Matthew 20:17-28: Suffering Then, Suffering Now, God Deals With Our Sin

David Burchard Exposition Leave a Comment

Are you a sinner? Jesus has good news for you this morning. He deals with sin. He does so by his own suffering. He does so by sending you your own suffering.

Please open your Bibles to this morning’s passage, Matthew 20:17-28. That’s on page 889 in the black Bibles.

Verse 17 begins, “While going up to Jerusalem…”

Jesus and his disciples are traveling to Jerusalem. They’ve been on the east side of the Jordan River. By now, they’ve probably crossed it and are coming up on Jericho, a city only about 15 miles outside of Jerusalem.

Why is Jesus leading his disciples to Jerusalem?

The public reason is that, as Jews, they’re going up for the Passover.

What’s the Passover?

Every year, at the Passover, the Jews celebrated God rescuing them from Egypt.

When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God’s grim reaper came through the land and killed the firstborn of every family. This was just a taste of God’s good judgment against sin.

This God of justice is also merciful and gracious. So, he provided a substitute for his people.

God commanded each Israelite family to slaughter a lamb and cover the door frames and lintels of their homes. When the angel of death saw the blood of the lamb covering the home, he would pass over it. The lamb was slain in their place, its blood accepted as payment instead of the blood of the firstborn.

God saved his people through his judgment by providing substitute lambs.

The Passover is the annual celebration of God’s great, former work of salvation. Jesus and his followers are going to celebrate.

But here in Matthew 20:17-28, we learn that Jesus is going to Jerusalem for a bigger reason.

We’ll look at this passage in four sections.

First, in verses 17-19, Jesus tells the disciples exactly what’s going to happen when they go to Jerusalem.

He announces God’s greatest work of salvation, greater than what he did Egypt, a work that the Passover has expectantly looked forward to for generations.

In the second and third sections, verses 20-23 and verses 24-28, Jesus deals with the pride of his disciples.

And in the fourth and final section, just the last part of verse 28, Jesus points back to the work of salvation he announced in verses 17-19 and explains it.

A. Salvation Announced.

B. Sin Exposed and Corrected.

B1. Sin Exposed and Corrected.

A1. Salvation Explained.

Let’s look at the first section, the announcement of the work of salvation.

Jesus took the twelve disciples aside privately and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death. 19 They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked, flogged, and crucified, and on the third day he will be raised.”

This announcement begins with the truth that Jesus is the Son of Man. He’s the Messiah promised in Daniel 7.

He’s the King of God’s people who will rule everywhere for all time.

The Jews were waiting for this Messiah, their King to save and rule them. But their expectation was for the Son of Man to appear and go to his throne. Period. The expected road for the King was straight from start right to glory.

But that isn’t what’s promised in the Bible. It’s what was expected because the Jews had become proud and faithless. And, so, they were blind to what is plain to see.

If they had eyes to see, they’d notice a detail in Daniel 7.

13“I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man WAS COMING,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.

What did they miss?

The Son of Man “was coming”. The scene in Daniel 7 is of the Messiah’s crowning. It’s when he sits on the throne in heaven.

The question is: where was he coming from? The answer to that question is the key to understanding Christ’s work of salvation.

The road Jesus walked wasn’t straight from start to crown. From start, he went to the cross, then took the crown.

Everyone in Israel should’ve been expecting this. It’s the clear promise of the Old Testament.

Two chapters after Daniel 7 comes Daniel 9, where we read this:

26the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing

The Messiah will be cut off and have nothing. He will be cut off from the land of the living.

So, where was the Son of Man coming from in Daniel 7?

He was coming from earth, having risen from the land of the dead…

having died on the cross and been buried in the tomb… having been condemned in multiple false trials…

having been arrested in the garden…

having been betrayed by Judas…

having known it would happen exactly as it did…

all according to the unbreakable plan of his Father.

This is what he tells his disciples.

We’re going to Jerusalem. I’m the Son of Man, your Royal Savior. I’ll be delivered to the very priests and scribes who ought to be worshipping me. They’ll condemn me to death. They’ll give me over to the Roman dogs. I’ll be mocked. I’ll be scourged. I’ll be crucified.

And I will rise.

Look at the knowledge of our Lord. He knew everything that was to happen in Jerusalem.

This knowledge, given him by the Spirit, shows us that he is our God, to be trusted and followed. The Greatest of the Prophets, and more than a prophet, the Word made flesh.

Worship Jesus.

Worshipping him, ask God to make you like him.

Look at his perfect faith and obedience and ask God to make you like Jesus. The perfect man, He knows the will of God, trusts His Father, and obediently goes to Jerusalem.

Look at his courage. He is the Greatest of Lionhearts. He knows that a few miles ahead lies the greatest suffering that any man has ever or will ever know. His face is set. His steps are sure.

May his courage be contagious. Set your eyes on Jesus. And ask God to make you courageous. Though our enemies and trials are many, Christians are to be like Christ. We are to have the courage of lions.

Look now at the second section, verses 20-23.

We move from salvation announced to sin exposed and corrected.

The sin exposed? Pride. And it belongs to James and John.

20Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons approached him with her sons. She knelt down to ask him for something.

Now, if you don’t know what’s coming, you may think is about to be perfectly innocent. Cute mother with a question, right?

Don’t fall for the trick, though. This isn’t innocent or cute. It’s ugly.

James and John are proud. They’re ignoring the coming suffering of their Master and are locked in on personal gain, like dogs looking at bacon.

Jesus has already rebuked them for arguing amongst the disciples about who is the greatest. But they haven’t used the rebuke as an opportunity to repent. Nope. They’ve just become creative cowards.

How? Two grown men have gotten their mama to ask Jesus that they get the best seats in the kingdom.

Men, this is failure. Let the failure of Zebedee’s sons be your gain in godliness. Do not lead the women in your life to sin. Don’t actively push them to sin, like these guys. Don’t passively sit back and let them go into it. God has given men the duty of headship. That means your manly duty under God is to guard your women. Guard their holiness.

James and John, far better men than anyone you’ve ever known, remind us of how easy it is to fail in our duty.

So, we see Mrs. Zebedee come to Jesus and bow before him. You can almost see her sons hovering in the shadow of her skirt.

Verse 21: “What do you want?”, he asked her.

“Promise,” she said to him, “that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right and the other on your left, in your kingdom.”

Her sons have heard Jesus promise the apostles that they’d sit on 12 thrones. They know well the prophecies that the Messiah will be the King of kings, incomparable in power.

They know all this is coming. And in their self-absorbed, arrogant ambition, they want the juiciest deal possible before the good stuff really kicks off.

22Jesus answered, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”

Jesus’ answer isn’t nice. But it is kind. He tells them that they’re clueless. “You do not know what you are asking.” And the question he asks shows us why they’re so ignorant.

Their ignorance is a result of their pride.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”

This question shows their guilt in failing to love Christ as they ought.

It contains a plain reminder of what he’s just finished saying. “I’m about to drink the cup of God’s wrath against all my people. I’m about to face the worst of afflictions. And instead of sober-mindedness and gratitude, you seek your own gain.”

Christian, every time you sin, you’re seeking personal gain without thought to the work of Christ on your behalf.

Christ’s question also shows that Zebedee’s sons think they can share in Christ’s crown without also sharing in his suffering.

James and John are blind to the fact that there is no crown without the cross. They rightly understand that there is great gain in following Christ.

All the treasures of earth are worth dog poop on the bottom of your trainers compared to the glories of Paradise that await all of Christ’s brethren.

They can see the gain. But they fail to see the cost of following Jesus.

They’re seeking to be glorified with Christ without also being crucified with Christ.

Again, their failure is a lesson for us, both in our evangelism and our discipleship.

In our evangelism, we can often act like Jesus needs us to be his salesmen, like he’s some pathetic politician and not the Most High God.

You know, let me present him in just the right way so that people will buy. Sales are down. We need to get our numbers up. That’ll help my insecurity. I want all my neighbors to think I’m clued in, not some religious nutter.

I’ll call it meeting folks where they’re at. I’ll just focus on the things I know they like.

“Listen man, you’ve made a mess of your life, but Jesus will sort it out. Come to Jesus and your problems will be solved.”

“Listen rich young ruler, come to Jesus and you’ll get eternal life.”

Let’s not mention that the call to come to Jesus is a call to come and die. Let’s not mention that Jesus demands repentance. Let’s not tell the lesbian that Jesus requires her to turn away from every bit of lesbianism. Let’s not tell the guy who’s been on the brew his whole life that Jesus requires him to get a job.

Let’s not tell the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions.

Christianity is not a religion with no cross, and we must not lie in evangelism as if it is.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for one method of evangelism. Verse 22 is after your motivations. It’s after your thinking. It’s after you not saying something BECAUSE you’re afraid of running someone off. It’s after you trying to say it better than God.

That’s our lesson for evangelism. What about our discipleship?

In following Jesus, how hard do we work to avoid the cost, to avoid suffering and criticism?

Christ’s road was through suffering to glory.

