Commentary on Matthew 20:17-34

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



A. Affinities with 16:21 and 17:22-23. Here, as in both earlier passages, Jesus predicts both his death and his resurrection. As in 16:21, he identifies his enemies as "the chief priests and the teachers of the law" (Sadduccean and Pharisaic interests are combined against the common foe). As in 17:22-23 Jesus had spoken of being "handed over" (paradidİmi) to the Jews, here (using the verb twice) he speaks of being handed over to both Jews and (by their instrumentality) to the Gentiles.

B. Distinctive Features of this Prediction.

In 16:21 Jesus predicted that "he must...suffer many things at the hands of [the Jewish authorities]" before his death. Here he says, "They [the Jewish authorities] will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified" (v. 19). Gentiles do the actual mocking and flogging, but it is the Jews' purpose they fulfill. In other words, according to 20:19 no less than 16:21, Jesus "suffers many things" at Jewish hands. Noting that Matthew uses three infinitives of purpose ("in order to be mocked, flogged, and crucified") in place of Mk's finite verbs (10:34), Gundry comments: "Thus the center of attention shifts from the action of the Gentiles to the malevolent purpose of the Jewish leaders in handing Jesus over to them" (401). Cf. 26:2; 27:31.


Placed at this juncture, this third prediction (1) provides a foil to the petty ambitions of the disciples, 20:20-24, (2) anticipates the great declaration of v. 28, and (3) reminds readers at what great personal cost God bestows his unmerited favor upon his people (cf. 20:14-15).



A. The Family's Request. 20:20-21.

1. The source of the request. According to Mt, it is the mother of James and John who asks a favor on their behalf; according to Mk (10:35), it is James and John themselves. These two accounts may easily be synthesized (see Carson, 430-31).

2. The reason for the request. That such a request comes from this particular family, may be attributed in part to Jesus' choice of James and John to be numbered among the "inner three" (cf. 17:1). There may well be another reason: "The mother of Zebedee's sons probably bore the name Salome (cf. 27:56 with Mark 15:40) and perhaps had Mary the mother of Jesus for a sister (see John 19:25). Family relationship, then, may lie behind the request" (Gundry, 401). This in turn would explain the involvement of both mother and sons (as noted under 1.).

3. The nature of the request. The mother's request that her sons be permitted to sit "on Jesus' right and left" in his kingdom, pertains not to the Messianic banquet (as foreshadowed in the Last Supper) but to the thrones closest to that of Jesus (cf. 19:28; the above interpretation of 20:1-16; and Gundry, 402).

B. Jesus' Response. 20:22-23.

James and John (and their mother) are ignorant of two things.

1. Suffering comes before glory.

a. The cup of Jesus. Jesus asks James and John, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" As applied to Jesus, the figure of "drinking the cup [potsrion]" signals his approaching experience of suffering and death (as just predicted, vv. 18-19). As he is the sin-bearer (1:21; 3:15), it also signals his personal experience of the wrath of God (Leonhard Goppelt, TDNT 6: 144; on "the cup of wrath" in the OT, see ibid., 149-51). It is chiefly the prospect of experiencing God's wrath - and the consequent separation from the Father – that causes Jesus to cry out in Gethsemane, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup [potsrion] be taken from me" (26:39). Cf. ibid., 152-53.

b. The disciples' expectation. That disciples could envisage glory without suffering, is clear from 16:21-17:13. Yet perhaps by this stage the sons of Zebedee are beginning to grasp that Jesus must enter into glory by way of suffering (for he has now thrice predicted his death and resurrection). And perhaps the words of v. 22b ("We can" drink your cup) are quite sincere. But if so, the words are as naive as they are sincere. For in the first place, even if the disciples are beginning to accept the inevitability of Jesus' death, they have as yet only the faintest understanding of the meaning of that death (cf. 20:28; 26:26-28). Had they perceived that Jesus would die as the sin-bearer and the object of the divine wrath, would they so quickly have affirmed their ability to drink his cup? And in the second place, the context suggests that the thrones closest to Jesus' own are reserved for those disciples whose suffering comes closest to approximating his own - i.e., whose suffering is marked by the greatest sacrifice and the greatest anguish (cf. v. 28). For James and John to make their present request intelligently, would require that they ask also for the grace needed to bear the suffering which leads to the glory (cf. 24:9; Rom 8:17; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 3:21).

c. The disciples' experience. In response to the disciples' boast (v. 22b), Jesus says, "You will drink my cup" (v. 23a, RSV). The words "my cup" show that it remains Jesus' cup even as the others drink it. NEB well renders, "You shall indeed share my cup." In fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy, James suffers martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2); and John, while probably dying a natural death in old age, nonetheless suffers for Jesus' sake (Rev 1:9).

2. The Father's will is decisive. "But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father" (v. 23b).

a. The Father's prerogative. According to Jesus, the apostles will sit on twelve thrones alongside his own (19:28). Jesus himself will be enthroned, because the Father has granted him - the Son of Man - authority to execute final Judgment (see especially Jn 5:19-27). From this we might infer that the apostles' authority to judge (19:28) also comes from the Father. Mt 20:23 leaves us in no doubt that this is the case; that the Father chooses the occupants of these two thrones, indicates that he has chosen the occupants of all twelve. Jesus declares (19:28) what the Father has authorized (20:23).

b. The Father's choice. The Father has prepared these two thrones for a given two apostles of his choice. The preparation presupposes the choice. Which two apostles are to occupy those thrones has not yet been disclosed. That would undermine the very reason for the choice.

c. The Father's reason. Those two seats are reserved (it appears) for apostles who identify most closely with Jesus in his willingness to serve and to suffer (v. 28, and 1.b. above), and who therefore are the least self-conscious, the least calculating, and the least ambitious (cf. 25:37-39). Such persons will be astounded to learn that they have been assigned the thrones next to Jesus: they would willingly take those furthest removed from him. Those most like Jesus shall be seated closest to him. Cf. 1 Cor 4:9, "us the end of the procession."


