These small group studies of Matthew contain outlines, cross-references, Bible study discussion questions, verse by verse commentary, and applications.  Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.

Matthew 20:17-35 Inductive Bible Study – Discussion Questions and Verse by Verse Commentary

Matthew 20:17-35

  1. James and John’s Mother Asks Jesus for a Favor

These notes are from the  parallel passage in Mark 10 found here: Mark 10:28-45

Discussion Questions

What did James and John originally say to Jesus? Did He agree to do it? What did He first find out? Why did He not just agree? What lesson can we learn from this?
What did they ask? Why do you think they wanted to sit on each side? What was their core motivation?
What did it mean to drink the cup which He drank and be baptized with the baptism with which He would be baptized?
Did Jesus agree?
Why were the others upset?
What lesson did Jesus teach them during this teachable moment? Is this a new lesson for them? Why did He have to keep discussing it again and again?


Philippians 2:5-7 – Follow Jesus’ example of service.

Ephesians 5:21 – Submitting to one another…

Ephesians 6:7 – Rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men.

1 Peter 4:11 – Serve by the strength which God supplies.

Verse by Verse Commentary

  1. James’ and John’s request – If you needed any evidence that the disciples didn’t yet get what Jesus was talking about, here it is. The warnings about Jesus’ sufferings went in one ear and out the other. It seems James and John thought Jesus was going to Jerusalem to take His throne and not to die. James and John made quite a big request of Jesus. They first said “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask you.” Wow! Basically, “Grant us one wish and promise to do it before we even tell you what the wise is!” While they were misguided, they certainly didn’t lack confidence.
  • What do you want…? – Jesus didn’t make the mistake of agreeing without hearing first the specific favor they were asking. Remember Herod promising Herodias’ daughter to give her anything up to half the kingdom? Rash promises like that come back to bite you. Jesus’ gives us a good blueprint to avoid getting ourselves into similar dilemmas. It’s simple. Ask before agreeing. Get the facts. Do not agree to favors for people without knowing clearly what is involved. If someone asks you to check a paper for them, first see how long it is and how difficult it will be. If someone asks you for an unnamed favor, get them to name it first. If someone asks you to help them with a project, find out what the project is and how long it will take. The list goes on and on. In addition, to protecting ourselves from rash promises, this can help us manage our time well. One of the core problems most people with poor time management have is that they say “yes” to too many things and regret it later on. Feel free to say, “no.” If you need to think about it, tell them so. Do not say “yes” just so that someone won’t be disappointed. We are responsible to God for how we use our time, not the person asking the favor. I am not proposing being self-centered and unwilling to help, but rather being clear about the facts and not agreeing things which God wouldn’t have us to do just to satisfy people. Acts 5:29, Galatians 1:10.
  • Grant that we may sit, one on your right and one on Your left – James and John were certainly confident. It seems that they thought Jesus’ was going to Jerusalem to set up His kingdom. Whatever Jesus’ kingdom was and whenever He set it up, they wanted to be front and center. They were asking Jesus’ for the places of honor sitting on “little thrones” on each side of Him. Was it good that they asked this? There are some positives to take from it.
    • They were willing to identify with Christ – They weren’t secret disciples or following him in the dark. They were willing for everyone to see it.
    • They cast their lot with Christ no matter what would happen –
    • They weren’t afraid to make big requests of Christ – This was a big request. They were confident enough in their relationship to Jesus and in His power to ask it.
    • They were straightforward and clear – They weren’t trying to be manipulative. They didn’t try to trick Jesus into granting their request. They just came straight out and asked him. When you want to ask for something, this is the way to do it. Don’t beat around the bush and hint. Just say it.

But there were also some negatives from it:

  • It seems that they are motivated by physical recognition.
  • They want to have some power or authority.
  • They hadn’t listened well to Jesus when He said that He was going to Jerusalem to suffer (not to start His kingdom like they thought.)
  • As Jesus often does, He first replies by asking them a question back. See verse 38. This question basically means, “Are you willing to follow me to the end? No matter what the cost?” This was what Jesus required of His disciples. He didn’t promise material benefits. He didn’t promise prosperity or power. What He offered was the living water, the bread of life, the way to the Father. And He wanted faithful, committed followers who would follow Him to the end. In fact, this is what it would cost. Jesus knew the persecutions these disciples would face and wanted them to be ready.
  • We are able – James and John might not have realized at the time exactly what this decision would cost them. Nonetheless, it is still admirable that they publicly declared their willingness to follow after Christ to the end no matter what it cost them (and Jesus had just told them what He would suffer so they should have had at least some idea of it.) Are you able? Are you willing? Are you willing to face pressure from parents to stop going to Christian activities? Are you willing to face public ridicule for rejecting the world’s model of child education? Are you willing to offend family members by refusing to bow to idols or worship ancestors? Are you willing to resist attempts from family members to set you up for marriage with an unbelieving partner? Are you willing to change jobs if your job demands so much of your time and energy that you have no time left for serving God? Are you willing to take a stand for Christ when the world hates everyone associated with Him and beats, imprisons, or kills believers?
  • You shall… – They answered they were able to suffer like Jesus and He told them that they shall. We know that James was martyred (Acts 12:2) and John suffered exile (Revelation 1:9). Seeing the persecution in Acts it is likely John suffered more persecution than this as well. Here is another clear passage which refutes the prosperity gospel. Jesus promised His most faithful disciples that they would suffer like Him. And they did. Jesus wasn’t tricking them or misleading them. He was very upfront about the cost of following Him. We saw this also in Mark 10:30. If you are sharing the gospel like a salesman they may call this a hard sell. Who would sign up for this? The good news is that Jesus made another promise in 10:30, eternal life. And that hope makes all the suffering in the world worth it.
  • To sit on My right or left, this is not Mine to give – As to their request, Jesus did not grant it. He doesn’t emphatically say “no,” but it appears that the answer is no. And here there is an important lesson. God does not always say “yes” to our prayers. If we go into our Christian life expecting God will also say “yes” to our prayers we will be very disappointed and start to question God and our faith in Him. The problem is that if you have faith that God will always say “yes,” (and many charismatics believe that if you just have enough faith God will always say “yes”) your faith is not based on biblical reality. This kind of faith is a fantasy. If you have a relative who is sick and you believe very hard and pray very hard, will God heal your relative? If it is His will, then He will. But you can’t make God do it and neither can we understand His reasons why He may say no. Maybe that relative is a believer and God wants to take them home to be with Him and away from their pain sooner. Or maybe that is an unbeliever who would never believe in Him, but their death with be used by God to touch someone else with the gospel. We just don’t know. Real faith is not that God will do what we want Him to do. What is real faith? Real faith is that God will do what is best. Real faith is trusting that His answer, even if it is no, is for the best. Real faith is trusting that God has a reason for allowing suffering. Real faith chooses to believe even without complete understanding.
  • It is not mine to give – The implication is that the Father would decide. Here is another example that within the Trinity Jesus submits Himself to the Father’s authority.
  • The ten began to feel indignant with James and John – It seemed that the other ten wanted the recognition and status that John and James were asking for. They were probably partially upset with James and John and partially upset with themselves that they didn’t think of it to ask first. It seems that all of Jesus’ teaching on humility and letting others go first hadn’t taken hold yet. They still desired to be the greatest, to the be the top disciple. We could judge them for this. Yes, it was a wrong attitude. Or we could learn from them. This attitude is human nature. As humans we like to get the glory. Even the best and most faithful disciples of Jesus sometimes fall into this trap. How about you? Do you hope others will see you when you serve God? Do you serve so that they will see you? Do you like the roles that are more public? What should motivate us to serve? We should serve out of a desire to serve and glorify God, nothing else.
  • The Gentiles lord it over them – Worldly leadership is about commanding others what to do. The one who gives instructions loudest and fastest is the best. You even make those under you know it by treating them like inferiors.
  • But it is not this way among you – This model of up-down, “I’m in charge, you WILL listen to me“is completely wrong. Ephesians 5:21 shows us that we need to practice mutual submission. God wants His people who are leaders to lead by example, to lead by serving, to put others first, and to do it with no desire for personal credit. Greatness is not making others feel small to build ourselves up. Greatness is building up and helping others. Do you want to be great? What does Jesus tell us is the secret to greatness? This seems to be the recipe for a bestseller. Write a book titled, “Become great in one simple step.” Inside simply write “Serve.” That is all there is to it. It’s a simple step, but notice I didn’t see it was an easy step. It is counter-intuitive. It is completely the opposite of our human nature.
  • Jesus is our example – Jesus’ words were not empty ones. He is the perfect example of this philosophy to life. See Philippians 2. Jesus is God. In fact, He had the right to demand that others serve Him. He had the right to make others feel inferior. He had the right to say “I am more important than you. Stop wasting my time.” He had the right to stay in heaven forever and leave us to deal with (or not deal with since we can’t) the problem of sin on our own. But He didn’t do that. He gave His life to serve us. He served us in life. And He served us in death. Think back to what we have read in Mark so far. In what ways did Jesus serve people? How did He inconvenience Himself to serve? What are some things He did for others out of the public eye?
  • Application: What specifically will you do to apply what we have learned today?