Grace Bible Church Expository Sermon Notes

The Ambition of Authority or Humility

cf. Matt. 20:20-28
The Lord's Day 4/6/97 AM

As considered last lesson (cf. Matt. 20:17-19), Jesus added three details about His coming death and resurrection, patiently informing them a third time what was to happen. The major detail added was the way in which He would die, i.e., by the horrors of crucifixion. As we consider the next paragraph in Matthew's Gospel we discover it is a repeated lesson (cf. Matt. 18:1-4) taught by Jesus with a few added details. First we read of…

An Ambitious Mother's Question for Her Sons Kingdom Authority

Matthew 20:20-21 "Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshiping Him, and desiring a certain thing of Him. And He said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto Him, Grant that these, my two sons, may sit the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom."

The Apostles sensed that the inauguration of the kingdom was near.1 Unfortunately, their self-centered ambition focused on what they would gain in the coming kingdom and how they should posture themselves politically in the kingdom.2 They didn't understand the previous lesson Jesus gave, concerning humility (cf. Matt. 18:1-4) and that Kingdom citizens don't seek titles, position or influence; kingdom citizens seek to please the Lord, not themselves; kingdom citizens are driven to deny themselves, take up their cross of suffering and follow the Lord in humble service. Jesus had just spoken of His own coming sufferings, crucifixion and resurrection, yet they were preoccupied with their own concerns. And yet, here as the Lord leads His Apostles toward Jerusalem, James and John's mother appeals to the Lord for positions of honor for her boys, in the coming kingdom. In Mark's Gospel it is James and John who make the request, so we are left to believe that the two sons of Zebedee put their mother up to this ambitious request. What they were asking was for positions of special authority, an inner cabinet position, of greater influence.3 Then Jesus answers this mother's question by…

The Lord's Prophecy about James and John's Future Suffering

Matthew 20:22-23 "But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto Him, We are able. And He saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared by my Father."

The Lord Jesus answered with a question of His own, to reinforce the fact of His coming sufferings. The baptism and cup refer to Jesus' predetermined sufferings to take place. It's interesting how James and John were baptized with the baptism of Jesus' sufferings and drank the cup of Jesus' agony. James was the first of the Apostles to die for Christ. We read the historian Luke's account: "Now about that time Herod, the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword."4 James was still a young man when he was arrested and had his head cut off by Herod Agrippa; but his brother John would live to be about 95 years old, suffering greatly for his faith and stand for righteousness. For 80 plus years he would "be baptized with the baptism" of Christ's sufferings and "drink the cup" of His Lord's persecutions.5 William Barclay summarizes:

"It is quite wrong to think that for the Christian the cup must always mean the short, sharp, bitter, agonizing struggle of martyrdom; the cup may well be the long routine of the Christian life, will all its daily sacrifice, its daily struggle, and its heart-breaks and its disappointments and its tears...There is no one cup for the Christian to drink. His cup may be drunk in one great moment; his cup may be drunk throughout a lifetime of Christian living. To drink the cup simply means to follow Christ wherever he may lead, and to be like him in any situation life may bring." (p. 231)

Notice also, that James and John evidently understood that sufferings were in their future and they were willing to experience those sufferings as they said, "We are able." cf. Matt. 10:16-23. To "drink of the cup" has reference not only to suffering, but refers to remaining faithful to the end. The Jewish idiom was to drain the entire cup until it was emptied.6 Finally, we read of…

The Apostle's Indignation and Christ's Principle of His Kingdom

Matthew 20:24-28 "And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. But Jesus called them unto Him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise authority over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant; even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many."

The Apostles knew only the world's way of power, position, ambition and dominance; but Jesus' kingdom was just the opposite. The Empire of Rome was run by the iron hand of the Emperor who controlled the Senate and Roman army. This chain of command gave prominence to those in authority but the kingdom of heaven gives prominence to humble service. The Apostles James and John were still looking at things from a selfish perspective of what they could get. Every one of us, just like the Apostles, need to understand that true greatness lies not in dominance but in service; we all need the repeated lesson that to be great in the kingdom is to be humble in service; we need the repeated reminder that our central ambition should be to minister to others, not to be admired by others! The greatest demonstration of the Kingdom principle of humble self-giving is that the "Son of man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many." Here once again Jesus reminded His Apostles of His coming determined sufferings in Jerusalem, but added a further detail concerning its purpose, i.e., that His life giving would be to ransom many.7 A "ransom" (Greek, lutron) is a redemption price for a slave's freedom. And this was for many, i.e., those who would actually be freed by trusting Christ as their Savior. The lesson to the Apostles, at this time, would not include great theological implications about the Atonement but a clear call to humble servanthood which characterizes those of the Kingdom of God!

