Matthew 26:36-46 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” 39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” 40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” 42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” 43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. 45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!
Luke 22:39-46 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. 45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
Mark 14:32-42 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” 35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” 39 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. 41 Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
The six verses of our text underscore for us that the significance of a text cannot always be determined by its length. Sometimes, as we see here, we must discern the significance of the text by its weight or its density. Several indicators point to the crucial importance of our passage. First, the prominent activity of our passage is prayer. From a combined view of Gethsemane gained by a comparison of the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we find that our Lord instructed the disciples to pray three times. They were to pray that they would not fall into temptation. Jesus prayed and persevered. The disciples did not, and they failed. Jesus spent what appears to be at least three agonizing hours in prayer. From what we have already seen in Luke, prayer often accompanied (or, better yet, preceded) very important events. Thus, Jesus was praying when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him at the outset of His public ministry (Luke 3:21). Jesus was in prayer when He was transfigured before the three disciples (Luke 9:29). Jesus is likewise in prayer here in the Garden of Gethsemane. Thus, past experience has taught us to look for something very important to take place in the very near future.
Second, this is our Lord’s final act, before He is arrested, tried, and put to death. So too these are His last words spoken to the disciples, His final instructions to them. A person’s last words are very often of great import, as these words of our Lord are to the disciples, and to us.
Third, there is an emotional intensity to what is described here. The disciples, Luke tells us, are overcome by sorrow, which is manifested by their drowsiness and slumber. Jesus is, according to Matthew and Mark, “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38; Mark 14:34). Never before have we seen Jesus so emotionally distraught. He has faced a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee, totally composed and unruffled. He has faced demonic opposition, satanic temptation, and the grilling of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, with total composure. But here in the Garden, the disciples must have been greatly distressed by what (little) they saw. Here, Jesus cast Himself to the ground, agonizing in prayer. Something terrible was going to happen. Jesus knew it, and the disciples were beginning to comprehend it as well.
The Passover supper has been eaten. Jesus has concluded His “upper room discourse,” as recorded in John’s gospel, including the high priestly prayer of Jesus for His disciples, in chapter 17. Jesus and the disciples have sung a hymn, they have left the upper room, and they have crossed the Kidron to the Mount of Olives, and specifically to the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke mentions only that the party went to the Mount of Olives, for his Gentile readers would not have known the precise location that some of the Jewish readers (of other gospels) would have recognized.
The cross now looms large on the horizon. Jesus will pray in the Garden, returning twice to His disciples, only to find them sleeping. He will urge them to pray that they enter not into temptation, and then He will return to His own agonizing prayer.96 In Luke’s account, Jesus was still speaking the words of verses 45 and 46 when Judas and the arresting party arrived (verse 47). The arrest of Jesus would lead to His trials, and then to His crucifixion. The cross was not only near in time, it was also heavy on the mind of the Savior.
One can quickly see that Luke’s account of the agony of our Lord in Gethsemane is considerably shorter than those of Matthew and Mark. Luke, for example, does not set the three disciples (Peter, James, and John) apart from the other eight, even though these three were taken by our Lord, to “watch” with Him at a closer distance. Neither does Luke focus on Peter, although in the other accounts, Jesus specifically urged Peter to watch and pray. While Matthew and Mark indicate three different times of prayer, with our Lord returning twice to awaken His disciples and urge them to pray, Luke refers to only two.
The unique contribution of Luke to the account of the Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane is to be found in verses 43 and 44. These verses have been omitted by a very few manuscripts, which has caused some to question their originality. It is my opinion that these verses are not only original, but that they are the unique contribution of Luke to the gospel narratives of the event. It is much easier to see how a copyist could have left them out than to comprehend how they could have been added. We will look carefully at these two verses and consider their unique contribution.
39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Jesus was pressing on to His own cross, even while in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke tells us that Jesus “went out as usual to the Mount of Olives” (verse 39). Furthermore, we are told that the Savior and the disciples “reached the place” (verse 40). This was all a part of the plan. While Jesus had deliberately been secretive about the location of the place where the Passover meal was to be celebrated, He was completely open and predictable about the place where He would be on that fateful night. He followed His custom, He acted according to a very predictable pattern. Judas would know exactly where to lead the arresting officers, at “the place,” the place where they had stayed every night. There is no elusiveness here, for it was Jesus’ time to be betrayed. He will be taken, but it is not by surprise. Everything is proceeding according to the plan, and according to our Lord’s predictions.
