“So You Want to Be Great” – Matthew 20:20-28

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Faith Bible Church, NY
August 21, 1994

“So You Want to Be Great”
Matthew 20:20-28

Some have said that the Bible is not relevant to today’s modern world. “It is archaic, out of date, behind the times.” They suppose that man has advanced beyond the wisdom of the scriptures. Solomon may have been wise, but modern man is much more advanced than Solomon.

Certainly technology had advanced greatly. In Bible times transportation was walking, riding a horse or donkey, or sailing on a ship. Now man can zip through the air faster than the speed of sound. To communicate with someone you had to go see them or have someone hand deliver the parchment or papyrus letter you had written. Now communication can come to us at the speed of light over thousands of miles in full color pictures.

Though technology has changed, man has not. He is still the same as he has always been. It would be nice if men were getting smarter and were wiser than Solomon, but such is simply not the case. Every generation wants to think that it is smarter, wiser, better than the previous, but too often it repeats the same mistakes as the previous generation showing that it is not any better, and often worse. And the reason the new generation makes the same mistakes? They fail to listen to the previous generation. It is not enough to just know history to keep from repeating it. You have to pay attention to its lessons.

Today we come to a text that shows once again that man has not changed. He is taught, but he does not listen. Man is innately self-centered and desires to gain for himself whatever he can. Modern man is no different from ancient man. The lesson Jesus teaches His disciples in Matthew 20:20-28 is as relevant today as it was on the day this story took place. Turn to Matthew 20:20. We will read through the text and then go back over it to gain an understanding of what it means to be great in the world compared to being great in the kingdom.

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, bowing down, and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, on Your right and one on Your left.” But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” The said to Him, “We are able.” He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by Me Father.” And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”


The first thing we note in our text is a mother’s request. The mother of James and John comes to Jesus. From the parallel account in Mark we find that the first request was that Jesus would do for them whatever they asked of Him. Jesus prompted them to be more specific and that is when this specific request comes, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.”

This is a very bold request to make. To sit on the right and the left hand is to be made the two highest ranks in the kingdom possible. The one on the right being “second” in command and the one the left “third” in command. She is asking that Jesus make her two sons the two highest ranking officials in the kingdom under Jesus.

How could this woman be so bold to ask such a thing. One reason, other than sheer audacity, is her relationship to Jesus. By comparing the accounts of the crucifixion we know that her name is Salome, and she is the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is Jesus’ aunt, and James and John are Jesus’ first cousins. This closeness of relationship explains to some degree the boldness she has in coming to Jesus with this request.

It is not uncommon for people to use their relatives or other relationships they have developed as a means to achieve some greater position for themselves. There is a lot of truth in the saying, “It is not what you know, it is who you know.” We often find that positions are not filled with the person best qualified, but the person with the best connections. In this case we see the mother of James and John seeking to use her relationship Jesus’ aunt to gain prominent positions for her two sons – Jesus’ cousins. But again, that is the natural way of the world.

Notice as well how Salome approaches Jesus. She does so as one would approach an oriental king. She comes “bowing down, and made a request of Him.” Kings tend to have big egos and people soon learned that if you come in a manner that magnified that ego, they could get the king to give them what they wanted. This is true with most everyone that holds positions of power. We call it “buttering them up.” Consider how you approach your boss for a raise. We feed the person’s ego telling them how wonderful they are so that they will be favorable to us, and more times than not, it works. Why? Because we humans like to have our pride built up. We want others to think not only good of us, but that in some way we are superior to others. We like that sense of power over others.

Salome comes to Jesus seeking to gain for her sons – and really for her self as well. What mother does not want her children to rise to important positions, to be “successful.” Parents take great pride in how their children turn out – especially if they do achieve important positions. i.e. “My son, the lawyer . . . My daughter, the doctor, etc. I am not saying that a parent should not take a certain amount of satisfaction in what their children achieve, but I am saying that parents often become proud over their children because they see it as a reflection of themselves. Here we find Salome is not just promoting her two sons for their sakes, but really for her own sake as well since she would then have “bragging rights,” i.e. “My two sons sit on the left and right of the king!

The Disciples Ambition

Jesus’ answer to her request in verse 20 is not really addressed to Salome, but to James and John instead. We do not know whose idea it was to ask Jesus for these high positions, but it is clear that James & John are not innocent by-standers. The request of their mother is their desire as well. Jesus’ first response seeks to bring them back to reality. “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” He questions them as to whether they realized the high price that would have to be paid to be counted worthy of the position they were seeking. They will have to be able to “drink the cup” that Jesus was about to drink.

