The world usually operates under a very simple principle. Adin Ballou, a nineteenth-century American pacifist and abolitionist, put it this way: “might makes right.” In logic the same approach is called argumentum ad baculum, which means, “Do what I say or I’ll hit you with my stick!” When this is the principle that people live by, the person with the bigger stick wins.
But what else can we expect from the world? If its wisdom is, as James wrote, earthly, sensual, devilish (Jas. 3:15), it cannot operate on the basis of truth. The only thing it has left then is brute force or raw power, which is in reality nothing more than an abuse of God-given authority. And that is why human governments tend to deteriorate over time. They get bigger and bigger and push themselves into more and more areas. Samuel said that this would happen when the people of Israel asked to have a king like all the other nations.
Unfortunately, church government is not completely immune to this kind of abuse either. If it were, there would have been no need for Peter to exhort the elders of his day not to become lords over God’s heritage (I Pet. 5:3). The history of the Reformed Church in the United States in the nineteenth century gives countless illustrations of the abuse of ecclesiastical power, as the Mercersburg and liturgical controversies dominated church business.
But the Biblical principle applies to more than just the civil and ecclesiastical government. It requires individual members within the body of Christ not to lord it over others. After all, there is no one person in any congregation whose opinions are always right or whose recommendations are always wise. Instead of insisting that others conform to our expectations, our attitude toward one another should be that of service. We should ask how we can best minister to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Whatever We Ask
With all of this in mind, let us now consider the prayer of James and John as recorded in verse 35 of the text. Master, they said, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire.
Prayer is a good thing. Jesus himself told us to keep asking, keep knocking and keep seeking. He promised us that if we asked anything in his name and according to his will, he would give us what we asked. Elsewhere the Bible says that God delights in the prayers of his people.
But the problem with James and John is that they removed all the perceptive restrictions from their prayer. Not only was their prayer very open-ended, it was also very self-centered. In the Greek, there is some emphasis on the phrase whatsoever we shall desire. They asked the Lord to give them whatever they wanted without telling him what it was that they were looking for. If Jesus had agreed to this, they could have asked for literally anything.
Unlike Herod, who to his regret offered Herodias’ daughter whatever she wanted up to half of his kingdom (Mark 6:22–23), Jesus was not about to do anything open the floodgates of the foolishness of these two disciples. He knew what they were thinking. In chapter 2, when the scribes debated in their hearts how Jesus could forgive sins, Mark wrote that Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves. Later, in chapter 8 the disciples reasoned among themselves when they did not understand something that Jesus had said. Again, Mark made it clear that Jesus knew what they were talking about even though he was not involved in the discussion. So, how it was that these two brothers thought that they were going to get this passed Jesus is hard to figure. But rather than rebuking them for failing to understand who he was, Jesus asked them to make their request explicit. He said, What would ye that I should do for you? (v. 36).
What they wanted is nothing short of amazing! In verse 37, they asked Jesus to allow them to sit one on his right hand and the other on his left hand when he reigns in his kingdom of glory. They sought positions of tremendous honor and power. A king’s most trusted advisor sat at his right hand, and his second most trusted advisor sat at his left. James and John wanted to be the chief persons in Jesus’ cabinet. They wanted to reign with him and for him. So, this was no small request because they were really asking for everything. They wanted to be like Joseph in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, or like Daniel in Babylon, whom Nebuchadnezzar appointed over all his counselors and governors.
When we read that they wanted to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory, that raises a rather interesting point. We tend to assume that in glory means “in heaven,” as if James and John were asking to reign next to Christ in his consummate kingdom. But I really doubt that they were looking that far ahead. It’s far more likely that they were just men of their own times. There are numerous indications in the New Testament that the Jews of the first century believed that the Messiah would deliver them by casting off Roman oppression and establishing a kingdom on earth. Think about how Herod the Great feared the arrival of the young king. And when Jesus fed the five thousand in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, the people tried to make him their king. After all, anyone who could fill the bellies of so many people with so little food would certainly be able to build a kingdom. Even on Palm Sunday the crowds threw down their garments and palm branches, declaring that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of David had arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. Although in the verses immediately preceding our text Jesus announced a second time that he was going to Jerusalem to die, the disciples did not understand what this meant until after he actually died. They thought he was going to Jerusalem to begin his earthly reign. James and John wanted to be earthly kings with earthly power and earthly glory.
