The mother of the sons of Zebedee
Pp Mark 10:35-45
Jesus’ teaching on authority
A ransom for many
2. For many
Only Matthew and Mark record this passage which is a return to the theme of Mtw 18:1ff with its talk of wanting a position of greatness in the Kingdom which was expected shortly with Jesus established as its head. Both Synoptic writers go on to record the event of the blind man/men being healed near Jericho and Luke also follows suit, jumping from the third prediction of His death directly into it. This seems, therefore, the right place for the incident and we shouldn’t doubt its position as being out of chronological order.
The previous few verses which spoke of Jesus’ imminent death and resurrection weren’t fully understood by the disciples (Luke 18:34) and they continued to entertain the belief that, come this final journey to Jerusalem, something spectacular was about to transpire which would see Jesus heralded by the entire nation as the promised Davidic deliverer.
We saw on that previous web page that the third of the pronouncements of His death and resurrection was met with a similar lack of understanding and acceptance as the second (Luke 9:45) and it seems to us almost inconceivable that, at times, the disciples should hear plainly the words being spoken and yet for them to remain totally bewildered as to the obvious and plain interpretation of the words.
This probably has to do with their refusal to revise their own concept of what the Messiah was to do which made such statements incompatible with the thought of a restored Davidic Kingdom and of a Messiah who would go out against Israel’s enemies (which immediately meant the Romans) and vanquish them.
However, there’s also a repeated blindness in the disciples when it came to their hearing of Jesus’ teaching on being humble and the servant of all for, in Mark 9:33-34 (Pp Mtw 18:1ff), they’re recorded as having discussed on their journey who of them was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus had to give them explicit teaching that they should remember that greatness wasn’t assessed by position and selection for mission but by having no status.
Had they learned that, John and James would surely not have encouraged their mother to approach Jesus with her two sons and to ask of Him something which betrayed their own desire to be the most important people in the Kingdom besides Jesus (Mtw 20:20-21, Mark 10:35-37), a request which seems to betray the fact that the disciples were actually anticipating that the Kingdom would shortly be established in Jerusalem and, more especially, that it would be so at that very Passover.
And, although the other ten disciples heard of what John and James had done (Mtw 20:24) and were once more instructed by Jesus concerning ‘greatness’ in the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 20:25-28), they still go on to argue amongst themselves about who’s the greatest at the final Passover before the crucifixion (Luke 22:24-27).
Though we may wonder at their slowness in perceiving that Jesus was predicting His suffering, death and resurrection, we often fail to realise that it was the same slowness which exemplified itself in ignoring Jesus’ plain teaching concerning position and which sought to elevate one another over the others. It may seem strange to us that such a situation could have occurred, but the disciples weren’t the quickest to grasp the truth of what was being said (another example being Mtw 16:5-12) even though they were the people who knew Jesus to be the One promised (Mtw 16:16-17).
The mother of the sons of Zebedee
Initially, there’s a problem with a harmonisation of the two parallel passages and they seem to contradict one another, for Mtw 20:20 records that
‘...the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to Him, with her sons, and kneeling before Him she asked Him for something’
while Mark 10:35 records, rather, that
‘...James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Him, and said to Him...’
their mother being nowhere to be seen. What, then, are we to make of such a difference? It would appear that the two brothers’ mother became the spokesman for the pair and she may have even been encouraged to ask the request as if it was her own personal petition so that the brothers’ desire in the matter might attempt to remain hidden (Matthew has previously omitted the existence of the spokesman of the centurion in Mtw 8:5 [Pp Luke 7:3] and Mark seems to follow a similar procedure in this story). Perhaps they reasoned that they couldn’t ask openly for something which they recalled had been spoken against (Mtw 18:1-4) but that Jesus might heed a request from her lips rather than theirs.
Besides, the indication from the text is that Jesus recognised that the question, although being spoken by the mother, was the product of the mind of the brothers for, in Mtw 20:21, Jesus asks the mother
‘What do you [singular] want?’
but, once the request has been made known, He replies in Mtw 20:22
‘You [plural] do not know what you [plural] are asking’
because He perceives plainly that the request came out of John and James’ heart through a chosen mouthpiece. It’s a bit like when someone goes to see the doctor and insists that they have a friend who has a personal problem and who didn’t want to come and talk it over with them - or when we know that we’ve done something wrong and we ask the person offended what he’s going to do when he catches the person responsible!
Commentators on the Gospel of Matthew make out that the request from the mother was, as Matfran
and that it was quite natural for her to be concerned for the position which her two sons were to attain to. However, this seems to imply an eager willingness on the mother’s part to go along with the request and we could just as well read into the text that she was reluctant to ask such a question but felt obliged to because of her two sons’ insistence.
