"I Thirst, Vinegar Given To Jesus," by James Tissot

“I Thirst”: The Three Cups of Christ

Christ was offered two “cups.” But he has blessed believers with one precious cup.

Psalm 69:20-21; Matthew 27:34, 48; John 19:28-30 (text)

April 1, 2012 Download PDF sermon
"I Thirst, Vinegar Given To Jesus," by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)
“I Thirst, Vinegar Given To Jesus,” by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)

Children, if you were to make a list of what food you don’t like, what would be on the top of your list? I’m almost sure that one of the top three would be ampalaya. Why? Because it is very bitter! You probably wonder why people eat such food, even if it is good for the body. What’s another thing you don’t want to put into your mouth? Medicine. Why? Again, it is because most medicines are bitter.

In the Ilocos region in northern Philippines, there is a delicacy called papaitan, which is a stew made of goat or beef innards flavored with a liquid produced by the liver called bile. And bile has a very bitter taste. The name papaitan comes from its bitter taste.

Bile is the other name for gall, which is used in our reading of Matthew. In his account of Jesus’ crucifixion, Matthew says that Jesus was offered wine mixed with gall. This part of Jesus’ crucifixion is a bit confusing to many Christians, enough to cause some to say that the four Gospels have conflicting narratives.

To harmonize these narratives, we have to account for two instances, not one, when Jesus was offered to drink. Matthew and Mark mention both instances, while Luke and John tell only the second instance. How do we know this? In Matthew 27:33-35, Jesus was offered to drink after he arrives in Golgotha, but before he was nailed to the cross. Note that after he was offered to drink, verse 35 says, ”And when they had crucified him…” Mark has a very similar account.

Later, both Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus was offered to drink again while he hung on the cross. In Matthew 27:49-50, it says that after he was offered to drink, the people wanted to see if he has power to come down from the cross, and after that, Jesus died. Again, Mark has an almost identical account.

But there are also differences between these two occasions of drink offerings to Jesus. The first difference is that wine mixed with gall was offered the first time, and sour wine was offered the second time. The second difference is that Jesus refused to drink the first offering of wine mixed with gall, but asked for and accepted the second drink offering of sour wine by saying, ”I thirst.”

Today, in the fifth of Jesus’ Seven Last Words on the cross, we will study these differences and what these seemingly insignificant details about the drink offerings to Jesus means to us. Christ was offered two “cups.” But he has blessed believers with one precious cup. Our theme today is: ”I Thirst”: The Three Cups of Christ. First, The Cup Refused. Second, The Cup Accepted. Third, The Cup for Us.

The Cup Refused
In these two instances, what was offered to Jesus were two different kinds of drinks. Before he was crucified after arriving at Golgotha, he was offered wine mixed with gall (Matthew) or myrrh (Mark). Here, the Greek word for wine used is the same word used for ”wine” in the wedding at Cana (John 2:10). Matthew uses the word ”gall,” or bile, or a bitter substance as what was mixed in the wine.[ref]Walter Bauer, et. al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1086.[/ref] The word ”gall” was used to refer to narcotics and even poisons because of its bitter taste.

Wine Mixed With Myrrh by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)
Wine Mixed With Myrrh by James Jacques Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)

Why then does Mark use ”wine mixed with myrrh”? The Greek word used is smyrnizō, which means ”to mix or treat with myrrh.” Among the ancients, myrrh was used as perfume, flavoring, embalming, and as a narcotic.[ref]R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, 639.[/ref] What this means is that myrrh was mixed into the wine in a substantial amount so that the wine became as bitter as gall. Thus, Matthew’s ”gall” describes the bitter taste of Mark’s ”myrrh,” and there is no contradiction between their accounts.

Two questions arise from these facts: First, who offered this concoction to Jesus before he was nailed to the cross? Second, why did Jesus, ”when he tasted it, he would not drink it”? (Matt 27:34)

None of the four Gospels gives us a clue as to who offered this bitter, narcotic drink to our Lord. The Roman soldiers themselves might have offered this drink to make their heinous job easier. Nailing a criminal’s hands and feet probably involved some struggling against the soldiers because of the pain. Given the reputation of Roman troops’ brutality, especially against foreigners like Jews, this is not very plausible.

Nevertheless, some ancient writings provide a clue. A society of women offered this sort of drink to those who are about to be crucified to deaden the pain of the execution. Possibly, some of these women were Jesus’ disciples who followed him as he walked towards Calvary. The basis of their offering Jesus a drugged drink might be Proverbs 31:6, ”Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress.”[ref]Brian Schwertley, ”The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” http://www.reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/13%20The%20Crucifixion%20of%20Jesus%20Christ.htm. Accessed 03/30/2012.[/ref]

In any case, whoever offered this drugged drink to our Lord, Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus refused to take it. The verb used in both Gospels is in a form that indicates that Jesus was offered repeatedly but was steadfast in his refusal to take it. Why did he strongly reject to drink it?

The night before, our Lord spent hours praying to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed for his disciples, for all those the Father would give to him. But he also agonized so greatly over the hellish suffering that lies ahead, so much so that his sweat became like drops of blood. So he prayed, ”My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). The bitter drink that was offered to him is a picture of the bitter cup that he was about to drink to accomplish his Father’s will for him.

In Scripture, judgment is often pictured as a ”bitter” cup. A life full of disappointments and sufferings is a ”bitter” life. Remember the thirsty Israelites who came upon water in the desert? God tested their faithfulness to him and to Moses when they found out that the water was undrinkable, because it was bitter. So they called the place Marah, which means bitter. When Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, lost her husband and her three sons, she called herself Mara, ”for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20).

