In the Easter story, God zooms in so that we can see the fine details.
Particularly in Christ’s suffering, every word counts and every moment is important. They say sometimes that “the devil is in the details.” In this case we might say, “the Saviour is in the details.” Because it’s these details that allow us to see clearly the beauty and power of what Christ did.
Consider what happens in Mark 15:23. Before Jesus is fastened to the cross, we read that “they gave him wine mingled with myrrh to drink” (v. 23). Apparently, this happened more often. Those who were going to be executed would be offered a bit of relief before they entered the darkest place of their suffering. It would generally be some wine, mixed with something else, a substance to dull the pain a little.
There’s a Jewish tradition that a group of women in Jerusalem devoted themselves to this grim “ministry of mercy.” They would attend every execution that took place outside the city, so that they could give some respite to the condemned. Some even say that they had Biblical grounds for such a practice. This is what Proverbs 31 instructs, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more” (vv. 6-7).
Maybe you’ve heard of how soldiers have been known to take a stiff drink, a shot of rum or whiskey, just before heading into battle. That’s because alcohol can take the edge off a person’s fear, or it can make even the worst pain a bit more bearable.
Mark says that the wine which Jesus was offered was “mingled with myrrh.” Myrrh was a spice that was used for a range of things. It was sometimes an ingredient in cosmetics, and was also used to embalm dead bodies. Myrrh also had some narcotic qualities, for even in small amounts, it could alter a person’s state of mind.
We assume the Roman soldiers would’ve allowed Jesus to take a swallow of this drugged wine before they hoisted him up. Maybe they would allow it, not so much out of compassion, but to keep him from struggling when He was being nailed down.
All in all, this seems like a natural thing to do. Think how any of us will seek relief from our discomfort. You have a splitting headache, so you pop a couple pills. Your little one keeps crying, you think some teeth are coming through, so you give some Tylenol or Panadol. Pain relief: it’s a normal thing for humans to seek out, also for Christ—maybe especially for Christ.
Remember, our Lord has just undergone a terrible night and morning. He hasn’t slept for more than 24 hours. He probably hasn’t eaten or had anything to drink since the Passover meal. He’s been beaten with sticks, flogged with whips, forced to drag his heavy cross to Golgotha. He’s already in severe pain, and it’s about to get a lot worse.
Anyone would appreciate some relief from this suffering. To lessen the anguish by even one degree, to turn the pain down just one notch, would’ve been welcome. Before being lifted up on the cross, Jesus could easily have snatched a swallow from that cup, “but He did not take it” (v. 23). Faced with the unbearable, He would accept no reprieve, seek out no relief.
Why not? Doesn’t the Bible say that strong drink should be given to the perishing? It does, but the Bible also says that the Christ needed to be oppressed for human sin. For our sin to be taken away, Jesus needed to suffer fully and completely.
This meant torment, not just in body, but also in spirit. It wasn’t enough for the flesh to be pounded into the ground, while his spirit floated above in a haze. No, in these final hours his spirit had to be unclouded; his mind had to be undimmed. Jesus will bear the full brunt of God’s wrath: on his body, on his mind, on his soul—on his everything. And then, when the time finally came, Jesus will surrender his life by an act of the will. He will still have the presence of mind to lay his life down, and with open eyes He will go the Father.
You can begin to understand why Mark has shared this moment. In the rush of events on Good Friday, verse 23 was probably nothing more than the outstretched hand of a woman holding a bowl of fortified wine, and nothing more than a quiet word of refusal on Christ’s lips: “He did not take it.” A small detail—but when we zoom in, we see the good news. It means that our Saviour will be faithful. It means that He won’t take any short-cuts in our deliverance. He won’t do anything to reduce this burden, but He’ll carry it fully.
The cup of wine mixed with myrrh was probably offered in human kindness. But behind it, we can probably see another of the devil’s temptations. Remember how Satan attacked Jesus right at the beginning of his ministry, over forty long days in the wilderness. And that wasn’t the end of it. After being denied the devil left Jesus, Scripture says, “until an opportune time.” Satan was just waiting for another opportunity to throw Jesus off-track.
So here is an invitation for Jesus to take the easier way. “Pain is bad,” the devil is whispering; “and as Son of God, you deserve a lot better. So why would you put yourself through all this? Why not accept some relief—a little sip won’t hurt, will it?”
We see in this the truth that Satan tailors temptation to fit us well, to match our weaknesses at that moment. Yet the basic template is always the same: it’s about us, thinking that this will be better than what God gives us; it’s about us, doing what we want. But here on the cross Christ won’t put himself first, but He’ll seek God’s will above all.
You could say Christ refuses this cup of wine mingled with myrrh, so that He can take another cup. He is choosing to drink the cup that was given him by the Father: “the cup of God’s wrath.” In the Old Testament that’s an image for the fullness of God’s anger against sin. The Bible says that experiencing God’s anger is like taking a bitter cup that you have to drain right to the bottom, a deadly cocktail that leaves you reeling and ruined.
It’s the cup that has our name on it. All the cruel effects of God’s wrath should’ve been ours to suffer. But the Father took the cup out of our hands and passed it on to his one and only Son. That’s why our Saviour came to earth: to drink down the full measure of all our punishment.
For doing this holy work, Jesus was sober-minded and alert. He wasn’t drunk on wine, but He was full of the Spirit so that He could do it right. And He did. He denied himself mercy, so that we might receive endless mercy. He accepted no relief, so that God might show us abounding grace.
There’s still pain in this life—for some of us, there’s lots of pain: there is physical pain, when your body is constantly aching. There is emotional trauma from things that happened in the past, or the mental anguish of anxiety or depression.
And Satan still whispers, “Pain is bad. Sorrow is bad. God must be punishing you, because you’re such a rotten person. If God won’t relieve your pain, why not do it yourself? Why not dull your senses with this drink or that substance? Why not find your escape with this or that distraction?” Or we’re tempted to grow bitter. We want to think that God is a cruel God instead of a loving Father. We start to think that God might have good things in store for other people, but not for us.
But then we remember Christ our Saviour. He sustained all the wrath of God, down the smallest degree, down to the slightest measure. Christ has not saved us from pain, and He never promised us a pain-free life. But Christ has brought us true peace, for He endured the cross and despised the shame.
So we take all our anguish and we bring it to Christ, trusting that He can use our suffering to make us holy. We take all our sorrow and we bring it to Christ, trusting that He’ll wipe away our tears. We take all our sin and we bring it to Christ, trusting him to cleanse us fully.