One of the great figurative images of the bible is the cup. What gives the cup its significance is not the cup itself, rather its contents. A cup may contain blessings or it may contain wrath. Let’s look the usage of both as we explore the biblical imagery of the the cup.
Literal uses of the cup image often carry with it the sense of love, refreshment and fellowship. For instance, in Nathan’s parable in 2 Samuel 11:1-4, the poor man loved his lamb so much he allowed it to drink from his cup. Jesus commended the kindness of anyone who gave a “cup of cold water” even to the least of His disciples (Matthew 10:42; cf. Matthew 25:34-40). Additionally, the Psalmist used the cup to symbolize God’s provisions for His people saying, “The Lord is… my cup” (16:5), “my cup overflows” (23:5) and “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (116:13).
However, in the judgment passages of both Old and New Testaments, the cup image is most often associated with God’s wrathful judgment against sin. God is pictured as punishing wicked, sinful people by making them drunk from the cup of His wrath (Isaiah 51:17, 22; Jeremiah 25:15-28; Ezekiel 23:31-34; Revelation 14:9-10, 16:4-21, 18:6). The cup of wrath is a particularly dark symbol of God’s judgment, especially when it is contrasted with the generous blessings that come from God’s cup. The bleakness of this picture is enhanced by the fact that it is God Himself who is seen personally handing sinners their destruction and forcing them to drink to their own demise (ref. Psalm 75:2-8).
When we consider the principal use of the cup imagery in the Old Testament as one of wrath, then Jesus’ threefold request of “let this cup to pass” from Him takes on even greater significance (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44). Rather than being a mere request to not die, Jesus’ agony stems from the expectation that He is about to feel the full weight and fury of His Father’s anger toward sin. What is especially poignant is that, because He was sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21), Jesus did not deserve to drink the cup of God’s wrath. Yet he chose to surrender to God’s will saying, “Shall I not drink the cup my Father has given Me” (John 18:11) so that we would not have to drink the cup of God’s wrath for our sins (1 John 2:1-2).
Because Jesus drank from the cup of God’s wrath on our behalf, He offers those who believe in Him the cup of the new covenant saying, “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” (Matthew 26:27-28; cf. Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25-26). All who accept Jesus’ sacrifice for themselves will enjoy the “cup of blessings” (1 Corinthians 10:16). But anyone who takes Jesus’ sacrifice lightly or rejects it all together will drink the cup of God’s judgment for themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).