Blank Check (Mark 10)
And 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." (Mark 10:35)
Do you see this? It's a check. Not only is it a check, but if you were able to have a closer look, you would see that it's a blank check. As long as it's signed, it can be written out for any amount a person wants. Until the person who fills it out tries to cash it, there are unlimited possibilities for this check. You could write it for a million dollars, but it won't likely cash at any bank here in town. Not only because there's not enough money in the account, but because there's probably not enough money in the bank to cash it. A blank check is great, but it can turn into a major hassle once you try to cash it.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17), want Jesus to sign a blank check for them: "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You" (v35). In their minds, they're cashing in the check that Jesus signed in His Sermon on the Mount: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8). When Jesus said those words, He signed a blank check. James and John decided today would be a great time to cash that check.
They asked for the two things they wanted. Power and glory. They wanted to sit on thrones at Jesus' right and left hands. They wanted to have the prime seats of authority in the kingdom of God. They wanted to be Jesus' go-to guys. They wanted to be in charge. They wanted to be the guys that everyone else looked up to. After all, they were among the first of the disciples Jesus called. They had seniority in the group. Jesus took them on the special teaching excursions. They were the most qualified among the disciples. They would surely be the head princes in God's kingdom. They would reign over the rest of the disciples. They would have the power and the glory.
It wasn't enough just to think it. They wanted Jesus to proclaim that to the entire group. They wanted the glory to begin now and not when the kingdom was set up. They wanted the rest of the disciples to know that they would be and should be reporting to them in the chain of command. Of course, this only served to tick off the other ten disciples.
Even if Jesus had wanted to set His kingdom up with them in charge, James and John suffered from "vain impatience for glory and for fame" (LSB #518.21). They knew their qualifications for who would be who in the kingdom of God. They wanted to drive a wedge between Jesus and the rest of the disciples, showing that Jesus liked them better. Through their efforts, the sons of Zebedee wanted to force away the rest of the disciples by having themselves proclaimed the best and favorite. Jesus only needed two disciples. The rest were just extra. Being extra, they were expendable. Jesus didn't need the other ten. Bottom line, they weren't content with what Jesus had already given them. They wanted more. They wanted everyone else's share of Jesus as well.
Jesus looks at them and shakes His head. "You do not know what you are asking" (v38). It's a very expensive check James and John want written. Ever since the Garden, we've always wanted more than what we have. Jesus goes on to tell them exactly how expensive their request is. "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" (v38). The brothers say, "We are able" (v39). He says, "You will" (v40).
James and John don't ask the question that naturally pops into our head, "What are you talking about, Jesus? What is this cup and baptism you're talking about?" They thought they already knew it all. They thought they had the answers. Jesus had already told three times about His upcoming Passion. But they didn't understand. James and John thought Jesus' cup would be the cup that the king drank wine from, as we see from Nehemiah (1:11). They thought Jesus' Baptism was the same Baptism they received from John the Baptizer. How wrong they found themselves to be!
Jesus' cup is the cup of suffering. The cup of sorrow. The cup Jesus would drink fully. He did not sip from this cup. He drank it all. The suffering, the mockery, the humiliation. All of it Jesus endured because this was the cup His Father had given to Him. Jesus drank this cup of suffering for you, and He promises that you will drink the same cup for others.
When James and John said they were able to drink Jesus' cup, they didn't know how true it would be for their lives. St. James would go on to drink the cup of suffering fourteen years later. He was captured by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great. Herod Agrippa's only goal in life was to please the Jews. He was an avid follower of the Mosaic Law. He had James beheaded in Jerusalem just before Passover. He captured James because of Agabus' prophecy about the worldwide famine (Acts 11:28). Someone had to be blamed. The Christians became the scapegoat since they prophesied it. James was the easiest to capture. Once Herod saw that James' death pleased the Jews, he sought to get rid of all Christians, starting next with St. Peter (Acts 12:3). St. James drank the cup of suffering Jesus had prepared for him.
