Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 20:20-23; Mark 10:35-40
20. Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping, 651 and asking something from him. 21. And he said to her, What wilt thou? She saith to him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, one at thy right hand, and the other at the left, in thy kingdom. 22. And Jesus answering said, You know not what you ask. Can you drink the cup which I shall drink, and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? They say to him, We can. 23. He saith to them, You shall indeed drink my cup, and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized; but to sit at my right hand, and at my left, is not mine to give; but it shall fall to those for whom it is prepared by my Father. 652
35. And James and John, sons of Zebedee, came to him, saying, Master, we desire that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall ask. 36. And he said to them, What do you wish that I should do for you? 37. And they said, Grant to us that we may sit, on at thy right hand, and the other at thy left, in thy glory. 38. And Jesus said to them, You know not what you ask. Can you drink the cup which I drink, and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? 39. And they said to him, We can. And Jesus said to them, You shall indeed drink the cup which I drink, and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized: 40. But to sit at my right hand, and at my left is not mine to give; but it shall fall to those for whom it is prepared. 653
Matthew 20:20. Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children. This narrative contains a bright mirror of human vanity; for it shows that proper and holy zeal is often accompanied by ambition, or some other vice of the flesh, so that they who follow Christ have a different object in view from what they ought to have. They who are not satisfied with himself alone, but seek this or the other thing apart from him and his promises, wander egregiously from the right path. Nor is it enough that, at the commencement, we sincerely apply our minds to Christ, if we do not stead-lastly maintain the same purity; for frequently, in the midst of the course, there spring up sinful affections by which we are led astray. In this way it is probable that the two sons of Zebedee were, at first, sincere in their adherence to Christ; but when they see that they have no ordinary share of his favor, and hear his reign spoken of as near at hand, their minds are immediately led to wicked ambition, and they are greatly distressed at the thought of remaining in their present situation. If this happens to two excellent disciples, with what care ought we to walk, if we do not wish to turn aside from the right path! More especially, when any plausible occasion presents itself, we ought to be on our guard, lest the desire of honors corrupt the feeling of piety.
Though Matthew and Mark differ somewhat in the words, yet they agree as to the substance of the matter. Matthew says that the wife of Zebedee came, and asked for her sons that they might hold the highest places in the kingdom of Christ. Mark represents themselves as making the request. But it is probable that, being restrained by bashfulness, they had the dexterity to employ their mother, who would present the request with greater boldness. That the wish came originally from themselves may be inferred from this circumstance, that Christ replied to them, and not to their mother. Besides, when their mother, bowing down, states that she has something to ask, and when themselves, according to Mark, apply for a general engagement, that whatever they ask shall be granted to them, this timid insinuation proves that they were conscious of something wrong. 654
21. In the kingdom. It was worthy of commendation in the sons of Zebedee, that they expected some kingdom of Christ, of which not even the slightest trace was then visible. They see Christ exposed to contempt under the mean aspect of a servant; nay more, they see him despised and loaded with many reproaches by the world; but they are convinced that he will soon become a magnificent king, for so he had taught them. It is unquestionably a noble specimen of faith; but hence we perceive how easily the pure seed is no sooner implanted in our hearts than it becomes degenerate and corrupted; for they imagined to themselves a kingdom which had no existence, and presently committed the folly of desiring the highest places. Since, therefore, this wicked ambition flowed from a general principle of faith, which in itself was highly commendable, we ought to pray, not only that the Lord would open the eyes of our mind, but that he would give us continual direction, and keep our minds fixed on the proper object. We ought also to pray, not only that he would bestow faith upon us, but that he would keep it pure from all mixture.
22. You know not what you ask. Their ignorance was worthy of blame on two accounts; first, because their ambition led them to desire more than was proper; and, secondly, because, instead of the heavenly kingdom of Christ, they had formed the idea of a phantom in the air. As to the first of those reasons, whoever is not satisfied with the free adoption of God, and desires to raise himself, such a person wanders beyond his limits, and, by unseasonably pressing himself forward beyond what was proper for him to do, is ungrateful to God. Now to estimate the spiritual kingdom of Christ according to the feeling of our flesh is highly perverse. And, indeed, the greater the delight which the mind of man takes in idle speculations, the more carefully ought we to guard against them; as we see that the books of the sophists are stuffed with useless notions of this sort.
Can you drink the cup which I shall drink? To correct their ambition, and to withdraw them from this wicked desire, he holds out to them the cross, and all the annoyances which the children of God must endure. As if he had said, “Does your present warfare allow you so much leisure, that you are now making arrangements for a triumphal procession?” For if they had been earnestly employed in the duties of their calling, they would never have given way to this wicked imagination. In these words, therefore, those who are desirous to obtain the prize before the proper time are enjoined by Christ to employ themselves in attending to the duties of piety. And certainly this is an excellent bridle for restraining ambition; for, so long as we are pilgrims in this world, our condition is such as ought to banish vain luxuries. We are surrounded by a thousand dangers. Sometimes the enemy assails us by ambush, and that in a variety of ways; and sometimes he attacks us by open violence. Is he not worse than stupid who, amidst so many deaths, entertains himself at his ease by drawing pictures of a triumph?
