NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 22: So Jesus said to the sons, “You don’t understand what you are asking. Can you drink from the cup that I must drink from?” The sons answered, “Yes, we can!”
Although the request by the mother of James and John for special treatment as a favor to her two sons was surely out of place, nevertheless, Jesus was gracious and did not scold her at first. But I must imagine that the tone of His voice may have changed when He asked her, “What do you want?” This would certainly give her a clue that He knew the real reason behind her question. Nevertheless, our Lord’s response was definitely unequivocal. Jesus then used a traditional saying that most certainly was understood by the mother of James and John.
Jewish literature tells us that the word “cup” was often used metaphorically. It described either good or ill fortune, as in “My cup runs over;”1 “the cup of His fury;”2 “the bowl of the cup of staggering;”3 and “the cup of astonishment and desolation.”4 We also find Babylon is a “golden cup” in the Lord’s hand that made all the earth drunken.5 Also, we find the “cup of anger.”6 So, in Rabbinical writings we find the cup used figuratively for trouble and suffering,7 a symbol of calamity.8 But there is also the “cup of consolation,”9 that is offered to mourners. Then we read of the “cup of salvation.”10 This is a cup of thanksgiving for deliverance, an allusion, perhaps, to the wine poured for the peace-offering. So for the Jews, it could be a “cup of blessing;”11 or a “cup of bitterness.”12 But in this case here, with Jesus having just talked about all the suffering He was about to endure, the cup He spoke of could be called the “cup of suffering.”13
One anonymous writer of an early church commentary had this to say: “The cup and baptism are not one. For the cup is suffering, but baptism is death itself. Moreover, baptism is said to closely resemble dyed wool. For just as wool, having a natural color, is dipped so that it be colored purple or some other color, so we also descend into death as corporeal beings and rise again as spiritual beings. As the apostle said, ‘We are sown in infirmity; we rise in strength; we are sown in sordidness, we rise in glory; it is sown an animal body, it will rise a spiritual body.‘14 Indeed, every death contains in itself suffering, but every suffering does not also contain in itself death. For there were many who suffered and were not killed; such are the confessors. They all indeed drank the cup of the Lord but were not baptized with His baptism.”15
What this writer may not have researched is what “drinking the cup” meant in ancient Jewish times. It had a very clear meaning. Scholars give us this information:
Throughout Scripture, as in the ancient Near East, the cup functions as a metaphor for an individual’s fate. In Psalm 16, the psalmist credits the Lord with assigning his “portion and cup” in life. Psalm 23 equates an abundant life with an overflowing cup, a potent image in a semiarid world. The culmination of the positive image of the cup is in Psalm 116. Here the psalmist raises the cup of salvation as a thank offering to God, in effect offering the sum of his life to his Lord.
The metaphor of the cup, like life itself, can also be negative. In numerous prophetic works, the cup retains its role as a representative of fate, but on a national level. The cup can function as a cup of wrath, a vessel pouring out God’s judgment on the nations. The nations’ drinking from the “cup of his wrath” are often depicted as lost in drunkenness.16 This personifies Jerusalem as a woman who drained the cup of wrath to its dregs. God takes pity on His city and intervenes. “See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger the goblet of my wrath.”17 This cup is then given to the tormentors, indicating that they will suffer in their turn.
In a vision of destruction recorded by Jeremiah, God will force all the nations to drink from His cup and stagger to destruction.18 None are able to refuse it; all humanity will be judged and the wicked put to the sword. Ezekiel returns to the image of the cup of Jerusalem in a brutally explicit passage depicting Samaria and Jerusalem, representing the people of God, as two sisters who are prostitutes. The prophet calls the cup that Jerusalem drinks from the “cup of ruin and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria.”19 For Ezekiel, the cup stands for the destruction of the two kingdoms.
Zechariah uses the image of the cup of wrath to depict the fate of the enemies of Jerusalem. He adds a twist to the metaphor by making Jerusalem itself the cup.20 The author of Revelation returns to the dark image of the cup of wrath, threatening all who follow the beast with the wine of God’s judgment.21”22
The anonymous writer of a commentary on Matthew goes on to say: “They say, ‘We are able.’ They say this not so much by the boldness of their own hearts as by the ignorance of the trial. For to the unknowing, war is a desirable thing, just as to the inexperienced, the trial of suffering and death seems to be a light thing. For if the Lord, when he had entered into the trial of his suffering, was saying, ‘Father, if it can be done, let this cup pass from me,’ by how much more would the disciples not have said ‘we are able’ if they had known what the trial of death was like? Great indeed is the grief that suffering holds, but death holds even greater fear.”23
Verse 23: Jesus said to them, “It is true that you will drink from the cup that I drink from. But it is not for me to say who will sit at my right or my left. My Father has decided who will do that. He has prepared those places for them.”
