32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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 baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 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 baptized, you will be baptized, 40 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.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 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. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
46 And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.
The theme of discipleship runs clearly through chapters eight, nine, and ten in the Gospel of Mark in one of the most well-defined sections in the book. Three times in these three chapters Jesus makes a prediction about his coming death. Though he spoke to them plainly about this (Mark 8:32), the disciples are having trouble understanding the full force of this prediction. They understand enough to be fearful of the implications of their Messiah being executed, but they are still clinging to the hope that he will soon inaugurate a glorious kingdom and reward them, his closest followers, accordingly.
In Mark 10:32, as Jesus and his disciples traveled toward Jerusalem, Mark says that the disciples “were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” They are amazed and afraid because, Mark notes, “Jesus was walking ahead of them.” Here we see Jesus, resolutely continuing on his way to where he has predicted his death. The disciples are not so eager to get there. But they are amazed at Jesus’ determination. Still they follow along, hoping that this will all end well, but fearful of what might happen next. Being a disciple of Jesus was a complicated calling.
The meaning of discipleship remains a misunderstood part of the Christian faith even today. How can we grasp the costliness of following Jesus to his cross while at the same time maintain hope in the promise of a glorious kingdom? Discipleship involves both a cross and a kingdom. Jesus is determined to give us both. But like the blind men that are healed at the beginning and at the end of this lengthy section in Mark (8:22-26; 10:46-52), we need Jesus to help us see. We need to see why we ought to eagerly follow him down this road of discipleship.
THE REQUEST OF JAMES AND JOHN
Just as in the previous predictions of his coming death, we immediately find the disciples in need of some correction from Jesus. After the first prediction (Mark 8:31), Peter rebuked Jesus for talking like that. But Jesus turned and rebuked Peter in front of the other disciples. To Peter it was unthinkable that Jesus would die at the hands of men, but Jesus explained that Peter was thinking of the kingdom in human terms and not on God’s terms.
After the second prediction (Mark 9:31) Jesus corrected the disciples for their argument over which of them was the greatest. They are still thinking of the kingdom only in human ideals, and they are imagining what it will be like for them since they are the inner circle of King Jesus’ followers. But Jesus surprises them by explaining that “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
A bold request
The disciples still don’t get it. So once more, after the third prediction about his coming death, Jesus is approached by his disciples. This time it is two brothers, James and John, who have come to make a request of Jesus. It is a bold and audacious request.
They begin this way, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Rather than being straightforward with their request, they are asking for a blank check from which they can make their demand. It’s like when someone says, “If I tell you something, do you promise not to tell anyone else?” These two brothers want a guarantee from Jesus first, probably because they have their doubts that Jesus will approve of their request.
Jesus wants them to get right to the point. “What do you want me to do for you?” Maybe he will grant the request, but maybe he won’t. First, the disciples need to be clear about what they want. So here is their request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v. 38). They have asked Jesus to give them high places of honor in his kingdom.
This is a bold request especially since Jesus has already rebuked the disciples for arguing about who would be the greatest. How could these two sons of Zebedee even dream that Jesus might be favorable to this proposition? While it is easy for us to be amused by the disciples’ continued quest for positions of honor, we must understand the setting in which their question is posed. There is an air of expectation and excitement in spite of this prediction of death. While they have trouble understanding how Jesus’ death fits into the plan, they are convinced that he is the long-awaited Messiah. And now they are going up to Jerusalem, to the royal city, where they are expecting Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel. These two brothers have already had a taste of the glory of this kingdom (see Mark 9:2-8), and they are eager to receive the full benefits of this kingdom.
“You do not know what you are asking”
Jesus’ reply to James and John seems is intriguing. “You do not know what you are asking,” he began. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (v. 38). The “cup” is a frequent Old Testament figure for what God has ordained, and it frequently refers to judgment, usually divine judgment (Psa 75:8). To “drink the cup” then means to accept the destiny God has decreed. The “baptism” to which Jesus refers carries the same analogy of destiny. So his answer to James and John is, “Are you able to accept the same fate that I have embraced?” Jesus has already spoken three times about what that fate will be.
