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, 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. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
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.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 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?” 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, 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.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 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. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 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
The story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven has always intrigued me. Elijah clearly chose Elisha to be his successor because he knew that his prophetic ministry was coming to an end. And though we tend to think of Elijah’s direct trip to heaven via fiery chariots as being one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible, the whole account reads with a significant amount of heaviness. Elijah is going to be with the LORD, yes, but where will that leave Israel? Who is bold enough in the Spirit to call fire down from heaven to consume God’s adversaries?
Indeed, as they make the long journey, Elisha is greeted by prophets along the way, asking if he knows that his master is being taken from him. Elisha simply says, “yes, I know it; keep quiet” (2 Kings 2:3, 5). As Elijah crossed the Jordan and prepared to be taken up, he asked Elisha if he had one final request. “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” Elijah answered, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so” (2 Kings 2:9-10).
Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is marked by a far greater heaviness, for he was going not to be taken back to the Father but to be crushed by the Father. Although the prophets knew of Elijah’s departure, even the very wisest could not bring themselves to understand the plain plan that Jesus revealed to them. And in our text today, John and James make a request that seems reminiscent of Elisha’s so long before. Elisha’s request was granted so long as he had eyes to see Elijah’s departure, and while Jesus states that only the Father can grant the request that James and John desire, they will indeed become more like Him than they presently knew. Yes, they would reign with Him in His kingdom, but first they would share the cup of His suffering.
THE THIRD PREDICTION // VERSES 32-34
With this third prediction, Mark tells us explicitly for the first time that Jesus is going to Jerusalem. The Son of David, heir to that eternal throne, will be killed in the city from which He ought to rule. As He was walking, we read that the disciples followed behind in amazement, and those who walked behind the disciples were afraid. R. C. Sproul writes:
I believe Mark gives us this curious detail because of the resolute determination that the disciples saw in Jesus to go to His destiny. He had set His face like flint (Isa. 50:7) to go to Jerusalem, for He knew He was called to give Himself over to His enemies there, and He had taught his disciples what would happen to Him on more than one occasion (8:31-33; 9:30-32). Now, as He approached Jerusalem, Jesus did not linger. He moved quickly, keeping ahead of His disciples, going to His death with a firm step. Most of us, if we knew we were going to our deaths, would drag our feet. Not Jesus. He was prepared to obey the Father to the utmost end. The disciples could not get over it. They were amazed by His resolution and were terrified at what might befall Him at Jerusalem.
Pulling the twelve aside a third time, Jesus gave them the most explicit and detailed foretelling yet:
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. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.
While our eyes may be drawn to the details of mocking, spitting, and flogging, the disciples would have likely found the being delivered over to the Gentiles the most shocking portion to hear. I think that Sproul is right to see an allusion to the Day of Atonement here.
In Leviticus 16, which is the very heart of the Pentateuch, the instructions for the Day of Atonement were given. This was the only day that the high priest was allowed to enter into the most holy place, which contained the ark of the covenant, for it was the day where the high priest would make a sacrifice to atone for the sins of Israel. Indeed, one goat was slaughtered before the LORD on that day; however, another goat was sent into the wild. Just as the sacrificed goat was meant to be a substitution for the rightful death that Israel’s sin had earned, the other goat was meant to carry the sins of the Israelites away into the wilderness, never to be seen again. This is the origin of the term scapegoat.
Being delivered into the hands of the Gentiles is a foretelling that Christ’s death would be the great atonement of which both goats were only signs and shadows. Jesus would not only shed His blood for the forgiveness of sins, but He would do so outside the covenantal community, into the Gentile wilderness.
THE BOLD REQUEST OF JAMES & JOHN // VERSES 35-40
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.” Mark does not tell us whether this happened immediately after Jesus’ final prediction of His death and resurrection, but under the leading of the Spirit, he has clearly intended to set the request of James and John against that backdrop. What exactly was their request? Let us read it as well as Jesus’ reply.
And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 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?” 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, 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.”
Tim Keller summarizes this scene well:
To them, “in your glory” means “when you are seated on your throne,” in which case the people on the right and the left are like the prime minister and the chief of staff. John and James are saying, “When you take power, we would like the top places in your cabinet.” Here’s the irony of their request. What was Jesus’s moment of greatest glory? Where does Jesus most show forth the glory of God’s justice? And where does he reveal most profoundly the glory of God’s love? On the cross.
When Jesus is at the actual moment of his greatest glory, there will be somebody on the right and left, but they will be criminals being crucified. Jesus says to John and James: You have no idea what you’re asking.
Christ’s triumphant and conquering glory will come through His horrific and brutal humiliation, through Him being delivered into the hands of the Gentiles to be mocked, spit on, and flogged. Notice the two images that Jesus uses to convey His imminent suffering: a cup and a baptism.
