On Drinking the Cup

OK, another obscure title – but not too obscure for the biblically literate. I here wish to deal with an ongoing controversy about Christ, the cross, and the wrath of God. As I have written just recently elsewhere, there are still some believers who do not like the idea of God’s wrath, or the idea that Jesus faced it at Calvary. See here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/30/the-real-love-of-god/

I wish to take this discussion further. It is admittedly a rather large topic, so here I wish to focus on just one aspect of this. I refer to the cup which Jesus had to drink – but did not want to drink. A key passage on this is Matthew 26:39 (= Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42) which says: “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’.” So just what was this cup?

It is not something Jesus wanted to partake in, but he knew he must. It is clear if we examine the Old Testament background to this image that the cup refers to the Lord’s wrath. Indeed, the best way to get a handle on this is to first look at the OT use of this significant term. So let’s examine some relevant texts there.

Old Testament background

Of course in OT imagery, a cup can be neutral – it really depends on what is contained in it. Thus we read about positive uses of the cup, as in places like Psalm 16:5; 23:5; and 116:13. And in the NT we read about the “cup of blessing” in 1 Corinthians 10:16.

But most OT uses of the term refer to suffering in general, particularly God’s wrath, and his judgment against sin. Consider just a few of these:

Psalm 75:8 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.

Isaiah 51:17, 22 Awake, awake!
Rise up, 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 people stagger.
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.

Jer 25:15-16 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. When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them.”

New Testament reality

This understanding of God giving a cup of judgment to the wicked is what lies behind the imagery as found in the gospels. In Matthew 20:22-23 we have a sneak preview of what is ahead: “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

And in places like Revelation 17:3-6 and 18:6-8 we read more about this cup of God’s wrath. But let’s return to the Matt 26 passage and its parallel texts. Jesus certainly has in mind these OT texts when he is approaching his darkest hour. It is not just about dying. It is not just about enduring physical punishment. But it also includes somehow taking upon himself the just punishment which we deserve, and thus experiencing separation from the Father.

As R.T France remarks, “For the ‘cup’ as a metaphor for suffering see on 20:22-23; we noted there that in the OT the metaphor also carried the connotation of God’s anger and thus of punishment, and in the light of Jesus’ words over the cup in v. 28 the metaphor may be used here to focus especially on the element of vicarious punishment in Jesus’ death (though of course the ‘cup’ offered to the disciples was not that of Jesus’ vicarious suffering in itself but of their participation in its benefits). It was that aspect of his suffering, not merely the physical pain and death in themselves, that most disturbed him; perhaps we should understand that in speaking of the cup (of God’s anger) he was already aware of the coming separation from his Father which 27:46 will so graphically describe.”

As Simon Kistemaker states, “The cup refers to God’s anger with human sin that became reality at Gethsemane when Christ, bearing the sins of the people, faced divine wrath. . . . Jesus experienced God’s holy wrath directed against him because of sin, for this wrath caused a severance between God and the bearer of human sin.”

Commenting on the parallel passage in Mark, James Edwards says this: “Not his own mortality, but the spectre of identifying with sinners so fully as to become the object of God’s wrath against sin – it is this that overwhelms Jesus’ soul ‘to the point of death’ (v. 34).

Finally, let me finish with some reflections by John Stott. The cup, he says, “symbolises neither the physical pain of being flogged and crucified, nor the mental distress of being despised and rejected even by his own people, but rather the spiritual agony of bearing the sins of the world, in other words, of enduring the divine judgement which those sins deserved. That this is the correct understanding is strongly confirmed by Old Testament usage, for in both the Wisdom literature and the prophets the Lord’s ‘cup’ was a regular symbol of his wrath. A wicked person was said to drink of the wrath of the almighty (Job 21:20)….

“This Old Testament imagery would have been well known to Jesus. He must have recognized the cup he was being offered as containing the wine of God’s wrath, given to the wicked, and causing a complete disorientation of body (staggering) and mind (confusion) like drunkenness. Was he to become so identified with sinners as to bear their judgment? From this contact with human sin his sinless soul recoiled. From the experience of alienation from his Father, which the judgment on sin would involve, he hung back in horror.”

But he went through with it nonetheless for our sakes. He loved us that much that he endured such horrific agony and pain. Leon Morris offers a fitting summary here:

“The Scripture is clear that the wrath of God is visited upon sinners or else that the Son of God dies for them. Either sinners are punished for their misdoings or else there takes place what Hodgson calls ‘that self-punishment which combines the activities of punishing and forgiving’. Either we die or He dies. ‘But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8).”

What more can be said? What amazing love. What an amazing saviour.

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