Whatever her exact feelings on the matter, it’s obvious from the text that the question which comes from her lips isn’t her own but one which has been formulated by James and John. Mattask is surely right to state that
‘The Jewish mother, like many other mothers, may have been ambitious for her sons, but on this occasion she was nothing more than their spokeswoman’
Again, further evidence that the question was the brothers’ rather than the mothers’ comes indirectly from Mtw 20:24 where the disciples hear of what has just transpired and are
‘...indignant at the two brothers’
If they had thought that it had been the sole movement of their mother who had tried to gain a position for them, they would rather have been indignant at her. Rather, they see their hand in it and can’t help but interpret what’s transpired as being a cleverly designed subterfuge to give the brothers no ultimate responsibility for the question.
After all, the two brothers could have said, had they been granted the request
‘Well, we didn’t want the position of importance in the Kingdom but our mother pleaded with Jesus and He granted us what she asked’
But who was this woman and what was she doing so many miles from home? And where was her husband? The first we hear of the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, in Matthew’s Gospel, they’re mending their fishing nets on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Mtw 4:21) and leave everything behind to follow after Jesus.
It would appear that the mother had followed with the band of disciples as they’d journeyed from Galilee until they finally reached the wilderness of Judea where a time of ministry had begun and then, onwards, into Jerusalem and even to the crucifixion. Mtw 27:55 records that
‘There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him’
and then goes on to mention her name in the following verse. It would appear, therefore, that she was among the women who had left their homes and been ministering to the band as they made for Jerusalem and the Passover - and, more than this, that they had also followed Jesus around the Galilean region as He ministered to Israel (Mark 15:41). They also appear to have been more faithful to Jesus than the twelve, only one of which is recorded as being present when Jesus was crucified (John 19:26-27). Perhaps her husband, Zebedee, was travelling at a later time to Jerusalem or, perhaps, he was even dead - we simply don’t know and just because he’s not mentioned as being present in this incident is no reason to assume that he hadn’t travelled with both his wife and two sons.
There also remains the possibility that the mother of John and James was an aunt of Jesus and that her two sons were cousins. That might strike the reader as somewhat strange but, if it were the case, her request would have thought to have carried all the more weight seeing as there would have expected to have been blood ties in the family and that positions of authority would naturally have been expected to be granted to the immediate relations rather than to outsiders such as Judas or, even, Peter.
It may also help to explain the reason why Mary, the mother of Jesus, was given to John to look after (John 19:26-27) because they were immediate family and it would be expected of him seeing as he appears to have been the only male family member who was present at the crucifixion (John may even have forced himself to be there to protect his mother) - his brothers would naturally bear immediate responsibility but we can’t be sure that they were anywhere to be seen.
The evidence for such an assertion that the mother of the two sons of Zebedee was the aunt of Jesus comes from three Scriptures and a bit of guesswork which means that the theory can be no more than a stab in the dark - albeit a logical one.
Firstly, Mtw 27:56 records that there were women present at the place of crucifixion and the three specifically mentioned are
‘...Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee’
while Mark 15:40 also notes the women’s presence but records them as
‘...Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses and Salome’
and John 19:25 also records at that time the presence of four women
‘...His mother and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene’
This latter verse needs some clarification, however, for it isn’t certain whether ‘Mary the wife of Clopas’ and ‘His mother’s sister’ should be taken as one and the same person. Neither is it certain that the added words ‘wife of’ are accurate for they don’t appear in the Greek and, according to Johnmor, it would be more logical to take the phrase as referring to ‘Mary, the daughter of Clopas’. He concludes, however, that
‘It seems better to think of these as two different persons...if the two are distinct, there are four believing women who stood by the cross. They will stand over against the four unbelieving soldiers who crucified Jesus, quite in the Johannine manner’
Putting the Matthean and Markan Scriptures together, the mother of the sons of Zebedee in the former would naturally be associated with Salome of the latter. And, when we look at John, she would have to be positively identified either by Mary’s sister or by Mary, the daughter (or wife) of Clopas.
Commentators who hold to the theory that Jesus was related to the mother of the sons of Zebedee, naturally opt for the identification of her with Mary’s sister and it isn’t too illogical a step to make.
However, against this are two other Scriptures which stand in two of the lists of women present at the cross. The first, Mtw 27:55, records (my italics) that
‘There were also many women there...’
and Mark 15:41 who speaks of the three women as being the ones who
‘...when he was in Galilee, followed Him, and ministered to Him...’
also records (my italics)
‘...many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem’
The problem is that, if there were many women, how could we accept that selective lists would necessarily include the same names? To give a supposition which is by no means provable, why shouldn’t Matthew have recorded the presence of the mother of the sons of Zebedee because she was known to the people he was writing to while Mark recorded Salome in place of her for the very same reason? And John may have had equal justification for the list which appears in His Gospel.
Therefore, although it’s a good theory that the mother of the sons of Zebedee was the aunt of Jesus, it can remain no more than that - but it certainly would give added weight to the request which she’s now making on behalf of her two sons.
The mother of James and John approaches Jesus in a reverent manner, kneeling before Him (Mtw 20:20) and asking Him, as we would a person in today’s society, a general question about whether or not they would grant us a request.
