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Passing Through the Waters

This is the fourth and final part of a series. Part one, part two, part three.

By David Ney

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
— Isaiah 43:2

There are two cups in Scripture. There is, on one hand, the cup of Psalm 23:5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” This cup is the cup of wine which, in Proverbs 23:31, “goes down smoothly.” It is the cup of blessing, gladness, and joy. Drinking from this cup is the experience of receiving blessing and salvation from the Lord.

Psalm 75:8, though, speaks about a different cup: “In the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drink it down to the dregs.” This second cup has been reserved for the ungodly nations. It predictably passes to Edom; “You Edom will drink it and will become drunk and strip yourself bare” (Lam. 4:21). But not just Edom: Babylon becomes, in the hand of the LORD, the golden cup “making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine, and so the nations went mad” (Jer. 51:7).

So there they are, in that classic 1987 film, The Princess Bride, sitting at a stone table on the side of a hill. Our beloved Wesley, who is seeking to rescue his bride, and the bridenapping villain Vizzini. Wesley places two cups, one in front of Vizzini, and one in front of himself. He then gives Vizzini the choice — he can choose either one but he must be careful, for one contains a lethal poison. Vizzini ties himself up in knots trying to figure out which cup to drink. When he finally makes his choice and drinks it down, he soon drops down dead, as we would expect. Wesley then confesses that he had placed the lethal poison in both cups rather than just one. He had thus been given over to the same cup which killed Vizzini. Our protagonist, though, drinks it down to no effect as the cup that goes down smoothly (Prov. 23:31), because he had progressively inoculated himself from its effects by giving himself small dosages of the poison over the course of time.

Jesus did not enjoy such immunity. In the words of Isaiah 43:2, “He passes through the waters.” When Jesus drinks it down he really drinks it down; he drinks it down to the very dregs and it kills him. In Nietzsche’s mind, that made him a fool and a coward. But in my mind, it exposes our dear Wesley as a fraud. For Wesley there was no real choice and no real contest. It is a setup. He sat down in front of two cups, yes, but for him they were both the cup of Psalm 23 since he suffered no ill effects. Jesus, though, sits down at the table with two different cups placed before him; the cup of Psalm 23 and the cup of Psalm 78, and he chooses the cup of Psalm 78 knowing it will kill him.

“Father,” Jesus says, “if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). His Father, it seems, is not willing, because in his passion Jesus undergoes abandonment, condemnation, physical and verbal abuse, torture, exposure, and death. In all this he drinks the cup that we had thought was reserved for the wicked of the earth, the cup of Psalm 78, and he drinks it down to the very dregs.

In Jeremiah 25 God asks the prophet to take from his hand the cup of the wine of wrath and make all the nations drink it. He takes it to the King of Egypt, to his servants, his officials and all his people; he takes it to the kings of the land of Uz, to the kings of the Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Ammon; to all the kings of Tyre and Sidon and the kings of the coastland across the sea; to all the kings of Arabia and the kings that live in the desert; to all the kings of Zimri, all the kings of Elam and Media; to all the kings of the north, far and near, one after another, and to all the kingdoms on the face of the earth. And he makes them all drink it!

Jeremiah, though, isn’t instructed to bring the cup of Psalm 78, the cup “with foaming wine, well mixed” to the nations only. He is asked to bear the divine pronouncement upon his own people too. Indeed, Judah gets no special treatment in God’s scheme. Judah simply falls in line as one among the many. And if the people of Judah or the people of any other nation protest that there has been some sort of mix-up — that they are being forced to drink from the wrong cup — Jeremiah has been given an answer for that one too. “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘You must drink! See, I am beginning to bring disaster on the city that is called by name: how can you possibly avoid punishment?’”

Israel drinks it down and it goes down hard and it burns, and he finds himself hunched over at the bar muttering the words of Psalm 22: “I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their head.” Israel drinks it down and exclaims, “Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” Israel drinks it down and exclaims, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws;  you lay me in the dust of death.” Israel drinks it down and exclaims, “dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Israel drinks it down and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus drinks from what appears to be the wrong cup because of what the gospel narratives tell us. He drinks the cup out of love for Israel; if he didn’t there would be no hope for Israel, for the story of Israel would not be his own. He drinks it down to the very dregs, because Israel too had drunk it down to the very dregs. So he follows after Israel into the darkness of Psalm 22, by taking the cup from Israel’s hand. He gives himself over to being scorned by others (Matt. 27:29; 27:31; 27:41; Mark 15:20; 15:31; Luke 18:32; 22:63; 23:11; 23:36); He drinks it down and the people shake their fists at him saying, “He saved others!” (Matt. 27:42; Mark 15:31; Luke 23:35). He gives himself over to being surrounded by strong bulls of Bashan that open wide their mouths like roaring lions: he drinks it down and the people cry out, “Crucify; crucify; crucify.” (John 19:6; 19:15). He is poured out like water and his heart melts like wax.  His mouth is dried up and his tongue sticks to his jaws: he drinks it down and it offers no relief: “I thirst” (John 19:28). They divide his clothes among themselves and for his clothes they cast lots (John 19:23-24). He is given over to the dust of death (Matt. 27:50; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:46; John 19:30). He drinks it down and cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34).

Why did Jesus cry out the words of Psalm 22 from the cross? Because he had been a good little Jewish boy and had the Psalter memorized, and so it was only natural that these words would come out. Yes, but there’s more. Why did Jesus cry out the words of Psalm 22? To point the people of Israel back to their Scriptures. Why did he point them back to their Scriptures? So they would find him there. Because what they needed most of all was to know that he had been with them through it all. When they passed through the waters the Israelites didn’t know that this is what they had signed up for. They didn’t know that their hardships would be so severe that they would long to return to a life of slavery. They didn’t know that by passing through the waters they were giving themselves over to death in the wilderness. They thought a life of ease would be waiting for them on the other side. They thought that every day with Jesus would be sweeter than the day before. They thought that they would now be granted to sit at his right and at his left in his glory. But Jesus said to them,

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with.” (Mark 10:38-39)

And drink the cup they did, just as Jesus said. St. Paul speaks on their behalf when he says,

God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. (1 Cor. 4:9-3)

Why did the apostles experience all of these hardships? They were, as the apostle Paul puts it, being conformed to the image of Christ. They were taking the cup which Christ willingly took and drinking it down to the very dregs. “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). The apostolic experience of hardship is a participation in Christ’s afflictions, but that is not all. The blood of righteous Israel, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the sanctuary, pours out onto the ground in the passion of the Christ (Luke 11:51). Thus, in Christ, apostolic suffering too becomes a participation in the afflictions of Israel. And what is more, it is their faithful suffering that confirms their identity as Israel.

In his lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews, the great eighteenth-century Anglican theologian William Jones of Nayland reflects at length upon the scriptural reality that the Church and Israel are one. How do we know that they are one? he asks. We know that they are one because Scripture reveals them as one in their sufferings. “There never was a time, so far as we can learn,” Jones says,

When the true Church of God, with its doctrines and institutions, was not hated and opposed by the world; either persecuted and oppressed by powerful tyrants, or traduced and insulted by lying historians. From Abel downwards, a restless worldly spirit of unbelief has contradicted the worship of the true God, and troubled his people.

Jones proceeds to name some of instances in the Old Testament, which prove this to be the case. He then turns to reflect upon the history of the Christian Church. “The same spirit,” Jones continues,

Acting on the same principles, afflicted the Christian Church with ten bloody persecutions; and there never was a time when it was not misrepresented by lying reports and malicious accusations. Truth and godliness have always been distinguished by the world’s ill-will towards them; and if there be any particular Church now, which is hated and railed at more than the rest, by Papists on one side and the Sectaries on the other, I will venture to pronounce from this circumstance only, that wherever that Church can be found, it will prove to be, in its doctrine and profession, the purest Church of Christ upon earth. (Jones, Works, 4.359)

For Jones, it is the way in which the Church of England suffers that confirms it is part of the Church of God. Jones here turns the tables on a Protestantism that had for centuries sought to justify itself by means of demonstrating the purity of its doctrine. He does not say that purity of doctrine is unimportant, but he does say that it is not the basis of catholicity. The catholicity of a Church is not confirmed by studiously examining its doctrine but by considering its sufferings, because it is in its sufferings that the Church takes upon itself the figure of Israel.

Wesley cunningly manages to avoid drinking from the cup that kills Vizzini. But Jesus willingly drinks from it. And he asks his beloved children to drink it too. The difference lies not in the drink itself but in the constitution of the one who drinks. While one drinks it to their downfall, the other drinks it to victory. This is why St. Paul says, ”Those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 11:29-30). The one that is perishing drinks the cup to the very dregs and cries out to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” (Rev. 6:16). “Curse God and die,” he cries out with Job’s wife. But the believer drinks the same cup and cries out something very different. He cries out, with Israel and with Christ, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”

The Church and the world both suffer. But only the Church suffers with the faith of Jesus the Christ. The experience of Psalm 22, which Jesus claims as his own from the cross, is the experience of hardship, alienation, and death. But Jesus’ cry from the cross is not the cry of Prometheus, shaking his fist in hopeless defiance at the gods. His cry is his claim upon God’s vindication. For the psalmist who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in verse one and proceeds to outline all that he suffers, turns the corner in verse 22 and says:

I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help (Ps. 22:22-24).

When Jesus cried out “my God my God” it was finished. His victory was secure, for as God and as Israel both, he claimed the vindication God had promised for his people even as he entered the valley of the shadow of death. He endured the cross, scorning its shame for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2) — the cup set before him. Having drunk the cup of Psalm 78 to its very dregs, he passed through the darkest valley and only then did he sit down at the right hand of the Father to enjoy the cup of blessing, the cup of Psalm 23.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following words from prison, shortly before his execution: “The Christian has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but like Christ himself [who called out] (‘My God My God why hast thou forsaken me?’), he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ” (Bonhoeffer 1997, 337). Most of us have taken a hit in the wallet over the last few months. Some of us have lost our jobs. We’ve all been forced to step back and remove ourselves from the relationships which might uphold us in this time. We’ve been subjected to isolation, loneliness, discouragement, and fear. And we’ve seen this country given over increasingly to division, hatred, and violence. Some of us have gotten sick, some a little, some a lot. Many of us know someone who has died because of the virus. And if we don’t now we probably will before all is said and done. We cry out, “Lord if you are willing, take this cup from me!” But the answer we get is the answer we don’t want to hear. We must, the Lord tells us, drink this earthly cup to its very dregs. We must go through with it; for there is no other way. “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:38–39). Jesus says. But then the promise: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa. 43:2).

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.


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