Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
(Matthew 20:20-23 ESV)
The passage we study today is quite amazing. Just a couple of days ago Jesus had promised His twelve disciples they would sit on twelve thrones in His kingdom [Matthew 19:28]. He then told His disciples that He would be arrested, beaten, and crucified when He got to Jerusalem in just a few days [Matthew 20:17-19]. Yet incredibly, these men (and their mother) were more concerned about their future than Jesus’. They also apparently didn’t believe Him when He explicitly told them He was going to be die.
These two disciples were James and John, who were sons of Zebedee [Matthew 4:21]. What makes this even more interesting is that we know from other gospel writers that James and John were Jesus’ first cousins (their mother was Jesus’ mother’s sister). Apparently they tried to use their familial relationship with Jesus to their favor.
These two men were not exactly quiet and shy. Jesus had nicknamed them “sons of thunder” [Mark 3:17] for a reason. They were bold and brash. Their lofty opinion of themselves – that they deserved the #2 and #3 place in Jesus’ kingdom – is evidence of that.
But they clearly did not know what they were asking. They claimed they were able to drink the cup that Jesus was to drink. But they did not understand the implications of their request.
To “drink the cup” of someone else was an expression meaning to endure the same fate as another. The cup that Jesus was about to drink was the cup of suffering and death, which He had just told them.
If James and John really understood Jesus’ words they would never have claimed to be willing and able to accept His fate as their own. But they were too obtuse and prideful to understand. Their concern for themselves and what would be their reward for following Jesus made them unable to see the reality unfolding before them.
Such is the blinding nature of self-centeredness. When we care solely about ourselves we lose the ability to care about others.
Notice Jesus’ response to them. He knew they did not understand what they were saying. Such is God with all of us: patient and understanding even when we say and do the most ridiculous, arrogant things. Instead Jesus continued to live by example as He submits James’ and John’s fate to His father.
Jesus told James and John they will drink the cup of suffering He drank. History show us this came true but in different ways for each. James would become the first of the disciples killed for his faith shortly after Jesus’ ascension into heaven [Acts 12:1-2]. John would live several more decades facing persecution for his beliefs [Revelation 1:9].
Jesus calls all His followers to take up their cross – suffer for the sake of His name [Luke 9:23]. That suffering may be a martyr’s death like James or a prolonged persecuted life like John, or anything in between.
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