And, just like most of us, Jesus requires to hear the request before He makes the choice of whether He will accede to what’s being asked or not (Mtw 20:21). We’ve already seen above that the question asked concerning the position of her sons in the Kingdom of Heaven was inspired by the sons themselves for Jesus answers the request directly by speaking to John and James rather than directing His answer to the one who’s asked the question, the teaching of who the greatest in the Kingdom is (Mtw 18:1-4) appearing to be far from their minds.
But, whatever we would say of their question, we have to notice that it still required a measure of faith and belief that Jesus was the One who would soon come into a Kingdom of which they expected to be a part.
John and James were part of the ‘inner three’ disciples, the other of which was Peter (see my notes here), though whether they recognised this is difficult to determine. It’s certainly obvious from where we now stand, looking back at the Scriptural records, but it may not have been as clear and apparent to us as it was to them at that time.
Matfran observes that
‘...the snubbing of Peter in [Mtw] 16:23 and the implied rebuke of him in 19:30...’
may have been the opportunity which both the brothers had been waiting for to claim for themselves a higher position amongst the band while the recognised leader appeared to be out of favour with their Master, but this seems hardly fair to either brother. It’s the more likely simply that the imminent arrival of the Kingdom was expected and that they felt time was running out for them to seek the best positions for themselves - it’s bad enough the way it appears without having to add any behind the scenes scheming which was an attempt on their part to undermine Peter’s position.
They’d also clearly heard Jesus say (Mtw 16:28) that
‘...there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in His Kingdom’
and this appears to have been foremost in their minds for Luke 19:11 notes that those with Jesus travelling from the eastern regions into the city
‘...supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately’
What they believed was shortly to happen - and as their own interpretation explained it to them - was the impetus which gave them the perceived need to try and gain the best position for themselves in that coming Kingdom. For them, it wasn’t enough that Jesus had promised them (Mtw 19:28) that
‘...when the Son of man shall sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’
but they wanted to be the two most important and significant people apart from Jesus when it was finally established. Whatever else we might say about the two brothers, at least we shouldn’t deny the faith they must obviously have had in what Jesus had already said. As Matmor comments
‘We must deplore the self-seeking implicit in their desire to get the chief places for themselves but, at the same time, we should appreciate their deep conviction that, in the end, Jesus would establish the Kingdom’
even when there was no sign apparent.
The right and left hand position beside any king in antiquity was a place of unequalled importance and supremacy for, not only could they hear everything which was said by the sovereign, but they had immediate and direct access into His presence and would be able to petition him for those things which they felt important.
But, even putting to one side the practicalities of the physical position, the dual places of being seated at the right and left hand of the sovereign were the two most coveted positions of authority, so much so that, in the story which covers I Sam 20:26-34 as told by Josephus in Antiquities 6.11.9, Saul is reported as having sat beside him
‘...his son Jonathan on his right hand, and Abner, the captain of his host, on the other hand...’
where the former was the heir apparent to Saul’s throne and Abner was probably the most important figure in the secular kingdom seeing as he was the one who would ultimately achieve success or defeat against invading armies.
That the high priest was more important for the religious life of the nation is certain but, for the secular side, the two figures who sat on the right and the left were the two ‘semi-rulers’. It’s quite true that the right hand was the position of unequalled authority after the sovereign but such a consideration needn’t bother us here - the fact of the matter would probably have been that John and James would have sorted who had the best side if they’d been granted both positions (and they may well have come to blows!) - all that we need to be certain of was that they had chosen for themselves the best place and were using their mother as the instrument by which they were hoping to achieve it.
We have spoken of their faith in the statements of Jesus concerning the coming Kingdom and that Jesus was God’s Messiah, His anointed King, shortly to be enthroned, but we also have to realise that they didn’t have faith in certain other words which they’d plainly heard - where ‘faith’ must be understood as a belief in action and not fossilised theology as it can be made out to be. Faith expresses itself by works or else its presence cannot be said to exist (James 2:14-17). For instance, they don’t appear to have had faith, a working belief, in passages such as Mtw 18:1-4 or 20:14-15 which, if they had, would have restricted them requesting such a position.
Selective faith is dangerous. It isn’t sufficient for a believer to rest on the bubbly and effervescent promises of God when they neglect the more important and fundamental truths such as servanthood and persecution. The practice of 75% of the Kingdom in a believer’s life is dangerous simply because 25% is missing - believers are called to be whole christians, not followers with holes.
And their faith seems to know no limits whatsoever when they say they’ll be able to follow Jesus in the ordeal through which He is about to undergo even though, in the end, all the remaining eleven disciples fled Jesus’ side for fear of tribulation (Mtw 26:56) though John and Peter seem to have turned to follow after the band which was taking Jesus to the high priest (John 18:15).
The cutting irony of their desire to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in the Kingdom or, as Mark 10:37 records
‘in Your glory’
is that, at the time of Jesus’ greatest triumph on the cross over the forces which stood opposed to God, it was two thieves who were to be placed at His right and left hand (Mtw 27:38).
