Two Clueless Guys

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor.” “What is your request?” he asked. They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” (Mark 10:35–37, NLT)

We’ve had a lot of flooding in Lansing recently.  Cherie and I were driving down a major road during the flooding and came to an intersection that was flooded.  Some cars were driving through the water which looked to be 12-18 inches deep.  Cherie, who was driving, asked, “should I drive through that water?”

“No way!” I responded.  We turned the wrong way into Chick-fil-a [Yay!  We finally have a Chick-fil- a near us] and escaped the water. Later that evening, my daughter showed us a video of that exact same intersection.  There were three cars stalled out in various places in the water.  Two cars came driving down the street, one with a fairly high chassis and the other fairly low.  Both cars tried to drive through the water.  The one with the high center made it through, the one with the low frame became the fourth stalled out car in the water.  I was flabbergasted.  “What was that guy thinking?!?” [Actually, I called him a moron, but that makes me look bad]

I had much the same reaction this morning as I moved on in the Gospel of Mark.  James and John want to be in prominent positions when Jesus sits on your glorious throne. There is nothing wrong with that request, correct?

But wait!  Look what Jesus has literally just told them:

“Listen,” he said, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die and hand him over to the Romans. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him with a whip, and kill him, but after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:33–34, NLT)

Jesus is thinking about his upcoming suffering and death, while James and John are designing thrones for themselves in God’s kingdom.

Jesus asks the pair if they are willing to drink the metaphorical cup that he himself is going to drink.  I love The Message paraphrase of their response:

Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?” “Sure,” they said. “Why not?”  (Mark 10:38–39a, The Message)

What were they thinking?!?  There is such nonchalance here that the reader can hardly imagine it.

The irony is that, as Jesus himself predicts, the pair (along with the other disciples, save Judas Iscariot) will drink the cup of suffering and death that Jesus will soon drink.  A. T. Robertson comments here: “James was the first of the Twelve to meet the martyr’s death (Acts 12:2) and John the last if reports are true about him. How little they knew what they were saying.”

The Passion Translation points out at this exchange between Jesus and the pair: “This shows us that not only is the sacrifice of the cross difficult to understand, it also brings out the ambition that hides in our hearts.”

We would like to sit back and judge James and John for their delusions of grandeur and imagine that we would have been different in their place.  The only problem with this (and it is a delusion) is that our hearts are exactly the same as these two guys.  We are happy to be included in Jesus’ glory, but not so happy to be included in his suffering and death.

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Many Who Are First Will Be Last

Jesus has a rather enigmatic comment at the end of his discussion with his disciples on who exactly can have eternal life: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”” (Mark 10:31 ESV)  First at what?  Last at what?  Eternal life?  Jesus doesn’t bother to explain.  We can rely on the biblical scholars to help us understand what Jesus’ comment meant, right?  Here are some possibilities:

  1. (Lenski’s Commentary on the New Testament) What he says is that many who were at first in the kingdom will finally be out of it whereas many who were at first out of it shall at last be in it.
  2. (ESV SB Notes) The context suggests that it is an inconspicuous, obedient disciple, not much recognized in this life (last), who will receive the greatest honor (first).
  3. (MacArthur SB) Believers will share equally in the blessings of heaven.
  4. (NIV ZSB Notes) Eternal life is to be found not on the basis of status, wealth, or obedience to the law but by humble and welcoming cross-bearing discipleship.
  5. (BIBCom) Discipleship entails a deep irony: the “first will be last, and the last first”
  6. (South Asia Bible Commentary) The allocation of rewards in God’s kingdom is not based on human standards such as rank, caste, length of service, personal achievement or sacrifice (Matt 20:1-16), but on commitment to Jesus and following him faithfully.

Six commentaries and we have six different interpretations of what Jesus’ statement meant.  Which one is the correct interpretation?  Search me.  The best one can do as a student of the Bible is realize that there is a broad area of disagreement and not a lot of agreement when it comes to this difficult/opaque statement.

We have to do two things here: first, we have to just pick the best interpretation we find, or at least the one that we think is closest to what Jesus actually meant; second, we must realize that the obscure sayings are not the central point of what Jesus is saying.  It is very important that we focus on the central point, and not get distracted by things that aren’t central.

So what was Jesus’ point to the disciples?  It is this: only those who follow Jesus will inherit eternal life, not the wealthy just because they are rich, and not those who follow the commandments as a way of gaining God’s acceptance.

It’s a kind of humbling truth, isn’t it?

