Jesus and the Martyrs
And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Luke 22:41-44).
In this passage, the eternal Son of God pleads with God the Father not to make him go to the cross, requires the help of an angel, and experiences great emotional upheaval in light of his approaching death. He is profoundly shaken. Early in church history, already in the second century, critics of Christianity were pointing to Jesus’ agonized prayer as reason to doubt that he was divine. The problem is heightened when we compare Jesus’ reaction in the face of death to other martyrs, ancient and modern, who appear to be more composed and able to face death with greater dignity than Jesus showed (see Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God for an insightful treatment of this). Here I provide three such examples.
The philosopher Socrates was forced to drink poison in 399 B.C. He faced his death calmly and with great dignity. Although he had an opportunity to bribe the prison guards and flee for his life, he didn’t do it. In fact, he didn’t even delay drinking the poison, as he could have—he just went ahead and drank it calmly. One witness to his death says Socrates took the cup of poison from the jailer "in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of color or feature. . . . Then holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison." Socrates’ friends were gathered around him weeping, but he remained totally calm the entire time.
There’s a gruesome story told of seven Jewish brothers who lived in the second century B.C. Each of these brothers was viciously and cruelly tortured and then killed, one by one, by a pagan king while their mother watched. Here’s part of the story:
One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: "What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors." At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and cauldrons heated. While they were being quickly heated, he commanded his executioners to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on. When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die bravely, saying such words as these: "The Lord God is looking on, and he truly has compassion on us."
When the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. After tearing off the skin and hair of his head, they asked him, "Will you eat the pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?" Answering in the language of his forefathers, he said, "Never!" So he too in turn suffered the same tortures as the first. At the point of death he said: "You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying" (2 Maccabees 7.2-9)
In the story, all seven brothers die boldly and bravely. Their mother then dies with equal courage. There’s never a hint of wavering or doubting or wrestling. They’re composed and confident and strong up to the moment of their deaths.
On April 9, 1945, just a few weeks before Adolf Hitler’s suicide in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, was hanged with five others at the Nazi extermination camp of Flossenbürg. He was 39 years old. The only account of Bonhoeffer’s death was by the prison doctor, who recalled:
Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and certain that God heard his prayer. . . . At the place of execution he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. . . . In the almost 50 years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.
Compare Jesus’ agonized prayer, his need for the assistance of an angel, his sweat like blood, to these others who faced their deaths with such dignity and composure. Why the difference? Why wasn’t Jesus as calm and serene as Socrates, the seven Jewish brothers, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
What Sets Jesus Apart
There are a couple things to say in response to this question. First, it’s reassuring that the Gospel writers tell us about Jesus’ agonized struggle before his death, because it demonstrates that they are honest writers. Who would ever make this stuff up?! There’s no reason to, and every reason not to. It’s a bit uncomfortable to have your God and Savior agonizing, praying not to go to the cross, sweating, and afraid. The fact that Luke reports Jesus’ emotional struggle in the passage above helps confirm that it really happened, that Luke is telling us the story straight.
Second, Jesus’ agony makes sense when we realize that the death he died is radically different from the death of Socrates, the seven Jewish brothers, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s not all that different on the physical level. While Jesus’ death by beating and crucifixion was a terrible physical ordeal, the physical agony of the seven Jewish brothers (for example) was perhaps equally great. What sets Jesus’ death apart from the death of any other person in the history of the world is the spiritual component of his suffering. We have an indication of that terrible spiritual reality in Luke 22:42: "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me." To what "cup" is Jesus referring?
We get an answer in the Old Testament. Psalm 75:6-8 uses the imagery of a cup to refer to God’s judgment upon his enemies:
For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.
Isaiah 51:17 makes explicit that the "cup" is the cup of God’s wrath: "Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering."
The "cup" Jesus is going to drink on the cross is far worse than the horrific physical suffering of crucifixion he faces. Jesus’ "cup" is the infinite wrath and judgment of almighty God upon human sin. The wrath of God that Jesus will experience on the cross is, very literally, hell. On the cross, he will experience separation from God the Father. He will be cut off from God. He will be considered an enemy of God because our sins will be counted as his (2 Cor. 5:21).
This is why Jesus agonizes and struggles in the Garden—because he knows he will soon be crushed under the infinite weight of the wrath of God. Socrates, the seven Jewish brothers, and Bonhoeffer faced physical death, but not the vicarious bearing of God’s infinite judgment.
How do we appropriately respond to this truth, this awesome reality that on the cross, Jesus bore God’s judgment that we deserved? We should look to the cross of Christ and see both the greatness of our sin and the greatness of Jesus’ mercy. The words of John Newton’s hymn "In Evil Long I Took Delight" express this truth beautifully:
In evil long I took delight
Unawed by shame or fear
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
I saw One hanging on a tree,
In agony and blood,
Who fixed his languid eyes on me,
As near his cross I stood.
Sure, never to my latest breath,
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with his death,
Though not a word he spoke.
My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair,
I saw my sins his blood had spilt,
And helped to nail him there.
A second look he gave,
which said, “I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
die that thou mayst live.”
Thus, while his death my sin displays
In all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace,
It seals my pardon too.
With pleasing grief and mournful joy
My spirit now is filled;
That I should such a life destroy
Yet live by him I killed.