Again and again in the gospel of Mark, we read how the disciples failed to understand the message of Jesus (see, for example, Mark 6:45–52; 8:14–21; 9:30–32). Today’s passage gives us yet more evidence that the disciples were slow to comprehend their Master’s teaching. Mark records for us a particularly daring request that the sons of Zebedee, James and John, made to Jesus as they traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem.
James and John, we see in Mark 10:35–37, requested to sit at the left and right hands of Jesus, places of honor in the glory of the kingdom of God. Their question reflects their failure at that point to understand one of the key points of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship—true disciples of Jesus do not look to advance their own interests or honor. Jesus calls His followers to come to Him with humility, like little children who know that in themselves they do not have anything to offer the kingdom of the Lord (vv. 13–16; see also 9:33–37).
Christ did not correct their arrogance immediately but rather invited them to question whether they were qualified to hold such positions. Would they be able to drink the cup Jesus would have to drink and be baptized with the baptism with which He would have to be baptized (v. 38)? In the Old Testament, the image of the cup can symbolize God’s blessing; however, in the majority of instances, the cup represents the Lord’s judgment and wrath on wickedness (Ps. 75:8; Isa. 51:22). Here in Mark 10:38, the cup has negative connotations, which means it represents the cup of divine wrath that Jesus would drink on behalf of His people to save them from their sin.
Of course, no sinner can atone for another person’s sin, so we expect James and John to answer, “No, Lord, we cannot drink your cup.” In fact, Christ’s question in the original Greek is phrased in such as way as to make clear that a negative answer is expected. But when James and John told Jesus that they could drink His cup and endure His baptism, our Savior agreed that they would indeed drink His cup and receive His baptism (Mark 10:38–39). Christ was not indicating that James and John would atone for the sins of others—the grammar of His original question makes it impossible for Him to agree that the disciples could offer atonement. Instead, Jesus was pointing to the fact that in a sense, they would share in the ordeal Christ was about to undergo in Jerusalem. In other words, they would not escape suffering for the name of Jesus.