A spirit of self-assertion, desire for honor, and preoccupation with one’s status is prevalent in our culture—and it sometimes even displays itself in the church as well. Yet under the shadow of the cross, the ugliness of our selfish ambition is revealed. Alistair Begg leads us through Mark 10, where two disciples who requested to be given a position of honor provided a striking contrast against Christ’s servitude and selflessness in giving His life as a ransom for many.
“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[’re] 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[’m] baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they[’ve] been prepared.’
“When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all. 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.’”
So, Father, as we prepare to gather around this Table, which speaks of sacrifice, speaks of redemption and propitiation and forgiveness, the wonder of the atoning death of Jesus, we pray that you will help us—that this brief study may clarify and renew our thinking, so that we might be justifiably ashamed of all of our self-assertiveness and that we may be made increasingly like your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Well, the contrast that is contained essentially between the first and last verse of our reading is, I think you would agree, quite striking. Because in verse 35, in the request of James and John, we have, if you like, the epitome of selfish ambition; and in the explanation of the ministry of Jesus, in verse 45, we have the very apex of servitude and selflessness. The disciples, as we noted earlier in the day, have their focus on seeing themselves in a position that is essentially that of enthronement, whereas we discover that Jesus is looking forward to hanging on a cross. And indeed, it is the very reference of Christ to his anticipated passion which makes their selfish preoccupations all the more glaring. The brothers’ request, writes John Stott, is “surely … the worst, [the] most blatantly self-centered prayer ever prayed.” The most self-centered prayer ever prayed. Look at it: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” They’re not saying, “We want to do your will, we want to learn to be obedient to you.” No, it is quite accurately a blatantly selfish prayer.
The disciples’ anticipation is of honor and of power and of security. The expectation of Jesus is of sacrifice, of service, and of suffering. It is perhaps in measure attributable to their background that they should think in this way. We’re all products of our background, to one degree or another. It doesn’t explain everything, but it does give us an indication of certain things. Individuals who’ve been brought up in nice surroundings, in positions of security and financial opportunity, such as would be true of these brothers—being part of this family fishing business pioneered by their father, Zebedee—would almost inevitably grow up to be the kind of fellas who would anticipate that they would be on the receiving end of certain benefits and privileges. After all, that was what they were used to. That, combined with the fact that these two men, along with Peter, had been routinely now included in the inner circle of Jesus’ friendship. He was taking aside from the Twelve James and Peter and John and giving to them privileges that were not enjoyed by the other nine.
And so it is that the combination of their physical background and their experience as disciples of Jesus perhaps contributed in some measure to allowing them to dream about finally being able to enter into the wonder of God’s purposes, and essentially having their own little throne to sit on: “We would like to be seated on one side and the other side. If we are going to reign in this way, and if there are going to be thrones, as we have the inkling that there’s going to be, we would just like to get our request in as early as we can.” And so it is that if they had a choice to make between honor and service, then they were choosing honor. Service was not in the forefront of their thinking.
And so it is that Jesus lets them know quite straightforwardly, in verse 38, that they’re absolutely off track. “You don’t actually know what you’re asking,” Jesus says. He says, “In fact, let me ask you: Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” That question in verse 38 anticipates the answer, “No.” The way that it is framed, it expects a negative response. And in actual fact, what comes in response is the most naive expression of their self-assertiveness, in verse 39: “Oh yes, we can. Yes, we are able.”
Now, what Jesus is saying and to what he is alluding here, we would need to backtrack through a significant part of the Old Testament in order just to have it fastened in our thinking. I’m going to ask you to take my word for it, and then research it on your own. What Jesus is saying here is that in the same way that individuals and nations were forced to drink, metaphorically, the cup of God’s wrath and God’s judgment upon them for various things throughout history, all of that is now going to be poured, if you like, into a brimful cup of the wrath of God, which Jesus is then going to drink.
Now, if you just think of it in terms of the Communion service, and your familiarity with the terminology and the words of institution and the experience of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, you can put the two things together very quickly in your mind: “Father, if you are willing, let this cup pass from me.” So Jesus is about to drink the cup of God’s wrath. He’s about to be baptized, or overwhelmed with, in, by, the very judgment of God upon sin.
So when he says, “Can you drink this cup? Can you be baptized in this way?” and they immediately reply, “Yes,” it’s obvious that they didn’t understand. They couldn’t drink the cup of God’s wrath, in the sense that it was a unique expression of God’s wrath in this way—that Jesus was going to drink this cup as the propitiation for sin. Jesus was going to drink this cup in the provision of redemption. A “ransom,” as it says here in verse 45.
“Nevertheless,” he says, “you will actually, in some measure, drink this cup and be baptized in this way.” And again, you can check this out for yourself, but you discover that both these men faced the challenge of judgment and the expressions of tyranny. James lost his head, was beheaded by Herod Antipas, and John lived in lonely exile on the island of Patmos. They were not to enter into the vicarious suffering of Jesus, for he alone would make provision for sin. “But,” he says, “although you don’t fully understand what you’re saying, I know that you will go through these things.”
