Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sons of Zebedee
November 24, 2020
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sons of Zebedee
Each of the Synoptic Gospels1 gives an account of a request that two of the disciples, James and John, who were brothers, made to Jesus.2 We’ll focus on the account in the Gospel of Mark, and points will be brought in from the Gospel of Matthew. The account in the Gospel of Mark has two basic parts: (1) the request of James and John to sit at Jesus’ right and left when He sits in His “glory,” and (2) Jesus’ response to the other disciples when they discuss this request.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”3
James and John were with their father, Zebedee, who was a fisherman by trade, when Jesus called them to follow Him, and we’re told that they immediately went with Jesus, which may indicate that Zebedee and his sons were already familiar with Jesus’ ministry and that Zebedee approved of his sons’ calling.4
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, James and John are mentioned, along with the apostle Peter, as being present at various important events. One example occurred when Jesus went into a house to raise a girl from the dead, and he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James.5 They, along with Peter, were also present at Jesus’ transfiguration.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.6
Jesus also gave the two brothers the surname Boanerges, which meant “sons of thunder.”7
As noted previously, these two brothers boldly asked Jesus to allow them to sit at His right and left side when He came into His glory. In the Gospel of Matthew, it is their mother who makes this request for her sons; however, Jesus’ response is directed to the sons, not the mother, as He answered, “You (plural) do not know what you are asking. Are you (plural) able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”8 The brothers were requesting the top positions in the new kingdom that they expected would be established soon.
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus told His disciples,
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.9
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the disciples,
Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.10
At that point in time (before Jesus’ death and resurrection), James and John likely expected that they would be placed in positions of power in the coming government which they mistakenly thought would be established soon.
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”11
The references to the cup that Jesus would drink and the baptism with which He would be baptized both pointed to Jesus’ coming death, spoken of earlier in the book of Mark.
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.12
He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”13
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.14
Later, right before His arrest, Jesus made reference to this cup while He was in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”15
Jesus asked James and John if they were able to suffer as He was going to suffer. Their response was that they were able, and Jesus confirmed that the cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. However, even though they would suffer, and in the case of James would be killed,16 Jesus told them that the places at His right and left were not His to assign, inferring that it was the Father’s prerogative.
When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.17
The reason the other ten disciples were angered is not explained, but it could very well have been due to their own desire to have a special place of honor. The selfish request of the two brothers, and the response of the other ten disciples, brings about a teaching moment about true greatness.
Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”18
In the world of Jesus’ day, much as in the world today, the great ones were those who ruled over others, who “lord it over others.” Such “greatness,” defined by power, can often result in tyranny. Jesus rejected this style of leadership, saying, it shall not be so among you. Instead, He stated that those who wished to be great must serve others.
Jesus showed Himself to be the one who came to serve, and ultimately gave His life to ransom the lives of sinners so that they could be delivered from death to life. When someone such as a prisoner or slave was ransomed, a payment was made to the one holding the prisoner; this payment would redeem the person, and they were then free. This concept of redemption is expressed throughout the New Testament.
Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.19
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.20
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.21
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.22
He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.23
James and John’s request for the top positions in the kingdom was met with an unexpected response. Rather than offering the earthly power and positions which they were requesting, Jesus told them that they would experience the same rejection and suffering as He was going to suffer. The positions that they were requesting were not His to give, indicating that those places would be filled by the ones whom God has ordained to fill them.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
2 Matthew 20:20–28, Mark 10:35–40, Luke 22:24–27. While the books of Matthew and Mark name James and John, the book of Luke says a dispute arose among them (Luke 22:24), without mentioning any names.
3 Mark 10:35–37.
4 Matthew 4:21–22.
5 Mark 5:37.
6 Mark 9:2.
7 Mark 3:17.
8 Matthew 20:22.
9 Mark 9:1.
10 Matthew 19:28.
11 Mark 10:38–40.
12 Mark 8:31.
13 Mark 9:31.
14 Mark 10:33.
15 Mark 14:35–36.
16 Acts 12:1–2.
17 Mark 10:41.
18 Mark 10:42–45.
19 Titus 2:13–14.
20 Romans 3:23–24.
21 Ephesians 1:7.
22 Colossians 1:13–14.
23 Hebrews 9:12.