Passage – Mark 10:35-45
Over 25 years ago I left the world of stockbroking in the City and undertook some theological education before entering full-time Christian ministry. I learned a ton of stuff during that year of transition which has undoubtedly helped me, but one expression I heard that year has stuck with me and it’s this- ‘In ministry you’ve always got to be prepared to stack chairs.’ Not massively profound you’re probably thinking, but over the years it has been vital to keep in mind because as we’ll see in this week’s pep talk- it is something that’s so easy to forget.
The Request (v35-37)
James and John were some of the first disciples that Jesus called (1:19-20), and they had a request of Jesus- “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” (v35) They’d witnessed Jesus do many amazing things and now they wanted something for themselves. So Jesus replies, “What do you want me to do for you?” (v36) They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in glory.” (v37) Here’s the thing. They knew that Jesus was the Christ (8:29) who’d come to set God’s people free. As God’s anointed King, Jesus would enjoy a position of great power and James and John wanted some of that power themselves. If Jesus were to ask you today, “what do you want me to do for you?”, how would you answer? The pandemic to end, my health to recover, a new job, a spouse, a baby, a house, good grades, a repaired relationship , success? These things are the stuff of life and it’s OK to pray about them. However, James and John’s request exposed their lack of understanding about Jesus.
The Answer (v38-39a)
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” (v38) It’s surprising that James and John make this request of Jesus immediately after he’s explained to them for the third time what will happen when he goes up to Jerusalem (10:32-34). So Jesus explains again what he’s going to go through. Firstly, he’ll “drink the cup”. The cup represents God’s wrath at man’s sin (Isaiah 51:17). Secondly, he’ll be “baptised”. The baptism Jesus is referring to is to be overwhelmed by water, also an image of God’s judgment, like the flood (Genesis 6). Here Jesus is referencing his unique wrath-bearing death and subsequent resurrection. This makes James and John’s reply even more astonishing- ““We can,” they answered.” (v39) James and John simply don’t know what they’re asking because they don’t appreciate the extortionate price of freeing them from sin. They want the top spots but they’re unable to see what it will cost Jesus. As we reflect on how we might have answered Jesus’ question, “what do you want me to do for you?”, it’s humbling to realise that when he asked the disciples this, he was about to encounter God’s wrath for our sin so that we would not have to.
The Cross (v39b-40)
But then Jesus seems to contradict himself when he says- “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” (v39-40) Although Jesus suffered in our place as our substitute for our sins, there are two ways that we do share in his suffering. Firstly, he is also our representative, in that his death is also my death, just as his resurrection is also my resurrection. Secondly, we share in his suffering by following Christ unashamedly (8:34-38) for which we will suffer in this life. For example, in Acts 12:2 King Herod had James executed and in Revelation 1:9 we read of John imprisoned on Patmos, both for following Jesus. As Paul reminds Timothy- “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (3:12) As for the places of honour, Jesus underlines the fact that his purpose is not to grant such requests but to give his life for those whose places of honour have been prepared by God. This is a salutary reminder that we shouldn’t regard opposition for following Jesus as unusual but totally the norm.
The Calling (v41-45)
Not surprisingly James and John’s request for places of honour with Jesus didn’t go down well with the other disciples and so Jesus tells them what true greatness looks like. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” (v42) Back then, as is the case today, authority is often exercised in a controlling manner that makes the leader look powerful and impressive so others revere them. But Jesus says, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all.” (v43-44) To follow Jesus means serving the needs of others, and this is especially true in Christian leadership, hence the expression about “being willing to stack chairs.” It’s been encouraging over this past year to see how several of you have stepped up and served the needs of others in sacrificial ways, in very challenging circumstances. If we’re in any doubt that such sacrificial servant heartedness is our calling as Christians, Jesus adds- “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v45) The Son of Man, whom God gives all authority, glory and sovereign power and before whom all people will one day worship and whose kingdom will never end (Daniel 7:13-14), served us by giving his life for us. All that we do in humble, quiet, inconvenient, messy, hidden, time-consuming, frustrating service of others, is merely an expression of heartfelt thanks to the one who gave up everything for us.
Dear Lord God, thank you for creating me to know you, giving your Son for my redemption, and giving your Spirit as your mark of ownership of me. Please help me to follow you unashamedly and to be willing to serve you and your people in whatever ways that I can. May I deny self, take up my cross and follow you daily! Amen