Summary: Jesus outlines to His disciples just what it takes to become a leader and to hold a high position in a church.
Matthew 20:20 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."
Apparently this teaching falls right on the heels of the parable of the vineyard and sadly we can see that the disciples missed the point of that parable entirely.
What was behind the mother of James and John coming to Jesus with this request is unknown. Was she put up to it by her sons? Was it just a mother’s desire to see her sons sitting in a high position? We just don’t know. This much we do know though; this was a very bold favor to ask of the Lord—especially in light of the fact that Jesus name for these two was “The sons of thunder.” See this: Mark 3:17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder) because of their fiery tempers. These were the guys who wanted to call fire down from heaven upon a Samaritan village that was not friendly toward Jesus. See Luke 9:54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?"
So in light of the question and the temperament of the two sons (James and John the sons of Zebedee) at that time Jesus answered their question with a statement and then a question of His own.
Matthew 20:22 "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.
First of all He said that they had no idea of the scope of what they were asking. It was pretty cheeky to ask to be placed in the number 2 and 3 positions in the entire kingdom of God. They must not have had a clue—or was that their exact point. Maybe they wanted all that glory that would go with those positions. Perhaps that is why Jesus asked them an additional question.
“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
We cannot say they didn’t have a clue about the cup He was about to drink because He just got through telling them in verses 17-19 in this chapter. He had already told them what would happen when He got to Jerusalem and how He would be flogged and crucified and resurrected. Once again we see that cocky attitude as they dare to tell Him that they can indeed drink the cup that He will soon drink as they tell Him “We can.”
They get a reply that they will likely remember well on their dying day.
(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."
Jesus tells them straight out that they will indeed drink from the same cup. This means they will indeed go through intense suffering and die for His cause. We know that James was put to death by King Herod. See this:
Acts 12:1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. (2) He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. We are not sure exactly how John died but tradition says that at one point he survived being boiled in oil. If this is true then they both suffered greatly and indeed did drink from the same cup as Jesus. (We must keep in mind that the only Apostle that we have absolute proof about how he died is James the son of Zebedee. All the rest that we think we know is based upon tradition and not scripture.)
Matthew 20:23b 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."
As He continues to answer the request by the mother of James and John Jesus now reveals that in the final say it will be God the Father that decides who will occupy those places on the right and left of Jesus in the kingdom of God. If I were to speculate (and I am speculating here) I would think that those positions would go to the foremost person in the Old Covenant, Moses and the strongest supporter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the New Covenant-and in my opinion that would be the Apostle Paul. Remember Jesus has already told the twelve disciples that it would be their jobs in the kingdom to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. As I say this is mere speculation on my part; it is merely a guess. I hope no one takes it out of context. Anyone can guess as to who would sit on Jesus right or left, what is your guess?