Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matt. 26:36-42)
The conventional account—at least the one this writer encounters most often—is that in Gethsemane Jesus demonstrates his humanity by shrinking (as any of us would) from the painful death ahead of him. Jesus is deeply distressed by the prospect not only of dying but of being killed in a cruel and violent manner. He knows what is about to happen and he is afraid.
What leads people to think this way of Gethsemane? Perhaps graphic Good Friday sermons and dramatizations such as The Passion of the Christ are to blame—visual and rhetorical portrayals of the brutal scourging, the pounding of the nails, and the thrusting in of the spear. Though true and faithful to the biblical record and to what we know of ancient Roman crucifixion, such an emphasis on the physicality of the cross often serves to obscure the full significance of Jesus' suffering and death. After all, what is true physically about Jesus' crucifixion may also be said of the crucifixions that occurred left and right of him. While we do not know what anguish of soul those two criminals experienced beforehand, we know of many martyrs—Christian and otherwise—who faced their violent end with little or no spiritual torment.
Eleazar, a Jewish scribe martyred in the second century B.C., "welcomed death with honor" and "went to the rack of his own accord" (2 Macc. 6:19). The Roman philosopher Seneca, in the moments leading up to his suicide, was unmoved, showing no signs of fear or sadness (Tacitus, Annals XV.61-2). St. Peter was so bold as to insist he be crucified upside down. The early Christian bishop Polycarp received his death sentence with a courage and joy that amazed his executioner (Eusebius, Church History IV.25). To say Jesus' soul is "overwhelmed to the point of death" because he fears being crucified is to regard him as of weaker stuff than these others.
No, Jesus' agony is over something other than the prospect of physical suffering and death. We learn what that is from the words he prays. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, in fact, gives us the full meaning of what he is about to do, and the Father's answer, in turn, reveals that the world could be saved in no other way.
"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). And again he prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (Matt. 26:42). What does Jesus mean by "this cup"?
In Psalm 75 we read, "In the hand of the Lord is a cupful of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs" (Ps. 75:8).
Isaiah, too, speaks of this "cup of the Lord's wrath" (Isa. 51:17) and Jeremiah of the "cup filled with the wine of My wrath" (Jer. 25:15). The cup that Christ asks be taken from him is the cup of God's judgment against sinners. Here is why the Son of God began to be sorrowful and troubled. Here is what caused Christ's sweat to fall like drops of blood to the ground. It is not at pain and death that Christ flinches; in Gethsemane, Christ shudders before the cup of God's wrath upon sin.
There are many today who refuse to believe that God actually gets angry with sinners. They think that God is never wrathful with his creatures. God made us, warts and all, and there is no way a God who is just would ever punish sinners for being exactly how he made them. Or so the prevailing view would have it.
Holy Scripture tells a different story. God is certainly just, but we are not as God made us. Our sinful nature, inherited from our first parents, is a perversion of God's good creation, an offense for which we are held no less accountable for having been born with it: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Exod. 20:4).
Since God is holy and righteous by nature, he can have no communion with sinners: "I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:44). "Men of perverse heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with evil" (Ps. 101:3). Those who do not live in perfect obedience to the standard he establishes for his creation are subject to his just sentence: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law" (Gal. 3:10). Furthermore, the curse is eternal: "It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched'" (Mark 9:47-8). In short, "there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy" (James 4:12).
How often it is asked, "How could a loving God send anyone to hell?" Yet our inborn sense of justice betrays us when we understand and sympathize with the father who says, "I will not, I cannot forgive the man who murdered my daughter." We do not say, "How unloving!" He loves his daughter; he hates her killer. God loves his creation; therefore he justly hates those who, by sin, have destroyed it. All the human reasons for which we might urge the father to forgive his daughter's killer—the father's own sinful fallibility, the psychological cost of pent-up anger, and more—none of these has any claim upon God.
The fact is, despite all our attempts at denying the justice of God's wrath on sin, the conscience is rarely, if ever, so completely suppressed that it does not have its doubts. When people reflect on their actions, when they see the sorrow and unhappiness their sins bring into their own and other lives, when in a great emergency they come to face death, then all the complacent ideas of sin and guilt melt away. They feel pangs of conscience which no sop, not even "God hates the sin but loves the sinner," can ease. Even a mind unenlightened by the Spirit entertains the thought that God not only hates the sinner but is right to do so.
If It Is Possible
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, "Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36). Everything is possible for God. Contrary to the medieval theologian Anselm—and contrary to many of Anselm's critics, who would reduce the cross to a mere demonstration of God's love—there was no necessity on God's part for him to deliver humanity from sin. God did not have to save us. He would not have contradicted his nature had he chosen not to send his Son and left sinners to their just reward. Everything is possible for God.
Our sin made the cross necessary. If we were to be saved, if sinners were to be spared the just penalty for their sins, God himself would have to will it. "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (Matt. 26:42). It proved not possible for the cup to be taken away from Christ, because God did, in fact, will humans to be saved. God willed before the foundation of the world to remove the cup of his wrath upon sin by sending his Son to drink it in the place of sinners (1 Pet. 1:20).
And so the Lord laid on Christ the "iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25-6).
God's wrath is real. But it was also really borne by Jesus Christ. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was judged. Jesus was damned. For us.
For the convicted sinner, no greater comfort can be found than in the joyous exchange of the cross:"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Pet. 3:18).
Jesus' humble prayer in Gethsemane is part of Jesus' suffering for us. Christ is praying for himself, that he might be strengthened for the hours ahead. But the event's record in Scripture is for us. We are given to know not only the intense agony Jesus felt in the moments immediately before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, but also why he felt it. A cruel and violent death impends, and more than that, it is the cup of the Lord's wrath upon sin. The Holy Spirit wants us to know this so that we may use Christ's suffering and death against our own. There was no sin not died for at Calvary, no sin which Jesus' shed blood did not cover, and because Jesus drank the cup of the Father's wrath, he gives us to drink with joy the cup of salvation, his blood.