20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 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.” 23 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.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. (Matthew 20:20-24)
Through the Bible: Matthew 20-21
Today, we read about the mother of James and John coming to Jesus and asking that her boys be given the seats to the right and left of Jesus when He came into His kingdom. Jesus’ response was “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” And their answer, according to verse 22, is “We are able.”
Two things occurred to me today as I read this account. First, it is not clear whether Jesus addresses His remarks only to James and John, or if their mother is part of the rebuke as well. Did Jesus say, “You don’t know what you are asking” only to Mrs. Zebedee? And then, was the second part of the question (“Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink”) only directed to James and John?
What if Jesus was asking the mother of James and John if she was prepared for the suffering that she would have to endure at the reality that her sons were likely to be killed for their witness? This certainly happened to James. Acts 12:1-2 tells us that he was the first of the twelve apostles to die as a martyr. Indeed, his is the only one of the apostles’ deaths (other than Judas) that is recorded in Scripture.
12 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. (Acts 12:1-3)
So what if Jesus was asking the woman if she was prepared to let her children go to that level? If you are a parent, what would you do if Jesus asked you that question? Dad, are you willing to watch your sons die for my sake? I am convinced that the mother of James and John had no more clue what the future held for those who claimed the name of Jesus than her boys did.
Here is the second thing that occurred to me: Surely John must have reflected back on this scene when his brother was run through with the sword. As he wept for his brother and prayed for his friend Peter, I wonder if he thought to himself, So this is what Jesus meant when he said that we would indeed drink from His cup. Then, I imagine John thought to himself, Ok. It’s just a matter of time before I will be killed for my faith also. I am ready for it. Jesus, I told you that I would be able to drink from your cup. So when the time comes, I am ready, Lord.
I wonder, then, if John was surprised that his time never came to be martyred. Tradition tells us that of the eleven disciples who were left other than Judas, all of them died by execution. Only John died of old age.
So what was John to make of this? Jesus told both brothers (and possibly their mother too) that they would drink His cup. Did John ever wonder whether he was somehow unworthy of dying for Jesus?
Maybe, but I don’t think so. After all, John would write the final gospel long after many of the disciples met their end. Throughout it, he would call himself “the disciple Jesus loved.” And there is a scene at the end of John’s gospel, not found in any of the other gospels, by the way, in which he seems to address the question of why he is still alive:
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers[b] that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? (John 21:20-23)
John would then go on to write the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John, and ultimately the Book of Revelation. I believe he came to terms with the fact that “drinking the cup Jesus drinks” does not automatically mean dying a martyr’s death. It could mean living a martyr’s life. We think that a martyr is someone who dies for his faith. But that isn’t true. The word martyr simply means witness.
You may indeed be asked to die for your faith one day. Or, if not you, your children. And if and when that time comes, I pray that I would accept that fate with joy. But the bigger question today is, “If God calls you to live the rest of your life in faithful service for him, never losing your hope, never lagging in your zeal, being faithful to the end,” would you drink from that cup?
Lord, whether by life or by death, let me be a martyr for you.