Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.
21 And He said to her, “What do you wish?”
She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.”
22 But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
They said to Him, “We are able.”
23 So He said to them, “You will indeed drink 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 is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.”
24 And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:20-28.
Jesus reminds her that suffering precedes blessing and privilege for the Christian. They do not understand truly what they are asking. Jesus was about to be baptized with the baptism of suffering, even to the cruel death on the cross. He was about to be immersed in suffering and death. Jesus Himself, when praying to the Father for this cup to pass Him, even sweats drops of blood knowing the agony. He was about to drink the cup of God’s wrath, yet He submits to the Father’s will.
He then reveals that this is part of His authority – to offer positions of authority in the kingdom – He has left entirely to the Father to decide.
The other disciples were very displeased. Jesus emphasizes to the ten, who are upset by the request, that the greatest Christians are the greatest servants, and that He Himself, the Son of Man, came to serve not to be served and ‘to give His life a ransom for many’. If Christ had not been servant-hearted, He could not be the suffering Servant of Calvary. When Jesus foretells His death, He focuses on the cross while the disciples are fighting over a crown. He talks about suffering, and they squabble about ruling and leading.
The request and the indignation of the others that follows show that the disciples are still thinking in terms of setting up an earthly kingdom, in spite of the clear prediction of suffering and death our Lord has just made.
Jesus tells the disciples that such positions of honor are customary among nations. The kings of the earth raise their favorites to posts of trust and power and they give authority to some over others; but the kingdom of heaven is established in a different manner. All are to be on the same level. The rich, the poor, the learned, the unlearned, the bond, the free, are to be equal. He will be the most distinguished that shows most humility, the deepest sense of his unworthiness, and the most earnest desire to promote the welfare of his brethren.
Whoever would be reckoned great in the kingdom of Christ, or under the Gospel dispensation, must be a servant to others. He must do great service for Christ and to the souls of others, through much reproach, difficulty, and opposition.
“cup … baptism” (vss.22,23) – The cup and the baptism both refer to the Lord’s suffering and death. “His life” (Greek psuche) could be translated “His soul.”
In the Old Testament the “cup” normally signifies the outpouring of God’s wrath (Ps. 75:8; Is. 51:17, 22; Jer. 25:15,16). That the disciples would drink this cup means they would experience suffering, but note that Jesus calls it “my cup.” Because Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath for His own, believers do not drink the wrath they deserve. In and through Christ’s suffering they have already undergone judgment. They are now justified in Christ and heirs of His glory (Rom. 8:17). Yet their privilege is to be identified with Christ in His sufferings (1 Pet. 2:21).
“whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave” (v.27) One who desires to have the pre-eminence, the first place in the kingdom of the Messiah, let him be the slave of all (cf. Philippians 2:5-11 – The Humbled and Exalted Christ).
“ransom for many” (v.28) — This term refers to the price paid to deliver someone from slavery or imprisonment. The price of freedom from sin and condemnation is Jesus’ life, given for us (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). Since the elect are ransomed from the wrath of God, the ransom was offered to God Himself. Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath (v. 23), not for His own sins, but as the means of ransoming many.
The Greek preposition translated “for” can also be translated “on behalf of.” It expresses why and for whom Jesus suffered. That Jesus says “many” here (cf. Is. 53:11, 12) rather than “all people” indicates a specific or definite focus to His redemptive activity.
His life thus became the cost of our redemption. “Many” does not necessarily restrict the extent of His atonement (as contrasted to “all”), but it does indicate that not all would accept His offer of salvation. As Jesus Himself says, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).