IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 16, April 17 to April 23, 2000


by Dr. Knox Chamblin



A. The Depth of The Agony.

1. Matthew and Mark. "He began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to [the three disciples], 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death'" (26:37-38). These words (in Mk and Mt) speak not of the prospect of death on the cross, but of an anguish so deep as to threaten life at this very moment. Jesus' posture expresses his agony: "Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed..." (26: 39; par. Mk 14:35).

2. Luke. "And being in anguish [agonia], he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like [hosei] drops of blood falling to the ground" (22:44, words found only in Lk.). "On the whole, the internal evidence inclines us to accept [this reading, including v. 43] as original, but with very considerable hesitation" (Marshall, Luke 832; see Metzger, TC). This is Luke's way of describing profuse sweating (it was pouring out of his body like [note "like," hosei] blood gushing forth from a gaping wound).

B. Jesus and the Disciples.

1. The request. Upon arrival in Gethsemane, Jesus leaves all the disciples but Peter, James and John, and takes them closer to his place of prayer (26:37). Here he separates himself from them before he prays (39, "going a little farther"). Nonetheless, these three are to be with Jesus. "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" (40).

2. One interpretation. Does Jesus express disappointment over his friends' failure to provide sympathy and support in his hour of supreme need? William Lane thinks not. Given Mk's account of the disciples' responses up to this point (Lane argues), there is little reason to think that Jesus would have sought their support now. How could they have possibly understood what he was going through? The voicing of Jesus' innermost thoughts and fears "was possible with the Father alone, and it is to him, not to the disciples in their frailty, that Jesus turned in his hour of testing" (Mark, 518). "The record of the Gospels is clear that the greater the stress of the approaching passion, the more selfish and confused those around [Jesus] became. The disciples had continually failed to understand the necessity of the passion.... The Lord had clearly foreseen that at the critical moment they would abandon him (Ch. 14:27-31)" (ibid.).

3. Another interpretation. Given his agony over what awaits him (see below), there is every reason to believe that Jesus longs for support from other human beings - particularly from those who, for all their blindness and self-centeredness, have become his closest friends. "We crave human support because we have never truly learned to rest in God. [Jesus] craved it because divine support was to be taken away" (John White, Daring to Draw Near 147). Their very physical presence was a means of support.

C. The Causes of The Agony.

1. The failure of his past? Some have suggested that the anguish in Gethsemane is that of failure. Jesus realizes that his mission to Israel has not succeeded. Instead of acclaiming him to be their king (as had been hinted at his Trimphal Entry), they have turned him over to death as a Messianic pretender and blasphemer. But Jesus' agony pertains to what lies ahead, not to what lies behind him. "The cup" from which he asks deliverance is his death, not the alleged failures of his past life.

2. The prospect of death. Jesus prays, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Mt 26:39). It is obvious that the prospect of death causes him deep anguish. The "cup" is more than the experience of suffering and death such as awaited those to be crucified with Jesus. It was not the physical agony of the cross that terrified him. Nor was it the shame of dying so ignominious death (cf. Heb 12:2, he "endured the cross, scorning - despising - its shame").

a. He dreads identification with sin. Jesus is Yahweh's appointed Servant to take upon himself the iniquity of his people (Isa 53:4-6). Cf. 2 Cor 5:21; and the comments on Mt 3:15. I once heard Donald G. Miller say, "Jesus had to drink the cup of moral perversity that you and I had mixed." He who never coveted a thing became covetousness. He who never had a lustful thought (Mt 5:28) became adultery itself.

b. He dreads the wrath of God. As the sin-bearer, Jesus must drink the "cup" of God's wrath. Cf. Isa 51:17, "Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger." Yahweh took that cup from his people's hand and put it into the hand of the Servant appointed to stand in their place. "Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him, and cause him to suffer" (Isa 53:10); cf. Rom 3:25.

c. He dreads abandonment by the Father. Experiencing the wrath of God, entails separation from the holy God. Jesus has heretofore enjoyed the closest and most intimate communion with the Father. He is the Father's beloved Son in a unique sense; he lies in the Father's very bosom (Jn 1:18). So to the depths of his being he dreads abandonment by the Father (Mt 27:46). This, as much as anything else, explains the depth of his agony.

3. The power of temptation. One reason for the agony expressed in Mt 26:37-38 is that Jesus is experiencing the strongest temptation of his life (a point well made by Roy Clements in a chapel address at RTS Jackson, Feb 1992). Jesus' agony arises from a recognized difference between his will and the Father's will; his prayer articulates that divergence: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (26:39). Let there be no doubt about the force of the temptation to do his will, not the Father's.

a. The persistence of the devil. The devil had left him in the wilderness - not for good, but "until an opportune time" (Lk 4:13). The devil's purpose would be greatly served if Jesus now succumbed to the temptation he had resisted in the wilderness: cf. the comments on Mt 4:1-11. Now the devil will seek to exploit this acknowledged difference between Jesus' will and that of the Father. Jesus' victories over the devil during his ministry, would count for nothing, if he failed this supreme test.

b. The possibility of deliverance. That temptation is made all the stronger, by the Son's awareness that, should he refuse the cup, the Father would not force him to drink it. "There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible..." (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, 62). Jesus prayed, "My Father, if it is possible..." (39). Earlier he said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Mt 19:26). Then at his arrest, Jesus says: "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (26:53-54). Judging from these verses, if the Son had continued to shrink from the cross, and if he had not willingly submitted to the Father's will, then the Father would have willed - and therefore it would have been possible - that the Son be spared the cross and that the cup of wrath be taken from his hand. The critical factor was the Son's submission to the Father.

c. Confirmation from Hebrews. "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission" (5:7); with many (e.g. Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, 128-30), I take this as a reference to Gethsemane.


