1. Mark 10:38 (ESV)
  2. Exposition

What does Jesus reveal concerning the nature of his own mission when he notes that the two disciples do not realize what they are asking for?

Mark 10:38 (ESV)

38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

Jesus points out that the two do not know what they are asking. They don’t know what it implies if they want to reach these places. They see the final goal but not the way to it. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?

By itself, the image of the cup could suggest the cup that goes around in the royal hall of festivities. The way the question is asked shows, however, that Jesus is not speaking of a festive but a bitter cup. And also not of a cup in the future, but the one that Jesus is now drinking. It is not unclear what he has to deal with at the moment (much rejection and criticism while the organizing of the enmity in Jerusalem progresses). The announcement of his suffering shows that Jesus has to drink the cup of suffering unto death: the bitterness is described by Jesus just before the question of James and John (Mark 10:33–34: twice be delivered; mocking, flogging, spitting, killing). All this must happen because it is the will of God (Mark 8:31); therefore, the image of the cup that one is given is fitting.

In the Old Testament the image is often used for the cup of judgment that God gives to people and nations to drink. Jesus has already begun to accept this cup and to drink from it. That the disciples are not able to accept and drink this cup at this moment appears already from their absolute inability to accept the announcement of suffering (Mark 8:33; Mark 9:32; Mark 10:32). Jesus reminds the two brothers that they cannot apply to themselves the rising on the third day without accepting the preceding suffering and death.

Mark also mentions a second formulation of this. The translation is a bit difficult: And can you undergo the immersion (baptism) wherewith I will be immersed (baptized)? Because of the parallelism in this verse we will have to think here also of an overwhelming flood of suffering and judgment wherein Jesus is plunged and wherein he is in danger of perishing. The Old Testament knows, in addition to the cup of judgment, also the image of the overflowing streams of water as a sign of God’s wrath.1

Delling2 believes that the word baptism (baptisma) does not necessarily have to have been a specific Christian word. It would then mean the same here as baptismos (immersion whereby something is completely submerged). Delling certainly can be right when he assumes that baptisma (baptism), which only in Christian texts appears with respect to baptism, can have been used in the first century with a more general meaning. Yet the readers of Mark’s Gospel will have thought in the first place of baptism by immersion (Mark 1:4; Mark 11:30), since this evangelist uses baptismos for a normal immersion (Mark 7:4).

With the word baptisma the idea of being immersed was certainly possible, even if one thought of a specific symbolic immersion. The negative element of being immersed (threat, being drowned) is also present in John’s baptism, which is a baptism of penitence, received upon a confession of sins and with a prayer for the Spirit of God. In Jesus’ word about the baptism of immersion wherewith he will be immersed, the idea of a divine and overwhelming judgment is fully present.

The question does arise, however, why he chooses a word for it that has also associations with John’s baptism. The answer could be that Jesus chooses two images that are related to what he is sharing with his disciples. Jesus and the twelve underwent John’s baptism of immersion. Furthermore, the twelve are always with him and share bread and cup with Jesus. Now they think that they can share everything with him. Within this community of bread and cup, however, there remains a special cup and a separate baptism by immersion for Jesus. He already drinks the rejection, he is already being immersed in the baptism of suffering. Disciples who were able to go with Jesus through the water of the Jordan and who can eat and drink with him shrink back before this cup and this baptism, though they nevertheless wish to grasp the glory that comes afterward.3