Matthew 20:20

In St. Mark we are only told that the two sons of Zebedee came, asking for the first places in the kingdom. St. Matthew's account shows that the request originated with their mother. It is natural that a mother should dream of a great future for her children. The mother's ambition is an inspiration for her training of them. In the present instance it seemed to overstep the bounds of modesty. Yet when we consider all the circumstances, we shall see that there was something really grand about it.


1. Its selfishness. This is the first thing that strikes any reader of the narrative. On a mother's part it is not so selfish, however, as if the two brothers had come alone. Yet there is a family selfishness. Moreover, the brothers shared in their mother's request.

2. Its naturalness. These two disciples belonged to the most intimate group of the friends of Jesus. Possibly the request was only that there might be a continuance in heaven of the privilege already accorded on earth. We know that one of the brothers, St. John, sat on the right hand of Jesus on earth (John 13:25); it is not at all unlikely that St. James sat on the other side of the Master. If so, the request is for the continuance of a present privilege. Will Jesus, when in glory, abandon his old friends? or will he own the fishermen and honour them in proportion to their present privileges?

3. Its faith. This daring request was made just after Christ had spoken of his approaching death. The gloomy prospect might have checked the hopes of the most ardent. Nevertheless, Zebedee's wife is sure that Christ will triumph and reign in his glorious kingdom. In full view of the greatest approaching disaster, she speaks of the division of the spoil after the ultimate victory. Here is a marvel of faith!

II. THE SEARCHING QUESTION. Jesus answers the request with a question. Only they can receive the heavenly privileges who attain to them in the right way. Are the two brothers prepared for this?

1. Prayer is often offered in ignorance of what it involves. These simple people had little conception of the road to greatness in the kingdom of heaven. We may seem to be uttering most harmless requests, yet we know not what we ask. Therefore prayer should be submissive. It is well to leave our prayers to God's discriminating judgment.

2. They who would reign with Christ must suffer with him. It is vain to think of sharing the final victory if we will not share the previous conflict. The two brothers assent to the condition. In doing so they atone for much of the selfishness of their request. They had their grand destiny of suffering. St. James drank of Christ's cup in being the first martyr apostle; St. John in enduring longest, and in suffering exile and other hardships for his Lord's sake. There is no escaping this condition, although it may assume various forms.

3. The ultimate destiny of souls is with God alone. It is not for Christ to settle on grounds of friendship or favour. It belongs to the awful and mysterious counsels of God. Here we see the secondary rank of the Son compared with his Father. Yet the main lesson is not one concerning the nature of the Trinity. It is to teach us to renounce even the highest selfish ambition. That cannot help us. The future is with God. - W.F.A.

Then came to Him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons.
Christ does not put aside the granting of places at His right and left hand as not being within His province, but states the principles and conditions on which He does make such a grant. Again, our Lord does not put aside the prayer of His apostles as if they were seeking an impossible thing. He does not say, "You are asking what cannot be." He does say, "There are men for whom it is prepared of My Father." He does not condemn the prayer as indicating a wrong state of mind. He did not rebuke their passion for reward. They should have the reward if they fulfilled the conditions.

I. The principle, THAT SOME WILL BE NEARER CHRIST THAN OTHERS IN THAT HEAVENLY KINGDOM. Varied degrees of reward are prepared by God. They asked for earth; Christ answered for heaven. Heaven is a place. the corporeality of our future life is essential to the perfection of it. Christ will wear for ever a human frame. That involves locality, circumstances, external occupations. But if we stop there we have no true idea of the glory that makes the blessedness. For what is heaven? Likeness to God! Love, purity, fellowship with Him; the condition of the soul. Hence heaven can be no dead level. All will be like Jesus; this does not exclude infinite variety. Perfect bliss belongs to each; but the capacity to receive may differ. Does not the idea of endless progress involve that variety in degree. There are those for whom it is prepared of His Father, that they shall sit in special nearness to Him.

II. These words rightly understood assert the truth, which, at first sight, our English rendering seems to make them contradict, viz., THAT CHRIST IS THE GIVER TO EACH OF THESE VARIOUS DEGREES OF GLORY AND BLESSEDNESS. "It is not mine to give, save to them for whom it is prepared." Then it is thine to give it to them. To deny this is to destroy all the foundations upon which our hopes rest. There is nothing within the compass of God's love to bestow of which Christ is not the Giver. We read that He is the Judge of the whole earth. He clothes in white robes. Christ is the bestower of the royalties of heaven.