Why did they think they were entitled to this? They probably had several reasons in mind, some of which are almost plausible. For example, they were Jesus’ biological cousins. Their mother and Jesus’ mother were sisters (cf. Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25). In the Old Testament, when God raised up David to gather together a disunited people and form them into a powerful empire, David chose Joab his nephew to be the commander of his army. This set the precedent of choosing close relatives for advisors, i.e., men who can be trusted. In fact, James and John counted on this relationship. Where the same narrative appears in Matthew 20, we find that they did not approach Jesus directly but rather asked their mother to make their request for them (vv. 20–28). This was further confirmed to James and John by the fact that Jesus chose them, along with Peter, to be part of his inner circle of disciples. It was these three men that Jesus took with him to witness the Transfiguration, and it was also they who went with him to the garden the night of his arrest.
But whatever their reasons for making their request, it’s abundantly clear that they didn’t really understand either the nature of Christ’s mission or his call to discipleship. They were interested in power and glory. This is something that we must all be careful to avoid. The Word of God admonishes each of us not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God has dealt to every man the measure of faith (Rom. 12:3).
The Cup that I Drink
The Lord greeted the request of James and John with a mild rebuke in verse 38: Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?
There is a common saying that says, “Be careful what you ask for —you might just get it!” That is certainly the case here. Jesus had called the twelve to be his apostles. This was a very special office with a very special authority. The apostles either wrote or authorized the books of the New Testament, plus they engaged in missionary, evangelistic and pastoral work that helped to establish the New Testament church. Their authority went beyond that of an ordinary pastor. When they spoke and wrote, it was really Christ speaking or writing through them. So, in a sense James and John had the honor that they asked for. But what they didn’t understand at the time is what it would involve. They would not govern from thrones of gold at the head of a vast and powerful earthly empire, but by drinking from the cup of Christ and by being baptized with his baptism. But was this something that they could do? And even if they could do it, were they willing to do it?
To appreciate the seriousness of these questions, we have to understand what it means to drink of the cup and be baptized with the baptism of Jesus.
In the Old Testament the cup sometimes symbolized God’s blessing, as when Psalm 116 says, I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD (v. 13). And other times it represents the outpouring of God’s wrath in judgment. Psalm 75:8 says, For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them. To be more exact, the cup always involves wrath because the only reason that our cups run over with the blessings of salvation is because God has poured out the cup of his wrath, which we deserved, on his only begotten Son.
In our text, the cup from which Jesus was about to drink was most certainly the cup of divine wrath. It was such a horrible cup that Jesus himself prayed for its removal on the night of his arrest. The first time he went into the garden he said, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt (Matt. 26:39). Later, he showed his willingness to drink this cup for us when he prayed, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done (Matt. 26:42).
So, when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, let us remember that the cup is not merely a symbol of Christ’s blood, but a symbol of the fact that he poured out his blood to satisfy the wrath of God concerning our sins. It is his pledge to forgive sins if we put our trust in him.
Could James and John drink this cup? Not in the sense of satisfying God’s wrath either for themselves or for others. But they could drink it to show that they partake of the one sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on the cross for his people. They could drink it to advance his kingdom here on earth. The question is, Were they willing to do it?
The reference to baptism is a little harder to understand because we do not usually associate baptism with judgment. Yet, there is obviously some element of judgment in the baptism; otherwise, it would have been a rather easy thing for James and John to do. What, then, is the point is mentioning baptism here?
The reason that we do not normally connect baptism with judgment is simple: we highlight the results of baptism, viz., entrance into the covenant community and the promises of God’s blessing to those whose hearts have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. But this does not mean that there is not an element of judgment in baptism. In fact, judgment is fundamental to baptism: it symbolizes that the fact that we have been released from judgment by the work of Christ.
Furthermore, the Bible connects baptism with judgment in some very interesting ways. John the Baptist turned the Pharisees and Sadducees away when they came to him for baptism, telling them that they needed first to bring forth fruits meet for repentance before they could be baptized, and threatening them with everlasting punishment if they refused to repent (Matt. 3:7–10). And I Peter 3:18–22 likens Noah’s flood to baptism. The flood was God’s judgment upon an unbelieving and impenitent world and caused the deaths of every human being on the face of the earth except the eight souls that were on the ark.
Even Question 74 of our catechism mentions a kind of judgment in connection with baptism: it says that baptism distinguishes those who are members of God’s covenant from those who are not.
When Jesus asked James and John, Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? they answered without any hesitation, We can (v. 39).