Suddenly, the mother of John and James disappears from view. I noted above that there’s a sudden change (my italics) from the singular
‘What do you want?’
to the plural
‘You do not know what you are asking’
and the origin of the request is immediately seen to be the two brothers themselves - the mother is only the channel through whom they’ve been making their request known to Jesus. But Jesus’ response is not to immediately say a definite ‘no’ but to state, firstly, that they haven’t comprehended the meaning of their question and then to ask them for an answer regarding whether they were able to participate in the kind of suffering, humiliation and death that was about to come upon Him.
Jesus actually speaks of the ‘cup’ which He will shortly drink and we should pause for a moment to consider the symbolism here for, although both John and James seem to understand that it means that they will share an experience, they actually fail to perceive that it’s not something that, had they realised the implications, they would ever have been so forthright that they would have proclaimed their ability in following after Him.
The same confidence in one’s own ability will be repeated shortly by Peter in Mtw 26:30-35 where he asserts his ability to stand against opposition and to follow Jesus wholly and sincerely. If the disciples had come face to face with their own inabilities and fears, then scenes such as these would never have happened.
The cup, though, was a symbol in the OT of a person’s lot in life, of what, very often, they would come to experience at the hand of the Lord. Therefore, the psalmist can both speak of the wicked and God’s reaction to them (Ps 11:6) that
‘...He will rain coals of fire and brimstone; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup’
and, of the righteous (Ps 23:5), that He
‘...preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows’
In the prophetic writings, the cup came to be used of God’s anger being poured out upon the disobedient (Is 51:17,22, Jer 25:15-16, 25:28-29, 49:12, Ezek 23:31-34) but it would be going too far to say that such an interpretation was possible at this point. Certainly the two brothers don’t seem to think of the cup as symbolising God’s anger being poured out against them as it was to be upon Jesus on the cross and, for this reason, they may conceive of a short time of mild opposition directed towards Jesus before He was to inherit the Kingdom if they understand the ‘cup’ to be symbolic of suffering.
Jesus used the symbolism of the cup to speak of His death at a later date and the word is employed by all four Gospel writers (Mtw 26:39,42, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42, John 18:11). The two brothers, therefore, don’t seem to have put their brain into gear and to have thought about asking the relevant question ‘What cup?’ before affirming wholeheartedly that they were able to drink from the same one as Jesus was about to drink - and this may have been the result of an incorrect concept of Jesus’ Messianic calling and of what ultimately was awaiting Him in Jerusalem at that imminent Passover. Matmor is correct when he notes of the two brothers that
‘They were clearly viewing the Kingdom in terms of the contemporary understanding of splendour; Jesus would reign, they thought, over a realm much like that of the Romans, only more glorious. Despite all the teaching Jesus had given, they had still not realised that the Kingdom meant lowliness, sacrifice and rejection in this world’
and so, through a misconception both of the coming Kingdom and a failure to believe Jesus’ words concerning the path of discipleship, they too eagerly respond positively that they are able to experience the same things which Jesus is shortly to enter into - specifically suffering and, possibly, martyrdom.
James certainly was martyred at a fairly early date after the resurrection (Acts 12:2) and, although John disappears from view quickly, we still read of the persecution which fell on him in Acts 4:1-22 and 5:17-42 and of his exile onto the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9) if the John who wrote that prophecy is the same John as here.
The one thing which puzzles me in this passage - and to which I’ll never satisfactorily gain an answer - is whether John and James would have tasted the cup of Jesus’ sufferings even if they hadn’t stated so vehemently that they were able. Jesus most definitely links His suffering as the reason for His subsequent exaltation (Phil 2:8-9) and marks out that the same course would be the reason why a person would find themselves granted a place among the Kingdom greats (though it would be unlikely that those who suffered would ever understand themselves to be such) but is His prophetic statement that such experiences would come upon both brothers a sure sign that it wouldn’t have been their lot in life had they not affirmed their ability to follow Him so strongly?
As I’ve said, I don’t think I’ll ever fully get an answer to the question but we should, at least, be warned in case we make the same mistake of thinking that we have the ability to experience the same as did Jesus - as Peter, John and James found out, such a path is a temptation to turn one around and flee the experience.
One final point is that, according to Jesus, the positions of being seated at the right and left hand of His throne is purely a matter for the Father’s decision (Mtw 20:23) where Jesus’ simply states that He doesn’t have the ability or authority to grant such a request.
This is a similar relationship between the Father and Son as mentioned in Mtw 24:36 where Jesus, speaking of the establishing of the future and final Kingdom on earth, says that
‘But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only’
Statements such as this have troubled believers throughout the years but they need always to be understood in the light of Jesus’ relationship to the Father as one of total dependency upon Him - that is, Jesus should be seen as God operating from out of His humanity and reliant upon the Father for all provision rather than independently from Him and out of His own omniscience and omnipotence.
The problem with a lot of our concepts of what it meant for Jesus to be the God-man - that is, fully human yet fully divine - is that, as soon as we read that Jesus ‘knew’ something or ‘did’ something miraculous, we consign such an event to the operation of Jesus Himself as God rather than to the moving of God the Father through Jesus where the latter is being obedient to the revealed will of God from Heaven.
