Jesus and the disciples and a seemingly large crowd of people have been travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover. Throughout the trip (starting in chapter 17) to this point in chapter 20, having just crossed back to the west side of the Jordan, Jesus has been teaching about the way in which kingdom citizens are to treat each other. They are not to disregard the less fortunate; they are not to seek greatness; they are to imitate the shepherd who pursues the wayward sheep; they are to forgive; in their relationships, especially the greatest of relationships—marriage, they are to give of themselves, and they are not to expect from God higher status because of some perceived greater service. In other words, Jesus has been hammering home the concept that they, as kingdom heirs, are equal in the sight of God and should be equal in their sight.
It seems strange, then, at just this point, that the mother of James and John comes to Jesus and requests in verses 20 and 21 that Jesus set her sons up as second in command—captains over the others—only a step away from his own throne. Anyone reading this passage must surely be surprised at her audacity in the face of Christ’s teaching. But there is a little background we should know.
In each gospel the narrative of the scene at the cross includes a comment that certain women were there watching. Luke doesn’t name them, but the other three all provide some identification. Matthew notes in 27:55-56 that these women were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (who are, of course, James and John). So the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who asks for exalted places for her sons, is one of the women watching the crucifixion. Mark also identifies these three. Mark 15:40 tells us that the three were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. So, in Mark’s account, instead of calling her the mother of the sons of Zebedee as Matthew does, he provides her name—Salome. John’s comment is very interesting. John puts them in a different order and adds the fact that Jesus’ mother was also there. John names Mary Magdalene. John refers to Mary the mother of James and Joseph (or Joses) as the wife of Clopas. John mentions that Jesus’ mother was there. And John states that “his mother’s sister” was also there. The third person, whom we know from the other gospels to be Salome, the mother of James and John, is called by John the sister of Jesus’ mother. That means Salome was Jesus’ aunt. It also means that James and John, the disciples, were Jesus’ cousins.
Now we understand a little bit more of why Salome may have been so bold as to approach Christ with this request. She was his aunt. She was reminding him that James and John were not just some unrelated hangers-on; they were his family. Family should support family, right? So, she asks Jesus to watch out for them. Give them the positions of authority right under him.
We may have been a little surprised when we read that Salome made this request. But then, perhaps she had not heard all of Jesus’ teaching. But the next verse is even more surprising. In his answer, Jesus addresses the two disciples! They must have come to Jesus with their mother as she made her bold request. Were they not listening? Jesus has spent the whole trip telling them by example and parable that all kingdom heirs are on a level playing field. But now they ask to be given authority over others.
In his reply, Jesus makes it clear in no uncertain terms that that kind of position was not to be among his people. He says that the “rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” (20:25). These two descriptions of lording it over others and exercising authority are translated from the Greek words katakyrieuo, meaning to subdue or master, and katexousiazo, meaning to wield power or act in authority. These are two words never used in the New Testament to express how Christians, even those of position (such as bishops, overseers, elders), should act toward others of the body of believers. And in this passage Jesus affirms, “It shall not be so among you” (20:26). Clearly, this command sums up the teaching of the past three chapters.
It may leave questions in our minds, however, concerning other familiar passages in which rule or authority seems to be stated or implied for the activity of church leaders. But the word used most often in these familiar passages is the Greek word proistemi. Proistemi comes from two Greek words—pro, meaning before; and histemi, meaning stand, set, or establish. So, by simply taking those roots, we may understand the King James translators at times inserting the words “rule” and “authority” to present the idea. But appropriate translations must be faithful not only to the immediate context but also to the principles established in clear passages such as Matthew 20:25-26. So, let’s look at the use of prostemi in several passages.
In Romans 12:8, Paul mentions prostemi as a gift of grace. The KJV translation as “he that ruleth” doesn’t quite fit the concept of gift of grace along the same lines as the others (prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, and showing mercy) unless the ruling is in the nature of managing or organization. And in fact, most modern translations render this word “leads” which seems to fit the context better.
Titus has a couple of references with the word. In Titus 3:8 believers are urged to “maintain” (KJV) or “devote themselves to” (ESV) good works. Again in Titus 3:14 the same phrase about good works is given with the same translations. Both these translations convey the sense of management rather than rulership.
The 1 Timothy pastor and deacon qualifications use the word prostemi. In verses 4, 5, and 12 the KJV translates it ruleth, rule, and ruling. But most modern translations, including the ESV, translate it manage, manage, and managing, which is in step with our understanding from both Romans and Titus.
The bottom line is that Paul is not going to urge pastors to rule in direct opposition to Christ’s command. Christ said that the Gentiles may lord it over and exercise authority over others, but “it shall not be so among you” (20:26). Recognizing the implication of management in all these instances removes the conflict and also fits the context.