III. THESE GLORIOUS PLACES ARE NOT GIVEN TO MERE WISHING, NOR BY HERE ARBITRARY WILL, but a piece of favouritism. There are conditions which must precede such elevation. Some people imagine the desire enough. Our wishes are meant to impel us to the appropriate forms of energy, by which they can be realized. When a pauper becomes a millionaire by wishing that he were rich, when ignorance becomes learning by standing in a library and wishing that all the contents of the books were in its head, there will be seine hope that the gates of heaven will fly open to your desire. Does your wish lead you to the conditions': Some of heaven's characteristics attract you. You wish to escape punishment for sin; you would like rest after toil; do you wish to be pure? The happiness draws you? does the holiness? Would it be joyful to be near Christ?

IV. THESE GLORIOUS PLACES ARE GIVEN AS THE RESULT OF A DIVINE PREPARATION. The Divine Father and Son have unity of will and work in this respect. There is a twofold preparation.

1. That is the eternal counsel of the Divine love "prepared for you before the foundation of the world."

2. The realization of that counsel in time. His death and entrance into heaven made ready for us the eternal mansions. Faith in Christ alone, the measure of our faith, and growing Christ-likeness here will be the measure of our glory hereafter.

(Dr. McLaren.)

As in the heavens there be planets that roll nearer and nearer the central sun, and others that circle further out from its rays, yet each keeps its course, and makes music as it moves, as well as planets whose broader disc can receive and reflect more of the light than the smaller sister spheres, and yet each blazes over its whole surface, and is full to its very rim with white light; so round that throne the spirits of the just made perfect shall circle in order and peace — every one blessed, every one perfect, every one like Christ to begin with, and becoming like through every moment of the eternities. Each perfected soul looking in his brother's shall see there another phase of the one perfectness that blesses and adorns him too, and all taken together shall make up, in so far as finite creatures can make up, the reflection and manifestation of the fulness of Christ. "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us" is the law for the incompleteness of earth. "Having then gifts differing according to the glory that is given to us" will be the law for the perfection of the heavens.

(Dr. McLaren.)

Nor can such a place be given by mere arbitrary will. Christ could not, if He would, take a man to His fight hand whose heart was not the home of simple trust and thankful love, whose nature and desires were unprepared for that blessed world. It would be like taking one of those creatures — if there be such — that live on the planet whose orbit is furthest from the sun, accustomed to cold, organized for darkness, and carrying it to that great central blaze, with all its fierce flames and tongues of fiery gas that shoot up a thousand miles in a moment. It would crumble and disappear before its blackness could be seen against the blaze.

(Dr. McLaren.)

As one who precedes a mighty host, provides and prepares rest for their weariness, and food for their hunger, in some city on their line of march, and having made all things ready, is:. at the gates to welcome their travel-stained ranks when they arrive, and guide them to their repose; so He has gone before, our forerunner, to order all things for us there. It may be that unless Christ were in heaven, our brother as well as our Lord, it were no place for mortals. It may be that we need to Lave His glorified bodily presence in order that it should be possible for human spirits to bear the light, and be at home with God. Be that as it may, this we know, that the Father prepares a place for us by the eternal counsel of His love, and by the all-sufficient work of Christ, by whom we have access to the Father. And as His work is the Father's preparation of the place for us by the Son, the issue of His work is the Father's preparation of us for the place, through the Son. by the Spirit. "He that hath wrought us for the self-same thing is God."

(Dr. McLaren.)

Zebedee's two sons are following Christ, but following half unconsciously for a personal reward. Christ's answer is not for these seekers of office only, not for place-hunters in our day only, but for all men who would think of being Christians for a compensation, in whatever form we give that compensation shape. Christ's answer introduces the doctrine of Divine rewards. Is not one of the main reasons why Christian faith exercises such an imperfect power among men that, they misapprehend the sort of advantage they may expect to get from it?


1. A want of personal comfort.

2. The want of moral guidance, or a rule to act by, and is of a much higher grade than the first.

3. The want of giving and loving — of giving to the Lord what the soul feels belongs to Him — affection and gratitude, etc. It is a spiritual aspiration. It does not stop to inquire about advantages. It is the desire of a harmonious and affectionate union with God in the reconciling and forgiving spirit of the Saviour.


1. The first comes from a mixture of natural instinct and shrewdness — self-interest.

2. The second comes from the region of the conscience. It refers to a law, etc. — obedience as, obedience — duty as duty; second only to the life of love.

3. The third originates in the soul — its love, trust, gratitude. This is the Christian religion. Out of these three fountains flow three sorts of religious life, as distinct from one another as their sources are.


1. Religion will never yield its true rewards to those who seek it for the sake of its rewards.

2. If sought to obtain relief from sorrow, etc., God may lead the soul on, through this half-selfish state, into serving Him for some more disinterested affection. But such will fail of any glorious reward.

3. God will reward every man "according to his works" — in the-line of his works, in the kind of them — love for love, etc.(1) In this honourable quality man's Christian service is not disconnected from his best acts in other lines of life. Legitimate in Christianity. Its universal sentiment is love. All its apparatus is to educate us to that mark. This is the distinctive ministry, which the Christian revelation brings: in Christ this is embodied.(2) The same principle must be applied to die desire of going to heaven as a motive to religious endeavour.(3) We come up at last to those acts of true religion which are done in the faith of the heart; and here we reach the highest view of the Divine rewards, simply because God has made these to be their own reward. They are rewards in kind. They are large just according to the spirituality of our lives, the zeal of our worship, the strength of our faith. They are interior, not visible. They are incidental, not sought. They are of nobleness rather than of happiness. He rewards us sometimes only by setting us to the performance of larger and harder tasks, etc. When he would give His greatest reward, He gives Himself, the Holy Spirit, in His Son. The brave and lofty hymn of Francis Xavier: "My God, I love Thee, not because," etc. Of our Christian religion the badge is a cross — even as self-forgetfulness is the spirit, love is the motive, disinterestedness is the principle, faith is the inmost spring.

(Bishop Huntingdon, D. D.)


1. Christ had a cup. This cup contained the death which, as our Redeemer, He had to die. Its ingredients were, all that He suffered. The time during which He drank it — His lifetime.

2. Christ had a baptism. The baptism of the text was alluded to, when He said, "I have a baptism," etc. It anointed Him and set Him apart to His priestly and kingly offices.


1. In many particulars, the cup and baptism of Christ were His own — and peculiar.

2. Yet the experience of believers sufficiently exhausts these words. Scripture testimony. The events of Providence.

3. The sufferings of believers, a cup. Because, punishment by the world. Because, death to the flesh.

4. The sufferings of believers a baptism. Because, they are purigying. Because, they are qualifying.

5. The sufferings of believers are the cup and the baptism of Christ. In many particulars — the same. They are inflicted on Christ — in believers. They are acknowledged by Christ.

6. That, which to Christ and His people is but a cup, is to the wicked an exhaustless ocean.


1. As the cup and baptism of Christ were succeeded by glory to Him, so they are to His people.

2. Some of the moral glory of heaven visible even amid the sufferings of earth.

3. The sufferings endured here prepare and fit for the high employments of heaven.

4. The fitness having been acquired, the dignities are given by Christ. He bestows that which He purchased.

5. This fulfils the promise, "He shall see of the travail of His soul," etc.


1. This brings out the place occupied by Christ in the arrangements of the plan of redemption.

2. It brings to light the original source of redemption.

3. It shows the perfect security of the believer.

4. It illustrates the order of God's procedure.

5. It furnishes a proof of the unchangeableness of God.Conclusion.

1. If you are believers, you shall drink of Christ's cup, and be baptized with His baptism.

2. But you shall not suffer till prepared — fitness for suffering provokes persecution.

3. Your sufferings shall be —

(1)Limited — a cup.

(2)Purifying — a baptism.

(3)Joyous — Christ's.

(4)Honourable — a crown.

(J. Stewart.)

Ambition is an instinct of our nature, and capable of good. The request of Zebedee was right, though no doubt mixed with ignorance. Jesus did not reprove her desire, but stated the stern conditions upon which such honours were to be attained. Court and pray for great things.

1. In your inner life and personal character.

2. Take a high estimate of the work you have to do for God in this world. 3. Do not think it wrong to strive for a high place in heaven.

(J. Vaughan, M. A.)

sons: —

I. It had reference to a glorious TEMPORAL KINGDOM. This request showed some faith in Jesus, for He had announced His death. We must not indulge dreams of worldly honour.

II. The ANSWER which Jesus gave to this unseasonable request —

1. Our Lord declared their ignorance.

2. As Jesus knew they meant the end without the means, He asked them about their fidelity.

3. They answered as men of courage without hesitation or delay.

4. The final answer Jesus gave to their ambitious prayer.

5. The highest place in heaven is most to love God.

(B. W. Noel, M. A.)

"While admitting the potency of the prayer of faith, it is not to be supposed that every petition which may be presented will be complied with: —

1. God in His Providence ordinarily acts within fixed laws, and with these He rarely dispenses. A high place in the kingdom of the future will not be an arbitrary gift, but the result of the course pursued here.

2. The important thing for us is attention to our duty, and leave the rest to Providence.

3. No envious speculations can assist our progress heavenward.

(H. B. Moffat, M. A.)

Ye know not(1) of what sort My kingdom is — viz., a spiritual and heavenly one, not carnal and earthly;(2) because ye are asking for the triumph before the victory;(3) because ye suppose that this kingdom is given by right of blood to those who seek it, whereas it is given only to those who deserve and strive.


A prayer for things not lawful begs nothing hut a denial. The saints have their prayers out, either in money or money's worth, provided they bring lawful petitions and honest hearts.