The cup is common image of God’s wrath within in the Old Testament. Here are a few sample texts.
Psalm 75:8 | “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”
Isaiah 51:17 | Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering.
Jeremiah 25:15 | Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.
Habakkuk 2:16 | You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!
As for the baptism imagery, we must remember that the Greek word literally means immersion; thus, Jesus is saying, “with the immersion with which I am immersed.” Two Old Testament images ought to immediately come to mind: the great flood and the drowning of Pharaoh. In both instances, the LORD swept away the wicked with the mighty waters of His wrath. The Sons of Korah would employ such drowning metaphors for their own suffering in Psalm 42:7, where they lamented out to the LORD, “all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”
Our Lord is using both metaphors now to convey the intensity of His upcoming afflictions. He would soon drown under the waters of God’s furious judgment, and He would drink the cup of God’s wrath down the very last drop. And He would do so, even though He had committed not a single sin to earn God’s judgment and wrath.
Again, James and John did not fully understand what Jesus was saying. Because Jesus is so gentle in His replies toward them, I think that these brothers were beginning to understand that truth that Jesus would suffer before reigning as king. They seem to realize that the establishment of God’s kingdom would come at great cost, and they affirmed that they were ready to pay whatever price was necessary. Of course, they were most certainly still thinking of an earthly kingdom, nor do I believe that they thought His death in Jerusalem would be literal.
Jesus’ answer to them again reads like a father explaining things still too deep for his dear children yet to understand. He affirms to them that someone will indeed sit as His right and left hand in the coming kingdom, but that placement has already been prepared by the Father. As for James and John, they would indeed drink the cup and be baptized as Jesus Himself was.
On one level, we know that these disciples certainly did suffer after the manner of Christ. Interestingly, these brothers were the first and last of the apostles to die. Acts 12:2 tells us that James was the first of the disciples to be killed, being killed with the sword by order of Herod, while tradition tells us that John, though still suffering a great deal, was the only one of the twelve to die a natural death as an old man.
Yet on another level, James and John did not endure the same suffering as Christ. Indeed, none of us have, nor can we. Being without sin and in perfect communion with the Father, the torment that He endured in this life is thoroughly beyond our comprehension. As anyone who has grown in the Christian faith can attest, the slaying of particularly resistant sins almost never leads to a moment of feeling as though we have achieved a superior plain of holiness or, at least, not for long. Instead, a deeper understanding of our sinful nature is almost always discovered soon after, often causing us to see for the first-time sins that have been lurking within us our whole lives. It is as if the resistant sin blinded us to deeper sins that we could not see until it was first removed. Walking in the light of God’s holiness reveals caverns in our hearts that we never knew existed because they were shrouded in the darkness of sin.
This thought corrects one of the greatest fallacies throughout human history, which is the belief that the wicked can also be wise. Of course, the wicked may be cunning as Satan himself is; however, sin obscures wisdom by its very nature. Darkness is unable to understand light, while the light is able to understand the darkness. Likewise, evil cannot understand goodness, but goodness can understand evil. I make this point in order to correct any erroneous thought that Jesus was naïve or that His temptations were lighter than ours because He never sinned. On the contrary, Jesus understood the depths of sin far better than any of us ever will, specifically because He never sinned. We can only observe our sin like a fish observes water; Christ, however, saw the whole frame of reality as only the unstained can.
Therefore, even if we were to die the most horrific deaths imaginable, we deserve nothing better. We have each sinned against the eternal Creator, and eternal death is a paycheck well earned. We, therefore, simply cannot ever experience the kind of suffering that Christ endured.
And yet, like James and John, we do share in Christ’s passion to some extent. Particularly, I do not think it is accidental that the images of a cup and baptism line up with the two sacraments that our Lord instituted for His church. Whenever we are immersed into the waters of baptism, we are buried with Christ, facing the waters of judgment in peace and joy rather than with in fear and trembling. Whenever we drink the cup of the new covenant, we drink the cup of fellowship in remembrance that Christ drank the cup of wrath on our behalf. By baptism, we are baptized with Christ’s baptism, and at the Lord’s Supper, we do drink from Christ’s cup.
I will close this section of verses with some comments from J. C. Ryle on what we can learn from James and John’s request:
Let the case before us teach us the importance of solid and calm judgment of our religion. Like James and John, we are right in coveting the best gifts, and in telling all our desires to Christ. Like them we are right in believing that Jesus is King of kings, and will one day reign upon the earth. But let us not, like them, forget that there is a cross to be borne by every Christian, and that ‘through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). Let us not, like them, be over-confident in our own strength, and forward in professing that we can do anything that Christ requires. Let us, in short, beware of a boastful spirit, when we first begin to run the Christian course. If we remember this, it may save us many a humbling fall.
