Summary: When it comes to discipleship we have an overestimation of ourselves and our contribution to the kingdom. Jesus’ discussion with James reminds us that our place in the family of God, even when we make great contributions, is still only a gift of grace.
James son of Zebedee - authority in action
Congregation in the Lord,
Jesus spent three years teaching His disciples what it meant to be disciples. Jesus particularly wanted to ingrain into the disciples a certain attitude. Perhaps the most significant visual lesson Jesus gave on this attitude was when He came to each of His disciples with a basin of water and a towel so that He could wash their feet. The visual lesson was clear … but just to be sure Jesus backed up that lesson with these words
“I have set you and example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor the messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them”. (John 13:15-17).
Why did Jesus give this lesson? Because He knew the human heart …
… the heart which deceives us into thinking that we have priority over others.
… the heart which hungers after a greater position.
… the heart which is not satisfied with its lot in life.
“Power corrupts … and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. That is how the saying goes. And while we know that discipleship is all about service and humility, the fact remains that we can be caught up, we can become proud, we can end up having an overestimation of our place and importance in God’s plan. Since such things can happen here is a good reason to consider the work of the disciples and since the issue of having a power struggle was a struggle which the original disciples shared. Indeed the reading in Mark 10 shows this weakness very clearly.
On the one side you have James and John asking to have the privileged positions in the final kingdom. When all sin has been dealt with. When Jesus is rightly established as the Lord of all. When the full glory of God’s grace is revealed to believers. When that happens; James and John would like to end up right next to Jesus. That’s the position of recognition, of privilege and of power.
On hearing this request the other disciples become indignant. Are they indignant because James and John would dare to ask such a question of Jesus? Far from it. The disciples are indignant because they feel they deserve the position. Who are James and John to make such a claim to fame? We ten have done just as much to deserve such privilege. We have stood side-by-side with Jesus in these battles. Basically they were saying, “We ought to be there. And I am indignant because I didn’t think to ask first”. What a hopeless bunch! Jesus is less than two weeks away from His crucifixion and His band of disciples, the disciples who would be the foundation of the New Testament church, they were almost self destructing because they had become side tracked by the issue of power.
Now I find it very interesting what Jesus does. Because, if I had been Jesus I’m sure I would have become frustrated and angry at the discovery that my band of followers who had been with me for nearly three years still didn’t understand what it meant to serve with humility. But Jesus doesn’t get frustrated and angry. Instead Jesus uses this power-struggle to give another life-lesson. Real power is not about exercising authority or claiming privilege. Real power means following in the footsteps “of the Master who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many”. That’s what this passage is about – learning to see how real power works. The question is, “Did the disciples understand the lesson?” We will answer that question by having a closer look at James.
The first thing we need to understand is the nature of the request James is making. And you sort of get the impression the he knew he wasn’t really asking for something kosher. “Teacher … we want You to do whatever we ask”. He is acting just like a child who comes to their Mum and says, “Mum, say “yes””. Mum says, “Yes”. Then the child says, “Thanks, I was going to ask if I could go to Jason’s house tonight”. That is what James is doing isn’t he. “Say “yes” to this question”. But Jesus doesn’t fall for it. His ministry is not about fulfilling personal favours. His ministry is all about building a personal relationship between people and God. That applies to the disciples. It applies just as much to us.
Jesus knows that the heart is deceitful. He will not put Himself into a position where He will grant badly-thought-out requests. And the request of James is a badly-thought-out request. It’s a badly-thought-out request because it pictures the rule of Jesus in terms of an earthly king. Even though Jesus constantly taught them otherwise, the disciples continually got caught up in the wrong concept of the “Messiah”. They kept on coming back to the concept of power and a Messiah who would conquer the heathen nations. In their mind the disciples are still longing for the supremacy for the Jews. You see it happening at the ascension of Jesus when still the disciples ask, “Lord, are You at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”. They just didn’t get it, not until the coming of the Holy Spirit anyway.