But, as I’ve said on previous occasions, if Jesus simply ignored His humanity whenever He chose to, He cannot be the ultimate example of what it means to be human and living in total obedience to and dependency upon God.
Jesus’ teaching on authority
Vines literally interprets the word used to express the disciples’ indignation (Strongs Greek number 23) as meaning ‘to grieve much’ but, if this is the correct understanding of the term, we could imagine wrongly that the other ten disciples were simply a bit upset by what had transpired.
Something of the emotive force of the word, however, is given by the online Precise Oxford Dictionary which defines the word ‘indignation’ as meaning
‘anger at supposed injustice’
Here were the ten disciples finding out about a tactical ploy by the twins in which they’d used their mother as the instrument by which they had sought to achieve their desired ends. They must have been so angry as to want to lynch them for, though they’d discussed amongst themselves about who was the greatest (Mark 9:33-34), no one up until that point had taken steps to try and get the better position in the Kingdom which they seem to all have thought was about to be revealed on that final trip into Jerusalem (Luke 19:11).
Although Mathen’s comments that the other ten disciples
‘...probably wanted these highest posts for themselves’
they hadn’t yet put their thoughts into a positive approach in order to secure them and their anger is not that which springs from a hatred of an action which is, in God’s eyes, unjust, but from a feeling that the twins have transgressed some unwritten law which states that such an action shouldn’t be attempted.
Some of the commentators see the feeling inside the ten as being that of jealousy but, as the two disciples have failed to achieve their objective and, rather, seem to have brought upon themselves hardship and affliction (Mtw 20:23), it’s difficult to see what the ten could be jealous of - rather, a simple feeling of anger directed at their action is about the best we can say.
Jesus’ words about worldly authority are probably best expounded by our own experience of what we see in the world. In the West, dictatorial leadership has largely been replaced by what is mistakenly called ‘democracy’ and the type of leadership which is generally seen is more placid than it is active in treating with harshness those under them - simply because it’s by those people that they have to get re-elected after a few short years.
Admittedly, the point of political leadership appears to be to make the people think they’re being treated fairly while, at the same time, to attempt to run a nation with as strong a hand as possible which sees nothing go against what one has set oneself to do.
You may think I’m being cynical and I probably wouldn’t disagree too much. It’s very difficult trying to assess what goes on in the corridors of power when one isn’t party to such discussions - but when we can read and hear about politicians in the UK who have failed to disclose private interests in companies who are suddenly handed Government contracts, one wonders if such cynicism isn’t so unwarranted - even if it’s unprovable.
But I digress.
In the place where I work, I am repeatedly amazed that those members of staff who treat those under them with disdain and criticism are normally the very same ones who are given even greater authority via promotion over more people who, when they’re shown not to bow down to their whims and fancies, are turned upon sincerely and with observations which are misinterpretations of the people in question, putting them down because they don’t exist in their friendship or authority circle.
Such leadership is what the world doesn’t need - but it’s usually all it gets. We shouldn’t wonder at Jesus’ words, therefore, and should note that the authorities in this world are just the same today as they were in the first century. For all man’s attempts at bridging the gap between those in authority and those who sit below, there still exists the attitude of heart which leadership promotes and which puts down the less fortunate for the benefit of the leader’s own position.
The only frightening thing with this set up is not that mankind hasn’t changed in two thousand years but that the Church has often been guilty of the very same authority structures which safeguard the leader at the expense of the congregation. A true leader may be one that’s hard to recognise in a fellowship simply because they aren’t trying to make the congregation both realise and feel that they’re worthless and is, rather, allowing ministries to flourish and develop, stepping in to use the authority they have only when there are problems which need sorting out.
Such a leadership looks weak, however, and a strong figurehead in any fellowship is usually what’s desired by those who have seen their last leader leave. It was the same when Israel’s first king was appointed them by God for He chose a man who was the image of what their hearts longed for - a man who was tall and rugged (I Sam 9:2), who their hearts would go out to and serve.
But the Kingship which comes from God as outlined in this passage is one of service (Mtw 20:28) and thinking that we should appoint dynamic leadership which we can serve is actually the wrong way to go about choosing anyone.
With regards Jesus’ condemnation of human authority, Matmor writes that
‘It scarcely needs adding that He is not objecting to constituted authority as such; there must be people in authority if there is to be ordered government’
while Matfran observes that
‘...these verses do not suggest that human society has no need of properly structured authority’
Although both these commentators are speaking purely of socio-political organisational structures which lie outside the Church, we would do well to bring our thoughts much closer to home and to think of what Jesus actually did with equipping His Church with leadership when the time was to come when He would be taken from them.
Perhaps it would be right to say that, the way in which Jesus appointed authority within His Church should be the same as the way in which we should appoint authority in the fellowships which we ourselves attend. However, this is quite a frightening prospect simply because He never did install a series of leaders into positions that would rule over either the new converts or the people who had already acknowledged Him to be the One promised and who needed encouraging to progress in ‘The Way’.