But that bitter, drugged cup offered before Jesus was crucified would have prevented him from accomplishing the redemption that he set out to do from eternity. Why? Because, like a painkilling drug, it would deaden the pain that he was suffering””physically, emotionally, as well as spiritually. We know that drugs numb the body as well as the emotions. If he was not completely aware of his suffering; if he was not feeling and experiencing his forsakenness by his Father; if he was in this state because of the narcotic drink, his mission would have been a failure. To finish his work of redemption, he must drink the cup, as the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 44 says, of ”inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors” of hell. How will he suffer all these things if his senses are taken away by the drugged cup?

So our Lord refused resolutely from drinking the bitter wine to complete his work of redemption. For six hours, he suffered hell physically, emotionally and spiritually: crucified on the cross, shamed and mocked by everyone, and forsaken by his own Father.

The Cup Accepted
Near the end of his life on the cross, all four Gospels agree that sour wine was offered to Jesus. It is during this instance that Jesus uttered the words, ”I thirst” (John 19:28), prompting those who heard him to offer him sour wine for drink.

The Greek word used means ”sour wine” which is cheap wine, in contrast to the ”wine” offered several hours before. This was cheap drink, mixed with water so that the alcohol content is minimized, that the lower classes of the military or society were able to afford to satisfy their thirst. ”It relieved thirst more effectively than water and, being cheaper than regular wine, it was a favorite beverage of the lower ranks of society and of those in moderate circumstances.”[ref]Bauer, 715.[/ref]

The Gospel of John says, ”After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said ( to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst’” (John 19:28). This could be read in two ways. One is by saying that Jesus was aware that by finishing all that the Father set him out to do, he has fulfilled all Scripture. The other reading is that Jesus was causing Psalm 69:21 to be fulfilled, which says, ”They gave me poison [gall] for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” He did this by saying, ”I thirst,” to cause the soldiers to give him sour wine which they were drinking to quench their thirst.

Unlike the bitter, drugged wine, this sour wine he willingly received. There is somewhat of a reversal here. The bitter cup, a picture of his bitter agony of his sufferings, he strongly refused to drink because if he did, he would not completely bear the wrath of God for our sins. The cup of cheap wine, the drink of the humble classes of society, was not fit for royalty in the Person of the King of Jews, more than that, the King of Kings.

This second cup is the cup overflowing with God’s wrath against the sins of his people. This is the same terrible cup that Jesus prayed that the Father would take away from his hand, but even so, he willingly drank it. It is much more bitter than the wine mixed with gall. Knowing Scripture perfectly, Jesus recalled what this cup means, ”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” (Psa 78:15). The wicked of the earth are the ones who will drink God’s cup of wrath in hell.

On Judgment Day, Psalm 78:15 will be fulfilled when all those who obey Satan ”will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur”¦ forever and ever” (Rev 14:10-11). In fact, all the wicked inhabitants of the earth will drink the cup of God’s wrath, ”The cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath” (Rev 16:19).

But for the sake of those who will repent of their sins, Jesus had to drink this bitter cup as well. Jesus refused to drink the first cup of bitterness because, if he drank it, he will not be able to drink the second cup, the cup of God’s eternal wrath against our sins.

The Cup For Us
All his life, Jesus was resolute in his mission to drink this bitter cup of God’s wrath against the sins of his people. This is why he frequently spoke about his sufferings and death at the hands of the chief priests and wicked men. He referred to his sufferings and death as ”drinking my cup” (Matt 20:22; 26:39).

On the night he was betrayed, he ate with the Twelve, and again predicted his death for their sake. In the Upper Room, he would offer them to drink his cup, his blood shed on the cross for their sins, ”Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:27-28).

This cup of Christ is not the bitter cup of wrath that God poured out on his rebellious covenant people Israel, when he condemned them: ”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” (Isa 51:17). Soon, Jerusalem would be destroyed by God’s wrath, its people exiled to bitter slavery in Babylon.

But the Lord promised them a coming day of restoration. He will take the cup of wrath from his people and pour it instead on their enemies: ”Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more; and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors” (Isa 51:22-23). In time, Babylon too will be conquered by the Medo-Persians, and God’s people Israel released from bitter captivity.

This is what Jesus had done for us on the cross. When God condemned us because of our rebellion, we deserved to drink to the dregs the cup of God’s wrath. Instead, Jesus took this cup from us and he willingly drank it on our behalf. So God poured out his wrath on him because of our sins. In this way, Jesus replaced our cup of wrath with the cup of salvation.

And instead of God feeding us bitter poison as our death sentence, Christ is nourishing and feeding us with his body broken for us in the cross, ”Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you” (Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19).

In Psalm 69:24, David who prayed against his enemies ”Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them.” But Jesus, while God was pouring out his cup of wrath on him in the cross, prayed for his enemies, and for you: ”Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

With the psalmist, we must then exclaim in thankfulness to God, ”I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Psa 116:13). This cup given by our Savior is overflowing with all the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. And as we partake of God’s goodness and mercy all our days, let us declare in thankfulness, ”The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup” (Psa 16:5).

Christ suffered extreme thirst and drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath in order that he may offer us the cup of salvation filled with water unto eternal life that would satisfy our thirst forever. May we, God’s people, be found hungering and thirsting for Christ and his perfect righteousness all the way to his bitter death on the cross.