Q&R with Brad: “What was ‘this cup’ Christ drank?”

The Agony in the Garden, 1590-1600, El Greco


I’m curious if you have written anything or have any references concerning the cup Jesus asked be passed from him in the garden of Gethsemane. Some say it is “the cup of God’s wrath” whereas I recall learning it was the cup of human suffering. Would you kindly share with me a few words on this topic? Grace and peace.


A very good and important question. Let’s begin by reviewing the text in Matthew 26 (NKJV):

36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” 37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. 38 Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.”

39 He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” 40 Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour?  41 Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.”  43 And He came and found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy.

44 So He left them, went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then He came to His disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand.”

Luke adds, “Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

Essentially, I believe you are correct: the cup Christ must bear begins in Gethsemane, where he bears the full weight of the human condition, co-suffering the sins and sorrows (a la Isaiah) of all humankind in himself. Imagine drawing up all the grief of human history, including death itself, into himself in order to experience our wounds (the ones we’ve endured and the ones we’ve inflicted) in his body, soul, and spirit! And why? The author of Hebrews says,

14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. 17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.

Here I’ve highlighted some of the reasons why Jesus drank “the cup.” Through his suffering and death, he destroyed ‘the devil,’ the power of death, to release us from the fear of death. He did it to “give aid” as a merciful and faithful High Priest, sent by the Father to reconcile the human race to God by enacting God’s forgiveness of sin through a once and for all proclamation of forgiveness. Somehow this also equips us to face trials and temptations in his power, through Jesus’ vicarious union with us and priestly ministry for us (and see Hebrews 4:14-16)

Now, penal substitutionary atonement shifted all of this, painting Jesus’ suffering as inflicted by God, “the cup of God’s wrath” as punishment for the sins of the whole world. In other words, the Cross is not the locus of divine forgiveness, but rather, becomes the epicenter of God’s violent rage, sated finally in his only begotten Son on our behalf. In other words, God did not simply forgive our sin. That would be ‘to blink at it.’ That would be compromising with evil and complicity with injustice. He had to punish it. And he punished it in Jesus instead of you. Only on that basis can you avert his wrath. So the story goes. So I once told it.

The prooftext connecting “the cup” of Gethsemane to the punishments of God comes from Jeremiah 25:

15 This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16 When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them.”

17 So I took the cup from the Lord’s hand and made all the nations to whom he sent me drink it.

The chapter then describes how a long list of nations are given the cup of God’s wrath “to make them a ruin and an object of horror and scorn, a curse” (vs. 18).

Inside the transactional logic of divine retribution, Jeremiah 25 and Matthew 26 line up nicely. There’s a cold coherence that sees the Son drinking the cup of God’s vengeance as a way to avert human damnation. “Punish me, scourge me, curse me, condemn me to eternal torment, instead of them, Father… (but then take it back by Sunday morning, okay?).”

The problem with this narrative is as usual. It severs the unity of the one Triune God, denies the freedom of God to extend pure grace through actual forgiveness, and pits the Father against the Son under some imagined, necessary law of violent retribution. These errors are contrary to the Good News of Jesus Christ, in whom we find God reconciling the world to himself rather than “wrathing” us. That is, the cup was NOT the violent wrath of God upon Jesus, but God himself swallowing our sins and sorrows, then reciprocating instead his grace and mercy.

That is, Jeremiah 25 is not fulfilled in Matthew 26 to the nth degree. Rather, Gethsemane is the complete subversion and undoing of the devastations we see Jeremiah 25. God sends his Son to save the world by the cruciform way of self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love. Where is God? On the Cross. Drinking the cup of human suffering for our salvation.

So why the “hesistation”? Is Jesus balking? On the contrary: in his pleas to the Father, Jesus shows us how he comes face-to-face with the deepest dysfunction in our human history and instincts–the self-will of the first man in another long-ago garden–and how, as the New Adam, he overcomes our self-will with radical, vicarious willingness. For Christ to say, “NOT my will but yours, Father” is to say, in Christ, the Father’s will BECOMES his will, thus healing the human will in himself. His surrender then becomes the basis for my own healing … by surrender. Surrender as he did and you will experience salvation at every stage and level of human existence.

P.S. The cup Jesus drinks and the blood-like sweat he excretes are not some fear as he faces his own crucifixion, awful as it is. Many martyrs faced similar fates without fear and did not shrink back. What we are seeing is the weight of every victim of every war, every assault, every injustice, every murder, every rape for all time. And he had to do this in the frailty of his humanity. We have no idea. But in the end, he does not ask for our pity. He asks for our very lives … that we would surrender our lives and will to the Father’s loving care, even as he finally did.


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