If you didn’t think Jesus’ disciples were a bit thickheaded before, you will now.
For the third time, Jesus predicts that he will suffer and die and rise again from the dead. What’s unique this time is that now he has set out toward Jerusalem, the headquarters of his enemies. The religious leaders of Israel hate Jesus’ guts, yet he’s leading his disciples right into the teeth of their religious empire. I suppose you could say that it’s an invasion of sorts, and his disciples are “amazed” and “afraid.” And when Jesus announces that it’s a death march, it doesn’t help matters.
However, a couple of his disciples are unflappable. James and his brother John look right past Jesus’ gloomy forecast and see only the glory on the other side. Jesus has called himself “the Son of Man,” and they probably remember from Daniel 7:13–14 that this “son of man” will be given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” They’d like a piece of that, thank you very much.
But how to broach the subject? “Teacher,” they say, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Uh-huh, very subtle. Jesus offers no promises, but they still request, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Jesus tells it like it is: “You do not know what you are asking.” They still haven’t picked up that Jesus isn’t the glorious, victorious political Messiah they’re wanting. He asks them if they’re able to suffer what he will suffer, and they respond, “We are able”—with a healthy dose of naïveté and arrogance. They have no idea what they’re in for. Jesus agrees that they will suffer, but still he won’t promise them the glory they’re looking for. “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant,” he says, “but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” He defers to his Father’s sovereign assignments. Positions of prestige in his kingdom can’t be bought with charm or good deeds; they can only be given freely by God.
James and John are finding out the hard way that to follow Jesus requires suffering, and it is not the sort of suffering one endures in order to gain prestige. We’re about to find out why not.
Word gets out to the other ten disciples that James and John tried (and failed) to pull of this power play. So of course they’re ticked. (“No fair! Why didn’t we think of it first!”) If I were Jesus, I’d throw up my hands at these boneheads, but he sees it as an opportunity to show them the upside-down kingdom of God. He reminds them that the present world system, as exemplified by the heathen Gentiles, values prestige, prominence, and the possession of power. In this world system, greatness means gaining power and using it to benefit yourself.
But Jesus tells them, “It is not so among you.” This is not how the invading upside-down kingdom works. Its economy is the exact opposite. In God’s kingdom, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Well, that sounds annoying. Who wants to be at the beck and call of other people, many of whom are more stupid or boring or ugly or evil than you? How about you take it easy on us, Jesus?
No dice. “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all,” he adds. Not just a servant, but a slave. Not just a slave of a handpicked few, but a slave of all.
Why is this? Where does this upside-down reality come from?
Jesus doesn’t derive it from abstract philosophical principles. No, he draws it from his own person and his own mission. “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” he says. Remember, this is the same “son of man” in Daniel who is to be served by “all peoples, languages, and nations”! And he has come to serve? Yes! In fact, his greatness in God’s kingdom comes from this mission. He will be the greatest of all because he will “give his life as a ransom for many.” He will give up his life as a price to God to pay for the sins of many. This atoning work will be the ground for the “dominion and glory and a kingdom” which the Ancient of Days will give him. He will receive the all-conquering upside-down kingdom as its King. Anyone who wishes to be great in this eternal kingdom must serve and suffer like he does.
So this is Jesus—the triumphant Son of Man, yet a humble, devoted slave who lays down his life in our place. As Samuel Crossman writes,
In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.
If you and I are his disciples, if we belong to him, then we must also serve and suffer. We have to give up any idea of an easy life. It’s okay if things are hard and painful. And we have to give up any idea of popularity or fame or influence. It’s okay to be small and unnoticed. In fact, it’s far better to serve others in small and unnoticed ways than to have the attention of the world fixed on you. For Jesus will not be disappointed with you.