They [James and John, the sons of Zebedee] said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to Him, “We are able.” So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared." (Mk 10:37-40)
We heard the aforementioned reading on the 5th and last Sunday of Great Lent. It is a prelude to events that are to soon to follow during Holy Week. Christ is about to enter Jerusalem for the last time, where He will be arrested, tried and crucified.
John and James are known as the Sons of Thunder
). This was the nickname that Jesus gave them. It is not clear why Jesus gave them this title, however, there are three possible reasons: One, for their fierce loyalty. Second, in Lk 9: 51-56, Jesus and His Disciples entered a village of the Samaritans but were not received.
And when the disciples James and John, saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” Third, as we hear in one of the Praises of Festal Matins: By your preaching, like lightning bolts, you enlightened the ignorant who lay in the darkness, O glorious St. James.
James is also known as “James the Greater”, to distinguish him from James, the Brother of the Lord (ο Αδελφόθεος) and James of Alphaeus who is known as “James the Lesser.” The reason why James, son of Zebedee is the “Greater” is for his closer relationship with the Lord.
We know from Scripture that James, along with his brother, John, and Peter were of the inner circle of Jesus. Only these three Apostles witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor. They were also present with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before His crucifixion.
The latter two events were very intimate moments for Christ. At Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed His divinity to the three and commanded them not to tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead (Mt 17:9).
At Gethsemane, Jesus was sorrowed and deeply distressed. He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.” He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me, nevertheless, not as I will but as You will" (Mt 26:36-39). Here, Christ is revealing His humanity to the same three. After experiencing His Transfiguration, this must have been a startling experience.
Jesus expressing sorrow wasn’t just confirming His humanity, something they knew already, but for the first time to see Jesus struggle in His humanity. It is this precise event which would centuries later be debated at the 6th Ecumenical Council. At the said Council it was confirmed that Jesus had two energies and two wills, human and divine; the former was obedient to the latter.
For a brief moment, the fate of the salvation of mankind was in suspense. Jesus was asking God the Father that He may not have to endure His Passion. If this did not occur, could mankind have been redeemed? Such, a critical moment in Jesus’ earthly life, yet, He rightfully committed to the will of the Father and endured His Passion.
This is a reflection for us when we are struggling to do God’s will. Even Jesus struggled as we read. He truly took on our humanity in His incarnation to bring us closer to Him. Let us not hinder ourselves to entreat Christ when we struggle, knowing that He understands and will strengthen us.
It is to everyone’s wonder what the minds of these three Apostles were thinking at that moment. Some forty days prior they saw Jesus transfigured with uncreated, blinding light emanating from Him, conversing with Moses and Elijah and hearing the Father’s voice from above. Now they are seeing Jesus in a state of sorrow. Perhaps even Jesus was feeling somewhat embarrassed in front of the three for His anxiety and fear.
When James and John asked to sit on either side of Jesus, they did not fully understand what they were asking. Perhaps, for this reason, the Lord asked them to accompany Him to Gethsemane. They needed to see for themselves that to drink the Cup was no easy task. They were not ready to endure the trials and tribulations that Jesus was about to experience. Yet, the time will come when they will be ready, as Christ assured them.
To sit next to a king, is a special honor, one of royal status. As St Paul said: if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules
(2 Tim 2:5). For John and James, until they are ready to lay down their life for Christ, then they shall drink the Cup He drinks and be baptized with the baptism He is baptized with. To drink the Cup refers to martyrdom and to be baptized is to die to this world and be raised to new life.
John was the only Apostle who was not martyred, however, the test of his faith in Christ came when he followed Him from His arrest in Gethsemane until His final moments on the Cross. He was the only Apostle not to have abandoned Jesus. The others fled which was a fulfillment of the prophecy: I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered (Zechariah 13:7).
James, however, several years after Jesus’ Ascension did face martyrdom. Herod Agrippa who was the grandson of Herod the Great, killed James the brother of John with the sword (Acts 12:1-2). James was the first of the Twelve Apostles to be martyred for Christ, around the year 42 AD. It is said that after Pentecost, James travelled greatly, preaching the Gospel to lands as far as Spain and then returned back to Jerusalem just before his death. His Feast Day is celebrated on April 30th, except when that date falls during Holy Week and Easter Sunday. When that happens, the observance of the Feast Day is usually moved to Bright Week.
You were the first of the Twelve Disciples chosen by your divine Teacher to drink His cup of death which He promised, O all-lauded Apostle James, for you, first, suffered death by sword for His sake by command of Herod. And thus the Lord who loves humanity took you as a joint heir of His kingdom. And now, together with your brother John, you intercede on behalf of our souls (Doxastikon of Festal Vespers).
May we seek the intercessions of the Apostle James before the Lord our God
Christ is Risen!
Glory to His Holy Three-Day Resurrection!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.