The Ambitious Disciples
And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom–Mat 20:21
A Promise Misunderstood
The disciples had been pondering deeply, we may be sure, on the great promise Jesus had lately made to them–“When the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mat 19:28). So strongly had these words impressed James and John, that from the hour they heard them they could think of little else. And gradually, as they dwelt upon that future, new ambitions began to mount within them; they began to dream of holding the most coveted seats, on the right hand and the left hand of the King. But they remembered how Jesus had rebuked them when once before they had striven for precedence. They dreaded such another rebuke, should they venture to broach the same subject again. So they made their mother the petitioner, they entreated Jesus through their mother’s love, and it is the story of that entreaty that forms this lesson. Do you know what their mother’s name was? It was Salome (cp. Mat 27:56 with Mar 15:40). Do you know what Salome means? It means perfect. I believe that Salome is perfect now, though she was very far from being perfect then. And do you know where we meet with her again? Once at the cross, where she stands far off and watches (Mar 15:40); and then in the early morning at the sepulchre, where she has gone to anoint the body of Jesus (Mar 16:1).
It Happened Shortly before the Crucifixion
Let us note, too, that all this happened little more than a week before the crucifixion. The shadow of the cross lay on the path of Jesus, His soul was filled with the thought of the approaching agony, and He had begun to talk very plainly of it to His own–and all the time His own were dreaming their own dreams, and happy in the golden thought of thrones. They thought that the kingdom was to be realised at once; were they not travelling to Jerusalem for that very end? But Jesus saw the darkness of Calvary before Him, and on either side (not seated upon thrones) a thief. Do you mark the gulf between the thoughts of Jesus and the thoughts of those who were nearest and dearest to Him? On the one side ambition and dominion; on the other, renunciation and the grave. Surely, in the next year or two, some mighty power must have been at work to bring round the disciples to the mind of Jesus. Just think how the cross found them, as their hearts are revealed in this incident, then think what in the after-days they became, and it is impossible not to feel the action, and detect the presence of a risen Lord.
We Must Drink the Cup If We Would Wear the Crown
This passage again teaches very clearly that we must drink the cup If we would wear the crown. When Jesus spoke about His cup, He was using a familiar Bible figure. Sometimes it is a Scripture image for joy: “My cup runneth over” (Psa 23:5); “I will take the cup of salvation” (Psa 116:13). Sometimes, as here, it is the emblem of sorrow: “If this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done” (Mat 26:42). Now, when Jesus says to His two disciples, Can ye drink My cup? Can ye suffer My baptism? He is not merely questioning their power to suffer–He is hinting that that is the one way to the throne. “Ah, James and John,” says Jesus, with infinite gentleness, “your eyes have been dazzled with that promised throne; but I tell you that the only road to that, lies through suffering and the death of self. I am not a tyrant who can dispense these honours even to the favourite who has lain upon My bosom; they shall be granted by God in perfect justice to those who have trodden most worthily the way of the cross.” There must be the cup before the crown, says Jesus. There must be the baptism before the throne. And the strange thing is, that that truth was never more nobly illustrated than in the after experience of James and John. One of the two was the first of the apostles to drink the cup, and to be baptized with the baptism of blood (Act 12:1). The other had the longest experience among them all of bitter trial and persecution. And so Salome, after all, has had a royal answer to her prayer. But truly she did not know what she was asking.
Jesus Can Bring Light out of Darkness
Another suggestion arises from our theme–how wonderfully Jesus could bring light from darkness. When the ten heard what the two had asked, we read that they were moved with indignation. I take it that the one spirit was in them all, and that the ten were as selfish in their irritation, as the two had shown themselves in their ambition. They were all heated, envious, and hasty. It was like an hour of the Prince of darkness. This, too, after all that had come and gone between them–the wonder is, it did not break Christ’s heart. But Jesus, with perfect patience, begins to teach them. The simple lessons must be gone over again. So step by step He leads them onward and inward, till they are face to face with the mystery of His death (Mat 20:28). Now, is not that a notable example of the power of Jesus to bring light out of darkness? Do you not feel as you read the story that moments of difficulty were His opportunity? How easy to have denounced James and John! How easy to have lost heart with all the twelve! I am almost certain we should have done that. But Jesus so redeemed that hour of bitterness, that we can thank God the ten were ever angry. And He has left us an example, that we should follow in His steps.