Part 17 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
In my last post I began to comment on the passage in Mark 10 where James and John ask Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Of course the fact that Jesus has just spoken for the second time about his imminent death doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression of these two disciples. Jesus responds by saying, “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?” (10:38). James and John eagerly reply, “We are able” (10:39), to which Jesus adds, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (10:39).
What is Jesus talking about? Do you feel rather like James and John at this point, not really knowing what this talk of a “cup” is all about? It’s worth understanding this allusion, not only to get the point of this passage in Mark, but also to get insight into Jesus’ understanding of his approaching death.
In several passages of the Old Testament, the cup is a symbol of God’s wrath. (By using the word “wrath,” I’m not referring to God’s anger alone, but also just judgment upon sin.) In Psalm 75, for example, we read:
For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draught from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 75:8)
Or, take the following passage from Isaiah, which appears shortly before the description of the suffering servant in chapters 52-53.
Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!
Stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the LORD
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl of staggering. . . . (Isa 51:17)
In a similar passage, the Lord speaks to the prophet Jeremiah:
Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them. (Jer 25:15-16)
In each of these passages, the “cup” is a symbol of God’s wrath. Drinking the cup is equivalent to receiving God’s righteous judgment.
So when Jesus speaks to James and John of drinking from the cup, he is once again using the language of the prophets. He himself will drink from the cup of God’s wrath, though not because he deserves it. A few verses later, Jesus elaborates further by explaining his calling as Son of Man, namely, “to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). In Jewish speculation, the Son of Man would come to execute God’s judgment upon the wicked gentiles. But Jesus redefines this mission. Now he will take God’s judgment upon himself. He will drink deeply of the cup of divine wrath, even dying so that others may live.
In Mark 10 we find, not only Jesus’ second prediction of his imminent death, but also the beginning of a rationale for this seemingly paradoxical fate. Jesus will be killed, not only because of opposition from Jewish and Roman leaders in Jerusalem, but also, on a deeper level, because he is going to drink the cup of divine wrath. He is going to bear the sin of Israel, indeed, as we learn later on, the sin of the world. This is his unique and unexpected calling as Messiah and Son of Man. When human sin has been righteously judged, when Jesus has borne the penalty in his own person, then and only then will God’s kingdom be able to come on earth.
The imagery of the cup suggests another crucial scene in Jesus’ ministry, of course, the Last Supper. In my next post I’ll begin to examine this episode, which reveals even more profoundly the reason for Jesus’ death and its connection to the coming of God’s kingdom.