There is a classic scene in the movie, “The Princess Bride” where the hero, Wesley, also known as the “Dread Pirate Roberts” has a battle of wits with one of the princess’ abductors, “Vizzini,” a Sicilian mercenary. They sit across from each other with a small table separating them. On the table are two goblets containing wine, and one of them also contain a deadly poison. The challenge was to pick the one without the poison and allow your foe to drink of the deadly mixture.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” A little while later, at His arrest, He said to Peter in John 18:11, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” The cup was very much on Jesus’ mind that night. The question is what was in the cup?
We generally associate the cup with His crucifixion. We assume that when He prayed that the cup might be taken away, He was asking that, if possible, He might be spared from that horrible and demeaning death on the cross. There is truth in that assumption and certainly, the cup was connected with the crucifixion. But we still haven’t addressed the question of what was in the cup?
In both the Old and New Testaments, the cup of God is a reference to His judgement. For example, in Psalm 75:8, we read, “in the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine and mixed with spices; he pours it out and al the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.” Here we see that the cup God pours out and that the wicked drink down to the dregs is the cup of God’s judgement. Jeremiah 25:15 is even more specific: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.”
We also see it in the New Testament in Revelation 14:9-10, “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.” So the cup is a metaphor referring to the judgement of God as expressed in the pouring out of His wrath on sinful nations and people.
This brings us to one of the most difficult subjects in the entire Bible. I have touched on it in the past years of preaching and teaching. For some scholars and theologians, it is denied and most believers, it is ignored. That topic is the wrath of God. I think we shy away from it because we have a hard time seeing God in this light. Think about when you hear about someone whom you thought was nice and gentle doing something abhorrent and unbelievable. We say, “I can’t believe it” or “He/she is not like that.” So for us, the violent emotions and destructive behaviour we usually associate with wrath pinned to our loving and merciful God? We can see it with a sinful person, but not God. We are reluctant to attribute these kinds of attitudes and activities with God, aren’t we?
But I think the more basic reason we avoid or ignore the idea of God’s wrath is that we simply don’t think of our sinfulness as warranting the degree of judgement inferred by this description. Truth be told, most of us don’t think we are that bad, do we? We may deserve a divine reprimand or a slap on the wrist, but divine wrath? Really?
How many of us remember how divided people were when things about the newly elected MLA from Calgary were revealed? Some wanted her head, or at least for her to lose her job! And then there was the guy who harassed a female reporter in Ontario. He was fired for saying something inappropriate on his own time. Was it an over-reaction? Was the employer justified? So when we think about our sin about God’s holiness, do we think that God’s judgement is too severe?
I think another reason we avoid the subject is that we don’t think of our nice, decent unbelieving neighbours and relatives as subject to God’s wrath. Unconsciously then we adopt the ostrich method of dealing with trouble. We put our heads in the sand and try to ignore it and hope it goes away.
The reality is, the Bible doesn’t give us this option. Over and over, the wrath of God is expressed in both temporal and eternal judgement. New Testament commentator, Leon Morris writes, “In the Old Testament, more than 20 words are used of the wrath of God,” and, “The total number of references to God’s wrath in the Old Testament exceeds 580.” You see, many people struggle with how they see God because of the Old Testament imagery. If you messed up, He punished you. If you were good, He blessed you.
So many people will think that’s the Old Testament “God”. The New Testament is different. It reveals a loving and merciful God, who is full of grace and compassion. But even Jesus refutes that. In John 3:36, He says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” But even more important than His use of the word wrath here are the numerous references to Hell as the expression of God’s wrath. You can find some in Matthew 5:22; 18:9, Mark 9:47 and Luke 12:5. A lot of people forget or neglect these references and that they came from the lips of Jesus!
Things don’t get better when you read the letters from apostle Paul. In Romans 1:18, he writes, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness…” In chapter 2, Paul goes on to say that God’s wrath is being “stored up” for the day of judgement. In Ephesians and Colossians, we are called the objects of God’s wrath and that it is coming because of sin. In the book of Revelation, we see warnings of God’s impending judgement where His wrath will be poured out. This is a different side of God and Jesus than many of us would prefer to acknowledge.
To define God’s wrath, you might say it is God’s justice in action which gives everyone what they deserve. If all sin is rebellion against God’s authority, His Law and His commands, then we need to realize that God’s judgement and consequences for such behaviour must be severe. Now I want to point out that God’s “anger” towards sin is different than our anger. It is void of the sinful emotions we express when we are upset with the wrong done to us. That being said, His response to sin does contain what some call a “fierce intensity” that arises from His opposition to sin and the determination to punish it to the fullest.
So that brings us back to the cup Jesus drank at His crucifixion. What was in the cup? To put it simply, it was the wrath of God. It was the cup of wrath that we should have drunk. Jesus, as our representative, drank the cup of God’s wrath in our place. He drained it to its dregs. Unlike Maxell House coffee, it wasn’t “good to the last drop” but for Jesus and us, it was a necessary act. He did it for us as our substitute.
