In the Garden of Gethsemane, before being betrayed, arrested, and facing the agony of His death, Jesus prays three times to the Father: “…if it be possible, let this cup pass from me …” (Matthew 26:39). The NLT refers to it as “this cup of suffering.” The “cup” is a symbolic reference to the suffering and anguish that Jesus was about to endure. Jesus would be required to drink the entirety of the cup, and, knowing how bitter and difficult it would be, He prays to let the cup pass from Him, if at all possible. In the same prayer, Jesus adds, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will,” which shows His willingness to fully drink the cup and His total submission to God’s will (cf. Philippians 2:8).
The disciples and Jesus had just celebrated Passover in the upper room. Part of that meal includes drinking from four cups. Jesus takes the cup after supper, which is traditionally the third cup and known as the cup of redemption or blessing, and He infuses it with new meaning. He says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” By using this particular cup as the symbol of the new covenant, Jesus draws on the promise found in Jeremiah 31:31–34. In that passage, God promised a new covenant with His people to replace the one they had broken (the Mosaic covenant). In the new covenant, God promised that, “… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). At the Last Supper, Jesus declares that the new covenant would be ratified with His blood. Just as the old covenant required the shedding of blood (Exodus 24:8), so did the new. To purchase our redemption, Jesus had to sacrifice Himself on the cross. It was a bitter cup that He had to drink to save us from our sins. (For another reference to a “cup” as a symbol of suffering, see Mark 10:38–39.)
Jesus’ humanity can clearly be seen when He prays, “Let this cup pass from me.” The struggle of what He would face was intense, and Jesus was battling the flesh. His wish to bypass the cup “if it be possible” expresses the natural human desire to avoid pain and suffering. Jesus was fully God and fully man (Hebrews 2:17). Being fully divine did not exempt Jesus from experiencing the agony of death. Jesus knew that He would have to be crushed and “pierced for our transgressions” and bruised for our healing (Isaiah 53:5–10). He wanted the Father’s will to be done, but His humanity dreaded the scourging, mocking, and physical agony that He would endure, not to mention the guilt He would bear as our sin-bearer. “… The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
Jesus’ request to “let this cup pass from me” was a very human response to the torture that awaited Him. Jesus was not faltering in His decision to do the Father’s will. He was committed to completing all that the Father had sent Him to do. Could God’s plan of salvation be completed any other way? The events that occurred after this prayer prove that there was no other way. The only way for salvation and redemption to be offered to humanity was for Jesus Christ, the perfect sacrifice, to fully experience God’s judgment against sin. It was impossible for Him to bypass the cup. Despite the torment He endured, Jesus fully drank that bitter cup so that we could be free and forgiven, according to God’s will.