[K:NWTS 9/3 (Dec 1994) 11-19]

The Sweetness of the Cup

Is. 51:17-23; Mt. 26:26-30, 36-46

Philip G. Ryken


We gather around the Lord's Table, as one body in Christ, to eat the bread and drink the wine of salvation. Do you understand what it means to eat and drink at the Lord's Table? Do you understand what it means to eat the body of Christ and drink the blood of Christ?

For most of us, the answer to those questions is "Well . . . maybe." Most of us are only just beginning to understand what it means to share in the Lord's Table. And we needn't be ashamed of that, since feeding on Christ in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is a great mystery.

But our Lord has given us his Word so that we may come to an ever-deeper understanding of our union with Christ. So we look to God's Word to help us become holy wine-tasters. The Bible speaks of at least three cups of wine. We will lift up each of those cups for inspection, to see which one has the best appearance, to see which one has the most aromatic bouquet, to see which one has the richest flavor. And then those of us who know Christ as Savior and Lord will raise the sweetest of those cups and drink it down together.

But those of you who have not yet put your trust in Christ should not despair. Come and examine these three cups with us, so that you may choose your drink wisely, and perhaps drink together with us at your next happy communion.

The Bitter Cup of God's Wrath in the Hand of the Sinner

We find our first cup in Chapter 51 of the prophecy of Isaiah. This is the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of the sinner. In verses 17 to 20, Isaiah describes Jerusalem as a city with a hangover. "Wake up! Wake up! " "Rouse yourself!" It's the "Morning After," and Jerusalem is in a deep sleep, she is groggy and dazed, and Isaiah is trying to shake her from her drunken slumber.

And so Isaiah says "Rise up, O Jerusalem!" Get up! Try to stand up! Jerusalem is asleep because she has had strong wine to drink. In verse 17 we see that the cup of wine has been drained down to the very dregs. Jerusalem has drunk herself senseless.

Perhaps you know how unpleasant the dregs in a cup can be. Imagine a cup of dark coffee that has great gobbets of coffee grounds at the bottom. If you drink them, your tongue and your throat will be surprised by those chunks, and you will check your drink to see what is at the bottom. Jerusalem has drunk her bitter cup down to the dregs. In Isaiah's day, when wine-making was more primitive, all of the impurities would settle to the bottom of strong drink, and make bitter dregs. Jerusalem has drunk her bitter cup down to those dregs.

This drink is also the cup of staggering. At the end of verse 17, the Scripture says this is the "goblet that makes men stagger." It is powerful liquor; it makes men unsteady on their feet, prone to stumble and fall.

Perhaps some of us have tasted the goblet that makes men stagger, to our own dismay. I have at least seen such staggering. When I was twelve or so, the neighbor boy staggered across the road and into our yard, dazed and unsteady, his eyes glazed. You see, he had just downed some fifteen shot glasses of whiskey, and one of his friends was pushing him toward the sprinkler in our front yard, trying to revive him. The boy fell to the ground like a stone. When my mother ran out to him he was out cold, lying face down in his own vomit. He had been drinking from the goblet that makes men stagger, drinking down to the dregs.

So Jerusalem needs help. But verse 18 tells us that there is no one to guide her in her drunkenness. Mother Jerusalem has no sons to rouse her, no sons to wake her from her drunken slumber. There is no one to comfort Jerusalem. As it says at the end of verse 19, "Who can console you?"

You can see what the problem is in verse 20. The sons of Jerusalem have a hangover as bad as their mother's. They have fainted in the street. They are like antelope trapped in a net. They are like antelope which have struggled and struggled and are now so tangled and so intertwined in the netting that they cannot move. And they are lying, motionless, in the street. That's what the people of Jerusalem are like in Isaiah's prophecy. They have been out all night on a bender, and they are too smashed to move.

This is the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hands of the sinner. For you see, this unholy intoxication has befallen God's people because of their sins. Jerusalem has drunk the cup of God's wrath. That is to say, Jerusalem has drunk the cup of God's wrath against sin. All Isaiah's talk about strong drink isn't just about alcohol; it's about God's wrath against sin.

See what the Scripture says in verse 17: all this is "from the hand of the Lord himself." Or look at verse 20: the people are "filled with the wrath of the Lord." That is why Isaiah says what he says in verse 22: "drunk, but not with wine. " Jerusalem is drunk, not with wine, but with the wrath of God.

In Isaiah's day, the people of God have rejected their maker and king, following after their own selfish desires. They are people of unclean lips; there is no justice and no mercy in Israel. And so Isaiah prophesies about a day when the Lord will punish Jerusalem for her sins, when God's people will be carried off into captivity. It's all summed up in verse 19: "devastation and destruction, famine and sword."

