As Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem at the end of his third year of ministry, Jesus reminds them in Matthew 20:17-19 what will happen once he arrives: “And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
This is the third time Jesus has explained that he will be tortured and killed in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast. Unlike the previous two warnings, Jesus adds that he will be mocked, flogged, and crucified by the Romans (Gentiles). In that day, it was illegal, according to Roman law, for Jews to execute anyone, so all executions had to be performed by the Roman government.
In verses 20-28, we see once again that Jesus’s disciples still do not comprehend what he is saying. Instead of asking questions about the nature of his death or resurrection, they are instead concerned about their place in his coming messianic kingdom.
The two brothers, James and John, go to their mother and ask her to intercede for them with Jesus. James and John are Jesus’s first cousins and their mother, Salome, is Jesus’s aunt. Salome and several other women are traveling with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Salome obviously believes that because of her close kinship with Jesus, he will grant her sons special privilege. Her request is that her sons sit at Jesus’s right and left hands when his kingdom begins.
In Matthew 19:28, Jesus had promised the twelve disciples that they would all occupy twelve thrones to rule over the twelve tribes of Israel when Jesus’s kingdom began in the future, so Salome is trying to secure the best two thrones for her sons, the thrones immediately to the right and left of Jesus’s throne. It seems likely that her sons put her up to this request.
Jesus responds by asking whether James and John are able to handle the suffering (the cup) that will come to them because of their allegiance to Jesus. They say they are willing to suffer. Jesus affirms that they will indeed suffer, but he tells them that it is not his decision who sits on his right and left, but God the Father’s decision.
The other ten disciples hear about James and John’s request and react with anger. Jesus gathers all of them together to explain what it means to be a leader in his kingdom, because they clearly do not understand. He reminds them that Gentile rulers oppress their people and exercise great privilege and authority.
In Jesus’s kingdom, the rulers will do just the opposite. Rulers must be servants and slaves of those whom they oversee. Jesus reminds them that he came to serve mankind, not be served. He came to offer his life as a ransom for those who would believe in him. The second half of verse 28 provides important insight into Jesus’s mission, as he, himself, understands it. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, explains:
Verse 28b alludes to Jesus’ impending substitutionary and atoning death. This half verse preserves perhaps the most crucial teaching of Jesus about his self-understanding and conception of his mission, especially since a strong case can be made for the authenticity of this saying even using critical criteria. The word ‘ransom’ (lytron) would make a first-century audience think of the price paid to buy a slave’s freedom. ‘Life’ is the more correct translation here for psychē, which in other contexts sometimes means soul. Though it has been disputed, anti (‘for’) means instead of or in the place of. ‘Many’ refers to all who accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, made possible by his death, and who commit their lives to him in discipleship. Verse 28 as a whole probably reflects the language of Exod 30:12; Ps 49:7–9, and, most significantly, the suffering servant song of Isa 53:10–12. Jesus declares that he will die and thereby pay the penalty for our sins that we deserved to pay.