This passage shows us that the disciples had misunderstood both the preceding passion predictions and Jesus' teaching concerning the kingdom's nature. Hearing Jesus' promise of a special place for the Twelve (19:28), James and John wanted to establish a special place among the Twelve. While each of us is special to the Lord, we must not fail to recognize, as the sons of Zebedee did, that all other disciples are special to him as well. To accomplish their petition they enlisted their mother; Jewish tradition accorded aged women a special place of respect that younger women did not hold (compare Judg 5:7; 2 Sam 14:2; 20:16-22; Tit 2:4). Further, women could get away with asking requests men dare not ask, both in Jewish (Lk 18:2-5; 2 Sam 14:1-21; 20:16-22; 1 Kings 1:11-16; 2:17; Bailey 1980:134) and broader Greco-Roman culture (Dixon 1988:179).
To the disciples, recognizing that Jesus was Messiah and would soon reign was an expression of faith (16:17); unfortunately, they failed to grasp the seriousness of the sacrifice that constituted the prerequisite for his kingdom (16:21-27). Outsiders recognized Jesus' Davidic rule in truth (15:22; 20:30-31), but here James and John function more like the crowds that recognize Jesus' Davidic role when it is popular (21:9). Those crowds never became disciples who submitted to Jesus' rule; they preferred a revolutionary (27:17-25).
The Lord Evaluates the Motivation for Our Prayers (20:20-21)
The context of this passage explicitly contrasts this prayer for costless glory with a desperate prayer of true need in verses 29-34. Both groups recognized Jesus as the coming King, but the first group sought Jesus for personal advancement, the latter out of genuine need.
Only Those Who Suffer with Jesus Will Reign with Him (20:22-23)
This principle became a standard teaching of early Christians (Rom 8:17; 2 Thess 1:5; 2 Tim 2:12). The cup disciples must share is his death (26:27-28, 39), borrowed from one image of God's wrath in the Prophets (Ps 11:6; Is 51:17; Jer 25:15-17; 51:7; Hab 2:16; Zech 12:2). Jesus later tells them as much at the Last Supper (Mt 26:27-28). As R. A. Cole notes, "This price they will in any case pay, for this is not the price of Christian greatness but the price of following Christ at all" (Cole 1961:170).
The Greatest Role Belongs to the Self-Sacrificial Servant (20:24-28)
James and John were not the only ones with a problem; the other disciples were angry with them because they too wanted a high position. Competition for status among peers was important in their culture (v. 24; see Derrett 1973:54; Malina 1993:133). But the world's models for status differ from those in God's kingdom; because honor ultimately belongs to God alone, we should humble ourselves and serve, allowing God to exalt us. Rank in the day of judgment (5:19) will confound many of our expectations (18:4; 23:11): it will expose the pride of many who are respected in today's church, while conversely, God's revelation of the lives of many humble and unknown servants of Christ will bring him much honor.
Jesus argues his point by means of both negative and positive example. Negatively, one should not be like the pagans (20:25; compare 5:47; 6:7; 18:17). Not only those in Jesus' day but all the tyrants and empires of history confirm his point: absolute power always corrupts precisely because the desire for power over others, to whatever extent we may achieve it, shows that we ourselves are slaves to self-centeredness.
Positively, Jesus himself was a suffering servant who laid down his life for us (compare Jn 13:13-15, 31-35). This is a typical Jewish "how much more" argument: if our Master was a servant, how much more should we humble ourselves! Matthew sees in this an allusion to the suffering servant of Isaiah (Mt 12:18), particularly in offering his "soul" or "life" as "a ransom" or redemption price on behalf of "many" ("the many"; Is 53:10-12; compare Mt 26:28; Rom 5:15; see Cullmann 1959:64-65; pace Hooker 1959:74-79).
The language here is that of substitutionary atonement (see especially Morris 1965:34; Gundry 1982:404; compare Ladd 1974b:187-88). As in Philippians 2:1-11, however, the Evangelists treat us to this summary of Jesus' mission not to rehearse the doctrine of salvation but to provide an active model for Christian living. To what extent would Jesus serve? Fulfilling the servant's mission, he would lay down his life on behalf of his people; of disciples he expects no less.