Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

151. A Cup and a Baptism (Matt. 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45)*

When Jesus began to warn the twelve concerning the bitter experiences in store for him at Jerusalem he was not only preparing their faith for a stormy passage, but he was also doubtless seeking their understanding sympathy and moral support. What a help these men could be to him by their steadfast loyalty in face of faith-testing discouragement. Yet when he first essayed to school them regarding what lay ahead, Peter's reaction was: "Be it far from thee, Lord; this shall not be unto thee"(Mt.!6:22). With the best intentions in the world, Peter had become Satan (v.23).

The next phase of their instruction regarding the Suffering Servant of God evidently met with blank incomprehension, for there ensued an eager dispute among them about each man's present and future status (Mk.9 :32-34). At a time when they could have helped Jesus greatly by their grasp of these redemption truths and by their sympathetic reinforcement of his self-dedication as a sacrifice, they brought him to despondency with their small-mindedness.

Seeking preferment

And now, after yet another warning of who! was to come, linked with an unspoken appeal for their faith and support, he found himself discouraged more than ever by the ambition of two of his closest disciples. James and John came asking for the highest honours in his kingdom.

That is the way in which the request put by James and John for the highest honours in his kingdom is usually interpreted. They had heard Jesus promise twelve thrones over the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt.19 :28). So they sought an early decision in their own favour, especially since there was now among the apostles a general expectation that "the kingdom should immediately appear" (Lk.19 :11). After all, had not their Master also said: "If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven" (Mt.18 : 19)? And were they not true cousins to the King, his nearest relations among the twelve (but only just; see Study 42), so-by all normal human standards-did not this give them a special right to priority?

They put their self-centered request through their mother, Salome, who was the sister of the lord's mother (cp. Jn.19 :25 with Mk.15 :40 and Mt.27 :56). It may be that she was an ambitious woman, seeking a big future for her sons; or perhaps James and John hoped for a more favourable reception of her intercession than of their own. Most earnestly she approached him, kneeling before him. Here, at least, was a humble acknowledgement that he, tor sister's son, was deserving of all reverence.

"Master, we would that thou shouldst do for us whatsoever we shall ask of thee." There is a clear implication here (in the Greek text) that they were asking for themselves rather than for their Lord's benefit.

Ask a man to do as a favour something unnamed and he is more likely to accede, than he is if asked to give. But Jesus required that the request be made specific-not because he was unaware of their ambition, but because it was good for them that it be plainly spoken. Salome had now no option but to say precisely what she sought: "Command (literally: speak) that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand and the other on the left, in thy kingdom". What o lot of uncertainty and trouble it would save if Jesus would assign now the various offices in his shadow cabinet. Did the irony of their petition come home to them later when they beheld their lord crucified, with a malefactor on his right hand and another on his left?

Discouraging reply

Jesus shook his head sadly. 'Asking for yourselves, you just don't know what it involves,' he said. 'First, I have a cup to drink (Mt.26 :39), and a baptism to face (Lk.12 :50). Can you share those also?' They must have sensed something of the grim character of these words, even though not fully comprehending. Yet they answered firmly: "Yes, we can" (cp. Mt.8 :19). They knew not what they asked. They knew not what they answered.

'Very well,' Jesus replied, 'the two special sacraments appointed for those most conformable to my death shall be yours indeed. The cup I drink (Lk.22 :42), you shall drink also. The baptism I go through (Lk.12 :50), you too shall share.' Indeed, all disciples were called to this experience (Mk.8 :34).

Baptism is an instantaneous action, and is external in its experience. This came on James a few years later when he was slain by the nation which had slain his lord (Acts 12 :2). The drinking of a cup is repetitive, and is inward in its effects. John experienced suffering (Acts4 :3; 5:18,40; Rev. 1 :9) and he lived to see his teaching misunderstood and perverted, even as Jesus had suffered from the spiritual obtuseness of the twelve. Three hundred or more years later, the early church proceeded to invent a story about John being compelled by the emperor Domitian to drink poison —of course, without any ill effects! These sons of Zebedee found their main request turned down, however. "To sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not (now) mine to give: but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared by my Father." The present tense here is significant. At the time he spoke this authority did not lie with Jesus. Later, when the Revelation was given, it did. Great has been the speculation as to who among the great characters of both Old and New Testaments shall be selected for such high dignity in Christ's kingdom. Abraham? Moses? David? Peter? Paul? The book of the Acts of the Apostles concentrates on Peter and Paul. And Paul was of Benjamin, "son of the right hand." Also did not the Lord promise Paul "a crown of righteousness" (2 Tim 4 :8)?

