“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”
These words in Matthew 26:39 came from the lips of Jesus as he groaned in agony to his Father over what he was about to endure in the crucifixion. And ponder the words he uttered right before this. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (v. 38). It was in this moment that we get a clear picture of the despair Jesus was feeling.
As Jesus finished pleading before the Father, he went back to his disciples and caught them sleeping (v. 40). He went away a second time and prayed a similar prayer: “Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (v. 42). Scripture tells us he did this one more time. Jesus prayed for the Father to remove the impending cup three times.
Jesus knew the extent of what he was about to experience. He knew he had to drink the cup.
What’s the “cup”? Simply put, it’s referring to the Father’s wrath. Jesus wasn’t about to experience mere death, as excruciating as it would be for him. He was also about to experience the full brunt of God’s wrath. This knowledge compels him to pray, “ . . . remove this cup from me.”
Jesus understood what was about to happen to him. Of course, it was the whole reason he came—to die for our sins! And yet, staring at what was before him, he made a plea to his Father: Please remove this cup. Please find another way. Please don’t do this. But he didn’t let this fear—if we can call it that— overcome what he was sent to do. But the Father said no.
Then take a look at what Jesus says next. “Nevertheless,” he said, “not my will, but yours, be done.” That is a trust-filled prayer. That is a prayer rooted and anchored in the goodness of God. Not only because he knew the character of God—as, of course, being the second person of the Trinity—but he knew he had to endure the crucifixion to make atonement for the sins of all those who believe in him (John 3:16). If Christ quit, we are still headed for Hell. Thank God he didn’t quit; thank God he trusted his Father; thank God he accomplished his mission.
It Can Happen to Us
Any rational human will be relieved to read the narrative of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. It’s not just me, we say. We see Jesus showing true, human emotions. The Bible is clear that Jesus is just like us—in every respect.12 “The Gospels reveal Christ as having the basic characteristics of humanity,” RC Sproul wrote. “He walks, He talks, He becomes tired, He eats, He drinks, He cries, He manifests every human emotion and every dimension of the physical aspect of mankind (see, for example, Matt. 8:24; Luke 7:34; John 11:35).”13 Jesus was—and still is—God in the flesh. We love to emphasize the God part, as we should. It’s imperative for one to believe in the “Godness” of Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t God then he couldn’t die for us nor live for us. But how often do we meditate on the humanity of Jesus? We should receive just as much comfort from Jesus’s humanity as his deity, because, at the most fundamental level, Jesus knows what we’re going through.
Jesus knows our tears because he wept over Lazarus ( John 11:35).
Jesus knows our pain because he experienced the worst of it.
Jesus knows our heartache because he felt that on the cross when God laid his wrath upon him.
And Jesus knows our struggles with unanswered prayer because, as we saw in the garden, his Father said no to him just as he says no to us sometimes. If it happened to Christ, it will happen to us. If the Father denied Jesus’s plea to remove the cup, then we should brace ourselves for when he denies our plea for deliverance. Denying our pleas doesn’t mean God has abandoned us; it means he is using that particular pain, heartache, or struggle to mold us more into the image of his Son (Romans 8:28-29). It means he is using our struggle to make us stronger in him.
This is an excerpt from my new book Taking No for an Answer: How to Respond When God Says No to Our Prayers.