By Bob Hutto
Though we are to address Jesus’ agony in the Garden the night before his death, the fact is, we cannot appreciate his agony in the Garden until we know something about crucifixion. Jesus knew all about it. He likely had seen people crucified, and so was well acquainted with the horrors of the cross. By all accounts “crucifixion was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein” (Hengel 25). Furthermore, he knew that he was the suffering servant Isaiah had described centuries earlier. He knew that he had come to the earth to die on the cross as part of the divine plan of redemption and had even spoken of his death from the beginning of his public ministry (John 3:14; Mark 8:31; Matt. 20:18-19). So, when Jesus comes to the Garden, the strong emotions that would naturally accompany the prospect of crucifixion begin to come to the surface (Matt. 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46).
The Gospels tell us that the night before Jesus was betrayed he left the upper room with his disciples, crossed the Kidron Valley (cf. the flight of David from Absalom, 2 Sam. 15), and resorted to the Mount of Olives. A garden called Gethsemane was there, perhaps a grove of olive trees, where Jesus often went to pray. In this Garden, Jesus faced enormous pressure as he prepared for the next day’s events. The scene can be divided into three sections: (1) Jesus going to pray; (2) the prayer of Jesus; (3) Jesus returning from prayer when “the hour” had come.
Jesus Goes To Pray
The first portion of the episode emphasizes the aloneness of Christ. The further Jesus went into the Garden, the more isolated he became. He had left the crowded city and come to a remote area outside its walls. Eight of his disciples stayed at the entrance of the Garden while Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him further. Finally, even these three were left behind, about a stone’s throw distance, and Jesus was alone. He had asked the disciples to watch with him, but they slept. He was cut off from everyone who might have given him support. Truly, there was “no friend with words to comfort, nor hand to help was there.”
Four words are used to describe Jesus’ state of mind in the Garden — lupeo, ademoneo, ekthambeo, and perilupos. The first is found in the LXX in Lamentations 1:22 where it expresses the grief of Jeremiah over the fall of Jerusalem. It is also found in Psalm 55:2 (LXX: Ps. 54) where David describes his own emotional state under the “pressure of the wicked” (vv. 4-8; see also Ps. 42:5-6; 43:5. Of course, the statements of these psalms find their fullest expression in the Son of David, Jesus Christ.) The fourth word (perilupos), used by Jesus himself (Mark 14:34), can be understood as an intensive form lupeo. According to Lightfoot, ademoneo describes “the . . . restless, half-distracted state, which is produced by . . . mental distress” (l23). Ekthambeo “is to be understood as an intensive form [of thambeo] in the sense of ‘strong amazement or fear’” (Bertram 4). In addition to these four words, Luke says that Jesus was “in agony” as he prayed. One gets the feeling that no English translation does full justice to the idea conveyed by these words. In fact, the impact of these words is not adequately felt by looking at them separately, but by taking them all together as they are piled one upon another to describe Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane.
Two other items are worthy of note. First, as France points out, this is the only time it is said that Jesus “fell on his face,” another expression of extreme (373). Then there is Luke’s description of Jesus’ sweat (Luke 22:44). Some maintain that this is an example of hematidrosis, an “intense dilation of subcutaneous capillaries that burst into the sweat glands. The blood then clots and is carried to the surface of the skin by the sweat” (Brown 185). However, it seems more likely that Luke is simply saying that Jesus sweated profusely under the intense pressure of the Garden (notice that the sweat became as great drops of blood, not that he actually sweated blood).
Most of us can only imagine the distress Jesus felt in the Garden. Perhaps those who have gone into battle facing the prospect of death have experienced something like this, but often these have at least the hope of survival. Jesus knew that he would die. Add to this the nature of Jesus’ death, his being alienated from all who might offer encouragement, and the weight of sin which he carried to the cross and the wonder is not that Jesus was distressed, but that he did not collapse altogether. His words, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death,” surely are no hyperbole. It comes as no surprise that an angel was sent to strengthen him (Luke 22:43).
Mark summarizes the prayer of Jesus before he relates it in detail. Jesus prayed that “the hour” might pass from him. Some suggest that the hour refers not to the cross itself, but either to the distress in the Garden or the tortures leading up to the cross, and that Jesus was praying that he be given strength so that he not die before his crucifixion. This, however, seems to be an attempt to avoid the problem of Jesus expressing a desire not to go to the cross which was the Father’s plan and the very reason Jesus came to the earth (cf. Heb. 10:1-10). Notice that Jesus said, “the hour is at hand” after his prayer (Matt. 26:45). The hour must refer to the time when the full force of Satan would be unleashed upon the Son of God in the ultimate clash between evil and good at the cross and the events surrounding it.
