Pp Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, John 18:1
Suffering to perfection
The cup and the agony
Did Jesus doubt?
1. The spirit and the flesh
2. Into battle
John gives no indication of the events surrounding Jesus and the disciples’ presence in Gethsemane, his observations being limited to just the one descriptive verse (John 18:1) in which he notes that the journey from the city across the Kidron Valley took place immediately after the meal (I will describe what can be gleaned from this in the next section where I’ll look at the background to the traditional sites of the garden that have come down to the present day).
Luke 22:39-46 offers a very condensed version of both Matthew and Mark’s account (though I don’t mean to infer that the author simply reduced what he found in those two accounts when he was compiling his own Gospel) and, even though we can see that it’s best to use the fuller versions, it’s only Luke who adds the very personal observation that Jesus withdrew ‘a stone’s throw’ away to pray and the disputed words of verses 43-44 which the RSV consigns to a footnote and translates them (my italics)
‘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 upon the ground’
Unlike places that we’ve looked at in previous texts, we can’t assign these to a copyist’s attempt at the harmonisation of all three Gospels because they appear nowhere else. Ancient manuscripts fail to include them in many of the generally accepted as more reliable texts while others are marked in the text by a dagger symbol (an ‘obelisk’) which would indicate that they were in some way being drawn attention to. The textual support, therefore, seems to be, on the face of it, against their originality but Lukgel comments that
‘There exists no conclusive proof that verses 43 and 44 do not belong to the original text of Luke...Most probably the verses were omitted by later copyists because they had no clear idea of the Saviour’s real humanity and could therefore not understand why an angel had to strengthen Him and why He had to experience such a conflict’
and Lukmor concludes that a copyist could have felt that they were
‘...pointing to a Jesus all too human’
‘...the probability is that they should be included’
At the very least, they emphasise the agony with which Jesus was coming face to face with the reality of what the Father was requiring Him to do a few hours afterwards when flight from danger was still a distinct possibility, a fact which isn’t neglected by either Matthew or Mark (Mtw 26:37, Mark 14:33). Therefore, although they may not be regarded as original, they don’t appear to introduce a state of mind in Jesus that’s not present in the other, independent records.
More important to me, however, is the meaning of the italicised word in my quoting of the two verses above. The reader will probably be able to witness to sermons which have included these verses and which have commented that the sweating of blood is a clear indication that a person is on the point of death, thinking that it shows the prophetic knowledge in Jesus concerning what was about to transpire.
Actually, all it does is to assert that Jesus’ body was breaking down and that, even if He hadn’t have been crucified, He would have soon expired! Therefore, such teachings should be rejected. The word ‘like’ should be given as wide a meaning as possible without necessarily tying it down to a specific meaning which is interpreted at the one extreme of ‘identical to’.
Luke says that Jesus’ sweat became like great drops of blood without saying that they were blood. But in what manner they became worthy of such a description is not detailed in the text and we should be careful to interpret it within the boundaries given. Apart from these brief observations of Luke’s text, I shan’t refer to the narrative on the whole, relying more on the testimony of both Matthew and Mark in my notes.
The scene as set by both these writers is that, upon entering the place which was known as Gethsemane, Jesus instructed the disciples to stay behind (the RSV translates Jesus’ words as ‘sit here’) in a particular part of the garden while He took Peter, James and John to a place further into the garden and possibly away from the main pathway (Mtw 26:36-37, Mark 14:32-33) where He became troubled.
