The Empty Cup
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / March 25, 2005 (Good Friday)
As we read through the Gospel accounts, it is impossible to miss the fearlessness of Jesus. We see this from the very onset of His public ministry. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness with Satan and is totally unmoved and unintimidated by the Tempter (Lk. 4:1-13).
Shortly thereafter, people within Jesus’ own hometown turn against Him and attempt to throw Him over a cliff. Again, Jesus is unintimidated, prompting Luke’s description, “passing through their midst, (Jesus) went His way” (Lk. 4:28-30).
In the same chapter, Jesus subdues a screaming demoniac with the command “Be quiet!” (Lk. 4:35). A little further on, we read how Jesus calms a raging storm by rebuking the wind and the waves (Lk. 8:24). And, on countless occasions, Jesus boldly confronts the religious authorities of the day.
Clearly, Jesus was not one to back down from anyone, or anything. Even as He spoke about, and anticipated, His own death, Jesus remained fearless.
In Matthew’s Gospel we are told that Jesus spoke openly about His death, telling the disciples, “that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Mt. 16:21).
And, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes, in even greater detail, what will happen to Him once He enters Jerusalem, “The Son of Man . . . will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him” (Lk. 18:32,33).
Throughout His earthly ministry, from the Temptation in the wilderness to the Last Supper, there is no hint of fear in Jesus’ words or actions. But that all changes in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew describes Jesus as being “grieved and distressed” (Mt. 26:37). And Jesus, speaking to His closest friends, confesses, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Mt. 26:38).
Up until this point, Jesus had been totally fearless in the face of opposition. Satan could not intimidate Him, storms failed to alarm Him, and no amount of persecution from religious authorities could dissuade Him from carrying out His Father’s purposes. But now, in the Garden, we see an abrupt change: Jesus is grieved and distressed.
He withdraws from His disciples and prays, “Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done” (Lk. 22:42). For the first time in His earthly life, Jesus is fearful—He is fearful of the “cup”.
We usually associate Jesus’ “cup” with His death on the cross and, certainly, there is a degree to which that association fits. But given Jesus’ previous testimony and His persistent fearlessness, equating the “cup” merely with His physical death doesn’t quite add up.
What then, is Jesus referring to when He prays, “remove this cup from Me”? To gain some insight for answering this question, we need to turn to some of the other Scriptural references, where a “cup” is spoken of metaphorically.
We begin our comparison in Isaiah 51:17: “(Thus saith the Lord) . . . Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of His fury; you have drunk the dregs of the cup of trembling, and have drained it out.”
From Jeremiah 25:15: “For thus the Lord, the God of Israel, says to me, ‘Take this cup of the wine of wrath from My hand, and cause all the nations, to whom I send you, to drink it.’”
And from Habakkuk 2:16: “The cup of the Lord’s right hand will be turned against you, and utter shame will be on your glory.”
Even with this cursory comparison, we can clearly see that, in the Scriptures, “the cup” is a common metaphor for God’s wrath.
This provides us with tremendous insight as we seek to understand why Jesus’ fearlessness turned to sheer dread in the Garden of Gethsemane.
If salvation could have been secured for us through Jesus’ physical suffering and death alone, I suspect that Jesus would not have reacted in such an agitated manner. But Jesus was anticipating something infinitely more horrifying than physical death—Jesus was thinking about “the cup”.
Jesus was contemplating what it would mean to bear the full weight of God’s wrath. Jesus was anticipating what it would be like to have the eternal fellowship of the Trinity interrupted on the cross. Jesus’ thoughts were on the spiritual horrors that lay before Him, causing Him to pray, “Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done”
I fear that the Christian Church, at least the contemporary Church, has lost sight of the spiritual agony that Jesus endured on the cross. And unless we recover this, the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement will make little sense to us.
What did Christ suffer in our place? What was the substitution? Surely, it was not a substitution of physical suffering. Think of the early Christians who were fed to the lions in the Roman amphitheatre, or the countless martyrs who were burned at the stake. In what way did Christ substitute for them? In what way did Christ substitute for us?
Christ bore the wrath of God in order that we might never have to. On the cross, Jesus was forsaken by God the Father in order to guarantee that we would never be forsaken.
In the New Testament, Paul speaks of the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement when he writes to the Galatians, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). And to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2Cor. 5:21).
While we would never want to diminish the physical suffering of Jesus, we need to recover the biblical reality that what made the cross most dreadful was that Jesus experienced the horrors of hell as He received the due penalty for our sins. This was the cup, assigned to Jesus to drink on our behalf.
The reason we can commemorate such an occasion, and call it, “Good Friday” is because, today, as we gather here for worship we reckon that the dreadful cup has been emptied.
Isn’t it interesting how John’s Gospel concludes his crucifixion account: Jesus is served sour wine from a sponge on a hyssop branch, and after consuming the wine, Jesus exclaims, “It is finished!” He bows His head and gives up His spirit (Jn. 19:29, 30).
Why did John think it was so important to tell us about Jesus drinking some sour wine? With so many critical details that needed to be communicated, what is so significant about wine on a sponge?
The wine, of course, makes us think of “the cup”—the cup full of God’s wrath. Jesus drinks the sour wine and utters His final words, “It is finished!” What is finished? The wine is finished. The cup of God’s wrath is now empty.
Friends, how shall we respond? How can we respond? It is no understatement to confess:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
May we give Him nothing less. Amen.