Incline my heart to your word this morning, and not toward my own selfish gain. Open my eyes to see wonderful things in your word. Give me an undivided heart before you, Lord, and satisfy me with your unfailing love.
We’re on the same passage as last time today, focusing on the second part of the passage. So read Mark 10:35-45:
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45 ESV)
In this passage, Jesus states very clearly that to share in Christ’s glory is to share in his suffering as well. You cannot have one without the other. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It shall not be so among you. To lord power and authority over others shall not be so among the followers of Christ. Yet, unfortunately, in so many places, it is so among Christ’s followers. How dramatically the human heart is bent toward self-glory!
James and John were bent that way. They wanted a guarantee from Jesus that they would have the prime seats beside him—one on his right, one on his left. But they did not realize what they were asking. Jesus was about to face the cross. He asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
And they, not having a clue what they were saying, responded by saying, “We are able.”
Of course, we know that, when push came to shove, they were not able. When the betrayal took place and the guards came after Jesus, his disciples fled. Oh, John stayed closest of the twelve, but he did not bear the cross of Christ that night. He was with the women, comforting, grieving; in that way, he shared the suffering. But he did not drink Christ’s cup or share in his baptism of suffering that night. On the cross, Christ was alone.
Here’s my take on this scenario: at this point in the story, the disciples did not get who Jesus really was, why he had come, and what his kingdom was really about. They were still seeing things from a human point of view, looking for a king who would be arrayed in fine robes as he reigned in earthly glory, enjoying the worship of all and having his ring kissed by his devotees. But this was not Jesus—and this was not what Jesus wanted his followers to aspire to. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” he said, “and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is not the message most Christians are taught. Regardless of which stream of Christianity we identify with, we all have our superstars—pastors or priests or bishops or popes who enjoy the prestige of being leaders but do all they can to shield themselves from the dirty work—the suffering that accompanies following Christ. We have been taught so poorly that we are surprised when suffering happens to God’s people!
While I do know some very humble and servant-minded leaders in the body of Christ (mostly pastors of really small, struggling congregations, where the pastor is also, at times, the janitor) our models of religious leadership today are not unlike the examples of Jesus’s contemporaries, the examples the disciples would have learned from most of their lives. Jesus described them in Matthew 23:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:2-12 ESV)
Jesus was trying to correct his disciples’ perspective on what it meant to be a follower of Christ and one who leads others. We are called to serve. We are called to humble ourselves.
I said earlier that James and John (and the other ten disciples) did not get it, and at that time, I think that was true. But after they continued to journey with Christ, after the cross and the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we know that they did get it. Persecution erupted, the church was scattered, and all twelve apostles—plus many other early Christians—did, indeed, drink the cup and share in the baptism of suffering. We know from Acts 12 that James was put to death by the sword. Tradition holds that John was boiled in a huge basin of boiling oil during a wave of persecution in Rome, and after being miraculously delivered from death, was sentenced to the mines on the prison island of Patmos. He eventually was released and died peacefully, but he was the only one of the first twelve apostles to do so—the rest all died violent deaths because of their faith in Christ.
Jesus had predicted it. Back in Mark 10, he said, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” The amazing thing to me is that, when John was at the end of his life, having walked faithfully with Christ and having endured suffering and having stood firm, a desire for glory seems to have been the furthest thing from his mind. We have a good idea of what was on John’s mind at the end of his life, because we have three letters he wrote to believers in Turkey, and the message was not “seek to be at Christ’s right or left hand,” but rather, “love one another.”
I am tempted to continue describing John’s message, because the three letters of John are some of the most beautiful and poignant writings in the Bible, I think. Every time I read 1 John, I am deeply convicted and brought back to the main thing: love one another. Rather than emphasizing a search for glory, John’s message is that fullness of joy is found in having fellowship with Christ (1 John 1:1-4), and he issues an appeal, over and over, to humility and love in the body of Christ.
By looking at this passage in Mark and holding it in tension with passages from Matthew and 1, 2, and 3 John, we see a broad stroke of the journey that the disciples, especially James and John, went on toward understanding what following Christ is “all about.”
How can this inform our lives? We can let this passage be a mirror for our hearts. Are we bent toward seeking glory? Do we enjoy peoples’ praise? Or is our primary goal to share in the fellowship of Christ and to be advocates of love? I believe it is a tension we will live in a lot, needing to go back to scripture over and over to be reminded. “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared,” Jesus said. But, in fact, that is not even our goal! Instead, we are with John, who said, “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ, and we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete… For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”