After plowing through scores of accounts, I have come to realize the manner of Jesus’ death is rarely reflected in common, idealized martyrdom stories.
The majority of those who occupy the pages of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs went to their deaths without anguish. They seemed to have perished with a sense of joy.
Hugh Latimer stood at the stake with eagerness, able to say to his fellow martyr Nicholas Ridley, “Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man…”
Stephen stood before his accusers moments before the stones flew and gazed into the sky, saying, “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
Jesus’ own death stands in contrast to such accounts. He falls to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane and cries out, “Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). He shouts out from his cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
The Jesus displayed in these scenes experiences anxiety and distress. He approaches his death with a sense of weakness.
This image of a frail Jesus can be perplexing.
Why is he so troubled that he sweats drops of blood when other innocent victims throughout history have faced death with ease?
Why does he not rejoice in victory?
Where is the willingness and composure that has been evident up to this point?
The cup and the hour
Consider the Garden of Gethsemane episode (Mark 14:32–42).
After sharing a Passover meal, the disciples move to the familiar garden. Jesus orders them to sit, and takes Peter, James and John farther in. After commanding them to keep watch, Jesus moves a stone’s throw away and enters into prayer. “[And he] prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him” (v. 35).
Mark’s use of the hour finds its roots in the Old Testament, where the prophets often employed the word to describe an appointed time of God’s wrath (e.g., Daniel 11:35).
In other words, the hour that encompasses Jesus’ betrayal-trial-death is not simply a period of physical pain but a descending of God’s judgment on sin.
“Abba, Father,” Jesus then prays, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
Again, Mark makes Old Testament connections.
This cup is a phrase the prophets used over and over to speak of God’s appointed punishment of the wicked.
In Isaiah 51:17, the prophet writes, “Awake, awake! Rise up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath….” Isaiah describes the cup as belonging to the Father. It is the vessel that holds his anger.
Mark’s use of the hour and this cup reveal a deeper layer to the story. Perhaps Jesus is not distressed simply by the thought of physical pain but by a complete understanding of the gravity of God’s wrath.
He is aware of the spiritual darkness and separation from the Father wrapped up in the hour of judgment. The gloom Jesus will face goes far beyond nails through palms; it reaches to the pits of hell.
The Christian martyrs of history have faced death with the comfort of God. Their deaths have been roads to freedom.
Jesus’ death saw an outpouring of the cup of God’s wrath. He hung upon the cross in complete separation from the Father.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is distressed by a thorough understanding of the judgment that will soon fall upon him and those who refuse him.
May we take courage in the strength of our Lord who, knowing the darkness that judgment entailed, still chose to take the place of sinners.
And may we find a new a sense of urgency for the proclamation of the gospel.
—Ryley Heppner is from Grand Forks, B.C., where he is a member of Gospel Chapel. He holds a BA in youth work from Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C., an MA in Christian studies from ACTS Seminaries, Langley, B.C., and is working on an MTS with a major in New Testament studies. He is an itinerant minister, a contributor to www.TheExpositors.com (where this article first appeared) and the local outreach/intern director with Ride Nature Ministries.