Summary: James’ and John’s request to sit on either side of Christ in His kingdom leads Jesus to expound the ultimate cost of being His disciple.
Servant Leaders unto Death
Many years ago, when I was in seminary, I learned a valuable lesson about Bible study. I often recount this story, because it is one of the more valuable things I brought with me from those seminary years. Dr. S. Lewis Johnson told us once that if we were studying the Bible and saw something in a passage that no one else had ever seen, we were probably wrong.
That lesson from seminary days has given me some trouble this week as I’ve worked with Jesus’ conversation with James and John in the gospel lesson we just heard read. I’ve taken a look at what many others have said, particularly modern students of this passage, and I must say this: it’s not so much that I see something no one else has seen. Rather, what most everyone else is seeing is something I cannot see. Am I blind? That’s always a possibility, of course. It’s also a possibility that I cannot see the emperor’s clothes, because he isn’t wearing any. Judge for yourself as we look at this conversation again.
I want to focus on two things in this passage, two things which get a lot of comment today, two ideas which I think amount to seeing something that isn’t really there. First of all, James and John, I believe, get a bum rap a lot of the time. Second, Jesus’ comments in today’s climate are often twisted to mean what he clearly did not mean. Let’s take each of these in turn.
Here is a sample of what I’ve found this week in other teachers’ writings about James and John.
“When Jesus asked this question he was expecting to hear them reply with the word “no,”… He received a very cocky answer from them … When they told Jesus that they were able to do what Jesus would, they demonstrated their prideful attitude that would hinder them from servanthood.”
John R. W. Stott says in his book The Cross of Christ that our world “(and even the church) is full of Jameses and Johns, go-getters and status-seekers, hungry for honor and prestige, measuring life by achievements, and everlastingly dreaming of success . . .”
I could multiply opinions like these, all of them very critical of James and John, all accusing these brothers of being status seekers, prideful, arrogant, and consumed with power and prestige. Now, to be sure, it is a foolish and usually harmful thing to be a status seeker, prideful, arrogant, and consumed with power and prestige. But, is that really the situation with these brothers? There’s another detail or two about this conversation we learn from Matthew’s account of it. Let me read this to you from the parallel account of this conversation in Matthew’s gospel in chapter 20:
20Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21"What is it you want?" he asked. She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom." 22"You don’t know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" "We can," they answered.
It is often said that behind every successful man there is a woman, usually his wife or his mother, or both. In this case, it was the mother of James and John, evidently, who had a hand in this request for position in Christ’s coming kingdom. In this, she was no different than any other mother, zealous for the success of her sons. I do find it odd, however, that if James and John are such prideful power mongers that they would be following their mother’s lead in this!
Nevertheless, most of those I have consulted this week about this passage have the same reaction to James and John that the other disciples had: they are all greatly vexed and displeased with the two brothers. But, did you notice that Jesus does not seem to betray a hint of displeasure in his response.
I don’t think Jesus was displeased with them. Instead, he found their request flawed because of its ignorance. Jesus’ response to them suggests that the brothers (and the mother too) were not connecting the dots that lead from their present position as disciples of an itinerant preacher to right and left hand men of the reigning Messiah. And, so, Jesus says, “You don’t know what you’re asking for.” By which, of course, Jesus means, You don’t know ALL of what you’re asking.
In the context of Mark’s gospel as well as in Matthew’s gospel, this request by James and John comes immediately after these verses. In Mark 10:33-34 we read this: