Matthew 26:39 – Jesus’ Prayer in Gethsemane
And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying: "O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt."Matthew 26:39
Before turning to the astonishing scene in Gethsemane let us briefly retrace our steps to the Upper Room. There in tender love the Saviour instituted the sacrament of the Supper, the Covenant in his blood.
The death which awaited him was shown forth in that ordinance, yet, so far as Scripture portrays to us the scene in the Upper Room, the Lord showed no trace of distress there. The discourses of John 14-16 and the intercessory prayer following confirm this to have been so.
But the garden scene is in stark contrast to that. Mark says that as he led the three most favoured disciples further into the garden, "he began to be sore amazed and very heavy" (Mark 14:33). There must have seen something of this unusual anguish registering in his face. Suddenly he was a very forlorn person. It was then that he bared his heart to them as never before saying, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death" (Mark 14:34). What is the explanation of this sudden contrast between the Upper Room and the Garden?
Swete states it precisely: "Long as he had foreseen the passion, when it came clearly into view, its terrors exceeded his expectations". In the Garden he has now come to the point where he must actually accept the cup from the Father's hand and irreversibly choose to drink it. At such a prospect his soul was filled with mortal sorrow which drove him to his knees in supplicatory prayer of unparalleled intensity.
There are two parts to the prayer. Firstly, he pleads that, if it be possible, the cup might pass from him. Some have suggested that this was not a petition, but merely an enquiry whether the cup could pass from him. This is not an acceptable interpretation of the words. It was undoubtedly a petition. Secondly, he pled that not his own will would be done but his Father's.
What then was the crave of the Lord's first petition? In a word, that the cup might pass from him.
The "cup" is a word frequently used in the New Testament to designate the sufferings of Christ. But it is not his sufferings in general which are referred to here but a most specific aspect of them.
Various answers have been given to the question what specific aspect of his sufferings the Lord had in view. Some say he requested that he would not die prematurely in the Garden. This answer recognises the intensity of his sorrow but for many reasons it is wholly inadequate. Others say that he desired to be delivered from the violence of men. He had frequently spoken of having to suffer such violence but at no time did he on that account show distress such as he was now affected by. Did he not proceed to the Garden in the full knowledge that the betrayer would find him there? Some others say it was a desire to be spared from an ultimate assault by Satan. He had frequently suffered such assaults and probably he was even at that very time enduring one for it was "the hour of the power of darkness" (Luke 22:53). But this also must be judged to be an inadequate explanation of the cup.
The only explanation that fully accords with the details of Scripture is that his mind had suddenly been struck by a terror to which he had been unaccustomed before then. What could be the cause of such terror? It was a heightened realisation of the burden of the world's sin which fell upon him as never before. The demand of heaven that he must give satisfaction to the extent of suffering the accursed death of the cross came with unprecedented vividness before his mind. The prospect, if not the foretaste, of the darkness of abandonment by his Father overshadowed his soul, filling it with unspeakable foreboding and plunging him into an abyss of sorrow. This was the cup which he must accept and choose freely to drink it.
Touched with Our Infirmities
How could the Lord of Glory, the strong Son of God, be in such anguish? Gethsemane is inexplicable unless full justice is done to the reality of the incarnation, and it takes Gethsemane to make that reality fully explicit for us.
In the accounts which the gospels give of his three-year ministry, we are always awed with a sense of his majesty. It was a ministry of inexhaustible compassion, yet nearly always he seems so remote from us even in the accounts of the so-called synoptists. He commands the natural elements and they obey him. He has power to cast out demons and to raise the dead to life. Most of the time we share Peter's feelings and are constrained to say: "Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8).
But in Gethsemane, as Calvin says, "when the true contest begins, the weakness of the flesh, which was formerly concealed, shows itself and the secret feelings are abundantly displayed".
Now we see him as the "Man of Sorrows" indeed, made like unto us in all things, sin excepted. But is it appropriate that the strong Son of God should be so smitten with sorrow and anguish?
Firstly, let us remember that it was our sorrows which he bore. As one who was himself sinless he was personally not liable to sorrow but as our blessed surety to constantly experience sorrow was his wont.
