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.” 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.”
Slavery is a topic we don’t talk about. Of course there is our nation’s history of oppressing slaves, but slavery in this country has long been a thing of the past. And yet, since the concept of slavery was tossed out the window completely at the end of the civil war, we still see example after example of people treating people badly for no reason other than their appearance. And it’s not like this is ancient history. Just a half century ago there were major civil rights issues based on nothing other than skin color and you still see it today.
Slavery is a touchy subject to say the least. The idea of one person being owned by another—the concept of one person being indebted to another for life—the concept of one person being enslaved to another is not only unacceptable in our culture. It’s become disgusting. And you know why. Freedom. Your definition of freedom may differ from others in our country, but there is nothing the people of our country value more, than freedom. And slavery and freedom don’t mix.
As Christians living in THIS country—in THIS culture—in THIS context, it’s helpful to keep these things in mind before we tackle any section of scripture that talks about slavery—but especially this one—because in the section of Mark chapter 10 that you just heard, Jesus very clearly says YOU must be a slave. And not just a slave to one person—he says you must be slave of all!
Our text comes right on the tails of the third time that Jesus predicted his death to his disciples. In the closing months and weeks of Jesus’ earthly ministry his teaching was decidedly focused on preparing his disciples for his death and his resurrection and ascension. So how would Jesus prepare them for what was about to take place? He taught them over and over again about the importance of his suffering, death, and resurrection. And we’ve seen that a lot the past few weeks. We’ve heard about the cross, about Jesus’ death, about how Jesus’ cross means we’ll bear one too. We’ve been encouraged to serve others before we serve ourselves. And once again in Mark 10 Jesus takes another opportunity to teach his disciples about his death and what that means for them.
But, once again, the disciples response is almost incomprehensible. James and John come forward with a special request. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” (Mark 10:35b). Before the question even left their lips, there’s a bit of presumption isn’t there? You’d almost expect Jesus to scold them right away for asking him to give them whatever they ask for even before they ask. But he doesn’t. He lovingly allows them to ask their self-centered question so that he can teach. “’What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’” (Mark 10:36,37). Could they have asked a more egotistical question? As Jesus humbly teaches that he is willing to die for others, James and John can only think of themselves! This is a common theme in Mark’s Gospel. Do you remember what happened immediately after Jesus talked about his death and resurrection the last time? That’s right, his disciples began to argue about who’s the greatest! Same thing here! “‘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?” (Mark 10:38,39a).
What in the world does that mean? Remember what Jesus prayed for in the Garden of Gethsemane? He prayed “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) Jesus was asking James and John if they were willing to suffer and die like he was about to suffer and die. I don’t know if James and John fully understood what Jesus meant, but they certainly were eager to dive into this cup and baptism. Then Jesus gives them a prediction. “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 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.” (Mark 10:39b). Yes, this would happen. James and John would suffer and die. James was killed by King Herod in Acts 12:1,2—the first of the twelve apostles to die a martyr’s death. John was exiled to the Island of Patmos where he wrote the Gospel of John and where he had his Revelation. John tells in Revelation 1:9 that he was imprisoned “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Yes, James and John would have their opportunity to serve Jesus by faithfully proclaiming the Gospel. As a result, they would suffer persecution and martyrdom.
But they didn’t fully understand that yet. Their perspective was all out of whack. At this time all James and John wanted was to be served by others. They wanted glory in heaven without thinking about any kind of suffering here on earth. Well, you can understand why the other 10 disciples “became indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41). Time for Jesus to teach some more. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42b-44). A slave!? Jesus not only expects his disciples to serve others, he wants us to be slaves!?
Just as Jesus himself served others with his death on a cross—no more than that—just as Jesus ENSLAVED himself to the horrific task of suffering and dying for the HUMAN race—he expects us to be slaves while on this earth.
We saw a perfect example of that in our second reading for today. In 1st Corinthians chapter 9, the apostle Paul writes, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Paul ENSLAVED himself to others. He set his own temporal well-being aside and made the eternal wellbeing of those around him his number 1 priority.
Are you sick of this topic yet? Maybe it’s just me because I’m the one standing up here preaching every week, but it sure seems like we’ve been beating this topic to death! Are you tired of hearing in sermon after sermon that you will suffer as a Christian? Are you tired of hearing me talk about how Jesus’ suffering means you will suffer—how Jesus’ cross means your cross—how Jesus’ slavery means your slavery? It’s asking a lot, isn’t it? To be a slave!? Wouldn’t it just be nice—just for once—to be able to ask Jesus for something like James and John do? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to focus on rewards instead of on service and slavery?
We’re no different from James and John. They were ambitious. They wanted glory for themselves. So do we! We neglect personal time in God’s Word and Sunday Worship because we have “more important” things to do. We even get sick of hearing the pastor remind us of how often we neglect time in God’s Word. In the end, we just want more out of this life. We want to be happier, wealthier, more influential than we currently are. All this talk about the importance of time in God’s Word—suffering—being slaves to others—it feels as though we are slaves—FORCED to spend time in God’s Word— FORCED to go to church— FORCED to suffer on this earth— FORCED to serve others.
“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.” (Mark 10:45). That was your Suffering—Servant—Savior who spoke those words. Of all people, he deserved to be happy. He deserved to be wealthy. He deserved to be the most influential earthly leader to ever live. Because HE was the perfect person we strive to be. If his ambition looked like ours so often does, he would have been the happiest, richest, most influential man to ever live. But he didn’t come to be served. He came to serve. He came to serve your greatest need and my greatest need. In Jesus, you find a servant—a slave even—who was willing to take all of our disgusting selfishness on himself and die for it. You find a Savior who rose triumphantly AFTER he gave his life as a ransom for ours to ensure that you too will rise.
Do you get frustrated with how often you are selfish? Take that frustration to your Servant Savior! Do you get tired with how worried you are about earthly treasures instead of heavenly treasures? Take that worry to your Servant Savior! Are you disgusted with how often you fall into the trap of lazy Bible Study and personal devotion rather than taking every opportunity to grow in the Word? Take that disgust to your Servant Savior! And what do you find at the foot of his cross? You find not a burden but freedom. You find freedom from sin and freedom from punishment. You find freedom from guilt. These are the blessings that Jesus won for you when he served you and when he served me. It’s this Servant Savior who calls you and who calls me to be slaves HERE.
This slavery is not offensive. This slavery is a privilege. And this slavery does not doom you to a life of misery! This slavery liberates you! It frees you from all the crap that comes along with worldly ambition. No more chasing happiness, wealth and influence in this world. No more worry about what you do have. No more coveting the things you don’t have. No more anxiety over the things that may or may not happen in your life. Those things are gone! You are no longer enslaved to them.
Instead, you get to spend your time being ambitious for the one who was ambitious enough to die for the sins of not just you and me—but of every man, woman and child to ever live!
So be ambitious! Be ambitious with the amount of time and energy you put into personal Bible study. Set ambitious goals for how often you’ll be in church and Bible study. Be ambitious like Paul and become a slave to everyone. “Become all things to all men so that by all possible means God might use YOU to save some.”