March 27, 2017 – Enemies of Humility: Selfish Ambition

“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?’ They said to Him, ‘We are able.’ ”

Matthew 20:22

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Selfish ambition in spiritual things shows that we are ignorant of the real path to God’s glory.

Yesterday we saw that James and John, with their mother, posed a bold power–play question to the Lord Jesus. Now, as He answers them, they display another attitude at odds with the humble spirit: selfish ambition.

If the brothers’ power–play request was brazen, it was also very foolish. They did not have a clue about what was involved if Jesus granted their request. “The cup that I am about to drink” was His way of referring to His suffering and death. When He asked James and John if they were prepared to drink that cup, Christ was saying that if you are His disciple, you must be prepared for suffering and hardship.

In fact, Jesus’ words “to drink the cup” indicate that something very difficult lay ahead. Not only do those words refer to the Savior’s own painful suffering and death (Matt. 26:39), but they mean we must stay the course to the end, enduring whatever is necessary. James, John, and the other disciples initially did not have such staying power.

James and John, thinking they would always persevere, overconfidently declared, “We are able.” Peter brashly promised never to forsake the Lord, and all the other disciples echoed that pledge. But Peter denied Jesus three times, and the ambitious brothers, along with the rest of the disciples, fled after Jesus’ arrest.

The disciples eventually did finish well and shared in the “fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). James became the first martyred apostle, and John was exiled to the island of Patmos. But such faithfulness was not attained in their own strength, nor by their ambitious maneuvering, but by the Spirit’s power. This is a strong reminder to us that no position in God’s kingdom is rewarded because of selfish human ambition, but only by His sovereign choice of “those for whom it has been prepared” (Matt. 20:23).

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Suggestions for Prayer: Pray that God would give you a view of service in His kingdom that is unclouded by your own ambitions.

For Further Study: Read and compare Psalms 15 and 75. What do they say about pride and humility? ✧ Meditate on several verses that relate to that theme.[1]


These verses reflect a second wrong way to spiritual greatness, that of self-serving ambition. The request of James, John, and their mother not only was brash but foolish. Bypassing the mother, Jesus answered the two brothers directly 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 three had no idea of the full implications of their request.

The cup that Jesus was about to drink was the cup of suffering and death, which He had just finished describing to them (vv. 18–19). Jesus was saying, “Don’t you realize by now that the way to eternal glory is not through worldly success and honor but through suffering? Haven’t you heard what I’ve been teaching about the persecuted being blessed and about taking up your own crosses and following Me?”

The apostle Paul learned that the way to great glory is through great affliction for Christ’s sake. Although he suffered extreme hardship, persecution, and suffering, he considered those things to be insignificant compared to what awaited him in heaven. He told the self-serving, pleasure-loving Corinthians, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). It is those who are persecuted “on account of Me” who Jesus said will have great reward in heaven (Matt. 5:11–12).

Suffering from physical afflictions such as disease, deformity, and accident or from the emotional distresses of a lost job or the death of a loved one can be used by the Lord to strengthen believers spiritually. He can help them grow even through problems and hardships they bring on themselves because of foolishness or sin. But the affliction that brings eternal glory is that which is brought about and is willingly endured because of faithfulness to the Lord. It is suffering because of the gospel, being “persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Matt. 5:10). The one who has the greatest glory beside Christ in heaven will be the one who has faithfully endured the greatest suffering for Him on earth.

To drink the cup meant to drink the full measure, leaving nothing. It was a common expression that meant to stay with something to the end, to endure to the limits, whatever the cost. The cup that Jesus was about to drink was immeasurably worse than the physical agony of the cross or the emotional anguish of being forsaken by His friends, painful as those were. The full measure of His cup was taking the world’s sin upon Himself, an agony so horrible that He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).

Either because they completely misunderstood what Jesus meant or because, like Peter promising never to forsake Christ, they self-confidently thought they could endure anything required of them, James and John foolishly declared, “We are able.” And just as Peter denied the Lord three times before the cock crowed, those two brothers, along with all the other disciples, fled for their lives when Jesus was arrested (Matt. 26:56).[2]


22 The additional words “and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with” (KJV)—and similarly in v. 23—are almost certainly an assimilation to Mark 10:38–39. Jesus’ answer is not severe but mingles firmness with probing. It is often ignorance that seeks leadership, power, and glory; the brothers do not know what they are asking. To ask to reign with Jesus is to ask to suffer with him, and not only do they not know what they are asking for (cf. 10:37–39; Ro 8:17; 2 Ti 2:12; Rev 3:21); they have as yet no clear perceptions of Jesus’ sufferings. To ask for worldly wealth and much honor is often to ask for anxiety, temptation, disappointment, and envy; in the spiritual arena, to ask for great usefulness and reward is often to ask for great suffering (cf. 2 Co 11:23–33; Col 1:24; Rev 1:9). “We know not what we ask, when we ask for the glory of wearing the crown, and ask not for grace to bear the cross in our way to it” (Matthew Henry).

The “cup” (cf. 26:39) characteristically refers, in OT imagery, to judgment or retribution (cf. Ps 75:8; Isa 51:17–18; Jer 25:15–28). If the disciples grasped anything of Jesus’ passion predictions, they probably thought the language was partly hyperbolic (Jesus did use hyperbole elsewhere [e.g., 19:24]) and referred to the eschatological conflict during which Messiah’s side would suffer losses; but these could scarcely be too severe for one who could still storms and raise the dead. Thus, by their bold response, James and John betray their misunderstandings of the timing of the dawn of the kingdom in all its glory (cf. Lk 19:11), and equally of the uniqueness and redemptive significance of Jesus’ sufferings (cf. v. 28) now imminent.[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, pp. 487–488). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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