Mark 10:35-40 “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized 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.'”
Having an unambitious son is most frustrating for his parents. Here is a lad content to live with his mother and father, satisfied with his unemployment benefit, and disinterested in marriage. He has no hobbies; he only reads the morning paper, and every night he watches television for hours. So his years go by, and he has no other plans for the future. He lives to the despair of his mother and father. His contemporaries despise him because they are all ambitious men. They dream of being rich, travelling and becoming famous. That is better than indolence, of course. God wants us all to be ambitious men and women, but he insists on telling us what our ambitions are to be. We ourselves are to know the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that is eternal life. We are to love him with all our hearts. We are to glorify God in everything we do. We are to be filled with all the fulness of God. We are to help bring in the kingdom of God so that the earth is filled with the knowledge of his glory. We are to live for ever in a new heaven and earth. Give up your small ambitions! Dream the impossible dream; reach the unreachable shore. Look beyond the phantom world of television, and sport, and music, and movies. God is ultimate reality. Live for him! Live with God! Live now! Jesus Christ came that you might live, not just survive. I want you to examine with me two men whose lives were being damaged by vain glory, and how the Lord Jesus sorted them out.
1. THE SELF CONFIDENCE OF TWO YOUNG MEN.
We are told that “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him,” (v.25). These two brothers were young men, maybe around twenty years of age or younger, who had been following the Lord Christ for a couple of years. They’d seen his mightiest miracles and heard his profoundest teaching. When they heard someone say, “No one ever spoke like Jesus of Nazareth,” they knew exactly what that speaker was getting at because they’d heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount. They’d seen the dead raised. Winds and waves obeyed Christ. The greatest privileges anyone could have had since the fall of Adam had been theirs.
What do we know about them? They came from a well-to-do home. When initially we are introduced to them in the first chapter of the gospel they are working at their boats and nets with hired servants. Here were a couple of fellows used to giving orders to people. So they had left a fairly salubrious upbringing to follow Jesus. It was not long before their mother, Salome, also became a Christian. A devout woman she was soon a leading member in that group of women from Galilee taking care of the needs of the Lord Jesus. When Matthew tells us about Jesus’ crucifixion he says that “the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matt. 27:56) was with the band of women who were in turn sitting or standing in the awful darkness of the hill of Golgotha while Jesus and the other two young men were hanging on their crosses there. We also know that James and John both had a short fuse because when a Samaritan village wouldn’t tolerate Jesus’ preaching they asked the Lord for authority to call down fire from heaven and destroy the whole ‘godforsaken place,’ men, women, children – the lot. When these brothers later came across a Christian preacher delivering a person from devilish influences in the name of Jesus they had told him to desist forthwith, explaining to the Lord, “He doesn’t belong to our group.” These are the disciples whom Jesus had chosen and whom he loved, John in particular.
In the incident we are considering they have asked their mother to approach Jesus on their behalf to make a special request. Matthew is the evangelist who recounts that fact in chapter 20 and verse 20 of his gospel. He describes the details like this, that Salome knelt down before Jesus when she spoke to him. Her boys were reckoning on the Lord Jesus’ immense tenderness and respect for women, and especially for this devout woman who lovingly waited on our Lord day by day. How could Jesus refuse what she asked him for? So the sons had set up their mother with this request because they were the ones who were behind her words, and that was so evident that when Mark describes the incident to us he cuts to the chase and says that it was really the brothers who were asking the question. We mustn’t think of them as squirming with embarrassment and saying in their hearts, “Oh Mother! What are you saying?” So you have to imagine the scene, the two brothers facing Jesus and there, kneeling on the ground before them, looking up to Christ and beseeching him, was Mum, their spokeswoman, Salome.