Now, what I don’t want us to miss in pushing to a conclusion is what we mentioned this morning, because I do believe that there is a significant challenge that resides in this—namely, that the mentality of James and John is sadly alive and well. The mentality, or the spirit, of James and John is alive and well—the self-assertion, the desire for honor rather than service, one’s preoccupation with status and security, and all the things that are represented in our culture, that we are tempted then to take on board, to assimilate into our Christian expressions, justifying them by various means. It seems to me that Jesus, in a way that is quite unmistakable, is challenging this directly.
And this kind of spirit of wanting to be first, of wanting honor, of wanting status, of wanting to be enthroned, as it were, is seen in all of its ugliness when it is displayed, if you like, underneath the shadow of the cross. We might get away with it, as it were, as long as we stay as far away from the cross of Jesus as we can. But as soon as we come anywhere within the proximity of all of the selflessness of Christ, both in his incarnation and in his death, then we realize this ought not to be tolerated.
Listen to how John Stott—the late John Stott—puts it in one of his books: “The world,” he says, “(and even the church) is full of Jameses and Johns, go-getters and status-seekers, hungry for honor and prestige, measuring life by achievement and everlastingly dreaming of success.” These individuals, he says, “are aggressively ambitious for themselves.” Now, I don’t know how that strikes you, but it certainly strikes me. And it is a hard charge to evade. It is an easy thing to begin to point in a number of directions to people we know who clearly fit within the framework of Stott’s assessment. It is much harder to stand under the shadow of the cross and hear, as it were, the word of Nathan to our lives: “You are the man! You are the girl. You are the one preoccupied with yourself.”
No, it is a horrible virus. It is rampant. And the antidote to it, it seems to me, is given to us in verse 45. Because there in verse 45 we have the opportunity of being reminded of what Jesus is doing as he goes to his death. “If you want to be first,” he says, “be the slave of all, for even,” he says, “the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve.” So the reversal of all human values, the embracing of the topsy-turvy values of God’s kingdom, is embodied in the Lord Jesus himself, both in the living of his life and in the giving of his life.
And it is the giving of his life that is referenced here in the little phrase “as a ransom for many.” I think we managed to get the word “ransom” into at least a couple of our songs already tonight, which is masterful work on the part of those who are paying attention to the text and thinking melodically and lyrically as well; I’m so thankful for each of them.
I’d like to assume that we all know about the nature of ransom; I’m not sure that I can. Therefore, let me give you just a couple of Old Testament pictures which underpin, which provide the context, out of which this word “ransom” is used.
If you turn, for example, to the second book of the Bible—Exodus 21:28—you’ll be surprised by this material at first, but hopefully it will become apparent. And here instruction is given:
If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death.
Those of you who are lawyers will be able to see in this principles of jurisprudence that are in operation even to this day. “However”—and here’s the thing, verse 30:
However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded.
In other words, he may purchase his life by the paying of a ransom.
You have the same thing—and you can check it at home—in Numbers 18, in relationship to the redeeming of the firstborn—very interesting concept, that the firstborn belonged to God, until they are redeemed by the paying of a ransom. The same thing is true of the payment of a price to set free from slavery one of our relatives, or the payment of a price to release the mortgage on a field or on a property. Both of those you’ll be able to find in Leviticus chapter 25.
So, when Jesus uses this terminology—“even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”—although we may have to go back and look into it to try and make sense of it, many of his listeners would have been able to put two and two together. They knew that in each case it involved a decisive and costly intervention. A decisive and costly intervention.
Now, Jesus has already explained earlier—it’s been recorded for us in Mark—the reason for the purpose for his coming: “Jesus said to them, ‘[It’s] not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” That’s Mark 2:17. Here in Mark 10:45, he begins to give an explanation as to how this is to be accomplished. How then are the sick to be made whole? How are these people, who are in need of a Savior, to be saved? And the answer is, in the paying of a ransom.
So it involves, first of all, the recognition of our problem. All of those conditions in the Old Testament there that I mentioned were material. The plight was a material plight: a mortgage, an enslavement, whatever it might be. What Jesus is referring to here is not a material plight, but it is a moral plight. The problem that confronts us is that we are enslaved, that we are captives, that we have offended against God’s law, that we’re in the wrong with him, that we’re alienated from him, we are unfit from heaven, we are unable to rectify the situation. That is our plight. Therefore, unless someone comes from the outside who does not share our predicament and deal with that on our behalf, then we would be lost forever.
Only this decisive intervention, this paying of a price, can set us free. And, of course, the price, as we would expect and as the Gospel writer goes on to tell us, is the very life, the very blood, of Jesus Christ himself—that we are set free by the shedding of his blood; set free from our bondage to sin, set free from our subjection to death, set free from our alienation to God. And this is so costly.
