In the previous post, we considered the humanity of the disciples, who slept while Jesus agonized in prayer. We can have compassion for these men who, under the emotional strain of the evening, simply did not have the strength to stay awake despite their best intentions.
In this post and the next, however, we want to consider the humanity of Jesus.
It’s easy to think of episodes where Jesus seems to float through the narrative with supernatural calm. Here’s Jesus in a boat with his disciples out on the Sea of Galilee. A furious storm whips up. The boat is tempest-tossed. Swamped. The Twelve, who weren’t exactly landlubbers, are screaming in terror.
What’s Jesus doing? He’s lying on a cushion in the madly pitching stern, enjoying a nap (Mark 4:38). (Talk about staying cool under pressure.) Panicked, the disciples wake him. Jesus gets up, stills the storm, and chides them for their lack of faith.
Hearing that story, we can identify with the desperation of the disciples. But with the spiritual serenity of Jesus? That’s a stretch.
In Gethsemane, however, we get a different picture. Jesus prays in utter anguish.
Why? Is he afraid of what’s coming? It’s worth remembering that unlike other forms of execution that are meant to be quick and relatively humane, crucifixion was specifically designed to be slow, torturous, and humiliating. One could hardly blame Jesus for balking at the prospect, and I’m reluctant to dismiss fear too quickly as an explanation.
But even so, it can’t be the only or even the most important explanation. The language of the prayer itself suggests otherwise: “My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matt 26:39, NIV). The warm intimacy of Jesus with his Father is about to be violently drowned in the cup of God’s wrath.
This is not the first time Jesus used the metaphor of the cup. When Mama Zebedee came to ask for special treatment for her two sons, Jesus turned to James and John and said, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Blindly, they said yes. And just as blindly, the other disciples resented their cheekiness, thinking that the Sons of Thunder had aced them out of something valuable. Jesus had to call them together and remind them: discipleship means humble service, for they are following one who will “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28).
Jesus understood his mission in terms of the prophecy of Isaiah (e.g., Luke 4:16-21; cf. also Isa 53); the image of the cup can be found in the context of the prophet’s words of hope. Three times, the call “Awake, awake!” goes out: the arm of the Lord is called to awake and clothe itself with strength as in the days of old to rescue God’s people (Isa 51:9). Jerusalem is also called to awake and clothe herself with strength, and given the promise that she would never be defiled again (52:1). And in between, we read this word of encouragement to a people who have had to endure God’s rebuke:
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. Among all the children she bore there was none to guide her; among all the children 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 children have fainted; they lie at every street corner, like antelope caught in a net. They are filled with the wrath of the Lord, with 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. I will put it into the hands of your tormentors, who said to you, ‘Fall prostrate that we may walk on you.’ And you made your back like the ground, like a street to be walked on.” (Isa 51:17-23, NIV)
The cup that Jesus prays to have taken away is God’s wrath, which Isaiah expresses as the “ruin and destruction, famine and sword” that were the consequence of the sin and disobedience of the people. Jesus knows that he must take that wrath upon himself. The core of Jesus’ anguish is not the anticipated physical suffering of crucifixion, as terrible as that may be. Rather, Jesus recoils from the spiritual horror described by Paul: in order to purchase our righteousness, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21, NIV).
I am a sinful person. Redeemed, yes; justified, yes. But still sinful. I cannot look upon sin with the full revulsion that Jesus did. I need the tutoring of the Holy Spirit to regard sin rightly.
Jesus, the one who had no sin, would be made sin on our behalf. There among the olive trees, with no support from his sleeping disciples, Jesus stared into the goblet, saw the immense evil that would be laid on his shoulders, and prayed in anguish: “Dear Father–is there any other way?”
The third and final post will look at how Jesus responded when the Father’s answer was no.