Jesus then put into words what he was feeling and urged the three disciples to ‘watch’ which implied both a physical and spiritual alertness (Mtw 26:38, Mark 14:34 - only Matthew includes the word ‘with Me’ which seems to indicate that Jesus initially was urging the three disciples to support Him in His trial of prayer when the implications of the cross were being impressed upon Him. Luke 22:40, however, indicates that Jesus gave the three disciples instructions even before His first time of prayer to watch and pray that they might not enter into personal temptation), before walking on further on His own to petition the Father for the removal of the cup if it was at all possible (Mtw 26:39, Mark 14:35-36). Returning to where he’d left the disciples, He spoke directly to Peter (once he’d woken up, presumably - the Greek is plural so he was actually speaking to all three even though Peter is noted as being the one addressed) and urged them to stay awake ‘one hour’ with Him and to pray that they might not enter into temptation (Mtw 26:40-41, Mark 14:37-38). The mention of this time period may or may not be significant for it could have been spoken figuratively rather than to mean a literal twelfth division of the night - it seems more likely to mean something like ‘at this time’. Matcar comments that
‘...“one hour” need not be exact [but] it certainly indicates that Jesus has been praying for some time’
while Matmor notes that the expression
‘...is sometimes used to denote a short interval of time’
and this is about all that can be said, even though it makes the phrase to be inconclusive. Again Jesus returns to the place where He prayed the first time and says very similar words to His first time of prayer (Mtw 26:42, Mark 14:39) finding the three disciples fast asleep once more (Mtw 26:43, Mark 14:40), Mark inferring that He spoke to them again and that
‘...they did not know what to answer Him’
For a third time, Jesus goes away alone to pray (Mtw 26:44, Mark 14:41 [implied]) and returns to find the three disciples asleep once more (Mtw 26:45, Mark 14:41) but, this time, the time for prayer is over and the arrest immediately takes place (Mtw 26:45-46, Mark 14:41-42).
There are two things worthy of note here before we go on to look at the themes of the event more closely. Firstly, the return of Jesus three times. If we were to be absolutely honest to the record of events, we’d have to say that Jesus needed only to return once to where He’d left Peter, John and James when He knew that the band of soldiers were about to arrest Him, but it would appear that the reason for this repeated return was that He cared about His disciples.
After all, He’d clearly instructed them to ‘watch’, to stay awake both physically and spiritually, and His return seems to be solely for the purpose of making sure that they were going to carry out what He’d charged them to do. Even in the time of His greatest sorrow, therefore, Jesus still showed great concern for those who were close - a characteristic that we also see in the events of the cross where Jesus charges John to look after His mother, Mary (John 19:26-27).
Secondly, many commentators and speakers have envisaged Jesus’ presence in the Garden as being at a place where He would have been able to witness the advance of the band of soldiers with Judas at their head as they traversed the path after exiting from the city of Jerusalem with torches in their hand (John 18:3 bears witness to these though it was possibly a fairly light evening as it was the time of the full moon or, at the very least, one day passed the monthly event).
This may be so but, if we take the leaving of the eight disciples near the entrance of the garden and the leaving of the three further in (which the text seems to demand), then Jesus would have been even deeper into the olive orchard (presuming that the name ‘olive press’ indicates not only the agricultural trough was there but the plants from which a harvest would be retrieved).
When the soldiers arrived, they would have been plainly heard and their advance would have been witnessed as they advanced with their lanterns into the olive grove itself. Even though Jesus may have witnessed the soldier’s movements across the valley, it may be better to accept that, although Jesus knew He was shortly to be arrested, it wasn’t until they arrived at the entrance to Gethsemane that He knew that His arrest would immediately take place.
Gethsemane conjures in the mind of the believer romantic pictures of small plots of land nestling in the shadow of the Mount of Olives over-looking Jerusalem, and the name takes on an almost mystical meaning out of all proportion with it’s original function.
For the word ‘Gethsemane’ simply means ‘Oil Press’ from an Aramaic word and we can be fairly certain that it would have contained just that for times of harvest when the locally grown olives would have been pressed on site to yield their oil - the name of the mountain on which it’s sited (the Mount of Olives) also bears witness to the probability that it was covered by olive tree cultivation.
John 18:1 speaks of the place as being a garden (Strongs Greek number 2779) where Johncar sees the mention as necessarily meaning an olive grove, but the same word is used in Luke 13:19 in one of the parables where a simple plot of land is meant and it can mean no more than this as it stands. John also refers to the Kidron as the ‘torrent’ (Strongs Greek number 5493) where the word is normally employed to speak of a stream which is over-flowing after the winter and spring rains but which dries up with the dry months of summer.