Our Lord enjoins his followers, indeed, to feel assured of victory, and to sing a triumphal song in the midst of death; for otherwise they would not have courage to fight valiantly. But it is one thing to advance manfully to the battle, in reliance on the reward which God has promised to them, and to labor with their whole might for this object; and it is another thing to forget the contest, to turn aside from the enemy, to lose sight of dangers, and to rush forward to triumph, for which they ought to wait till the proper time. Besides, this foolish speed, for the most part, draws men aside from their calling; for as in battle the greatest coward is the keenest to seize the booty, so in the kingdom of Christ none are more eager to obtain the superiority than those who shrink from all the annoyance which attends toil. Most properly, therefore, does Christ enjoin those who were puffed up with vain glory to keep by their post. 655 The sum of the whole is, that for none but him who has fought lawfully is the crown prepared; and especially, that none will be a partaker of the life and the kingdom of Christ who has not previously shared in his sufferings and death.
In the word baptism the force of the metaphor is very evident; for we know that by baptism believers are instructed to deny themselves, (Matthew 45:24;) to crucify the old man, (Ro 6:6;) and, in short, to bear the cross It is uncertain if, by the word cup, (ποτήριον,) our Lord alluded to the mystery of the Holy Supper; but as it had not yet come into use, I choose to interpret it more simply as denoting the measure of afflictions which God appoints to every one. For as it is his right to lay on every one his own burden according to his pleasure, in the same manner as a householder distributes and allots the portions of the members of his family, so He is said to give them a cup to drink 656
These words contain no ordinary consolation for alleviating the bitterness of the cross, when in the cross Christ associates himself with us. And what could be more desirable than to have every thing in common with the Son of God? for thus are those things which at first sight appear to be deadly made to yield to us salvation and life. On the other hand, how shall he be reckoned among the disciples of Christ, who desires to be wholly exempted from the cross? For such person refuses to submit to the baptism of Christ, which is nothing else than to withdraw from the earliest lessons. 657 Now whenever baptism is mentioned, let us recollect that we were baptized on this condition, and for this purpose, that the cross may be attached to our shoulders.
The boast made with so much confidence by John and James, that they are prepared to drink the cup, manifests the presumption of the flesh; for, when we are beyond the reach of darts, we think nothing impossible. And not long afterwards, the melancholy result exposed their rashness; but in so far it was good in them that, when they were free to make a choice, they presented themselves to bear the cross.
23. You shall indeed drink my cup. As they were disciples, it was proper that they should be assimilated to their Master. Christ warns them of what will take place, that they may be prepared to endure it with patience; and, in the persons of two men, he addresses all his followers. For though many believers die a natural death, and without violence or shedding of blood, yet it is common to all of them, as Paul informs us, (Ro 8:29; 2Co 3:18,) to be conformed to the image of Christ; and, therefore,
during their whole life, they are sheep appointed to the slaughter,
Is not mine to give 658 By this reply Christ surrenders nothing, but only states that the Father had not assigned to him this office of appointing to each person his own peculiar place in the kingdom of heaven. He came, indeed, in order to bring all his people to eternal life; but we ought to reckon it enough that the inheritance obtained by his blood awaits us. As to the degree in which some men rise above others, it is not our business to inquire, and God did not intend that it should be revealed to us by Christ, but that it should be reserved till the latest revelation. We have now ascertained Christ’s meaning; for he does not here reason as to his power, but only desires us to consider for what purpose he was sent by the Father, and what corresponds to his calling, and therefore distinguishes between the secret purpose of God and the nature of that teaching which had been enjoined on him. It is a useful warning, that we may learn to be wise with sobriety, and may not attempt to force our way into the hidden mysteries of God, and more especially, that we may not indulge excessive curiosity in our inquiries about the future state; for
It hath not yet appeared what we shall be,
till God shall make us like himself, (1Jo 3:2.
It is also worthy of our notice, that these words do not imply that there will be equality among the children of God, after they have been admitted to the heavenly glory, but rather that to each is promised that degree of honor to which he has been set apart by the eternal purpose of God.
“S’enclinant a luy;” — “bowing down to him.”
“Mais ceux ausquels il est apparelle de mon l’ere [l’auront];” — “but those for whom it is prepared by my Father [shall have it.]”
“Mais il sera [donne] a ceux ausquels il est prepare;” — “but it shall be given to those for whom it is prepared.”
“Monstre que leur conscience les redarguoit;” — “shows that their conscience was reproving them.”
“A bon droict done Christ royant ses deux disciples eslevez d’une vaine gloire, les arreste a penser aux choses qui concernent le devoir de leur vocation;” — “with good reason, then, does Christ, seeing his two disciples carried away by vain glory, make them stop to consider the things which belong to the duty of their calling.”
“Il est dit pour ceste cause, que Dieu donne la coupe a boire;” — “for this reason it is said that God gives the cup to drink.”
“Car cela n’est proprement autre chose que se retirer des commencemens, et ne vouloir entrer a la premiere lecon de son eschole;” — “for that is properly nothing else than to withdraw at the beginning, and to refuse to enter into the first lesson of his school.”
“Ce n’est pas a moy a le dormer;” — “it does not belong to me to give it.”