But what of his complaint that his soul was "exceeding sorrowful"? Must we conclude that his sorrows were excessive? Did his sorrows exceed due bounds? Were they properly controlled?
Our feelings are always excessive even when they are legitimate, but not the Saviour's. In this instance it is not possible to conceive of disproportionate sorrow when one is contemplating the horror of the wrath of God against sin. This was the beginning of his descent into hell, in the sense that he was beginning to experience the pains of damnation. To speak of excessive sorrow in such a condition is obscene if not blasphemous. It was, as he himself said, sorrow which brought him to the portals of death; sorrow beyond the power of mere mortals to endure.
It is not only in his experiences of mortal sorrow in the garden that it becomes most evident he is truly a sharer of our infirmities. Other feelings show themselves here in a remarkable manner.
In the garden, the Lord Jesus experiences fear, fear of drinking the awful cup. Some may object that it is improper to speak of Christ as experiencing fear. Hebrews 5:7 is an inspired commentary on Gethsemane. There is much discussion over the correct translation and interpretation of that verse but the notion of the fear of death is clearly implied in it. It was not death as a passing out of this world, as commonly experienced by mankind, which Jesus feared. In that sense, he had nothing to fear. The death which he feared was the descent into hell in the sense already explained. It was the fear of undergoing the damnation due to sin which he did undergo when he was made a curse for us. This fear is expressed in the moving plea: "O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me". The common saying that he lovingly accepted damnation is not wrong but it can obscure the sense of horror which filled the heart of Jesus at the prospect of being made a curse.
Does this fear mean that his trust in God — that he would deliver him — wavered? Jesus was a man of faith. Even his enemies around the cross, albeit in a mocking way, testified that he trusted in God that he would save him. It is only lack of understanding of what it means to exercise faith on the omnipotent God in our extremity which sees fear as exclusive of faith. The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that it was in faith that he turned to his Father in the crisis of Gethsemane. He is the one who, above all others, trusted in God to save him. He found salvation in Gethsemane and on the cross and from the grave by trusting in God.
Thus the Lord Jesus becomes the author and the finisher of our faith. How else could be he our pioneer in the life of faith unless he himself knew salvation? His prayer in Gethsemane was addressed to "the one who was able to save him from death". The salvation which he sought was not, as might appear to be the case from a superficial view of the Gethsemane prayer, to be saved from dying. It was salvation in the sense that he should both drink the cup and live. In other words, it was that he should die the accursed death and live.
This is the marvellous declaration of prophetic Scripture: "Yea, he shall live" (Psalm 72:15). Or to recall his own words from the midst of the throne:
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for ever more, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
Death endeavoured to swallow him up as it does all of us, but the very opposite was the result; he swallowed up, death in victory. His deliverance is stated in the wonderful words of Psalm 16:10: "Thou shalt not leave my soul in hell". The realisation that Jesus needed salvation and found it lights up messianic prophecy as little else does. Indeed much of messianic prophecy remains an enigma to us apart from this.
His petitions in Gethsemane then show us that when he was presented with the awful cup that he experienced great depths of anguish and sorrow, a fear of the accursed death and an urgent need of salvation. Truly the Word was made flesh. These experiences were not rendered superfluous by the fact that he is God manifest in the flesh. They are integral to the perfecting which the Lord Jesus required to have the necessary compassion to fulfil his atoning work and so possess the perfection needed to be the author of eternal salvation to all who are obedient to him.
The Obedience unto Death
The obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ was not something which was mechanically rendered: it was "learned through suffering" (Hebrews 5:8). This does not mean that he had to learn to be obedient, for he always did the things which pleased the Father. But rather he experienced, through the sufferings involved in doing the Father's will, what an extremely costly matter it was for him to render the obedience required. To render such obedience was after all why God became man.
As we have seen, he had profound experiences of our weaknesses and because of that he was susceptible to sufferings which were constantly a temptation to him. The thrust of these temptation sufferings was to deflect him from the required obedience to the Father's will. These intensified the further he went along the road, but all that had preceded Gethsemane was but a skirmish before the real battle is engaged. The full cost must now be learned in the crucible of the descent into hell. He must make his choice freely without the least coercion. There are two questions arising from the form of the Saviour's prayer in Gethsemane in relation to his ready obedience to the will of the Father which we must consider.
