(All scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV). Hebrew meanings are from various lexicons, such as the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology; the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament; Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, and Holladay’s Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.)
The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayerfully wrestles with his fate has long been of interest to me. Jesus is obviously a man of great courage and resolve; more than that he is a divine being, the Son of God. Yet, in the garden he struggles mightily with his calling, to the point his perspiration becomes “like great drops of blood”. How is it that the one the Gospels portray as completely in command over forces of nature could be in such agony over his future?
Reflection and study led me to notice a small but significant detail in the account of the garden prayer: the cup he entreats his heavenly father to remove. In Luke 22:39 we read:
And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.Jesus is no weakling. What is in the cup that causes him such distress?
Searching for other passages on “the cup” leads to some sobering answers.
In Psalm 75:7-8 we discover a cup that is related to judgment, which the wicked of the earth will consume:
But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another. In the hand of the LORD is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.And toward the end of the Bible we find what is surely the same cup described a bit more. This time it is identified as “the wine of God’s wrath”:
Revelation 14:9-10 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.This theme of God’s wrath held in a cup is portrayed vividly in Isaiah 51:17-22:
Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger. Of all the sons she bore there was none to guide her; of all the sons she reared there was none to take her by the hand. These double calamities have come upon you-- who can comfort you? -- ruin and destruction, famine and sword-- who can console you? Your sons have fainted; they lie at the head of every street, like antelope caught in a net. They are filled with the wrath of the LORD and the rebuke of your God. Therefore hear this, you afflicted one, made drunk, but not with wine. This is what your Sovereign LORD says, your God, who defends his people: "See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again.This passage raises a question, however. In verse 22, the cup is said to be “taken out of your hand”. So, what happened to the cup if Israel doesn’t have to drink it? Why is it taken out of their hand? Has something happened to prevent this judgment?
The answer comes just a little further down in Isaiah 52, beginning at verse 13:
Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.While the identity of this servant is controversial for some, Christians generally recognize that this is a description of Jesus. Written some 700 years before the time of Christ, the passage accurately foretells what the New Testament describes in detail concerning the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
The passage in Isaiah 52:14 continues:
As many were astonished at you-- his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.This raises the question, how did his appearance get that way? The Gospels describe the last hours of Jesus life as a series of beatings and torture, culminating with a horrific death on a Roman torture mechanism, the cross.
…so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.These events will be recorded, proclaimed and remembered down through history, spreading from their origin in the Middle East to the “ends of the earth”.
Chapter 53:1-3 continues: (There were no chapter divisions in the original writings.)
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.Hebrew is an especially metaphorical language and a number of underlying concepts can help us understand the depth of what Jesus undergoes. For example, the word “despised” in verse 3 in Hebrew is bazah, which also means “to disdain, to hold in contempt”. The ESV word “rejected” is translated “forsaken” by the New American Standard Bible, perhaps guided by an underlying idea in the Hebrew of “left out”. The word “sorrows” in Hebrew is ma’kob , which is often translated as “pain”.
Verse 4 continues:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.“Griefs” is Hebrew choli, sickness, and “sorrows” is again ma’kob, pain.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.The word “pierced” is the Hebrew word, chalal, which usually means “defiled” or “polluted”. The word “transgressions” is pasha, which means “rebellion”. “Crushed” is Hebrew, daka which can mean, “broken to pieces”, not unlike what we do with a pill using a mortar and pestle. “Iniquities” is avon, meaning guilt, and “wounds” is from the word chabburah, which literally means, “striking” or “blows”. (This is what is meant by the King James, “stripes”.)
In other words, the terrible penalty and pain for our wrongdoing was placed upon him, and as a result we do not suffer what is actually due us.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.Interestingly, the word “laid”, Hebrew, pa’ga, has the idea of “impinged” or “forced upon”. And who is it doing the “forcing”? It is Yahweh. In all translations when the word LORD appears in all caps, the underlying word is Yahweh. It is God himself who has placed the burden of sin upon his willing Son.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.“Oppressed” is nagas, “to beat or goad an animal”. “Afflicted” is anah, “humbled” or “bowed down”. The servant’s silence is reminiscent of the scene before Pilate in John 19:8-9.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?“Oppression” here is Hebrew, otser, meaning coercion. “Judgment” is mishpat, which carries the idea of a judicial ruling. “Stricken” is nagas, again, as in verse 7as “to beat or goad an animal”. “Transgression” is pasha, “rebellion”, as in v. 5.
The idea of being “cut off” reminds me of an article I recently read about an “anechoic chamber” which was built to insulate the interior from any sound or stimulus. Researchers discovered that humans placed in the chamber and deprived of all sounds except those of their own bodies began to hallucinate in as little as 15 minutes. The longest anyone has been able to endure thus far is 45 minutes. This is significant because this passage is telling us that on the cross, Jesus was cut off from fellowship not only from humanity, but from life itself. This, I am convinced, is behind Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34) This in turn reminds of Galatians 3:13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree".
And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.This is reminiscent of the garden tomb provided by wealthy Nicodemus.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.The phrase, “the will of the Lord” is literally, “Yahweh desires”. “Crush” is daka again, “broken to pieces”. “An offering for guilt” is from the Hebrew asham, a technical term used throughout the book of Leviticus to describe the guilt offering.
All this reminds me of Hebrews 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.The word “soul”, Hebrew nephesh, is important to make note of, in light of its usage again in verse 12. The anguish is soul anguish, not merely physical.
The word “righteous” here appears in two forms, first as a noun, tzadiq, and then as a verb, “to be accounted righteous”. This is significant because the same noun/verb cognates occur in the Greek of Romans 3:23-26:
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.Isaiah 53:11 corresponds directly with Romans 3:23. The perfect righteousness of Jesus is transferred to the account of all those who place their faith in him.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.This is where the significance of the word “soul”, nephesh, is more fully revealed. What takes place on the cross is not merely a physical suffering, but an incomprehensible anguish of the soul. Jesus’ pain and suffering are physical, to be certain, but the torment of his soul is likely what he has in mind in the garden.
What was in the cup? The cup was the wrath-filled judgment of God, consisting of both the physical and psychic anguish that was due us which was instead placed upon the completely innocent servant of God, Jesus, resulting in our being counted as righteous.
This is what is meant by 2 Corinthians 5:21: He who had no sin became sin for us that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Two final “take-aways” for us:
1) Romans 6:1-2: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? The Christian cannot continue to toy with sin. The cost to Jesus demonstrates how serious, how ugly sin is.
2) Romans 8:1: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The Christian has no fear of punishment. Why? Jesus has borne it. The cup is completely empty for those who have put their trust in Christ.
We must walk in the tension of these two truths, remembering the horror of sin, but rejoicing that the cup of God’s wrath is empty for the one who has placed his trust in Jesus. For the Christian, Jesus has emptied the cup, drinking it to the dregs.