Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going to Jerusalem. (You can read about it in Mark 10:32-45.) Jesus was leading the way, setting the pace, even though he knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Not only did he know; he even told his twelve apostles what would happen: “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.”
James and John didn’t get the message. They came to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No parent would fall into that trap, and Jesus was not about to be tricked. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they responded.
Their eyes were on the glory. They knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Rescuer who would establish the kingdom of God and defeat all his enemies. They wanted to be close to the action. They wanted a share of his kingdom and power and glory. They wanted to freeze out Peter and the other apostles by getting the chief places of honor beside the King himself.
Jesus first asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they affirmed that they could, Jesus told them that they would, but then he added, “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.”
I used to wonder about the people who would claim those places of glory, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus. In the history of the Church, who has earned such awesome authority? Would Paul the apostle be given such a place? What about Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham? Who deserves to be at the right hand of Jesus or his left hand when he claims his kingdom?
Then I learned when it was that Jesus claimed his kingdom. He is not waiting to claim it when he appears in glory; all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He did not claim the kingdom when he ascended into heaven, or even when he rose from the dead. The kingdom was his when he suffered and died on the cross in the place of sinners. The glory was his when he announced, “It is finished.” Easter and the Ascension and the Glorious Appearing are all results of the cross. Without the cross, we would have no joy in any of these things. Without the cross, we would be excluded from his kingdom, and Jesus does not want us to miss the party.
Who was at his right and his left when Jesus claimed his kingdom and his glory? Two thieves were there, each of them on a cross. At first they both mocked Jesus, but then one came to faith and confessed his faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, Lord,” he prayed. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” From these words, we know when Jesus received his kingdom and his glory.
James and John thought they wanted to be there with Jesus, but Jesus did not want them there. He went to the cross to spare them punishment. He went to the cross to rescue us all from punishment and guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us so we could be the righteousness of God. The innocent one who should not have been punished accepted our punishment so we can be free. The Author of life gave himself into death so we can live forever.
Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink from his cup? Some scholars apply those words to the persecutions they faced as apostles. But the cup Jesus had in mind was the suffering of the cross. It was the cup he pictured as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me… but not my will; your will be done.”
Imagine a cup before the throne of God with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of God’s wrath falls into that cup—a drop of poison you deserve for your sin. Every time you say something you know is untrue, another drop falls. Every time your mind wanders where it does not belong, into lust or envy or hatred, another drop falls. Every time you neglect an opportunity to help a person in need, another drop falls. How many drops have fallen into that cup? Is it overflowing yet with the wrath of God, wrath you have earned by all your sins?
Yet Jesus comes. He takes that cup that bears your name and is filled with your poison, and he drinks it dry. He did not want to drink it, but he accepted the poison to spare your life. He faced justice for you, because he knew you could not bear to face the justice you deserve.
But Jesus did not leave you without a cup. As in a comic movie (The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester), there are two cups, and only one is poisoned. Jesus exchanges cups with you, not to poison you but to preserve you. He has a second cup, a cup that belongs to him. It is the cup of salvation. It is the cup of the New Testament. It is the cup that is overflowing, not with wrath and poison, but with grace and forgiveness and new life.
James and John were rescued from their own pride. They asked for something that was not theirs. Jesus gave them something that was not theirs. He gave them his righteousness, along with his redemption through his own blood. He continues to distribute those blessings today. We will be with him forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory, because of the cross where Jesus rescued and redeemed us. J.