Perhaps it was not just the approaching physical torture that Jesus dreaded as He made this plea to His Father. For every microsecond of eternity (with the possible two exceptions of His time in Mary's womb and His human babyhood), He had enjoyed a level of consciousness, involvement, control, and communication with God the Father that no other human could even begin to comprehend. It must have been almost intolerable for the Son of God, the great YHWH of the Old Testament, to contemplate being totally unconscious and "out of the picture," even for a mere 72 hours.
Jesus' agony no doubt included the foreknowledge of the spiritual torture of billions of sins committed throughout human history being laid on His innocent head. Jesus knew that His mind would soon become besmirched, infected, and injected with every filthy sin that man had ever committed in the past and would commit from that time on.
God tells us in I Corinthians 15:56, "The sting of death is sin." Most of us have been stung by a spider, bee, wasp, or hornet. The pain of an insect sting increases rapidly as its poison spreads through the blood vessels, deep into the body part that has been stung, and it can sometimes be almost unbearable. Nevertheless, it is impossible for us to imagine a fraction of the spiritual agony that those billions of "stings of death" caused our Savior as all the sins of the world were laid upon Him.
With all His might, He strove to dwell on better things (Philippians 4:8). He struggled to look beyond those hours of torture, despite His foreknowledge of their severity. Jesus knew what would happen after this day of agony and shame that was just beginning. More than any other human being who ever lived, He understood what lay beyond the split second of death and His short stay in the tomb. Just hours before this prayer in Gethsemane, He had spoken joyfully to His Father about their approaching reunion and regaining His former glory (John 17:5, 11, 13).
How did King Nebuchadnezzar feel when God gave him back his status as a real human being and a great king after living the existence of the lowest, slinking animal in the wild (Daniel 4:29-36)? How much more did Jesus look forward to waking after three days and three nights in the tomb as the Eternal God!
Did Jesus look forward to His death? No. He looked beyond His hours of suffering and beyond the instant of His death. He looked forward to life!
Death of a Lamb
Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, just a short while after urging His disciples to drink of His cup. As He prayed fervently and emotionally to His Father in heaven, the symbol of the cup was fresh in His mind. Just as He had given His disciples a cup from which to drink, so had the Father placed a cup before Him! Notice Matthew 26:39: "He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, 'O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.'"
In the Old Testament, the cup is also a metaphor for the divine punishment of sin. Hence, Jesus' death would involve far more than just physical torture and death. Christ would become the target of untold divine wrath, as every sin that had ever been committed would be heaped on this one sinless Being! He who had sought always to do the will of His Father perfectly, He who had heard His loving Father exclaim, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," would now experience His Father's overflowing wrath for all sin, including all the worst sins! Some of what He suffered was for our sins—yours and mine.
Jesus knew that death and incurring God's wrath for sin comprised the climax of His mission on earth as the Messiah. But now, as that hour approached, His awareness of God's wrath against sin became even more intense! The Bible explains this in detail in Romans 1:18—3:20. To Jesus, it was an unimaginable horror!
The second and third times He prays in the Garden, He changes His words slightly, as He realizes He definitely has to drink of that cup: "O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done" (Matthew 26:42, 44). He now fully accepts the fact that the only way to get past this ordeal is to go through it.
The cup is still on Jesus' mind even after the soldiers from the High Priest come to capture Him. When Peter tries to defend Him physically with a sword and misses Malchus' head, cutting off his ear instead, Jesus says to Peter: "Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?" (John 18:11). Indeed! And shall we not drink the cup which our King has given us?
Are You Drinking of the Master's Cup?
What was this "cup" that Jesus asked might pass from Him if it were His Father's will? Was He, in a moment of weakness, asking His Father to prevent Him from going through the coming hours of physical torture? This is doubtful considering that Jesus, with the fullest knowledge and foresight of all the horrible details, had spent His entire human lifetime, and millennia prior to it, in preparation for this day.
A brief word study on these verses may prove helpful here. The word "cup" is translated from the Greek noun poterion, which can mean the vessel's liquid contents as well as the vessel itself. It is obvious, of course, that Jesus drank the contents, not the vessel. Poterion derives from pino, "to drink."
The word "pass" is translated from the Greek verb parerchomai, which can refer to the passage of time. From this, we can deduce that Jesus may have been asking His Father to make the time it would take to complete this awful "drink" pass as quickly as possible, but even then, only if it fit in with His Father's perfect will.
Most of us have at some time had to drink some horrible-tasting medicine, and although we knew that it was beneficial for us to drink it, the procedure still seemed to take an eternity! By prior agreement with His Father, Jesus was at this time voluntarily draining an enormous cup of spiritual "drink," which was ultimately a healing medicine for mankind but at the same time was to Him a deadly poison.
This spiritual drink was a mixture of two ingredients that could not have been more repulsive to Them both. The first ingredient was the sin of the whole world. The second was Their separation from each other. Jesus' spiritual poison did not just taste horrible. It racked His body and His mind with stinging agony (I Corinthians 15:56; Luke 22:44). Perhaps, in agreeing to drink of this cup, He even accepted a taste of the fiery fate of those who would never repent, as foretold through the prophet Jeremiah that the poison was like fire that had been injected into His bones (Lamentations 1:13).
Jesus' Final Human Thoughts (Part Two)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record Christ praying to the Father on this fateful night, asking if He might “let this cup pass from Me.” He mentions the same “cup” in rebuking Peter's assault on Malchus: “So Jesus said to Peter, 'Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?'” (John 18:11).
The image of drinking from a cup is a metaphor for His submission to the Father's will, while the cup itself stands for the enormous burden His submission would require (Luke 22:42-44). Despite desiring that some other way could be found to accomplish the payment for mankind's sins, Jesus bowed to His Father's will in the matter and gave Himself up to the arresting troops.
Martin G. Collins
The Miracles of Jesus Christ: Healing Malchus' Ear (Part Two)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 26:39: