What Is the "Cup" That Jesus Wants His Father to Take Away?

Luke 22:39-46

“Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Luke 22:42

As Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, his first request is for his father to “take this cup of suffering away from me” (22:42). Our translation supplies a bit of explanation that is not present in the original language. More literally, Jesus asks, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.” The New Living Translation seeks to help the reader to understand the nature of the cup.

The cup of Jesus will involve suffering, to be sure. Yet “cup of suffering” doesn’t quite get what Jesus meant when he referred to a cup. If we look in the Old Testament, we find that the metaphor of the cup stands for our lives, which can be filled with a variety of things. Our “cup” can be filled with blessing and salvation (Ps. 23:5; 116:13), or it can be filled with wrath and horror (Isa. 51:17; Ezek. 23:33). Frequently, the cup stands for God’s judgment and wrath. Consider, for example, Isaiah 51:17: “Wake up, wake up, O Jerusalem! You have drunk the cup of the LORD’s fury. You have drunk the cup of terror, tipping out its last drops.” Many other Old Testament passages use the metaphor of the cup as a reference to God’s fierce judgment. (For a more thorough discussion of the cup and the reasons for Jesus’ death, see my blog series: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?)

Thus, when Jesus prays about avoiding the cup, he is alluding to these images from the Scriptures. By going to the cross, he will drink the cup of God’s wrath, all the way to the bottom. He will bear divine judgment, that which rightly falls upon Israel and, indeed, upon all humanity. In this process, he will suffer horribly, both in the physical realm and especially in the spiritual realm as he enters the Hell of separation from his Father.

Many Christians are troubled by Jesus’ request to have the cup taken from him. Didn’t he come to die, after all? Wasn’t this his mission? Didn’t he prophesy about this? How is it possible for Jesus to have asked for another way? I can’t begin to answer these questions in a satisfying way. But what I see in Jesus’ prayer is a genuine human being, one who is fully human as well as fully divine. I catch a glimpse of the unspeakable horror that awaits him. I see a Jesus to whom I can relate, one who is much more like me than the superman Jesus who goes to the cross without a second thought and tiny hesitation.

On Monday, we’ll continue to reflect upon Jesus’ prayer. For now, I would invite you to consider what the gut-wrenching honesty of Jesus says to you.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: If Jesus had prophesied that he would suffer and die, why do you think he prayed for the cup to be taken from him? What does this say about Jesus? What does this say about prayer?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, though I have read the accounts of your prayer in Gethsemane a hundred times, I am once again startled by your prayer to have the cup taken from you. I am reminded of your humanness, that you were not some automaton that had no feelings. No, you were fully human even as you were truly God in the flesh.

I’m also reminded, Jesus, of the true horror of the cross for you. Yes, it would involve unbearable physical suffering. Yet what you experienced in your flesh was only a mere glimpse of the spiritual suffering as you bore the weight of sin. Your prayer in the garden helps me to grasp the scandal as well as the majesty of the cross.

Finally, I thank you, Lord, for modeling such openness in prayer. Your example gives me freedom to speak truly and openly as I pray, to pour out my heart without hesitation. Thank you for this priceless gift. Amen.