A. The Pattern of Jesus' Prayers.

1. Three petitions. The number signals completeness. 1 Kings 17:21, "Then [Elijah] stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the LORD"; 2 Cor 12:8, "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [the thorn in the flesh, v. 7] away from me."

2. The progression. The first petition according to Mt reads, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (39). According to Mk 14:39, Jesus "once more...went away and prayed the same thing." It is essentially the same thing according to Mt, in that in petitions two and three, Jesus again prays that the Father's will may be done. At the same time, in Mt the content of the second petition differs signficantly from the first. "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (42). In the first petition the conditional clause is positive, here it is negative. The second prayer reflects the growing awareness that the only way for the cup of suffering and wrath to be taken away, is for Jesus to drink it. This progression toward full submission to the Father's will, is again evident in the third prayer, which is the same as the second (44, "saying the same thing").

B. The Cruciality of Jesus' Prayers.

1. Addressing the Father. Absolutely crucial in bringing Jesus to his decision - "Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Mt 26:39 and both Synoptic parallels) - is his prayer. In face of the strongest imaginable temptation, he brings the matter to God. Significantly, he does not say, "Not my will but his be done," but instead "not my will but yours be done." Moreover, he acknowledges before the Father the fact of the matter that his own will indeed clashes with that of the Father. Cf. Phil 4:6 (prayer an avenue for anxiety); 1 Pet 5:7 ("casting all your care upon him").

2. The ministry of the angel. It may indeed have been very hard for Jesus to bring this matter to the Father. Significantly, in Luke's account, "an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him" (22:43) amid his prayer. It is after the angel came that "he prayed more earnestly" (44). It was different in the wilderness: "Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him" (Mt 4:11). The help of the angel is needed in the garden to enable Jesus to surrender his will to the Father.

3. Two kinds of prayer. By an act of his will, Jesus refuses to exert his will in opposition to the Father's. He wills to crucify his own will and submit instead to that of the Father. Consequently Jesus "became obedient unto death" (Phil 2:8). NB that in Jesus' prayers in Gethsemane, striving prayer is joined to submitting prayer. Significantly, the striving prayer ("if it be possible, may this cup pass from me") comes before the submitting prayer ("Yet not as I will, but as you will"). The submitting arises from the striving; the striving helps to bring about the submitting. Submission is all the more meaningful for having arisen out of a struggle that resists being submissive.

4. The Father's response. We return to Heb 5. Jesus "was heard because of his reverent submission [eulabeia]" (5:8). Some think eulabeia here means "fear, anxiety": "God heard (and rescued) him from his anxiety" (BAGD, s.v.). But the word is not phobos; and judging from the only other instance of the term in Heb (12:28), in 5:7 eulabeia means "reverent awe, fear [of God]": the Father heard the Son, responded favorably to the Son, strengthened the Son to face the hell of the cross, because the Son respected and reverenced the known will of the Father. Cf. 5:8, "Though he was a son, he learned obedience [for facing the cross] from what he suffered [in Gethsemane]." This willing submission to the Father's will was a crucial part of his preparation for his high priestly ministry (5:9-10).

5. Jesus and Adam. When the first Adam was confronted with a crucial decision (Gen 3), he chose his own will over that of God. (Prayer is conspicuous by its absence in Gen 3:1-9.) When the second Adam faced a decision just as momentous, he made the right decision. Crucial in that decision was the repeated prayer to the Father. The angel came - a representative from the presence of the Father - and gave him the needed strength.

C. Jesus and the Disciples.

1. The warning to the three. Jesus invites these disciples to join him for their sakes as well as his. He warns them, "Watch and pray, so that you will not fall into temptation [peirasmos]. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak" (Mt 26:41). Let them beware, lest, amid the approaching trial (whose powers are already testing Jesus), they should be ensnared by the Evil One and prove disloyal to Messiah. Have they not been taught to pray, "Lead us not into temptation [peirasmos], but deliver us from the evil one" (6:13)? William Lane, recalling both 20:22 (the boasting of the sons of Zebedee) and 26:35 (the boast of Simon Peter), comments, "The failure to understand what it means to share Jesus' destiny and to be identified with his sufferings, rather than privileged status, appears to be the occasion for the isolation of the three from the others. Their glib self-confidence exposes them to grave peril of failure in the struggle they confront" (Mark, 515-16). Cf. 1 Cor 10:12 (within a context of testing, 10:6-10), "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!"

2. Jesus and Peter. While all the verbs in Jesus' rebuke to the disciples are plural (26:40-41), it is specifically and expressly Peter that Jesus addresses. It is most significant that Mt's account of Gethsemane is immediately preceded by Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial (26:31-35; "this very night...you will disown me three times," 34). Set over against this, Jesus' three prayers and his warning to the disciples (26:41) gain special force. Peter's confidence ("I will never disown you," 35) that needs no prayer, contrasts with Jesus' stark anxiety that drives him to prayer.