“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as you will.”
– Matthew 26:39
The agony of our Lord in the Garden was a once-for-all event. As Frederick Leahy reminds us, “it is bordering on blasphemy to speak of someone’s Gethsemane or Calvary. The hour of Christ’s passion is high noon in the day of human history. We are now living in the afternoon.” For us looking back at that high-noon point in history, Gethsemane should be read with wonder and awe.
The cup placed in Christ’s hands by the Father induced a heaviness and dread he had not previously known and his sinless humanity shrank back from the horror of that cup. In the Old Testament the term ‘cup’ frequently refers to God’s punishment for sin. “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17). As one commentator writes, “the cup presents a picture of being hopelessly, irretrievably under the wrath of God.” Jesus knew his Old Testament and he was now profoundly aware of the nature of the cup he was just given. Hence his prayer that if it were possible, the cup might pass from him.
Agonizingly he entreated his Father, first on his knees and then prostrate on the ground, that this awful cup be removed. Calvin rightly notes that “Christ had horror at the prospect of death because he had before his eyes the dreadful tribunal of God, and the judge himself armed with inconceivable vengeance; and because of our sins, the load of which was laid upon him, pressed him down with their enormous weight. There is no reason to wonder, therefore, if the dreadful abyss of destruction tormented him grievously with fear and anguish.” And so yes, he did fear; he did have anguish – but we must remember that it was a fear and anguish untainted by sin. A perfect fear. St. Ambrose reminds us that Jesus “grieved for me, who had no cause for grief himself; and laying aside the delights of the eternal Godhead, he experiences the affliction of my weakness.”
And even as the Savior casts himself upon the bosom of his Father in earnest prayer and supplication, he receives only silence. Unlike Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, here there is no Father who meets his son with outstretched arms. And so, says Leahy, Jesus learns that there is no other other way. “The cup of horror”, writes Krummacher, “does not pass from the trembling sufferer; on the contrary, its contents become every moment more bitter. Louder sound the complaints of the agonizing Savior; more urgent becomes his prayer; but the Lofty One is silent, and heaven seems barred with a thousand bolts.”
But of course, for Christ to become our Savior there was no other way than this way as Jesus approached the cross. Thus we’re reminded in Hebrews 5:7 that it was amid “loud cries and tears that our Lord learned obedience through what he suffered.” That is, as the incarnate Son, who fully shares our humanity, he learned the cost of obedience. He never needed correction, but now he learned what it meant to be obedient even unto death. The Father’s silence was so that the Son would have opportunity to faithful obey which was essential for our salvation! That is why Jesus is called the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Never for a moment did Christ falter in his obedience. Never did he cease to love his Father. Never did he cease to trust his Father or doubt his Father’s justice. Love and justice are in perfect balance in Gethsemane. As we meditate on Christ’s prayerful submission in Gethsemane, we should realize that there we see him enduring our hell so that we might be set free to enter his heaven”, as Philip Hughes puts it. Christ faithfully endured the silence of God so that we might know the tender love of God.
“Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11) Now in Christ can we enjoy “the cup of His salvation” (Psalm 116:13).
This post is a summarized adaptation taken straight from chapter 2 of Frederick S. Leahy’s book “The Cross He Bore: Meditations of the Sufferings of the Redeemer”, published by Banner of Truth Trust, 2011. Read this excellent book for a fuller treatment.