On reaching “the place” Jesus instructed His disciples to pray. There was a specific purpose, a particular object in mind, “that you will not fall into temptation” (verse 40). They were to pray that they would not succumb to temptation. Notice that Jesus did not conduct a prayer meeting, as we sometimes have. He left the disciples in one place, while He went off, by Himself, to another. Neither does Luke or any of the other writers tell us that Jesus prayed for His disciples, as He did in John 17. Furthermore, Jesus did not ask His disciples to pray for Him, as though He might succumb to temptation. It was the disciples who were in danger of failing, not Jesus. Nowhere in this text (or its parallels) do I see any reference to Jesus being in danger of forsaking His path to the cross. Neither the Lord Jesus nor the plan of salvation were in danger here. That had been settled in eternity past. Throughout the account of our Lord’s life in the gospel of Luke we have seen only a resolute purpose to do the Father’s will, to go to Jerusalem, to be rejected by men, and to die. That resolute spirit continues here.
Three times Jesus urged His disciples to “pray that they would not fall into temptation,” that is, that they would not succumb to it. To what temptation was our Lord referring? I believe that the temptation is specific, not general, and that it can be known from the context of our Lord’s words. What was it, in the context, that the disciples were in danger of doing, that would be considered succumbing to temptation? The temptation, as I see it, was based upon the disciples’ predisposition to view their circumstances in the light of their own ambition and desires, and their own distorted view of how and when the kingdom would come. Early on, Peter had attempted to rebuke the Lord for speaking of His own death (Matthew 16:21-23). This, however, is not recorded in Luke’s gospel. In the immediate context of Luke’s gospel we find the disciples debating among themselves as to who was perceived to be the greatest. We also find Peter boldly assuring Jesus of his faithfulness, even though Jesus has already told him he would fall. The danger is that the disciples would attempt to resist our Lord’s sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, even as was the case when Peter drew the sword in an attempt to resist His arrest (Luke 22:49-51). In addition to this, there was to be the scattering of the disillusioned disciples when their Lord was arrested, and when their hopes of an immediate kingdom were dashed on the rocks of His rejection by the nation Israel. To put the matter briefly, the disciples were going to be tempted to resist the will of God for the Savior and for themselves, rather than to submit to it.
Having charged His disciples with their duty to pray for themselves, Jesus went off from them a ways—about a stone’s throw, Luke tells us—and began to pray Himself. Our Lord’s prayer, while it had three sessions, and it took up a fair amount of time, could be summed up in these words, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
For what is our Lord praying? What is He asking from the Father? Is Jesus, at the last moment, trying to escape from His commitment to go the cross? Is He seeking to change the Father’s mind? Does the fate of all mankind hang in the balance here? Was there a very real danger that Jesus might change His mind?
Let me point out first of all that it was not Jesus who was in danger of changing His mind. Jesus was seeking to learn from the Father what His will was. Jesus was, all along, committed to do the Father’s will. From a purely hypothetical viewpoint, Jesus could have told the Father He had changed His mind, and that He was not going to the cross. Jesus has not changed His mind about obeying the Father; He is asking the Father if He has changed His mind, as it were. Our Lord’s submission to the Father’s will is never a matter that is in question. If there is any question, it is what the Father’s will is. In one way, Jesus is simply seeking one last “reading” as it were as to what the Father’s will was. And even at this, there was never really any doubt.
Second, Jesus was probing the matter of the cross with His Father to see if there was any other way to achieve the salvation of men. Jesus is asking the Father whether or not there is any other way for the sins of men to be forgiven. The answer is obvious, for the purpose and plan of God stands, and is faithfully pursued by the Lord Jesus.
Let me pause for a moment to underscore this very important point: THERE WAS NOT OTHER WAY FOR MEN TO BE SAVED THAN THROUGH THE INNOCENT AND SUBSTITUTIONARY SUFFERING OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. Jesus had said it before. He was the way, the truth, and the life. No man could come to the Father, except through Him, except through faith in His death on Calvary, in the sinner’s place. How often we hear men speak of the cross of Calvary as a way, one option among many as to how men can attain eternal life. Let me say that if there were any other way Jesus would not have gone to the cross, and the Father would not have sent Him. The prayer of our Lord in the garden underscores the truth of the New Testament that there is but one way, and that way is the shed blood of the sinless Savior, shed for sinners.
Third, we should note from our Lord’s prayer in the garden that He greatly dreaded “the cup” and that it was this “cup” that Jesus was asking be removed, if possible. Why is “the cup” such a dreaded thing? What is “the cup” to which Jesus the Lord Jesus is referring? The answer is crystal clear in the Bible. Let us consider just a few of the passages that speak of this “cup” which our Lord dreaded so greatly, and we shall see that His dread was fully justified.
For not from the east, nor from the west, Nor from the desert comes exaltation; But God is the Judge; He puts down one, and exalts another. For a cup is in the hand of the LORD, and the wine foams; It is well mixed, and He pours out of this; Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs. But as for me, I will declare it forever, I will sing praised to the God of Jacob. And all the horns of the wicked He will cut off, But the horns of the righteous will be lifted up (Psalm 75:6-10, NASB).
Rouse yourself! Rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem, You who have drunk from the LORD’s hand the cup of His anger; The chalice of reeling you have drained to the dregs (Isaiah 51:17, NASB).
