Mohammed Ali (as a kid I first knew him by his given name, Cassius Clay) was quick to tell the world, “I’m the greatest.” Donald Trump often tries to persuade the world that he is the greatest president ever to preside over the United States. (Recently, he claimed to be the wisest of people.) Trump wants to “make America great again”—whatever that means. Men and women sit in boardrooms throughout our nation acting like they are the greatest. Teenagers become offended when they are not recognised for their greatness as students and/or as athletes. Young children throw tantrums when the world does not revolve around them. And in churches, divisions and even splits occur because either the leadership or the congregation does not recognise the profound greatness of gifted members who feel that they should be recognised far more than they are.
But before we become too critical, we should turn the spotlight on ourselves. Doubtless, most of us wrestle at times with wanting the spotlight to be on us! That is, we want to be regarded as first. We want to be the greatest. We want the most prominent place at the table. And if we don’t get it, we sulk or grow bitter or throw our toys out of the cot—or quit the church. Such a response merely reveals that we have lost sight of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It reveals that we are focused on self-centredness rather than on what Jesus calls his disciples to: self-sacrifice. This text before us addresses this very matter and is one that will function as a searchlight on our hearts.
The choice with which we are daily confronted is, will we be self-serving or self-sacrificing? Will we pursue self-glory, or self-giving? Will we pursue and practice servanthood? The text before us instructs us concerning the right and the wrong way to choose.
An Honest Exposure
The text begins with what we might call an honest exposure:
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 baptised 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 baptised, you will be baptised, 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.
Jesus and his disciples were headed for Jerusalem (vv. 1, 17, 32). Though this has always been the direction of his life, there was now a new determination to get there, in order to get to the cross. He had set his face, like a flint, and he would not be deterred (Luke 9:51, 53). The disciples, sensing this, were both amazed and afraid (v. 32). They were impressed with his committed determination and consecrated devotion but at the same time fearful that what would happen to him might happen to them as well. Ferguson captures the essence of this scene when he writes, “The degree of commitment which Jesus manifested was something they had never encountered before. They could not fully understand it; but it unnerved them just because it drew them into its own orbit. They sensed that this commitment required theircommitment.”
Jesus, for the third time, informed the disciples what would happen to him and they responded in the same way they had on the two prior occasions: They missed the point. Rather than appreciating the lesson of their need for self-sacrifice, they focused on self-preservation and self-exaltation (cf. 8:31–38; 9:30–37). The same thing happens here.
Never mind that the one who truly is great was in their midst. Never mind that this truly great one was about to be cruelly mistreated. Never mind that this truly great one would become the victim of the worst injustice ever perpetrated in history. No, the disciples wanted to talk about themselves. Sound familiar? Most of us reading this can probably relate. As someone has put it, some people have something to say while others merely want to say something. Which can you identify with?
Mark was not merely writing whatever came to his mind. No, like a good writer, he had a purpose, a goal, and therefore a structure for his work. We must keep this in mind as we now for the third time listen to Jesus instruct his disciples about true greatness, that is, as Jesus instructs his disciples about servanthood.
This is so fundamental that it bears repetition. So let’s ask the Lord to enable us to have ears to hear and hearts to understand that we might leave better equipped by the Holy Spirit to be self-sacrificial for the benefit of others.
An Impertinent Request
In v. 35, James and John bring an impertinent request to the Lord: “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.’” This is the only time in the book of Mark where James and John are mentioned apart from their sidekick, Peter. In the light of their request, and in light of the immediate context, this is significant.
Peter, James, and John formed Jesus’ inner circle. In every listing of the disciples in the Gospels, they appear together, with Peter always mentioned first. They were privileged to be with Jesus on some special occasions—among others, when he raised Jairus’s daughter, and on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Therefore, for these two brothers to make this request apart from Peter may indicate some envy, some elitist self-understanding, or at the least, a motive of exclusion of their fellow disciple. This is always painful, and each of us can relate to being left out. No doubt, the later angst of the disciples (v. 41) was probably spearheaded by Peter who would have felt the slight most acutely.
James and John were brothers and, in another Gospel record, we read that their mother got involved in this request. Perhaps they didn’t realise the truth of the previous passage concerning the larger family of God. Anyway, what was it they were asking for? And how did they ask for it? First, let’s consider the second question.
A Blank Cheque
Their question was not so subtly veiled that they were coming to Jesus asking for a blank cheque. These sons of thunder (3:17) impertinently demanded “whatever” they asked of Jesus. It was a rather brazen request.
