The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Jesus Foretells His Death a Third Time
17 And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
However, Jesus also alluded to His suffering more subtly in Matthew 17:10-13, after the Transfiguration.
The direct parallel verse for today’s reading is Mark 10:32-34, about which I wrote in 2012.
Jesus had now finished His ministry in Perea (Matthew 19:1-Matthew 20:16). He and the Twelve were on their way up to Jerusalem (verse 17). John MacArthur explains the course of His ministry (emphases mine):
It takes us back to Luke 9:51 where the text says, “And He set His face to go to Jerusalem.” He was resolute in that commitment. He had while in the northern area of Galilee, finished His Galilean ministry, crossed the Jordan at a northern point, come to the east of the Jordan known as the Beyond called Peraea and He had been in Peraea coming south down the backside of the Jordan. Chapter 19 in the early part of 20 give us incidents in that ministry. Now He crosses the Jordan again, coming toward Jerusalem. He will go through Jericho. Chapter 20 verse 29 has Him departing from Jericho. So He crosses about Jericho, comes to Jericho and starts the long ascent to Jerusalem. It’s only a matter of days really now until He faces the passion, the death and the resurrection.
And you’ll notice it says, “going up to Jerusalem.” They must have been already in motion that way. Already on the move. And when you go up, you really go up. Jericho is about a thousand feet below sea level, Jerusalem is over 5,000 above and as the crow flies, they’re fifteen miles apart. So that’s a very steep ascent.
Jesus explained what would happen in Jerusalem (verses 18, 19). He would face the chief priests and scribes who would condemn Him to death. As Jews were forbidden from carrying out the sentence under Roman rule, the Gentiles would scourge Him and crucify Him.
Note how Jesus ended by saying that He would ‘be raised’ on the third day. It is a way of saying, ‘Fear not. Although my suffering and death will be such as you have never seen, I will rise again in glory’.
He told them this on the way to Jerusalem out of earshot of others because of the charged atmosphere. Matthew Henry’s commentary has this analysis:
It was not fit to be spoken publicly as yet, 1. Because many that were cool toward him, would hereby have been driven to turn their backs upon him[;] the scandal of the cross would have frightened them from following him any longer. 2. Because many that were hot for him, would hereby be driven to take up arms in his defense, and it might have occasioned an uproar among the people (Matthew 26:5), which would have been laid to his charge, if he had told them of it publicly before: and, besides that such methods are utterly disagreeable to the genius of his kingdom, which is not of this world, he never countenanced any thing which had a tendency to prevent his sufferings.
MacArthur directs us to the aforementioned account in Mark 10:32, which tells us that:
the disciples were–and he uses two words–amazed and afraid. They were amazed and afraid. And the reason for this is because they knew the hostility of the Jerusalem aristocracy. They knew that both the chief priests and the scribes were definitely enemies of Christ. They had enough experience to know that. They had already run into conflict with these people, the Pharisees namely, on several occasions. And they really couldn’t see any point in going right into Jerusalem. They also knew that that’s where the Roman seat was. Maybe they felt that if you’re going to pull off a revolution, it ought to start up in Galilee and become sort of an ascending sort of accumulative grass roots revolution. You don’t just walk a motley group of thirteen people into the city of Jerusalem and take over. And so they were somewhat confused. And I think really, in the negative side, they had…many of them had sort of given up on the Kingdom concept in its immediacy, at least emotionally if not intellectually. And all they could see was we’re going to go right in there and die. In fact, in John 11:16, when Jesus said we’re going to go to Jerusalem or to Bethany which is right in that proximity, Thomas who is called Didymus said, “We’ll all go with You and die, too.” Very pessimistic.
Yet what happened next?
In both Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts the next event was the request for the ‘sons of Zebedee’ — James and John — to sit closest to our Lord in His kingdom!
Mark records that James and John requested this themselves:
35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Matthew states that their mother asked on their behalf:
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
It’s amazing. Here Jesus was describing the world-changing events to come in Jerusalem and James and John were preoccupied with sitting closest to Him in the kingdom to come.
It all seems rather arrogant, especially as Jesus admired both of them very much. Henry’s analysis surmises that for them, this followed a certain flawed logic:
It was a great degree of faith, that they were confident of his kingdom, though now he appeared in meanness but a great degree of ignorance, that they still expected a temporal kingdom, with worldly pomp and power, when Christ had so often told them of sufferings and self-denial. In this they expected to be grandees. They ask not for employment in this kingdom, but for honour only and no place would serve them in this imaginary kingdom, but the highest, next to Christ, and above every body else. It is probable that the last word in Christ’s foregoing discourse gave occasion to this request, that the third day he should rise again. They concluded that his resurrection would be his entrance upon his kingdom, and therefore were resolved to put in betimes for the best place nor would they lose it for want of speaking early. What Christ said to comfort them, they thus abused, and were puffed up with. Some cannot bear comforts, but they turn them to a wrong purpose as sweetmeats in a foul stomach produce bile.
As far as the mother is concerned, she might have felt that, because of her relationship to Mary, the request was justified:
The mother of James and John was Salome, as appears by comparing Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:40. Some think she was daughter of Cleophas or Alpheus, and sister or cousin german to Mary the mother of our Lord. She was one of those women that attended Christ, and ministered to him and they thought she had such an interest in him, that he could deny her nothing, and therefore they made her their advocate. Thus when Adonijah had reasonable request to make to Solomon, he put Bathsheba on to speak for him. It was their mother’s weakness thus to become that tool of their ambition, which she should have given a check to. Those that are wise and good, would not be seen in an ill-favoured thing. In gracious requests, we should learn this wisdom, to desire the prayers of those that have an interest at the throne of grace we should beg of our praying friends to pray for us, and reckon it a real kindness.
This request takes us back to the Apostles squabbling over which of them was the greatest (Matthew 18:1-4). Students of the Gospel know that the topic also came up again before the Last Supper!
Going back to this episode, however, Jesus did not answer their mother but answered James and John directly. He warned them that they did not know what they were talking about:
22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”
They had no idea.
24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.
With some justification.
Jesus told them to put away such thoughts and behaviour:
25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,[c] 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,[d] 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It is sad that the Apostles did not enquire about Jesus’s upcoming suffering and death. They could have asked if they could help alleviate it or for advice on what they could do for their Master.
Instead, their minds were full of prideful things. Let us guard against this in our own lives.
Next time: Matthew 20:29-34