At the time of year when Passover’s celebrated, the stream would have been in full flow and John’s description of the band’s journey implies that, instead of travelling at the head of the waters by the expected roadway, they descended into the valley, across the brook and into the Garden. If this is the correct interpretation of John’s words, we shouldn’t expect that Gethsemane has to be located above the modern road for it could have nestled below the level of the present day base of the Temple walls.
This is no more than supposition, of course, but there’s no need to expect that the traditional sites are any more accurate than such a theory. I would expect it to have been above the general elevation of the Temple area, however, for it seems logical to expect Jesus to have delivered His teaching about the close of the age here (Mtw 24:3ff).
It may possibly have been situated adjacent to the main routeway from Jerusalem to Bethany but the descriptor that it was on the Mount of Olives means very little (Luke 22:39 Cp Mtw 26:30,36) as Bethany was also considered to be here and that lay over a mile away (Luke 19:29). Mtw 26:30,36 and Mark 14:26,32 both give the impression that it was on Olivet and not at its foot, simply because Jesus and the disciples seem to go to the mountain and then arrive at the garden.
Using the traditional locations don’t help the pilgrim, either. Ungers writes that
‘There are two traditional places called Gethsemane. One is in the possession of the Latin church. It consists of a triangular spot, some seventy paces in circumference. It is enclosed by a fence and contains some very large and old olive trees besides a flower garden. The Greeks have set up another traditional Gethsemane located farther up Mount Olivet. Dr Thompson...says that he is inclined to think both are wrong and he would place the garden in a very secluded spot several hundred yards northeast of the other traditional sites’
But, instead of there being two as stated by Ungers, Zondervan comments that
‘...different sites are identified by Western, Russian, Armenian and Greek Orthodox church authorities [making at least four]...It is generally agreed that Gethsemane was situated on the hillside above the road from Jerusalem to Bethany but the precise site can be ascertained only by tradition. The oldest tradition, dating from Empress Helena’s visit to Jerusalem in 326AD fixed the site of Gethsemane at the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin and the place of Jesus’ prayer a stone’s throw up the hill...This would place the site about equal distance from St Stephen’s Gate and the Golden Gate. It would have been directly across from the Temple’
It would seem - and you can call me cynical if you like - that Empress Helena fixed the site of just about every religious event of significance by her visit of the land of Israel in the fourth century. She must have either been moving in an incredible amount of revelation or else she took some unparalleled guesses which have confused the established church for centuries!
Of course, where Gethsemane was isn’t really important - the same as the location of the tomb, the room where the Passover meal was celebrated and the exact spot on which Jesus ascended into heaven are totally superfluous to a relationship with God. It’s not important at all that sites are known and shrines erected - but it is important that an individual comes to know Jesus personally and responds to His direction in their own lives.
Therefore, we’ll probably never know for sure just where the Garden was situated and, even more so, when we consider the evidence of Josephus here. For, in the encampment round the city of Jerusalem about forty years after these events, he notes (page 295 lines 36-38 - 5.3.2) that
‘Every fence and hedge which the occupiers had put round their gardens and orchards were thrown down, every fruit-tree in the area felled...’
Though we might exclude the olive tree from being a tree that bears fruit as it’s the oil which it was mainly grown for, the description that every fence and hedge was demolished should make us realise that whatever enclosure Gethsemane represented was removed and left open. Whether the olive trees of the Mount of Olives were removed at this time is certainly in doubt from this first statement but not so from the next two in which he observes (page 308 line 23 - 5.6.2) that
‘The felling of the trees at once stripped the suburbs bare...’
and, a little further on (page 332 lines 3-6 - 5.12.4) that
‘...it was difficult to get timber. Round the city it had all been cut down for the previous works and the soldiers had to collect new supplies from more than ten miles away’
finally concluding the state of the land by writing (page 337 lines 17-19 - 6.1.1) that
‘The countryside like the city was a pitiful sight; for where once there had been a lovely vista of woods and parks there was now nothing but desert and stumps of trees’
It may be quite true to say that those who survived the Roman reconquest of the land would have been able to remember the boundaries and lie of the land, but it’s quite another to suppose that everything was restored to the way it was after the Romans had laid it waste. The one observation which may vouch for the authenticity of the main traditional site is in NIDBA where it’s noted that
‘The present olive trees in the precinct [of the Franciscan Basilica of the Agony] go back to the seventh century, but since olive roots are practically indestructible, the trees may grow from the remaining roots of those destroyed by Titus in the siege of 70AD’
But, having said that, if the Mountain was called ‘of Olives’, we would have to presume that the side facing Jerusalem was probably covered with the trees during the first century and that the ones which now stand in the Franciscan Basilica of the Agony are no more than the surviving trees of the entire region.