Rather, He appointed ministries - not only in places such as Mtw 10:1-4 which we commented on then but also in Eph 4:8-12 which informs us that, when Jesus ascended back into Heaven, He left gifts of people amongst His Church and that some of these people would be
‘...apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’
Notice that at no time here does it say that He appointed some as elders and deacons to rule over believers but that He appointed people with specific giftings so that ministry might be imparted and that the Church would grow.
So a qualification is vitally necessary if we’re to correctly understand our statement that Jesus wasn’t here speaking in Mtw 20:24-28 against authority within His Church - the fact that He never appointed authorities should give us sufficient cause to tread very carefully when we think that, by forming authority structures, we’ll achieve a NT Church.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Rather, when we allow ministries to develop and for God to work through them unimpeded, the full potential of the Church will be realised and the Divine authority of the gift will be shown for the sake of protecting what God has sown and is doing in the midst of men and women’s lives (II Cor 13:10).
Being an apostle doesn’t mean that the person should say
‘Look at me! I’m an apostle! Serve me!’
‘I am a gift to you - let me serve you’
When someone is a good servant of the people, they will necessarily be a good leader simply because they’ve previously demonstrated that their leadership is based upon a willingness to serve those below them rather than to treat them with contempt.
I’m sure that most readers will think that I’m advocating Church anarchy by my previous words but that is far from the truth. All I’m saying is that, if Jesus was more concerned with giving ability so that men and women might minister to believers and of causing such people to meet need, why should our attitude be any different?
If there is authority in the Church, it must come as a direct bestowal from God on an individual and not as the appointment of leadership by denominational structures or by congregations (as we saw here). Ministry is what’s important in the Church, not established leadership which rules over the Church to Jesus’ hindrance.
Kingdom ministry is shown by Jesus here not to be dictatorial but servile. Jesus Christ is the example to follow (John 13:15, Mtw 20:28, Eph 5:1, Phil 2:7, Luke 22:27), one that all believers are called to imitate and duplicate (Mtw 23:11, 20:26-27, Mark 9:35, Luke 22:26, John 13:14). The letters of Paul amply demonstrate this principle when he writes (II Cor 4:5) that the band of apostolic travellers are
‘...your slaves for Jesus’ sake...’
and Paul was able to say personally of himself (II Cor 12:15) that
‘I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls’
where Paul’s apostleship caused him to give over both his time and resources (even his physical resources by losing sleep) in order that he might achieve his purpose of proclaiming Jesus Christ wherever and whenever there was opportunity.
I used to be greatly troubled as a young christian by my first leadership’s insistence that submission and servanthood had to be first learnt through the act of making tea in the fellowship’s kitchen and it seemed to me that the route to achieve true greatness was by way of the kettle - something which I couldn’t reconcile with the passages I kept reading in the NT.
While someone such as an apostle (and I am not an apostle) might find no problem in sticking the kettle on to brew up for the congregation, one has to question whether he might be better employed in ‘apostling’ and in serving the Body of Christ by his ministry.
After all, do we really think that, when that apostle stands before Jesus on judgment day, the Lord will actually turn to him and say
‘Well done, good and faithful servant. I gave you as a gift to many congregations and you succeeded in escaping from such an obligation of benefiting my Church by making a total of 1,534,683 cups of tea throughout your time on earth’
Of course not. Rather, an apostle is a servant of the Body of Christ and learns humility by serving God and of relying upon Him in order that the Church might be ministered to and built up. The type of Kingdom service which I encountered in my early years as a christian was a false way of denying those in the fellowship from being able to fulfil the calling of God on their lives but, those who perceived that there was a way into the pulpit which relied not on anointing and calling from God but upon good works, were delighted to find that, eventually, they attained the position of leader!
I’m exaggerating deliberately as you can, no doubt, tell - but my words aren’t so far from the truth in some fellowships. What we must realise is that the gifts of the Spirit aren’t given to the believer for the believer (I Cor 12:7, 14:12, 14:26) but for others. We aren’t appointed as teachers and apostles for ourselves (Eph 4:11-12) but for the sake of the Body of Christ, the Church. Whatever ministry we have, we serve others by using it - not by trying to serve others in ways that detract from our God-appointed calling.
But, if the kettle needs putting on, neither should we be reluctant to do it.
A ransom for many
I have tended to summarise Mtw 20:28 in the broad interpretation of Jesus’ response to the disciples’ indignation towards the two brothers, but the verse raises some interesting doctrinal problems which have been aired throughout the years and we need to spend just a short amount of time considering them here. Mathag notes that
‘The interpretive [sic] clause at the end of verse 28 is widely regarded as the retrojection of the post-resurrection church’s understanding of the death of Jesus as an atoning death’
where, if anything appears to be an unlikely belief according to our own assessment of the situation at the time of Christ, it can be too easily relegated to a footnote apologetic which will go on to claim that it would have been impossible for such a thing to have been believed and that the Gospel is being influenced at this point by the life and times in which the writer lived.
