Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 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” (Mark 10:38-40).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
On the road up to Jerusalem, Jesus walks ahead of His disciples, a shepherd leading His sheep in the valley of the shadow of death. The disciples are fearful, surprised that He is walking so openly in the stronghold of His enemies.
For the third time, Jesus predicts His death and resurrection. This time, He offers more details: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and 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” (Mark 10:33-34a).
While Christ describes the mystery of His death in some detail, the greater wonder of His resurrection is simply announced: “And after three days He will rise” (Mark 10:34b). No specifics are given concerning how this could be or in what manner it will happen. Betrayal, mocking, and cruel death we know and experience even in our own lives. However, the resurrection of the dead is so beyond us, no details given here will answer our questions. So Jesus gives the simple promise on which they can hope. Nothing is said of the disciples’ reaction..
Given Jesus’ somber words, James’ and John’s request could hardly seem more tactless: “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at your left, in Your glory.” But the human heart is, by nature, sinful and self-centered.
More shocking is their preliminary request with which they seek to bind Jesus without His knowing what they are going to ask: “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” Their request shows they believe Jesus can give them anything they ask, but also hints that they suspect that Jesus might not approve of this particular request. How right they are!
As to the request itself, how can such thoughts have come to them? Perhaps they are prompted by the promise Jesus had made His disciples in connection with the case of the rich young man. Peter had said, “We have left everything and followed You.” Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). James and John must have latched on to that promise and now come to request the most prominent and honorable seats, one on Jesus’ right and the other on His left.
Jesus asks James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Their quick answer, “We are able,” proves they really don’t know what they are asking.
Where did they get it wrong? I suggest we first look at the meaning of “the cup.” In the Old Testament, the image of a “cup” conveys a wide range of meanings metaphorically. One often overlooked is “allotment,” that is, what is apportioned to someone. In Psalm 16:5, we read: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; You hold my lot.” Or Psalm 23:5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Given this possibility, when Jesus asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” the two disciples, perhaps somewhat naturally, think that Jesus is talking about their “allotment,” and, possibly, given the usage of Psalm 23, a glorious one, at that. Jesus does not contradict that understanding, saying that they will drink His cup as well as He (Mark 10:29).
Just what that allotment, that cup, is, Jesus makes plain on the cross, uttering the words of Psalm 22:1 as He is mocked by men and forsaken by God. Indeed, twice Jesus is offered something to drink (Mark 15:23, 35), which helps us to see the connection between this figure of speech and His situation of the cross. This is one instance, then, of Jesus’ cup, His allotment. The disciples will drink of rejection, as He is rejected, and of the non-intervention of God, as God does not intervene for Him as well.
But there is more. In the Old Testament, the metaphor of “cup” is most often negative and relates to God’s reaction to sin. Often, “cup” denotes God’s judgment upon and punishment for sin or iniquity. “It is God who executes judgment… For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed… and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (Psalm 75:7-8). Similarly, “cup” denotes God’s wrath in reaction to sin. See Isaiah 51:17: “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of His wrath.” Therefore, it is likely that the “cup” that Jesus says that He is going to drink constitutes the bearing of God’s wrathful judgment upon sin.
This interpretation also helps us to understand the incident in the garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus begins to be deeply alarmed and disturbed, then says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,” then prays that, if possible, the hour pass from Him, and then actually proceeds to say: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Remove this cup from Me!” Jesus’ cup seems to be God’s judgment upon sin, a cup that is terrifying.
Jesus’ “cup,” then, is a double entendre: on the one hand, it is an allotment of mockery/rejection and dying without divine intervention that also the Twelve will endure (Mark 10:38), and on the other, an allotment of God’s judgment up the sins of many that only Jesus as the Son of God is able to endure (Mark 10:38).
Jesus’ next words hide another double entendre. “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 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.” James and John will get the cup and the baptism, says Jesus, but they won’t get it when Jesus does. The seats to Jesus’ left and right have not been prepared for them.
Does this mean that James and John are missing out? I don’t think they’ll be sorry—remember, they don’t know what they are asking! Back to that in a bit, but first we need to add one more piece to the puzzle. When the ten hear the brothers’ request, they are outraged, but perhaps only because they hadn’t thought of asking.
So Jesus calls all the disciples to Him and says, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But 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, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
The rulers of the world lord it over their people. Their glory is to sit on thrones and have other people do their bidding. The glory of those at their left and right is to enjoy that power and direct others to do their bidding on behalf of the king. When the Twelve think of glory, that’s the sort of glory they think of. But it’s not the glory that Jesus has in mind: the glory of God is found in selfless love, in service to others. Jesus offers them His own example of this: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
That’s astonishing. If anyone deserves to sit on a throne and be served, it’s Jesus. If anyone deserves worship, honor, and glory, it is He. But Jesus didn’t come in the flesh to be served. He came to serve, for the glory of God is found in service. And how is Jesus going to serve? By giving His life as a ransom for many.
