Mark 10: 32-45. A cup and a baptism.

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up 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 do 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.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised, 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.”

And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 On the road to Jerusalem (v32-34)

1. What is the significance of going to Jerusalem, and why do they go “up”?

2. Why is Jesus walking ahead, and why are his disciples amazed, and those who followed afraid?

3. This is the third time that Jesus predicts his death. How can he be so sure about what will happen to him?

4. Why does Mark record all three similar predictions? Wouldn’t one have done the job?

 Sign a blank cheque for us (v35-40)

5. What are the sons of Zebedee asking? What do they think is about to happen?

6. Jesus says that they don’t know what they are asking. What does Jesus think they are actually asking?

7. What is the cup of suffering Jesus will drink? What is the baptism with which he will be baptised?

8. In what way will James and John drink from the same cup and be baptised with the same baptism?

 How dare they get there first? (v41-45)

9. Why are the ten indignant?

10. How does Jesus respond to their indignation?

11. How should we apply these things to ourselves?

 This last section has been all about the character of the kingdom of God with regard to authority and leadership. The character of a kingdom is generally patterned after its king. And in God’s kingdom, Jesus, the Christ, is king. He has already spoken twice of his task as king. He did not come to lord it over his people, but to lay down his life for their sakes. He came to serve them. He humiliated himself for their good. He came to die for them.

The disciples have not understood this. They think of the Messiah as a majestic victorious warrior, a leader for all men to respect and revere. And they think of death and service and humility as things not fitting for this Messiah. Their ideas about what deserves respect and reverence are out of step with God’s ideas. Far from being willing to imitate their master and serve others, they have argued about which of them is to be the greatest when Jesus comes to the throne. In reply, Jesus has told them that they must be willing to receive little children, to serve those who have no importance, for his sake. He has told them that the kingdom of God belongs to those who come with nothing in their hands, knowing that they have nothing of value to give to God.

The disciples are so slow to grasp this- but we remember that they are followers of Jesus. The incident with the rich man illustrates this. This man wanted to do something to inherit eternal life. He didn’t want to come to God empty handed, asking for mercy. He didn’t want to give up all his wealth and status, and follow Jesus as a pauper. And in contrast, it is made clear that the disciples have given up all they had to follow Jesus. They don’t understand the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, but they are willing to trust him as king.

 1. What is the significance of going to Jerusalem, and why do they go “up”?

Jesus and the disciples are on the way up to Jerusalem. Wherever you are in Israel, you go “up” to Jerusalem, even though it isn’t the highest point in the land. Jerusalem is the city on a hill. It is the city where God dwells, in his holy temple. So you go up to it. This is consistently the phraseology of the Bible. If you want to check it out, see I Samuel 1:21-24; 2:28, II Kings 19:14; 20:5, 8; 23:2, Ps 24:3; 68:18; 122:4. This “up” idea goes right back to the conceptual cosmology of Genesis. Heaven is up. Heaven is God’s throne-room, and the earth his footstool. It is natural for God to meet with men on the tops of mountains. Eden is a mountain, says Ezekiel. God comes down from above to view the tower of Babel. Abraham ascends mount Moriah to offer sacrifice to God. God meets with Moses (and later Elijah) on the summit of the holy mountain. We still tend to associate height with authority, and there’s a deep-seated theological reason for that.

So the Temple is built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is not the highest point above sea level in the land, and this is obvious to anybody looking out from the city- the nearby Mount of Olives is higher. But conceptually to the Jews, Jerusalem is the mountain city. You always talk about going up to Jerusalem, even if you’re on a hill looking down on the city.

So that’s why they go “up”, but why do they need to go at all? In short, because Jerusalem is the place where God dwells in his holy Temple. It’s the centre of the nation for religious and political purposes- and in Israel there isn’t a sharp dividing line between those two. If Jesus is the Messiah, the King of the Jews, then Jerusalem is the place he must go to receive his kingdom.

2. Why is Jesus walking ahead, and why are his followers amazed and afraid?

The disciples and those who follow Jesus are amazed and afraid- I don’t think that Mark has two different groups in mind here- the disciples being amazed and those who follow being afraid. Jesus’ followers are in view here- the group of people, including the disciples, who travel with him. What causes them to be amazed and afraid?

They all know where they are headed. Faithful Jews go to Jerusalem a lot- it’s a requirement to go there to sacrifice and observe the official religious festivals. So whichever road to Jerusalem they’re on, the chances are that more than one of the party will have walked it before.

Jerusalem has been mentioned a few times in Mark, and not in a good way. It is not only the religious, cultural, and political nerve-centre of Israel- it’s also the place where Jesus’ enemies live. In chapter 3, Jesus fame had spread to Jerusalem (3:8), and scribes came from there to check Jesus out (3:22). Their verdict was that he was possessed by the devil. That’s the received wisdom about Jesus in Jerusalem. We meet the scribes from Jerusalem again in 7:1, and again they are criticising Jesus. Maybe the disciples are afraid because they know they are walking into trouble of one kind or another, and amazed that Jesus should march on Jerusalem with so few followers.