IT SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU // VERSES 40-45
Verse 41 was virtually inevitable. After being told earlier that the disciples had gotten into an argument about who was the greatest, the indignation of the other ten against James and John was bound to happen. It is no surprise either that Jesus then called all of the twelve to Himself to give them much of the same lesson in the humility of the kingdom:
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. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In verses 42-44, Jesus contrasts worldly authority with authority within God’s kingdom. Rulers within the world lord over others and delight in the power that they hold over them. Examples of this reality are not difficult to find. They exist within corporations and governments certainly, but they also are found within churches and households. Or perhaps we have all encounter the store supervisor who uses their promotion into authority to become an authoritarian dictator over his or her employees. Yet we have no moral high ground, for we each have that tendency within us. As Calvin said, “everyone flatters himself and carries, as it were, a kingdom in his breast.”
But it ought not to be so within God’s kingdom. Within God’s kingdom, the greatest are the lowliest, and its rulers are servants of all. Let us heed Ryle’s words once more:
Let all who desire to please Christ, watch and pray against self-esteem. It is a feeling which is deeply rooted in our hearts. Thousands have come out of the world, taken up the cross, professed to forsake their own righteousness, and believe in Christ, who have felt irritated and annoyed, when a brother has been more honoured than themselves. These things ought not so to be. We ought often to ponder the words of St Paul, ‘Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than themselves’ (Phil. 2:3). Blessed is that man who can sincerely rejoice when others are exalted, though he himself is overlooked and passed by!
We find a glimpse of this attitude within the angels of heaven. Psalm 8:5 clearly tells us that we were created lower than the angels, and we see that they are more glorious than us with each appearance of them in Scripture. Indeed, so glorious are they that even the godliest men are sometimes tempted to fall at their feet in worship and must be corrected. Yet Hebrews 1:14 says of the angels, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” It is the glory of the angels to minister before the LORD by serving His people.
Of course, we have an even greater example than the angels. As Hebrews 1 makes clear, Jesus is “as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (v. 4). Indeed, the angels are glorious because they dwell continually in the present of Glory Himself; Jesus, however, “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). With this eternal and unfading glory in mind, note the example that Jesus gives to His disciples: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus Himself is our supreme example of the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. Although as the One by Whom all things were created, He had every right and ability to come into this world that He made as a triumphing King demanding the immediate and complete servitude of every person on this planet. Instead, the Son of Man, to Whom the Ancient of Days has “given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14), came as a servant.
The music is so perfect, so final, that it carries its own message. Its notes are revolutionary and hope-begetting. It is revolutionary; the Son of Man, Messiah, anointed to Kingship and to mastery, and to government, the One upon Whose shoulders the final government must rest; came not to be served, but to serve. Two millenniums have run their course, and the world has not yet understood that. Even the Church has hardly begun to apprehend the profound significance of the startling declaration.
Yet Christ’s death was not simply to give us the supreme example of humble service. The second half of the verse explains the supreme act of service that Christ had come to give: He was to give His life as a ransom. We tend to only think of ransoms today as pertaining to kidnappings, but for the vast majority of human history ransoms were primarily associated with slavery or servitude, in which a ransom was the price to be free from bondage. Although Jesus does not explain further, He was clearly stating that He came to ransom many from slavery at the price of His own blood.
The New Testament epistles make it clear that it was our slavery to sin that Christ came to pay. Our sin created a cosmic debt against the Father, an eternal debt that demanded an execution of His righteous judgment. Jesus, the Eternal One, offered His life as our ransom by dying in our place, by taking our judgment upon Himself.
Yet His ransom is for many, not for all. The atoning work of Christ only applies to those who call upon His name for salvation, to those who cry out to Christ to be freed from their bondage to sin. The blood of the lamb at Passover did not ransom the lives of the Egyptians but only those who sprinkled it over their household. Neither did the two goats atone for the sins of all the nations but only for the worshipers of Yahweh, those who belonged to the covenant community of Israel.
Although not all will be ransomed from their slavery to sin and follow Christ, He has commanded all to come to Him. Midnight shall soon come when Christ comes in judgment against all who reject His pardon and sovereignty, but there is still time to be sprinkled with the blood of the Lamb. The day is coming soon when those who rejected Christ will be slain and cast forever into the eternal wilderness of God’s wrath, but there is still time yet to look upon Christ as our scapegoat, as the atoning sacrifice made in our place. Confess Him as Lord now and follow Him by being baptized into His baptism.
For we who have already followed Christ into the waters of baptism that once-for-all sign of our once-for-all ransom from sin, we come now to the perpetual sign of our communion with Him. At the King’s Table, let us drink the cup of blessing in remembrance that our Lord drank the cup of cursing in our place. Indeed, is this not a marvelous visualization of the atonement, that Christ has taken our cup to drink and given us His cup to drink instead!
 Ryle, Mark, 172.