Jesus prays. He addresses God, “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36). Though “Abba” expresses the intimate relationship Jesus had with the Father, it is not the same as our “Daddy” (Barr). Nor does it necessarily imply a unique relationship inasmuch as all Christians may “cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). Perhaps the important thing here is that Jesus continues to appeal to God as Father even in this hour of trial. Just as he had prayed that the hour might pass from him, Jesus prays that “this cup” might pass from him. He had previously asked the two sons of Zebedee if they were able to drink the same cup he was to drink (Matt. 20:22-23). They said that they were, but as Jesus prayed in the Garden, James and John slept. The word “cup” is sometimes used figuratively in the Bible to refer to a person’s destiny or portion in life, whether good or ill (Pss. 23:5; 11:6). It often represents God’s wrath (Isa. 51:17; Rev. 14:10; Pss. 11:6; 75:8). In our passage, the cup may simply refer to the cross and its concomitant events as Jesus’ destiny. But since Christ is the propitiation for our sins (that is, the one who appeases God’s wrath against sin in our stead), it is hard not to think that “this cup” includes Christ’s bearing God’s wrath. Jesus concludes the prayer by stating what was always primary for him, “Yet not my will, but Yours be done.” Though Jesus did not delight in the idea of crucifixion, he was willing to go if the Father so willed.
Jesus Returns From Prayer
Matthew tells us that Jesus prayed this prayer three times. After the first and second prayers he came to his disciples and found them sleeping. He had told them to “keep watch with me” and “pray.” That is, they were to accompany Jesus in this ordeal and give him support. Anyone who has been in the hospital with serious illness knows how comforting it is to have others there watching and praying. But in their weakness and ignorance of the circumstances the disciples slept, leaving Jesus to suffer alone. Once the episode in the Garden was over, Jesus went without resistance into the hands of his enemies and eventually to the cross. He knew what must be done, so he “arose” (anastas) and with quiet determination proceeded to do it. As he himself said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:50).
Observations and Conclusion
There are interesting issues raised by the events in the Garden. For example, how could the Son of God be so troubled about his impending death? The description of Jesus in the Garden is important if we are to have an accurate understanding of his nature. Only an insane person would go to the cross without concern and cavalierly. Of course, Jesus was not insane. He was, however, fully human, and as a human he dreaded the cross. As for deity experiencing the distress that Jesus experienced we would say that when the two natures were united in the person of Jesus, things that may not have been possible for either nature separate from the other became possible in Christ. (For example, it is not possible for the Divine to get thirsty, but since the divine nature was united with human nature, Jesus thirsted. Similarly, it is not possible for humans to forgive sin in the same way that the Divine can, but since the human nature was united with the divine nature, Jesus pronounced forgiveness). So, though it may not seem that Deity would experience this kind of distress, it becomes possible when the divine nature is united with human nature in the person of Jesus.
The Gethsemane episode shares a number of corresponding features with the Transfiguration and the two should be considered as complements, each emphasizing one of the two natures of Christ. Both episodes take place on a mountain; Peter, James, and John are present at both; the disciples sleep at both. At the Transfiguration we see the full deity of Jesus as his glory (a characteristic of deity, 1 Tim. 6:16) shines through (Luke 9:32). In the Garden we see his full humanity with all its frailty. In fact, the ancient writers used this passage as proof of the genuine humanity of Jesus against the Docetists. It is just this dual nature that enables Jesus to be a sympathetic high priest (Heb. 4:14-16; 2:18).
A second question has to do with the apparent conflict between Jesus’ will and his Father’s. Jesus prayed that the cup pass from him, but it was the Father’s will that he drink it. If the Father and Son are one (John 10:30), how can there be disagreement between them? The conflict is only apparent. As Jesus had taught his disciples, so he prayed (Matt. 6:10). The heart of the prayer is, “Thy will be done.” In fact, this idea is repeated as Jesus prays. Notice Luke’s account, “Father if You are willing . . . Yet not my will, but Yours be done.” Jesus’ will is to do the Father’s will, and there is certainly no conflict between them on the deepest and most significant level. In the Garden, Jesus, the man, is searching for possibilities within, not contrary to, the Father’s will.
Perhaps the practical value of this episode is that Jesus provides a model for his disciples to follow. Jesus teaches us what to do when distressed — pray and obey. Jesus prayed for a particular thing and then with quiet resolve did the Father’s will, becoming obedient to the point of death on the cross (cf. Heb. 5:7-9). In our prayers we should “let (our) requests be made known to God,” yet with the understanding that the Father’s will is to control all of them, then with quiet resolve do his will. It may not be the Father’s will to remove the trial from us, but he will not abandon us and we will be “able to do all things through him who strengthens us.” Remember in both good times and hard, do what Jesus did — pray and obey.
No one who is serious about being a Christian can remain unmoved as they think of Jesus’ agony in the Garden. But why did he “drink the bitter cup”? Because he loved us so. It was our sin, indeed it was my sin (!) that took him there. Let us think deeply of his distress, his grief and sorrow, and fashion our lives accordingly.
Barr, James. “Abba Isn’t Daddy.” Journal of Theological Studies 39 (1988): 28-47. Bertram, Georg. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. G. Kittel and G. Friedrich, eds. Translated by G. Bromiley. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965. Brown, Raymond. The Death of the Messiah. Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday, 1994. France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987. Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971. Lightfoot, J.B. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. 1868. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953.
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