Jesus is resolutely making his way toward Jerusalem. In verses 17-19, he talks to his disciples for the third time about his impending death, but this time he is more graphic and clear than he has ever been. But still, even after all their conversations, the disciples are uncomprehending, and they continue to believe that Jesus is using some kind of metaphor to describe his inevitable rise to power.
We see how truly uncomprehending they are by the request of John and James (relayed through their mom) to Jesus. Thinking that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to defeat their enemies and establish God’s throne, they ask for the two most important and powerful positions in Jesus’ new cabinet when he is established as the new King of Israel. Jesus responds by telling them that they have no idea what they are asking for (the positions on his right and left will soon be given to crucified criminals) and then asks them our question for this week: “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
James and John answer in the affirmative: “we can.” They think by “cup” Jesus is referring to his destiny of his impending triumph. Yes, we definitely can drink that cup! But Jesus is not speaking of a cup of triumph- he speaks of the cup of suffering, indeed the cup of God’s wrath that has been spoken about again and again in the Old Testament Scriptures (see Psalm 75:8, Isaiah 51:17). The “cup” of God’s judgment for sin has been reserved for sinners who justly deserve God’s punishment. Yet here, Jesus says that he will drink this cup, later explaining that he has come to “give his life as a ransom for many” (v.28).
This is one of the clearest places in the Gospel where Jesus speaks of his death as a willing act of substitutionary love. His death is not just an incidental aspect of his mission- his death is central to his mission, central to what Jesus came to do. By dying on behalf of sinners in their place, Jesus “ransoms” us by taking the judgement that was owed to us. This is redemptive love in its most beautiful, perfect form.
Jesus then goes on to teach his disciples that because he is a very different kind of King, one who came not to be served but to serve, they are to stop acting like the world, which seeks glory and self-advancement, and to be instead like him, willing to give their own lives away for others. It will take them a long time to learn this, but eventually these disciples do become the kind of people who also give their lives away like their Lord. May it be so for us.
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17 Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
A Mother’s Request
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”