The Presumptuous Request: Matthew 20:20-23
“20) Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. 21) And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She *said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.” 22) But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They *said to Him, “We are able.” 23) He *said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.”” Matthew‬ ‭20‬:‭20‬-‭23‬ ‭
The time frame of this request is troubling. They were on the verge of entering Jerusalem for His suffering and two of His disciples are still seeking self promotion. Such were their motives that they even included their mother in this unusual petition.
Church tradition places a woman named Mary as their mother. She is mentioned in Mark 15:40; 47 and again in Mark 16:1. In each case, she is identified as the mother of James. She was among the inner group that included the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Salome that seemed to travel on this occasion with Jesus and His disciples to care for the daily details of food and lodging.
It was on this occasion that she approached Jesus privately with her two sons. The story is not clear if she initiated the meeting or was recruited by her two self seeking sons to make the request. The act of bowing down before Him, proved that they recognized Him as a King. They were paying homage. They also sensed that His Kingdom was near.
Her request is recorded in verse 21; “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on your left.” This was undoubtedly a reference back to Matthew 19:28 and the mention Jesus made of twelve thrones that awaited the apostles. The twelve became fixated on this prophecy. They were now maneuvering for the greater thrones of honor.
Jesus then asked the two if they were ready to drink of the cup from which He was about to drink? They unwittingly answered; “We are able.” It appears they envisioned a cup of honor, but Jesus was referring to a bitter cup of suffering. He assured them that they would drink from His cup, but the thrones were His Fathers to assign.
Indeed, history tells us they did drink from His cup of suffering. Acts 12:2 records that James was the first of the Apostles to be martyred. Herod put him to death with the sword. It happened so early in church history that it almost seems like a waste for one of the three that accompanied Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and then deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane. Why did he die so young and so early in the saga of Christianity?
This is one of the unsolved mysteries of the early church, but is packed with insight for any who dare wrestle with the question; “Why do so many good people die so young?” I offer no easy answer!
According to Revelation 1:9-10, John was a partaker of much tribulation and a prisoner on the island called Patmos. His graphic vision recorded in the book of Revelation was indeed a difficult cup to drink. According to Mark 10:38-39, the cup was also pictured as a baptism. He was baptized into the full tribulation that awaited the bride of Christ through the ages. He was the last of the Apostles to die.
Did you catch the irony? In a strange twist of events, James and John were indeed “the first and the last.” They became the book ends of the story of the Apostles.
Another irony is included in this text. The reference is Matthew 20:20. If you want 20/20 vision, you must balance both near and far sight. Present suffering in this life must be factored into future glory. 20/20 spiritual vision clearly sees both near and far! It factors in both present suffering and future glory.
This episode forces us to face a reality that accompanies the Christian life. It is full of both glory and sufferings. As Paul testified in Acts 14:22; “… Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” The way to the throne passes through the story of the cross. Paul fully embraced this dichotomy in Philippians 10:10. We need to dance with both “the power of His resurrection” and “the fellowship of His sufferings in this life.”
Daily Bible Commentary By Terry Baxter: Cofounder of GoServ Global