This is what these three say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (v.35). It is an extraordinary statement to make to God the Son. “We want YOU, to do for US whatever we ask.” In other words, “we are asking you, Jehovah Jesus, to serve us, and to rubber stamp our request.” They said this before telling him what they wanted. They might also have pleaded Jesus’ own words that if two on earth were agreed on any request that he would grant it. They were three! Surely they were bound to get what they wanted. They were his own loyal disciples. How could Jesus refuse them? We can simply say in their defence that they were very young Christians; disciples of our Lord before the cross and before Pentecost. Young Christians are brashly overconfident. They know all about the will of God, and about preaching and pastoring and praying. When we started out as baby Christians we asked for simple things, it might have been a ticket to an International Rugby match, and when we got it we were thrilled at the power of prayer. However, God soon matured us by giving us far vaster themes to bring to the throne of the universe, and we have been praying ever since for huge subjects like the revival of true religion and the conversions of men and women whom we love, and Christ-likeness in the church. We are in for the long haul, and we’ve become grateful that the Lord refused to give us some of our earlier requests. I am sure that James and John, looking back on this scene a year or so later, their mother kneeling down making this request on their behalf, would have been red-faced at the indelible memory of that day, and would have shaken their heads with embarrassment that they had told Jesus, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” What a vain words to say to the Almighty Son of God. That’s the one you’re dealing with. So here we have the self-confidence of two young men.
2. THE VAIN AMBITION OF TWO YOUNG MEN.
The Lord Jesus asks them, ” What do you want me to do for you?” You see the identical question Jesus asks Bartimaeus a few verses later (v.51), and the blind fellow wants just one thing, that he might see. These two boys ask for glory and power. I suppose we can imagine the Lord Christ standing before every one of us today and he is asking us, “What do you want me to do for you? Why have you come here? What are your looking for? What are your expectations in life from me?” These two brothers wanted to be next to the Lord Christ in the coming kingdom. These are their words, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other on your left in your glory” (v.37). Now you recollect the time when James and John asked this. It was just after the Saviour has told them how his own life was going to end, in suffering, crucifixion and resurrection. When the brothers heard this on the road to Jerusalem didn’t their whole lives seem to come crashing down around them? Had there not been two earlier occasions when he’d warned them that this was going to happen, and right after both those warnings, within a matter of hours, either the apostles had opposed him or they had fallen apart arguing as to who would be the greatest in the Kingdom. After hearing this account of the agonies that were days away they were still jockeying for power, James and John getting in their request before Peter or the others got in theirs. Once in each of the previous chapters, 8 and 9, and now again here in chapter 10, a little power struggle emerges amongst the twelve, the will of the apostles or the will of Jesus? Who is going to be the greatest? We are seeing that even Jesus’ own words were powerless to change them before the resurrection, and before the Holy Spirit was poured upon them. These two nice religious boys with a nice religious mother were as yet concerned about themselves, and getting honour and glory in the new kingdom – “What’s in it for us?” But there is the great apostolic admonition they would soon learn; “Let nothing be done through . . . vain glory” (Phils. 2:3).
Are we any different from James and John? We all want to go to heaven, the children as much as anyone. All the people of Aberystwyth want to go to heaven, and who is the man that people ask, “Put in a word for me Reverend. Say a prayer for me, father. Light a candle for me before the virgin,” in order to make sure of their place there? No! Do what these brothers did. Go to the Lord Jesus and ask him that he will take you to heaven. Most of us come to church every Sunday, and we often hear a powerful word on the cross of Christ. The love of Christ in giving himself for us is constraining us to change and to live holy loving lives. We’ve sung, “my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride,” and yet going home in the car the preacher himself is complaining to his wife that the congregation didn’t seem to be appreciating him any longer, and maybe he ought to look for another church. Or a husband starts bullying his wife, or the parents are speaking to the children in a loveless way, and old Ego is showing how alive and strong it is – all in the shadow of Calvary! That is the exact scene we have here. Good boys, with high ambitions, dealing with the Son of God, and yet spoiled by self.