Since the first rebellion, in the Garden, God has sternly resisted the proud (James 4:6; Ps. 138:6), brought them into contempt (Isa. 23:9), abased them (Ps. 18:27), judged them (Ps. 31:23), humbled them (Dan. 4:37), scattered them (Luke 1:51), and punished them (Mal. 4:1). By the same token, God has always honored humility and weakness. "He regards the lowly" (Ps. 138:6), hears "the desire of the humble" (Ps. 10:17), and values humility even above honor (Prov. 15:33). The Lord intends humility to be part of His children's daily clothing (Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 5:5) and daily living (Eph. 4:1-2). He seeks to bless that one "who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at [His] word" (Isa. 66:2).8

Main Idea: Jesus patiently prepared His disciples not only about the coming jolt of His death and resurrection but about the essence of Kingdom ambition, i.e., the quest to serve others instead of the goal to have authority over others!

Exploring the Bigger Picture

Improving Your Serve by Charles R. Swindoll (Word Publications, 1981) is a very practical book on the art of unselfish living, helping us to become preoccupied with others needs and welfare. The book is the result of a 2 year study on practical implications about this passage.

What Should We Do About this Passage?

- Application Recommendations -

Ambition is not wrong but should be for the right object. Worldly ambition strives to exalt self and exercise authority over others; Christian ambition seeks to exalt God and humbly serve others.

bulletList ways in which your work environment tempts you to promote yourself instead of serve others? Is your job keeping you from the humble service of others?
bulletIs self ambition, at even the temporal ceasing of serving the Lord, ever right?

Children need to see humble service modeled by their parents but also need their parents to guide them into serving others.

bulletCreatively think up one area of humble service for each of your children to perform each week. Get them to experience the joy of giving themselves to others.
bulletAs dad, do you set the example of humbly serving your family or is your example on of being served by your family?

Disciples of Christ follow Him in humble service of others, often at a high price to their own comforts, responsibilities, goals and time.

bulletTo regain a focus on the challenge to serve others, read Improving Your Serve by Charles Swindoll and discuss it with your disciple partner.
bulletAccording to the above assignment, what ways are you determined to change your life in the coming months? How can you better serve others?
bulletThere are lots of areas of humble service in the local church. Make each other accountable to a specific area of service at GBC.


1. Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (cf. Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:14-15) This summarizing appeal no doubt was filled out by Scriptural reasoning, explanation and illustration, but in essence this was the basic thrust of their warning to men and women.

2. The Apostles had recently heard Jesus Himself speak of them ruling in the Kingdom, which they evidently considered immanent. cf. Matt. 19:27-28.

3. The mother of Zebedee's children evidently was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus, making James and John cousins of Jesus and this may be the central reason why they sent their mother to request this inner cabinet position. Compare: Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; and John 19:25.

4. cf. Acts 12:1-2. "It was not until ten years after the death of Stephen that the second martyrdom took place; for no sooner had Herod Agrippa been appointed governor of Judea, than, with a view to ingratiate himself with them, he raised a sharp persecution against Christians, and determined to make an effectual blow, by striking at their leaders. James was led to the place of martyrdom, his accuser was brought to repent of his conduct by the apostle's extraordinary courage and undauntedness, and fell down at his feet to request his pardon, professing himself a Christian, and resolving that James should not receive the crown of martyrdom alone. Hence they were both beheaded at the same time. Thus did the first apostle martyr cheerfully and resolutely receive that cup, which he had told our Savior he was ready to drink." cf. Fox's Book of Martyrs (Zondervan Publications, 1975), p. 2.

5. "The beloved disciple, was brother to James the Great. The churches of Smyrna, Pergamos, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Thyatira, were founded by him. From Ephesus he was ordered to be sent to Rome, where it is affirmed he was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil. He escaped by miracle, without injury. Domitian afterward banished him to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. Nerva, the successor of Domitian, recalled him. He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death." cf. Fox's Book of Martyrs (Zondervan Publication, 1975), p. 5.

6. e.g., Jesus prayed in the garden, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." (cf. Matt. 26:39) Jesus' faced the physical, mental and emotional sufferings of the Cross boldly, but in His humanity shrank in terror at the prospect of the full dregs in that bitter cup, when all the sins of the world would be placed on Him and the Father would turn in displeasure, for the first time in eternity! The full cup needed to be drank and this is what Jesus, in Matthew 20, was promising to James and John.

7. Origen believed Christ's ransom was paid to Satan, which view has little support. The ransom was paid to the government of God Himself, whereby His wrath was propitiated.

8. John MacArthur, Jr. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16-23 (Moody Press, 1988), p. 231. "Each of those heroes of Scripture characterized the person who is great in God's sight, because they refused to seek personal prominence but gave all prominence to the Lord. It is only the humble heart, the servant heart, that enjoys greatness in the kingdom of God…Nineteen hundred years later, many Christians are still echoing Peter's question: What's in it for me? Many Christians look at grace as a free lunch, a divine open door to health, prosperity, and self-fulfillment, a celestial storehouse of good things they can order on demand from God." Ibid., p. 232-3.