March 26, 2017 – Enemies of Humility: The Power Play

“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, one on Your right and one on Your left.’ ”

Matthew 20:20–21

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Use of the power play in our personal dealings is incompatible with scriptural humility.

One of the most common tactics people use to get ahead is to draw upon the influence of family and friends. Even professing believers have not hesitated to “play politics” to get what they want. I know of a pastor some years ago who said that for his denomination’s annual meeting he always booked a hotel room near the top leaders’ rooms. He wanted to cultivate their friendships in hopes of receiving consideration for pastorates in larger churches.

Incredibly, today’s passage has two of Jesus’ closest disciples, James and John, coming with their mother to Jesus to ask a huge, unprecedented favor—that each brother be seated next to Him in His kingdom. It was even more amazing that this brazen, self–serving request came right after Christ predicted His imminent persecution and death. It’s as though James and John each let Jesus’ sobering words go in one ear and out the other. That’s because they were so preoccupied with their own interests and plans.

The three probably were trying to exploit their family relationship with Jesus. By comparing John 19:25 with parallel passages, we know that the disciples’ mother (Salome) was a sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother. That would make James and John His first cousins and their mother His aunt.

So the three undoubtedly were relying on their kinship to Jesus as they made their selfish request for greater power and prestige within His kingdom. Obviously, they still had not grasped Christ’s earlier promise from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the gentle [meek, humble], for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). But such sublime teaching ought to be enough to convince us that the truly humble don’t need power plays to achieve greatness. They already have it in Christ.

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Suggestions for Prayer: Thank the Lord for the many privileges you already enjoy as His child.

For Further Study: Read Matthew 23. What was Jesus’ general attitude toward the Pharisees’ motives and actions? ✧ List some specific characteristics you ought to avoid.[1]


Political Power Play

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, one on Your right and one on Your left.” (20:20–21)

The first worldly principle for greatness might be called political power play and is reflected in the attempt of the mother of the sons of Zebedee to persuade Jesus to give those two sons, James and John, the highest places of honor in His kingdom.

Throughout history, one of the most common tactics for getting ahead has been using the influence of family and friends to one’s own advantage. These people are manipulated to gain political office, a promotion in business, a lucrative contract, or whatever else is craved. As the saying goes, “It’s who you know that counts.” Some years ago a pastor frankly admitted that for his denominations annual convention he always reserved a hotel room next to the leaders in order to cultivate their friendships and thereby help secure future pastorates in larger churches.

It seems incredible that James, John, and their mother could ask Jesus such a crass, self-serving favor immediately after His prediction of the persecution and death He would soon face in Jerusalem. There is no indication, either in this text or in Mark’s parallel account (see 10:35), that any of the disciples made a response to what Jesus had just said about His own imminent death. They may simply have discounted His prediction as being merely figurative and symbolic, or they may have been so preoccupied with their own interests and plans that His words went by them. In any case, they did not pursue the subject. They did, however, continue to pursue their own interests.

From the Mark passage it is clear that the mother was speaking at the behest of her two sons. In fact, Mark makes no mention of her at all. The three obviously came with a common purpose and plan they had discussed among themselves beforehand. The mother probably spoke first, and then James and John spoke for themselves.

It is implied in Matthew but explicit in Mark that the first request was intentionally general and indefinite: “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You” (Mark 10:35). Their approach was like a child trying to get a parent to promise something before saying what it is for fear that a specific request for it might be denied.

The three of them may have been trying to capitalize on their family relationship to Jesus. By comparing the gospel accounts of the women who stood vigil near the cross, it becomes evident that the mother of James and John was named Salome and was a sister of Mary, the Mother of Jesus (see Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25), making her Jesus’ aunt and James and John His first cousins. In addition to relying on their relationship as Jesus’ cousins, the brothers perhaps also thought to play on Jesus’ affection for his mother by having her sister approach Him for the favor.

Bowing down was a common act of obeisance given to ancient monarchs, and the mother may have been trying to flatter Jesus by appealing to His sense of power and royalty. By treating Him like a king, she hoped to manipulate Him into making a gesture of magnanimity Near Eastern kings liked to pride themselves in having the resources to grant any favor or request. It was such pride that induced Herod Antipas to swear to the daughter of Herodias, “Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:23).

The fact that James, John, and their mother made a request of Christ for a blank check strongly suggests that they knew the request was not legitimate. The request was purely self-seeking, for her as well as for them. As their mother, she could bask vicariously in their exalted positions, and her own prestige would be greatly enhanced. In marked contrast to what they would become after Pentecost, James and John were not noted for their shyness or reticence, and Jesus had nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Their request of Jesus not only was bold but brash. In effect, they were claiming that, of all the great people of God who had ever lived, they deserved to have the two highest places of honor beside the King of heaven.

Like the scribes and Pharisees who loved “the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues” (Matt. 23:6), James and John longed for prestige and preeminence and to be exalted over the other apostles. Like the self-seeking Diotrephes (John 9), they loved to be first. But that is not the way to greatness in the kingdom of God.[2]


20 In Mark, John and James approach Jesus themselves; here, it is through their mother. Many find this historically improbable because in v. 22 Jesus responds to her sons only. But the following points make the obvious synthesis plausible:

  1. According to v. 20, the mother and her sons approach Jesus, the implication being that all three are asking this favor, with the mother as the speaker.
  2. This is confirmed by the other apostles’ indignation (v. 24), showing that James and John as well as their mother were involved.
  3. That the mother should be the one to approach Jesus becomes the more plausible if she is Jesus’ aunt on his mother’s side—not certain, but not unlikely (see comments at 10:2; 27:56).
  4. By adding the mother, Matthew cannot be shielding James and John. They still get the same response as in Mark. Matthew has no obvious theological motive for introducing their mother; he is simply recording a historical detail.
  5. That the request should come from James and John, whether through their mother or not, accords with what we know of their aggressiveness (cf. Mk 9:38; Lk 9:54).

The “kneeling down” is not “worship” of deity but may imply homage to the one increasingly recognized as King Messiah (see comments at 2:2).

21 The “right hand” and “left hand” suggest proximity to the King’s person and so a share in his prestige and power. Such positions increase as the King is esteemed and has absolute power (cf. Pss 16:11; 45:9; 110:1; Mt 26:64; Ac 7:55–56; cf. Josephus, Ant. 6.235 [11.9]). Mark has “in your glory,” Matthew “in your kingdom.” Mark’s phrase clearly points to the Parousia, “when Jesus is enthroned as eschatological judge” (Lane, Mark, 379). Hill proposes that the “kingdom” in Matthew is the kingdom of Christ (13:41–43; 25:31–46), identified as the church; and the change from “glory” to “kingdom” therefore means that the original story is now being applied to competition for leadership in the church. But we have already seen that “kingdom” is never identified with “church” in Matthew (see comments at 13:37–39), and Christ’s kingdom is equivalent to the kingdom of heaven (13:41; 20:21; 25:31). Because the “kingdom” comes in stages, there is no substantial difference between Matthew and Mark. The kingdom here is the reign of Messiah at the consummation. The link with 19:28—a verse that speaks (cf. Gk.) of both “throne” and “glory”—is unmistakable. What the sons of Zebedee want and their mother asks for is that they might share in the authority and preeminence of Jesus Messiah when his kingdom is fully consummated—something they think to be near at hand without the cross or any inter-advent period.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 20:20). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 487). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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