Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

212. "Let this cup pass from me"

The most important of all questions concerning Jesus in Gethsemane still remains to be considered. Why should he even come to the point of ever wishing to avoid the tribulation of the cross? Doing the will of his Father had been his meat and drink all his days (Jn.4 :34). In all things he sought not his own will but the will of the Father which sent him (Jn.5 :30). Then why now the reluctance to "finish his work"? Over the centuries scores of martyrs have endured horrible gruesome treatment because of their faith, and have not shrunk from the ordeal. Then why does their Master appear to be so different? It is a problem that calls for answer.

That physical fear was the cause may be immediately discounted. The man who could face calmly a storm at sea such as terrified experienced sailors, the man who never flinched before violent lunatics, the man who was unperturbed by a mob intent on lynching him— such a man was not likely to quail in cowardice at the prospect of crucifixion, horrible though he knew it must be.

It is to the Messianic Scriptures, more subjective than the gospels in their poignant detail of his agony, that one must turn for answer to this question. They suggest several distinct lines of approach to a problem of unequalled importance and concern to all who associate Gethsemane with their own salvation.

Without God

It is possible, for example, to appreciate that Jesus would view the prospect of crucifixion with a revulsion amounting almost to fear because death would mean deprivation of God. This is indicated by Psalm 6, which Jesus appropriated for himself on three separate occasions (v.8=Mt.7 :23; 25:41; v.3=Jn.12 :27): "Return, O Lord, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies' sake. For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?"

Hezekiah, another outstanding Old Testament type of Jesus, used the same plea that he might be saved from death: "For the grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day" (ls.38 :18,19).

Here, then, is a wholly adequate reason why Jesus feared to die. For him, even more than for David or Hezekiah, death meant utter separation from God, a deprivation of every opportunity of praise and communion, and instead a horror of great darkness.

An open shame

Next, scrutiny of Psalm 69 yields further light on this difficult investigation. Again, the validity of the Messianic application can hardly be questioned (v.9=Jn.2:17; Rom.15:3; v.25=Acts 1 :20; v.4 = Jn.!5 :25; v.21=Mt.27 :34; Jn.19 :29; the fitness of many other details will be immediately evident):

"Let not them that wait on thee, O Lord God of hosts, be ashamed for my sake; let not those that seek thee be confounded for my sake, O God of Israel. Because for thy sake I have borne 'reproach; shame hath covered my face.. .When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach, and my shame, and my dishonour: mine adversaries are all before thee. Reproach hath broken my heart, and I am full of heaviness" (v.6,7,10,19,20).

This prayer for succour sprang from a sense of the shame inseparable from the afflictions described. Of all forms of death devised by perverted human ingenuity, crucifixion is outstanding for its shamefulness. Socrates drank hemlock with dignity. King Charles 1 was kingly even as he laid his head on the block. Many an aristo was able to meet Madame Guillotine with customary imperturbability and elegance. But the long lingering humiliation of crucifixion has no parallel. And it was this which Jesus was called upon to endure in full measure. Well might his sensitive spirit recoil from it. "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting" (Is.50:6).

The Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes the degradation of Christ in similar terms: "He endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb.12 :2). To crucify the Son of God afresh is to "put him to an open shame" (6:6).

Time and again the Psalms of Messiah couple this aspect of his sufferings with the apparent triumph of wrong over right and the spiteful jubilation of vindictive enemies against slandered innocence:

"Judge me, O Lord my God, according to thy righteousness; and let them not rejoice over me. Let them not say in their hearts, Ah, so would we have it: let them not say, We have swallowed him up"(Ps.35:24,25).

"Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved" (Ps.13:3,4).

"O Lord my God, if I have done this; if there be iniquity in my hands; If I have rewarded evil unto him that was at peace with me; (yea, I have delivered him that without cause is mine enemy); let the enemy persecute my soul, and take it; yea, let him tread down my life upon the earth, and lay mine honour in the dust" (Ps.7:3-5).

The burden of sin

There are yet other aspects of the Lord's cup of suffering which call for reconsideration.

