Mark 10:32-45 begins with Jesus and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem. The text actually brings this to our attention twice: first in verse 32 to describe the course of their travels, and again in verse 33 when Jesus starts to talk about what will happen when they get there. Jerusalem, Zion, the City of David, the place where God has made his Name to dwell… this is glorious place to be. Psalms 120 through 134 are known as the Psalms of Ascent, specifically chosen in Jewish tradition as hymns to be chanted on the ascent to Jerusalem for the appointed feasts of the Old Covenant. The greater part of the Old Testament writings fixate on Jerusalem as the center of the world in God’s eyes, and much of the New Testament writings uphold the idea of Jerusalem as a picture of the Church, of God’s kingdom, of the new heaven and earth we await at the end of this age. All in all, Jerusalem is supposed to be a glorious place to be, and anyone good and righteous and important in God’s eyes really ought to be there.
But instead of victorious triumph, Jesus describes suffering for himself upon arrival. He’s going to be treated savagely, even die. By this point, the disciples are beginning understand and accept that fact. They’ve even started thinking – and arguing – over who will replace him after he dies. The bid by James and John, spurred on by their mother, Salome, to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand – essentially to be his ruling heirs in glory, is an acknowledgement that Jesus is a rightful king who will establish a new dynasty of faithful rulers of Israel. As it turns out, James and John and their mother are acting on an imperfect understanding of Jesus’ mission, and end up making a bit of a fool of themselves. This unfavorable portrayal of them, by the way, enhances the historical plausibility of the Gospel text – people who lie about their origins rarely say bad things about themselves.
Anyway, the emphasis on Christ’s glory is very pronounced, despite his prediction of his death. The way that Salome and her sons entreat Jesus is the same manner in which a king is to be entreated. And their request to be seated at either side of him invokes a throne room image that Jesus himself would soon describe: “Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). Depending upon how you line up the Gospel books, Jesus may have already said this, and James and John are simply asking to be in the two seats of greatest honor alongside him. They know the glory for which their Lord is destined, and they want to have the greatest share therein.
But Jesus does not respond to their request like a king. He doesn’t deny that the glory is coming, or even deny that he is the rightful king, but what he does do is defer that glory and right. Instead he tests them: “will you share in my cup and my baptism?” The image of sharing a cup is a common biblical picture of an individual’s participation in something greater. In Psalm 23 “my cup runneth over” is a picture of God’s blessings. In Psalm 75 we read “in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” which describes God’s wrath and punishment being meted out. In the Passover, the Last Supper, and Holy Communion, the sharing of a common cup both symbolizes and enacts the individual’s participation in God’s covenant with his people. In the Revelation of St. John, cups (or bowls) of wrath are poured out upon the wicked world. Similarly, “baptism” at this point still carries stronger overtones of calamity than of new life. Throughout the Old Testament, water is used as a picture of chaos, destruction, and danger. Jesus himself, in Luke 12:50, speaks of his suffering and death saying “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” So when the disciples ask to share in Jesus’ glory, he asks them if they are first ready to suffer.
Their answer is precious: “We are able” (v39). Like children, they know not what they say, they just know what the “right answer” is that they’re supposed to say at this point. Once again, they’re more right than they realize. Although they and the rest of the disciples will flee from Jesus upon his arrest, they will indeed come to share in his suffering thereafter – once they’re empowered by the Holy Spirit and sent out to proclaim the Gospel abroad. Jesus’ affirmation that they will drink his cup and receive his baptism, however, is especially poignant for James, who, at the beginning of Acts 12 is arrested and executed by King Herod; he was the first of the twelve apostles to die. This would be in accord with what Jesus described here in verse 40 – glory is not his to grant on his own, but is given by the fullness of God.
This brief teaching may have set them straight, but the other ten disciples were yet to be corrected. They heard about James and John’s request and responded with jealousy. They’re still thinking of glory and authority in a top-down fashion. And so Jesus has to set them straight, largely repeating his teachings on the subject in chapter 9. If you want to be great, be a diakonos (servant) first (v43). Jesus heightens this in verse 44: if you would be first, you must be doulos (slave) of all. As one commentator illustrates this, “The pyramid rests on the apex, the great man bears the lesser men on his back, not sit atop them.” This principle, of being the least to be the greatest, is part of what some Christians call the Theology of the Cross. True glory is found through suffering. This stands in opposition to the Theology of Glory, which is the worldly idea that glory is pursued in an upward movement of human effort. The disciples, quite naturally, were thinking in terms of a Theology of Glory, and had to be taught by Jesus the Way of the Cross. We can’t fault them for having a hard time grasping for this – Jesus had not yet died on the Cross. Only then, and in his resurrection, would the truth of his words be plain.
Jesus’ understanding of the central importance of his suffering on the way to glory is echoed in Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 53 – one of the Suffering Servant Songs. One of the great hymns of recent centuries captures this Theology of the Cross, glory through suffering, really beautifully: When I survey the wondrous cross. Listen to its words again carefully; they bring the example of Jesus and the doctrine of the Cross right into our own hearts and lives.
When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the cross of Christ, my God;
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an off’ring far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.