Drinking the Cup
In Mark 10 Jesus not only speaks of his pending death, but also suggests reasons for this death. In verse 33 he says to his disciples,
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; the will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
Immediately following this prediction, James and John, two of Jesus’ closest followers, approach him asking for a favor. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). This request would be comical were it not so sad. Jesus has just spoken of his suffering and those near and dear to him are worried about their own glory in the coming kingdom. Jesus responds by telling them that they don’t know what they’re asking. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” he inquires (Mark 10:38). Of course James and John think they are able, though they have no idea what Jesus is talking about.
But what is Jesus talking about? What is the cup that he drinks? To answer this question we must look to the Old Testament. There, the metaphor of the cup stands for that of which our life is filled. Our “cup” can be filled with blessing and salvation (Psalm 23:5; 116:13); or it can be filled with wrath and horror (Isa 51:17; Ezek 23:33). Frequently the cup stands for God’s judgment and wrath. Consider, for example, Isaiah 51:17:
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.
Similarly, through the prophet Ezekiel the Lord speaks of the judgment about to fall upon Jerusalem:
You shall drink your sister’s cup,
deep and wide;
you shall be scorned and derided,
it holds so much.
You shall be filled with drunkenness and sorrow.
A cup of horror and desolation
is the cup of your sister Samaria;
you shall drink it and drain it out,
and gnaw its sherds,
and tear out your breasts. (Ezek 23:32-34)
Thus when Jesus speaks of drinking the cup, he is alluding to these images from the Scriptures. By going to the cross, he will drink the cup of God’s wrath. He will bear divine judgment, that which rightly falls upon Israel, and, indeed upon all humanity.
That Jesus uses “the cup” in reference to his crucifixion is made especially clear in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). Nevertheless, in the Garden Jesus chose to drink the cup, to take upon himself the judgment of God, so that God’s salvation might be poured out upon humankind. His death was necessary, Jesus believed, not only because the Father willed it, but also because in this way he would fulfill his calling has Israel’s Messiah and, indeed, the world’s Savior.