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Christ Meeting Sons and Mother of Zebedee - Paolo Veronese (1565)

The mother of Zebedee’s sons (the disciples James and John) came to Jesus, knelt down, and asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” Jesus asked.

“Grant that one of my two sons may sit at your right side and the other at your left side in your kingdom.”

“You do not understand what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

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Jesus said,

“You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left-hand side is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

James and John Sons of Thunder - Artist Unknown

When the other ten disciples heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.

Jesus called them together and said,

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials execute authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for others.”

What the story means to us today

Jesus teaches us that a godly person must be willing to become the servant of others

The mother of James and John boldly requests a position of honor for her sons in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus notes that the honor is not his to grant – then turns the incident into an opportunity to teach about humility, one of his favorite topics. Jesus tells us that whoever wants to be great must be a servant. It is not the prominence of your family, who or how many you treat well, nor how long you do good deeds – it’s the quality of the deed in acts of humility that solicit God’s favor.

There are several important points in these verses. First, note the distinction Jesus makes between himself and God. God is the head of all – including Jesus.

Secondly, note that the disciples continue to bicker over who will be first and who will receive the greatest reward in heaven. The disciples are doing good deeds but still not for the right reason. They expect privilege for the honorable deeds they conduct.

The Mother of Zebedee's Sons - Artist Unknown

Finally, it is important to note that our Savior considered himself a servant to all. We of course, consider him a leader beyond measure but humble Jesus considered himself to be a docile servant to everyone. Asking nothing in return, Jesus gave everything to teach and demonstrate what God expects from his children.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Can you drink the cup I am about to drink?

Jesus asks Zebedee’s sons, the disciples James and John, if they can “drink from the cup I am about to drink?” Jesus is asking the disciples if they are willing to shoulder the same pain he is about to experience. Like Jesus, they agree to suffer and die to deliver God’s new message to mankind. Indeed, ultimately James and John are martyred just as Jesus was. James, the first disciple to die, was struck down with a sword by Herod Agrippa in 40 AD. His brother John would be the last to die, alone, imprisoned on an island.

The ”ransom” Jesus paid for our sins

Jesus says he did not “come to be served but to serve and to give his life as ransom for many”. We are often told that Jesus “died for our sins”. In other words, his life was given as “ransom”, standing in our place, and symbolically accepting the judgement that we rightfully should have incurred on our own.

Did James and John have reason to expect favoritism from Jesus?

James and John’s mother (probably the woman we know in other verses as “Salome”) approaches Jesus and requests that her two sons sit on the right and left-hand of Jesus in heaven. Coming from the two “fiery” brothers, a brazen request such as this would not be considered unusual. Their mother appears in other verses (where she is also called “the mother of Zebedee’s sons”) and some believe she was Jesus’ aunt. If that is the case, they may have thought their relationship with Jesus merited special treatment above what the other disciples should receive.

The mother of James and John

We often visualize Jesus and the discples’ travels as Jesus accompanied by the twelve disciples, going it alone. This does not appear to be the case and these verses are another hint that in addition to throngs of followers, Jesus’ family members accompanied the Twelve during their ministry. It is clear from these verses that at the very least, the mother of James and John accompanied them in their travels.

James and John Sons of Thunder - Artist Unknown

Bible Text

NIV

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

21 “What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

20:20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling down she asked him for a favor. 20:21 He said to her, “What do you want?” She replied, “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 20:22 Jesus answered, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 20:23 He told them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right and at my left is not mine to give. Rather, it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

20:24 Now when the other ten heard this, they were angry with the two brothers. 20:25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 20:26 It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 20:27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave—20:28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

20 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.”

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

20 It was about that time that the mother of the Zebedee brothers came with her two sons and knelt before Jesus with a request.

21 “What do you want?” Jesus asked.

She said, “Give your word that these two sons of mine will be awarded the highest places of honor in your kingdom, one at your right hand, one at your left hand.”

22 Jesus responded, “You have no idea what you’re asking.” And he said to James and John, “Are you capable of drinking the cup that I’m about to drink?”

They said, “Sure, why not?”

23 Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you are going to drink my cup. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. My Father is taking care of that.”

24–28 When the ten others heard about this, they lost their tempers, thoroughly disgusted with the two brothers. So Jesus got them together to settle things down. He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

20 Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. 21 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 the left, in thy kingdom. 22 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. 23 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 of my Father. 24 And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. 25 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. 26 But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; 27 And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: 28 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 Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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