In Mark 10, the apostles James and John came to Jesus and said, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35 NIV). In other words, they wanted Jesus to give them an answer before they told Jesus what it was they wanted. They wanted a blank check from God. Sadly, many modern Christians want the same thing. But God doesn’t operate that way. We don’t have enough knowledge or wisdom to know how to fill in the blank check. It is God who has the requisite unlimited knowledge and wisdom, and it is He who demands a blank check from us.
When Jesus asked them what it was they wanted, the responded, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
Jesus was on the way to be Jerusalem to be crowned King (with thorns) and to inaugurate His kingdom. James and John knew this, except for the thorns part. Therefore, they asked for (perhaps even demanded?) the places of honor on Jesus’ right and left. They pictured themselves ruling on thrones beside Jesus. But Jesus said those places of honor were reserved for “those for whom they have been prepared.” When Jesus ascended, it was to a cross, not a throne, and the places of honor on Jesus’ right and left were reserved for two thieves, who died with Him (Mark 15:27). In the descriptions given to us, there are no thrones in heaven on Jesus’ right and left hands. There is no one even close to having Jesus’ power and honor. All power and honor belong to Jesus, and all the rest of us are His servants.
Jesus told James and John that they didn’t know what they were asking for. If they had known, they wouldn’t have wanted it.
Jesus asked James and John if they could drink the same cup as He did and undergo the same baptism. They said yes. But the cup is a biblical image for the wrath of God, and baptism is a symbol of death. Jesus was talking about taking all the sins of the world upon Himself and dying on the cross to satisfy the righteous wrath of God. James and John did not understand this and wouldn’t have wanted what they were asking for. In fact, when given the opportunity to die with Jesus, they ran away.
The other apostles were incensed by the power grab and backroom dealing by James and John. They wanted the same places of honor and power for themselves and probably wished they had thought of it first. But they also did not know what they were asking for and would not have wanted it if it had been offered to them. In fact, when it was, they also ran away and hid.
But Jesus also promised, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with” (Mark 10:39). Many of the apostles (and many later followers of Jesus) did follow Jesus in being martyred—and they died with Jesus at their side and ascended to join Him before the throne of God (Acts 7:55-56). James was the first of the apostles to die this way (Acts 12:1-2).