James, John, and two cups

Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going to Jerusalem. (You can read about it in Mark 10:32-45.) Jesus was leading the way, setting the pace, even though he knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Not only did he know; he even told his twelve apostles what would happen: “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. And they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

James and John didn’t get the message. They came to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No parent would fall into that trap, and Jesus was not about to be tricked. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they responded.

Their eyes were on the glory. They knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Rescuer who would establish the kingdom of God and defeat all his enemies. They wanted to be close to the action. They wanted a share of his kingdom and power and glory. They wanted to freeze out Peter and the other apostles by getting the chief places of honor beside the King himself.

Jesus first asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they affirmed that they could, Jesus told them that they would, but then he added, “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.”

I used to wonder about the people who would claim those places of glory, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus. In the history of the Church, who has earned such awesome authority? Would Paul the apostle be given such a place? What about Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham? Who deserves to be at the right hand of Jesus or his left hand when he claims his kingdom?

Then I learned when it was that Jesus claimed his kingdom. He is not waiting to claim it when he appears in glory; all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He did not claim the kingdom when he ascended into heaven, or even when he rose from the dead. The kingdom was his when he suffered and died on the cross in the place of sinners. The glory was his when he announced, “It is finished.” Easter and the Ascension and the Glorious Appearing are all results of the cross. Without the cross, we would have no joy in any of these things. Without the cross, we would be excluded from his kingdom, and Jesus does not want us to miss the party.

Who was at his right and his left when Jesus claimed his kingdom and his glory? Two thieves were there, each of them on a cross. At first they both mocked Jesus, but then one came to faith and confessed his faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, Lord,” he prayed. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” From these words, we know when Jesus received his kingdom and his glory.

James and John thought they wanted to be there with Jesus, but Jesus did not want them there. He went to the cross to spare them punishment. He went to the cross to rescue us all from punishment and guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us so we could be the righteousness of God. The innocent one who should not have been punished accepted our punishment so we can be free. The Author of life gave himself into death so we can live forever.

Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink from his cup? Some scholars apply those words to the persecutions they faced as apostles. But the cup Jesus had in mind was the suffering of the cross. It was the cup he pictured as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me… but not my will; your will be done.”

Imagine a cup before the throne of God with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of God’s wrath falls into that cup—a drop of poison you deserve for your sin. Every time you say something you know is untrue, another drop falls. Every time your mind wanders where it does not belong, into lust or envy or hatred, another drop falls. Every time you neglect an opportunity to help a person in need, another drop falls. How many drops have fallen into that cup? Is it overflowing yet with the wrath of God, wrath you have earned by all your sins?

Yet Jesus comes. He takes that cup that bears your name and is filled with your poison, and he drinks it dry. He did not want to drink it, but he accepted the poison to spare your life. He faced justice for you, because he knew you could not bear to face the justice you deserve.

But Jesus did not leave you without a cup. As in a comic movie (The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester), there are two cups, and only one is poisoned. Jesus exchanges cups with you, not to poison you but to preserve you. He has a second cup, a cup that belongs to him. It is the cup of salvation. It is the cup of the New Testament. It is the cup that is overflowing, not with wrath and poison, but with grace and forgiveness and new life.

James and John were rescued from their own pride. They asked for something that was not theirs. Jesus gave them something that was not theirs. He gave them his righteousness, along with his redemption through his own blood. He continues to distribute those blessings today. We will be with him forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory, because of the cross where Jesus rescued and redeemed us. J.

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Doxology

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”

These words are not included in the earliest copies of Matthew’s Gospel, nor does Luther comment upon them. Many Christians pray them, though, as a hymn of praise—a doxology—which matches the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask that God’s name be hallowed.

The kingdom is God’s. He rules over everything that he created; he is Lord of all that exists. The Church in particular is his kingdom, and his will is to increase that kingdom so more people will dwell in his new creation. That new creation is also his kingdom, which he will rule eternally.

The power is God’s. He is almighty; he can do whatever he chooses. God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, what he says happens. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and they are forgiven. He says, “Your sins are gone,” and they are gone, removed as far from us as the east is from the west. He says, “You are my child, and you will live with me forever in a new and perfect creation,” and we know that all these things are true.

The glory is God’s. In the presence of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—Jesus once shone with light while visiting with Moses and Elijah. Yet to Jesus, his true glory is not that he can shine with light or be counted with the heroes of God’s people. His glory far transcends those accomplishments. For Jesus, his true glory is expressed in love, making himself vulnerable on behalf of his people, offering himself as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world.

The kingdom and the power and the glory are his forever—or, as some Christians pray, “forever and ever.” The original Greek expression translates literally as “from the ages into the ages.” God’s kingdom and power and glory never end. They endure into the new creation, and we will experience them fully at the resurrection of the body, when we inherit the fullness of what we already have now: the life everlasting. J.

 

Christ in Genesis: At the right hand

Throughout history, certain kings and emperors and other executive authorities have enjoyed the privilege of rule without accepting any of the responsibility of rule. Sometimes they were considered too important to do the work of government. Sometimes they were incompetent. Sometimes they were merely lazy. In every case, someone else was found to do the real work of governing the land. Joseph became such a man in Egypt. After interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh, predicting seven years of bounty followed by seven years of famine, Joseph was put in charge of Egypt, collecting supplies during the good times to take care of people during the bad times. Joseph ran Egypt, while the Pharaoh sat on the throne and enjoyed the worship of his people. In a similar way, in the book of Esther, first Haman and then Mordecai took royal authority in Persia. The real emperor sat on the throne, but his prime ministers did the work of running the empire.

We call such a power a “right hand man.” As the right hand of the king or emperor, he does the work to run the country while the chief executive gets the credit. Medieval France had a “mayor of the palace” doing the real work while the Merovingian kings got all the credit. Medieval Japan had a Shogun doing the real work while the Japanese emperors got all the credit. Modern corporations and universities often have a President who receives all the credit while a presidential assistant is doing the real work that brings success to the business.

After his resurrection, Jesus told his apostles, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The apostle Paul shared the same message in a different way, saying that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father (Ephesians 1:20 and Colossians 3:1, among others). The right hand of the Father is not a ceremonial position. Sitting at the Father’s right hand means doing the work of the Father. Because Jesus has been given power and authority by the Father, Jesus is the only Way to approach the Father. Those who try to come to God the Father through their own good deeds, or because they were created by him, cannot reach the Father. Only through Christ can the Father be approached.

As the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, Joseph had power to reward people and power to punish people. Though they did not recognize Joseph, his brothers placed themselves under his power when they came to buy food in Egypt. Joseph, unlike Jesus, was not sinless. He could not resist the temptation to toy with his brothers before he finally told them who he was. Like Christ, though, Joseph forgave his brothers all their sins against him. He provided generously for his family without accepting any payment from them. In the end, he brought them to live with him, as Jesus brings his people into Paradise and into the new creation. Our sins caused Jesus to suffer, as the sins of his brothers caused Joseph to suffer. Yet Jesus does not hold a grudge against any of us. He forgives us, he provides for us now, and he has guaranteed us a home where we will live with him forever in peace and joy. J.