(John Trapp.)Was there ever a more unseasonable request, than for them to be suitors for great places to Him, when He had but now told them He was going to be spit upon, scourged, condemned, crucified? Yet there was this good in it; they by it discovered a faith in Him, that notwithstanding all this He should be exalted and have a kingdom. But how carnal are our conceptions of spiritual and heavenly things, till we are taught by God a right notion of them!

(Matthew Pool.)

I. These two disciples sought the place of the two malefactors.

II. They requested, so to speak, something which had only existence in their own imagination (worldly honours in the kingdom of Christ).

III. They sought something which, in its higher import, had already been given away — perhaps to themselves, perhaps to others — viz., special degrees of election.

(J. P. Lange, D. D.)

Christ, like a good and wise physician, first drank the draught Himself which He was preparing for His own. He underwent His passion and death, and so He became immortal and impassible; thus teaching His own how they might confidently drink the draught which produces soundness and life.

( St. Bernard.)

It shall not be so among you. The Church and the world have different spheres. As every other association or body, so the Church has its appropriate organization, corresponding to its nature. The plant would die if it were subject to the conditions of the crystal; the animal, if to those of the plant; man, if to those of the animal; and the Church, if to those of the world. Or rather, the plant has burst through the conditions of the crystal, and passed beyond it, etc.; and the kingdom of heaven through the conditions and forms of this world.

(J. P. Lange, D. D.)

There is a heathen story which tells that once a man asked for this gift — not to die; and it was granted to him by the Fates. He was to live on for ever. But he had forgotten to ask that his youth and health and strength might last for ever also; and so he lived on till age and its infirmities and weakness were weighing him down, and his life grew to be a weariness and a burden to him. Existence (for it could hardly be called life)was one long torment to him; and then he wished to die. He wished to die, and could not. He had asked for a thing which he was totally unfit to enjoy, but he had to take the consequences of it when it was once given. It was a curse to him, not a blessing.

The notion of rank in the world is like a pyramid; the higher you go up, the fewer are there who have to serve those above them, and who are served more than these underneath them. All who are under serve those who are above, until you come to the apex, and there stands some one who has to do no service, but whom all the others have to serve. Something like that is the notion of position — of social standing and rank. And if it be so in an intellectual way, even — to say nothing of mere bodily service — if any man works to a position that others shall all look up to him and that he may have to look up to nobody, he has just put himself precisely into the same condition as the people of whom our Lord speaks — as those who exercise dominion and authority, and really he thinks it a fine thing to be served. But it is not so in the kingdom of heaven. The figure there is entirely reversed. As you may see a pyramid reflected in the water, just so, in a reversed way altogether, is the thing to be found in the kingdom of God. It is in this way: the Sen of Man lies at the inverted apex of the pyramid; He upholds, and serves, and ministers unto all, and they who would be high in His kingdom must go near to Him at the bottom, to uphold and minister to all that they may or can uphold and minister unto. There is no other law of precedence, no other law of rank and position in God's kingdom. And, mind, that is the kingdom. The other kingdom passes away — it is a transitory, ephemeral, passing, bad thing, and away it must go. It is only there on sufferance, because in the mind of God even that which is bad ministers to that which is good; and when the new kingdom is built the old kingdom shall pass away. But the man who seeks this rank of which I have spoken, must be honest to follow it. It will not do to say, "I want to be great, and therefore I will serve." A man will not get at it so. He may begin so, but he will soon find that that will not do. He must seek it for the truth's sake, for the love of his fellows, for the worship of God, for the delight in what is good.

(Geo. Macdonald, M. A.)

Mothers should be cautious about seeking places of honour for their sons. Doing this, they seldom know what they ask. They may be seeking the ruin of their children. It is not posts of honour that secure happiness or salvation As the purest and loveliest streams often flow in the retired grove, far from the thundering cataract or the stormy ocean, so is the sweet peace of the soul; it dwells oftenest far from the bustle of public life, and the storms and tempests of ambition.

(A. Barnes, D. D.)

Ambition is like the sea which swallows a]l the rivers and is none the fuller; or like the grave whose insatiable maw for ever craves for the bodies of men. It is not like an amphora, which being full receives no more, but its fulness swells it till a still greater vacuum is formed. In all probability Napoleon never longed for a sceptre till he had gained a batton, nor dreamed of being Emperor of Europe till he had gained the crown of France. Caligula, with the world at his feet, was mad with a longing for the moon, and could he have gained it, the imperial lunatic would have coveted the sun. It is in vain to feed a fire which grows the more vivacious the more it is supplied with fuel; he who lives to satisfy his ambition has before him the labour of Sisyphus, who rolled up hill an ever rebounding stone, and the task of the daughters of Danaus, who are condemned for ever to attempt to till a bottomless vessel with buckets full of holes.

(C. H. Spurgeon.)

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