On Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem, after making it to the region of Judea, Jesus used a man as an example to explain how difficult it was for rich people to enter Heaven, and then elaborated on what the Disciples would receive for giving up everything to follow Him. Matthew's Gospel next had Jesus explain something contrary to Mark's Gospel, that the first people to be rewarded in the afterlife would be the last people to be Saved, and visa versa. Then, synchronizing the Synoptic Gospels again, Jesus and His Disciples headed directly toward Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus told them once again that He was going to be killed in Jerusalem, and then resurrected. Depending on which Gospel you read, the Disciples may or may not have understood what Jesus meant.
The Greatest Seat Warmers
Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45 recount the tale of when it was asked if James and John, the two Disciples known as the Zebedee brothers, could sit at the left- and right-hand sides of Jesus in the afterlife. You may have noticed that I used the awkward expression "it was asked." Well, there is a reason for that.
The way that Mark tells the original story is that James and John together approached Jesus and asked for the special seating (Mark 10:35-37). When Matthew was copying the story for his Gospel, there was something he did not like about James and John making such a bold demand themselves. Perhaps the idea of the Disciples asking such a bold question directly was too much for Matthew to believe, or perhaps he had just known a different version of the story. Whatever the reason, in Matthew's version it is the mother of James and John who asks the question, and she does so as humbly as possible for such a bold request; kneeling down in front of Jesus before asking (Matthew 20:20-21).
As the story continues, in metaphorical language Jesus asks if the brothers can endure the same kind of afflictions which He soon will endure. They answer that they can, and Jesus, extending the metaphor, confirms that they will indeed have that kind of suffering, but then Jesus tells them that the seats are already assigned.
Take just a moment to review that last paragraph. Did you notice anything strange? Jesus asked the Zebedee brothers a question which was completely irrelevant to the answer to the original question. Jesus could not change who the seats were assigned to at that time, so what was the point of asking the brothers if they could withstand the same type of afflictions as Jesus would? Also, if Jesus had already known that they would face those same troubles, what was the point of asking them if they could handle it? Keep this in mind as the study continues.
Besides the mother asking, other variations Matthew provides include specifying that these seats would be in Jesus' Kingdom as opposed to Mark's "in [Jesus'] glory" (Matthew 20:21, Mark 10:37) and that it was God, the Father, who assigned the seats as opposed to Mark's more ambiguous statement that does not say who they were assigned by (Matthew 20:23, Mark 10:40). These three relatively-minor changes represent a polishing of the story. They paint the Disciples themselves in a slightly better light and clarify the evolving doctrine. (Also, note that some versions of Matthew drop one of the metaphors Jesus used; that of baptism. This was probably just a scribal error or shortcut.)
At the end of the story, Matthew and Mark become nearly verbatim copies of each other: The other ten Disciples get indignant with the Zebedee brothers for the request. Jesus reminds them all that, in His Kingdom, unlike in secular power structures, it will be those who graciously become slaves to all who will become the most highly honored, lust like how He will give His life for many..
That was the end of the story, but it is not the whole story. For the rest of the story, we turn to Luke 22:24-27. There, you will find an extremely abbreviated, and somewhat altered, version of this episode. The request to sit at the left and right hands of Jesus and the Zebedee brothers are gone from specific mention. With them, Jesus' irrelevant questions vanish too.
Luke turns this into a general dispute over which Disciple would be the greatest. Luke's Jesus also reminds the Disciples that His Kingdom will not operate like secular kingdoms. However, just like before, Luke dropped the reference of becoming a slave too all. Apparently, he was not too keen on that concept. Instead, Luke's Jesus says that the Disciples should be like youngest and like those who serve, implying that they should just have a humble perspective as opposed to actually requiring them to do things for other people.
Luke even drops the explicit reference to Jesus mentioning His upcoming death being a service to many, presumably because Luke's perspective was that the Disciples did not understand that Jesus was about to become a sacrifice. The truth was hidden from them.
When we review these details, it becomes clear that, whatever Jesus actually said or did, the authors of Matthew and Luke were willing to make adjustments as they saw fit in order to make their particular Jesus version of Jesus match their own perceptions. It seems that many people still do that today.