This should have been a sobering reminder of what Jesus had just told them in verses 18 & 19 about going to Jerusalem where He would suffer many things, be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, be condemned to death, then be delivered to the Gentiles and crucified. The quickness of their answer that they were able to drink that cup demonstrates they had not taken into full consideration all that would mean. They, like Peter would later, boastfully claimed to be able to do something they were not yet prepared to do. They were bold, part of the reason Jesus nicknamed them, “the sons of thunder.”

It is amazing to me, and yet at the same time not amazing that they would respond this way. It seems amazing that James and John would even have this request on their minds after the strong rebuke all the disciples received only a few weeks or so before when they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest in the kingdom (chap. 18). It also seems amazing that this would be on their minds again when only a short time earlier, only a few minutes or at most a couple of hours earlier, Jesus had told them again about what He would suffer in Jerusalem in just a few days. You would think that their minds would be on a lot of things other than what they would get in the kingdom. If they could not find a way to be an encouragement to Jesus, at least they should have been asking the hows and whys He would have to suffer – how did this fit in with the Old Testament, why did it have to be this way, etc.

James & John wanted to know what was in it for them, and they used their mother and their kinsman relationship with Jesus as a means to get what they wanted. Too often we are no different – even our prayers often center on what we want rather than God’s glory and honor. James & John claimed that they were able to drink the same cup that Jesus was about to drink, and in fairness to John, only he and Peter followed Jesus after He was arrested. All the other disciples, including James, ran away. Peter later denied Jesus, but John remained faithful. John was the only disciple at the foot of Jesus cross when He was crucified. This shows that perhaps he was prepared. In verse 23 Jesus tells them that they would indeed drink from it.

James drank from the cup first. He was the very first of the Apostles to be martyred. In Acts 12 we find that Herod kills James with a sword because it pleased the Jews. John also drank from that cup, but in a different way. John was the only apostle that did not die as a martyr but lived to be an old man and apparently died when he was exiled to the Island of Patmos. In some ways John may have drunk more deeply from the cup of suffering than those who were put to death for he had to endure the hatred of this world the longest. It is much easier to die for Christ than it is to live for Him. James and John did drink the cup of Christ’s suffering. Are you ready and willing to do so as well?

Jesus also tells them that “to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” Jesus is completely submissive to the Father and will not usurp the divine order in any way. This is also a reminder that all that we get from God is according to His grace – including any rewards give to us for our faithful service. We do not earn them, we simply receive what is His good will to grant to us.

James, John and their mother desired to gain the prominent positions from Jesus. It was a wrong thing to seek that for several reasons, among them the inappropriateness of asking for this right after Jesus had told them He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die; they had not considered the price that would have to be paid; it was not Jesus’ place to appoint those positions; and most of all, it was wrong because it demonstrated that they – and the other disciples – were still largely infected with the world’s values.


Verse 24 tells us that when the other ten disciples heard what James, John and their mother had done, they became indignant. Their indignation was not from a sense of concern for what Jesus would be facing nor from the impropriety of James & John’s request. As demonstrated by their continued bickering which continued even to the night of the Last Supper, they were indignant that James and John were trying to gain a higher position over them through their kinship to Jesus. All of them were still infected with the world’s values, and the world values positions of prominence and power.

Ask the person on the street what success is and you will find for the most part that people define success in terms of money, prestige, position, power or fame. Even churches are caught up in this mentality defining success in terms of number of members, size of budget or number of missionaries supported. None of those things are evil in themselves, but when those things become the goal, the definition of success or the purpose of our lives, we have stepped away from godliness and into worldliness. And as John tells us in 1 John 2:16 – the things of the world are passing away. Money, prestige, position, power and fame will all come to an end. From the eternal point of view they are a dead end. Yet, at this point in time, the disciples were still infected with worldliness.

The disciples wanted to be great in God’s kingdom, but they thought of it in terms of worldly standards. Jesus takes this opportunity to teach them how to be truly great.


But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”

We are not to be like the world including the manner in which our rulers and great men function. The rulers of the gentiles would lord it over their subjects. “Lord it over” is a strong term that has the idea of ruling down on the people, and in that day this was easily understood since most of the governments of the day were a form of dictatorship – most of them tyrannical in nature. Though it is not to the extreme of the ancient dictators who ruled over life and death, the same philosophy still drives many who are in leadership positions whether that is in government, business – and even Christian organizations including churches. The drive within man is to control his future and that means being able to control those around him as well. The corrupting influence of power is that given a little, the appetite is whetted and more power is sought and the means be which it is gained becomes less important as long as it is gained.

Many of us have worked under such kind of people. The manner in which they treat those under them makes us wonder, somewhat sarcastically, “who died and left them king.” Most of us have also had to deal at some time with some government bureaucrat who long ago forgot they were there to serve the people, and instead thinks they are there to command and issue edicts to the people. Diane had to deal with such a person on Friday.

