“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then 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 10:35-40 NRSV).
Though there were various opinions and interpretations, the Jewish hope and expectation for the most part around 30 AD was for a conquering Messiah who would grind the Gentile oppressors of Israel into the dust. When the Old Testament prophets spoke of a suffering servant, most viewed this as a reference to the people of Israel as a whole. In that context, the request quoted above made by the sons of Zebedee makes a lot of sense. They wanted chief places in the coming reign of the Messiah. They didn’t mean this in a spiritual sense as we would now understand it, but actually would have imagined themselves as a part of the earthly, royal court of the descendant of King David. The trouble with this request, as Jesus put it, was that James and John didn’t know what they were asking.
Jesus of Nazareth saw himself as on a mission to be for Israel and the world what Israel had failed to be and do. This was his sense of purpose in life, in fulfillment of the scriptures. The exile which began at the captivity had not really ended, and now Jesus was heralding the return from exile, which could also be interpreted as a new exodus.
But what about the cup and baptism?
“Baptism” in the original Greek of the New Testament literally means “immersion.” With this in mind, by the context it may be understood that Jesus was saying that he was going to pass through an “immersion.” In what? Looking to the image of the cup, we find in some prophecies of the Old Testament references to a cup, such as the following:
“For thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (Jeremiah 25:15 NRSV).
Throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke of God’s impending wrath on Israel. The nation had rejected God’s plan and replaced it with a different agenda. In fact, the different factions within 1st century Judaism each had their own agenda, differing from God’s mission in the world. The Essenes enjoyed a life of asceticism and criticism, waging a war of words slung against the people of Israel and calling for a mystic separation from the world. The Pharisees and Zealots, each in their own way, envisioned an earthly messianic kingdom along the lines of David and Solomon. The Sadducees and Herodians, too involved in worldly comfort and concerns, wanted to maintain the status quo and their own opulence.
Into this situation Yeshua stepped with all the authority of Yahweh and declared judgment on Israel and a new order flowing from his revelation of God’s reign in the world.
The agenda of Jesus ran counter to all of the plans and expectations of the other groups, and so he and his message were rejected. Going to Jerusalem he would face the accusations and anger of those who were not interested in Yahweh’s true purposes and in his flesh portray the coming wrath of God on Israel. He would take the cup of God’s wrath and drink it. The true king would be immersed in the suffering and disgrace of death at the hands of the gentiles and outside the city gates, showing what was yet in store for those in Israel who would not accept God’s purposes for them.
“And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:35-36 NRSV).
Had there been any other way to accomplish God’s purposes, Jesus would have done it. But since there was no other way, and despite the shame, Jesus took and drank and became our salvation.