It is clear that they had confidence in Jesus. From the request that follows, it is clear that they were persuaded that he was Messiah. Nevertheless, is this the way you speak to Jesus? Is this the way you speak to the King? I think not. And yet Jesus was so patient! He responded, not with a well-deserved and well-justified rebuke, but rather with a question: “What do you want me to do for you?” As Edwards comments, “The answer to that question, not only in the case of the Zebedee brothers but in ours as well, lays bare our true motives, revealing whether we seek our own glory or the glory of God.”
Sadly, their answer reveals that they were foremost in their own minds. While they should have been kingdom-minded, and while they ought to have used their “blank cheque” (see John 15:16; Mark 11:24) for kingdom-minded purposes, they did not. They used it for their own glory.
An Insensitive Request
Their request was nothing short of insensitive: “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’” (vv. 36–37). They wanted nothing less than the best seats at the table.
The old covenant had prophesied a messianic banquet and they apparently believed that their trip to Jerusalem would culminate in this. This appears to be at the root of their rather audacious request. Forget about Peter. Forget about any of the others. They want the best seats. They certainly did not lack ambition.
But as insensitive as they were towards Peter and the other disciples, the depth of their insensitivity is revealed toward Jesus. He had just informed them in great detail of his impending sufferings and all they could think of was themselves. Lane writes of “the cruel loneliness with which Jesus faced the journey to Jerusalem…. Selfish ambition and rivalry were the raw material from which Jesus had to fashion the leadership for the incipient Church.”
Now, it is clear that they understood, to some degree, that Jesus was Messiah—hence their belief in his banquet and his kingly rule. However, they paid no heed to his sufferings. All they could think about was, “What is in it for us?” And, “Can we have the best positions?”
It’s amazing how we can sit at the feet of Jesus and yet miss the point completely. For instance, some of you at this very moment may be harbouring resentment at a fellow church member while you sing alongside them, “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery.” Perhaps you are a bit irked that someone did not greet you and are thinking, “How dare she do that? I am older than her. I am more important.” And yet you sing with great gusto, “Fairest Lord Jesus.” Like these disciples, we too struggle with the temptation to make Christianity all about us. No doubt, this is a reason why Mark recorded this event.
Think about the honesty of the Scriptures. Peter would probably have been the source of this information, and he along with the rest of the disciples don’t appear favourably here!
As Mark’s readers faced trying times, they too would be tempted towards one-upmanship. They would be tempted to focus on themselves, on their own survival rather than on others. We need this honest exposure of our own hearts. Who are you seeking to get the better of? Have you lost your focus?
An Ignorant Request
Jesus response to them revealed the depth of their ignorance: “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 baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” And they said to him, ‘We are able’” (vv. 38–39).
Their question, in the light of Jesus’ identity, might be defended as merely a natural one. After all, since Jesus wasMessiah, and since he would rise from the dead (v. 34), this question is natural. But of course, that is precisely the point! Disciples of Jesus are not to think naturally; they are to think and respond scripturally for they have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). These brothers had a long way to go. And as the next verses reveal, they not only were guilty of self-centredness, but also of self-sufficiency. The two usually go together.
Jesus responded, perhaps with a sigh, “You do not know what you are asking.” They were motivated by a theology of glory, whereas what lay ahead in Jerusalem was primarily the theology of the cross. Yes, glory would come (Philippians 2:9–11) but that was preceded by suffering (Philippians 2:6–8). The latter is the “mind” they needed to have (Philippians 2:4-5). In other words, the only way to share in the glory of Jesus is to also share in his grief. The crown can only be worn by first wearing the cross (8:34–38). This passage is a knife to the heart of the so-called prosperity gospel.
To illuminate his statement, Jesus asked them a rhetorical question, to which the expected answer would be, “No.” He asks, “Are you able [do you have the power] to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” What did Jesus mean?
To “drink the cup” was an expression in the Old Testament that usually referred to the experience of God’s wrath (see Isaiah 51:17, 22; Psalm 75:8). In the garden, Jesus would pray, asking the Father to take the “cup” from him (14:36). Jesus was asking James and John if they were able to imbibe the suffering of the wrath of God he would soon face.
By “baptism” Jesus was referring to a similar experience—that of being immersed in the wrath of God. When Jesus was baptised, he was identifying with sinners who needed to be delivered from divine wrath. As the waters of Jordan went over him, it pictured the waters of God’s judgement coming upon him. And though the Father declared the affirming words, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased,” Jesus was aware that a day was coming when the Father would treat him as one with whom he was not well-pleased, to the point of turning away from him. So this affirming day of his baptism was also, no doubt, a painful day. Again, there was glory, but there was also grief.
I wonder if Jesus was surprised by their self-sufficient and deeply ignorant answer:“We are able.” I sense that an exclamation mark attended their answer. Perhaps two. “Of course we are able to suffer with you!!”
They were self-sufficient as well as self-centred because they were self-deceived—much like we surely are when we gustily sing, “Lord, we are able!”
Prayer and Self-Sufficiency
It is interesting that, when nearing this “cup” and “baptism,” Jesus would pray asking for the Father’s enablement to bear it (14:32–42). If Jesus, the perfect man, needed God’s enablement, how much more did James and John? How much more do you and I?
Our lack of prayer reveals our self-centredness. It reveals our lack of concern about the needs of the body. Our lack of prayer reveals our self-sufficiency. Our anthem is, “Lord, we are able” when it should be, “Lord, you are able.” We need the Lord to enable us.
Is this not all too often our problem? We mean well, but we have not done a proper job of self-evaluation. We are way too “healthy.” We need to heed Paul’s words: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). And Solomon’s: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Without him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
We need to think before we boldly respond to Jesus. Thinking will not detour us from following Jesus, but it will perhaps save us from a spiritual crash. We need to pay attention! Sometimes confessing, “I’m an idiot” is good for the soul.
An Instructive Response
One might expect Jesus to rebuke these men: “Don’t be foolish! You are not only ignorant; you are also arrogant.” He would have been well within his rights. But rather, Jesus seemingly affirmed their answer: “And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised.’” Perhaps he emphasised “you will.”
Was Jesus teaching here the doctrine of our identification with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (see Romans 6)? Perhaps. However, I think it was probably a prophecy of the sufferings they would experience later as they followed him.
James would suffer imprisonment and death at the hands of Herod (Acts 12). John would suffer imprisonments (Acts 3–4) and banishment on Patmos—along with who knows whatever tribulations, including those attending his shepherding churches. This was no doubt behind, “You do not know what you are asking.” It is a grace that we don’t know all the pain that will accompany our faithful discipleship. The Lord knows how much we can and must bear for him.
Having told them what he could do for them (namely, bring them into his sufferings), he told them what he could not do: “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.”
Jesus lived his entire life in dependence on his Father. He did nothing outside of what the Father willed. (Thank God!) Jesus told them that the “positions” in the kingdom were in the hands of another. The positions were for those for whom they were “prepared.”
In addition to Jesus’ demonstration of dependence upon his Father (there were some things which Jesus was not able to do), perhaps Mark was hoping that his readers would detect a reference to the way in which Jesus entered his glory, that is, by the cross (see John 12:27ff; John 17:5, 22, 24).
When Jesus entered his glory it was through his successful work on his cross. He entered his glory and, interestingly, did so with someone on his right hand and another on his left (see 15:27). Yes, neither James nor John knew what they were asking.
An Indignant Response
The ten head about this request (we don’t know how) and were “indignant”—a strong word used in v. 13 where Jesus was deeply grieved at the way children were being treated. But whereas Jesus’ anger was righteous, we rightly suspect that theirs was not. In fact, they were as self-righteous, self-centred, and self-sufficient as James and John. Their anger and grief were probably partly fuelled by their own selfish ambition. In other words, they were “indignant” because James and John got to Jesus first! And Jesus’ response, to all twelve, proves they were all guilty. Most of us can relate.
The only thing we despise more than someone’s arrogance is when it gets in the way of our own arrogance! Our indignation towards those who seek to get the upper hand over us rises as we realise we have missed an opportunity to get the upper hand over them.
We don’t like it when someone thinks they are better than us; especially when we know that we are better than them! And it is this very problem that Jesus addressed in his response.
Let’s beware of our sinful desire to put ourselves first, our tendency to be esteemed above other, and our self-centred pursuit to be served, rather than to serve.
An Essential Exhortation
The self-exaltation of James and John, alongside the self-centred indignation of the ten, gives way to an essential exhortation from Jesus about what is to characterise those who enter into Christ’s glorious kingdom with him.
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.
Whenever Mark speaks of Jesus “calling” others to him, it is in the context of instruction of disciples, or at least would-be disciples. He did so here, and they were to listen, and to listen well—as should we.
We will remember how status has been a theme throughout this chapter. Jesus was teaching disciples that his kingdom—God’s kingdom—has a very different approach to life than the world as they knew it. He did so very powerfully here.
