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“Remove this cup from me”

One of the more profound mysteries in the life of Jesus is the reason for his anguish and distress in the face of a future that he himself had prophesied. I have in mind his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Many have attempted to explain this request. Continue reading . . . 

One of the more profound mysteries in the life of Jesus is the reason for his anguish and distress in the face of a future that he himself had prophesied. I have in mind his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Many have attempted to explain this request.

Some have argued that the "cup" (v. 36) from which he prayed for deliverance was not death on Calvary but rather the intense suffering and agony of Gethsemane itself. Charles Spurgeon was an advocate of this view. He explains:

"I do not consider that the expression 'this cup' refers to death at all. Nor do I imagine that the dear Saviour meant for a single moment to express even a particle of desire to escape from the pangs which were necessary for our redemption. This 'cup,' it appears to me, relates to something altogether different – not to the last conflict, but to the conflict in which he was then engaged. . . . [That is to say], in the garden he felt a sinking of soul, an awful despondency, and he began to be very heavy. The cup, then, which he desired pass from him was, I believe, that cup of despondency, and nothing more. I am the more disposed so to interpret it, because not a single word recorded by any of the four evangelists seems to exhibit the slightest wavering on the part of our Saviour as to offering himself up as an atoning sacrifice. . . . Thus it appears to me that what he feared was that dreadful depression of mind which had suddenly come upon him, so that his soul was very heavy" (81).

It was, then, that depression, despair, and despondency settling upon his soul as he reflected on his present condition and his future sufferings which constituted the "cup" from which he asked to be delivered. Spurgeon then points to "how tranquil and calm he is when he rises up from that scene of prostrate devotion! He remarks, as though it were in an ordinary tone of voice he announced some expected circumstance, -- 'He is at hand that shall betray me; rise, let us be going.' There is no distraction now," notes Spurgeon, "no hurry, no turmoil, no exceeding sorrow even unto death" (85). Thus his prayer was answered and the cup of torment soon passed, enabling him to regain his composure and face his accusers with courage and strength.

Others suggest that Jesus was not seeking deliverance from death on the cross but from a premature death in Gethsemane at the hands of Satan. On this view, Jesus was praying for strength to reach the cross, not for mercy to escape it. But in the gospels "hour" and "cup" consistently refer to his death at Calvary (Mt. 20:22; John 2:4; 12:23,27; 13:1).

Yet another view is that Jesus was not requesting exemption from the cross but that his suffering on the cross not be prolonged for eternity. He was asking that once the agony of the hour had come that it might pass, that he might be delivered from it. He was concerned lest, when he drank the cup of divine wrath, it not be removed and he be eternally engulfed in it. Thus this prayer is for deliverance out of death by means of the resurrection rather than for deliverance from the sufferings which death on a cross would bring.

The most likely interpretation, in my opinion, is that Jesus was asking the Father to remove the cup from him, if that should be his will. But note that Jesus asked for removal of the cup on one condition: only if the Father should will it. If the Father willed it, so did Jesus.

But we are still left with the question, "Why did he seek deliverance from death on the cross and why did the prospect of that death evoke within him such incredible anguish?"

Had he succumbed to the pressure of the physical and emotional distress?
Was it the prospect of separation from family and friends that accounts for this posture?
Was it the shame and reproach he knew his death would bring on them that caused him to hesitate?
Or was it loneliness, the prospect of facing death in solitude?

No. As Spurgeon has pointed out,

"Read the stories of the martyrs, and you will frequently find them exultant in the near approach of the most cruel sufferings. The joy of the Lord has given such strength to them, that no cowardly thought has alarmed them for a single moment, but they have gone to the stake, or to the block, with psalms of victory upon their lips. Our Master must not be thought of as inferior to His boldest servants; it cannot be that He should tremble where they were brave" (107).

Let’s not forget that countless hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men in his own day had been nailed to a cross. Jesus had undoubtedly seen them each day alongside the public roadways as he made his way to the carpenter’s shop or out into the fields where he tended sheep. Many of these had faced such a death with courage and without the slightest tinge of fear. Are we to think that Jesus was the sort who cowered in the face of what others often welcomed? No.