Nevertheless, the Lord's own explicit answer is different: "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame and am set down with my Father in his throne" (Rev.3 :21). The first phrase here takes in "a great multitude, which no man can number." Thus it would seem likely that when Messiah's kingdom is in being all who share that great redemption will also be honoured in turn with the opportunity to share its highest administration with the King of Kings. Those two places of special honour will not always be occupied by the same two persons.

The rest of the disciples had seen Salome and her sons approach Jesus, and had noted how she kneeled before him. Since they had similar ambitions, their curiosity and suspicions were aroused. So at the earliest opportunity, but not in Christ's presence, they sought to know more. When the story came out, great was the explosion of their indignation. The Ten and the Two —just as in ancient Israel. And this time with Peter separated from the two. His gospel (Mark) is the one which twice mentions the brothers by name (v.35, 41).

All the old rivalry and squabbling boiled up once again. Jesus was aware of it, and called them to him (for they were all blameworthy) that he might reprove the pettiness of their attitudes and underscore afresh the lesson of humility he had so often tried to teach them.

True greatness

Among the Gentiles (he now reminded them) greatness consists of authority, dignity, power, pomp and circumstance. But that is because they are Gentiles, and know no better (Mt.6 :32). With you, my disciples, different principles are to operate. If you seek greatness, be a servant-that is greatness. Would you have the highest dignity there is? Then make yourself everybody's slave. That is true honour, as my Father sees it. That is intrinsic worth. Set before yourself such an aspiration, and by and by you will cease to want to be first (cp. Mt.18 :4; 5 :19; Jn.13 .-4,14-15; and Mt.20 :16, immediately before this episode).

In all this, he went on, I have constantly set you an example, not demanding the service of any, but setting myself to be a help to all, regardless of quality or status. (What man except Jesus could speak about himself in such a way without very evidently giving the lie to every word?). Had he not healed hundreds and taught thousands? And by his sacrifice would he not bring blessing to millions?

He reminded the disciples of his very recent words of warning about suffering in Jerusalem: "The Son of man is come to give his life a ransom for many." Their mounting obsession with the glories of a very mundane Messianic kingdom was blinding them to truth of a less attractive nature.

A servant, a slave, a ransom! It was a language they were loth to learn. The Son of God in their midst had constantly made himself of no reputation, he had taken on himself the form of a slave, and humbling himself yet further he was soon to show himself obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2 :7,8; Jn.10 :11|. The ransom which no man can pay for the life of his brother (Ps.49 :7,9), he-Jesus-would pay in full. "The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less" in this most fundamental transaction of all human existence (Ex.30 :15). For rich and poor alike, Jesus would pay the atonement money—"a ransom for many."

Almost universally, this pregnant phrase has been taken to mean a sacrifice on behalf of a redeemed multitude, as in the familiar prophecy: "My righteous servant shall justify many ... he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bare the sin of many..." (ls.53 :11,12). Yet it could mean: "One ransom sacrifice taking the place of the many sacrifices hitherto offered under the Law," (and one serving priest instead of many; Num.8 :19 26), The preposition used might well support this view.

But indeed the two ideas are inseparable-a sacrifice making all other sacrifices nugatory; and "a ransom on behalf of all" (1 Tim.2 :6) which none could pay save Jesus.

To this supreme service to undeserving fellow-men Jesus was dedicated. In the men who followed him, and in those who would follow him now, he seeks a like dedication in which the highest honour is humility and the greatest glory is self-abasement.

The faces of those disciples were red with shame. And so they are today. That shame is the only saving grace.

Notes: Mk. 10:35-45

Came. A word common enough in Ex. Num. (LXX) to describe drawing near to an altar or to God.
It is obvious from this verse that no primacy of Peter was recognized at this time.
We can. Is it possible that these two had grasped that there could be no exaltation without suffering, and that already they had braced themselves to face it with Christ?

A baptism. Cp. the language of Ps.69 : 1,2; 42 :7; 124 :4. 40 Not mine to give. Cp. his limited powers in Mk. 13 :32; Acts 1:7. How does the doctrine of the Trinity harmonize with this?

For whom it is prepared. This is predestination — a fact, whether understood or not. It also implies differences of status in the Messianic kingdom.
Accounted (worthy] to rule, Cp. the use of the same word in Gal. 2 :2,6,9.

Exercise lordship. 1 Pet.5 :3 s.w. refers back to this.
43, 44.
Shall be. Future indicative used as an imperative; cp. the Ten Commandments. .
Not to be ministered unto. Contrast Mt.4 :11; 8 :15; 27 :55; Lk.8 :3. Yet these were negligible instances compared with what Christ did for all such?

Previous Index Next