Imagine that you could ask God to do anything you wanted. What would you ask God to do? Perhaps it would be a very personal request, such as asking God to heal a loved one. Or perhaps it would be a very altruistic request such as ending violence or warfare on the earth or ending poverty. Or perhaps it might be a very self-serving request such as making you rich or being placed in a position of great power or standing. What would you want God to do for you?
In this next section of Mark, the disciples engage in a bit of this exercise with Jesus. Jesus tells them once again that he will suffer, die and rise again; however, once again we see how tone-deaf the disciples are in what they ask of Jesus. Let’s read Mark 10:32-45.
I. Jesus’ mission continues on as we read in verses 32-34.
Now for the first time, Jerusalem is mentioned as Jesus’ crucial destination. There is a sense of deep soberness in the picture of Jesus walking ahead of his scared disciples as Jesus pushes forward to fulfill the mission that God had sent him on. Jesus walking ahead of his disciples is the rabbinic custom but there is far more than this involved here. In verse 32 we see a confident Jesus pushing forward to his own death. As a result there is awe and dread evident in those who are following him.
Along the way Jesus makes it clear to the disciples the purpose of this journey. As earlier, the twelve disciples are the only ones who receive this teaching. Of the three prophecies about Jesus’ passion, this third one is the most precise. In saying this, Jesus here is likely thinking in terms of fulfilling Old Testament prophecies about him. Psalm 22:6-8 says that the Messiah will be cruelly mocked and insulted. Isaiah 50:6 speaks of the scourging and spitting as signs of contempt which the righteous servant Messiah will be exposed.
Delivery to the Gentiles indicates that he will be held in contempt by his own people for the Gentiles are the last people for the Messiah to be handed over to. Mockery and spitting are forms of derision toward Jesus. Being beaten anticipates his being crucified since in Roman law scourging always accompanied a violent death. But beyond the horrible humiliation, there will be victory through his resurrection.
There are times when something awful will lead to something very good. During World War 2 and leading up to D-Day, when the allies invaded German-occupied France, the generals predicted that there would 75,000 casualties with about 20,000 men being killed in the invasion. Yet it was the only way that there could be victory over the Nazis. While the number of killed was about 4,000, it was a huge loss of life. In times of war, generals will make dire predictions of the loss of life but the hope is that it will result in victory.
In the case of Jesus, the only one who suffered was Jesus. The only loss of life was that of Jesus. But the victory that he won over sin and death would lead to victory over sin and death for all who believe in him and that is the greatest victory I can imagine!
Even though they had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the disciples still have not grasped what it really means to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus. Jesus had just taught that true servanthood means sacrificing his life for all. James and John failed completely to grasp the significance of Jesus’ teaching that he would be treated with contempt and be put to death. They only heard the part about resurrection and restored honor in the kingdom. They thought that was the new kingdom that would restore glory to the line of David in Jerusalem and they were placing themselves in that new kingdom already.
The request was likely for places of honor at the messianic banquet or for positions of power and authority in the new kingdom when Jesus is enthroned as the judge of all. The place of honor is the seat to the right and next to it the seat on the left. They believed that the glory of Jesus was very near and wanted to be prepared. But it’s like a candidate running for president and his campaign staff asking who gets to be secretary of state or the chief of staff while the election is uncertain.
So in verse 38, Jesus responds sharply and tells them that if they want to share in the glory, they must also share in the suffering. They wanted the honor without the sacrifice. I can’t help but think of President Trump who when someone gave him a purple heart said that he always wanted one and now he had one the easy way. Some wounded veterans were very upset because it appeared that he didn’t understand to receive that honor requires being wounded. To receive the Purple Heart means there is great personal sacrifice. These two wanted the honor without going through the sacrifice.
Jesus makes it clear that the disciples cannot endure what he will endure. Jesus’ pointed question contains at least an implied condemnation of the proud request of James and John. They cannot do what Jesus will be doing: dying for the salvation of all people. To share in someone’s cup was a recognized expression for sharing that person’s fate. In the Old Testament, the cup is a common image for the wrath of God’s judgment upon human sin and so the cup in verse 38 is the cup of judgment. The cup that Jesus must drink is the cup of God’s punishment for all sins.
In popular Greek usage baptism was used to speak of being overwhelmed by disaster or danger and this is similarly used in Scripture. John’s baptism was one of repentance in preparation of God’s coming judgment. Jesus understood that his baptism by John expressed solidarity with sinful people and signified his willingness to assume the wrath of God’s judgment. The images of the cup and baptism signify that he bears the judgment that is due because of our sin.