Isaiah imagines what it will be like to walk through the streets of Jerusalem after this judgment has come. As you walk with Isaiah you can sense the stupor of the city. You can see the derelicts lying in the dust in front of buildings, like antelope trapped in nets. This will be the result of seventy years of demoralizing captivity. Jerusalem will be a city staggering and reeling under the weight of God's judgment, staggering and reeling and then finally collapsing into a drunken slumber.

And apparently there is no hope for Jerusalem. According to verse 18 there is no leadership in Jerusalem, no resolve, no new generation with courage and vision. The city has sunk into apathy and despair. The people of Jerusalem are incapable of waking themselves up, incapable of saving themselves from God's judgment. This is the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of the sinner.

Know, then, that this bitter wine has been mixed for every sinner. A cup of judgment has been prepared for everyone who rejects God. In verse 23 of this passage, Isaiah foresees a time when the cup of wrath will be given not only to Israel, but also to Israel's neighbors: "I will put [the cup of wrath] into the hands of your tormentors."

Now the Old Testament often speaks of God's judgment as a cup of wrath, prepared for sinners. Hear the words of Psalm 75:7-8: "But it is God who judges; he brings one down, he exalts another. In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs. "

Or listen to Jeremiah 25:15-16: "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them."

But know that the cup of wrath was not just for Isaiah's day. It is not just an Old Testament figure of speech. A cup of wrath is stored away for everyone who does not fear the Lord. It is a present threat to those who refuse to cling to Christ for salvation.

In the Book of Revelation, at the end of the New Testament, the apostle John describes the judgment that waits for those who will reject Christ to follow after another god, there symbolized by a great beast: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name (14:9-11)."

There will be an eternal drinking of the cup of God's wrath, and it contains nothing but dregs all the way down. This is the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of the sinner.

O believer, know how great your salvation is! Know the misery from which Christ has delivered you! You will never wrap your lips around the "goblet that makes men stagger." You will never have your head thrust into the foaming bowl of God's wrath to drink deeply from God's judgment.

O unbeliever, do you know the consequences of your unbelief? Does your hand not tremble at the thought of grasping the cup of staggering? Do your lips not quiver at the thought of drinking the cup of God's wrath to the very dregs? Be assured that the Lord will punish you for your sins, even until the last drop of his wrath has been drained. This is the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of a sinner.

If only you would push away the dreggy cup! If only you could push away the dreggy cup! . . . Ah, but you can push it away!

The Bitter Cup of God's Wrath in the Hand of Christ

How can this be? How can we know that we will never drink the wine of God's wrath? Look again at Isaiah's prophecy and see what amazing change takes place. One minute the sons of Jerusalem are lying about in a drunken stupor, staggering about and collapsing in the street.

But then look at verse 22: "This is what your Sovereign Lord says, your God, who defends his people." The God who defends his people? How can this be? They are asleep in the streets, dead to the world, unable to shake off their hangover. But see what the Lord says in verse 22: "See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again." The Sovereign Lord snatches the cup of wrath out of their hands. The bitter cup of God's wrath is no longer in the hands of the sinner. Isaiah foresees that day when the captivity in Babylon will be over, when God will remove his chastisement from Jerusalem and God's people will return to their land. How can this be? Why does God have this change of heart?

What we need to see together is something which even Isaiah could not yet fully see. We need to see what makes it possible for a just and righteous God to forgive his people, to defend his people, and to return them to prosperity. That is, that when God takes the cup of wrath away from the sinner, he places that awful cup into the hands of his only Son. Come and see the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of Christ.

Let us turn first to Matthew 26, so that we may see the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of Christ. And see first that Christ shrank back from the cup. Now that we have smelled the bitter aroma of the cup in Isaiah, now we understand why Jesus is almost afraid to drink it. Little wonder that Christ should draw back from this horrid cup, the cup of God's wrath; little wonder that he should endure a dark hour of trial in the Garden of Gethsemane. Little wonder that our Lord should say in verse 38 that he is "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death."

Jesus is overwhelmed with sorrow because he knew the terror of God's wrath. Jesus knew the Old Testament prophecies about the cup of God's wrath. He knew how bitter that cup would be. He knew it to be the goblet of staggering, the cup that makes one faint, the cup that makes men lie about in the streets, unable to rise, like antelope trapped in nets.

This is the cup of suffering, even of the sufferings of the cross. This is not just a cup of staggering, it is a cup of staggering unto death. And so Christ says in verse 39, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me."

