“What should we make of the fact that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid the cross, if possible in God’s will?”
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“If it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” Jesus prayed, “yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). But was he really asking to avoid the cross? If that is all we see, we will miss a powerful statement of the extent to which Jesus was willing to go to save us. Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears to God “who was able to save him from death,” says the author of Hebrews — and God heard this prayer of his reverent Son (Heb. 5:7). It is a fair translation to say that God could save Jesus from death. But that does not fit the known fact that Jesus already had considered and fully accepted the death he must die (John 12:27-28; Isa. 50:5-10).
It is much better to think that Jesus prayed for God to deliver him out of death, by raising him to life again. That is also an accurate translation (and the choice of the New Living Translation). Hebrews says that God heard Jesus’ prayer — that is, he gave him what he asked. This talk about a “cup” comes from the Old Testament picture of God’s judgment as a “cup” which God mixes and hands to the person who must “drink” it (Psalm 60:3; 75:8; Isa. 51:17, 22-23; Jer. 25:15-38; Obad. 16). Sometimes a person drinks God’s cup and it sends them reeling, but God then takes the cup back from their hand and they recover (Psalm 60:3; Isa. 51:22). Sometimes God does not take the cup back — and the person who drinks it falls to the ground and never rises again (Obad. 16; Jer. 25:27).
Jesus is willing to accept the second scenario but he prays for the first. He takes God’s cup, drinks it and dies. God then takes the cup back from Jesus’ hand and delivers him out of death. “Let this cup pass from me,” Jesus prayed. And it did! Because Jesus drank the cup of divine wrath, he now hands us the cup of the new covenant to drink, the cup of blessing which attests that we are forgiven forever (Matt. 26:27-28).