Psalm 69, quoted earlier concerning Jesus, has also these words: "O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee" (v.5). This is no isolated passage. Other Messianic prophecies raise the same problem.

"For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me" (Ps.40 :12; note that v.6-8 = Heb.10 :5-9).

"I said, Lord, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee" (Ps.41 :4; here v.9=Jn.13:18).

"My strength faileth because of mine iniquity" (Ps.31 :10; here v.5 = Lk.23 :46).

"I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him" (Mic.7 :9; andv.6=Lk.12:53).

The problem posed by such Scriptures is considerable. Solution of the difficulty has been attempted in three different ways:

  1. These Scriptures are not true prophecies of Messiah at all. Bits of them are appropriated in the New Testament where the sentiments expressed happen to suit the present purpose or circumstance—as a modern writer might adorn his work with a quote from Gray's "Elegy". This approach abandons the authority (and therefore the inspiration) of the New Testament as an interpreter of the Old Testament.
  2. Another shift is to accept the Psalm as a prophecy of Christ with the solitary exception of the difficult verse. This device is just as unsatisfactory. It makes the interpretation of Holy Scripture entirely subjective, dependent on the whim of the individual student.
  3. It is possible to read these passages as expressions of the imputed guilt of Christ by virtue of his close identification with the race of sinners whom he came to save. Many other Scriptures involve the same or a similar principle: Dan.9 :3-25; Neh.1 :6,7; Ps. 106:6;Josh.7:land22:20,18;lChr.l5:13 and 21 :13; Ezra 9 :6; 2 Sam.21 :1; Lev.4 :3 and 26 :40; Rom.3 :22 and 5 :12; Mt. 23 :35,36; ls.59 :8,9; Acts 9 :4 etc., etc.
The third of these interpretations offers least difficulty.

The suggestion has been advanced—and who can doubt it?—that when Scripture says: "The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all," it is enunciating an absolute truth that, in some mysterious way which can at best be only dimly realised, the sins of those who benefit from the sacrifice of Christ did in a very real sense add to the burden he had to bear. It is possible that in the inscrutable purpose of an almighty timeless God even the sins committed now from day to day—and the sins of next week—add retrospectively to the great burden of guilt which the Son of God bore as he "bowed beneath the sins of men ... in sad Gethsemane."


Psalm 31 quoted earlier, has much to say about the psychology of Jesus in the time of his adversity, and thus suggests another line of investigation. The last words of Jesus on the cross come from this psalm: "Into thy hand I commend my spirit;" and the words that follow are marvellously apt as the first utterance of the Risen Christ: "Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth."

Three times this psalm alludes to the shame of the cross (v.1,11,17). But another element in the suffering of Christ also comes into prominence: "I said in my haste (RVm: my alarm), I am cut off from before thine eyes" (v.22). This finds an immediate parallel in the familiar words of Psalm 22 :1, recited by Jesus when on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me"?

The inference seems to follow that on the cross Jesus experienced an abandonment by his Father so complete and awful as to wring from him this agonized cry of helpless misery. And it has been further inferred that it was the prospect of this dereliction from which Jesus shrank; hence his prayer: "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me."

Nevertheless, whatever this "forsaking" was, which Psalms 22 and 31 envisage as the Messiah's expectation, // did not happen*. Psalm 22 :24 is explicit on this point: "For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard." Another Messianic Psalm says the same thing: "In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God; and he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears" (Ps.18 :6). The heavenly answer actually came even whilst Jesus hung on the cross; see Study 228. And if it was true of the first Jesus-Joshua that "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee" (Josh.l :5, quoted with emphatic negatives in Heb.13 :5), it must have been at least equally true of the second.

The apparent contradiction is resolved by due emphasis on the word: "I said in my haste (or, my alarm),"

It would seem, then, that this forsaking of the Messiah, leaving him in utter desolation, was an experience which did not actually happen but which nevertheless seemed real enough at the time, being a consequence of the natural infirmity of the human mind, which Jesus himself undoubtedly shared, yet without sin.

Other psalms express this idea very clearly: "Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency . . . When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end . . Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins" (Ps.73 :13,16,17,21).

"Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul had almost dwelt in silence. When I said, my foot slippeth; thy mercy, O Lord, held me up. In the multitude of my thoughts (RVm: doubts) within me, thy comforts delight my soul" (Ps.94 :17-19).

This sense of being bereft of all help and guidance, this feeling of despair and futility, is one which all believers experience in some degree. It would be strange indeed if the Son of God, born to save frail human nature by sharing in its burden, were to be exempt from this most characteristic trial of human nature.

The connection between this kind of temporary spiritual blackout and low physical condition is familiar enough. So it would be surprising if Jesus did not experience something akin to this. Gethsemane came at the end of a week of incessant appeal, argument, rebuke, and instruction, a week which was itself the culmination of a sustained campaign of preaching in many parts of the country such as no other man could possibly have undertaken. It is only because Jesus was physically worn out that it was possible for him to reach a point when he could pray: "Let this cup pass from me." Did not the other great temptation also come when he must have been near the point of physical exhaustion, after fasting in the wilderness for forty days? So it was only thus that there would come to him, whose meat and drink it was to do the will of the Father, a time when "Thy will" and "my will" could be mentioned in the same sentence.

"Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me. And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest" (Ps.55:5-8).

There is a suggestion here of utter weariness, of inability to continue the struggle any longer, and of desperate longing for rest and relaxation. Every long-distance runner has known the tremendous temptation to ease up from the intolerable strain on lungs and limbs and muscles. Or, again, those who have borne the exhaustion and discomfort, the utter weakness and weariness, of a long and severe illness know how this can wear away one's spiritual stamina. It is difficult to imagine that Jesus, who shared so many of the infirmities of human nature, did not know this same exhaustion of body and spirit which in many instances has been the irresistible prelude to the complete collapse of morale.

Psalm 55 goes on to suggest that the last straw, the crowning humiliation and disappointment, was that he should be betrayed by "his own familiar friend, in whom he trusted":

"For it was not an enemy that reproached me: then I could have borne it; neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: but it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company" 12-14).


This special discouragement has close association with another aspect of the Lord's reluctance to tread the hard road from Gethsemane to Golgotha.

It would appear that Jesus was utterly depressed by the almost complete lack of response to his appeal to the Jewish nation. The large crowds had dwindled away. Their enthusiasm was for miracles rather than the message. Even the one recent demonstration, at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, had sprung from an expectation of immediate inauguration of a new Kingdom of Israel, and not from repentance, not out of an understanding that Jesus was the Son of God, not from appreciation that he was riding into Jerusalem to die and not to reign. Many had "gone back and walked no more with him." And even those dose to him added discouragement by their lack of insight and understanding. At this moment, even as he prayed for wisdom and strength of purpose, they disregarded his appeal, and slept and slept again. Then why should he die, and die so miserably? What good purpose would be served by his enduring such shame and torture as crucifixion must inevitably involve?

Such a point of view is suggested by two remarkable Scriptures, both of which were surely much in the mind of Jesus at this time.

The Messianic content of Isaiah 49 does not need to be demonstrated or expounded in detail. In addition to direct quotation (v.2 = Rev. 1 :16; v.6 = Acts 13 :47; v.8 = 2 Cor.6 :2; v.10 = Rev. 7 :16), its phraseology constantly re-appears in different parts of the New Testament with reference to Jesus. Verse 4 pictures the Servant of Jehovah in a mood of deep despondency: "I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain." But immediately there comes reassurance from the Almighty Himself: "And now, saith the Lord that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again unto him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength. Yea, he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth" (v.4-6).

Here is a more than adequate reason for the "heaviness" of Jesus in Gethsemane. In spite of all his efforts, Israel showed no sign of being gathered by the Shepherd of Israel. His appeal made no impression on hearts of stone. Then to what purpose his suffering and death? Was not both discouragement and despair evinced by his words: "It is enough" (Lk.22 :38)? How like Elijah when he was oppressed with a sense of complete failure! (1 Kgs.19:4).