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Upending Expectations

In the aftermath of watching Jesus send away the seemingly perfect convert, [He is rich!  He is committed!  He is teachable!  He is a man of influence!] Jesus startles the disciples even more:

“And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words…And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?”” (Mark 10:23-24,26 ESV)

The disciples, along with the rest of the Jewish population, along with the wealthy themselves, believed that the rich were first in line for eternal life.  Hadn’t God said in the Scriptures that material blessings would follow those who were committed to God?  Having a lot of money meant that God had blessed the possessor and obviously that was because God was pleased with them.

“No,” Jesus says, “the truth is that it is very difficult for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God,” thus upending virtually everyone’s theology. The disciples respond: “If the wealthy can’t get eternal life, then who can?”  A paraphrase of Jesus’ answer might be: “No one, without the help of God, but fortunately God is willing and able to help.”

The brutal truth was that no one was on the path to eternal life.  If eternal life was up to men, then eternal life would be impossible.  This is exactly how Jesus puts it.
Richard Lenski comments here:

“It is” impossible; the words are like an exclamation. So the last door of hope on that side is shut and sealed forever. Here perishes all Pelagianism, moralism, synergism; man himself can do absolutely nothing toward his salvation by any natural powers of his own.


Here is the shocking truth: Only those who follow Jesus inherit eternal life, and the fact that you follow Jesus?  That is a work of God, and only God.

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One Thing

“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”” (Mark 10:21 ESV)

The young man who comes to Jesus seems to be the perfect disciple:  He knows that Jesus has something that he lacks in regards to eternal life; he is willing to listen to Jesus to discover what he himself is missing; he has lived his life attempting to do the things that God has commanded.  To be honest, most of us, had we met this man, would have ushered him into the church and declared how much he wanted to follow Jesus and what great potential that he has.

Fortunately/Unfortunately for this man, Jesus knew him intimately.  “You lack one thing,” Jesus says.  “Go. Sell. Come. Follow.”  It seems so easy, doesn’t it?  All this guy needs to do to inherit eternal life is go and sell everything that he has and come and follow Jesus.

The young man’s reaction is translated various ways:

  • he was sad – KJV
  • the man’s face fell – NLT
  • disheartened – ESV
  • he looked gloomy – LEB
  • he was shocked – NRSV

The young inquirer had expected Jesus to tell him to do something, and he was happy to do anything that Jesus commanded in order to obtain eternal life, except for just one thing.  The one thing that stood in between him and Jesus was his wealth.  Jesus tells him to give up that one thing, but he is unwilling and goes away unchanged.

This is one of the saddest stories in the gospels because, as far as we know, this young man lived his whole life with his wealth, but without Jesus, and so he did not obtain eternal life.

Of course, Jesus comes to us today and demands the very same thing.  No, he does not demand that we all go sell everything that we have and follow him.  He demands that we give up the one thing that stands between us and him, and that, dear reader, is going to be painful because we love that one thing.

Jessica Youngblood had to give up one thing to follow Jesus: addiction to sex and meth.  It took her awhile, and it was a rocky road to change, but she did give up that one thing.  Hiding from her drug dealer boyfriend in the bathroom in literal fear for her life, she prayed:

In that bathroom, I cried out to God. As my boyfriend was beating on the door, I said, “God, if you are real, then you will get me out of this situation, but not just out of dying this day, but every day of my life. You will save me from the death that is on the inside of me. God, can I be more than a meth addicted whore?

God reached down in that moment and in the days and months that followed and drew her to faith, and she discovered that she could indeed “be more than a meth addicted whore.”  She writes:

You see, grace is something you don’t deserve or earn, it is what He freely gives to us. So, the picture in my head is of me, laying there in a million broken pieces, and I watch His grace put the pieces back together. It makes something so beautiful out of the things that I had broken or the world had broken.

One thing; that is all that Jesus asks, and he gives us himself and eternal life in return.  I’d say that’s a pretty good trade.




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“Why Do You Call Me Good?”

We are in Mark 10.17-31 and a young man comes up to Jesus and asks him: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the young man somewhat abruptly and cryptically:“And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18, ESV) One of the difficult things about biblical interpretation is that we sit, not only at a great distance chronologically and culturally, but we also weren’t physically present when Jesus spoke these words to see his expression and hear what he emphasized [not to mention these words are in Greek and Jesus spoke in Aramaic].