Besides, if Josephus is correct in seeing the almost total removal of the trees in and around Jerusalem for a distance of ten miles, we might expect there to have been some sort of climate change in the same way as the wholesale replanting of trees in modern day Israel has had the effect of increasing rainfall. His observation, then, that there was ‘nothing but desert and stumps of trees’ will probably mean more to the natural climate than just a temporary man-made disaster which was quickly reversed as trees grew back.
Concluding, the traditional sites of the Garden of Gethsemane are simply guesses at the location and we could just as well place the location of the enclosure beside the Kidron stream as we could high up on the mountainside facing - or even over the summit from - Jerusalem.
One final point from Zondervan is worth noting here for they comment that
‘The three most important events in the Bible took place in a garden:
‘1. Sin entered in (Genesis chapter 3)
‘2. The Lord Jesus accepted the fact that He must go to the cross (Mtw 26:36-46)
‘3. He was put in a sepulchre and rose again (John 19:41)’
Both the fall and salvation of mankind, therefore, could be seen to have been accomplished as a direct result of what transpired in three different gardens.
Suffering to perfection
Obedience can never be considered to be perfect until it’s held fast through a period of tribulation. This throws a totally different light upon Heb 5:8-9 which reads concerning Jesus (my italics) that
‘Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered; and being made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him’
where ‘perfection’ has often been taken to be indicative of a state which implies sinlessness by those who would see Jesus as just a man and subject to the effects of His own personal sin. Notice the preceding verse of Heb 5:7, also, which should be seen as a reference to Jesus’ time in the garden for it’s difficult to place it in any other context which we know from the record of the Gospels. It would also indicate that we shouldn’t think of the scene in the garden as being some quiet event but that what transpired was loud enough for the author to be able to remark that Jesus used ‘loud cries and tears’. Hebhew, quoting Griffith Thomas, comments that
‘This is the difference between innocency and virtue. Innocency is the untested, while virtue is innocency tested and triumphant’
While this may be going a little too far in it’s all-inclusive definition of the word and concept of ‘virtue’, Hebguth summarises the situation well when he writes that
‘It is through a path of suffering that perfection is achieved’
so that the state of perfection has nothing necessarily to do with sinlessness but with being completed and proven. It’s that place a believer comes to when he can honestly say that he will obey anything the Father asks of him because he’s been through the hardest trial that he could ever have imagined possible. There are many choruses around today which profess the believer’s undying commitment to do whatever is asked of them by God Himself, but it isn’t until the individual faces the path that holds positive fear for them and they press on regardless through that experience that they can say that their obedience has been tested and found to be ‘perfect’.
The same was true with Jesus.
It wasn’t that He was in any way stained or tainted by sin that He needed to be made perfect but it was His obedience that caused Him to accept the Father’s will for His life that was perfected when He chose to give His life for that of mankind, choosing the tribulation of the Father’s will rather than the ease of any other pathway such as flight, over the summit of the Mount of Olives and into the relative safety of the village at Bethany.
A few chapters earlier in Heb 2:10, the same idea is expressed by the writer when he notes that
‘...it was fitting that [the Father], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the Pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering’
In both these places, the word translated by the English ‘perfect’ is the same (Strongs Greek number 5048) where Vines defines the word as meaning
‘...to bring to an end by completing or perfecting’
and Hebhew as
‘to be made mature or complete’
Kittels interprets the word into the passage and comments that
‘Jesus is qualified to come before God...not by cleansing, but by proving His obedience’
When the writer talks of Christ being made perfect, therefore, he’s expressing the truth that Jesus as a man completed His obedience to the Father through the obedient suffering of the cross. Even in tribulation, His obedience to God remained intact.