Scripture tells us that while Jesus hung on the cross, darkness came over the land from noon until 3 o’clock. During those awful three hours, Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath in our place. Near the end of His human life on earth, He cried out in Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Now we don’t know what happened during that time when Jesus endured the wrath of God. Scripture draws a veil over them for the most part. We do know the physical suffering Jesus endured was only a glimpse of what He suffered in His soul. And the worst part was being forsaken by God. Luke 22:43 records that the night before, He was supernaturally strengthened but now He was left alone… abandoned. For our sakes, God turned His back on His own beloved Son.
To maybe better understand that, let’s look at Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:21. He writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus was in essence “made sin” for us by a judicial act of God. What God did here took our guilt and punishment for sin and place it on Jesus instead. Jesus took all the consequences of our sinful nature and actions on Himself. As the chorus goes, “He became sin who knew no sin…” As Isaiah tells us in 53:6, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
God forsook His Son because of us. He drank the cup of God’s wrath to endure the judgement and punishment that was due to us. As Peter wrote in his first letter, 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” The Father laid our sins, every single one of them, on Jesus and He willingly for our sake bore them on the cross.
But as I contemplated this, I had to ask, “Why?” Maybe it is the three-year-old in me? The Bible uses a strange word to describe what Jesus did for us when He drank the cup of God’s wrath in our place. That word is propitiation. Now, if you have the NIV or other modern translations, you won’t find this word. It is often translated as “atoning sacrifice.”
So what does propitiation mean? Most modern dictionaries define it to mean “to appease” or “to placate.” These definitions don’t fully meet the meaning of the word. They kind of gloss over the true meaning suggesting is a soothing or softening of the wrath of an offended deity. As well, the word “appease” carries negative baggage implying an attempt to buy off an aggressor by making concessions, usually compromising principle. It is like in the old mob days of paying off a gangster so they won’t hurt you.
Interestingly, in the NIV, where they use atoning sacrifice, they have a footnote that says, “as the one who would turn aside wrath, taking away sin.” Although this is close, it still gives the impression that the consequence of our sin was deflected away like a boxer blocking a punch. In Jesus’ case, He did more than deflecting the wrath of God away from us, rather He took the punch full on! He took the punch full on because that is what needed to happen for God’s wrath to be appeased!
A better word to describe what Jesus did might be exhausted. Jesus bore the complete wrath of God. He took the full force of it. There was no wrath left. It was exhausted, like a car that runs out of gas. God unleashed the full brunt of His wrath on Jesus. He held nothing back. Isaiah tells us in chapter 53, “yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
Let me pick out some of the keywords here… stricken… afflicted… pierced… crushed… punishment… wounds. These words describe the wrath of God poured out on His Son. The cup was completely turned upside down and emptied on Jesus. There is no wrath left in the cup for us… it is empty.
I believe it was the expectation of drinking that cup that led to His agony in the Garden. Luke describes the event at 22:44 saying, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” He was going to be forsaken. Imagine what that would be like? The most important person in your life… gone. But when it was all said and done, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.” Some see this as a cry of relief, but it wasn’t, rather it was a cry of triumph. He had accomplished what He had come to do, to save His people from the wrath of God.
Paul writes in Romans 5:9, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” and 1 Thessalonians 5:9 he says, ”For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s wrath was poured on Jesus for us.
But there is one other important truth we need to remember when it comes to Christ’s work on our behalf. This was all initiated because of God’s great love for us. John writes in 1 John 4:9-10, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Sometimes we picture the work of Christ in a kind and gentle Jesus soothing the wrath of a vengeful God as if Jesus needed to persuade the Father not to pour out His wrath on us. Nothing could be further from the truth. God the Father sent His Son on this great errand of mercy and grace. Though Jesus came voluntarily and gladly, He was sent by the Father. John 3:16 declares the Father’s love through the mission of His Son.
In 2 Timothy 4:6 Paul talks about his own life was being “poured out like a drink offering.” You see, we often view Christ’s sacrifice as a demonstration of God’s love being poured out in the same manner for lost humanity. As Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Love expressed by Jesus pouring out His life as an offering for us. He emptied His life, His love, His “cup” for us.
But one of the struggles with that Christians today have is rationalizing God being a God of wrath and a God of love. They seem to be contradictory, mirror opposites of each other. So what we often do when we find ourselves in this tension is we take the one we like and ignore the other. But Paul gave us answers to what seems like a contradiction in Ephesians 2:3-5. He writes, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
Here we discover the importance and the glory of the cross. Justice and mercy are reconciled and wrath and love are both given full expression. In Christ, the cup of wrath and the cup of love are poured out so we might experience the boundless and unspeakable riches of Christ. So how should we respond to this kind of love? We respond with humility and gratitude. Humility, that we were the cause of our Saviour’s suffering and gratitude that He so willingly and lovingly took on God’s wrath for us. Two cups emptied on our behalf.