There are also those who gain power over others not because they have a position of rulership, but because they have a distinguished place in society or they have a charismatic personality by which they capture the fascination of people and that becomes a means by which they can exploit them. Famous people such as athletes, media personalities, actors and actress and such can gain such power because people hold them in awe.

While it may be common practice for those that do not know the Lord to use their power in a tyrannical manner to push around those under them, Jesus tells us in vs. 26 that it is not to be that way among believers. It is a great tragedy in the church when a person comes to power, whether that is by position or by a charismatic personality, and they view themselves as superior and they use people for their own advantage.

There are many today in pulpits across our land, on the radio and TV who are self-seeking leaders who skillfully take advantage of ignorant, gullible, believers to build up their own little kingdom by fleecing the flock. They merchandise the gospel and make Jesus a commodity to market. They tell people what they want to hear – (Paul called it “tickling their ears” in 2 Tim. 4) – and play up to man’s innate selfishness appealing to emotion and worldly appetites.

I found this quote from an unknown source in one of my commentaries that describes change well. “The cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a bright ornament upon the bosom of the self-assured and carnal Christian whose hands are indeed the hands of Abel, but whose voice is the voice of Cain. The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemns; the new cross assures. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter. The flesh, smiling and confident, preaches and sings songs about the cross, and before that cross it bows and toward that cross it points with carefully staged histrionics, but upon that cross it will not die and the reproach of that cross it stubbornly refuses to bear.” Such is the nature of Christianity in our land.

There are also those that abuse their positions of authority. Some pastors make the church they serve their little kingdom. When I was a little boy, my parents referred to one pastor we had as the “little dictator.” He was a short man who was so obsessed with his own power he did not even want a light bulb changed without his permission.

Jesus tells us that the path to greatness within his kingdom is different. “whoever wishes to be become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to first among you shall be your slave.” Greatness in the kingdom comes from being a servant and a slave. Leaders in the church are to be slaves of Christ and servants of His people. The term here translated servant is the term deacon – a word we use as the title to a church office. A deacon was a person who did menial labor such as cleaning up and waiting on tables. Jesus made this a more noble term by using it to describe His most faithful and favored disciples because it marked out the selfless, humble life they were to live. If you want to be great, you have to become a humble, selfless servant. And a true servant will sacrifice for the sake of others in the name of Christ. A sham servant avoids suffering.

If you want to be first, then you have to go another step and become a doulos – a slave. This was a position lower than a servant for a servant was free to go as he pleased. But a slave was owned by his master and could only go and do what the master wanted. The greatest in the kingdom is the one who is a slave – sold out completely to Christ and His kingdom. Paul often referred to Himself in this manner, a bond-servant, a slave of Christ (Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1; Tit 1:1 etc.). He viewed himself as being owned by Jesus since he was bought with a price, Jesus’ own precious blood ( 1 Cor. 6:20). For Paul to live or die was for the Lord (Rom 14:8). The slave is unconcerned for his own life, his own glory, his own power. His only concern is for his master, his lord. While many claim that Jesus is their lord, only a few are His slaves.


Jesus Himself is the example of what it means to be great in the kingdom, of what it means to be a servant and a slave. Verse 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.” Jesus did not come to exercise His power over man to make man serve Him, He came to serve man and pay the ransom price to redeem man. Jesus did not die on the cross so that you could live in happy circumstances, He died so that your bondage to sin could be broken, that you could be reconciled to God and escape His condemnation, and that you could now have an eternal relationship with Him. If that is the example set by our master, then what should be the mark of our lives.

To be a Christian means to follow Christ, to be a person who is being conformed into His image (Rom 8:29). Do humility and servant-hood characterize your life? Is your concern what people do for you or what you do for them? How much are you willing to sacrifice in the service of your master? Is Jesus really your lord or just a commodity that you are seeking to use to gain what you want?

The disciples continued to bicker about who was the greatest until Jesus had been crucified and was risen from the dead. Then with the coming of the Holy Spirit they really began to live for Christ rather than themselves. The Scriptures tell us that the Holy Spirit now indwells every true believer. Does He indwell you? What evidence of that is there? Are you still seeking after what the world values, or what God values.

Proud, boastful Simon was changed into the Apostle Peter who wrote, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the might hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:6,7). The truly great follow Jesus’ example and seek to serve, not be served; to sacrifice of themselves, not seek others to sacrifice for them. If you want to be great, you do not need to exalt yourself. In all humility be the slave of Christ and serve Him and His people and let God be the one that exalts you.

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