What can we say in defence of James and John? They had listened carefully to what Jesus had said, but he had ended that catalogue of pain by speaking about being raised from the dead, and that one word was enough for the brothers. They still believed in him. They had been told by the Master that they were going to sit on thrones and they were going to judge angels. They were ascending to Jerusalem, and the next ascent after that would surely be up to heaven’s throne! You say to these brothers the name of Jesus and what immediately came into their minds? The throne of God in heaven. That is the prime connection with Christ which their faith made. The connection was glory, and kingship, and triumph over death. That is a wonderful faith! They had a theology of victory; the triumph of their rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, over all his enemies, even death, was what they believed in. Though he was found in fashion as a man, and had taken the form of a servant, nevertheless he’d made an extraordinary impact upon them. He had revolutionised their thinking about life and death and eternity. He was going to reign for ever and ever – this man walking on the road with them; the man pausing to drink, and eat, and rest, and go to the toilet. James and John showed heroic trust in him. Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen. The whole Jewish establishment hated Jesus and were plotting his death, but these two young men had confidence in their own Jesus. He was going to have illimitable sway over the kingdom of God, and they didn’t want to be left out. They wanted to be where he was, as near as possible to him, one on each side. As Jesus was going to rise again it could only mean that the dawn of the promised messianic age was on the horizon. Soon the messianic banquet would begin, and they didn’t want to be left out, indeed, as those belonging to the very inner core of his disciples, they desired places of honour in the world to come, on his right and left.
How does the loving Lord Jesus answer their prayer? “‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?'” (v.38).[Let me digress for a moment and freshen you up. Isn’t this an inelegant translation? Isn’t it rather pathetic? Listen! “be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with”? Ouch. Some American associate professor of New Testament translated that one afternoon in his study in a seminary maybe somewhere in Texas, and no one on the NIV English style committee picked it up and improved it later when they were sent his translation. So today we across the Atlantic have to read those words publicly twenty-five years later! Come on! It speaks of improper haste in a holy work. It is like the NIV translation of Genesis 3:11, “have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Oh dear! But let me hasten to say this, that the Authorised Version translation of our text is identical with that of the NIV, in other words, just as bad. You say, “How can our text be improved?” Easily; “be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptized.” You fans of the English Standard Version – don’t look so pleased with yourselves, but you’ll be glad to hear that its translation of Genesis 3:11 is also superior. Now that I’ve trod on everyone’s toes let us return from that little excursus. Please don’t let that be the only thing you take home with you.]
So Jesus asks them whether they can be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized, and the boys say, “Sure.” The fundamental mistake these two boys were making was to float over those other events which were to take place in Jerusalem. Wasn’t the Lord emphasising those events, the betrayal, the mockery, the spitting, the flogging, and the death of Jesus? The boys were dismissing the cross and absolutising the crown. All they had in their minds was his resurrection and their seats alongside him in glory, but it was solely because of the route that Jesus took that he could get to his journey’s end. Imagine a man coming into your home and looking at your front room and the beautiful three-piece suite you have and saying to you, “Aren’t you lucky?” Then you think of the years you spent in college and the nights spent studying, burning the midnight oil, and your first job, and the diligence you spent working there, often bringing home work in the evenings, the many Saturdays you had to work, how you wrestled with being generous and yet careful not to get into debt paying back your mortgage, and helping the children go through university. This man is sitting there in your best room and he is saying, “Aren’t you lucky?” It has nothing at all to do with luck. So it was with James and John seeing in their minds’ eyes the Lord Jesus sitting on the throne in glory and thinking, “We want a share of that,” but ignoring the manner in which he had attained it.
So Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking. Yes they are almost the best seats in the kingdom, but do you know the price of those two seats? The price is a ‘cup’ that has to be drunk, and a fearful baptism. That was Jesus’ own way to the very best seat of all, by the cup he had to drink and the baptism with which he had to be baptized. What has he just said to them? Were they, “Boys, I want to tell you that I am going up to Jerusalem to be raised from the dead?” No. That’s the conclusion, but, before that, what a cup of hatred he would have to drink. What a baptism of affliction he’d have to endure. He was going to Jerusalem to face judicial murder by the most terrible tortures. That was Jesus’ route to his throne, it had to be via Golgotha. There was no other way and today there is still no other way for anyone to get to heaven. No man reaches the throne but by the humiliated, beaten-up, tortured, dying, dead Christ. So the Lord underlines this by way of two vivid metaphors:
i] The cup.
