The Apostle John

Studies in his Life and Writings

By W. H. Griffith Thomas

Part 1. - The Life of the Apostle

Chapter 6


Every incident in the life of the Apostle John is in one way or another a revelation of his character, and, at the same time, of the way in which our Lord dealt with it. The story of the request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee, with her sons, James and John, calls for special attention in this connection as shedding remarkable light on the personal characteristics of John (Matt. 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45).

I The Request

According to Matthew, it was Salome who came with this request, though her sons were with her, and were doubtless personally associated with her in approaching Christ. If, as is generally thought, she was the sister of the Virgin Mary (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40), she may have considered that her special position warranted her in making this appeal. The request was definite and, doubtless, honest, even though it was marked by ignorance. Like the rest of the disciples, these two were thinking of an earthly kingdom, and of their own position in it (Luke 19:11). There was not a little faith in proffering such a request at the moment, for if we may press the word "then" (Matt. 20:20), it came immediately after the solemn announcement of the Passion, so that James and John must have believed in spite of these words that Jesus Christ was to be a king. Perhaps, however, they remembered what he had said about his glory and sitting on his throne (Matt. 19:28).

But however honest and confident was the request, there was an element of selfishness in it that reflected seriously on the two brothers, as well as on their mother. They clearly desired some pre-eminence in their Master's Kingdom, which would necessarily affect, and be at the expense of, the rest of the disciples. It is, therefore, impossible to acquit them of an undue consideration of their own interests in their desire to occupy the chief places of honor in Christ's Kingdom.

II. The Reply

The Lord met their request in a very striking way by reminding them first of all that they were altogether ignorant of the true meaning of the request, "Ye know not what ye ask." Then he put to them an inquiry, which showed what was in his mind, "Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" The "cup" in Scripture sometimes is the symbol of blessing (Psalm 23:5), and at others the symbol of suffering (Mark 14:36). It was, of course, in the latter connection that Christ asked the question, thereby reminding them of an experience altogether different from the place of honor and glory to which they were looking forward. It was a quiet, but forceful reminder that it was necessary to count the cost of such a position as they were anxious to fill. Thus Christ did not set aside their request as impossible or refuse it. Still less did he condemn them as wrong. As on other occasions, he instructed and trained them by pointing out that they possessed an entirely erroneous and false idea of the glory associated with their Master, as well as of the way to the realization of that glory. Christ desired them to understand that there were certain conditions to be fulfilled if their request was to be granted.

III. The Rejoinder

The two brothers at once replied, "We are able." This seems to indicate a superficiality or, at any rate, an ignorance of what was involved in their Master's question. Bishop Chadwick is of the opinion that Salome, with fearlessness, "could see the clear sky beyond the storm. Her sons shall be loyal and win the prize, whatever be the hazard, and however long the struggle. Ignorant and rash she may have been, but it was no base ambition which chose such a moment to declare its unshaken ardor, and claim distinction in the Kingdom for which so much must be endured. And when the stem price was plainly stated, she and her children were not startled; they conceived themselves able for the baptism and the cup" (Mark, p. 288). It is impossible not to admire the frankness and even the courage with which they expressed their ability and readiness to face what Christ had put before them.

IV. The Reminder

Then the Master told them plainly what would happen. "Little as they dreamed of the coldness of the waters and the bitterness of the draught, yet Jesus did not declare them to be deceived, but said, 'Ye shall indeed share this" (Chadwick). The cup was to be taken, thereby implying submission to suffering. The baptism was promised, thus indicating, like their Master, consecration and designation to the pathway of sorrowful service. The only thing that was impossible in regard to absolute promise was the sitting on Christ's right hand and on his left. This could only be given to those for whom it had been prepared. It was no arbitrary matter, but one involving conditions. Some were to be nearer and others farther away from their beloved Master, but wherever their position was, it was something to l>e gained, not granted as a gift. "It is for them for whom it hath been prepared of my Father."

V. The Results

It is not surprising that when the rest of the Apostles heard of this request "they were moved with indignation." The action was virtually that of stealing a march on their fellow workers, and their annoyance was so far natural. And yet not long before they themselves had been guilty of a similar offense against the brotherhood, because there had been a dispute as to who was the greatest (Mark 9:34). Their indignation at the two was therefore not quite so surprising as it would have been if they themselves had not been guilty of a similar offense. Then, too, they were as ignorant as James and John, and the annoyance felt was in some respects the measure of their ignorance. Selfishness always tends to divide brethren. There are two Greek words usually rendered "zeal" and "envy." The former implies a definite emulation without any thought of inferiority on the part of others. The latter always involves the desire and determination to get first place, even though it be at the cost of other people. It is right for us to exercise "zeal"; it is altogether wrong to show "envy."

The Lord's instruction was soon given both to the two and to the ten disciples. He showed them first of all the difference between the world's idea of greatness and that which he himself had come to introduce. The Gentiles lorded it over their people, but it was to be the very opposite among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The true idea of greatness is that of service — not authority. "Whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister." Not only so, but the very highest place would be filled by the one who rendered the lowliest service (v. 27). The distinction between "minister" and "servant," between "deacon" and "slave," is very striking. Caroline Fry, in her valuable little book, "Christ Our Example," defines humility as "unconscious self-forgetfulness."

Then, as a parting message, Christ showed that he himself was the one and supreme model of greatness in his Hfe of service. "Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." Thus the incident was closed, and the two as well as the ten were taught some solemn, searching, practical lessons.

As we review the whole story, we cannot help noticing some of the outstanding truths for our daily life:

(1) What a mercy it is that our prayers are not always answered as we desire. There is a world of difference between our "wants" and our "needs." Very often we ask for what we "want," and God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayer, but only gives us what he, in his divine wisdom, sees that we "need."

(2) What a solemn thought it is that personal character in the Kingdom of God really determines our position. There is nothing arbitrary in the realm of grace. When we accept the Lord as our Saviour, everything depends upon our faithfulness to what he bestows. Not greatness, but goodness; not ability, but obedience, is the guarantee of true Christian life. Amid the controversy between the followers of Wesley and Whitefield one man asked Whitefield whether he ever expected to see Mr. Wesley in heaven. "No," replied Whitefield, "I do not." The man was gratified with this answer, reflecting, as it seemed, upon a theological opponent, until Whitefield added, "He will be so near the Throne and I so far off that I shall never see him." (3) What a simple yet searching truth it is to realize that service for Christ constitutes the highest dignity. If we would be high, we must stoop low, as our Master did before us (Phil. 2:1-11). It is not without significance that the Prince of Wales' motto is "Ich dien," "I serve," for royalty is never more royal than when it places itself at the disposal of others. James and John little knew what was before them. One of them was to be the first martyr of the Twelve, and the other was to live the longest in an age of ostracism and persecution. And yet in both cases it was genuine service, as they drank of their Master's cup, and were baptized with his baptism. It is well for us to remember this glory of service, whether it involves patient suffering or active work. "They also serve who only stand and wait." There is nothing more noble than following the example of him who came "not to be ministered unto, but to minister." As the terse Latin of the Collect so beautifully says: "Whom to serve is to reign" (cui servire regnare); "Whose service is perfect freedom."