MARK 8:22 – 10:45. THE CONTEXT
The disciples are traveling with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. At the beginning of the journey, Jesus healed a blind man whose “sight was restored, and (he) saw everyone clearly” (8:22-26). During the journey, Jesus’ disciples seemed unable to see anything clearly.
Jesus three times predicted his impending death:
• After the first prediction, Peter rebuked him (8:31-33), only to be rebuked in return. Jesus proceeded to teach the crowd and the disciples, “Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (8:34).
• After the second prediction, the disciples argued about who was greatest (9:34), following which Jesus taught them that “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (9:35).
• Between the second and third predictions, Jesus tells the disciples, “But many who are first will be last; and the last first” (10:31).
• Now Jesus predicts his death a third time, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death, and will deliver him to the Gentiles. They will mock him, spit on him, scourge him, and kill him. On the third day he will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34). Completely ignoring what Jesus has said, James and John ask Jesus for preferred seating “in your glory” (10:37). Jesus then tells the disciples, “Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all” (10:44)—and then Jesus holds up his own sacrificial service as a model for all disciples (10:45).
However, the disciples consistently fail to comprehend either the passion predictions or Jesus’ instruction on discipleship following each prediction. Jesus is so different from the expected messiah that they just don’t “get it.” It is as if their spiritual eyes have been focused in one place so long that, now that the messiah appears in their midst, they cannot refocus their eyes to see him clearly.
Following this story of James and John, Jesus will heal another blind man, who “regained his sight and followed him on the way” (10:46-52). The stories of blind men who regain their vision serve as bookends around the stories of the disciples who cannot see. While all twelve disciples fail to see, Mark singles out Peter, James, and John, the inner circle, for special notice (8:31-33; 10:35-40).
Peter was probably one of Mark’s sources for the stories in this Gospel, and may have been the source of this story. As one of the Big Three (Peter, James, and John—privileged to be with Jesus at the Transfiguration and Gethsemane), he must have been acutely aware of James’ and John’s attempt to edge him out—to narrow the Big Three to the Big Two.
MARK 10:35-40. GRANT TO US THAT WE MIGHT SIT AT YOUR RIGHT HAND
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came near to him, saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we will ask.” 36He said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37They said to him, “Grant to us that we may sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left hand, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They said to him, “We are able.” Jesus said to them, “You shall indeed drink the cup that I drink, and you shall be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; 40but to sit at my right hand and at my left hand is not mine to give, but for whom it has been prepared.”
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee” (v. 35a). Peter, James, and John are Jesus’ inner circle. On several occasions, including the transfiguration (9:2-8) and the Garden of Gethsemane (14:32-42), Jesus has these three accompany him to the exclusion of the other disciples.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we will ask “ (v. 35b). Every parent hears, “Will you do something for me?”—and the wise parent determines what is being asked before agreeing. The way that James and John introduce their request reflects the fact that they have misgivings about it.
“What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 36). This is the same question that Jesus will ask blind Bartimaeus later in this chapter (10:51). Bartimaeus will respond by asking Jesus to restore his sight, which Jesus will do. Bartimaeus will then follow Jesus “on the way” (10:52). As noted above, Bartimaeus’ restored vision contrasts dramatically with the unseeing eyes of the disciples who have been following all along.
“Grant to us that we may sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left hand, in your glory” (v. 37). Keep in mind that Jesus has just told the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die (10:33-34). The disciples will later come to understand Jesus’ “glory” as having to do with his Passion.
Some scholars see verse 31 as an implied rebuke to Peter and believe that James and John are taking that implied rebuke as an opportunity to gain advantage over Peter, who is the third member of Jesus’ inner circle (France, 414). Whatever their motivation, it is clear that these brothers—the Sons of Thunder (3:17)—are seeking the two highest places of honor and have no room in their scenario to include Peter.
Grant to us that we may sit” (v. 37a). In that time and place, people usually reclined on couches around a low table to eat at banquets or feasts. When James and John request to sit at Jesus right and left hands in his glory, they are imagining Jesus as a king sitting at a table with his chief advisors at his right and left hands.
We find it hard to imagine how James and John could be so dense—so uncaring. Their request is wrong because “they (are) asking Jesus to fit into their plans” rather than trying to see how they might fit into Jesus’ plans (Luccock, 812). James and John have not only failed to hear Jesus’ prediction of his upcoming death, but they regard this journey to Jerusalem as a messianic march on the city to restore its former Davidic glory so that Jesus might assume the Davidic throne.
It would be difficult for us to understand how James and John could fail to hear Jesus’ clear prediction of his passion—except that we see Christians today hearing what they want to hear instead of listening to Jesus’ words about cross-bearing:
• The Prosperity Gospel, with its appeal to believe and grow rich, teaches that Jesus wants us to prosper—to go first class—to make the most money and to enjoy the latest gadgets and to drive the most fashionable cars. How can anyone so misunderstand Jesus? How can they fail to hear his teaching about cross-bearing, service and sacrifice?
• If we examine our own prayers, we will find much that parallels the request of these two brothers. Is the emphasis of our prayers adoration and praise? Thanksgiving? Confession? For most of us, prayer consists primarily of asking—Lord, give me this and Lord, give me that. Our prayers are not so different from this request of James and John.
It is worth noting that Matthew and Luke report Jesus as saying, “Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28-30).