The answer from God was an angel from heaven strengthening him with the assurance that his work and travail, far from being futile, were to achieve not only the spiritual restoration of Israel, but also the regeneration of Gentiles, near and far.

"I will give thee for a light of the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth . . . In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee, and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people to establish the earth (or, restore the Land), to cause to inherit the desolate heritages . . ." (v.6,8). Perhaps this explains the "Abba, Father" in the prayer Jesus offered. Paul has "Jew-Gentile context in his use of the same double address (Rom.8 :15; Gal.4 :6).

Doubtless it was by Scriptures such as this that the angel imparted strength to a faltering Servant of Jehovah. But to be a "covenant of the people" must require a sacrificial death, even though ultimately he was to be "glorious in the eyes of the Lord," as well as before His glorified people. And this was to be accomplished in "an acceptable time'—the Hebrew word has frequent association with sacrifice, and also special connection with Passover and the Day of Atonement. Only thus could the Scripture be fulfilled and the gracious Purpose furthered.

Again, Psalm 116 has the same theme. It is a psalm of "the Servant of Jehovah," one who was "the son of thine handmaid" (v.16) and who had testified faithfully on God's behalf: "I believed, and therefore have I spoken" (v.10; and note the application of these words in 2 Cor.4 :13-true of Jesus, and his gospel; see v.10,11). But the testimony had met only discouragement: "I was greatly afflicted: I said in my haste "All men are liars" (v.10,11). That word "haste" (RVm: alarm) expresses apprehension (Ps.31 :22;48 :5; 104 :7; Dt.20 :3; 2 Sam.4 :4; 1 Sam.23 :26).So here once again the rejection of Messiah's message and claims appears to be adequate reason for thrusting aside the cup of suffering. But it was not to be avoided. He was a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the altar (Ps.118 :27): "The cords of death (LXX: pangs of death; cp. Acts 2 :24 RV) compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the Lord, O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul" (v.3,4).

Nevertheless, in spite of all hardship and discouragement, "I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints," (Ps. 116:12-15) and of this Holy One especially.

So, probably, it was by such reinforcement of spirit that "the Son of man was made strong" by God for Himself.

But without such Scripture and without an angel from heaven, what might not have happened?

The recurrence of the phrase: "I said in my haste (or, alarm)", already noted in Ps.31 :22 (and compare Ps.77 :10; "I said, This is my infirmity") indicates that the feeling of utter failure, like the momentary sense of desolation and dereliction on the cross, was psychological—real enough in his mind, yet not true in fact. Whilst Psalm 22 :24 is emphatic that Jesus was never forsaken by his Father, it is conceivable that there would be a time when the impression of being forsaken was vivid enough to him. Similarly it would be possible for the mind of Jesus to be temporarily overwhelmed by a shattering sense of futility and defeat even at the very time when angels in heaven were marvelling at the wonder of his complete self-consecration.

Many a weary patient has despaired of restoration to health after the actual crisis has been safely passed. Soldiers have often despaired of victory at the very time when, unperceived by themselves, the hostile forces in another part of the field were already reeling back. Many a cross-country runner has plodded wearily and unhopefully on, miserably unaware that the stamina of his opponent was on the point of cracking under the long drawn-out strain.

It is surely neither irreverent nor inaccurate so to think of the conflict of Jesus as the sweat gathered on his brow in Gethsemane.


Why was Jesus Brought to his knees with the prayer: "Let this cup pass from me"?

If a bald summary be attempted, the various aspects of his tribulation in the garden include— so the Old Testament Scriptures suggest — the following:

a natural human revulsion from suffering and death.
the utter deprivation of fellowship with his Father, which would inevitably ensue with the oblivion of death.
the shame of crucifixion.
the burden of guilt when "the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all."
the "forsaking" by his Father which, though not a fact, was psychologically real enough.
complete exhaustion of physical strength and spiritual stamina

And especially:

a sense of failure in his mission; a feeling that, since his message was already rejected, there was little to be achieved by his death as a sacrifice for sins.

It is idle to stress any one of these to the exclusion of the rest. That they all had their part can hardly be doubted. Let each in turn provoke a sense of wonder and deep thankfulness.

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