ABC Extra – The Cup of James and John – Mark 10:35-45

February 1, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  These words constitute the heart and soul of service.  For service begins with Jesus and his service to us on the cross.

In worship and Adult Bible Class this past weekend, we talked about service and how Christ served us in an utterly unique way which can never repeated or recapitulated: he suffered God’s wrath at our sin in our place on the cross so that we wouldn’t have suffer God’s wrath at our sin for ourselves in hell.  This is known as the doctrine of propitiation – that Christ turned back God’s wrath through his suffering and death.  And only Christ can suffer in this propitiatory manner.  This is why when Jesus asks James and John in Mark 10:38, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” their answer should have been, “No.” For Jesus is speaking figuratively of his impending death, even as he spoke of it explicitly just verses earlier: “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise” (Mark 10:33-35).  James and John cannot fulfill this mission of suffering, dying, and rising.  Thus, they should not presume to be able to drink Jesus’ cup of the cross.

And yet, James and John respond to Jesus’ question with shocking egotism.  “We can,” they boisterously announce (Mark 10:39)!  “We can drink your cup of the cross!”  James and John declare themselves to be saviors!  But even in the face of such distasteful egotism, Jesus responds with grace and love: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with” (Mark 10:39).  To what is Jesus referring?  After all, James and John certainly cannot die the propitiatory death that Jesus dies!  They cannot turn back God’s wrath from humanity!

Jesus is referring to the suffering that James and John will soon have to endure for the sake of their faith in Christ.  And although their deaths cannot do what Jesus’ death for humanity, their deaths can mirror how Jesus died.  And indeed their deaths do just this.  James, we are told in Acts 12:1-2, is arrested by Herod who puts him to death by the sword.  John, history tells us, is thrown into the cauldron of boiling oil by Emperor Domitian.  But when John miraculously escapes, the emperor opts to exile him to the Aegean island of Patmos.  And John and James are not the only ones who suffer for the cause of Christ.  Thousands of Christians in the first century suffered at and were martyred by enemies of the faith.  Indeed, even a secular historian of Rome from the first century named Tacitus is called to recount some of the horrors to which these early Christians were subjected at the hand of the emperor Nero:

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted…of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Tacitus, Annals XV)

A couple of things are especially notable about Nero’s passage.  First, Tacitus believes that the Christians were guilty of “hatred against mankind.”  That is, he asserts that the Christian faith is so foreign and ridiculous that it as a grave peril to the social order.  Thus, he seems to support a punishment and even the death penalty against Christians.  However, Nero’s treatment of these “criminals,” as Tacitus calls the Christians, is so brutal that it turns even the Roman historian’s stomach.  “There arose a feeling of compassion,” Tacitus says.  And indeed there did, even as the apostle Peter tells us:

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:15-17)

Peter says that those who brutally persecute Christians are eventually ashamed of their senseless acts of violence.  And thus, the public’s compassion is aroused.

Though we may never be called to suffer under the deranged delusions of an insane despot as so many of the early Christians were called to do under Nero, we are still persecuted for our faith.  People still speak ill of us.  They still try to discount or disparage our beliefs.  Suffering for faith is alive and well.  And we drink the cup of wrath:  not the cup of God’s wrath against man, but the cup of man’s wrath against God and his followers.  And yet, because Jesus drank the propitiatory cup of salvation, even in the midst of our suffering, we can still “rejoice and be glad, because great is our reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12).

So this week, don’t be surprised if the world hands you a cup of suffering for the cause of Christ.  But if you do suffer, remember the one who has suffered in your place. For with him, there is no suffering you can’t face.

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CHRIST.ology – Part 1 CHRIST.ology – Part 2

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