Firstly, was the Saviour questioning the necessity of rendering this obedience in his prayer? The question becomes more acute if we combine the words of Matthew and Mark. We may then state his petition as follows: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee" (Mark 14:36), and "if it be possible let this cup pass from me". Repeatedly the Lord had asserted the necessity of his atoning death: "The Son of Man must be lifted up" (John 12:34). How then does he now seem to enquire whether there was another way?
Though as a man the Lord was not omniscient, yet there is abundant Biblical testimony to prove he was acquainted with the Father's counsel or will. "For the Father loveth the Son and showeth him all things that himself doeth" (John 5:20). It is inconceivable that his Gethsemane prayer is a plea to the Father to consider a revision of his plan. If this was so, then this would not be the same Jesus that he had been before throughout the whole of his ministry. In all accounts which we have of his life, he ever claimed that his meat and drink was to do the will of him that sent him.
Neither can it mean that Jesus was seeking to be released from his obligations. That would mean that it was a plea from the Lord to the Father to abandon the plan. This would be to reduce the eternal counsel of God to the level of human capriciousness. What then can be the meaning of this plea that if it was possible that the cup should pass from him? It is with trepidation that the question is raised. Commentators show a proper tentativeness in their answers. The more frequently expressed opinion is somehow as follows.
The vastness of the abyss before the Saviour's mind at that particular moment was such that his human soul could concentrate on nothing else. If such was the case, and we can only say that in all probability that it was, then the impending doom so swamped the Lord's human consciousness that other considerations could not be before him at that precise moment. Then such a plea even by the strong Son of God was unavoidable, for the decent into hell could not be chosen as a thing in itself. Only if other considerations are brought into the reckoning could even the Lord of Glory render obedience unto the enduring of such a death. As we move on to consider the final plea of the prayer, we shall see how these other considerations entered into the reckoning and with what consequences.
The concluding part of the prayer is: "not my will but thine be done". Does this petition indicate the appearance of some measure of conflict between his will and the Father's? Is some measure of reluctance to render the necessary obedience becoming apparent now? At first glance it would seem so but further considerations will lead us to conclude otherwise.
The Lord's obedience, in order to be acceptable to the Father and to be effectual for accomplishing the salvation designed, must not be that of mere resignation to an inalterable providence. This is what ours often is at best. But the Lord's obedience must far exceed such submission to the will of God. It must be a wholly un-coerced obedience. So the question of reluctance is immensely important. Is there not in the petition something of a lack of complete agreement between his will and the will of the Father — "nevertheless, not my will but thine be done"?
We revert to a point made in the last paragraph, the Lord Jesus could not choose to die the accursed death of the cross in and of itself, all other considerations being left out of reckoning. Surely to hold that he would so choose is to brutalize his human nature. No man ever yet hated his own flesh and the Lord must be like us in that respect too. It was this holy unavoidable aversion to the damnation which the death of the cross signified that was registered in his heartrending plea: "let this cup pass from me". But the question now is: does he allow this aversion to drink the cup to dominate his choice in that moment when we may truly say the whole universe paused in trembling anticipation as to the decision? Instantly, most freely and wholly un-coerced he said: "not my will but thine be done".
As the monumental considerations of the glory of the Father — "I have glorified thee on earth I have finished the work which thou gayest me to do" (John 17:4) — and the deliverance of his people from the hell before which his holy soul trembled in an agony of dread came to occupy his mind, then the horror and the aversion to the accursed death was instantly conquered and the choice which lies at the very foundation of the New Creation was made in total spontaneity: "not my will but thine be done".
Let this brief consideration of the agony of prayer that resulted in a bloody sweat and required the mysterious angelic strengthening of the strong Son of God satisfy us presently. When the Saviour, the man Christ Jesus, rose from his titanic struggle, it was in the strength of an irresistible resolve to do the Father's will and in that resolve he left the Garden saying:
The cup which my Father gave me to drink shall I not drink it?