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.

  • myabnormallife.

    I used to believed the “cup” was Jesus facing death on the Cross. I believe without a doubt this was the “cup” of God’s wrath and if God’s wrath made Jesus sweat great drops of blood and cry out in anguish because of it, then we too need to be equally burdened for our lost friends, families, congregations, and His world. Thank you for these truths.

  • Teejay

    While reading this article, I got the understanding that another reason why Jesus was not as confident as other martyrs was because He was made weak so that when we his followers face persecution, we would have his strength. Thank you and God bless.

  • MatthewS

    Wow – this adds a new dimension to my thoughts this Easter. Thank you!

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  • jonesy

    I can accept the fact that Jesus did not have any joy in anticipating the physical and spiritual suffering he was about to endure. What I don’t understand is why would this horrific suffering cause Jesus to tremble, to be weak, to want to have this cup removed from Him, WHEN HE KNEW THAT HE WAS GOING TO BE RESURRECTED.

    When I know for certain that the outcome of various difficult situations will be better than it is now, it calms me down, even in the face of the pain and difficulty I will have to endure. Why did the fact that Jesus knew he was going to be resurrected not bring Him peace?

    • Kurt

      “Why did the fact that Jesus knew he was going to be resurrected not bring Him peace?”

      I think we need to have a real understanding of what he was going to encounter. Jesus was about to be separated from God. If Jesus is to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins he must pay the perfect eternal punishment. Jesus was not going to just experience a slap on the wrist or even a dismemberment of body parts but an eternal punishment from God! there is no amount of foreknowledge that will comfort a punishment like that. There will also never be a punishment of that magnitude ever again so we do not have anything to truly compare it to. I do agree that there is no amount of pain on this earth (maybe) that I could encounter that would make me afraid knowing that I will one day see Christ. However the pain and suffering that Christ was about to go through is like NOTHING experienced on earth or by any human.

    • Kerry (Australia)


      A good question and I hope what answered this for me will do the same for you.

      As pointed out in this article, and as you also indicate in your comment, the focus is the cup and the experience it represents. What answers your question for me is the nature of the suffering that Christ was to go through.

      That experience of being cut off from God is something I have no knowledge of; all of us, including the most evil, live in a world that constantly enjoys the presence of God. I think that the experience of being cut off from God must be so horrific that even knowledge of future relief can bring no peace.

      It seems to me that no suffering we experience on earth can come close to what even one second completely separated from God would be like: time is relative and I can only imagine that for me such a second might seem more like a year. Jesus experienced separation from God for a lot longer than a second.

      As a man living on earth Jesus experienced a perfect union with God, something else that I have never experienced. I cannot know what grief must come from the loss of such a perfect union with God. I can only imagine that what I experienced when my father died would be only a shadow of what complete separation from our perfect Father God must feel like.

      Then there is the experience of having God’s judgement poured out on you, not for your sins but for all the sins of the ages; past, present and future. It is impossible for me to know what that must feel like. No physiological, psychological, or spiritual suffering that I have experienced in the past, or might experience in the future, can compare to what Christ had to endure on the Cross.

      With so much that I cannot know, with no experiences of an equal nature that I can use for comparison, I realize it is impossible for me to ever fully understand the personal suffering that Jesus Christ went through prior to going to the Cross. But I can recognize that this suffering must have been of such a horrific nature that not even the knowledge of the resurrection to come would be enough to comfort and strengthen Him.

      In the end, unless we know the weight of that cup we cannot know what it costs to willingly lift itand drink it dry.

      I hope what I wrote has some value for you Jonesy, and thanks for asking the question: I got value out of trying to answer it.

  • Yinka Vidal

    Jesus was not afraid of dying and it would be great insult to compare Jesus to humans. Jesus carried the entire weight of the sins of the whole world, including those who died after him. In fact, Jesus demonstrated great strength in death because of the miracles he performed beyond the cross. Read this article about the supernatural work Jesus did after death.
    Yinka Vidal

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  • Robert M

    I certainly do believe that Jesus bore the wrath of God in his death on the cross, and that his anguish in the Garden was because of this. However, I’m not sure that the explanation provided by the article is that helpful.
    First of all, there is a danger in this kind of explanation of separating the (human) suffering of Jesus on the cross from the ‘real’ suffering of Jesus, which is somehow more profound. Is the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross just a cipher for something else? There is a christological problem lurking here, I think (maybe denying the unity of the two natures in one person?).
    Second, might we not say that calmness or stoicism in the face of suffering and death isn’t a particularly Christian virtue? David doesn’t suffer in this way, and neither does Jesus. They both cry out in anguish. The real (Christian)virtue is faith, not calmness. If this is true, then there really is no need to ask the question in the first place.

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  • BibleLeague

    Jesus is forever, but we must work towards him.

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