We are left to do our best to understand what Jesus meant with the question.  It often becomes apparent that there is a wide range of opinions and interpretations when we come across difficult to interpret passages.  For example, here are some stabs at what Jesus meant by his question:

  1. “Jesus calls him to sober reflection. What does the epithet ‘good’ mean? It belongs to God who is good; and it should not be used unthinkingly or as a flippant gesture of praise”- Martin [quoted in Expositor’s Bible Commentary (EBC)]
  2. John Calvin: “It is “as if he had said, ‘Thou falsely calleth me a good Master, unless thou acknowledgest that I have come from God.’” [quoted in EBC]
  3. Bob Utley: “Jesus is not making a statement about His own goodness, but He wanted to jolt this man’s shallow thinking about God and true goodness”
  4. ESV Study Bible: “It is not proper for the young man to address Jesus as “Good Teacher” until he is ready to acknowledge that Jesus is God.”
  5. NIV Study Bible: “Jesus is not denying his own goodness but wants the man to recognize that since God alone is good and alone gives life (Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6), only God can answer this question.”
  6. Lenski: “Jesus makes no pronouncement whatever about himself but tells this ruler to pause and to think what “good” really means.”

Which is the correct interpretation?  Search me.  These are all good, faithful biblical scholars and as you can see, they do not agree.  The one who interprets these difficult sayings must read what others have written and study the passage and decide for themselves what they think it means.

Fortunately for us, Jesus’ question is not the crucial point of the passage; that point is very clear, but we will leave that for later.

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Jesus and Children

The parents kept bringing their little children to Jesus so that he would lay his hands on them and bless them. But the disciples kept rebuking and scolding the people for doing it. Mark 10:13 (Passion Translation NT)

Directly upon the heels of Jesus’ discussion of marriage and divorce, Mark places this encounter that he has with children (and their parents). Before we are too hard on his disciples, we need to understand that children in the culture at their time held a very low place, unlike our culture where they hold a relatively high place.  Jesus had only a finite amount of time and his work was very important, they were trying to allow him time for the important and essential.

It was not uncommon in the culture of Palestine at the time for parents to bring their children to a rabbi to be blessed.  The people didn’t believe they were bringing them to be “saved,” or that something magic happened.  This was a request for God to give divine favor to the child.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Unbeknownst to his disciples [although they would find out hastily] Jesus has time for these children.  He is indignant that they have been kept from him.  The word is a very strong one and indignant is a good translation. I’m quite sure that Jesus’ disciples got the message quickly.

As he always does in situations like these, Jesus takes the time for a faith lesson.  He says, “listen to the truth I speak: Whoever does not open their arms to receive God’s kingdom like a teachable child will never enter it.” A child has a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of joy about what they are doing; they have simple faith and trust easily and without question or worry.  This is a humbling lesson for we who have outgrown our simple faith and easy trust.  It’s one we need to relearn at Jesus’ feet.

I love the ending to this short encounter.  Jesus takes each child into his arms and blesses them.  I found myself wondering what became of these children whom Jesus blessed.  I’ll bet they have some stories to tell us.

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Jesus on Divorce

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”” (Mark 10:6–9 ESV)

In order to strip this interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees down to it’s essence, let’s look at just the basics.

  1. The Pharisees pose a question, sure they were trying to trap Jesus, but their question is: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” –
  2. The Pharisees give their answer.  Jesus asks them “what did Moses command you?”  Both he and his opponents were intimately familiar with the Torah and most likely had it memorized.  The Pharisees answer is correct on the surface.  They say that Moses commanded the man to give the woman a bill of divorcement.
  3. Jesus’ answer. Jesus refers back to Gen 1.27, points out that God allowed divorce because of the hardness of “your” hearts, and then gives his answer: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Jesus cuts straight through the Pharisees purpose to take this chance to talk, not about divorce per se, but to point out that God created marriage, he gave it to mankind for their good, and when he brings two people together into marriage, they should stay married. The Bible Speaks Today commentary points out here:

What is wrong is neither God’s original purpose nor Moses’ provision. What is wrong is the sinfulness of the human heart which goes contrary to God’s purposes and those ideals associated with them, and wreaks havoc in human life.


The Pharisees wanted to talk about divorce, Jesus directs them to God’s design in marriage. 

[Aside:  We could spend a lot of time here discussing when a Christian can get divorced and if they are divorced whether they can, or cannot be remarried.  The issue has been addressed ad infinitum in the broader church, so I will not belabor the point here. The best short exposition of my own position is a sermon by Kevin DeYoung.]




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