NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 24: When the other ten disciples heard this, they became very angry with the two brothers.
Even though these ten were close followers of Jesus, we should not be surprised by their reaction. This was supposed to be teamwork where everyone did their job so that the whole group could succeed. Now they find out that two brothers wanted special privileges. Since these two were James and John the sons of Zebedee and friends of Peter, certainly he was among those who felt the most violated. And knowing Peter as we do, there would be no reason to doubt that he was the loudest and angriest in the group who confronted these young men.
One early church writer had this to say: “Just as the two [carnally-minded disciples] sought privilege, so also the ten [carnally-minded disciples] were upset by the lack of it. For just as the two, if they had understood spiritually, would not have requested that they be put above the others, so also the ten, if they had understood spiritually that some are before them, would not have been upset. For to wish to be above all is indeed blameworthy, yet to hold up another above oneself is truly glorious. For if the apostles had not erred like this, where might they have learned that not everything that seems good to desire is good because it is deceptive? Some might argue that it is bad to desire, bad, just as greed and theft are bad. Now we know indeed that to desire a good work is good. But to covet the first place of honor is vanity. Now we are better able to distinguish between the benefit of a good work and seeking the first place of honor. For to fulfill a good work is of our will and of our work and labor, on which account the reward is ours. But to pursue the first place intrudes upon the judgment of God. I do not know if we deserve to attain any reward of justice from the first place of honor if we seek it out for ourselves.”1
Verse 25-26a: So Jesus called His followers together. He said, “You know that the rulers of the non-Jews love to demonstrate their power over the people. And their important leaders love to use all their authority over the people. But it should not be that way with you.”
Not only did Jesus appear to anticipate this manipulation for superiority by telling about the hiring of the workers and how they all received the same pay, but it is also obvious that James and John, along with their mother, did not think it applied to them. So Jesus did what any leader would do, He called a meeting so that this could be sorted out. He does not address the spat that occurred, but He zeros in on the source, and uses an example from non-Jews to make His point. Our Lord shows His superior intelligence in doing so, because if there were any people His Jewish followers did not want to be like, it was the non-Jews.
Chrysostom shares the following in a sermon on this text: “And now Jesus corrects them, in a different way than before. Whereas before He brought little children into their midst and called them to imitate their simplicity and lowliness, now He admonishes them in a sharper way from the opposite direction. Loving to be in first place is not fitting for us, even though it may so be among the Gentiles. Such a passion becomes a tyrant. It continually hinders even great men. So it needs to be treated more severely.”2 There is nothing wrong with a gifted, talented, trained person willing to be a leader. But it must be a desire to give to the group, not to get from the group; a willingness to lead from in front, not dictate from behind.
Chrysostom then goes on to say: “Note how hard the Lord punches them by comparing them with the heathen, shaming their unhealthy soul. At the same time, He removes the envy of the one and the arrogance of the other. In effect, He is saying, ‘When you, the ten, are insulted, do not be moved with such indignation. For James and John harm and disgrace themselves most by seeking the first place. That puts them among the last. For distinction within this community is not like status in the world. For the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over others, but here the very last is counted first. And if you want proof that I speak truly, look at what I am doing. Look at what I do and suffer. Let the proof of my teaching be my life. For I have done what I commend.’ For being King of the powers above, He was willing to become man and submitted Himself to be despised and despitefully treated. And not even with this lowliness was He satisfied, but He even came to die.”3
Verse 26b-27: “Whoever wants to be great must be willing to serve. Whoever wants to be a leader must first serve willingly.”
Jesus touches on a similar theme here to what we’ve found before, and that of the first being last and the last being first. However, this time, He emphasizes position rather than priority. As one early church writer put it: “With regard to this point, we were made in the image of Christ so that we might become imitators of His will and conduct. How were we created to resemble the likeness of His greatness? He indeed was able to imitate our flesh, yet we are not able to imitate His divinity. But we are being made in His image so that what seems good to Him may also be good to us, and what seems bad to Him may also be bad to us. Whoever pursues boasting, while the Lord pursues humility, is not the image of Christ. And he who is a lover of riches in this age, while the Lord is a lover of being thrifty, repels from himself the likeness of Christ. He is not a true disciple who does not imitate his teacher; nor is it a true image which is not like its creator.”4
Chrysostom notes this in his sermon: “It is as if He were saying, ‘I willed not even to stop at death but even in death gave My life as a ransom. For whom? For enemies. For you. If you are abused, My life is given for you. It is for you. Me for you.’ So you need not be too picky if you suffer the loss of your honor. No matter how much it is lowered, you will not be descending as far as your Lord descended. And yet the deep descent of One has become the ascent of all. His glory shines forth from these very depths. For before He was made man, He was known among the angels only. But after He was made man and was crucified, so far from lessening that glory, He acquired further glory besides, even that from His personal knowledge of the world.”5 So in short, this great preacher was telling his listeners: You can’t out do the Lord when it comes to lowering oneself in order to lift others up.