A similar problem exists with Mtw 16:18 where the first occurrence of the word ‘church’ occurs and which has been sufficient for some to assert that the concept of a ‘church’ could only have been in existence after the resurrection when the church had been established. Only, so some say, in that context would the statement have made sense and so the verse must be thought of as having been paraphrased or added to at a later date to bring it in line with something altogether more relevant for the believers to whom the Gospel was being written.
All this I reject, of course - simply because, when we arrive at Matthew chapter 24, we would have to conclude that the passage could never have been spoken of a time in the future but must have been compiled from the events that were known (and compiled very badly, I hasten to add, for there are clear dissimilarities) concerning the destruction of Jerusalem so that it would look like Jesus was prophesying correctly the end of the old covenant in reality.
Such positions rely more on a disbelief in the supernatural than they do on what can be demonstrably shown to have taken place. Besides, why shouldn’t Jesus have been able to think of His death as being a ‘ransom for many’ at this point in time?
If Jesus already knew that His mission to earth would necessarily mean His own death (Mtw 16:21, 17:12, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), why wouldn’t He have also understood the reason for such an event? Certainly, we don’t appear to be able to make out anything in Jesus’ words which would indicate to us that He was following the revealed will of God blindly but that He was going into Jerusalem with His eyes fully open to the implications of all that His death would achieve.
Therefore, such theories only undermine the authority of the Scriptures rather than uphold its truth. Jesus knew exactly what His death would achieve even before He was crucified by the soldiers or else why would He have asked the Father if there was some other way to achieve what was necessary in the Garden (Mtw 26:39)? Such a request makes it plain that knowledge of the reason for death is fully perceived otherwise there could be no thought of ‘another way’.
This entire concept of a ‘ransom’ is one that I’ve already dealt with in my notes on ‘Redemption’ as the word is an integral part of explaining what Jesus’ death achieved in the context of the first century concept of the word. The reader should turn here for a fuller explanation, which has extra examples from that ancient world than will be repeated in this section.
The Greek word for ‘ransom’ (Strongs Greek number 3083) is used only three times in the entire NT - the two parallel passages (Mtw 20:28, Mark 10:45) and I Tim 2:6 where a slightly different word is used (Strongs Greek number 487) but which means virtually the same thing. In the latter of these three, the concept of Jesus’ death being a ransom paid on behalf of others is also present where Paul writes concerning Jesus that He
‘...gave Himself as a ransom for all...’
A ‘ransom’ and ‘redemption’ weren’t religious words in the Greek society of the NT but normal, everyday words used to denote the buying back of a war captive as well as many other concepts. When an army was victorious over their enemy, they would take as many prisoners as possible for slaves, some of which would fetch a good price back in their own land but others, the nobles and lords of their enemies who weren’t suited to such menial tasks, were virtually worthless.
Therefore, the conquering army would place a price on these captives’ heads so that the conquered army would be able to ‘buy back’ their aristocracy from the hands of their enemies. The price paid was ‘the ransom’ and the whole procedure was known as ‘redemption’ and the use of the word naturally implied a payment.
Such concepts of buying, redeeming and ransoming are present in a fair few passages in the NT and used when the thought of what was achieved on the cross is being described (I Cor 6:20, 7:23, Gal 3:13, 4:5, Eph 1:17, Col 1:14, Titus 2:14, I Peter 1:18-19, II Peter 2:1) and we shouldn’t run away from the fact that it was one of the concepts in which the early Church thought of Jesus’ death as achieving their salvation.
However, such terminology throws up at least a couple of questions which need commenting on. Firstly, what was the price paid by Christ? In Ps 49:7-8, the psalmist wrote that
‘Truly no man can ransom himself or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly and can never suffice’
saying that every individual man is doomed for there’s nothing that a man can give to be able to ever redeem or buy back his soul from inevitable death and the judgment which follows. But, with prophetic insight, the psalmist also declares just a few verses later (Ps 49:15 Pp I Cor 15:54-57) that
‘...God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol...’
Therefore, although the idea of self-redemption was seen to be impossible in the OT, that God would do something was viewed with equal certainty. Jesus achieved this redemption, then, by His blood (Acts 20:28, I Peter 1:18-19, Eph 1:17, Rev 5:9), His life (Mtw 20:28), His death (Heb 9:15) and Himself (Titus 2:14, I Tim 2:6).
If we combine all these statements together and compare them with Lev 17:11, it can be seen that each of the Scriptures is one separate way of saying the same thing - namely, that the price of a man’s redemption, the ransom that was paid for Him to go free, was Jesus Christ.