Jesus speaks about a cup and its contents must be drunk. The prophets were the first to refer to the cup. There could be a cup of happiness – “my cup overflows,” says David in Psalm 23, but in Psalm 75 and verse 8 the psalmist warns, “in the hand of the Lord there is a cup” and he is thinking of the judgment which the Lord is preparing to extend to the wicked. Isaiah thinks of the disasters which have come upon Israel and this is how he describes them; they have drunk “at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath” (Isa. 51:17). In Jeremiah the Lord asks this question, “If those who do not deserve to drink the cup must drink it, why should you go unpunished?” (Jer. 49:12). None was spared in the nation when the Babylonians took them into exile. The godly remnant, the women and the children and the old folk, all alike were driven to the slave market. They didn’t deserve it but they’d all been made to drink that cup of wrath. Off into exile they’d gone; certainly corrupt and carnal people must drink it. “Rouse yourself, rouse yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl of staggering” (Isa. 51:17). Here were sinners hopelessly and irretrievably under the wrath of God.
The Lord Jesus himself, the spotless Son of God, was faced with such an awesome cup. He who had never contracted sin of any kind, holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, utterly lacking in sins of thought and mind and heart and soul and imagination, as pure and sinless as the holy God himself, he was given a cup of acid wickedness to drink – all our defilements were in it. Not a drop had fallen anywhere else for the angels to lick up. Not only all our iniquity was there but God’s hatred of it – all that was in the cup before him. He looked at it with horror; God the Son taking right into himself that which was undiluted evil. Receiving that wickedness Jesus must face an advancing God armed with inconceivable vengeance towards all the ungodliness of man. “Is there another cup?” Jesus cried in Gethsemane. Was there any possibility, consistent with the holy glory of God, for that cup to pass from him? Was Golgotha the only way? Here was the man Christ Jesus, and in the Garden he’s in terrible distress, because for the first time all our evil and the Father’s measureless hatred of it is coming together within his mortal body. He falls to the ground and he prays that it may not be so. “Take the cup from me!” He rises and he falls again; “Can there be another cup which will yet save rebel sinners?” He rises and falls yet again! No Father comes to him with outstretched arms to comfort him and to offer Plan B. The Lofty One is silent. Heaven is barred with a thousand bolts. There is no other way than by that cup, and by Jesus – all by himself – drinking the contents of that cup. God’s righteousness demanded it. Our sin required it. Satan feared it, and Christ took it. It took his sweat as drops of blood for him to take it. It took strong cryings and tears to drink it. It took sessions of prayer to take it, but take it he did. That was the cup. Damnation was in it, and he drank it lovingly for us!
ii] The baptism.
William Barclay was appointed a lecturer in New Testament in Glasgow University in 1947 and became professor in 1963 which post he held for the next eleven years until he retired. I guess that he would dub me a ‘fundamentalist.’ He was a liberal and I cannot recommend many of his views of the person and work of the Son of God; his theological interpretations are not safe, but he was immense in his linguistic studies. He was a Presbyterian, and I am about to quote to you what he said about the meaning of the Greek word for baptism. This comes from a man who did not share my practice or my ecclesiastical bias. In other words, certainly he wasn’t a Bible thumping Baptist, but he did have encyclopaedic knowledge of Greek language and literature, popularising this discipline and making it more accessible to the non-Greek reader as no other 20th century writer. He wrote these words, “The Greek verb ‘baptizein’ means to ‘dip.’ Its past participle (‘bebaptismenos’) means ‘submerged,’ and it is regularly used of being ‘submerged in any experience.’ For instance, a spendthrift is said to be submerged in debt. A drunk person is said to be submerged in drink. A grief-stricken person is said to be submerged in sorrow. A pupil before a cross-examining teacher is said to be submerged in questions. The word is regularly used for a ship that has been wrecked and ‘submerged’ beneath the waves. The metaphor is very closely related to a metaphor which psalmists often use. In Psalm 42 verse 7 we read, “All your waves and your billows have gone over me.” In Psalm 124 verse 4 we read, “Then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us” (William Barclay, “The Gospel of Mark in the New Daily Bible Study,” Saint Andrew Press, 2001, p.297). It is a shame that Tyndale transliterated the word ‘baptizein’ inventing a new English word ‘baptise.’ He should have given a new dignity to the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘dip’, a dignity it will never now possess. Tyndale made ‘baptise’ an exclusive ecclesiastical word, which it was not when the Lord Jesus used it speaking to his disciples.
The Lord Jesus might have just used one fearful metaphor when he talked to these brothers about the terrible cup that he would have to drink, but the Saviour brings in this additional metaphor to underline the horrors of Golgotha. He was about to be submerged, he says, deep into man’s hatred, and mockery, and torment, and killing, and death. He was going to go down and down into that. More than that, he was to descend into the bottomless pit of the unrestrained wrath of God towards our sin; down and down into the lake of fire he was going to go, consigned by the divine anathema upon sin that he had freely taken. He had become – our sin! My sin! And Jesus was dipped deep into it. He would feel himself drowning, carried down and down by the weight of that wickedness far from God. When he cried for rescue God didn’t answer him. Every breath in that darkness which Jesus breathed was contaminated by sin; every thought he had was attacked by sin. Every sight he had was of the evil of sin. God consigned him to all that when Jesus was made sin, and God abandoned him there. That was Jesus’ dipping. That was the route that he had to take to get to the throne. For the joy that was set before him he endured that – the fearful cross – but now he is seated at the right hand of God. By his cross he came to sit on his throne, and neither James nor John nor anyone else could have sat on their thrones without his cup and without his submersion.
Who could endure what Almighty God the Son endured? How fearful it will be to endure all the weight of the blame of your own sin for ever and ever. Imagine all the accumulated guilt of every sin of your life, with all the accompanying regrets, summoned back and laid to your burning conscience world without end Amen! Isn’t that hell? But think of this, what if I had to bear one other person’s guilt as well as my own. Just one other person’s answerability for a defiant rebel life, but I was being made to bear that also. Think of it! My own, but also all the years of that person’s contempt of God and man. How crushing to bear my own sin, but now I am being thrust down carrying his also! But Jesus didn’t bear the weight of one or two people, he bore the guilt of a company of individual men and women without number! He knew and loved every one of them, and he took each one’s sin. “He loved me, and gave himself for me,” said Paul. That was the cup he drank. He experienced that baptism. So do you see his question to James and John, and his question to you? “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (v.38).
Jesus is setting before you now a cup; it is your own cup and it is almost full to the brim. It is filling up, and by the day of your death it will be full. You yourself have filled it with your defiance of God; all your neglect of God, your loveless life, your sins of omission, your stupidities and follies, the people you have hurt whose faces you can see now – all your own wickedness is in that cup.
3. THE CONFIDENT IGNORANCE OF TWO YOUNG MEN.
“Can you drink the cup?” asked Jesus. Yes, they could. “‘We can,’ they answered” (v. 39). These were two young unproven followers of Jesus. They’d hardly preached any sermons. They had known no suffering. They were untried and untested men. They’d never been put in the cauldron. Jesus’ authority had rubbed off somewhat onto them, and through being with him they were full of self-confidence. Their response, “We can do it!” reminds me of the first time George Whitefield came to Wales, meeting Hywel Harris outside Cardiff Castle. Harris’ first words to Whitefield were very striking to the Gloucester man, “Do you know your sins are forgiven?” Harris the seasoned campaigner had been preaching in the open air to crowds for a couple of years, but this was Whitefield’s first attempt. The large crowd that had assembled to hear Harris attracted pickpockets and showmen and players. One man began to mock Whitefield as he spoke to them, standing at the front and mimicking his every gesture making the onlookers roar with laughter. Whitefield found it deeply disconcerting; he couldn’t handle it, and soon he retired in confusion to the back of the platform. Then Harris came to the front and announced his text, “The book of Revelation chapter 6 and the last verse, verse 17, ‘For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?'” The clown standing in the front shouted out, “I am able!’ Harris cast his eye upon him and said vehemently, “What, thou poor contemptible worm!” The man fell backwards to the ground in fear at those words, as though he had been poleaxed, and there he remained throughout Harris’ mighty sermon.
Sinner, do you think you can remain standing when confronted by the God who is light, in whom is no darkness at all. When righteous John the apostle saw him on the island of Patmos then that holy and loving apostle couldn’t keep standing. He fell before him. How do you think it will be for you to meet the one who is a consuming fire? If the seraphim hide their eyes before him – and they have never, never sinned – what will it be like for the sinner in that day? Do you think you will mumble out some words, as if beginning to conduct your own defence for your rotten life? Every mouth will be stopped, and every man will be found guilty before God. All that the world will want is to get away from that place where an angry God is to be found, to hide from him. They will cry to the rocks and mountains to fall on top of them and cover them, hoping they will be able to cover them from God. Here, now, is the cup full of the stinking years of your life; it is there before you. Who is going to drink it? If you boldly cry what James and John cried, “Yes, we can drink it,” then, I tell you, its acids will destroy you, and eternity itself is too short a time for your destruction. What are you going to do with your cup? What will you do with that cup? It won’t go away. God sets it before you. Every time you sit down henceforth that cup will be before you. That is the prayer of Geoff Thomas for you. I pray you will never have another day of peace while you refuse to do anything with that cup of your sins. Every time you pick up a pint of beer this divine cup will be before you. Every time you see a mug of tea on the table before you then you’ll think of this cup that is overflowing with your own defilements and the impossibility of your drinking it. Every time you end the day with a soothing milky drink then that cup of your sin and God’s wrath against it will be there before you, I pray.
Can you drink the cup? No you can’t. Will it go away? No it wont. What’s to be done with the cup? I’ll tell you of a man who will drink it instead of you. Can you believe it? There was once a drunk who couldn’t resist a glass of alcohol. Night after night he went home to his impoverished wife and family stinking of liquor. Children shouted after him and mocked his staggering walk home. He lived to the despair of his friends. Then one day you met him walking along the street. The redness of his face had gone. His eyes had a keenness about them. He was walking straight, his head erect, no smell of beer on his breath. You go on to him and greet him telling him how pleased you are to see him looking so much better. Has he stopped drinking? Yes, he hasn’t drunk for months and will never drink again. Wonderful news. What has happened? He tells you he has found someone who takes all his drink instead of him. “He drinks it all and you never have a drop?” you say. “Yes.” Who is this man? “Jesus of Nazareth,” he tells you. “He has become my Saviour. All that poison I used to drink is in the cup he drank for me. Every time I am tempted to turn in to that pub and start drinking I say, “Lord Jesus, you must face this temptation now. Without you I can do nothing. Deal with it in me and by me.” That is what he says with a glint in his eye, and he is going to the Prayer Meeting that moment in the church down the road, and he asks you to join him. Such a loving Saviour exists, bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh, who has loved sinners so much as to drink our cup of wrath in our place? He has taken to himself our drug abuse, and our drunkenness, and our adulteries, and our lies, and all our trash. His name is Jesus. Sinner he can help you. He can deliver you, and he can do this today.
I will tell you a remarkable fact about our Lord, that just before they drove the nails through his hands and feet, the execution squad offered him a cup to drink. It was a gesture of mercy. In the cup was a sedative drink; there was some primitive but quite effective analgesic in that cup. It was offered to him to deaden his pain. This soporific mixture was immediately identified and rejected by Jesus. One little taste was enough for him to know he couldn’t take it. He had to go the whole way, from the throne of highest glory to the cross of deepest shame. He must suffer to the utmost, and consciously, for those he individually and personally loved. He must feel the full sting of death. No anaesthetic was possible. There was a saving work to be done. He wouldn’t have a befuddled brain while he redeemed us from our sin. He would pray for those tormenting him. He would commend his mother to his friend. He would grant mercy to the dying thief. Loving his own who were in the world he would love them to the end.
The Christ of God did not waver. He knew that he had to endure the great baptism of judgment. So the soldiers came, carrying a sword in one hand, but in the other a soothing cup, but when God came to Golgotha he had a sword of judgment in one hand and another sword of judgment in the other. Christ was not doped on Golgotha. He would not be insensible or inattentive to what he was doing there. He would not allow a drowsy body to affect the great transaction of himself, body, soul and spirit as he became the Lamb of God and took away the sin of the world. I tell you that this loving man, who refused that drink because he loved us so much, is still the same today and he is alert now to take your cup of condemnation. If you determine to drink it then you are a lost man, but if you give it to him, and make him your substitute, praising him for his love in downing all the contents of that cup in your place, then this day salvation has come to your life. You can’t drink the cup and live; Jesus will drink it, if you in repentance will cry to him, “My Saviour! My great High Priest! My Substitute! Drink the cup for me.”
Then Jesus speaks some extra and final words to them, and it is almost as if he changes his mind. First there was this question, “Can you drink the cup I drink?” The true inference is that that is impossible. No way! Jesus must make atonement all by himself because he alone is free from sin. Every other man needs a Saviour from his sin, but not God’s holy child, Jesus. It must be Christ all alone who affects our redemption. Then notice the change in thought, so revolutionary, as the Lord says these words to James and John, “‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with'” (v.39). What is he saying? It is not a change of mind that after all they will share in making the atonement. That cannot be so, let me say again, for he has by himself purged our sins. He trod the winepress of the fierceness of God’s wrath alone. There was none with him to share his redeeming love on Calvary. So the cup and the baptism that James and John were going to know is not the cup of cosmic redemption, but rather that same cup that all Christians know who experience the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. Those who stand with Christ, and live like Christ, will also know a cup and a baptism. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you for my sake! That is the cup that James and John were going to drink. All who live godly in Christ Jesus will know that.
Have you ever asked why in the gospel narratives the names of these brothers are always written like this, ‘James and John.’ Always James’ name is first, though James is not nearly so significant a figure in the New Testament as John. John is singled out as the disciple whom Jesus loved. John writes five New Testament documents, his gospel, three letters and the book of Revelation, whereas James his brother wrote nothing. In the book of Acts John is the one supporting Peter in leading the work in the early chapters. There are almost ten references to John in the Acts, but besides the list of apostles in chapter one there is only one other reference to James, and that is in chapter twelve and verse two. Let me read it to you: Herod had “James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” That is unlikely to mean that they cut off his head. The Roman method of execution was that three soldiers came to you, one each side held your arms while the third with a short sword struck upwards through your solar plexus and your heart and severed your spinal cord. That was the cup that Jesus told James he would surely drink.
The baptisms with which John was baptised were his early whipping by the Sanhedrin’s orders, and his late imprisonment on a bleak flat island in the Mediterranean called Patmos, away from friends, away from churches, away from preaching, away from the people in their needs, the world to hear the gospel, and the congregations, to receive pastoral help. Isolated on his windswept prison island John lived out his days. That was John’s cup and baptism.
I presume that James’ name is always written first because he was the older brother and you tend to list the siblings in order of age, but maybe also it is the gospel writers’ way of honouring the first martyr amongst the Twelve. James may well have been as loveable a character as John but when he was in his twenties his life was brutally ended, but the early church was determined not going to forget him. He will be mentioned there nineteen times in the Gospels, this refrain in this order, ‘James and John’ both men shed their blood for Jesus. That was the cup God gave them to drink, the baptism of pain they endured for him. So must all true Christians in one way or another who refuse to be ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul says, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Cols. 1:24). Those trials which Paul went through were not redemptive afflictions. Christ suffered contempt and hatred during his ministry, but that did not exhaust the world’s wrath towards our Lord. Paul, following the Master and preaching the same gospel, knew the same afflictions coming upon him from the world for the sake of Christ. All the rest of us too are filling up in our flesh what is still lacking of afflictions which come to us because of Jesus. Christians will at times be reproached for the name of Christ, and if they are then to be accounted happy because the spirit of glory and of God will rest upon them.
One last thing Jesus said to the brothers; “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (v.40). Jesus says two things by way of further clarification. Let the disciples learn that no one is granted glory in the kingdom of God by organising a pressure group, by solicitation, through the influential people who’ll put in a word on their behalf, by the influence of a mother or a mother figure. It will not be by petitioning for it, or by clamouring, or by solicitation. Jesus does not grant places in the kingdom of God because of anything like that. Mr Arafat has just got into trouble in Palestine by granting to his cousin the position of chief of police, and they both have had to back down. The newly appointed US President Jack Kennedy dared to grant his brother Bobby the post of Solicitor General (well, he would, wouldn’t he?), but it doesn’t work like that in the kingdom of God. Jesus won’t do it that way even for the apostle John. “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” It is not in Jesus’ will or power to grant honours in his kingdom through partiality and patronage. You must go just as you are, and with your own words, and in confession of your own sins, you must bow before the Lord Jesus Christ and yield your life to him in faith and repentance. That is the effectual way.
Then the other statement of Jesus is interesting. What does he mean when he says that the high rewards of heaven “belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (v.40)? I don’t think the word the NIV translates ‘they’ refers to the people. The phrase is rather, ‘for whom it has been prepared.’ God has prepared their glorious end, but what has been their preparation for those thrones? How has God prepared them? I would think that it is the cup they’ve had to drink and the baptism they’ve had to endure. Paul puts it like this, “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that sufferings produce perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Roms. 5:3). The hope is that soon our sufferings are going to be over, and we’ll be made meet by the blood of Christ and by our own trials to sit in the midst of the throne of God with Jesus Christ.
Throughout our sufferings we’ve cried out to God night and day, and he’s borne with us for long. God does not settle all his accounts at the same time as his people suffer. God keeps long accounts, as one of the old writers said; God also keeps precise accounts. The day is coming when the books of his accounts are going to be opened, and he will fully, gloriously, and finally avenge his own elect. Through all they’ve endured for his name sake they’ve been prepared to sit with Jesus on thrones in glory. No suffering of the people of God is ever in vain, no cup they’ve had to drink, no baptism they have had to endure will ever be proved meaningless. It’s all prepared them for the glory that awaits them.
We are often grieved when we see the godly at the end of their days. They are fearfully frail; they are losing their memories; they are getting increasingly confused, yet all their lives they’ve loved and served the living God. Why this? What is God doing? He is preparing them for glory. There is a place belonging just to them. Lazarus the beggar was being prepared for Abraham’s bosom. He had walked with God in poverty henceforth he will walk with God in glory. The Puritan John Preston said, “Blessed be God, though I change my place I shall not change my company. I have walked with God living. I shall walk with him dying, and I go to my rest with him.” In life the Christian is in Christ, in death he is in Christ, and there he will be with Christ in the midst of the throne, for to die is gain. Where are you now? Are you in Christ because he has drunk your cup in your place? Then you can say, “My Saviour has gone to prepare a place for me, and he is now preparing me for that place, and when he calls me I will be ready and go to be with him for ever.”
25 July 2004 GEOFF THOMAS