The first time I saw Robert Doares painting of Jesus praying in Gethsemane I was shocked. It was so unlike the image stamped into my imagination–the image at left of Christ kneeling, earnestly entreating his Father to “let this cup pass from me,” one of the most copied images in the world.
Artist Heinrich Hoffman pictures Jesus late Thursday night after the “Last Supper” looking up, somewhat distressed, his hands in a fretful knot. In the dark quiet before the rapidly approaching storm he has tried to get his disciples to stay awake and pray with him for one hour, but exhausted by the sorrowful news at dinner (One of you will betray me…I’m about to be crucified), they fall asleep. So he leaves the disciples about a stone’s throw behind and prays.
His disciples could not imagine what is coming. Neither, it seems, could Hoffman. Can we? Jesus could. A careful reading of the text paints this far more extreme picture:
Matthew tells us Jesus “fell on his face and prayed.” So Doares, though he shocked me, gets it right. Jesus is not just respectfully kneeling and asking his Father for another way. His soul is crushed, almost to death.
“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me,” Mark writes. Luke adds, “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Jesus was quite possibly on the verge of passing out or dying. But not from the foreknowledge of the physical pain that approached.
In the garden Jesus prayers focused on a cup. He didn’t want the cup. He agonized over it. What was the cup? The cup of human suffering?
If you saw The Passion of the Christ, you no doubt took away Mel Gibson’s indelible images of the physical pain of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross. Jesus foresaw the reality–the scourging, mocking, spitting, slapping, nailing, hanging, stretching, the struggle to breathe.
But at the crucial juncture Gibson’s movie could not show us, nor can we even imagine, the greater pain Jesus faced. The cup of supernatural suffering. Around noon something beyond all imagining began to happen.
The world went dark, and Christ became sin.
Second Corinthians 5 tells us, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” What could it mean for the holy Son of God to be made sin? I’ve wondered if he became, if he entered into, our thoughts and feelings of anger and lust—the state of our hearts on the worst days of our lives—at the darkest moments of our sin and selfishness.
If he became the sexual rage of a Ted Bundy or the cold, maniacal blood thirst of Hitler. If he became the guilt that washed over Judas and the horror of regret and torment of every soul in hell. If those thoughts and feelings invaded his righteous soul, and his own responses of grief and horror added to his pain. Whatever it was, it made the physical pain pale by comparison.
In his book, Saved from What?, R. C. Sproul writes, “At the moment Christ took upon himself the sin of the world, He became the most grotesque, most obscene mass of sin in the history of the world.”
Christ became all our sin and, worse yet, drank the full measure of the cup of God’s wrath.
The cup Christ prayed about in Gethsemane was the cup described in Psalm 75: “For a cup is in the hand of the LORD, and the wine foams; It is well mixed, and He pours out of this; Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs.”
When we choose our own way over the God who created and loves us, it’s such a cosmic betrayal that we deserve to drink the cup of God’s wrath.
In Gethsemane Jesus faced the imminent reality of taking and drinking the cup of God’s wrath so we would not have to. The Father would lay “on him the iniquity of us all,” which would trigger a great forsaking. His father, with whom he had always lived in perfect unity, would cut him off. And he would scream, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Everyone reading this has probably experienced the pain of being cut off from someone we love. The phone rings. Our loved one has died. We stand by a bedside and hear the rattle of a last breath. The spouse we cherished moves out. A son or a daughter runs away. Death, separation. We know something of the pain.
Sproul writes, “There were thousands who died on crosses and may have had more painful deaths than that of Christ. But only one person has ever received the full measure of the curse of God while on a cross. I doubt Jesus was even aware of the nails and the spear—He was so overwhelmed by outer darkness. On the cross, Jesus was in the reality of hell.”
As he prayed in Gethsemane, Jesus could foresee it all–the wrath and the wrenching of his soul from his Father that would grind on until finally he would cry, “It is finished.” The cup would be drained. The light of God’s countenance would return, and we who believe could be reconciled to God.
When Jesus finished praying, the soldiers arrived to arrest him. Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of them. But Jesus told him, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” He was ready. His prayer did not deliver him from the cup of supernatural suffering, but it enabled him to embrace and endure it—an intensity of struggle and agony that we cannot fathom and no artist can fully capture.
Again this week, Lord Jesus, we thank you.
What further thoughts do you have about the suffering of Christ? Please share them in the comments below…