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Volume 17, Issue 1: Stauron


Gary Hagen

Jesus referred to a cup in his prayers at Gethsemane, a cup He wished to avoid if possible. His language echoes scriptures that describe God's judgment on sin as a cup of wine. But for the joy that awaited Him beyond the cross, Jesus endured that cup at Calvary so that He might bestow upon us a cup of blessing, the cup of our salvation.

We read that they gave Jesus soured wine to drink as he completed his long climb up to Golgatha. Mark describes that wine as spiced with myrrh (smurnizo), while Matthew informs us it contained gall (chole). The words are not synonymous, but there is no necessary contradiction here.
Whatever its biological source, gall was a bitter poison and not a spice. In the book of Job, Zophan speaks of the poison of asps. The Hebrew word is rosh, and elsewhere refers to a poisonous plant (metaphorically in Deut. 29:18 and literally in Deut. 32:32-33), or perhaps an opiate.1 Other sources are hemlock or wormwood and other poisonous weeds (Hos. 10:4; Amos 6:12). Deut. 32:32-33 uses the same word for gall from plants and venom from asps. This rosh is specifically declared to be bitter to the taste. This Hebrew word for gall or poison is translated by the Septuagint with the same Greek word that Matthew employed, (chole) (e.g., Deut. 29:18; 32:32; Jer. 8:14; 9:14; and Ps. 69:21).
Oinos refers to good wine, oxos to soured wine.2 The ancients added myrrh as a luxury to flavor wine. The myrrh in soured leftover wines would help to mask the bitterness of gall, not unlike our "spoonful of sugar that makes medicine go down." But why would the gall be added to the wine at all?
Some commentaries infer that this was a Jewish custom based upon Proverbs 31:6, to give strong drink to those about to die, so that they might forget their misery. But a number of things argue against this supposition. First, it would be unlikely that cynical soldiers who so recently beat and mocked Christ would suddenly have pity on Him at His point of greatest pain. And the crowd was largely composed of those who had earlier shouted, "Crucify him!" The chief priests even sought to prevent any last minute acts of kindness (Mt. 27:41 cf. v.49).
It also seems unlikely that this offer of wine spiked with gall was an act of pity given the Greek verb tense used here. The imperfect tense indicates an action repeatedly urged upon Christ (e.g., they kept on giving him wine). But the text also shows that Christ, after an initial taste, refused all further attempts to get him to drink from this cup. Why would anyone repeatedly urge a kindness on a dying man so bent on refusing? We must ask why the Holy Spirit preserved this particular detail in the narrative of Christ's work on Calvary.
Finally, we can state with utmost confidence that the mingled wine was not a measure of pity. The Scriptures inform us not only that Christ's captors offered Him poisoned wine, but it also tells us that this was a fulfillment of prophecy. And the verse immediately before that prophecy instructs us that this deed was not intended as any form of pity or comfort (Ps. 69:20_21).
If it was not a kindness, then what was it? And why did Christ refuse? Other commentaries have postulated that the bitter wine was just one more insult that His captors added to His sufferings. But if that's all that it was, why did Christ refuse to drink from that cup? If this were part and parcel of the cruelty of the cross, wouldn't Christ's obedience to the sufferings of the cross mandate that He drain the dregs from this bitter cup also? His rejection of the cup must have been part of His obedience to the will of the Father. But how?
The answer is twofold. First, we recall Christ's own words in John 10 where He foretold that no man would take His life forcibly, but that He would willingly lay it down for His sheep. The drugged wine was administered to prisoners prior to them being nailed to the cross as a means of more easily subduing them in this painful purpose. It made the soldiers' job easier by temporarily sedating the victim. Christ's refusal to be anesthetized before His crucifixion demonstrated His willingness to go to the slaughter as the Lamb of God. Just as He had resisted neither His arrest in Gethsemane, nor His torment by the soldiers, He also did not resist the awful hammer and spikes at the point of His crucifixion.
The second reason Christ may have refused the mingled wine is based on His function not only as the willing Lamb of God, but also in His dual role as our great High Priest by presenting Himself as our sin sacrifice before the Father. Although Jesus was no teetotaler, we learn from scripture that a priest was not permitted to drink wine or strong drink while performing his priestly work. The priestly functions allowed no lapses in judgment or inattention to detail. Priests also needed clear minds to teach the children of Israel. In Christ's final priestly work on Calvary, and in those final moments of instruction (Jn. 19:27), ministry (Lk. 23:34, 43), and worship (Lk. 23:46), He kept a clear mind in accordance with the Scriptures. Not until His work was finished did He accept a sip of wine-vinegar and breathe His last. Christ showed that His priestly work on the Cross was finished by both the words He spoke and by His final taste of wine.

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