“Ye Know not what Ye Ask”
“And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again. Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.” (Matthew 20:17-23)
Evangelist Rolfe Barnard used to say, “You ought to be careful what you pray for. God just might answer your prayer.” So often we pray and ask God to do things for us, or give things to us, without considering what weighty things might be involved in God’s compliance with our requests. Such was the case with the mother of Zebedee’s children. Our Savior said to her, “Ye know not what ye ask.” There are five very important lessons to be learned from these verses.
Our Savior’s Death
The first thing we see in this passage is the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died at Calvary by his own choice and determination, by his own voluntary will.
“And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.” (vv. 17-20)
We should never fail to realize our Savior’s delight in speaking of his approaching death. This is the third time our Lord told his disciples how that he must suffer and die at Jerusalem (16:21; 17:22-23). Though he told them frequently and plainly how he must be betrayed, delivered by the Jews into the hands of the Romans, and condemned to die as a common criminal, yet Luke tells us, “They understood none of these things” (Luke 18:34). He told them plainly that he must go to Jerusalem; there to be betrayed, condemned, and crucified, and that he must rise from the dead on the third day.
These were not bare possibilities, but absolute certainties. The death of our blessed Savior at Calvary was a matter of divine predestination. Indeed, Christ’s death at the cross was the focal point of God’s purposes from eternity and is the focal point of all God’s works in time (John 12:31-32; Acts 2:23; 1 Pet. 1:18-20).
“Every act of Jesus testified his promptness to the work, as though he longed for it. Lo? I come (said Jesus,) to do thy will: O God. I delight to do it: yea, thy law is in the midst of my bowels; And when Peter, out of love (though a mistaken love) for his Master, wished it to be otherwise; Jesus rebuked him, yea, called him Satan, for what he said. Never did the meek and loving Savior ever drop such an expression before: so very intent was he on finishing the work his Father gave him to do, and so much displeased was he with any one who wished it to be otherwise. Precious Lord Jesus! Was this thine ardent love to thy spouse the Church, as one longing to bring her out of the prison-house of sin and Satan, though all the cataracts of divine wrath for sin were broken up, to be poured on thy sacred head?” (Robert Hawker)
Our Lord Jesus Christ died as a voluntary victim of horrible, ignominious cruelty and of divine wrath, as our Substitute. He knew from the beginning all that he must suffer: Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denials, the beatings and humiliation, being made sin, the wrath of God, and his cursed death upon the tree. What a great aggravation to his soul the foreknowledge of his suffering must have been! Yet, none of these things moved him from his gracious purpose (Isa. 50:5-6). J. C. Ryle wrote, “He saw Calvary in the distance all his life through, and yet walked calmly up to it, without turning to the right hand or to the left.” As no sorrow can be compared with the sorrow he anticipated and finally endured as our Substitute (Lam. 1:12), no love can be compared with his love for us (John 13:34; 15:13)
Why did the Son of God voluntarily lay down his life for us at Calvary? He knew that it was his Father’s will (John 10:16-18; Heb. 10:5-10). He knew that divine justice must be satisfied, that without the shedding of blood is no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22). He knew that he was the Lamb of God who must be sacrificed for the sins of his people (Rev. 13:8). He knew that without his death, his life, though perfect, holy, and gracious, would be useless to his people. He knew that the whole of God’s law, the whole book of the writings of God’s prophets, and the whole revelation of God’s glory could be fulfilled and revealed only by his death as the Sinner’s Substitute. Blessed is everyone to whom God the Holy Spirit has revealed these things. Blessed are those eyes that see and hearts that understand the meaning and necessity of Christ’s sufferings and death.
Second, we have before us another of the many examples in Holy Scripture of the fact that true believers often behave in a very foolish, sinful manner. One clear evidence of the divine inspiration is that the Word of God never attempts to hide the sins, weaknesses, and foolishness of it’s most prominent characters.
“Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.” (vv. 20-22)
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, apparently persuaded their mother to ask the Lord Jesus to give them the places of highest honor and glory in his kingdom. Historians tell us that this woman was sister to Joseph, Mary’s husband. She and her sons were true disciples, genuine believers, followers of Christ. But they behaved very foolishly.
James and John, as well as their mother, were truly spiritual people; but they behaved in a very carnal manner. They were more concerned about their crowns than about Christ’s cross (Gal. 6:14). They were unbelievably presumptuous, confidently asserting that they were able drink of the cup and be baptized with the sufferings the Lord Jesus was about to endure, when they should have been overwhelmed with wonder and humbled (v. 22). They were more concerned about themselves than about Christ and their brethren. Yet, these son’s of Zebedee, James and John, were in time to become pillars of the church and kingdom of our Lord.
There are many true believers like this woman and her sons. Indeed, in some areas at different times, we all are very much like them. It is written, “The flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh.” True faith is often found beneath a pile of trash. We are all weak and sinful. We are all terribly proud, and horribly self-serving. And we are very ignorant of the very things we think we clearly understand.
