This week Christians all over the world will remember the death of Christ on Good Friday. As we do we will recall the gruesome reality of the cross. We would be well-served to consider what was at the heart of the cross.
About 10 years ago the movie The Passion of Christ was extremely popular. In it the filmmakers attempted to portray the gruesome nature of the crucifixion. The torture received by Jesus was reflected in the movie and the point was clearly made: Jesus suffered immensely at the hands of his accusers.
But if this is all we see when we consider the cross of Christ then we have not yet drilled down to see its core.
The night before Jesus was betrayed he was in deep agony in Gethsemane. He said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In Luke’s Gospel we read that his agony was so intense that as he prayed earnestly he sweat drops of blood. Was it the prospect of human torture that drove Christ to this agony? Was Jesus in agony at the prospect of dying for his faith? Was he dreading martyrdom?
We learn the answer in his prayer. His agony centers on a cup.
“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matt. 26:39)
The object of Christ’s attention here is this cup. What is the cup? What’s in it? In Scripture the cup refers to God’s wrath or judgment (Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15). Here in this foreboding vessel before Jesus is the fully fermented, undiluted, cup of divine wrath. It is God’s impending judgment that has him sweating drops of blood and in deep agony. Christ is looking down the barrel of heaven’s infinite wrath, and his heart is shredded in agony. As barbaric as the human suffering was, it was not the chief agony of the cross. This was reserved for his assignment to drink the cup. It wasn’t the prospect of martyrdom—wrath at the hands of men—that weighed so heavily upon Jesus, it was wrath of God.
In a short time after this episode in Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested, tried, and sentenced to be crucified on a wooden cross. The cross became an altar of sacrifice. Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. What did the sacrifice of Christ aim to accomplish? It was to pay the debt for our sin by satisfying God’s wrath. The theological word for this is “propitiation.” On the cross Jesus satisfied God’s just, holy, and good wrath against our sin. And by bearing the wrath fully required for sinners Jesus makes God propitious or favorable toward us (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17).
Consider it and see the blazing center of the cross where divine love emanates forth. On the cross Jesus suffered and endured the full weight of God’s holy anger. He took the full weight of an eternal hell compressed and tamped down. Jesus proclaimed upon his last breath, “It is finished.” (John 19:31) What is finished? Among other things, he finished his work of satisfying the wrath of God. He suffered hell on earth. He emptied the cup. As Charles Spurgeon says, “He drank damnation dry.”
We would be well-served to fix our eyes on an empty cup and an empty tomb this week.
(This post is an excerpt from my book Is Hell for Real? due out in August 2017.)