The last word we must consider is hegeomoi. This word means to go before or to consider or to lead. It is used in Hebrews 13:7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” The leaders here are those who established the New Covenant or whose relationship with God even in the old covenant demonstrated New Covenant principles. But these are not rulers. These are those who have led in exemplifying right relationship with God. Nothing here is said about rule and authority.
Finally we reach Hebrews 13:17. “Obey your leaders and submit to them for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
This verse says much, but not, I fear, in the way it is commonly understood. First, the word “obey” is translated from peitho, a word that means be persuaded. So we are to be persuaded by our leaders. Second, the word submit of course carries with it connotations of submitting to one who has the right to rule, authority, or mastery. But before we settle on that, go back to Matthew 20:26—“It shall not be so among you.” Don’t ignore Christ’s command.
To submit to someone does not mean the one to whom you submit has authority over you. For example in Ephesians 5:21 tells us that we should all submit to each other. It is an act of humility, of deference, and of respect. So how are we to interpret this verse? A pastor/elder has a position in which devotion to God is the job requirement. “But we [the disciples] will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). We may debate opinions. We may ignore our friend’s opinion. But the Bible tells us that an elder is devoted to God and to study and to preaching precisely for the benefit of those who do not have other jobs and who do not have the same time to dig out the wisdom of the Word. Certainly we are not to blindly accept the word of an elder (just as the Bereans did not – Acts 17:11). But we are to submit ourselves in that we consider carefully the teaching of these who have devoted themselves to God. Sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes we must reject what they say. But as ministers devoted to God, we need to carefully regard and reflect on the results of their study and meditation.
But again, this is not rulership and authority causing you to act or think something against your will. Don’t rise up in spurning anger or callously ignore the teaching of church leaders. Put yourself in the mindset to be persuaded by considering and examining their study.
Back to Matthew now. This section closes with an incident involving two blind men just outside Jericho. Jesus and the others are almost to Jerusalem. They have heard him preach the entire way against disregard for others of the kingdom. As they go along, these two blind men call out for mercy to the Son of David. Perhaps they call him Son of David referring merely to their common ethnicity. But Son of David is also the title of the Messiah, and that could well have been their intent.
The crowds, who are engrossed in Jesus’ teaching and follow him to hear more, turn to the blind men and rebuke them. How easy it is to be accept a teaching yet fail to put it in practice. The crowd wanted to hear Christ talk of loving your fellow kingdom heir, but were unkind to these men so that they could hear the message.
Jesus stopped, and in pity healed them, and they followed him. Imitate Christ. Do not be so filled with self that your love is extended only in order to benefit yourself. We of God’s kingdom are not superior to anyone else. God made us in his image to reflect him.
Chapter 21 begins a new section—the final section. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem he tells his disciples to go into town and bring back a donkey and a colt. Jesus has in mind the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which states that the Messiah will come in on a colt, the foal of a donkey. The other gospels mention only the colt. And Jesus certainly couldn’t ride on both at the same time. But I believe that both were brought because Jesus wanted people not only to see him riding in, but also to notice that this was a colt—that this was the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9—that Jesus was now declaring himself to be the Messiah. With the colt’s mother alongside, the connection was easier.
The people call out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (21:9). They certainly used this title to present him as the Messiah. But Jewish ideas of a messiah were entwined with bringing salvation to their nation from their earthly enemies—in this case, Rome. But still, they were right to call him Messiah; they just didn’t realize all that that meant. And Jesus accepted their praise precisely because the time was right. Earlier he had avoided confrontation and told those healed and his own disciples not to tell who he was. But now Jesus knows his hour has come. He deliberately enters Jerusalem as Messiah so that the Jewish leaders would be enraged and the timetable would hasten on.
Jesus goes straight to the temple and begins overturning tables and casting out the money-changers and animals for sale. Was this an angry, non-thinking act? Well, I’ve no doubt he was angry. His words show the outrage. But the act was deliberate. Remember, Jesus came every year to the temple from the time he was a child. Every year—last year, the year before, the year before that—he saw the money-changers. Every year he knew that what was happening was wrong. But it was this year—precisely at the time when he knew he was coming to end the old covenant requirements with his own sinless life and sacrificial death—that he chooses to clean out the temple. It was a symbolical act. So too was the act of healing that we read in the next verse. The healing represented the New Covenant that came in to replace the old. That healing symbolically stood for the reconciliation with God that he was to effect.
Predictably (and as Jesus had expected), the chief priests and scribes confront him, asking whether he hears (meaning, whether he condones) what the crowds are saying—calling him Messiah. Jesus answers, “Yes!” That is a declaration. Now not only the crowds, but he himself is saying that he is the Messiah. The chief priests and scribes must be utterly aghast—although not as much as they would be later when he declared himself God. Remember, there was confusion at the time and the Jews did not realize that their Messiah would be God himself.
With the declaration made, the day’s work was done. Jesus left the city to stay in Bethany. The chief priests, no doubt, went to discuss how to end this.