Our Lord’s Reproof
Third, our Lord Jesus teaches us that we are all, indeed, terribly ignorant by the gentle reproof he gave to James, John, and their mother. He said, “Ye know not what ye ask.” They had asked to share Christ’s glory, never stopping to consider that they must first share his sorrow (1 Pet. 4:13).
How much like this woman and her sons we are! We ask for God to save our sons and daughters. But are we willing for the Lord to teach us patience, trusting him even with those most precious to us? Are we willing to endure trials? We ask for God to set our hearts on things above. But are we willing to be weaned from this world by affliction? We ask the Lord to teach us to trust him. But are we willing to be cast upon him? We ask our God to make Christ precious to us. But are we willing to have every rival to Christ taken from us? We ask for God to use us. But are we willing to be used as he sees fit?
These words apply to us all far more than we realize. – “Ye know not what ye ask.” God the Holy Spirit teaches us to weigh our words before the throne of God. — “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God” (Eccles. 5:2). Let us ever come to the throne of grace with open hearts, seeking mercy and grace in every time of need (Heb. 4:16); but we must always remember that we do not know what we should pray for as we ought. We need God’s grace continually, that we may pray in the Spirit and with understanding (Rom. 8:26-27).
Fourth, we are assured, in verse 23, that all the Lord Jesus Christ did and suffered, all that he endured, and all that he accomplished was as the Representative of his people. He lived, died, and rose again as our Substitute.
“And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.”
Both James and John suffered greatly for Christ’s sake. James was the first of the Apostles who bore testimony to Christ by his blood (Acts 12:2). And John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos “for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:9). But there is only one way that it can be truthfully said that these disciples drank the cup of wrath the Lord Jesus drank and were baptized in the sea of woe into which he was baptized. They did so, just as all God’s elect did, representatively. In Christ all God’s elect are completely and perfectly saved by his representative work as our Substitute.
With regard to the request that they might sit one on his left and the other on his right hand in glory, the Savior said, “It is not mine to give, but for whom it is prepared of my Father.” The words added by our translators, “it shall be given to them,” should never have been added. They were added to make the text read more smoothly, but the indication that some will have superiority over others in heavenly glory is totally contrary to everything revealed in Holy Scripture about that blessed inheritance of grace. All who were given to Christ in the eternal covenant of grace shall come to him in time. And those who come to him by faith in time, he “shall in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). This is a matter of absolute certainty, because God the Father has given him, our covenant Surety, “power over all flesh: that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him” (John 17:2). And all who come to him by faith shall sit with him in his throne (Rev. 3:21).
This is the provision our God has prepared for and given to his elect from eternity, as “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). It is the gift of pure, free, sovereign grace, in no measure determined by or dependent upon us. He who gave us his own dear Son gave us all things in his Son, withholding nothing (1 Cor. 3:22-23; Eph. 1:3-7; Ps. 84:11). — “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!”
Fifth, we see here that the Lord Jesus Christ became a voluntary servant to God the Father in order to accomplish our redemption, subjecting himself in all things to the Father’s will. He is God the eternal Son, in all things equal with the Father (1 John 5:7). Yet, he willingly became our Surety and Mediator, Jehovah’s Servant, to save us by his obedience to the Father. The law describes a man who would voluntarily make himself a bond servant to his master for life; and that Man is the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior (Ex. 21:1-6; Isa. 42:1; John 10:16-18; Phil. 2:1-11; Heb. 10:1-14).
We understand and rejoice to know that this Servant is himself God, one with the Father in being, glory, and greatness, in all things equal with the Father. In his eternal Deity as God the Son, our Savior is altogether equal with the Father. But he became a man, became our Surety, became our Mediator, that he might subject himself to and obey his Father’s will as a man.
The Son of God cannot possibly be inferior to the Father in his divine nature. If Jesus Christ is God manifest in the flesh, as the Scriptures declare, there cannot be, in anyway, an inequality between the Father and the Son. Augustus Toplady, wrote, “The uncreated and eternally begotten Son of the Father Almighty is and must be as truly a divine being as the Father who begat him.”
When we read in the Scriptures of Christ’s being the Servant of God, subjecting himself to the will of God, and obeying the commandment of God, we are assured that his servitude is and must be by his own free and voluntary consent. He is indeed Jehovah’s Servant; but his service was not a forced subjection. “He gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). “Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). Our Lord himself declares, “As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). From the moment of his birth, until his final breath in this world, the Lord Jesus served. He was ever Jehovah’s righteous and faithful Servant. He said, to his disciples, “I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27).
There was a perfect understanding between the Father and the Son from eternity. Let there be no misunderstanding in our own minds. Christ became the Servant of Jehovah by his own will.
“The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed." (Isaiah 50:5-7)
As he served the will of God for us, let us now serve the will of God for him.