Jesus was headed for Jerusalem. As they walked along the road, He strode with determination to move towards His task ahead. The disciples were amazed and full of fear. Everyone knew the rumors about the plans of the Sanhedrin. Jerusalem had become a dangerous place. Something seemed to loom over them as they drew nearer and nearer to the City of David. The national tension was building as everyone waited to see how the story of the radical young preacher would play out. In the midst of it all, Jesus set His face like a flint towards the capitol and journeyed on. How could He face such danger so steadfastly?
At one point in their journey, Jesus took the twelve disciples aside. Once again, He tried to warn them about what was going to happen. For Him, it was clear as day. He said:
“‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled…
“‘…He will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.
“‘He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him. On the third day, he will rise again.’”
Wow. Jesus knew exactly, exactly what was about to happen. How? Well, He read the Word and understood the prophecies. He also had the Holy Spirit guiding and leading His understanding. The Spirit revealed the plans of His Father to Him, and He trusted His Father to carry them through. God was entirely in control of the unfolding situation. The Sanhedrin and all of the other characters that would play a part in the story were moving to accomplish God’s will, whether they meant to or not.
The Lord was going to use even the darkest evil in the hearts of men to bring about His good and perfect plan.
But even as Jesus explained the coming events in detail, His disciples didn’t get it.
Was the thought of Jesus’ death too terrible to think about? Or was His declaration that He would rise from the dead too strange to comprehend? All the disciples could seem to grasp was the vision of the conqueror, the Messiah who would come to rule and reign. THAT was the mission they wanted to join! That was the Son of Man they wanted Jesus to be. They could think of little else.
Imagine the chatter between the band of disciples and faithful followers who went everywhere with Jesus. Were they guessing how Jesus might take His seat of power? Were they hoping for even grander miracles than the ones they had already seen? How did they think He was going to squash the Roman Empire?
Wouldn’t it be fascinating to go back in time and join them for a mile or two as they walked towards Jerusalem?
At some point in their journey, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus. Now, this woman was not only the mother of two of Jesus’ closest disciples. She was also Jesus’ aunt. As she and her two sons came to Jesus, she got down and bowed before him. It was a sign of request. For you see, she was about to ask Jesus for something big. Her sons said, “‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’”
Wow, that was a bold. What could they possibly be seeking? “‘What do you want me to do for you?’” Jesus asked.
Their mother answered, “‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at Your right and the other at Your left in Your kingdom.’”
Ah. So that was their goal! They were trying to secure positions of honor for themselves for the day when Jesus established His realm. And since they were headed for the nation’s capitol, it probably looked like that time was coming soon.
As Jesus spoke of His Kingdom, they assumed that He was talking about a day when He would sit on the throne of David. And Jesus never denied this, for some day it is going to happen. He will fulfill all the prophecies that tell of a day when a descendent of David will sit on an everlasting throne. But that time was thousands of years in the distant future! There was much work to be done in the meantime.
John and James and their mother had no eyes to see the things that would come before the glorious time of Christ’s absolute rule. All they knew was that if the twelve disciples were going to sit on thrones and judge the nation of Israel, these two wanted to be the ones sitting on the thrones of highest honor.
Surely John and James had good reason to believe that they would be so highly chosen. They were His cousins after all! And while Jesus had His twelve disciples, He had an even closer, inner circle of three, and these two brothers were a part of it. Yet this grasping ambition was far from the ways of Christ. They were busy seeking the way to be first. They did not hear Jesus when He said that the last will be first and the first will be last.
Jesus answered them, “‘You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’”
One way the Bible describes God’s sovereign work is through the symbol of a cup. The cup holds God’s divine plan for a person or a group of people that He pours out on their lives. Sometimes it is a cup of blessing. At other times it is the cup of God’s wrath against sin. Jesus knew what was ahead on the cross. Before He became the crowning glory of God’s Kingdom, He knew the cup of God’s wrath would pour out on Him, bringing Jesus unimaginably great suffering. The agony we should rightly bear for our rebellion and rejection of God would be bourn by God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. It would be the most stunning victory in the history of humanity…but in the days ahead for James and John, it would look like a devastating defeat. Would James and John want to follow Him there?
They answered, “‘We can.’”
Jesus knew their great weaknesses. But He also knew what would happen after His great conquest. His death and resurrection would win the way for His Holy Spirit to come to James and John and empower them. They would be given the strength to sacrifice the things of this life in order to live for God. He would make the way so that they could become like Him. So He said:
“‘You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father.’”
Wow. Jesus knew what His life and death would mean for His disciples for the rest of their lives on earth. They would drink His cup of suffering. John alone would live on to be persecuted. He would watch the Church grow even as all of the other disciples lost their lives for the sake of the Gospel. John would end up exiled on an island because of His loyalty to Jesus. He would write five books of the Bible before the Lord took Him home, including the last one that tells us what happens when Christ returns.
As you read the words of Jesus, do you sense how He had a much bigger picture than everyone around Him? They were confined to the smaller landscape of things that were happening in their own time. But through the power of the Spirit, Jesus could understand His purposes for all time, and even beyond! He lived with the constant awareness of a far better life ahead in eternity. He was returning to His Father to sit on an everlasting throne, and His disciples would join Him. His Father had purposes for each of them in this life. He also has a plan for each of them in their everlasting life, but those plans are still hidden in the mystery of His wonderful will. The amazing thing is that we will be there to see it!
When the other disciples found out what James and John had asked for, they were annoyed. All of their competitiveness and pride came roaring to the surface. James and John had tried to get an upper hand over them in the Kingdom…and they tried to use their family ties to Jesus to get it! How quickly the disciples descended into the ways of grasping, sinful men. Surely if God could be trusted, He could be trusted about this! Yet they did not trust. And now they were divided. Was this how the leaders of God’s people were meant to act? They were starting to look like the Pharisees! Jesus said to them:
“‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.’”
Wow. Everything in God’s Kingdom was upside down! Actually, everything in God’s Kingdom is right side up, and the things of this world are upside down. In most societies, servants and slaves are constantly laboring to care for everyone else, but they receive the least pay, have the lowest status, and often receive very little kindness. Anyone who lives with that kind of humility in Christ’s Kingdom is the very greatest of all. And as Jesus prepared to lay down His life for the world, He became the perfect model of that greatness.