Maybe they have very specific fears- we see in the next section that John and James expect Jesus to take up his kingdom very soon. Jerusalem would be the place for a Jewish king to be crowned. Perhaps they expect that Jesus will declare his hand in Jerusalem, and then they’ll have to fight not only the Jewish rulers, but the Romans too. That would worry anybody.

But there’s more than just that, I think. There is a tension here- a feeling in the air that something momentous is happening. We’ve read on several previous occasions that the disciples or others were afraid- in 4:41 after the calming of the storm, in 5:15 when they see the demoniac clothed and in his right mind, in 5:33 after the woman’s blood flow has been healed, and 6:50 when Jesus walks on the water. In each of these cases, it is the presence and power of God that causes the fear. The thing that was raging and dangerous- the storm or the madman- has been quietened and calmed; but those who saw it happen are left more afraid, not less afraid. A great fear falls on the observers- they know that they have just seen this man do things that only God can do. On this occasion, there has been no such display of power, but there is obviously something about Jesus which strikes awe into the hearts of those who follow him.

Jesus, we are told, is walking ahead of the group. He’s maybe some 10 yards in front of the disciples, as though impatient to get to Jerusalem. Jesus knows what awaits him in the city, but he’s determined to go there. He knows that he will be put to death, but he has set his face like a flint towards Jerusalem. It is not the anticipation of what will happen there alone that causes the disciples to be amazed. It is something about Jesus himself that has this profound effect. The Lord holds his destiny in his own hands. His determination and his commitment scare them. They cannot fully understand it, and perhaps they sense that his commitment demands commitment on their part, as his followers. It scares them.

3. How can Jesus be so sure about what will happen to him?

Jesus then calls the twelve around him and tells them once more that he will die. We can compare and contrast this statement with those found in 9:30-31, and 8:31. There is more detail here. Before, Jesus has said that he is going to die. His life will end with his being killed. Jesus now tells them that this will happen in Jerusalem. It is imminent. They are on the road there now, and when they get there, this will take place. Also, Jesus says that he will be delivered over to the Gentiles, that he will be mocked, scourged, and spat on. The disciples now have many details about what will happen in Jerusalem. It is particularly shocking to them that the Jewish Messiah will be handed over to the Gentiles by the Jews. That is the last thing that the disciples expect- although had they read their prophets properly, they would be less surprised.

 If you were given a book which contained guaranteed accurate predictions about your own future, would you want to read it? Specifically, would you want to know how you’re going to die? If you did read this book, and believed it, would you try to avoid your death? Jesus seemed to know how and when he would die.

How did Jesus know about his own death in advance? We can say that he was God and so he knew everything, but that is an answer that needs to be thought through properly- which it very rarely is. The eternal Son of God does know everything. But how did that work when he became a man? In one sense, Jesus was a normal man. He had a normal childhood. God understands every language under the sun- when Chinese Christians pray to him, he doesn’t need translation. But Jesus wasn’t born knowing how to speak Chinese. He wasn’t even born knowing how to speak Hebrew- he had to learn the alphabet just like everyone else. He grew in wisdom as he aged- he didn’t have all the answers he’d ever need from the moment of his birth. He wasn’t there in school finishing the teachers’ sentences before they were over. He’d have been smart, and worked hard, but he was normal. I think that Jesus knew what would happen to him because he knew that he was the Messiah, and he knew what the prophets had said about Messiah. Jesus did have a book which contained fairly detailed descriptions of how he would die. And he read it over and over and over- not out of a morbid interest, but because it was his Father’s word. Jesus knew Ps 22:7-8, and Isa 50:6f backwards. That, and common sense, was enough to tell him that he was going to Jerusalem to die.

4. Why does Mark record the predictions three times over?

Why does Mark record all these three occasions of Jesus predicting his death? Partly to hammer home the point that the disciples don’t get it. Three times, Jesus has told them. Three times, we’ve been shown straight afterwards that they don’t understand. The first time, Peter rebuked Jesus for saying these things, revealing his own preconceptions about what the Messiah would do. On the second occasion, the disciples are found immediately afterwards, arguing about which of them was the greatest. None of them have understood that if the king lays down his life for his people, the servants ought to follow his humble example.

When we read Mark, we might think, “Surely they will have learnt their lesson by now…” But the passage is followed by another example of the disciples’ folly. Mark wants us to feel how painfully slow was the disciples’ understanding- how far beyond their experience was Jesus’ attitude and God’s plan. James and John are two of the disciples closest to Jesus- remember that Jesus only took three disciples into Jairus’ daughter’s room, and only three up the mount of transfiguration. James and John were two of those three, and even these two come to Jesus and show that they really don’t get it.

 

5. What are the sons of Zebedee asking? What do they think they’re going to do?

James and John come to Jesus and ask him to do them a favour. They don’t specify what the favour is initially- they just ask it. They seem to be hoping that Jesus will say “Sure, what do you want”, and commit himself to granting the request before he knows what they desire. But Jesus doesn’t sign blank cheques, and he asks them what it is that they want from him. The brothers ask to have the highest positions. They know that they are going to Jerusalem- and their excitement reaches fever-pitch. Jerusalem means one thing to them. Jesus is going to take his place as king, to reign from Jerusalem just as David did. Jesus has just said that he is going to be killed, but that hasn’t registered. In their minds, Jesus is the Lord who goes to David’s city to restore the fallen glory of David’s throne. So now is the time to stake their claim for a place of honour. The request to sit at Jesus’ left and right was not just a desire to be physically next to Jesus. It was the custom- in Israelite as in English courts, that those who sat near the king were those who had influence over him- his closest most trusted advisors- his “right hand” men (see, e.g. I Kings 2:19, Psalm 110:1). James and John expect Jesus to come out publicly as the Messiah in Jerusalem. Maybe they think that he has been keeping things quiet in Galilee because he wanted to wait until he got to Jerusalem to make a bid for power. The Messianic banquet is about to begin, and James and John want to sit on either side of the king in his glory. They haven’t understood Jesus. They are still expecting a crown without a cross, honour without humility.

6. Jesus says that they don’t know what they are asking. What does Jesus think they are actually asking?

Jesus’ response is probing. He asks them whether they can drink his cup, or be baptised with his baptism. What does Jesus mean?

If they want to partake of his glory, then they will have to partake of his shame. If they want to be honoured with him, they will have to be persecuted, rejected by men, beaten, flogged, and hated for his sake. When they ask to be close to him, this is what they are really asking, though they don’t know it. Ironically, as Mark’s readers will be well aware, the men who are actually set at Jesus right and left in Jerusalem (Mk 15:27) are the two thieves who are crucified with him.

7. What is the cup of suffering Jesus will drink? What is the baptism with which he will be baptised?

Both pictures are heavily rooted in the Old Testament. Look at the cup first. The cup of wine is found in Psalm 75:8; Isaiah 51:17-23; Jeremiah 25:15-28; 49:12; 51:7; Lamentations 4:21-22; Ezekiel 23:31-34; Habbakuk 2:16; Zechariah 12:2 (it is also useful to see the NT use of the imagery in Mk 14:36; Rev 14:10, 16:19). The image being used here is of something which men or nations take from God, and drink, and it makes them stagger. They drink it, and behave as though drunk, they fall down and cannot get up. The cup is a metaphor for total ruin, willed and brought about by God. The cup is a cup of divine judgement. The man who drinks the cup is the man who suffers God’s wrath and retribution.

 The picture of baptism is similar, but not quite the same. Popular Greek usage was as a picture of being overwhelmed by disaster or danger. Hebrew usage was similar. When the Bible writers talk of the waters closing over their heads, or of being plunged into the deep waters- what are they thinking about? Job 9:30-31; 22:9-11; Psalm 42:5-11; 69:1-3; 14-15; Isaiah 30:27-28; 43:1-2; Jonah 2:1-6. Baptism, submersion in water, is used as a metaphor for trouble, distress, overwhelming disaster, and even death. Paul in Romans 6 can draw on this and say that Christians are baptised into death, so that we may be raised to newness of life. Jesus’ own baptism expressed his willingness to stand in solidarity with sinful men, and to assume the burden of wrath. His baptism means death for him.

 The “baptism” doesn’t have quite the same tint as the “cup” of being explicitly a divine judgement. The waters are God’s waters, and if we go back to the flood, then that was certainly an explicit judgement for wickedness. But in the psalms and prophets, it is slightly different. The waters aren’t always explicitly a mark of God’s displeasure. Men call on God to deliver them from the waters, but the cup is given into their hands by God. Jesus puts both pictures together. He will suffer, and die, and this will be a divine judgement on wickedness.

8. In what way will James and John drink from the same cup and be baptised with the same baptism?

Of course the question Jesus asks requires a negative answer in one sense. James and John can’t drink his cup or be baptised with his baptism. Jesus will suffer uniquely. He will drink the cup of God’s wrath to the bottom, so that James and John don’t have to. The waters of distress will close over his head- and he will bear the punishment his people deserve. James and John cannot take part in that.

But there is still some solidarity between Jesus and the disciples here. Jesus tells the two brothers that they will drink the cup he drinks and be baptised with the baptism with which he is baptised. James and John gratefully accept his protection, and in the end, they do share in his sufferings in some sense. God’s wrath is not poured out on them, but they do suffer. They are called to follow Jesus even to death. This is true of all the disciples, and in the case of these two, James is killed by Herod and John is exiled to a prison island, all for Jesus’ sake.

 James and John don’t understand this at this time. They naively reply that they are able to share Jesus’ trials, probably thinking that he is talking about battle, as they do not grasp the real significance of the passion predictions.

Jesus tells them that they will suffer, but he refuses to give them the honour they desire. Jesus won’t accept any appearance of arbitrary authority. He deliberately submits to his father, he won’t assign places- that is his Father’s prerogative.

9. Why are the ten indignant?

James and John have asked for the highest positions. The others are angry when they hear of it, although not because they see how upside-down James and John’s thinking is, and are appalled. Rather, they are angry because they also covet these places. They’re not thinking “Outrageous! Such pride and selfishness!” They’re thinking “Drat! Those guys got in first to baggsie the best spots. Why didn’t I think of that?” Not just the sons of Zebedee, but all of them are preoccupied with their own dignity. They are jealous not for God’s honour, but for their own. They don’t seem to hear Jesus when he says that he will be treated with contempt. And they don’t mimic his attitude. He is going willingly to lay down his life. They want to grab all they can get. They all want to sit at Jesus right and left, and they are annoyed with the sons of Zebedee for asking first. Their pride is hurt. They show themselves to be concerned for the same things as James and John. They are insensitive to the seriousness of the moment, and it is clear that Jesus is very much alone as he faces his trials in Jerusalem. The disciples are deaf to what Jesus has been saying all through this chapter- that greatness in the kingdom of God is not about how high up the ladder you can climb- but how far down the ladder you are willing to climb for the sake of others. Following Jesus means not being proud and selfish, not desiring the first place.

10. How does Jesus respond to their indignation?

So Jesus tells them once more about the values of his kingdom. Jesus contrasts his own leadership to the rule of the Gentile kings, whom the disciples despise. The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; they seek to exploit the people, they demand taxes, they demand that the people abase themselves before them and give them honour. They rule for their own good, not for the good of others. Jesus says that in his kingdom, it is not so. The rulers of God’s people rule not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the church. Jesus is the great ruler, the example. He gave up the honour he had in heaven, to come to earth, and to serve others. He gave up his life for the sake of sinners. There he was, surrounded by angels singing his praises, and he left that, and came down to earth, where men despised him and rejected him and crucified him. He was willing to humble himself. Ironically, the disciples are imitating those they despise in their struggle for rank and precedence, desiring to exercise authority for their own advantage.

Jesus says that in his kingdom, the great ones should be like slaves and servants- men whose activities are not directed to their own interests, but another’s. A slave or a servant, work for a master. They don’t spend their time and energy working for their own benefit, but working to please their master. They follow the master’s agenda. Jesus was the great servant. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. His life was offered up on other’s behalf. He gave it as a ransom, paying the price for their freedom.

11. How should we apply these things to ourselves?

Being a Christian is costly. I remember being very impressed by my mother as a child. There were four children in our family, and we used to fight over who would sit where in the car. Obviously the best seat was in the front, next to my Dad who drove. We all wanted to sit there. That was the seat of prominence, the seat for the leader. It was comfortable, it had the best views, you didn’t have anybody else’s arm in your side… we all argued over whose turn it was to sit there. And nobody wanted to sit in the middle of the middle bench. If you couldn’t sit in the front, you at least wanted to sit by a door. Sitting in the middle was the worst. You had a big lump where your feet should go, you were squashed on either side. The middle spot was for the weakest, least influential, one. And my mother often chose to sit there. She didn’t have to. It was her right to sit in the front. She was greater than any of us children. She had authority over us. She could have sat in the front all the time. But she chose often to sit in the middle, to stop us squabbling, and so that we didn’t have to sit there. She did it because she loved us. It is very hard to do that, to give yourself the lowest spot, to reckon your brothers and sisters more important than you.

What do you think could motivate you to do it?

Love? Humility? Maybe on occasion. But to do it always, and with everyone? Only love for God can provide enough motivation. God’s people must love God more than they love themselves. Those who love God, will serve him. His honour will matter more to them than their own. Whenever they make decisions, their first question should be “What would Jesus want?” or “What would bring him honour?” or “What would advance his kingdom?” rather than “What would make me happy, or comfortable” or “What is fitting for my dignity?” Those who love God, obey God. And God says to love him first, and others second, and yourself last of all.

God’s kingdom is full of these people. They have had their sins forgiven. Jesus has suffered on their behalf, as a ransom for them. They are redeemed. They had sold themselves to Satan, but Jesus has bought them back. And so they live to serve him, and find their joy in his service. God gives them new hearts, hearts that can love him. They take their example from Jesus, who came to die- not because he loved himself, but because he loved sinners.

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