As I wrote on the previously cited web page
‘Blood’, ‘Death’ and ‘Life’ are the three words that are used to describe the sacrificial offering of Christ to God on the cross. ‘He shed His blood’, ‘He gave His life’ and ‘He died on our behalf’ are three phrases which are synonymous. If you lay down your life by the shedding of your blood, you die - in short, you give the sum total of who you are. They are so integrated in their meaning that we are virtually saying the same thing no matter which one of the three words that we choose to use’
Secondly, who was the ransom paid to? This question has troubled christians over the centuries, the early Church fathers from the second century onwards deciding that they had to come up with some recipient of the purchase price and, as satan was the enemy who was defeated, they tended to answer that the price was paid to satan himself. As Morris AT explains
‘Some of them worked out quite a theory of the way redemption works. They held that because of our sin, we were all destined to hell. Sinners belong to satan. In that situation God, in effect, offered to do a deal with satan. He would give His Son in exchange for sinners...The death of Jesus on the cross represented the handing of the Son over to satan. But when satan got Jesus down into hell, he found (in the modern elegant idiom) that he had bitten off more than he could chew. On the third day Christ rose triumphant...’
That such a belief was possible in the established Church may now amuse us - but we seem to hold on to such a view whenever we see Jesus’ death in terms of satan getting his will done. The last thing satan wanted Jesus to do was to die without sinning because then there would be a man who had perfectly obeyed God throughout His life and, if that was the case, the authority over man which he’d usurped in the Garden of Eden would be defeated and handed back into the hands of mankind (see my notes here under Part Two, Section Three). When Jesus breathed His last on the cross, satan was defeated - not three days’ later.
Besides, such theories mean that God the Father must have deceived satan for He knew full well that the bargain struck wasn’t going to be kept to - but that seems to only have caused the established Church to rejoice all the more at God’s cunning and deception at getting one over on His enemy.
We should reject such beliefs, however, simply because the Bible doesn’t tell us about who the ransom was paid to. As I noted on the previously cited Redemption web page
‘...while the Bible makes use of redemption imagery to explain one aspect of the accomplishment of the cross, it makes no mention as to whom payment was made. ‘The ransom was paid’ is all that the Scriptures tell us and, indeed, that is all that can be said - to go further is to stray into speculation that will draw us into error’
Simply, then, the price was paid that was needed before mankind could go free.
2. For many
I noted at the very beginning of this section that the only place where the Greek word for ‘ransom’ occurs outside of the parallel passage was in I Tim 2:6 and that it was recorded there (my italics) that Jesus
‘...gave Himself as a ransom for all...’
whereas, in Mtw 10:28, the author records Jesus’ words as ‘for many’ (Matfran observes that in the Qumran documents and in some Rabbinic writings, the phrase ‘the many’ is taken to refer to the community of believers rather than as a general term meaning a fair few people. This may be its meaning here even though the Greek article for ‘the’ isn’t used but, either way, it means less than ‘all men’). Clearly, these two phrases seem to conjure up in our minds two different doctrines - on the one hand, that Jesus’ death was selective in its accomplishment and, on the other, that it was all inclusive.
Here, I shall answer the problem questions which are often raised with a minimum of explanation but by reference to Scripture so that the reader can read the statements for themselves. I have only quoted a minimum of words so a direct reference to the context of the Scripture is better than relying upon my part-quotes.
a. Does Mtw 20:28 teach that Jesus only gave His life as a ransom for those that will be saved?
No. Christ paid for the sin (rebellion) and the sins (actions resulting from the rebellion) of all men on the cross. All the world’s sins and rebellion have been paid for by the death of Jesus Christ.
John 1:29 - Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world
I John 3:5 - He appeared in order to take away sins
I John 2:2 - He...is the propitiation...for [the sins of] the world
John 4:42 - The Saviour of the world
I John 4:14 - The Saviour of the world
I Tim 4:10 - The Saviour of all men
b. If the price is paid for all, will all be saved?
No. Men must individually lay hold of the provision of the cross to be saved from the wrath of God. Although the price is paid for all men, not all men will be saved - only those who avail themselves of the provision of the cross and who continue in the new path of life that an acknowledgement of the work of Jesus on the cross brings. God does not go against a man’s will in this matter.
Mtw 1:21 - He will save His people from their sins
Acts 5:31 - [He will] grant repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (that is, it is granted but repentance is still a matter of individual freewill)
I Tim 4:10 - The Saviour or all men especially of believers (because it is they who have put their faith in the substitutionary death)
Mtw 20:28 - To give His life as a ransom for many (that is, those who have faith in the ransom are ransomed - not those who have not)
Acts 2:21, Rom 10:13 - Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved
Acts 2:47 - Those who were being saved (people can’t be saved if they already are)
Acts 16:30-31 - Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved
Rom 10:9 - Confess with your lips, believe in your heart and you will be saved
I Cor 15:1-2 - Receiving the Gospel...by which you are saved if you hold it fast
Eph 2:8 - By grace you have been saved through faith
c. If only some will be saved, why did Jesus pay the price for all?
It’s God’s will that all men be saved, so provision must be made for all men.
I Tim 2:4 - God...desires all men to be saved
II Peter 3:9 - God does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance
Ezek 18:23,32 - Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked?...Rather that he should turn from his ways and live...repent and live
d. If it’s God’s will that all men be saved, what is being done about it?
The opportunity for salvation is being actively brought to all men.
Mtw 28:19 - Go...and make disciples of all nations
Luke 24:47 - Forgiveness of sins proclaimed...to all nations
Titus 2:11 - The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men
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