Distinction in the Kingdom
Matthew 20:20-28
Then came to him the mother of Zebedees children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him.…

In the company of Jesus and his twelve apostles, as they went up to Jerusalem to the Passover, were probably other disciples, their relatives and friends. For here is "the mother of the sons of Zebedee," who came "worshipping, and asking a certain thing" of Jesus. The reply and discourse following show -


1. This is the distinction of earthly kingdoms.

(1) "The princes of the Gentiles lord it over them." They have titles, insignia, robes, retinues, and ceremonies, to invest them with an air of superiority. The spirit of the world is ostentation, vanity and pride.

(2) "Their great ones exercise authority over them." Their distinction is more than pageantry. They wield power civil and military. This they often use tyrannically.

(3) "They are called benefactors" (see Luke 22:25). Their patronage is courted. Their favours are applauded. They are worshipped and imitated by courtiers, sycophants, and slaves.

2. Christians sometimes mistake it for the distinction of Christ's kingdom.

(1) These, however, are imperfect Christians, as the apostles were before the Day of Pentecost. The sons of Zebedee were evidently of this way of thinking when they sought places of distinction. For degrees of dignity in Eastern customs were denoted by proximity to the throne (see 1 Kings 2:19; Psalm 44:9). They still cling to the notion of an earthly monarchy. Note: To desire to be preferred before a brother is to reflect upon him. Their fellow disciples were no less vulgarly ambitious. Ambition was the source of their indignation against the sons of Salome.

(2) Christ discerns the subtle pride that eludes the vision of its subject. On an earlier occasion Jesus rebuked James and John, and said, "Ye know not what, manner of spirit ye are of" (see Luke 9:55). Here again, "Ye know not what ye ask." Ye know not the true quality of my kingdom (see 1 Peter 5:8). Neither know ye what is pre-required. "Are ye able," etc.? (ver. 22). We know not what we ask when we desire the glory of the crown without the grace to bear the cross.

(3) Ambition may too much presume upon influence. The mother of the sons of Zebedee was probably a near relative of our Lord; some think she was the daughter of Cleophas or Alphaeus, and sister or cousin-german to Mary (cf. Mark 5:40; Mark 16:1; John 19:25). They availed themselves, therefore, of their mother's influence. They may have encouraged their ambition also by the favours they had already enjoyed. Jesus had called them "sons of thunder" (see Mark 3:17); and with Peter they were on three occasions specially favoured (see Mark 5:37; Matthew 17:1; Matthew 26:37). Yet were none so reproved as these. Whom Christ best loves he most reproves (see Revelation 3:19).

(4) In the reproof there is still recognition of distinction proper to the kingdom of Christ. He refers to his kingdom of glory what they understood of a kingdom of the earth. He had already promised to his apostles the distinction of the twelve thrones. There is a "measure of stature" both of grace and glory (Ephesians 4:13).

(5) The whole passage may be taken as a prophetic allusion to and condemnation of that spirit of domination which so early manifested itself in the Apostasy (see 2 Thessalonians 2:4).


1. The service of suffering.

(1) This is implied in the question, "Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" Christ obtained not his crown by wars and. victories, but by shame and death. Very different from the sons of Zebedee were those whom our Lord was first to have on his right hand and on his left (see Matthew 27:38).

(2) "We are able." This was the language of self-confidence; its vanity was soon made manifest (see Matthew 26:31, 56). Christ did not rebuke that self-confidence then; he left the rebuking to events. History has its admonitions as well as its revenges.

(3) "My cup indeed ye shall drink." Here note the spirit of prophecy. James suffered martyrdom from Herod (see Acts 12:2). John was banished to Patmos (see Revelation 1:9). Both sympathized with Jesus in his suffering. Religion, if worth anything, is worth everything; and if worth everything, then it is worth suffering for. "Christ will have us know the worst, that we may make the best of our way to heaven" (Henry).

(4) Yet did not this drinking of the Redeemer's cup of necessity entitle the sons of Salerno to the distinction corresponding to that which they had sought. The other apostles shared with them in the suffering. So did the noble army of the martyrs. The lowest place in heaven is a full recompense for the greatest sufferings on earth.

(5) For the more worthy the higher distinctions are reserved. And who but God can distinguish the most worthy? Obedience is perfected in suffering. So was the obedience of Christ perfected (see Hebrews 2:10). So is that of his followers (see James 1:4). Who but God can distinguish among the perfected? But Christ is God (cf. John 17:2).

2. The service of ministry.

(1) The theory of this service is here propounded (ver. 27). The minister of Christ must not lord it over God's heritage (1 Peter 5:3). Even Paul the apostle disclaims dominion over the private Christian's faith (2 Corinthians 1:24). Christians should serve one another for mutual edification (see Romans 14:19; Romans 15:2; 1 Corinthians 9:19; 1 Peter 5:5). In such loving service lies the truest dignity.

(2) The practice of this service is encouraged by the most illustrious example (ver. 28). Jesus in his youth and early manhood appears to have been familiar with labour (see Mark 6:3). The years of his public ministry were years of self-sacrificing toil for the good. of others. This also was the end for which he died.

(3) Note here especially that Jesus speaks of himself as a piacular Victim. This is the first instance in which he is reported by this evangelist to have done so; though John shows that he had done so earlier both publicly and privately (see John 3:14, 15; John 6:51). The sacrificial nature of the death of Christ was shadowed forth in sacrifices from the beginning (see Genesis 4:4; Genesis 8:20; Genesis 22:7, 8). In after times it was yet more largely and significantly prefigured in the Mosaic ritual (see Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9.). Still later it was foretold by the prophets (see Isaiah 53; Daniel 9:26). Then by the Baptist (see John 1:29). By Jesus himself. Ever since it is the fundamental truth of the gospel preached.

(4) Wakefield's translation, viz. "a ransom instead of many," teaches that Christ's one sacrifice once offered was to supersede the many sacrifices of typical anticipation.

(5) By his dying "for many" we must not infer that he did not die for all, for that would be to contradict other Scriptures (see Ezekiel 18:23; Ezekiel 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:4-6). The One for "many" sets forth the infinite nobility of the One. - J.A.M.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him.

WEB: Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, kneeling and asking a certain thing of him.

Christ's Answer to Salome's Petition
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