Verse 28: “Do as I did: The Son of man did not come for people to serve Him. He came to serve others and to give His life to save many people.”
He crowns what He has been saying with a sentiment that should become the motto of every minister and teacher of the Gospel. Just like Jesus, we have come to serve, not to be served. Contrary to conventional thinking, the disciples were not a saintly group who had no differences of opinion. Here we have a revealing incident that shows how they felt about James and John wanting the choice seats when Jesus came into His kingdom and ascended to the throne. I have to believe that they still did not understand that after Jesus rose from the grave, that death would no longer be able to touch Him and therefore He would be able to send them out to spread the good news of His kingdom, starting there in Jerusalem.
Solomon had it right when he said, “Through discourtesy, strife is produced, But wisdom is given to those who receive counsel.”6 That’s why our Lord took this occasion to counsel them on attitude and ethics. He pointed out how the non-Jews governed their people. A good example is what happened in Babylon while Daniel was there. We read: “Because of this the king became indignant and very furious and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon. So the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain, and they looked for Daniel and his friends to kill them.”7
Jesus wanted His followers to know that the way these people lorded it over others was not the way He wanted leaders in His kingdom to be in charge. And what better person could He point to but Himself. This was our Lord’s motto and He certainly practiced what He preached. What a wonderful banner to appear above every minister’s credentials and office door, “I am not here to be served, but to serve.” No one can read Isaiah 53:1-12 without knowing that our Lord was certainly fulfilling the prophecy made about the true Messiah. What better example could His disciples ask for? And what better model could we have than Jesus? None! These instructions are for those who truly want to be more like Jesus.
However, one Jewish polemic writer questioned our Lord’s statement about willingly giving His life as a ransom for others. He writes: “Afterwards, however, he said, ‘Take away this cup from me,’ and so he changed his mind.”8 What this German critic fails to notice is that Jesus’ prayer was to show the Father that He was going to suffer by choice unless the Father changed His mind. It was another way of Jesus say, “Father, I know Your will for me and I plan to follow through. So the only one who can change it is You.” What a wonderful example for all of us to use as a prayer to start each day of our lives. We want to live it for His honor, not ours.
The early church preacher Chrysostom has this to say: “Fear not then, as though your honor were put down. Rather, be ready to humble yourself. For in this way your glory is exalted even more, and in this way, it becomes greater. This is the door of the kingdom. Let us not then go the opposite way. Let us not war against ourselves. For if we desire to appear great, we shall not be great but even the most dishonored of all. Do you see how everywhere Jesus encourages them by turning things upside down? He gives them what they desire but in ways they did not expect. He acted this way in the cases of the covetous and of the proud. So you can see why He asks whether we are giving our donations to be seen by others. To enjoy glory? Do not do this for glory, and you will enjoy it more. Why do you lay up treasures? To be rich? Try laying up no treasures, and then you will be rich. And in this case, why do you set your heart on sitting in the first place? That you may have the honor before others? Try choosing the last place; then you will enjoy the first. That is how things work in the kingdom. If it is your will to become great, then do not seek greatness and you will become great.”9
So, it is clear that greatness and prestige are not what a person puts on themselves but what is bestowed upon them by others. And there is nothing more honorable and respectful than what God gives to a person by which they can praise and glorify Him. That is what the main point and purpose are, to take whatever favor God lays upon our heads to be His tools and vessels in order to carry out His will and purpose for our lives. As the apostle Paul stated so emphatically: “Everything you say and everything you do should be done for Jesus your Lord. And in all you do, give thanks to God the Father through Jesus.”10
1 Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (pp. 116–117). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
2 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 65.4
4 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 35
5 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily, 65.4
6 Proverbs 13:10
7 Daniel 2:12-13
8 Naẓẓaḥon Vetus, op. cit. loc. cit..  p. 181
9 Chrysostom, ibid.
10 Colossians 3:17