Isaiah wrote prophetically of Jesus that He was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Though those words were descriptive of His entire life, we see them coming to a climax in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Luke tells us that Jesus was in such agony as He prayed that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
What was it that caused Jesus such agony? Why did He pray that, if possible, He might not drink of the cup (John 18:11)? What was in the cup that was so utterly distressing to Jesus as He contemplated drinking of it? We naturally associate Jesus’ cup with the crucifixion and assume that He was praying that He might be spared the wretched and degrading death on the cross. The cup was indeed connected with the crucifixion, but we still have not answered the question: What was in the cup?
In both the Old and New Testaments, the cup is often used as a metaphor for the wrath of God (Ps. 75:8; Isa. 51:17, 22; Jer. 25:15; Hab. 2:16; Rev. 14:9–10). The cup, then, that Jesus found so abhorrent to drink was a cup filled with the wrath of God. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was staring intently into that cup — the one He would drink the very next day as He hung on the cross in excruciating agony.
But it was not the physical agony that Jesus so dreaded, as horrible as that was; rather, it was the spiritual agony He foresaw as He would drink to its last bitter dregs the cup of God’s wrath, the wrath that we actually deserved. This brings us to a difficult subject of the Bible, one that is denied by many Bible scholars and ignored by most of us. We simply do not like to think about the wrath of God. Why?
Perhaps we shy away from the expression “the wrath of God” because of the violent emotions and destructive behavior that is frequently associated with the term wrath when used of sinful human beings. More likely, we don’t want to think of our nice, friendly, but unbelieving neighbors and relatives as subject to the wrath of God.
If we take the Bible seriously, however, we must take seriously the subject of God’s wrath. It is a theme that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments. One theologian has stated that the number of references to God’s wrath in the Old Testament exceeds 580. What about the New Testament? Some people teach that the subject of God’s wrath disappears in the New Testament and that His love and mercy become the only expressions of God’s attitude toward humanity.
Jesus clearly refutes that notion. In John 3:36 He says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him.” Paul wrote frequently of the wrath of God (for example, Rom. 1:18; 2:5; 5:9; Eph. 2:3; Col. 3:6). Finally, the whole tenor of Revelation warns us of the wrath to come (6:16–17; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15).
What is it that so provokes the wrath of God? It is our sin. Regardless of how small or insignificant it may seem to us, all sin is an assault on the infinite majesty and sovereign authority of God. God, by the perfection of His moral nature, cannot but be hostile to sin — all sin, be it ever so small in our eyes. It was God’s wrath toward our sin that Jesus saw in the cup that night and from which He recoiled in such agony.
So Jesus drank the cup of the wrath of God in our place. He endured the unimaginable spiritual agony we deserve so that we would be saved by Him from the wrath of God. We will never appreciate Jesus’ agonizing prayer in Gethsemane; we will never appreciate His sweating, as it were, great drops of blood, until we grasp in the depths of our beings that Jesus was staring at the wrath of God we deserve.
The theological term for Jesus’ act of drinking the cup is propitiation. A modern dictionary will say that to propitiate means “to appease” or “to placate.” I find these definitions unsatisfactory when applied to Christ because they suggest a soothing or softening the wrath of an offended deity. Jesus did not soothe the wrath of God — He endured it. He did not suppress or extinguish it as we would extinguish a fire; rather, He absorbed in His own soul the full, unmitigated fury of God’s wrath against sin. To continue with the metaphor, He drank the cup of God’s wrath to its last bitter drop. So for us who believe, the cup of God’s wrath is empty.
We read the story of Gethsemane and the crucifixion so often that it has a tendency to become commonplace. If this is true of us, may we repent. And may we never again read Jesus’ prayer of anguish without reminding ourselves that it was God’s wrath against our sin that caused Him such unimaginable agony.