A. The Reaction of the Ten. 20:24.

The reason for their indignation toward James and John, has already been considered.

B. Jesus' Response. 20:25-28.

Having brought all twelve disciples together (v. 25a), Jesus addresses the competitive pride that infects all the disciples and threatens to tear their company asunder.

1. The destructive use of power. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them" (v. 25b). The way of the world, as typified here by Gentile rulers, is to exercise power by demanding submission and service. The rulers' power readily serves the purpose of pride, in that by asserting their power they can keep their subjects beneath them. Power is the means of continually reminding subjects just who is in charge. And since this is (by the standards of the Kingdom) a spurious power, ever more strenuous effort is needed to maintain it.

2. The creative use of power. "Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant [diakonos], and whoever wants to be first must be your slave [doulos]" (20:26-27). The apostles are endowed with stupendous power and authority - that of Jesus himself (10:1; cf. 28:18-20). Yet as those who are slaves (douloi) of Jesus and fully accountable to him as Lord, they have no right to lord it over others or to wield power as a means of advancing themselves. On the contrary, their slavery to Jesus manifests itself as slavery to other people (vv. 26-27). As those who experience the security and freedom of the Kingdom, they have no need to lord it over others. As those who emulate Jesus, they discover that self-giving service is the very means by which God releases the true power. Accordingly, the disciples' greatness does not lie beyond the service but precisely in the service. Jesus thus drives home the lesson about true greatness in ch. 18, and the lesson about equality in 20:1-16.

3. Jesus the Servant. Jesus provides the supreme example of selfless service: "Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (v. 28). va. The power of service. If ever one possessed power and authority, it is Jesus the Son of Man. In coming to serve, he does not abandon power, he exercises power. Cf. Phil 2:6-8.

b. The sacrificial death. He comes "to serve and to give" - or better, "to serve, i.e. to give" (the "and," kai, is epexegetical; following Gundry, 404). The singular focus of this verse is Jesus' service in death. The language is rooted in Isa 53:10-12 (see Gundry, 404).

c. The ransom for many (lutron anti pollİn]. (1) Jesus' death is redemptive. He liberates the "many" from the bondage and guilt of sin, at great cost to himself. (2) In bearing the sins of his people (1:21), he simultaneously renders both the lowliest and the noblest service ever (cf. Bruce, Matthew, 66). Moreover, as the sin-bearer he dies in the place of the many, as their substitute (note the preposition anti). On these two points, see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed., pp. 29-38). (3) The use of the word "many" is explained both by the presence of rabim, "many," in Isa 53:11, 12, and by Jesus' purpose to save a host of people from among both Jews and Gentiles. The term "many" embraces all of those, from whatever nation, for whom Jesus dies. The contrast is drawn between the many and the few (for some interpreters, "many" is equivalent to "all"). With respect to the Gentiles, observe how this saying relates to other passages: Before Jesus' death the proclamation of the Kingdom is confined almost entirely to Jews, both in Jesus' preaching (15:24) and in that of his disciples (10:6). Two things account for the shift from those sayings to the Great Commission of 28:18-20, namely Israel's rejection of their Messiah (21:18-22:14) and Messiah's death as "a ransom for many." Before the Gospel of liberation from sin may be taken to the Gentiles, the Savior must actually accomplish their liberation from sin. The work of salvation must precede the news of salvation.


I. THE PLACE. 20:29. The last stage of the ascent to Jerusalem (cf. 20:17) was "the road from Jericho, leading up the Wadi Qelt. On either side of the lower reaches of the wadi lay NT Jericho, a new foundation built by Herod the Great as his winter residence...about a mile south of OT Jericho" (Bruce, Matthew, 66). OT Jericho lay about 17 miles northeast of Jerusalem, NT Jericho about 16. In Mt and Mk (10:46) the episode occurs as Jesus is leaving Jericho, whereas in Lk (18:35) Jesus is entering the town. One of the suggestions for harmonizing the accounts (cf. Carson, 435) is that Mt and Mk speak of old Jericho, and Lk of new).


In both passages, (1) Mt speaks of two men, not just one (cf. Mk 8:22-26; 10:46-52); (2) the men confess Jesus to be "Son of David" (once there, twice here), and cry for mercy; and (3) Jesus touches their eyes, whereupon their sight is restored.


Here (1) the men acclaim Jesus "Lord" (kyrios) as well as "Son of David"; and (2) Jesus includes no command to silence (here Jesus heals in public, there in private, 9:28; also, as Jesus is now much closer to the cross, there is less need to protect against the spread of false Messianism). Most significantly, while the first story places much greater stress than this one upon the blind men's faith (see 9:28-29; in 20:30-33 faith is not expressly mentioned, though it clearly underlies the men's words), the present story - in keeping with the immediately preceding verses – is concerned to present Jesus as a compassionate Servant to the needy. The verb splagchnizomai ("to show compassion") is used here (v. 34) but not there. Jesus uses his great power to heal others, not to save himself. Cf. Gundry, 404; Carson, 434-35.