This post corresponds with our Lenten Study Session series, On the Trail to Skull Hill. For this session, we discuss explore the symbol of the cup (at the Lord's Supper and here in the blogpost at Gethsemane).
While this session’s devotional video takes a look at the Exodus backdrop to Jesus’ Passover fulfillment, our blogpost tarries over the implications of Jesus himself being the sacrificial lamb and the recipient of God’s wrath. What is the deal with the wrath of God? We will move to this scene in our next session On the Trail to Skull Hill, but let’s preview what happens in Gethsemane to probe into the question of God’s wrath.
Luke 22:39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
John Stott argues that this cup, unlike the Passover cup symbolizing Jesus’ sacrifice, is the metaphorical cup of God’s wrath. It is quite a potent motif in the Scriptures. Browse Psalm 75, Jeremiah 25, Habbakuk 2, and Isaiah 49 for some examples. Here’s the Psalm 75 picture.
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.
So God has another cup, a cup of poisonous wine, intended for those maligned against him. God, being just and righteous, does not leave sin unpunished. But it is a weird picture, isn’t it? A cup of wrath? Perhaps the picture comes from semantic overlap in Hebrew. One word for wrath can also be translated as “poison”, “venom”, or even “heat” (according to HALOT; but that’s not always the word used for wrath, to be clear). At any rate, God’s just wrath is pictured as a cup that will be consumed. And this is precisely the cup, Stott argues (below), that Jesus is referring to. “Take this cup from me.” How do we make sense of God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus? How do we keep a Trinitarian frame for this mystery? We need a refresher of atonement to help enter this mystery.
For those aware of the debate, there are multiple “theories of atonement.” What really happened at the cross of Christ? How do we articulate it clearly? There’s substitionary atonement that focuses on the legal punishment of sin at the cross. There’s deification that focuses on the putting on of Christ’s character and participating in the life of the Trinity in light of the cross. There’s Christus Victor that focuses on the cosmic victory over evil accomplished at the cross. There’s moral exemplar that focuses on the paradigm of self-sacrificial love that the cross inspires. With any corner of theology, there is historic debate and reflection. I tend to agree with Beth Felker Jones’ mediating position, attempting to hold all of these nuances of the crucifixion together. She views each of these as having “wide riches” that spur us to redemptive activity, so that we can “practice our salvation,” transformed by the multiple facets of atonement: substitution, deification, Christus Victor, and moral exemplar; Jones sees these layers of atonement “wed” together (Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine, 164.)
So without diminishing the other nuances of atonement, let’s consider Christ’s substitution. John Stott’s The Cross of Christ is a classic theological tome with a thorough examination of substitutionary atonement. The challenging mystery of Christ’s substitution is summarily shown by Paul’s paradox: Jesus traded himself for us.
2 Corinthians 5:21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Christ became sin for us? Substitionary atonement explores this mystery. Stott relates this to the scene in Gethsemane, the encounter with this other cup. Let us hear him at length here. Speaking of Jesus in the agony of garden on the eve of his sacrifice, Stott writes:
“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 disorientation of the 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. Not even for that single instant he rebelled. His vision had evidently become blurred, as a dreadful darkness engulfed his spirit, but his will remained surrendered. Each prayer began, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,’ and each prayer ended ‘yet not as I will, but as you will.’ Although in theory ‘everything is possible’ to God, as Jesus himself affirmed in Gethsemane (Mk 14:36), yet this was not possible. God’s purpose of love was to save sinners, and to save them righteously; but this would be impossible without the sin-bearing death of the Savior. So how could he pray to be saved from ‘this hour’ of death? ‘No’ he had said, he would not, sin ‘it was for this very reason I came to this hour’ (Jn 12:27). From his agony of dread, as he contemplated the implications of his coming death, Jesus emerged with serene and resolute confidence.”
- Stott, The Cross of Christ, 79 (emphasis added).
There’s a lot going on here, but it is all really important when we try to understand what is happening at the cross. The sacrificial imagery of Passover is key when attempting to understand the cross. A sacrifice substitutes the sinner, bringing satisfaction to God's just wrath, making union with the holy God possible. Do you realize this is happening on the cross? God himself became the Sacrifice for the sinner. God poured out his wrath on Himself. Though it is sometimes out of vogue to speak of God’s wrath, without it the cross is incomprehensible. Jesus really did die for our sins. It wasn’t just to give us a good example or to show us our true selves. God is fully dealing with sin, with our rebellion - in order to bring about communion. And look at how he does it. God the Son became flesh, lived the only sinless human life, and traded himself for us, drinking the wrath of God to the dregs, satisfying God’s justice and demonstrating God’s love. Indeed, Jesus has substituted himself for us and that has made all the difference.
Let’s ruminate on Stott’s three conclusions in response, letting them stir us into adoration and worship of the incredible Crucified God who gave his life for us:
“God’s love must be wonderful beyond comprehension.”
“Christ’s salvation must be a free gift.”