The OT character of Job is another example. Satan’s charge that Job only served God because, firstly, God had blessed him materially (Job 1:9-11) and, secondly, because God’s hand of protection was upon His life (Job 2:4-5) was not without foundation. Job, however, proved the integrity of his heart before YHWH by serving Him even when everything went wrong (Job 2:9-10) and, eventually, his prosperity was restored (Job 42:10) because it had been shown to be an independent factor in His commitment to obeying God.
The lesson for the NT believer is that material wealth and a good life are not conditions governing their love for God - whether they walk through the darkest tribulation or the richest blessing, the question remains whether they will still subject their wills to that of YHWH and obey Him for who He is and not for what they receive from His hand.
My wife and I have one special place in the UK where we enjoy going when no other destination seems to offer a chance to get away from our home and take a rest. In that place, there’s a rebuilt medieval abbey which has served as a kind of pilgrimage destination but which is quite far from promoting the message of the Gospel, relying more at attempting to discover the ‘divine spark within’ than in proclaiming the Gospel that the ‘divine spark’ might be put there in the first place!
I was waiting in the cloisters for my wife to finish looking round the bookshop and I was glad just to have a rest from our day’s walking when one of those who were staying there for the week came up to me and started talking about how great God was and that all that we should be content with wasn’t fast cars and fancy houses but the clothes on our back and food on our table.
I’m normally very quiet and tend to agree with people - but then realise that I should have said a thousand and one things after the event - but I got really agitated inside and asked him whether he would still serve Jesus if he didn’t have the clothes and food which he felt were ‘all that was necessary’.
To my utter astonishment, he turned around and walked away. For one of the very few times in my life, it seems as if I actually said the right words at the right time! But the point wasn’t just for him, it equally applies to all believers, including myself. There are no ‘minimum’ requirements that we can be content with because, at some point in time, we may find that God requires us to give up even those things which we feel are securities in order to serve Him perfectly.
And this was where Jesus came to in the Garden of Gethsemane. Before this time, all His announcements of His impending sufferings and death were far distant or, at least, still a few hours in the future. Now Jesus comes face to face with them and has to decide whether the path of suffering will be the way that He’ll submit to or flee from.
Is 50:10 is a good comment on this situation, where the prophet asks
‘Who among you fears the YHWH and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the YHWH and relies upon his God?’
for, even when a time of spiritual darkness may begin to engulf the believer, the question still remains as to whether there will be a pressing on regardless through it, while remaining faithful to and trusting in YHWH. Jesus’ answer in the garden was an affirmative when, seeing the darkness that lay ahead of Him, He chose rather to do that which the Father wanted Him to do than to take the easy way out and walk by His own light and understanding.
Ultimately, on the cross, even when He was separated from God the Father because of mankind’s sin, He still called upon Him and didn’t forsake that relationship which had put Him in that position (Mark 15:34). Experiencing the ‘darkness’ of Is 50:10, He continued obediently to the end of the Father’s will for Him and so became (Heb 5:9)
‘...the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him’
Just as Jesus obeyed the Father in all things, culminating in His death for others, so now all who obey Him will receive from Him the gift of eternal life. Faith must be reflected and find expression in obedience (Mtw 7:21), a preparation to lay down one’s life if that be the Father’s will (Rev 2:13, 12:11).
But it was Gethsemane where Jesus came face to face with the reality of what was being asked of Him. Even though He knew what lay ahead even at the outset of His ministry to the nation of Israel, it wasn’t until here that the full weight and implication of that path impressed itself upon Him and He had to face up to either accept or reject it.
In the Garden, however, was where the Father’s will was fully accepted.
The cup and the agony
The OT use of the ‘cup’ from which many must drink is a concept which overflows from the oriental banquet into both the psalms and the prophets. Just as the guest receives the wine cup from the hand of his host (for example, in the celebration of the Passover meal amongst Jesus and His disciples - Luke 22:17, Mtw 26:27), so mankind is often spoken of as the guest who receives the cup from God’s hand.