What strikes me about this episode is how dense the disciples still are at this point. They just don’t understand yet at this point what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In their pride they are seeking status and believe they can do what Jesus will do. They are acting out of selfishness and clearly are not getting it. And yet these are the very people God would use to build his church!
That is comforting to me for we are often dense, slow to learn and slow to change. We too are often motivated by pride and selfishness. And yet God, in his grace, uses us as well in his kingdom to make a difference in the lives of other people. God uses weak and sometimes stubborn people to continue to build his church.
III. Jesus then describes the disciples’ actual mission in verses 39b-40.
Verse 39 shows that James and John will participate in the sufferings of Jesus. They will take up their cross and follow Jesus as he said in Mark 8:34. Jesus is prophesying that James and John, like himself, will endure great adversity and suffering for the gospel. In verse 40 Jesus makes it clear that the appointment of the places of honor is the Father’s prerogative. James and John are only given the assurance that these positions of honor will be assigned to those who have been prepared by God the Father alone. But as we will see, such things will be based on sacrificial service.
Are we really willing to suffer with and for Jesus? Are we willing to put our lives out there and let others know where we stand and take the abuse for standing up for what Jesus wants us to stand up for? Are we willing to do our work in a way that glorifies God and serves him rather than advancing ourselves or our own agendas? Jesus is calling all who follow him to deny themselves and follow him.
IV. Jesus then describes what real servanthood is about in verses 41-45.
In verse 41, we see that the other ten disciples were indignant because they were afraid that the other two may have beaten them to those places of honor ahead of them. Their statement shows that they were no better than James and John. And this reflects the awful loneliness which Jesus must have endured on the journey to Jerusalem. It also indicates the degree to which selfish ambition and rivalry were the raw materials from which Jesus had to fashion leadership for the new church.
To illustrate their inappropriate desire for honor in verse 35, Jesus pointed to the conduct of the Gentiles who ruled over them. There is biting irony in the reference to those who give the illusion of ruling but simply exploit the people over whom they exercise their rule. In their struggle for rank and authority, the disciples were actually imitating the ones whom they undoubtedly despised. Rather the disciples are to express their love in the form of service like a servant. Jesus is teaching them that it is only by service that one becomes great. Being the greatest will be recognized in the community only when it is rooted in the service which Jesus commands.
Jesus summarizes this by reminding them that he came, not to be served but to serve. He voluntarily hid his glory as the Son of God and assumed the form of a slave who was ready to die because that was the will of God. In verse 45, the death of Jesus is presented as his service to God. His service is giving himself voluntarily so that our sins could be forgiven. The word “ransom” sums up the purpose for which Jesus gave his life. A ransom is paid to free a prisoner of war, a slave or someone held captive. It speaks of a liberation from something from which we cannot free ourselves. And Jesus suffering and death was “a ransom for many.” What happens to Jesus should have happened to the many. What no one can do on their own, Jesus, as the Son of Man, is able to achieve. Jesus gave himself so that we could live but live as servants as he did.
And so once again, we come back to the importance of serving in the kingdom. Many times we think of service as serving on the Council or a ministry team or doing something officially within the church. But service can be done very effectively in very quiet ways as well. Bruce Milne writes about Janet, a woman who served effectively in such a way in her church. He writes:
"Again and again she graciously turned aside approaches to serve on one of the church committees or in leadership of some ministry. The reason she gave was always the same: God had given her a ministry of caring for the especially needy ones, and she had to be free to do that. And so Sunday by Sunday and in all kinds of settings, she could be seen, seated with someone in need. Sometimes you would run into her in a café, or on a park bench, listening, loving, caring and encouraging.” Janet had many skills but she humbled herself and served quietly. Behind it all lay her inner secret, a profound love for Jesus Christ and a wholehearted commitment to serve him as she met him in his needy ones. Again and again she had learned, in good times and in bad, to give herself to him, no matter how costly. She lived out the way of the cross.”
This woman died prematurely but she lived her life fully in loving service to others as she denied herself, took up her cross and followed Jesus.
Is it honor or service that we desire as we live in God’s kingdom? Let’s confess our desires to been seen as important in the church. Let’s seek to serve in all kinds of ways as we deny ourselves and follow Jesus.