Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” Matthew 20.20-23.
In just over a week, Jesus will be hanging on the cross, drinking deep from “the cup” that he talks about here. It is sometimes suggested that James and John didn’t understand what Jesus meant by “the cup” at all, but that is very unlikely. More probably, they simply didn’t understand how horrendous would be the reality of which “the cup” is a metaphor. It is often said, too, that the cup is the cup of suffering, but, although suffering may follow from drinking from the cup, “the cup” itself in scripture is always the cup of judgment and wrath.
The psalmist says: “But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another. In the hand of the LORD is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs” (Psalm 75.7-8). Isaiah cries: “Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger” (Isaiah 51.17). Jeremiah reports: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: ‘Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it'” (Jeremiah 25.15). And it is this cup that Jesus knows he must drink.
The NIV translation is not as accurate as it might be when it has Jesus speaking of “the cup I am going to drink”. The Greek is mello pinein which is not just a simple future but carries the idea of necessity. It is better translated “the cup that I must soon drink from” which is how the CEV puts it.
The wrath of God is not, of course, God’s “lost temper” or his vengeful, self-indulgent lashing out at those who displease him; it is rather his proper and intense reaction to sin that is part of his character. It is an intrinsic part of his holiness and purity, and it cannot be removed or stemmed without his holiness itself being destroyed. But here is the wonder of grace. God who cannot but react in “wrath” to sin takes on human flesh in Jesus and then goes to the cross to drink the cup of his own wrath — the cup that I would otherwise have to drink. “God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8.3 KJV). Immediately after this conversation with James and John, Jesus speaks of giving himself as a “ransom” for many (Matthew 20.28). As the hymn says, “In my place condemned he stood”.
This was the same cup that, a week later, in Gethsemane, Jesus faced with total horror: “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will'” (Matthew 26.39).
Could James and John drink this cup? No, of course they couldn’t. But they would drink of another cup. They would drink from the cup of forgiveness that he offers all of his followers in place of the cup of wrath. At the last supper “he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26.27-28). Surely this is what Jesus really meant when he said, “You will indeed drink from my cup”. It was not the cup of wrath that he would drink to the dregs on the cross but the cup of mercy that he would fill to the very brim on that cross … for James and John and for the whole wide world.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, that the cup of wrath passed from me on Calvary. Thank you for the cup of salvation that you have given me in its stead. Amen.