Be Careful What You Ask For

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.” Mark 10:32-45 ESV

For the third time, Jesus reveals to His disciples what awaits Him in Jerusalem, including additional details that paint an even bleaker picture. They are making their way from the region of Perea to the capital city, and it is a somber and silent procession. This time, there are no arguments about greatness taking place among the disciples. They are still trying to take in all that Jesus had shared with them while they were in Perea. And the last thing they heard Him say must have made an impact on them.

“I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much—homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions…” – Mark 10:29-30 NLT

To their shock and surprise, Jesus had told them that one of the rewards awaiting them for having left everything to follow Him (Mark 10:28) was persecution. They each aspired to greatness, but Jesus had thrown cold water on those lofty aspirations, promoting a lifestyle of humility and service instead. In fact, He had turned their expectations upside down by claiming, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31 ESV).

So, as Jesus leads the way, the 12 disciples and a small contingent of other faithful followers tag along behind Him, confused and perplexed about what may lie ahead.

Jesus, fully aware of their reservations about returning to Jerusalem, pulls aside the 12 and provides them with one last reminder of His fate.

“Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and experts in the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him severely, and kill him. Yet after three days, he will rise again.” – Mark 10:33-34 NLT

Jesus was painfully explicit, refusing to hide the truth from His disciples. They are on the path that leads to Jerusalem, and Jesus reminds them that once they reach their destination, all hell will break loose – literally. The religious leaders of Israel will allow their hatred of Jesus to come to an explosive crescendo, resulting in His torture and execution. The one they consider to be the Messiah of Israel is telling them that He is going to die. Rather than being crowned the King of Israel, He will be condemned to death. Instead of being revered as the chosen one of God, He will be ridiculed and mocked as a common criminal, then killed.

But, as He had done before, Jesus adds the most important detail that His disciples continue to ignore: “after three days, he will rise again” (Mark 10:34 NLT).

What happens next is truly amazing, and it portrays the disciples in a very unflattering light. But it is not the first time these men revealed their true colors. In the previous chapter, Mark recorded their response to another one of Jesus’ attempts to explain His destiny in Jerusalem. The disciples had gotten into an argument over which of them was the greatest.

This time, it’s James and John who get exposed for their insensitivity and apparent stupidity. They just didn’t get it. Nothing Jesus had said seemed to have registered with them. Perhaps they were simply trying to avoid the awkward subject Jesus had raised. But, whatever their motive, their actions are difficult to comprehend or justify. Immediately after hearing Jesus describe His pending death in Jerusalem, these two brothers have the unmitigated gall to approach Jesus with a totally self-centered request.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask. – Mark 10:35 NLT

These two men were the sons of Salome, the sister of Mary. This would have made them the half-cousins of Jesus. And it would appear that they believed their blood ties to Jesus qualified them for special treatment. In essence, they ask Jesus for a blank check. They want Him to affirm their request even before they make it known. But Jesus makes no such assurances, instead, He asks them to state their request. And what they share is truly remarkable and unfathomable.

“Permit one of us to sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

Had they heard nothing Jesus had said? Were they so incredibly dense that they could not comprehend a single word He had spoken to them? All His comments regarding greatness in the Kingdom of God had gone in one ear and out the other. They were still expecting Jesus to ascend the throne of David and establish His Kingdom in Jerusalem, and they were hoping to nab the two most powerful and prominent positions in His administration. These two fishermen from Galilee were demanding that Jesus elevate them to the two highest ranks available in any royal court. When they had heard Jesus say, “many who are first will be last, and the last first,” they had completely misconstrued His meaning. They must have assumed that their lowly estate as fishermen made them the perfect candidates for these two highly prestigious roles.

But they had no idea what they were asking. When they mentioned Jesus coming into His glory, there were thinking a royal throne. But Jesus had referred to His glory as being His crucifixion. He told His disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:23-25 ESV). 

The cross would be the means by which Jesus received glory from the Father. He would die, but then He would be raised back to life again. And it would be His death and resurrection that provided the final proof that He was the Messiah and the Savior of the world. That is why Jesus was able to say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 ESV). And John clarified that Jesus was speaking of His death.

He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. – John 12:32 ESV

So, when James and John asked for the right to sit on Jesus’ right and left when He came into His glory, they were unwittingly asking to take the place of the two thieves who would be crucified beside Him. That’s why Jesus told them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I experience?” (Mark 10:38 NLT). 

Their understanding of glory was way off. They were thinking of thrones, crowns, royal robes, power, and prominence. But Jesus was speaking of doing the will of His Heavenly Father. He would be “lifted up,” but to a cross and not to a royal dais with a golden throne. Jesus’ path to greatness and glory would pass through the valley of death. He would have to drink the cup of God’s wrath and be immersed into the suffering that must accompany the sacrifice of His life for the sins of mankind.

James and John, still unable to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words, boldly proclaimed their readiness and willingness to handle whatever responsibilities came with their new positions. But Jesus informed them that their time would come. They would get their opportunity to prove their allegiance by experiencing the same kind of harsh treatment from the world as Jesus was about to undergo.

“You will drink the cup I drink, and you will be baptized with the baptism I experience.” – Mark 10:39 NLT

James would be the first of the disciples to become a martyr for the cause of Christ (Acts 12:2). John would later be exiled by the Roman Emperor to the island of Patmos. And it is believed that he too eventually suffered a martyr’s death. But both men would be glorified and reunited with Jesus in His heavenly Kingdom.

When news of what James and John had done reached the rest of the disciples, they were incensed. Once again, the issue of greatness raised its ugly head as the remaining disciples fumed over the attempt of James and John to secure for themselves the two best spots in Jesus’ royal administration. And once again, we see that none of the 12 disciples were able to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. Their anger reveals their jealousy and thinly veiled hope that they might be chosen for greatness. So, one more time, Jesus attempts to open their eyes to the truth. He contrasts the ways of the world with the ways of the Kingdom of God. They are two diametrically opposed systems that promote completely different brands of leadership.

In the Gentile world, leadership was all about power and domination. It was maintained by wielding authority and motivated by self-promotion and the subjugation of others. But God’s Kingdom operated on a completely different paradigm.

“…whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all.” – Mark 10:44 NLT

And just to make sure they understood what He was talking about, Jesus used Himself as the quintessential example of true greatness.

“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.” – Mark 10:45 NLT

Jesus was about to lay down His life for the sheep. Even though He was the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel, He was going to make the ultimate sacrifice that would pay the ransom for the sins of mankind. He would lead by serving. He would display His sovereignty by sacrificing. He would achieve glory through dying. And when James and John later witnessed the two thieves hanging on either side of their friend and teacher, it seems likely that their awkward conversation with Jesus would have come to mind. There before them was the greatest display of what Jesus had been trying to tell them. The innocent Lamb of God dying on behalf of sinful men and flanked by two common criminals who deserved exactly what was happening to them. In that moment, James and John must have realized that those were the two positions they had so arrogantly requested and so rightfully deserved.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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