A neighboring town experienced some historic flooding several weeks ago. Having grown up in Houston, I’m acquainted with the devastating power of floodwaters. The weight of the water can crush everything in its path. I don’t think I’m alone in this, but sometimes I feel like the terror of God’s judgment stands over me and threatens to sweep over and crush me underneath its weight, just like a flood. In those moments the guilt of my sin weighs heavy on me, and I battle the fear that God is going to wipe me out because of it.
Have you ever felt that way—like God’s judgment was threatening to crash over you? It’s a paralyzing experience. This isn’t constant for me, but there are times I shudder at the thought of God’s judgment. And I think many Christians have this experience.
Thankfully, the gospel speaks to this deep-seated fear of judgment—but it does so in a surprising way. The gospel’s answer to our fear of judgment comes through a reluctant Messiah.
Many words could describe the Messiah: suffering, conquering, obedient, loving. How many of us, though, would add “reluctant”? Yet that’s the picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:36–39. Matthew says Jesus was “sorrowful and deeply distressed” (v. 37). And nothing makes Jesus’s deep emotional anguish more apparent than the fact he was sweating drops of blood (Luke 22:44). As he told his disciples, “My soul is swallowed up in sorrow—to the point of death” (v. 38).
What was the cause of Jesus’s distress? The next verse gives the answer. “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” Jesus prayed to the Father. “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (v. 39). The Gethsemane picture is one of an obedient, but reluctant, Messiah. The cup caused Jesus to cower. Why? What about it was so repulsive that he asked to avoid it?
The Old Testament provides insight into why our Lord dreaded the cup. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah describe it as the cup of God’s wrath (Isa. 51:17, Jer. 25:15). Another poignant passage is Psalm 75. The psalm speaks about the wicked who “raise the horn” in rebellion to God. “Raising the horn” could be a reference to the powerful thrust of an ox’s horn, lifting its power against the Lord. More likely, though, it describes the ram’s horn that would be lifted in battle. Another psalm tells us “the kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers conspire together against the LORD and his Anointed One” (Ps. 2:2). The picture is clear: the wicked use their strength to rebel against their Maker.
What shall be done, then, to the wicked—to us—for our rebellion? According to the psalmist, a cup awaits:
For there is a cup in the LORD’s hand, full of wine blended with spices, and he pours from it. All the wicked of the earth will drink, draining it to the dregs. (Ps. 75:8).
Sinful humans deserve to drain the cup of God’s judgment, all the way to the bottom. He will one day pour out wrath on the wicked. On us. This is justice.
But there is mercy.
Why did Jesus shrink back in Gethsemane? It wasn’t becuase he feared what man would do to him. It wasn’t the nails or the wood. He created all of it. What made Jesus shrink back was the cup that awaited him, for he knew he’d be absorbing the fury of God—which was rightfully ours—in our place. Ultimately, the Jews didn’t put Jesus on the cross. Nor did the Romans. Nor did you and me. As the prophet Isaiah tells us, “It pleased the LORD to crush him” (Isa. 53:10). God put his own Son on the cross.
If you are united to Christ by faith, God has no wrath left for you. As Paul declares, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Jesus drained the cup of condemnation for us.
Psalm 75 concludes, “I will cut off all the horns of the wicked, but the horns of the righteous will be lifted up” (v. 10). In light of this, we see the scandal of the cross. Jesus gets my sin; I get his righteousness. The one who deserved to be lifted up was cut off so that those who deserved to be cut off could be lifted up. God treated Jesus, the innocent, as guilty so that he could treat us, the guilty, as innocent.
Here are a four implications of this beautiful truth:
1. We have hope because of the empty cup.
The empty cup is our hope. We have life because Jesus drank death. Because he received the wrath of God’s justice, we can receive the wealth of God’s grace. Whenever you feel abandoned by God, therefore, you can know it’s just a feeling. Your Savior was abandoned on the cross so that you would never have to be.
2. We have rest because of the empty cup.
This good news means we can truly rest. Your acceptance before God isn’t based on your performance but on Christ’s. If you feel guilty because you haven’t “done enough for God,” Christ has come to lift that burden. The gospel isn’t about how much you do for God but about how much God has done for you.
3. We should be grateful for the empty cup.
This should elicit deep thankfulness for and joy in what God has accomplished for us. What is worship if not grateful awe for what God has done? We love him and express that love through gratitude and worship, because he first loved us. And the proof of God’s love is the empty cup.
4. We should proclaim the good news of the empty cup.
The empty cup should cause us to speak. We engage those captivated by the beauty of lesser things and proclaim, in every sphere of life, the wonderful works of the Lord. We herald the one who exhausted eternal justice so that rebels to God can become friends of God.
In his classic hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” Philip Bliss captured the sense of relief the empty cup offers:
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole;
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
If you are in Christ, the weight of God’s judgment is no longer yours to bear. The cup is empty. When you fear judgment is about to overtake you, then, the gospel assures you that’s just a feeling.