Jesus response is very interesting, and the exchange is one that has always confused me a little bit. That is why I want to examine it a bit more closely today. Jesus' initial response begins in v 22:
Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” -Mt 20:22.
1. The Cup being referred to is the wrath of God.
This is a common Old Testament allusion, and Jesus use of it here points forward to his suffering and guilt bearing upon the cross. Here are just two passages that refer to the cup:
For 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. -Ps 75:8.
Wake yourself, wake yourself,
stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl, the cup of staggering. -Is 51:17.
2. Positions of honor, respect, and importance are directly tied to suffering.
Notice how Jesus is responding to the request made by the mother of James and John. He could have brought up anything in his response, and yet he chooses to focus on the cup. This is not without purpose. What Jesus is doing is tying worthiness of lofty and respected positions directly with the willingness to be made low and function as a suffering servant. This is further emphasized with the short excursus that Jesus goes into through v 28.
And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 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 your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” -Mt 20:24–28.
3. Note finally the audacity of the response of the brothers: "We are able."
This is the part of the text that has always grabbed my attention. We know from the Old Testament what the cup Jesus is referring to is. It is the wrath of almighty God. We know that only Jesus can drink of that cup. That is why Jesus had to come! Yet the brothers are so bold as to claim that they are able to drink from that cup as well. I have always assumed that they simply didn't understand the reference Jesus was making to the Old Testament. How else could someone make such a bold claim as to say that they can drink from the wrath of God. After all, they couldn't imagine that Jesus the perfect Messiah would actually drink God's wrath. The Messiah is God's servant, a conquering king. He has no reason to drink the wrath of God. Such would be their mindset.
However, even mistakenly, James and John affirm that they can drink of the cup. This is where I have always had difficulty understanding the passage. I would expect Jesus' response to be a rebuke of some sort. I would expect Jesus to explain how only HE is fit to drink the cup. However Jesus doesn't respond that way, listen to what he says instead:
He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” -Mt 20:23.
It is in this affirmation by Jesus that we find great joy and comfort from a sympathetic Savior. Sure, there is a very real sense in which we are unable to drink the cup of God's wrath as Jesus did. However, in drinking God's wrath, Jesus is embodying a suffering servant who sacrifices himself for his people. In drinking God's wrath, Jesus is demonstrating laying one's life down for the sake of God's Kingdom, no matter the particular role that God has given you.
The cup then is something that we are able to participate in. It is not as though we can bear the weight of God's wrath as Jesus did. However, Jesus goes out of his way to affirm that James and John will indeed suffer for the kingdom of God in their own way. James will eventually be martyred, and John will suffer exile to Patmos. They will both give their lives for the cause of God's kingdom, and Jesus does not minimize that at all, even though his sacrifice for us is infinitely greater.
Behold the mercy and grace of our Savior! Beloved, our lives and our suffering count. What we go through for God's kingdom, the sacrifices we make for the glory of Jesus, these are things that God forever looks upon with joy and gladness. Sometimes we think the part we play is so small and insignificant. It is good to be humble. But also recognize here that our lives count for the Savior, and he won't forget them. He doesn't minimize our sacrifices either, but places them on par with his sacrifice for the sins of the world. Not that my piece of the puzzle is anywhere as important or big. Yet God has something for each of us in his kingdom, and our faithful carrying out of that assignment - humbly submitting as a servant to our task, pleases God very much.
Note finally the uniting of Christ's people with himself. Jesus Christ suffered greatly on our behalf, and Paul speaks of sharing in that same suffering. While being martyred for the cause of Christ is very much sharing in his suffering; there is a sense also in which all believers are united with Christ in his suffering for us. Becoming a Christian is being adopted into God's kingdom and family. When God does that, we are coming together to share in the mission and work of our elder brother, Jesus. However, we are all also his body. And we go forth in the power of His Spirit accomplishing the mission that he has for us. We have been united with Christ in a very real and spiritual sense, so that we may continue to carry out the work of building his kingdom.
Beloved, we share in the sufferings of Christ. We do so by being spiritually united with him, and by carrying out the work that God has given each of us as individual members of Christ's body. That work is something that God remembersa nd looks down upon with joy. We are all meaningful to God in his kingdom. Not because of who we are, but because of what he has done for us. Let us praise God for that, and go forth in unceasing effort to glorify and honor God with our lives.