The Dreadful Warfare Symbolized By The Cup
By Thomas Cosmades
Harmonizing scriptural truths must be taken as one of the most diligent and also delightful disciplines to the theologian or the person of the pulpit. Sometimes we are left in uncertainty when one interpretation appears to be at variance with the interpretation of another scriptural passage dealing with the similar topic. An exegesis given to either ought to guard against any contradiction of what is referred to elsewhere on the same issue. The principle set forth by the apostle Paul in I Cor. 2:13 ought to be the general guide in establishing any scriptural truth. The second part of this verse rendered in RSV is as follows: “…interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.” Or as put in the footnote, “…interpreting spiritual truths in spiritual language.”
The harmonization of a momentous event touching our Savior’s agonizing prayer in Gethsemane escapes easy unraveling: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt’” (Matt. 26:39; cf. Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-44). Our task might have been easier if verses 43 and 44 of Luke were entirely genuine. But these two verses are absent from all major MSS, appearing as a footnote in the original manuscripts. We know very well that a ferocious battle of immense magnitude raged against the unseen powers of hell during that extraordinary conflict, precursor to Golgotha. Luke’s gospel offers some very interesting detail regarding this battle in the questionable text. But as we acquiesce to John 8:1-11 and Mark 16:9-20, we need to esteem with equal gratitude these two Lucan verses as well. Therefore we are treating the event in the light of the passage in Luke against the crucial information provided in Hebrews 5:7 and 8.
The chief question is related to our Lord’s supplication, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me.” What is this cup? This age-long question has drawn many answers throughout the centuries. Here are a few of the attempted explanations that will be dismissed by anyone acquainted with Christ’s commission and its impeccable fulfillment:
1. If it is the Father’s will the suffering of the cross may be removed (cf. John 18:11).
2. Is there another way to consummate redemption, should God’s purpose allow it?
3. While carrying man’s sin, the guilt element accompanying it may be taken away from him. An explanation is warranted here: There have been, and probably still are, theologians who claim that it was impossible for the Savior to assume our sin (cf. II Cor. 5:21) without becoming responsible for our guilt, as well.
4. If the reader knows of further arguments along these lines, the writer will be glad to hear from him/her.
Any exegesis ought to be entirely consistent with the Hebraic passage as well as with the information provided in Luke. The two other Synoptics offer no clue regarding the content of our Lord’s agony—the Lucan passage which alone expounds the happening uses this very word. What then does the information supplied by the writer to the Hebrew Christians stand for? Not much, other than that his supplication was heard. About this, a compelling question is apropos: How shall we explain the plea on account of which Christ was heard and his request granted? We need to enumerate the events as recorded in Hebrews:
1. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. Note how logically the tears description in Hebrews harmonizes with Luke 22:44, where a more depictive account is offered. An insight is given here as to Jesus’ sweat becoming like great drops of blood.
2. He supplicated to him who was able to save him from death.
3. He was heard on account of ‘eulavia’, i.e., godly fear. Along with varying meanings, this word is also employed to describe fear, anxiety, dread. In our text it appears in this sense. I will quote J. H. Thayer about ‘eulavia’ in this passage: “By using this more select word the writer, skilled as he was in the Greek tongue, speaks more reverently of the Son of God than if he used ‘fovos’ (fear).”
4. He learned obedience because of this suffering.
Our Lord’s anguish in the garden so vividly described in these two places was a most ferocious battle against the powers of hell, a battle far more intense than the ongoing cataclysmic storms in outer space. The enemy confronting him there was none other than Satan. Christ had won a clear-cut victory against the chief of all his enemies on the Mount of Temptation. The devil left him on that mountain, but did not give up the hope of preventing his redemptive death. “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).
We know from the scriptures that from the very outset at Jesus’ birth the devil wanted to destroy him. He failed. On the Mount of Temptation he attempted to destroy him in toto. He failed. During Jesus’ three years’ ministry, how many times Satan sought to avail himself of plots by the religious establishment to murder him! He failed. Christ had to encounter man’s and God’s arch enemy throughout his earthly tenure. Now had come the final and by all accounts the most ferocious of all attacks. Satan determined to kill Jesus through sheer enervation and depletion (cf. Matt. 26:38; Mk. 14:34). The Lucan as well as the Hebraic renditions makes this extremely clear. Go over all the descriptions and try to catch the relentless battle which went on between heaven and hell. Both Matthew and Mark reveal Christ’s clear-cut disclosure of the ferocious battle with death in Gethsemane. These accounts describe the true nature of the conflict. In fact, he wished the three disciples would remain with him to offer human support. That which they could not provide, apparently an angel did (cf. Daniel 10:18, 19).
Our Lord was fully aware of Satan’s subtleties and intrigues. Before going to the cross Christ confronted the devil for the last time – the worst of all. Satan had to suppress the momentous apex of the cross, otherwise his vicious dominion over mankind would shatter and his domain would be limited only to time. Against this, Christ had to win the battle in Gethsemane to open the way to Golgotha. Always in all his deliberations considering the Father paramount, he cried to him. If it is the Father’s will he may be spared from drinking the cup of ill-timed death. He prayed for the fulfillment of his crucifixion by winning the victory over premature death desired and pursued by Satan at this point. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38). He was heard by the Father on account of (apo tis eulaveias) his godly fear. He experienced the worst anxiety in Gethsemane in dread of Golgotha being thwarted. This was the most crucial of all confrontations Christ had.
The account of “his sweat becoming like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” is worthy of appraisal. This means that our Lord was sapped of much bodily fluid that he would walk to Calvary having lost a large quantity of needed liquid. Thanks be to God, who exerted his sovereign and loving will by removing that awful cup from his son. Christ was absolutely determined to walk on Gabbatha and then ascend to Golgotha. Just as it happened on the Mount of Temptation (cf. Matt. 4:11; also I Ki. 19:5; Dan. 10:18), an angel from heaven strengthened him. Although he was the son, he learned obedience from (apo) what he suffered. This battle was prelude to that on Golgotha, perhaps more ferocious than the one to come on the following day. When he stood in front of the high priest and then Pilate, the final victory for the most part was won. At his arrest, he was the triumphantly composed Savior. With this underpinning victory he stood boldly and fearlessly in front of his mortal judges.
A natural question arises as to why the writer refers to this incident in his letter to the tried Hebrew Christians. To some of them the suffering had become unbearable. Later in his epistle he would write to them, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (12:4). If your Savior has learned obedience because of what he suffered, “It is for discipline that you have to endure” (12:7a). God’s purposes cannot and must never be contested. During this month when we recall and reverently remember our Lord’s unspeakable agony, let us encourage especially those believers enduring heinous attacks from Satan’s agents in our hostile world. If you are Christ’s disciple, suffering on account of your commitment to him, accept it as a discipline from your heavenly Father. Be of good cheer! Look at Christ who overcame the attack of death in Gethsemane, walked on Gabbatha, marched to Golgotha and converted it into triumph and joy. “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (12:2).
Thomas Cosmades -- December 2007