Jesus does not rebuke James and John. Instead, he asks a question designed to let them know that their question is wrong-headed—“Are you able….” While Jesus doesn’t go into specifics, his question conveys a hint that James and John have invited themselves into a place quite different than the one that they were contemplating.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (v. 38). In the Old Testament, “cup” often refers to blessings, judgment, or death. It will soon come to represent “my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many” (14:24).
“We are able” (v. 39a). James and John know that Jesus has challenged them, and they pick up the gauntlet—accept the challenge —not understanding the consequences. Later, when Jesus is arrested, they won’t be so brave. Mark tells us, “All of (Jesus’ disciples) deserted him and fled” (14:50).
“You shall indeed drink the cup that I drink, and you shall be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with” (v. 39b). It is not certain that Jesus is predicting martyrdom for these brothers. His words also make sense if they point to persecution rather than death.
Barclay notes that the Greek verb baptizein (be baptized) means to dip or to be submerged, and does not always refer to water. For instance, a grieving person might be described as being submerged in sorrow (Barclay, 265). While James and John are thinking of the cup and baptism as wonderful blessings, Jesus knows that they will involve pain, sacrifice, and death. It is these that he promises to share with James and John.
James was, in fact, martyred by Herod Agrippa—”killed…with the sword” rather than crucified (Acts 12:2). John’s fate is less certain. At least one source reports his martyrdom, but another reports his death in Ephesus at an old age. Acts 4 tells of his arrest in Jerusalem. Whether he was martyred or not, we can assume that his was not an easy life.
Ironically, the men who will occupy the positions at Jesus’ right and left hands will be two thieves at Golgotha (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:32; John 19:18).
MARK 10:41-44. WHOEVER OF YOU WANTS TO BECOME GREAT
41When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant towards James and John. 42Jesus summoned them, and said to them, “You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. (Greek:diakonos) 44Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant (Greek: doulos) of all.”
“When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant towards James and John” (v. 41). There is no reason to believe that the other disciples are angry because of James’ and John’s insensitivity to Jesus’ situation. The twelve responded to the second passion prediction by arguing among themselves who was the greatest (9:33-37). Now they are offended because they are contending for places of honor, and James and John are trying to steal the prize from under their noses.
“You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” (v. 42). Jesus did not rebuke James and John, and he does not rebuke the twelve. Instead, he uses their behavior as a springboard for teaching. We can be sure that he has their full attention. James and John must be embarrassed at the exposure of their raw ambition. The other disciples are indignant, and will listen carefully to insure that Jesus addresses their concern. Instead, Jesus instructs them about the kingdom of God—its rules—how it works.
“whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant (diakonos). Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant (doulos) of all” (vv. 43-44). As usual, Jesus turns our world upside down as he introduces “rules of the road” for the kingdom of God (verses 42-44). Kingdom Rules are altogether different from the rules of this world—just the opposite in fact. Those who live by the rules of this world honor power, even though powerful rulers are often selfish, petty tyrants who treat their subjects badly.
In the kingdom of God, honors will go to those who serve (Greek: diakonos—those who wait tables) rather than to those who exact service from others. First prize will go to the “bondservant of all”—a slave (doulos)—inferior even to a servant (diakonos)—an absurd proposition, but fully in keeping with Jesus’ recent statement that “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all”(9:35).
“bondservant of all” (v. 44). A slave typically serves only one master. Elsewhere Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other” (Luke 16:13). However, a slave would, at the bidding of the master, serve everyone in the house—and, in doing so, would be serving only one master. Christ calls us to serve all—to become slaves of all. When we do so, we serve one master—Christ.
We should be careful not to judge the disciples too harshly for their failure to understand. We have the advantage of any number of stories in the Gospels that teach us to honor service rather than power, but we often fail to do so. We stand in awe of Hollywood stars and sports figures, even though many of them use their considerable influence to promote violence, illicit sex, drugs, and vulgarity. We envy corporate chieftains who get rich by increasing short-term profits, often at the expense of laid-off employees—and who, when their actions produce long-term ruin, bail out, protected by golden parachutes. We elect politicians who sell their souls to special interests and who spend their lives shading the truth to serve their personal interests.
Jesus calls us to a different ethic, telling us that God honors service rather than power. He challenges us to begin living by Kingdom Rules in the here-and-now. It is a tough sell—and a lesson that the church must continually re-learn. “The drive for preferment might be called a number one enemy of the Christian church” (Luccock, 816). Every denomination, congregation and pastor is tempted to look out for Number One instead of serving kingdom needs. We are tempted by grand titles, vestments, and churches—tempted to preach the word that sells instead of the faithful word. Personal ambition did not start with James and John, nor did it end with them.
MARK 10:45. THE SON OF MAN ALSO CAME TO SERVE
45“For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
“For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve” (v. 45a). Jesus does not require more than he is willing to give. He modeled service and sacrifice from cradle to grave. While in the form of God, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). Both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion are acts of great service and sacrifice.
“and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45b). Earlier, Jesus told the disciples that he must die (8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). Now he tells them why. The word “ransom” is found in both testaments, and refers to a payment made to free a prisoner or to emancipate a slave.
The Jewish people are accustomed to a sacrificial system in which sacrificial animals atone for the sins of the people. Now Jesus says that he will give his life as a ransom for many. In those few words, he introduces a theology of atonement.
Jesus models service and sacrifice for his disciples, but he accomplishes something that the disciples cannot. Only Jesus can serve as a ransom for many. Jesus has a unique role in the plan of salvation.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan