Drinking the Cup

A Twilight Musing

“Let’s sit down with a cup of coffee (or tea) and chat a while.” That’s a common invitation of people in our society, since partaking of a cup of something is associated with relaxed fellowship together. It has been so from ancient times, although the contents of the cup until modern times was wine, rather than a brewed hot drink. There are about 65 occurrences (by my count) of the word “cup” in the Bible, and it is striking that 55 of them have some sort of symbolic significance, while only ten of them have an entirely literal meaning, and in most of those the literal cup is in the context of a larger purpose or moral lesson. For example, when Jesus commends the giving even of so little a thing as a cup of cold water to honor Him (Mark 9:41), the cup has a significance beyond itself. When Jesus accuses the Pharisees of giving more attention to cleaning the exteriors of their literal cups than to spiritually cleansing themselves, the literal quickly fades into the symbolic. Why this preponderance of symbolic meanings in the figure of a cup in Holy Scripture? I think it is because what we imbibe is inherently associated with our relationship to God and to our fellow humans. What we drink, depending on our choices, can be a part of wonderfully satisfying fellowship, or it can be terrible in its consequences.

The symbolic references to drinking a cup are wide-ranging and multifaceted. In some places it signifies a fullness of blessings, as in Ps. 23:5; but by contrast, it is also used as a symbol of the administration of God’s wrath (Ps. 75:8, Rev. 14:10). In the institution and subsequent observance of the Lord’s Supper, partaking of the cup together is an act of deep fellowship between believers and a mystical union with Christ (Lk. 22:20, I Cor. 11:25). But immediately after the Last Supper, Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane praying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup [of suffering] pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). I think some spiritual benefit can be derived from a more detailed consideration of these four categories of figurative uses of “cup” in Scripture: the cup of blessing, the cup of wrath, the cup of communion, and the cup of suffering. The first two reflect the relationship between humans and God under the Old Covenant, and the second two deal with how that relationship becomes closer and more profound under the New Covenant.

The best known passage using the cup as an image of blessing is in Ps. 23:5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” This is a summation of the Great Shepherd’s care and protection over His flock, so great that it overwhelms the speaker’s expectation and comprehension. Ps. 116:13 says, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” in response to “all His benefits” (v. 12). But more often mentioned, especially in the prophets, is the “cup of horror and desolation” (Ezek. 23:33) or the “cup of staggering” (Zech. 12:2) which God administered in judgment to rebellious Israel or another wicked nation. The underlying message of these passages is that God holds people accountable, and blesses those who obey Him and punishes those who do not, especially His own covenant people. God is merciful and will forgive when people repent of their evil, but the frequency with which He found it necessary to pour out His cup of wrath indicates that dependence on law-keeping was a precarious way to walk with God. The promise of the coming of the Messiah speaks of a more lasting covenant, one planted in the hearts of God’s people (see Jer. 30-33, esp. 31:31-34). But the New Covenant established through the Messiah would involve a radically new kind of cup to drink from.

A short time before Jesus “set His face toward Jerusalem” for the fatal last journey of His life, James and John came to Him requesting that they be granted “to sit one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). To which Jesus replied, “Your do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” (v. 38). When they presumptuously and ignorantly assured Him that they could, it was clear that they had no inkling of the cup of suffering from which Jesus asked the Father to deliver Him as He agonized in Gethsemane. It is not surprising, then, that none of the disciples realized the full meaning of Jesus’ words when He instituted the Lord’s Supper.

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." (Mark 14:23-25)

None of the disciples understood what Jesus meant by His blood being poured out for many, nor that a New Covenant would be established through the shedding of His blood. But when they began to partake of the Lord’s Supper after the Day of Pentecost, when the New Covenant was activated and the Church was established, they were reminded constantly in partaking of the Supper together that the cup of blessing they had drunk with Jesus in that Upper Room was symbolic of the cup of suffering that He alone could drink on the cross. For every Christian observing this holy feast since the Day of Pentecost, drinking of the sacramental cup is a recognition that we are participating in His death by dying to self so that we can be alive with Him. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:10, “If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness”— the righteousness of Christ provided through the shed blood that we symbolically drink in the cup of the Lord’s Supper.

This is a grave and serious matter, as Paul makes clear in his recap of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in I Cor. 11:27-29.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

But in this act of gravity, we also look forward to the joy and assurance of His coming again. Until then, the cup of blessing and the cup of suffering are coupled in the Lord’s Supper, looking forward to that time to which Jesus referred when He said He would not drink again with His disciples until they are together in the final Kingdom of God, where we will celebrate the great wedding feast of the Lamb as His spotless bride, the perfected Body of Christ, the Church (Rev. 19:6-8).


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)