There is only one explanation for the mystery of Gethsemane.

The death our Lord envisioned, the sufferings he knew lay before him, was no mere physical death, no ordinary martyr's anguish. It was nothing short of the death and sufferings of one who offers himself as a penal, substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. It was the cup of divine and holy wrath he was to drink; it was his Father's cup he was to drink. It was judgment he faced, but not of a political or civil nature. It was divine and eternal judgment, and that for something he did not do! It was the prospect of enduring the righteous wrath of an infinitely holy God that alone can account for the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane.

Were that not enough, one can only imagine what hideous words Satan must have spoken in his ear.

“Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, do you actually think that you are in any condition to bear the sins of men and women? Do you truly believe you are capable of bearing this eternal load of guilt and judgment? You’re so weak! Look at you! You’re a disgrace! Your sweat drops to the ground like blood. You’re wallowing in the dirt! Some kind of Savior you are! Ha! And what if somehow you manage to pull it off? What do you hope to gain by it all? Look at these followers of yours: weak, selfish, sinful, prideful, arrogant, stupid men and women. You say they are your best friends, but where are they now when you need them most? They’re asleep! They didn’t care enough to give you one hour of attention. And of them, Judas, is about to betray you. And when he does, all the others are going to turn tail and scamper off into the night. Give it up, Jesus. It’s not worth it!”

Perhaps Satan would have sought to undermine our Lord's confidence in his strength necessary to see it through:

“Jesus, just look at yourself! What makes you think you’ll be able to bear up under what is about to come? You’re already an emotional wreck as you think about what it will take to redeem these ungrateful jerks you call disciples. Do you actually think you can endure the kind of beating and scouring and public humiliation that is yet to come? And why should you, anyway? You haven’t committed any sins? Why should these suffer for themselves? That only seems just. Are you sure you’re prepared to watch your family watch you? Are you prepared to watch your mother stand at the foot of your cross as everyone mocks and slanders your name? You don’t look to me like you’re in very good physical shape. What happens if you die before you get to the cross? It will all have been for nothing. Give it up. Give it up.”

That Jesus was alone must also have provided Satan with arrows to fling at our Lord.

“Look around, Jesus. Who’s here to help you? Those three men over there will soon bail on you. The others won’t last long either. Remember the shepherds and angels and kings who attended your birth? They’re all gone. Even your heavenly Father is going to forsake you. Give it up. Give it up.”

Amazingly, in the midst of his anguish and torment, it was the welfare of the disciples that was uppermost in his mind! No less than twice Jesus interrupted his prayer and went to see if they were holding up under the strain. Each time he returned to prayer, having found them weak and weary and unwilling to sustain him, Satan must have gloated:

"See, I told you so! They care so little about you that they are not even willing to stay awake for one hour to render aid in your time of need! And yet you intend to endure an eternity of wrath for them?" I can almost hear Jesus respond: "Yes, Satan, I will die for them. I will suffer an eternity of hell for them, though they fail to give an hour of help to me!"

Spurgeon sums up:

"How black I am, how filthy, how loathsome in the sight of God, -- I feel myself only fit to be cast into the lowest hell, and I wonder that God has not long ago cast me there; but I go into Gethsemane, and I peer under those gnarled olive trees, and I see my Saviour. Yes, I see him wallowing on the ground in anguish, and hear such groans come from him as never came from [the] human breast before. I look upon the earth and see it red with his blood, while his face is smeared with gory sweat, and I say to myself, 'My God, my Saviour, what aileth thee?' I hear him reply, 'I am suffering for thy sin,' and then I take comfort, for while I fain would have spared my Lord such an anguish, now that the anguish is over I can understand how Jehovah can spare me, because He smote His Son in my stead" (131).

"For me it was in the garden,
He prayed: 'Not my will, but Thine.'
He had no tears for His own griefs,
But sweat drops of blood for mine.
How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be,
How marvelous! How wonderful!
Is my Savior's love for me!" (Charles H. Gabriel)

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