You too are called to drink this cup of suffering. Suffering for others. "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered" (Romans 8:36; Psalm 44:23). You find the cup of suffering whenever your faith is questioned by the world we live in. It can be as personal as someone calling you ignorant, bigotted or intolerant for your worldview. Most times it's a general media blitz completely slanted against Jesus and the one true faith. Suffering need not be painful. Many times we suffer even more from words than from actions. We see this from James and John's request. "And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John" (v41). James and John's wedge between the ten and Jesus hurt worse than if the sons of Zebedee had kicked them. So it is also with us. Someone says something and we can get all bent out of shape about it. We become indignant with anyone who doesn't share our point-of-view. So we suffer. St. Paul also says, "For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too" (2 Corinthians 1:5). Our suffering isn't an end, it's a means. To enjoy Christ's comfort, we must suffer. Our suffering opens the door to understanding Jesus' Baptism.
All Twelve Apostles had been baptized with water just like Jesus. James and John had been disciples of John the Baptizer. When Jesus was baptized, He received the Holy Spirit to mark Him as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The disciples wouldn't receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost. They were marked to deliver the faith. To proclaim the good news of Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection. You were so marked at your Baptism. Jesus' Baptism lead to His death and resurrection. Your Baptism killed you then made you alive again. "We were buried therefore with Him through Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead ... we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). Jesus told His disciples that they were dead men, but that He had come to give them life. Their Baptism sealed this new life. Your Baptism sealed this new life. This new life is a life of suffering, but you know that He will raise you from the dead. You know that He cashed a big blank check and gave the payment to you.
Jesus offered this blank check to James and John. He told them what was going to happen in the days, years and decades to come. He would die in the coming days. James would be martyred in fourteen years. John would die in another sixty-plus years. All these things happen because of Jesus. All these things happen when the saints stand up for what they believe. All these things happen because the cross is the only valid blank check. On the cross, Jesus wrote out the check. Pay to the order of God the Father. Amount: the sins of the world. Signed Jesus of Nazareth. As He was nailed to the cross, He handed the check to God the Father. As He hung on the cross on that dark Friday afternoon, God the Father cashed the check. Upon Jesus came the hellfire and torments that you deserve. He redeemed all of creation by His six hours' of perfect suffering. The blank check Jesus held in His hand from all eternity could only be paid out by the suffering of the perfect, sinless God-Man. Jesus suffered on the cross and redeemed the entire human race. By His death and resurrection, He opened the gates of Heaven to all who believe in Him.
We receive the same reward: Heaven. Jesus opened the gates so you may enter. Once we enter, there are different levels of glory. That much Jesus points out to James and John: "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" (v40). Places of honor in Heaven are best left up to God to choose. He has prepared from before the foundation of the world who will be where in His kingdom. It's so on the earth. It'll be so in Heaven. The reward is the same: entrance into God's kingdom. The afterwards will be different as everyone has a specific role in Heaven after the Last Judgment. You cannot claim these glories. They have been prepared for you from the beginning. They will not be revealed to you either. Jesus said that those who will sit at His left and right will be those for whom it has been prepared. He doesn't go on to tell James and John what their roles will be. He doesn't tell you what your role is going to be. He doesn't want that knowledge to make you complacent in your work or overbearing to your neighbor. Jesus does not want complacent Christians. He refuses to have overbearing Christians. Those who seek to lead in the Church must be servants. There's Jesus' blank check for your life. Jesus tells you, "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" (vv43-45). He also says, "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:12). James and John wanted to exalt themselves. They were humbled quickly. Jesus rebukes them with His own example. He reminds them, "I came down from My throne in Heaven to serve you. I am the Son of the living God and deserve to be praised more than anything else in all creation. But I've humbled Myself to be your servant. The servant who is with you in thick and thin. The servant who puts His life on the line against your greatest enemy. The servant who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven."
Jesus came to serve you. He served you as He hung on the cross, paying for your sins. He serves you as He prepares a place for you in Heaven. He serves you every first and third Sunday when He comes to you with His Body and Blood with the bread and wine of Holy Communion to prepare you for Heaven. Your check has been cashed. At your Baptism, you were secured a spot in Heaven as long as you remained faithful to Christ and His Word. He gave you His Holy Spirit to help you in your journey through life. He is the deposit that guarantees your place in Heaven as long as you don't throw Him away as many have done in the past (2 Timothy 1:13-18).
May the Holy Spirit guard you through your days. May He show you the true wonders of service that God has prepared for you. The great works that He has made for you to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). May He keep you rich in humble service and lacking in impatient pride. Amen.