The notion that is abroad that forgiveness has nothing to do with justice, that God now just winks at sin, that he has somehow changed between Malachi and Matthew, and he just lets anybody off that gives any kind of indication that they are remotely sorry, you cannot substantiate from the Bible. No.
Some years ago when I was in Glasgow, I was driving my nieces to their school in the west end of Glasgow. I borrowed my brother-in-law’s car. There was a lot of radio playing, a lot of chatter, there were other children in the car, and at one point I turned in a lane, with loud cries from the back: “Oh, Uncle Ali, it’s the wrong way!” And before I had rectified the situation, I had kissed a van fairly successfully—not personally kissed it, but my car had impinged upon this van. And I’ll never forget, the fellow jumped out immediately, and he looked at his car, and he looked at me, and he said, “Somebody’s gonna pay for this. Somebody’s gonna pay for this.” That was the first phrase out of his mouth—and he’s absolutely right. If things were to be put to rights, somebody was going to have to pay. If there was going to be restoration, there would have to be the payment of a price.
And what the Bible tells us is that our sin demands that justice is served, and therefore, sin must be punished, a price must be exacted, and that price is paid in and through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ—that in the cross, God’s righteous judgment upon sin is served, and Jesus bears the punishment that our sins deserve.
And I would imagine that, in the mind of Christ, even in this statement here in verse 45, would be large sections of the Prophets—not least of all Isaiah itself: “He took up our infirmities … [he] carried our sorrows.” What does that mean? We sang about it this morning, didn’t we? “[And] I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene.” We sang the stanza: “He took my sins and my sorrows; [and] he made them his very own.” What are we saying there? We’re saying that Christ is a ransom, that Christ paid the ransom, that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” That he “who knew no sin” entered into our sin,
became “sin for us,” in order that we might become “the righteousness of God in him.” Or in Paul’s words, as he drives it home in another direction in 1 Corinthians 6, he reminds his readers, we were bought with a price, we’re not our own; therefore, we are to glorify God in our bodies. We belong to God because he has purchased us. He has purchased a people for God.
We actually belong to God in three ways: We belong to God by creation; he made us. We belong to God in Christ by redemption, for he has ransomed us. And we belong to God by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And all of this, a decisive intervention at great cost.
Do you like paying bills? I think I do. I think I like the satisfaction of it, getting it dealt with. I don’t necessarily like the size of the bill or the frequency with which they come, but it is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? And especially sometimes just to pay them in person. Just to have the satisfaction, as it were, of taking the thing, you know, and walking into whoever it is, or to the counter, and passing it over and paying for it. And then just having the satisfaction of the person taking that thing, [stamping sound]. I like that, a nice big red one with double circles: “PAID.” Thank you, Dominion of Ohio. Thank you, Illuminating Company. Thank you, Time Warner Cable. As long as I have that there, you cannot bill me again for this service, because it has been settled.
And what the story of Communion says is that Christ in his death has settled the judgment against all who believe in him, who come to trust in him. And when they laid him in the tomb and embalmed his body and wrapped it with the spices and settled him there, in that Joseph-of-Arimathea context, it was just for a moment or two, as it were, before the Father raised him up from the dead. And in his resurrection, the Father provided the receipt of the payment of the price, and stamped unmistakably across that which was justifiably leveled against me one word: “PAID.” Paid.
And the Evil One may antagonize you, your own heart may accuse you—and when it does, come back here and remind yourself: Christ strode, as it were, into the very bar of justice and settled the account against me as a sinner, and the Father raised him from the dead, so that we might be absolutely secure in the fact that he will not demand payment again for all of that, because it has been settled once and for all. That is what makes Communion what it is. It is a reminder again of the finished work of Christ. It is a reminder again of the fact that although we sin and are sinful, our acceptance is in the work of Christ, accomplished once and for all. And it is a reminder to us that there is a great “not yet” that awaits us—and all of this wrapped up in the depth of the Father’s love.
Father, thank you.
Thank you, Lord, for sending Jesus;
Thank You, Jesus, that You came;
Holy Spirit, won’t You teach us
More about Christ’s lovely name?
We humbly pray. Amen.
 John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 279.
 Matthew 26:39 (paraphrased).
 Stott, Cross of Christ, 279.
 2 Samuel 12:7 (NIV 1984).
 Exodus 21:28–30 (NIV 1984).
 See Numbers 18:14–16.
 Isaiah 53:4 (NIV 1984).
 Charles H. Gabriel, “My Savior’s Love” (1905).
 Galatians 3:13 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 5:21 (KJV).
 See 1 Corinthians 6:19–20.
 See Revelation 5:9.
 Author unknown, “Thank You, Lord, for Sending Jesus.” Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.