And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to him, saying, Master, we would that you should do for us whatever we shall desire.…
As we read the history of our Lord's dealings with his disciples, we are amazed at his unfaltering patience. They had preconceived theories about his kingdom which, in spite of his teaching, they held fast till after his death and resurrection. They constantly expected him to assume temporal power. Why he delayed they did not know; the reason for his present obscurity they could not conceive; but to all his allusions to suffering they gave, and were resolved to give, a figurative interpretation. With all this persistent misconception our Lord was patient. In this he has left us an example of the patience we should cherish towards those who, as we think, misunderstand the truth. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were two of the favored triumvirate, and their mother, Salome, was a near relation of the Virgin Mary. It was she who expressed the request of her sons, first asking for an unconditional promise - such as a Herod might give, but our Lord never. The Old Testament counterpart of this scene is the coming of Rebekah, with her son Jacob, to win the blessing of the firstborn.
I. THE REQUEST OF THE DISCIPLES.
1. It was the offspring of ignorance. They littleknew what it would be to stand on the right hand and on the left of their Lord in the day when the word would be fulfilled, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me." Well might he say, "Ye know not what ye ask." We often set our desires on some object which is vain or wrong. "We know not what we should pray for as we ought;" and sometimes we learn by a bitter experience that it is best to put ourselves trustfully in God's hands. Lot found it so. Of the Israelites, too, it is said, "God gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul."
2. It was the dictate of ambition. Ambition is a wholesome stimulus, if only it is free from selfishness. A teacher can do little with a child who is always satisfied with the lowest position in the class. If your ambition be a lawful one it will not allow you to shirk difficulties, or to get over an obstacle by a doubtful expedient, but it will lead you to a patient and faithful doing of what your hand finds to do. You will go higher, as you faithfully fulfill the duties of the lower sphere. Ask yourself whether the object you are aiming at is worthy of a Christian man; whether the time spent in its pursuit could be better employed; whether God or self is supreme in the motives which are prompting effort, etc. Ambition can be and ought to be tested. Some people are like precious stones, glittering, but non-productive; others are like the plainer millstones, which, by steadfast work, minister food to the hungry and wealth to the nation.
3. It was the outcome of selfishness. One of the best tests we have of the lawfulness of ambition is this question - How does it affect my feelings towards others? There is reason to fear that the idea of these disciples was that the chief places in the kingdom should be allotted to them, regardless of the claims of their brethren. No wonder, then, that they were rebuked by their Lord, and that when the ten heard it they had great indignation. Self-seeking ever tends to separate friends, and to arouse discord in the Christian Church. Selfishness is the root of the indolence that dishonors the disciples of Christ; it is the cause of civil dissensions; it is the spring of the bloody wars that desolate the world; and when it asserts itself in sectarianism it checks the advance of Christ's kingdom, and brings upon the Church paralysis and death. Against it Christ Jesus declared ruthless war. He declared that men must deny themselves if they would follow him; he taught us to love our enemies, and still more our neighbors, and said that if a man would be really great, he must minister to others for his sake.
II. THE REPLY OF OUR LORD. He pointed out the distinction between real greatness and seeming greatness, and declared that dignity in his kingdom was bestowed according to a certain law - the law of moral fitness. A similar law asserts itself everywhere in God's economy. Each plant and animal have their own habitat, and for their well-being we are compelled to study those conditions which the Creator designed for them. The disciples supposed that honor was at the arbitrary disposal of the Lord on the ground of personal favor. It was so with the positions held under the Roman government. The favor of an emperor might appoint a Pontius Pilate Procurator of Judaea, in complete disregard of character and suitability. It was not to be so in Christ's Church, whether on earth or in heaven. There would be distinctions of rank and honor, but they would be given by God to those worthy of dignity, and fit for it. In the kingdom of righteousness nothing would be arbitrary, or dependent upon caprice. To some extent this is so in the attainment of knowledge. Knowledge cannot be given by a teacher because a pupil is a favourite, or because a pupil wishes to be first among competitors; but it is the reward of individual work and consequent fitness. And greatness in heaven will not consist in so many pleasures or dignities, but in the enjoyment of so much life, in the developments of power and in the possibilities of service. These, then, are some of the principles laid down in our Lord's reply:
1. Prepared places are for prepared people. (Ver. 40.)
2. Humble ministry is the source of highest exaltation. (Vers. 43, 44.)
3. Christ's mission is the pattern of Christian service. (Ver. 45.) - A.R.
Parallel VersesKJV: And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire.