Several years ago, I had a colonoscopy and was asked to “prepare” for the event. The “cleanse” this preparation entailed was not as refreshing as it sounds. I was encouraged to drink a cup of liquid dynamite, so vile it made dirt seem sweet, every two hours for an entire day. The first few times seemed bearable compared to the violent convulsions and dry heaves my body displayed knowing the bitterness that was coming with every subsequent attempt. Years later, my brain can still remember how rancorous that stuff tasted and the terror it unleashed on my insides. It was a bitter cup.
John’s mother once asked Jesus if her son could be Jesus’ right hand man in his kingdom. (Mt 20:20-24, Mk 10:38-39) Jesus’ response was curious. He said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” When John said yes, Jesus said, “You will drink my cup…”
This same John, in his gospel, refers to this “cup” again. After he describes Jesus’ arrest by Roman guards, and the subsequent attempt by Peter to turn the event into a brawl, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Put your sword in its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Jn 18:11) This is John’s only reference to this cup, but the Synoptic gospel writers consistently report Jesus’ use and deepening of the metaphor.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe Jesus sharing a Passover meal with his disciples prior to his arrest. (Mt 26, Mk 14, Lk 22) Mark records Jesus’ words when he took the third of the four Seder cups of Passover, the cup of redemption, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (14:25-25) He asked them to drink it as well.
Passover was an exercise of shared remembering for the Jews. In Exodus 6:6-7, God made four promises to his people, Israel, that they remembered in four symbolic cups of wine at this special memory meal: (1) “I will take you out of Egypt,” (2) I will deliver you from Egyptian slavery,” (3) I will redeem you (from death) with a demonstration of my power, and (4) I will acquire you as a nation/make you my people.” Jesus drank the first three cups with his disciples, highlighting the third, but what about the fourth cup? Could it be the cup he claimed he would drink anew in the kingdom of God?
The “cup” metaphor is still in Jesus’ thoughts as he moved from the Passover meal to the Garden of Gethsemane. (Mt 26:39, Mk 14:36, Lk 22:42) In his heart-wrenching, bloody-teared prayer he says, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, but not as I will, but as you will…If this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Mt 26:39,42) The Old Testament is full of imagery of God’s cup of wrath, a bitter cup indeed. (Psalm 75:8, Isaiah 31:17, Jer 25:15-28, Revelation 14:10)
Finally, with Jesus hanging from a Roman cross suffering all the agony a human body and divine soul can endure, John brings his reader back to Jesus’ cup. (John 19:28-30) Near death, Jesus said, “I thirst.” Delivered to his lips on a hyssop branch (the same type of branch used to spread the Passover blood over the Israelites doors all those years ago) was sour wine. After he drank it, he said, “It is finished,” and breathed his last. Could this be the fourth cup of Passover, ushering in the kingdom of God anew, and declaring all who would accept this sacrificial gift as children of God?
Jesus knew the bitterness of the contents, but he willingly drank the cup his Father gave him to drink, on our behalf, converting a cup of wrath into a cup of life. John likely recalled that Jesus had told him he would drink this cup. It would be a cup of salvation and joy (Ps 116:13, Ps 23:5), but also one of suffering and death. He had told him earlier “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:24, Mk 8:34) The irony of drinking this free cup of life, is that it costs the believer everything.
I drank a bitter drink once. It flushed out the junk, so that doctors could look inside my guts, and give me a clean bill of health. Jesus drank the bitterness of the wrath of God. He drank every last drop of suffering and death that my sin deserved, and made it possible for God to look into my heart and declare me clean, his daughter, stamped with his unique seal of ownership, his Spirit. We can drink to that!