Follow Jesus into the garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion to see love at its greatest possible extent, and you will be surprised at what you see.
What you’ll see is Jesus—who for his entire ministry was always perfectly in control, acting and speaking with the calmness of a sovereign to whom nature itself bows—seemingly out of control. The scene is actually shocking when you think about it. The One who stopped storms and raised corpses with a word, who time and again proved his authority over all the forces of hell and whose mere presence made demons tremble, is weeping on the ground. For his entire life, he has been the calm eye at the center of a hurricane; chaos sweeps around him, violence and opposition rises, demons and authorities rage, but he remains untouched. But now it is as if the hurricane is closing in on him, and for the first time we see Jesus afraid. And not just afraid; what we witness in the garden is Jesus in the throes of uncontrolled terror and grief. Matthew records these words to the disciples:
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death.” ~Matthew 26:38
Really, Jesus? Sorrowful to the point of death? We might think Jesus is guilty of a little hyperbole here, until Luke 22:44 gives us this startling picture of the Savior:
And being in great agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.
What could possibly cause the sovereign Calm One to behave like this? The one who healed the blind and lame, who fed thousands with the power of his creative word, is in “great agony,” to the point of death, sweat dripping off his trembling face like drops of blood. What has happened?
The answer lies in what he is praying. Let’s listen in:
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will… My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” ~Matthew 26:39,42
When Jesus prays that this “cup” pass from him, he’s not just talking about the suffering of the impending cross. Many martyrs have bravely faced a death just as horrific as Jesus without going to pieces. Soldiers on the battlefield have heroically given their lives for their brothers-at-arms without a second thought, let alone without weeping and fear. From everything we’ve seen of Jesus, we would not expect him to show less courage than others in the face of suffering. Something else must be going on here.
And truly, something fearful is happening. You see, “the cup” that Jesus refers to is a common biblical expression for the wrath of God. Psalm 75:8 describes it this way:
“In the hand of Yahweh there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”
In Isaiah 51 God’s wrath is pictured:
“Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of Yahweh the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering.”
In Revelation 14, the cup is God’s final judgment on evil:
“[the wicked] will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur.”
Mere hours from the cross, Jesus contemplates the full-orbed horror of what awaits him: draining the cup of God’s fury at sin down to the dregs, absorbing in his own body the poisonous “cup of staggering,” the “full strength” cup of God’s anger. No wonder, as Jesus thinks on this, that he staggers to the ground and pleads, “Is there any way to avoid this?” Jesus, who has existed forever sharing the Father’s glory, knows the full extent of what this cup means. It means the horror of hell, the anguish of separation from the Father, and the torment of everlasting punishment, distilled down to a concentrated six hours of bloody, screaming agony on the cross. And he is terrified.
Stop and consider that for a moment. Jesus, the incarnate God, is terrified of the Father’s wrath. If God himself is afraid of something, how utterly horrific must that thing be? As you see Jesus sweating blood and weeping, learn the true horror of hell. Because what Jesus is doing here in the garden is preparing to drink hell… for you. He is preparing to stand in the place of the wicked and drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger. The Father, in upholding the worth of his glory and vindicating his justice, will not let one drop of his anger against the guilty go unspent, and Jesus knows that the full weight of that guilt is about to be laid on him. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
But in the same moment where you see the holy horror of God’s wrath, we also see the terrifying tenderness of his love. Listen to Jesus’ words again: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” What he means is, “If this cannot pass from them—if there is no other way for the punishment to pass over them unless the Passover Lamb’s blood is shed, if there is no other way to forgive sin and clear the guilty unless I drink it—then I will do it for them.” In that moment, we see Jesus resolving to do the unthinkable and bear the unbearable: he will drink the cup for you.
In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to do this… to stand in our place, the innocent for the guilty, and drink the cup that was meant for us. He sent his Son to be the propitiation, the wrath-bearer, the cup-drinker, the slaughtered Lamb, who forgives sin without clearing the guilty. What we see here is the utmost height of love, the farthest possible extent of kindness, as the Holy One embraces the horror of hell to rescue the least-deserving: you.