Jesus then explained to them that they would indeed drink of that awful cup and be baptized with his baptism. The Bible reports how this was fulfilled. James was the first apostle to die for the Christian faith. Herod Agrippa had him beheaded in Acts 12:2, just a few years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. John his brother was exiled to a prison-island called Patmos for his testimony concerning the Word of God (Rev. 1:9). Their places within Christ’s kingdom were already fixed by eternal decree, but Jesus was unwilling at that time to tell them what their places would be (v. 40).
Jesus asked James and John a very hard question, to which they gave a hasty and thoughtless answer. They had not counted the cost of discipleship, but we must. Their quick response should make all of us evaluate our own commitment. Are we willing to drink the cup of suffering for the glory of God or be baptized with his baptism? Can we give up family and friends for his sake? Will we identify ourselves with the Savior regardless of the intensity of the trials that we must bear in his name? If necessary, are we willing to die for the truth of the Word of God?
We can give a quick yes like James and John did. But they answered so quickly that they missed the question. The question is, When the persecutors of Christ put out your eyes, brand you with hot irons, disembowel you while you’re still alive, or feed you to the lions, will you still sing the praises of Christ? If the worst thing that you can possibly imagine happens to you, will you still call yourself a Christian?
According to verse 41, this discussion aroused the indignation of the other apostles. Whether this was because they were jealous or because they thought James and John had spoken out of turn is not stated.
An Example to Follow
The controversy over greatness in the kingdom of Christ had the potential for great problems. But Jesus would not allow it. He called the twelve unto himself and explained why members of his kingdom must not lord it over others, as James and John had envisioned.
First, he reminded them that the leaders of the world look for power and honor, not his disciples (v. 42). Great men are great, peons are peons, and those that are great assume that they have the right, by virtue of their position in life, to aspire to greater power and dominion over their subjects. But members of the kingdom are called to be different. Love is the principle of operation in the kingdom of God, and love demands that we concern ourselves with the advantage and welfare of our fellow citizens. The drive for power and the lust for dominion over other men are attitudes contrary to those which should motivate God’s people.
So shall it not be among you, said Jesus. Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister or servant (v. 43). Here we find that love demands humility.
Now, this was not something that the disciples had never heard. Just a few days earlier, they had argued about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus rebuked them then with the very same words found in our text. He even set a child in their midst, and encouraged them to follow the child’s example of absolute dependence and unreserved commitment.
Since they had completely missed the point of the previous incident, Jesus gave them a second illustration of humility. This time it was not a child but himself.
What better example of humble service could he have given them? He was, as Peter had confessed, the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16; cf. Mark 8:29). The Jews correctly understood that by calling himself the Son of God he was claiming to be very God of very God (John 5:17–18). Because he is God he not only deserves our service, but the worship and service of the entire universe. But he also voluntarily assumed a true and complete human nature, and gave his life as a ransom for our sins. This greatness of Christ’s humiliation so impressed the apostle Paul that he wrote about it at length to the church at Philippi. The themes of humility, service and submission to the will of God appear throughout his discussion. He wrote, Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:5–8).
By becoming a servant and submitting to the unjust judgment of men, Jesus won salvation, righteousness and everlasting life for those who put their trust in him. And it is only because of his work that we can follow his example of service and humility.
One of the professors that I had in seminary once said that local churches often looked to the seminary for help in finding the right candidate for the ministry. To the world it would make the most sense to recommend students with the highest grade point average and scholastic ability. Men who graduated top of their class are obviously better suited for the work and those who barely make it through. But, ironically, the professor added that the seminary seldom recommends students who make straight A’s. Straight-A students often master the academics but fail in real life experience. This professor wasn’t opposed to sound theological education (in fact, he went on to operate a seminary in Colorado), but he understood the critical necessity of pastors having an attitude of service and cooperation.
But it’s not just apostles and pastors who need to prize humility and service above power and honor. That’s something that should be true for all of us. The little old lady who reads her Bible every day and really pays attention to the needs of her family and church may have more wisdom and understanding in the things of God than the smartest pastor or elder. She may not be able to argue with the Jehovah’s Witnesses from the original Greek New Testament, but she can tell them with unmistakable sincerity why he is Lord of her life. And she can explain to them why they must confess him to be their Lord and God as well.
It’s not just that God commands his church to work differently than the world, although that is true. Nor is it that the ways of the world are not effective in the church, which is also correct. Rather, it’s that the ways of the world cannot work in the church. Why is that? It’s because the church of Jesus Christ is not an institution of this world. It is under the sovereign Lordship of Jesus Christ, which he demonstrated by giving his life for his people.
Let us pray that the Lord will give each of us the humility and love of service that made the King of glory our servant so that we might be his servants. Amen.