NKJV - 22 But Jesus answered and said, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They said to Him, "We are able.
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The apostles (and also brothers) James and John (the sons of Zebedee) had asked Jesus that they be granted the right to sit at His right hand and His left hand (positions of special favor) in eternity. In response, Jesus wanted to show them that such high privilege also carried with it a requirement for great responsibility and service, as well as the bearing of great adversity. He therefore asked them whether they were able to figuratively drink from the same cup of suffering from which He was going to have to drink through the process of His forthcoming arrest, trial, and crucifixion. (And that is not to even mention that, aside from the formidable physical pain associated with those events, there would also come the unimaginable spiritual torment that He would have to endure as the sinless Son of God in bearing God's punishment for the sins of all humanity from eternity past to eternity future.) Apparently, James and John were not overly impressed, since they glibly and immediately replied that they were able to do so. Jesus then told them that they would indeed drink from that same cup of suffering (as James did when he became the first of the apostles to be martyred (Acts 12:2), and as John did when he was exiled to the island of Patmos, which was where he was living when he had the experiences recounted in the book of Revelation). But, even so, He said that the seats at His right hand and His left hand that they had requested were not within His total authority to grant, but were for the unspecified individuals for whom those positions had been prepared with the approval of God the Father, based on the service and faith of the individuals involved.
Jesus was asking, "Can you go through the suffering that I am about to go through? Can you take part in the persecution that I am about to experience?" He was asking his disciples if they could withstand all the pain and suffering he was supposed to go through.
Just days before His death on the cross, Jesus is being approached by Salome, the mother James and John with a strange request. They were slow to understand what Jesus was about to endure (Mark 9:31, 32). The two brothers wrongly believed that Jesus will triumphantly ride into Jerusalem and appoint Himself King of the Jews. And they wanted to make sure that the two highest positions in the new kingdoms are secured. Rather than reminding them about His mission, Jesus asked them if they could drink His cup – they confidently said yes, showing again their ignorance. The Bible talks in many places about God’s cup of wrath associated with the judgment of the wicked (Ps 11:6; 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15; 49:12). Usually, God's judgment is mixed with mercy (Job 5:18; Isa 54:8). However, in the final judgment, the unrepentant sinner will receive God's cup of wrath full strength, without any mercy mixed in (Rev 14:10). We are all sinners deserving death, but Jesus offered to take upon Himself God’s wrath that the sinner deserves (Rom 5:8, 9; 6:23; 1 Thess. 1:10). But Christ died on the cross to atone for our sin - He drank the full strength cup, so we don’t have to (Matt 26:39; Rom 1:18). When James and John confidently answered that they could also drink the cup, they had no idea what they were talking about, because a sinner cannot atone for humanity’s sin - only the sinless Jesus could do that (John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:19). Yes, they would suffer and be persecuted just like Christ was, but only Jesus could drink the cup of God’s wrath in our place.
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