How hard are we trying to get around instead of going through the hard stuff?

We love crosses on our necks, but not on our backs. That’s just not comfortable.

Husbands, are you failing to manfully lead in your home, because it’s just easier to avoid conflict with your wife? Or you don’t want your daughter yelling at you?

Parents, are you disobeying God and not smacking your children because it isn’t pleasant for you or because you’re desperate for the approval of Social Work?

Dads and Moms, do you want your kids in government schools because it’s actually good for their training, or simply because it takes a burden off you?

Curriculum is being drafted right now to teach your 5-year olds that their gender is whatever they want it to be.

Policy is being made in Scotland to fit schools with unisex toilets.

Are you tolerating this wickedness because you want to avoid drinking from Christ’s cup of suffering?

As Christians, we must humble ourselves and take hold of the cup with resurrection confidence.

How angry do we get with God when he leads us through the Valley of the Shadow of death?

Suffering isn’t always brought on by our Christian saltiness. Sometimes our Father just sends it to us. He knows what we need and what’s good for us, even when it’s bitter to swallow.

This too is part of the cup of suffering from which we must stay hydrated.

How quickly do we grumble at God when life isn’t the way we want it to be?

How arrogantly do we assume to know best? “Of course things would be better if this changed!”

Are you widowed? Are you estranged from your dad? Are you sick? Are you facing suffering that has found you and just won’t leave?

Don’t grumble against your heavenly Father.

Take hold of Christ’s cup and drink deeply.

Suffering is what we must drink on our way to glory, for we must follow Jesus.

Don’t be surprised that God’s given you pain. Did you not vow to walk the road of suffering when you were baptized?

Listen to these words from an older preacher:

“Those who would stand with Christ in glory, must drink of His cup, and be baptized with His baptism…[Only those who carry the cross]…shall receive the crown…

We ask that our souls may be saved and go to heaven, when we die. It is a good request indeed.

But are we prepared to take up the cross, and follow Christ? Are we willing to give up the world for His sake? Are we ready to put off the old man, and put on the new—to fight, to labor, and to run so as to obtain? Are we ready to withstand a taunting world, and endure hardships for Christ’s sake? —What shall we say? If we are not so ready, our Lord might say to us also, ‘You know not what you ask.’

We ask that God would make us holy and good. It is a good request indeed.

But are we prepared to be sanctified by any process that God in His wisdom may call on us to pass through? Are we ready to be purified by affliction, weaned from the world [and] drawn nearer to God by losses, sicknesses, and sorrow?

These are hard questions. But if we aren’t, our Lord might well say to us, ‘You know not what you ask.”

Continuing in verse 22, we read:

“We are able,” they said to him.

23 He told them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right and left is not mine to give; instead, it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

Again, pride is exposed, as the brothers stupidly say, “We are able.”

But, at the same time, Jesus exposes God’s grace. In and of themselves, James and John are not able to drink the cup.

But praise be to our God, for he makes his children able.

Our ability is not our own, but from God, who makes us willing and able to drink. The suffering he sends, itself a gift to make us like Christ. And the strength he gives to endure and drink, a gift from him.

This exchange between Jesus and the brothers ends with a reminder of the sovereign grace of God. What a fitting answer to our proud, self-assured hearts. God is gracious. God is in control. And God alone establishes our place in heaven.

Now we come to the third section, verses 24-28. Again, sin exposed and corrected.

It’s still ugly pride, but this time it belongs not to James and John, but to the other 10 disciples.

When the ten disciples heard this, they became indignant with the two brothers.

They’re indignant because they’re proud and vain.

They’re not righteously angry at sin. They’re mad that James and John tried to snatch up what they themselves wanted.

Christian, you must know that your great enemy is pride. Give no room for it. When you find it in your heart, headbutt it, throat punch it, kill it. Don’t entertain it. Don’t cuddle it. Don’t nurse it.

There’s no room for our pride in the kingdom of God.

Pride exposed, Jesus corrects it.

25 Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. 26 It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”

Again, we see that our pride makes us ignorant. James and John were ignorant of the cup from which they needed to drink. The other 10 are ignorant of what true greatness in the kingdom of God is.

The key is that we must be like Jesus.

The world thinks a great man is one who gains power and fame and wealth. But in the kingdom of God, great men are like Christ. He came not to be served but to serve. He humbled himself and became a man, born as a baby to live a life full of sorrow, to die a cursed man’s death.

All to serve God and his people…

to bring honor and praise to God and blessings of salvation to his people…

to glorify his Father and rescue his bride.

Great men in the kingdom of God are like Christ.