The cup is used not as an end in itself but as the container for what’s been poured out within and, in the OT, it’s YHWH who chooses the type of wine that’s poured into the cup that’s offered to both individuals and groups, whether it’s to be of blessing and provision (Ps 16:5, 23:5) or of wrath and judgment (Ps 11:6, 75:8 [both of which refer to individuals], Is 51:17 [Jerusalem], Jer 25:15-17 [the nations], 25:27-28 [the nations], 29:12 [Edom], Lam 4:21 [Edom], Ezek 23:31-33 [Jerusalem and Judah], Hab 2:15-16 [Babylon]) which is a response of God upon the state of the recipient’s heart in relation to God.
We also find that the cup, offered by God in judgment, is not refusable. The Scriptures speak of the inevitability of the wine being drunk by the one for whom it’s poured (Ps 75:8, Jer 25:15-16, 25:28, 49:12) where there are rhetorical questions posed which require the natural answer that such a fate cannot be refused.
Additionally, of the eighteen metaphorical uses of the translated word ‘cup’ in the OT psalms and prophets and the NT Book of Revelation, nine definitely relate to wrath and judgment while three others hint at it. The cup, therefore, seems to have been a fairly common description of the judgment of an individual or group when it was handed to them by God.
Jesus certainly wasn’t ‘sorrowful and troubled’ (Mtw 26:37), ‘in an agony’ (Luke 22:44) and ‘greatly distressed’ (Mark 14:33) merely because He saw the suffering of the crucifixion and physical death looming towards Him and recoiled from it (Mtw 20:19). If this were the case, we could point out that other men have faced similarly gruesome deaths with far greater calmness and serenity.
For example, two early christian martyrs are worthy of note here (if we exclude Stephen in the first few years after the ascension - Acts chapter 7). Firstly, Polycarp whose martyrdom is recorded in the work now titled ‘The Martyrdom of Polycarp’. Chapter 13 records the way he faced death and, assuming the account to be accurate, it’s worth reading here, the author writing that
‘...the multitudes immediately gather[ed] together wood and fagots out of the shops and baths; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them in it. And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals - a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good. Immediately then they surrounded him with those substances which had been prepared for the funeral pile. But when they were about also to fix him with nails, he said “Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile”’
Instead of being dragged screaming to his fate or of fearing imminent death, Polycarp seems to have calmly accepted it and faced it with unnerving singleness of purpose. Such could also be said of Ignatius who wrote to the Roman church before his arrival in their city for martyrdom (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans chapter 4 - see also chapters 2 and 6)
‘I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body’
Both Ignatius and Polycarp, therefore, remained calm in the face of impending death, fully committed to die the death which had been prepared for them. One point does need clarifying, though, for both Polycarp and Ignatius - and thousands like them - were martyred for what they believed and who they professed to serve but Jesus was killed because of who He was. In this sense, Jesus was no martyr and we’re forced to see in His death a sacrifice as the NT writings proclaim rather than as One man standing up for what He believed.
Jesus’ agony, then, wasn’t a result of coming face to face with the prospect of physical death but neither was it a product of the thought of being betrayed by Judas, a friend and disciple (Mtw 26:23-25), nor His rejection by Israel’s religious leaders and their condemnation of Him (Mtw 20:18-19), nor the eleven’s scattering when they’d forsake Him and flee upon His arrest (Mtw 26:31).
All these things Jesus knew before He was ‘sorrowful [where ‘deeply grieved’ probably conveys more of the word’s force] and troubled [where ‘deeply distressed’ is better]’ in the garden. Indeed, Jesus had already experienced the rejection and persecution of men - for example, attacks from the religious leaders (Mtw 9:34, 12:24, 21:23-22:46), rejection by His home town of Nazareth (Mtw 13:53-58) and even rejection by multitudes of disciples (John 6:60,66) - and at no time had He recoiled in horror as He did that Passover evening in the garden. He had also taught the disciples to ‘rejoice and be glad’ when they were reviled and persecuted on earth (Mtw 5:11-12).
