Dec 10, 2006

Kingdom Climbers

Mark 10:31–45

No sooner did Jesus speak of His impending death than two of His disciples requested positions of greatness in His kingdom. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark to remind us what true greatness looks like for those who follow the suffering Savior.


This morning we’re going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Mark, and we are still in the 10th chapter. I’ll be reading from Mark 10:32–45, and I’ll ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.

Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”

And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?

They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.”

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

They said to Him, “We are able.”

So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you also will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.”

And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John. But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

What you have just heard, dear friends, is the Word of God. That’s why we’re here: to submit ourselves to that Word, to be instructed, to be brought low, and to be driven to the cross and to the Christ who is exalted in this Word. So, in this advent season, we rejoice to hear from God Himself. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Again, our Father, we implore You for Your help, that You would stoop to our weakness, bend to our frailty, and give to us the Holy Sprit to help us see the truth of those things we have just heard. Father, it is not our natural desire to be servants of anyone, yet give us a desire to follow Christ, the Servant of our redemption. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.

Jesus’ Destiny

There are several things in this somewhat lengthy passage that I just read to you, and I feel a little guilty trying to cover them all in one message. There are elements of this text that are worthy of several weeks of reflection, but be that as it may, the die is cast.

Let’s look at the text in verse 32: “Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem.” They spoke of going “up” to Jerusalem whether they were going south or north because of its elevation. “Jesus was going before them, and they were amazed.”

Why would Jesus going before them amaze them? After all, Jesus was a rabbi, and we’ve seen in our study of Mark that it was the custom of the students in that day to walk behind the rabbi as he would teach orally. They would listen and remember his teachings through memorization. That was the way of the peripatetic teacher, who walked round about as he instructed his disciples. So, why would they be amazed that Jesus went ahead of them?

I think the reason for this detail Mark gives is that they were amazed by the resolute determination they saw in Jesus to go to His destiny. His face was set like flint, and He knew that He was called to give Himself over to His enemies in Jerusalem. He had been teaching His disciples that on more than one occasion.

As they set out for that point of destiny, Jesus did not linger. He moved quickly, keeping pace ahead of His disciples, going to His death with a firm step. They couldn’t get over it. If we knew we were going to our death, most of us would be in the survival shuffle, dragging our feet, reluctant with every step we took to advance any further on such a journey. But not Jesus. He was prepared to obey the Father.

The next verse says that He led them, and as they followed in their fear, He took them aside and began to tell them what would happen to Him. This almost sounds like bare repetition because we’ve heard this before. This is the third time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus tells His disciples what awaits Him in Jerusalem, but the difference between this third time and the other two is that it’s much more specific.

Jesus Specifies His Death

The first two times that Jesus mentioned what awaited Him in Jerusalem, He spoke generally about being betrayed and being delivered unto death. Now, however, He gets specific about what’s going to happen.

Jesus is so specific about what will occur in Jerusalem that liberal critics, who tear apart the New Testament, declare that this obviously must be what they call a vaticinium ex eventu, that is, an account written after the fact. They are so allergic to anything supernatural and so opposed to any idea of predictive prophecy that they assume certain fraud in the writing of the Gospel of Saint Mark. They assume this fraud despite the fact that many of the prophecies recorded in these gospels don’t come to pass until years after Jesus dies, and even after the gospels were written. They are so antithetically opposed to the gospel that they say, “The details are so accurate that Jesus couldn’t possibly have known them.”

There are several ways Jesus could have known these details. In the first place, if He knew that He was going to be taken to Jerusalem and betrayed into the hands of His enemies, He knew what the way of execution would be, being familiar with the Roman system. Not only that, but Jesus was not just a student of the Old Testament Scriptures, He was the actual subject of the Old Testament Scriptures. He was intimately aware of Psalm 22, which He quoted on the cross. He was also aware of all of those passages in the later portion of the prophet Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 50 and Isaiah 53, which read almost like an eyewitness account of the crucifixion.

The Jews did not associate the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah with their hope of the coming Messiah, but Jesus knew that those texts applied to Him. Even without any direct revelation from the Father, He knew that He would be treated with scorn, that He would be scourged, and that He would be spat upon.

The Scapegoat Delivered to the Gentiles

Perhaps the most important detail of this text is Jesus’ announcement that He will be delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. He says, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes.” The first betrayal will be when Jesus is delivered into the hands of His enemies among the Jewish hierarchy, the chief priests and the scribes. Then He goes on, “And they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles.” That’s exactly what happened.

First, Jesus was taken to the Jewish authorities. Because they didn’t have the authority to set a death sentence under Roman occupation, they delivered Him to Pilate. Jesus understood that, and there was some significance to it. In the Old Testament, on the Day of Atonement, not only was the sacrificial animal’s blood spread upon the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies for atonement, but the sins of the people were symbolically transferred to the back of a scapegoat. The scapegoat was then driven out into the wilderness, outside the camp, into the outer darkness.

That’s what it would mean to the Jew to be delivered to the Gentiles. To be placed in the hands of the Gentiles was to be sent outside the covenant community, outside the camp, outside of where the presence of God was concentrated and focused. So, the disciples would have been aghast when Jesus said, “They’re going to betray Me, the Son of Man, not only to the scribes and chief priests, but they in turn will deliver Me to the Gentiles.”

The Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory

“And they will mock Him, scourge Him, spit upon Him, and kill Him. And on the third day He will rise again.” As I mentioned, this is the third time that Jesus delivers to the disciples what Luther would later call the theologia crucis, the theology of the cross, which is the theology of the New Testament, which is the theology of Jesus Himself. It is the theology of the Apostle Paul, who says, “I know nothing except Christ and Him crucified.” A Christian religion without the cross is not Christianity.

No sooner did Jesus give the message so emphatically about the theology of the cross than two of His inner circle came to Him with the theologia gloriae, the theology of glory. They were still not getting the message. They were still waiting for Jesus to assert His kingly reign and bring in the kingdom of God with all of its glory, hoping that they may not only participate in it but also have a high position in it.

Listen to them: “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee [the “Sons of Thunder”], came to Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.’” This is the origin of that terrible theology that we call “name it and claim it,” where we look at God as a celestial bellhop who is there to fill our orders. We tell Him whatever we want, and we don’t just expect that He will do it, but we demand that He do it. This is the way these two disciples come to Jesus: “Lord, we want You to do whatever we ask You to do.”

Are we a little bit like that sometimes? “Gimme, gimme, gimme, Lord, here’s what I want. Please do this, please do that, please give me this, please give me that.”

James and John ask for something extraordinary in this text. Jesus says, “What is it you want Me to do for you?” They say to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” In other words: “All we’re asking, Jesus, is that when You come into Your kingdom, when You are enthroned as the King of the kings, choose one of us. We’ll humbly allow You to make the selection of which one, but choose one of us to sit at Your right hand (which is the penultimate place of authority in a kingdom) and the other to sit on Your left hand (which is the next highest rung on the political ladder).” What they wanted from Jesus was status. What they wanted from Jesus was to be placed in a position of power.

The Human Will to Power

When I read this text, I can’t help but think of the pagan philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said in the nineteenth century that what distinguishes man from the animals is not our ability to think, to reflect, or to meditate. Rather, that which defines our humanity is what Nietzsche called the will to power. All human beings have a drive within their nature to conquer, to climb the ladder, to be the king of the mountain, to get to the top, to be the champion, to reach the highest place of exaltation.

Historically, theologians have argued that one of the definitions of sin is virtue run amuck, because God plants an aspiration for significance in the heart of every creature that He makes in His image. There’s nothing wrong with that. Every one of us has a desire planted in us by God that our lives will be significant, that they will count, that they will matter, that they won’t be meaningless, insignificant, and wasted. But do you see what a thin line it is between an aspiration for significance and a will to power, a desire to dominate everybody else?

Anybody who has ever been in a leadership position, whether it be the president of an organization, the chairman of a board of directors, the head of a committee, or any position of leadership, will understand what I’m about to say. Several years ago, when I was functioning as the president and CEO of Ligonier Ministries, we had a structure where there were three vice-presidents. The only three people I had to manage were those three vice-presidents, and they took care of everything else.

We would meet every week, and I would always say to them: “It’s important to me and to this ministry that you three people not only respect each other, but that you cherish each other. What I need, and what we all need, is an attitude where you would rather die than betray your colleague and your comrade.” Each one of those three people treated me like I was the king, because in the organization I was the king. It’s easy for people to be nice to you when you’re the president. They aren’t stupid, so they are very nice to the president.

Because I liked each one of them individually and they liked me individually, I assumed they liked each other. No matter how many times I asked them to cherish each other, this group of executives was unbelievable. They were constantly at each other’s throats, involved in turf wars, and unwilling to serve the other two. I speak of this because it’s long ago, far away, and none of them work for us anymore, for which I’m glad.

That kind of thing happens in every organization, and it happens in the first church of Christ with His disciples. Two of them want to be exalted over everybody else: “All we’re asking, Jesus, is to let one of us sit at Your right hand and the other at Your left hand. In fact, You pick which one goes where.” Jesus is looking at these disciples that He loves, shaking His head, and saying: “You have no idea what you’re asking. You don’t have a clue what it means to sit in the chair that I sit. You don’t know what the burden of My leadership is.”

Metaphors for Jesus’ Burden of Leadership

Jesus uses two famous metaphors from Scripture to explain His burden of leadership to his disciples.

He asks first, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” This is before Gethsemane. This is before they watch Him in His agony, begging the Father to let that cup pass from Him. Jesus, however, knew that cup was waiting for Him in Jerusalem. In the Old Testament language of the prophets, “drinking the cup,” meant drinking the dregs of the wrath of God’s judgment. The supreme judgment of God is filling the cup that Jesus will drink.

Jesus says to them: “You want to be at My right hand? You want to be at My left hand? You want to share in My glory? There is no theologia gloriae without first a theologia crucis. There’s no glory without the cross. You can’t come where I am going unless you can drink the cup that I have to drink. Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

Jesus is not talking about the baptism of John in the River Jordan. He’s talking of being flooded, of being buried, of being inundated in the fury of God’s wrath. He’s talking about being suffocated by the Father’s judgment. He asks them, “Are you prepared to do that?”