This is what none of the disciples understand yet: the glory of Jesus in this world isn’t by way of the cross. The glory of Jesus in this world is the cross. To be at Jesus’ side in His glory doesn’t mean to endure some suffering and then get on to the glorious part. To be at Jesus’ side in His glory is to be crucified with Him.
Now, let’s go back to Jesus’ words to James and John: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 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.” Who sits at Jesus’ right and left when He comes into His glory? We find out in Mark 15: “And with Him they crucified two robbers, one on His right and one on His left (v 27).
In this world, the throne of Jesus is the cross and His crown is made of thorns. At His left and right in His glory are the two robbers. One mocks Him, the other believes in Him. And even as He is dying for the sins of the world Jesus says to the one who repents and believes, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Jesus speaks forgiveness even as He endures the cup of God’s wrath and suffering for sin, because His glory is in service. He’s giving His life as a ransom for both robbers, and the one who trusts in Him lives forever in Paradise.
So the glory of Jesus is His cross because it is the ultimate act of sacrifice and service. But back to His words to James and John one more time: What does He mean when He says, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized”? He was saying, “You will die My death.” But neither James nor John are crucified. James is beheaded by Herod and John dies of old age. So what does Jesus mean? How do they die His death?
Here’s the Gospel: Jesus joins them to His death. His death is a ransom for them, after all. He dies for their sin. Then He joins them to it so they don’t have to die for their sin.
So when James and John ask to be at Jesus’ right and left in His glory, they’re not asking to be crucified. They don’t know what they’re asking. They would be horrified if they did. They also don’t what they’re getting—not yet. But when they do, there will be unspeakable joy. In Christ, they die to sin and rise again without suffering that cross themselves.
That’s not just true for James and John. This is the Gospel for you, too.
You’re a disciple of Jesus, too. He has made it so. The more you study His Word and the more you experience life and examine yourself, the more acutely aware you become of the wages of sin; and the longer you’re alive, the more you feel in your body that the wages are coming due. The grave is patient, but it eventually collects. This is a result of sin—the sin that you’ve inherited from our first parents and the sins that you’ve committed in thought, word, and deed.
The primary manifestation of that sin is selfishness. Like everyone, you and I seek to put ourselves first. Instead of desiring to serve, you desire to be served. It effects every relationship you have, and you’re quite willing for others to do the work and finish the chores. You’re able to justify your mistakes and blame others. And when you do serve others it’s usually for a selfish reason: perhaps to earn points for later, maybe just so you have a good feeling about it. Many will dress this up in terms of self-esteem or self-preservation, but call it what it is: It’s sinful selfishness, and it will kill you. That’s the Law of the Lord.
As He said to James and John, so Jesus says to you: His cup and baptism are yours. His cross is yours. He gives it to you. He came to serve you, and He gave His life as a ransom for you, as a payment for your sin. He joins you to Himself so that you can say, “I have already died to sin and have eternal life.”
Jesus’ baptism of suffering is given to you in your baptism. At the font, Christ has joined you to Himself, His death and resurrection. So St. Paul says in Romans 6:4: “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” So you already died to sin: your sinful flesh was put to death with water and words. In Christ, you are a new creation. You’re still troubled by your old sinful flesh that wants you dead again, but you’ve already died to sin because Jesus joined you to His cross, His death. So, when the devil says, “You have to die for your sin!”, you can reply, “You’re right, and I already have! I am baptized! And even though my body has to die and rise, I already have eternal life for Jesus’ sake.”
So Jesus’ baptism of suffering is given to you in your baptism. Likewise, His cup of suffering is given you in His Supper. As Holy Baptism joins you to Jesus’ death and resurrection, so Holy Communion joins you to His body and blood—His crucified and risen body and blood. That’s what He gives you in the Supper. As you drink from that cup, you receive the forgiveness that Jesus won by His cup of suffering, by dying your death for you, by taking the cup of God’s wrath for your sins. He gets the cross: you get His body and blood in, with, and under bread and wine.
So when you hear of the cross, the Lord announces to you that you are baptized with the baptism with which He was baptized; and when He says. “drink the cup of suffering and wrath that I drank at the cross,” you say “Amen” and you make your way to the altar. When the Lord joins you to His cross, He doesn’t say now you must suffer for your sin to follow Him. No, He says, “You need not suffer the wages for your sin, because I’ve already paid that ransom in your place. You are forgiven for all your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.