Jesus wants to show James and John why their question is misguided, so in asking them if they can share in his fate he is apparently wanting them to answer in the negative. For if they can share in his fate then they can share in his glory. Jesus will be the central figure in the glory of the kingdom precisely because of the calling he is fulfilling. James and John want to show that they are not looking for a handout. They want to be given the places of honor in the kingdom deservedly. They are courageous disciples! So they reply to Jesus, “We are able” (v. 39). They who have left everything to follow Jesus are determined to follow him to Jerusalem and die with him if need be.
And Jesus affirms this declaration of commitment. “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (v. 39). So what is to stand in the way of their request for honor if they will share in Christ’s destiny? And why does Jesus originally suggest that the disciples would not be able to drink from his cup and would not be able to undergo his baptism? There are two things to note.
First, Jesus must be saying that the disciples will share in his “cup” and “baptism” in a similar, but not an identical, way. His destiny will lead him to the sufferings of a cross, and he has made it clear that those who will follow him must embrace their own cross (Mark 8:34-35). But his cross will be qualitatively different than the cross of any of his disciples, as he will soon explain. So the glory and honor that he will merit by his cross they cannot merit by their own.
Second, this means that there is nothing that can be done by Christ’s disciples to merit the honor they are seeking. Jesus explained that, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant” (v. 40). He says that such places are not his to dispense as rewards for service. Rather, they are “for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Now it would miss the point here to speculate about these presumed places of honor and to whom they will be given. Jesus is driving home a more crucial point that his disciples must learn. They have asked for a share of Christ’s glory, but he knows that what they have asked for they really do not want. Thank God that he does not always give us what we ask for! There is something much more to be desired than the highest honors in the kingdom of God. Jesus must show them what they need the most. Then they will know what to ask from him.
THE SON OF MAN AS SERVANT
So Jesus takes the opportunity again to instruct all of his disciples, who by now are indignant at James and John. This is not righteous indignation, like the kind Jesus showed earlier in this chapter (v. 14). They are angry because they want the same honor that James and John were seeking. When we seek honor for ourselves we will find ourselves in constant friction with other honor seekers. This is the way it is in the kingdom of man, but Jesus wants his disciples to know the new way, the way of God’s kingdom. It is an important lesson to learn, so “Jesus called them to him” (v. 42), as he does on seven other occasions in Mark’s Gospel.
Honor in the kingdom of man
We all know how honor works in the kingdom of man. We learn it at an early age. The honored position is at the top. Here’s how Jesus explains it: “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 “great ones” in this world are those who dominate others, who “lord it over” their subjects. This is how it really was in the ancient world and how it often still is in today’s world of dictators and tyrants.
But this is also true in democracies and businesses and elementary school playgrounds. The kingdom of man is a top-down power structure. Those in the highest position of authority are also in the highest position of privilege, with everyone underneath them serving them in one way or another. In spite of all the abuses that come with this sort of power, Jesus is not saying it ought not be that way in the kingdom of man. But he wants his disciples to see that it is not that way in the kingdom of God.
Honor in the kingdom of God
The ESV translates verse 43, “it shall not be so among you.” But the NASB is more accurate here, “it is not this way among you.” This is the way things are ordered in God’s kingdom, and the question is whether or not we are living as disciples in a way that reflects that reality.
In God’s kingdom, those who are “great” are those who are the servants, and those who are “first” are those who are slaves of all (v. 44). This is a radical teaching from Jesus. A servant is one who voluntarily works for another, but a slave is one who is owned by another. The slave, then, was literally the lowest on the social scale. But Jesus says the one who is “slave of all” is the “first among you.”
Honor in the kingdom of man and honor in God’s kingdom are not synonymous. The highest honor in this world does not automatically translate to the highest honor in the next. Honor in God’s kingdom is bottom-up. Jesus is not saying the two are opposing values; he is saying they are different realities. He does not mean that presidents and kings, businessmen and scholars are disqualified from the honor of God’s kingdom. So how can we make practical sense out of what Jesus is teaching? How is it that the greatest in God’s kingdom are the servants and the slaves?