Listen to what they say: “We are able. Pass the cup. We’re ready.” Jesus responds, “In a certain sense, you’re going to get more of that cup than you know, and you will participate in my baptism.” Thankfully, God has never asked one of us to drink the cup that Jesus drank or to be baptized with Jesus’ baptism. However, we have been called to identify with that cup and to identify with that baptism. Even our water baptism, which is the sign of the new covenant and signifies many things, includes the signification that we are united with Christ in His death and resurrection.

The Apostle Paul repeatedly says, “Unless you’re willing to identify with Jesus in His disgrace and humiliation, you will never participate in His exaltation and His glory.” He promises, however, that those who identify with Him in His suffering will indeed participate with Him in His glory. That is the Christian hope—He has prepared a place for us.

Jesus continues on, saying: “James, John, beside the fact that you can’t drink the cup that I have to drink, and beside the fact that you can’t be baptized with the baptism with which I’m baptized, you also have to understand that it’s not mine to give. The Father will determine who will sit at My right hand and who will sit at My left hand. Further, if you’re asking for that appointment today, you’re too late. That was settled in eternity. It is for those for whom it is prepared.”

Divine Marching Orders

Sometimes I love the understatement of sacred Scripture. “When the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.” You bet they were greatly displeased: “What did they ask you? Who do they think they are?” This was great teamwork among the disciples. Jesus uses this occasion to teach them a lesson that we also need to learn. He calls them to Himself and says, “You understand that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”

Why does He do this? I hope you notice that time after time when I’m preaching at Saint Andrews, I set before you a stark contrast between the way of the secular culture in which we live and the way we are called to behave by the Word of God. I do that because I understand that we are bombarded everyday with influences concerning what we are expected to do and how we are expected to behave by a pagan society. It eats away at us. It breaks down our resolve. That’s why we have to keep coming back to the Word of God for our marching orders. We don’t get them from the culture.

Jesus is saying the same thing to his disciples. He’s saying: “You fellows think that leadership is like the pagan Gentiles do it, where those who are in authority lord it over all of their subordinates. They don’t feel any sense of responsibility. There’s no noblesse oblige in the mentality of Gentile pagans. All they want to do is rule and exercise power and authority. There’s no humility. There’s no willingness to serve. But it shall not be so among you.” Jesus says: “That may be the way of the world, but I’m not going to put up with it in My house and with My followers. It shall not be that way among you.”

Jesus’ Ethic of Service

I don’t like this text. I like the Gentile way, because Jesus says, “Whoever desires to be great among you shall be your servant.” Do you want to be great? You’ve got to be small. Do you want to be exalted? You’ve got to be abased. Do you want to rule? You have to serve. That’s the ethic of Jesus: “Whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.”

We come to the last verse, and this is where my guilt overwhelms me, because this last verse is worthy of several sermons: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Pay attention to that verse. When we look at the life of Jesus, which we’ve been following in Mark’s portrait of Him, at times we scratch our heads. We wonder why Jesus says what He says, why He does what He does on a given occasion, and what makes Him tick. Anytime Jesus gives us the reason for what He does, we need to listen carefully.

Jesus is telling us why He came: “You want to know why I’m going to Jerusalem? You want to know why I was born in Bethlehem? You want to know why I went to the Jordan River to get baptized by John? I didn’t come to be served. I came to serve. I didn’t come to have My life taken away from Me by ruthless thugs in Jerusalem. I came to give it. Nobody takes it from Me. I lay it down, and I give it as a ransom for many.”

The Ransom Paid

Jesus understood His death in terms of the concept of ransom. One of the terrible distortions of the early church was called the ransom theory of the atonement. It concluded, on the basis of this text, that when Jesus was crucified and made an atonement, He was making a payment to the devil like we might make a ransom payment to a kidnapper. The Bible says that the devil is the prince of the world, the prince and power of the air, that he holds us in captivity, so the ransom theory taught that Jesus paid this price to the devil so that the devil would set us free.

The ransom theory was wrong. Jesus didn’t pay a ransom to Satan; He crushed Satan’s head. The ransom was paid to the Father. The ransom was paid to God. Christ gave Himself as a propitiation to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, just as the kinsman redeemer in the Old Testament would ransom one of his relatives who was in indentured servitude. By paying what the relative owed to the master, he would purchase his freedom.

Christ purchased His bride with His blood. That’s why the Apostle says: “You are not your own. You were bought and paid for with the highest price ever paid for anything. By the blood of Christ you were bought, you were purchased, and you were redeemed.” That’s what redemption is, because the Father has been paid. We debtors, who cannot pay our debt, are never again required to pay that debt because it has been paid by the Suffering Servant of Israel. 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. Let’s pray.

O God, we can scarcely take it in that such an act of service was done for us, that such a price was paid to redeem our souls, and that because of our Redeemer, we will experience His glory. Give to us humble hearts that we may follow Jesus in His pattern of serving in order to save. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.