The World as They Knew It
Jesus reminded them of the world as they knew it: “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’” (v. 42).
The word translated “know” is strong. It speaks of that which is not debated. Jesus reminds his disciples that it is commonly accepted that the power structures among the nations are all about leading by domination. And they knew this all too well as an occupied people. Jesus is saying, “How do you like that? How is that working for you? Come on guys, wake up and smell the oppression!”
The words translated “lord it over” mean to control, subjugate, overcome in a tyrannical way, master, subdue, or bring under one’s power. An interesting illustration of the use of this word is found in Acts 19:16 where an evil spirit overcame or mastered the seven sons of Sceva, would-be exorcists.
Jesus then added: “and their great ones exercise authority over them.” This speaks of wielding full privilege and power over another. The Greek’s only other occurrence is in a parallel account in Matthew 20:25.
Of course, exercising authority is not necessarily wrong. There is a proper use of authority. Jesus was not contradicting legitimate authority structures. What he was objecting to is the misuse of authority. He was objecting to an attitude of dominance, self-assertion, arrogance, preeminence—the attitude of being served, rather than being the one who serves.
The world, under “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is all about one-upmanship. It’s about climbing the proverbial ladder while stepping on people on the way to the top. Generally speaking, the unbelieving world exercises authority from the perspective of power and dominance—dare I say it—of privilege.
The pursuit of position, the pursuit of preeminence—of reaching the top—takes precedence over the welfare and advancement of others. And once an individual has hit the top, protecting that position all too commonly becomes the new passion. Like the game, King of the Mountain, anything goes to protect one’s position at the top. And, by the way, they are protecting their position from those who have the same selfish ambition to be at the top. Think slavery. Think much of colonialism, including economic colonialism. Think racism and tribalism. Think how you treat those who work under and for you. Think abusive relationships. Think how your respond to the weakest church member—the most troublesome church member. The point Jesus was making is that the kingdoms of this world seek to dominate and to demand. The disciples “know” this, all too well. Unfortunately, they share the same mindset. He is about to show them a better way.
The Kingdom as God Wills It
Jesus then contrasted the world as the disciples knew it with the kingdom as God wills it: “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” (vv. 43–44). Here Jesus demanded that his disciples not be demanding.
With the contrasting words, “But it shall not be so among you,” Jesus introduced a contrast of the world’s practice and principle of leadership by dominance and demand with God’s kingdom principle and practice of leadership by serving and sacrifice. Edwards observes, “At no place do the ethics of the kingdom of God clash more vigorously with the ethics of the world than in the matters of power and service…. The preeminent virtue of God’s kingdom is not power, not even freedom, but service.”
It is important to note that this is not something that he merely wished for them; he willed this for them. In other words, this is how it is, not merely how it should be. This contrast is self-evident in the lives of those who deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.
In other words, if this is not your desire, and an underlying disposition of your life, then you have no claim to being Jesus’ disciple. Look at his words.
Jesus used two words to describe servant leadership: diakonos and doulos. There is a difference between these words. Diakonos is the word from which we get the word deacon. It refers to one who attends to the needs of another—literally, “one who waits tables.” The second word can be translated either “bondservant” (my preference) or “slave.” The latter term carries ideas that I don’t believe Jesus had in mind. Nevertheless, the latter term speaks of one whose duties are more subservient than those of the first. “A doulos had far less self-determination even than a diakonos” (France).
Jesus’ point is that true greatness in the kingdom of God is measured by how low one bows, not how high they climb. As he would teach them (and us), to be “great” in the kingdom of God requires that you climb no higher than the cross. That is the throne, as it were. But to do so requires a willingness to put the needs of others first.
Though I often hear world leaders speaking of caring for their people, in most cases their appeals sound hollow. Their arrogance and their defiance of the law of God shout so loud that I can’t hear what they are saying. They may have begun their rule with great goals of reformation, but as Wright points out, what this usually means as that those who abuse their position simply have a different name. Sadly, this has all too frequently occurred in the realm of the church. Evangelical leaders have become mesmerised by political power. They have abused people and funds. Church leaders often receive VIP treatment. In Africa, there is an almost idolatrous treatment of “the man of God.” Far too many church leaders lack any accountability to the congregation. They want recognition and power but refuse to serve the body. I know a missionary who, when he first approached his elders about his desire for the mission field, was handed a broom and asked to clean the church building. It is not what he expected but, by his own testimony, it taught him the need to serve.
Jesus leaves no room for us to pick and choose to whom we will be a slave. Instead, he says, “you must be slave of all” because each member of the kingdom is royalty.