Early church writers have given us some of their understanding of what Jesus implied here. For instance, Jerome says: “It is asked how the sons of Zebedee, namely, James and John, drank the cup of martyrdom when Scripture says that such an apostle as James was beheaded by Herod, but John ended life with a natural death. But if we read the ecclesiastical histories, we see it related that even John himself for the sake of martyrdom was sent into a vat of boiling oil and from there proceeded as an athlete to win the crown of Christ. Immediately he was sent away to the Island of Patmos. So we shall see that the spirit of martyrdom was not lacking and that John drank the cup of confession, which even the three boys in the furnace of fire drank,24 although their persecutor did not shed blood.”25
In a writing by Tertullian (c. AD 155 – 240), we read his account of the martyrdom of the apostles: “There was Peter, as our Lord, crucified; There, like John the Baptist, was Paul beheaded; There was the Apostle St. John immersed in a cauldron of boiling oil and having received no harm from it, was afterwards sent into exile to the Isle of Patmos.”26
Jerome then goes on to add: “To sit at my right and at my left is not mine to grant to you, but to those for whom it has been prepared by my Father must be understood as follows: the kingdom of heaven does not belong to the one giving but to the one receiving. ‘For there is no respecting of persons with God.”27 But whoever has proven himself in such a way that he is made worthy of the kingdom of heaven will receive what has been prepared, not for a person but for a life. If therefore you are such that you pursue the kingdom of heaven which my Father has prepared for the triumphant and victorious, you also will receive it. Others wish that it was spoken of Moses and Elijah, whom they had seen speaking with Him a little earlier on the mountain,28 but this view does not seem at all plausible to me. The names of those sitting in the kingdom of heaven are not spoken, lest the rest be considered excluded by the few who are named.”29
And the unknown writer of an early church commentary speaks to this subject: “Did Jesus not have the power to appoint whomever He wished, since it was written, ‘The Father loves the Son and gave all things into his hand?’30 But Jesus did not thus criticize their request. He did not want to make them dispirited and fainthearted. For it is not easy to restore one’s strength for hoping about the future once one falls from that for which he had hoped. Moreover, the Lord did not wish to accept their request, in order not to sadden all the others. For it was necessary, to the extent that they even considered such things, to this extent that they are strengthened without the help of the Holy Spirit.”31
After explaining Christ’s intentions the writer then goes on to say: “If the society of that entire kingdom should be divided among these two, if John is secure at his right and James at his left, what then are we to do? For what do we now hope? For this reason, we have followed Him so that we may be found remaining with those chosen from our midst. In labor, we have been like them. But it is better that we be not like them in seeking honor. For it was necessary that they who had not yet been made spiritual should think of carnal things. For if their request was not accepted and they all were disturbed, why did they even dare to seek this very thing? How much more would the others have been disturbed if their request had been accepted? Thus Jesus neither said ‘You will not sit’ in order not to confuse the two; nor did he say ‘You will sit’ in order not to anger the rest. But what did he say? ‘This is not mine to grant to you, but my Father.’ Although kind and provident, the Father thus arranges and ordains all things so that among like-minded brothers the love of the brotherhood is not broken. See how He neither disturbed any of them or made them hopeful, saying, ‘It is not mine to grant to you, but my Father.’ For what is not promised specifically to one or two is hoped for by all.”32
I think we all can see that this jockeying for position by James and John was only the beginning of what would continue on down through church history to this day. That’s why any appointment to a high position of leadership and responsibility should be accepted more with dread than delight. For Scripture says: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”33 Any plot to snag a position of power within the community of believers can only be motivated by the lust of one’s sinful nature. But when accepting such a position of power and authority that is offered freely, it must be done with the humility of one’s spiritual nature.
1 Psalms 23:5; 16:5
2 Isaiah 51:17, 22
3 Zechariah 12:2
4 Ezekiel 23:33
5 Jeremiah 51:7
6 Ibid. 25:15
7 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Hullin, folio 92a
8 Ibid. Footnote (19) The word cup occurs three times in the one verse: Gen. 50:11. For the cup as a symbol of calamity, cf. Isa. 51:17: The cup of staggering
9 Ibid. 16:7
10 Psalm 116:13
11 Genesis Rabbah, Ch. 8:13
12 Ibid. Ch. 16:4
13 Cf. Matthew 26:39
14 1 Corinthians 15:43
15 Incomplete Work on Matthew: Homily 35
16 Isaiah 51:17
17 Ibid. 51:22
18 Jeremiah 25:15
19 Ezekiel 23:33
20 Zechariah 12:2
21 Revelation 14:10
22 Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Bible Theology: “Cup” Also see the NT Dictionary of Theology: “potḗrion.”
23 Incomplete Work on Matthew, ibid.
24 Daniel 3:23
25 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol 3, 20.23
26 Tertullian’s Prescription Against Hereticks; and the Apologetics of St. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch to Autolycus, against the Malicious Calumniators of the Christian Religion, by James Betty, Oxford, 1723, Ch. 36
27 Acts 10:34
28 Matthew 17:3
29 Jerome, ibid.
30 Mark 10:39
31 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 35
33 See Luke 12:48