Do you want to be great? Don’t sacrifice your life on the altar of your personal ambition. Give your life in service to your God. Do all for the praise of God and the blessing of your brethren.

We’re now at the fourth and final section of the passage, the end of verse 28.

“the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.”

This is the center of Christ’s service, and it ties our passage together. It’s the solution to the middle of the passage, our sin. It’s the meaning of Christ’s saving work, announced at the beginning of our passage.

Christ Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many.

We can have no part in Jesus, there is no good news for us sinners, if we don’t understand and believe this.

This demands our close attention.

Look at the first part of it.

The Son of Man came to give.

He came.

He came from Heaven, the Eternal Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, the Creator and Sustainer of everyone and everything.

He came to fulfill God’s eternal plan of salvation.

He came to fulfill God’s promise of grace that he made right at the beginning, when Adam first sinned in the garden.

He came and took on flesh, true God and true Man.

Jesus came.

And he gave. Jesus willingly gave every moment of his life to faith and obedience to God.  He obeyed even to the point of death on the cross.

The Son of Man came to give.

And He came to give His life…for many. HIS LIFE FOR MANY.

Christ’s death was substitutionary. This means that Jesus died as a substitute. His life in the place of many.

Who are the many for whom Christ died?

The answer is in the words right in front of us. His death instead of theirs. He died instead of them. They don’t because he did.

The many for whom Jesus died are all those who won’t die.

If you’re listening closely, you might think, “Hold on. Everyone dies. What do you mean that the many in this verse are those who don’t?”

You’re right. Everyone dies. But there’s another death that comes after death. This death is the eternity that sinners will spend under the just wrath of God. The many for whom Jesus died won’t face this death. He died it in their place.

These people are God’s people. The many in this verse are the same many of Isaiah 53

…those who are justified by the Servant who dies in their place.

…those who are declared right with God and welcomed into his kingdom forever

…because of nothing but the death of the Son of Man. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Now, here’s the final part of the verse.

The Son of Man came to give His life for the many. And he gave His life for the many…AS A RANSOM.

When Jesus died on the cross in the place of his people, He died as their ransom.

This means that a necessary payment was made.

It was a payment that the many owed.

And Jesus made it in our place, on our behalf, to God.

What did we owe?

We owed our deaths.

We’ve all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

The wages of sin is death.

All Christ’s people have broken God’s law and deserve to go to hell. Every sinner must be punished. God is too good and just to let a single sinner off the hook.

How could Jesus be our ransom?

We talked about this last Wednesday at Progressing Pilgrims. Jesus is able to be our ransom because of imputation.

Here’s what imputation means.

Imagine a long charge sheet with your name at the top. It’s a list of everything sinful you’ve ever thought, ever felt, ever said, ever done.

The lists starts with Adam’s sin when he represented you in the garden of Eden. The list includes all the sins you can’t even remember. Here’s your charge sheet: SIN. SIN. SIN. SIN. SIN.

You’re guilty. You must pay with your sizzling flesh in hell forever.

Imputation means that Christ takes that charge sheet and says, “Mine.” It’s credited to his record. Jesus willingly says, “Mine. I’ll pay for that.”

On the cross, when he says, “It is finished”, he’s preaching good news for everyone who believes. He’s saying, “Paid in full. I’ve taken your hell. I’ve taken God’s wrath on myself in your place.”

And imputation is double. This means that Jesus made the most lopsided trade in history. He didn’t just take your charge sheet.

He’s got a sheet of his own. But there are no charges on it. It’s a sheet with the list of all his obedience.

His whole life, Jesus never once sinned, not in thought, not in desire, not in word, not in deed.


In this lopsided trade, he takes your charge sheet, and he gives to all his people his sheet, his record of perfect obedience.

His record of obedience is counted as belonging to you through faith, not through any of your own doing. Not through seeing a priest. Not through going to Mass. Not through trying your hardest.

It’s counted as yours through faith. And so the just God who will by no means clear the guilty looks at every believer and declares, “Righteous. You belong in my kingdom.”

Jesus dies in your place for your sin as your ransom. He takes your sin and pays for it. He gives you his righteousness.

Christian, that’s your salvation, your strength, your joy, your hope, your peace. That’s what’s yours by grace alone through faith alone.

Look to Jesus. He died as our ransom and rose again. He bids us follow him.

First the cross, then the crown.

Here in Matthew 20, Jesus has given us good news indeed. In his suffering, he has dealt with our sin. In our suffering, he is dealing with our sin.

So let’s be done with pride, done with selfish ambition, done with fear and anxiety and the love of comfort bought with compromise.

May God help us trust and follow our Lord.


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