Jesus was teaching the disciples that those who are the greatest in the kingdom are those who don’t care about being the greatest. Those who are first in the kingdom of God are those who don’t care about being first. Those who will lead God’s people are not self-centred, they are self-sacrificial.
The Perfect Example
The text ends by pointing us to the perfect example: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).
With this verse we come to what may very well be the theme verse of Mark’s Gospel. It certainly summarises the gospel—the good news of what Jesus has done for sinners who repent and believe on him. This gospel not only saves us from our sins, but also saves us from ourselves. It saves us from the self-centredness that so easily consumes us and our relationships and our joy and our effectiveness.
The conjunction “for” is powerful in that it introduces us to the greatest motivation for selfless service: the self-sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ for sinners. Jesus was saying, “Hey disciples, even the Son of Man does not lord it over others. Why would you do so?”
The Son of Man, a messianic term, came not with a self-centred, self-serving agenda but rather with a self-sacrificial pursuit. He came to provide the greatest service ever to be exercised: the service of ransoming himself “for many.”
The word translated “ransom” means “to loose” and refers to the price paid to free slaves or captives. The price Jesus paid was his life’s blood. These words have the overtones of Isaiah 53 where the writer speaks of Messiah dying for the many, the Messiah who was “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” and through whom our “wounds are healed.” All this happened because “he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors” and because “he bore the sins of many and makes intercession for the transgressors”—like you and me. As Lane summarises, “The release effected by this offering overcomes man’s alienation from God, his subjection to death, and his bondage to sin. Jesus’ service is offered to God to release men from their indebtedness to God…. The many had forfeited their lives, and what Jesus gives in their place is his life.”
He self-sacrificially paid the price of his life to free slaves of sin, of Satan, and of his evil system. Jesus became a slave to serve slaves. Think about that the next time someone treats you like a servant.
With Jesus as our example, we have the ultimate exhortation, the gospel’s exhortation to serve others. But practically, what does this mean? Many things, no doubt, but a major application is that of forgiveness.
The world is not a very forgiving place. It is not a friend to grace. But those who follow Jesus serve others by forgiving them.
One of the cruellest responses you can have toward another is an unwillingness to forgive. A refusal to loose someone from their debt is a form of enslavement. Some can handle this, but many, if not most, cannot. If you have been ransomed, then cut the guilty loose (Ephesians 4:32).
The ten needed to serve James and John well by forgiving them and the same of these brothers towards the ten. Forgiveness is redemptive in more ways than one. As Edwards notes, “Service and giving are not only ethics of the kingdom but the means of redemption.” This lies at the heart of the gospel.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
(1 Peter 2:18–25)
A servant’s heart that is willing to be mistreated will often be a means of the redemption of those who mistreat us. In other words, to serve our neighbour at times will mean that we must suffer for, and even at the hands of, our neighbour. But the outcome can be redemptive.
We need to think biblically. We need to live out the kingdom’s values in a world that rejects our King. And we can begin in our church and in our homes. Take these truths home and watch the redemption of your relationships. It is all too easy to become saturated with the world’s values and treat people in the most awful of ways. Even in the church. Meditate on what Jesus has done. Think through the implications and apply them.
Keep in mind that “true greatness is measured by our service, not by the number of our servants” (Ferguson).
We might well ask, “Did these disciples learn this lesson?” Yes, they did! And since they did, we must.
Peter learned this lesson well, for many years later he would write to elders to be sure that in leading the church, they must not lord it over the sheep (1 Peter 5:3).
One supposes that James learned this lesson, but we know from John’s writings, as well as from historical references, that John learned this well. In fact, the most forceful we ever see John is perhaps when he writes and rebukes and warns about Diotrephes “who likes to put himself first” (3 John 9). John stood against those who stood against the welfare of the flock of God.
John, once a “son of thunder” became known as the apostle of love. What transformed him? The redemptive power of the gospel, which can transform you as well.
Peter would tenderly shepherd the flock of God. Even though he would be rebuked by Paul, he would still refer to him as “our beloved brother” (2 Peter 3:15). Yes, Peter became the kind of leader that Jesus spoke of here. He shepherded the flock, he fed the lambs, and he did so as a faithful servant because he loved the Chief Shepherd (John 21:15–19; 1 Peter 5:4).
These are the footsteps before us that we must (and can) follow. You see, they would experience the power of the cross through the power of the risen Lord. And we too share in this. And as we do, we will experience the redemptive power of servanthood, to the good of one another, to the glory of God.