But Jesus was sorrowful and troubled ‘even to death’ (a phrase which has been summarised in Matmor’s quoting of Hill as meaning ‘anguish that threatens life itself’) when He considered the separation from the Father’s presence which was to take place on the cross, at the time when the sins of the world were to be laid upon Him and the Father would have to hide His face, when God’s wrath would be fully poured out upon Him and satisfied (Rom 3:25, I John 2:2) so that the way would be made clear for individuals to be reconciled to God.
Whereas the cup of God’s wrath in the OT was the punishment of the unrighteous (for example, Ps 11:6, 75:8), the new covenant is established upon the cup of God’s wrath drunk by the perfectly righteous One for the transgression of the wicked.
The torment of spiritual death reflected in Jesus’ cry on the cross (Mtw 27:46, Mark 15:34)
‘My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?’
was the content of that cup that the Father offered to Him and of which He knew He had to drink if the Father’s will was to be completed concerning His earthly mission (John 12:27-28). I will have more to say on this proclamation by Jesus when we reached the relevant Scripture but, for now, we should see it as a fulfilment of all that Jesus knew was facing Him - something which no man before Him and no man after will ever have to experience.
Did Jesus doubt?
There are numerous passages which we’ve already dealt with in this commentary which make it plain that, even before Gethsemane, Jesus knew for what purpose He’d come into the world and what His end would be (Mtw 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19, 26:28, John 3:14, 12:32-33, 12:27-28). The question which presents itself to readers as they come to this passage, however, is whether Jesus had begun to doubt what the will of the Father was and whether He was now unwilling to do what was required of Him or, even, whether He’d now forgotten the reason for which He’d come into the world.
This arises out of Jesus’ words in the Gospel accounts where He states
‘...if it be possible (Mtw 26:39)...all things are possible to Thee (Mark 14:36)...if Thou art willing (Luke 22:42)...let this cup pass from Me’
It needs to understood, however, how Jesus approached the Father in prayer in Gethsemane to fully understand that there was nothing sinful in either His prayer or His attitude.
To fall on one’s face (Mtw 26:39) is an attitude in prayer of submission, not rebellion - the Hebrew word translated normally as ‘worship’ (Strongs Hebrew number 7812) means, by translation, ‘to prostrate oneself’ and is frequently used in conjunction with the verb ‘to serve’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5647) where obedience to God is also implied - for example, in Ex 20:5.
To prostrate oneself before someone is to demonstrate the servant heart of the individual, the willingness to obey completely the one to whom service is being offered. It’s as the obedient servant, therefore, that Jesus comes before the Father in the garden, not presuming to rebel against His will when He prays (Mtw 26:39)
‘...let this cup pass from Me...’
but earnestly seeking His face to determine whether the cup of the wrath of God could be averted from mankind in some other fashion. Matfran observes correctly that
‘The issue is not whether or not Jesus should accept the Father’s purpose, but whether that purpose need include the horrifying cup...of vicarious suffering or whether there is some other way’
It’s quite true that Jesus already knew what the will of the Father was but, realising that separation from the presence of the Father was not something to be eagerly looked forward to (something that He had never before experienced throughout eternity), He expressed that dread in the form of a question while remaining an obedient servant.
It should demonstrate to believers, also, that God’s will - though necessary to obey - can be questioned - not from the standpoint of doubt but from the willingness to obey whatever is required from them, where a request is coupled with the acknowledgement that it may not be possible to have it granted.
When what YHWH requires the believer to do causes them to naturally recoil in their minds from the will of God revealed, it’s no sin to question Him with the regard to the necessity of that particular course of action so long as they ask as submissive servants, ready to carry out His plan whether or not another way is revealed to them.
Jesus’ second and third prayers (Mtw 26:42,44 - ‘...if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it...’) acknowledged the Father’s response that it was only He who was in a position to partake of the wrath of God to avert it from falling upon mankind.
And Jesus’ rhetorical question to Peter in the garden as He’s being arrested is a demonstration that He’s unswerving in His commitment to fulfil all that the Father still requires of Him (John 18:11).