And here is where we see how terrible our sins really are. Like the disciples, we are asleep in the Garden, dozing through the Christian life, oblivious to our sin. Ah, but were we to watch and pray, were we to kneel beside the Savior in the grass, were we to hear his cries of anguish, were we to see the bloody sweat upon his brow, then would we see our sin in all its wickedness, then would we know the sinfulness of our sin.

Jesus took the bitter cup of God's wrath into his hand and he shrank from it. O sinner, are you so bold as to drink the cup of God's wrath yourself? Does your hand not tremble at the very thought? If even the Son of God shrank back from this cup, should you not also be afraid?

But Jesus took the cup of God's wrath into his hand and he drank it down, down to the very dregs. See the courage of our Lord in verse 42: "If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." This is the willing, courageous obedience of Christ. And see the difference between verse 42 and verse 39. Back in verse 39 Jesus said "if it is possible" for the cup to be taken away. But now Jesus says "if it is not possible." Indeed, he is saying since it is not possible. Jesus Christ knows the will of his father, and he knows that he must endure the cross that is set before him, and he knows that there is no other way to remove the cup of judgment, and so he says, "may your will be done."

Because, you see, the bitter cup must be consumed. If Jesus Christ is to win salvation for his people, as he has done, then God's wrath must be turned aside, his anger against our sin must be propitiated. God's righteousness cannot tolerate any sin, certainly not the blackness of your sin and my sin. And so Christ came to take our sins upon himself. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us.

And so this cup is no longer the cup of God's wrath in the hands of a sinner. No, it is the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hands of the sinless one. It is the bitter and foaming cup of God's wrath in the hands of Jesus Christ, the one who became sin for us.

And Jesus drank this cup down to the very dregs. This is why, we believe, the sufferings of Christ were the ultimate possible sufferings, because Christ drank the full measure of God's wrath down to the last drop. Christ endured every imprint of every thorn upon his forehead, every stripe beaten upon his back, every nail driven into his hands, even to the point when he cried out, "It is finished!" Finished indeed, for the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of Christ became an empty cup.

And so we remember that Christ drank the cup of God's wrath in our place. Do you remember the startling thing we found in Isaiah 51? Do you remember how God took the cup of staggering away from his people? Do you remember how Isaiah said "you shall drink no more?"

It is only on the basis of the work of Christ that Isaiah could make that claim. That is why Israel was not totally destroyed; chastised, yes, but not destroyed. Because Christ drank the cup of wrath in the place of his people, there was no wrath left for them to drink. And so it is, on the basis of the work of Christ, that God can say to you, "you will never drink the cup of my wrath again."

If you know that you're a sinner, then don't drink the cup of God's wrath. If your hand trembles, if your lips quiver at the thought, then pass the bitter cup into the hands of Christ. Let Jesus drink the cup of God's wrath in your place. Let him drink away your sins, down to the very dregs.

The Sweet, Sweet Cup of God's Love in the Hand of the Christian

But now what cup is this, that lies on the table before us? We deserve the goblet of staggering. But what sweet cup is this?

You have seen the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of the sinner, you have seen the bitter cup of God's wrath in the hand of Christ, now come and taste the sweet cup of God's love in the hand of the Christian. Taste the sweet, sweet cup of God's love in the hand of the Christian.

Listen to what Christ said to his disciples before going to the Garden of Gethsemane: "Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom' (Matthew 26:27-29)."

Here is a new cup, the cup of the new covenant in Christ's blood. The cup of wrath has been taken away from the Christian, never to be tasted again, but here is a new cup to replace it.

This is the cup of Jesus' blood, the blood he spilled on Calvary as he drank the cup of God's wrath. This is the cup poured out for forgiveness, the forgiveness which Christ earned for us when he completely drained the bitter cup of judgment.

There could be no cup like this, no new cup, unless Christ had already drunk the cup of wrath. But now, now that God's wrath has been removed from you, you may hold out your hand to receive the cup of Christ. It is his cup of blessing, the victory cup that he earned by his blood.

And of this God's word assures you: there are no dregs in the cup of God's love. You can drink and drink and drink. You can drink deeply all the way to the bottom and it will be sweet all the way down.

That's what this communion cup is like. This cup is sweet all the way down. This cup has no dregs. This is the cup of the kingdom of God, the cup we shall drink again with Jesus Christ when he brings us into his kingdom. We shall drink this cup forever and forever.

Have you put your trust in Christ for salvation? Then drink as long as you may, drink as deeply as you may, gulp as many of the rich draughts of Christ's mercy as you may, you will never taste any of the dregs of God's wrath. Come and take this cup into your hand. Its appearance is altogether lovely, its aroma is rich, and your Savior has made it sweet by his blood. Come and taste how sweet it is....

Oxford, England