PassageIn the last passage Jesus predicted his death again, though no response is recorded from the disciples. In this passage James and John come to Jesus to tell him that they have a request for him. I don’t know if there is some nuance lost in the translation from Greek to English, but it sounds pretty bold, to me:
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.” (verse 35 (ESV))Really? Whatever you want? Again, it might be a nuance lost in the translation, or Jesus might be playing dumb, but his response is about what mine would have been, under the circumstance: “What do you want me to do for you?” Any time anyone comes up to me and asks me to do them a favour, my response is usually along the lines of, “depends on the favour!” I don’t know if this is the type of response Jesus is giving. I have a feeling he knows what they’re going to ask anyway, though I always get stumped as to what Jesus Who is God vs. Jesus Who is Man knows.
In any event, if Jesus was being coy until he found out what the request was, he was right to do so. Their request is for one of them to sit at his right hand and the other to sit at his left “in [his] glory” (verse 37 (ESV)).
Now the next exchange is interesting to me, because it seems like Jesus is talking past James and John. They are talking about the earthly realm whereas Jesus is talking about the spiritual. What I mean is that when they ask Jesus to sit at his right and left “in his glory,” I am assuming that they are still in the dark as to what that actually means. I’m pretty sure they’re not referring to sitting at his right and left in heaven, or in the throne room of God; my guess is that they still think Jesus is going to conquer Rome and rule as a king here on this earth, and they want to be generals at his side in that context.
And that explains Jesus’ next remark 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?” “Do you realize,” he seems to be saying to them, “that what you’re really asking for is to die with me and go to heaven with me?” Jesus often refers to his death as the cup he is drinking. (I don’t remember if there other places where he refers to his death as his “baptism”—though it would be highly appropriate, since that’s exactly what baptism represents!)
James and John don’t get this point, though. They’re still thinking about this world, so they tell him that sure, of course they can drink from the same cup he drinks from, and of course they can be baptized with his baptism!
Jesus’ response is interesting to me, because it’s almost like he gives up on the conversation; he agrees with them that yes, they will drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism—though, one might say, they might not like it—even though he knows that he’s still talking past them and they don’t really understand what he means. I say it’s “almost” like this; I don’t think this is actually how Jesus is approaching the conversation. I don’t think he’s just giving up, and saying “forget it, they’ll figure it out later!”
… 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, 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.” (verses 39–40 (ESV))Of course when the other ten Apostles hear about this they get indignant with James and John, and the usual commentary I hear (which I agree with) is that they’re probably indignant because they didn’t think of asking first. That’s borne out by what Jesus says next: He calls them together and reminds them that Gentile rulers lord it over their subjects and thus exercise their authority, but the disciples are not to be this way. In fact, anyone who wants to be “great” should make his or her self a servant, and whoever would be first must make him or herself the slave of all (verse 44 (ESV)).
And if they’d like an example, they can look to him:
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (verse 45 (ESV))
ThoughtsWhen I went back to the ESV Study Bible notes they raised an interesting point on why James and John might be asking to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand: In the previous passage he just finished telling them that he is going to die and be raised again; with this fresh in their minds, but still not fully understanding the situation, they might have assumed that he was going to die, raise from the dead, and then once he’d risen he would rule as king. So if they’re going to ask, now’s the time. I think that makes sense. Of course, when Jesus actually does die, they immediately lose heart, so they either forget about this conversation, or maybe their assumption was that he would raise from the dead immediately.
It should also be pointed out that the “cup” Jesus drank was not just his death, it was actually the wrath of God poured out on him for our sakes. When Jesus tells James and John that they are going to drink from his cup, he doesn’t mean it in that sense at all; James and John didn’t suffer any of the wrath of God (and never will), Jesus did that for them. They did suffer in this life, so they did follow in Jesus’ steps to a certain extent, just not all the way that Jesus had to go.
Another interesting part of the story is Jesus telling James and John that it’s not up to Him to decide who’s going to sit at His right and at His left because (to me) it gets into the Trinity in an oblique way. Jesus is God, but Jesus does not grant anyone to sit at His right or His left; the passage doesn’t actually tell us who does make that decision, though I think it’s pretty clear that it would be God the Father. God the Son and God the Father have different roles; different jobs, if you will. Jesus is fully God, equal to God the Father in every way, but He subjected Himself to God the Father, and submits to the Father’s will.
And, to Jesus’ point on being a leader by being a servant, if we are really to emulate Jesus we should never try to make ourselves big or important, because Jesus did exactly the opposite. The Word, Who spoke the entire universe into being, came to earth as a man. Had He come as the ruler over all the earth it still would have been an unimaginable step down—from God to human—but He didn’t even do that, He chose to become a poor man instead, didn’t even force allegiance to Himself (which, by rights, he could have), and then even allowed himself to be killed in an illegal trial. And why? Because He was making himself the servant of all.