For information on the three disciples - Peter, James and John (Mtw 26:37) - and how they’re mentioned in the Gospels as being an ‘inner three’ within the twelve disciples, see my notes here. As Matfran points out, the reason for the three’s selection at this time may not have necessarily have had anything to do with their special position within the twelve but that
‘...it is these three who have explicitly declared their readiness to share Jesus’ fate (Mtw 20:22, 26:35); they are now called to share with Him in preparing for it...’
1. The spirit and the flesh
Jesus speaks about the spirit being willing but the flesh being weak in Mtw 26:41 when He returns from praying a short distance away to find Peter, James and John asleep. Even though they had the desire to do that which was being required of them by Jesus, the frailty of their humanity was being displayed in their incapacity to carry a good resolve through and shouldn’t be taken as a reference to the ‘sinful nature’ which is the label used on occasions in the writings of Paul. Matmor observes the contrast being presented here rightly that
‘...just at the time when Jesus was showing the victory of spirit over flesh, the disciples were manifesting the victory of flesh over spirit’
Commentators have sought to explain why the disciples were so fatigued and couldn’t stay awake but, even though there are considerations which may give a good indication of why they were so tired, it hardly seems relevant to the text to expect such a clear explanation.
During the early part of Thursday morning (it was now Friday night but, according to our reckoning of time, we would consider it to be prior to midnight and still in Thursday), both Peter and John had been sent by Jesus to make preparation for the Passover meal (Luke 22:8), it being just these two of the twelve who’d been sent - even though I’ve already noted that some of the women may have accompanied them (Mark 14:13).
The exertions of that day were unusual for Galileans - the hustle and bustle of a busy, festive city and they would, no doubt, have had to push their way through the narrow alley ways to secure all that they needed for the festival. Even the journey to the Temple wouldn’t have been a ‘stroll in the park’ (see my notes here about the needed preparations).
It would only to be expected, then, that John and Peter would have been a little worn out when they finally sat down at table. Then, of course, there was the meal itself which would certainly have been expansive and, though the disciples probably didn’t stuff their faces til they were feeling sick, most of us can testify that a decent cooked meal can have the effect of sending one off to sleep.
The long and, presumably, stressful day which Peter and John had experienced, therefore, may be sufficient grounds for explaining why, when they found themselves with James in the garden, that they couldn’t find anything in them to stay awake.
The three disciples’ problem, however, lay not so much in their natural tiredness but in their apparent unbelief of Jesus’ words that they needed to pray to safeguard themselves against imminent temptation (Mtw 26:41 - similar to Lot’s future sons-in-law in Gen 19:14). This should have been a sufficient warning - had it been believed - to stimulate them into prayer.
2. Into battle
Matfran comments that the RSV’s translation ‘let us be going’
‘...could suggest a desire to escape, but the verb implies rather going into action, advance rather than retreat’
while Mattask additionally comments that the verb
‘...usually means “to go forward to meet an advancing enemy”...’
‘...a more vigorous translation is needed here’
The Greek word (Strongs Greek number 71) seems to be the word from which Greek words meaning ‘conflict’ and ‘fight’ have developed so that the military theme shouldn’t be overlooked. It certainly isn’t necessarily present in other places in the NT but the idea of flight doesn’t appear to be associated with the word at all.
In the parallel passage of John 18:4, the writer records (my italics) that
‘...Jesus, knowing all that was to befall Him, came forward and said to [the band of soldiers] “Whom do you seek?”’
The initiative, then, lies entirely with Jesus. Indeed, had He not come to meet them, they may never have been able to find Him - not just because of the natural situation of it being night, but because Jesus had demonstrated previously that He could escape from certain trouble at the will of the Father (Luke 4:29-30, John 10:39).
The picture, then, is one of Jesus as a warrior, in harmony with all that the Father requires from Him, engaging the advancing enemy to do battle and lay down His life that every foe be entirely defeated that stands opposed to both God and man. And, even more significant perhaps, is that Jesus recognises that the will of the Father will only come about at the hand of ‘sinners’ (Mtw 26:45).
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