakonos is a servant––a humble position.  A doulos is a slave––the bottom of the heap.

We should be careful not to judge the disciples too harshly for their failure to understand. We have the advantage of any number of stories in the Gospels that teach us to honor service rather than power, but we often fail to do so. We stand in awe of Hollywood stars and sports figures, even though many of them use their influence to promote violence, illicit sex, drugs, and vulgarity. We envy corporate chieftains who get rich by increasing short-term profits, often at the expense of laid-off employees—and who, when their short-term strategies produce long-term ruin, bail out, protected by golden parachutes. We elect politicians who sell their souls to special interests and spend their lives shading the truth to serve their personal interests.

Jesus calls us to a different ethic, telling us that God honors service rather than power. He challenges us to begin living by Kingdom Rules in the here-and-now. It is a tough sell—and a lesson that the church must continually re-learn. Every denomination, congregation and pastor is tempted to look out for Number One instead of serving kingdom needs. We are tempted by grand titles, rich vestments, and large churches. We are tempted to preach the word that sells instead of the faithful word. Personal ambition did not start with James and John, nor did it end with them.


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.”

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” Jesus does not require more than he is willing to give. He modeled service and sacrifice from cradle to grave. While in the form of God, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). Both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion are acts of great service and sacrifice.

“a ransom (lutron) for many.” Jesus told the disciples that he must die, and now he tells them why. The word “ransom” (lutron) is found in both testaments, and refers to a payment made to free a prisoner or to emancipate a slave. The Jewish people are accustomed to a sacrificial system in which sacrificial animals atone for the sins of the people. Now Jesus says that he will give his life as a ransom for many. In those few words, he introduces a theology of atonement.

Jesus models service and sacrifice for his disciples, but he accomplishes something that the disciples cannot. Only Jesus can serve as a ransom for many. Jesus has a unique role in the plan of salvation.

Each generation must relearn the lesson of this verse.  We all “love the place of honor at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues” (23:6).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.



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Copyright 2009, 2019 Richard Niell Donovan