Served by Jesus to serve others
The answer is found in verse 45, which begins with the word for, giving us an explanation for how this new reality plays out. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus offers himself as the pattern for how honor is rendered in God’s kingdom. It is an argument from the greater to the lesser. If Messiah Jesus, who is clearly “the greatest” in God’s kingdom is himself the servant par excellence, then how much more ought this be true of his own disciples.
This is not philanthropic ethics. Jesus is not telling us to be nice. He is telling us what is reality. In the kingdom of man the greater is served by the lesser. The athlete needs his fans; the actor needs his audience; the businessman needs his clients; the king needs his subjects. Take away the fans and the audience and the clients and the subjects and the greatness of the athlete, the actor, the businessman, and the king diminishes substantially. Whatever benefits we derive from those above us, the reality is that in the kingdom of man the greatest among us depend substantially on those below them for the greatness that they enjoy.
Jesus, however, came not to be served but to serve. He did not come here to become great in the kingdom of man. He came to be born in a feeding trough. He came to die with criminals on an old rugged cross. Why wouldn’t the King of glory come with great fanfare and the attention of the world? The only answer is that this King did not need any of that. As God, he is totally self-sufficient. We contribute nothing to his greatness whatsoever. He doesn’t need us at all.
But he came because we, the lesser, need him immeasurably. He came, as verse 45 concludes, “to give his life as a ransom for many.” A ransom is a price paid to release someone from prison or slavery. Jesus did not come to receive our praise. He came to set us free. We don’t worship him because he defeated us; we worship him because he released us. From what did he free us? This is a major biblical subject that is not expounded upon here, but in the immediate context we suggest that he sets us free from the sort of honor-seeking exemplified by James and John.
In God’s kingdom it is the greater who serves the lesser because there is absolutely nothing that the lesser can provide for the greater. This is why Jesus expects this to work among his disciples, too. The greatest among them are those who serve the others. We are free to serve best when we have nothing to gain from those we serve. How is this possible? It is possible because in the redemption of Christ, we have been given everything we need. We do not need the honor and praise of others because in Christ’s redemption we have received the greatest honor we could ever be given.
THE REQUEST OF BARTIMAEUS
Now the way to Jerusalem passes through Jericho, and as Jesus and his disciples passed through that town they encountered a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, sitting by the roadside. Bartimaeus had apparently heard of Jesus before for when he heard that it was Jesus passing by him, “he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v. 47). The crowd tried to silence him, “but he cried out all the more” (v. 48). Jesus stopped, and told the crowd to summon Bartimaeus. He then healed the man before continuing on his journey.
What is the significance of this story to the previous passage? We get a major clue in verse 51. When Bartimaeus came up to Jesus the first thing Jesus said to him is this: “What do you want me to do for you?” That is the same question he asked James and John in verse 36. All three men have this much in common, that they have come to Jesus to get their requests answered. But this time Jesus grants the request of the petitioner. James and John are rebuked for seeking positions of honor; blind Bartimaeus receives his sight.
Notice the difference between James and John in comparison to Bartimaeus. You can imagine James and John making their request to Jesus in a hushed tone, hoping that the other disciples will not hear their selfish request. Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, and all the louder the more people take notice. And when Jesus calls to him, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang up, and rushed to Jesus.
The difference between the two disciples and Bartimaeus can be summed up in the word desperation. The two disciples came to Jesus seeking fame, but Bartimaeus came to Jesus seeking life. He could care less what others thought about him. All he knew was that he was needy and that Jesus was the only hope he had of being given what he needed most.
The last we read about Bartimaeus he “followed [Jesus] on the way” toward Jerusalem (v. 52). Mark has contrasted the discipleship of Bartimaeus with the discipleship of the Twelve disciples, and James and John in particular. True disciples of Jesus follow him, even on the road to the cross, because they have nowhere else to go. They do not follow Jesus because he is popular but because they are desperate. They come to Jesus to be served by him because the all-sufficient Jesus has everything they need.
So what can Jesus do for you? What is it that you want him to provide for you? Do you want him to reward you for your service to him? Or do you want him as the only reward you seek? Are you desperate enough for him that you will cast away your selfish ambitions to come to him in faith and receive what he gladly wants to give you? The call of discipleship is a summons to see in Jesus the only hope you have for the deepest needs of your soul. Do you see him that way?