Then I took the cup from the LORD’s hand, and made all the nations drink, to whom the LORD sent me: Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, and its kings and its princes, to make them a ruin, a horror, a hissing, and a curse, as it is this day; Pharaoh king of Egypt, his servants, his princes, and all his people; and all the foreign people, … (Jeremiah 25:15-20a).
And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If any one worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name” (Revelation 14:9-11).
What, then, is the “cup” which our Lord dreaded? It is the cup of God’s wrath, poured out on sinners. It is the cup which will be poured out in those who are unrighteous, whether they be Jews or Gentiles. It is the “cup” which was foretold in the Old Testament, and which is still prophesied in the Book of Revelation. It is the cup of the wrath of God, beginning with the Great Tribulation, and enduring throughout all eternity. The cup97 which our Lord dreaded drinking was the wrath of God, manifested in eternal torment.
No wonder our Lord was “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37), and His soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Jesus’ agony was due to the cross which loomed before Him. He was not in agony because He would be forsaken by men, but that He would be forsaken and smitten by God. Jesus was dreading, suffering in the anticipation of His bearing of the sins of the world and the wrath of God which they deserved.
This text tells us that because Jesus bore the wrath of God (the “cup,” as it were) in the sinner’s place, it is not necessary for men to drink this cup as well. Salvation comes when a person comes to faith in Christ as the One who was innocent, and yet died in their place, bearing the wrath of God which their sins deserved. Those who reject Christ and His atoning sacrifice must bear the wrath of God, which will be poured out on unbelievers in the future. It is this wrath to which the Book of Revelation refers (see text above).
There are many disagreements among evangelicals as to when and how the Lord’s return will come, but one thing seems certain to me, based on our text: No Christian will go through the Tribulation, the future outpouring of God’s wrath upon an unbelieving world. All who are godly will suffer “tribulation” (small “t”), which is the wrath of unbelieving men toward God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:12), but the Great Tribulation (big “T”)—the outpouring of divine wrath on sinful men—will only come upon the unbelieving. The Great Tribulation is a horrifying repeat of the agony of Calvary, which men must endure because of their rejection of the Savior, and it will only come upon unbelievers.
43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Verses 43 and 44 pose a problem for some. First, these verses are not found in a very few of the “older” manuscripts. Since “older” is not necessarily “better,” and since only a few manuscripts omit these verses, I find it easy to assume that the verses are original. The very fact that these verses are difficult to understand and that they are not found in the parallel accounts is strong evidence for their originality, in my opinion.
Assuming that the verses are genuine, the problem of interpreting them remains. The two verses might, at first look, seem to be in reversed order. One would tend to think that Jesus should have been strengthened by an angel from heaven at the end of his time of prayer in the garden, not somewhere in the middle. One must also wonder how it is that an angel could strengthen Jesus at all. How could an angel “strengthen” the Son of God? If this is not a problem in your mind, imagine that it was you who was dispatched from heaven to go to the earth and strengthen the Son of God. What would you have done? What would you have said or done?
Fortunately for us, the term “strengthened” is found one more time in the New Testament, in Acts 9:19, where Paul was said to be “strengthened” after taking some food, after his three day fast (which commenced by the appearance of the Lord to him on the road to Damascus). Here, it is evident that Paul’s strengthening was physical in nature. It would seem that our Lord’s strengthening by means of an angelic ministry at the end of His temptation was also primarily physical (cf. Matthew 4:11).
But why would Jesus have needed physical strengthening here? Matthew and Mark both tell us that our Lord was sorrowful to the point of death. I take this very literally, and not in some metaphorical sense. Luke, a doctor you will recall, tells us that sorrow was the cause of the disciples’ drowsiness (22:45). If these disciples were sleepy from their sorrow, with as little knowledge of the situation as they had, how do you think the sorrow of our Lord must have affected Him. Luke does not leave us to our imaginations here. He tells us that Jesus’ agony was so great that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).
I believe that our Lord’s sorrow was so great that He was virtually at the point of death. I believe that apart from supernatural sustenance (brought by the angel from heaven) Jesus would not have died on the cross, He would have died in the Garden of Gethsemane. So great was His agony at the thought of the cross and all that it implied, our Lord was sorrowful to the point of death. The physical strengthening was, no doubt, intended to carry our Lord on through all of the physical and emotional demands of His arrest, trials, and crucifixion, but it was also given to Him to sustain Him through His night of prayer. Thus, after He was strengthened, Jesus returned to His prayer in the garden, praying, as Luke tells us, even “more earnestly” (22:44).
The suffering of our Lord was not merely Him, in his humanity, struggling with the ugly realities of the cross. It was a supernatural suffering, the unique, unparalleled, suffering of the sinless God-man, who alone could fathom the depths of God’s righteousness, man’s sin, and the measure of divine wrath which these required. Jesus was supernaturally strengthened because He supernaturally suffered. We do Him a great injustice to liken Him to us, and His sufferings to what ours would have been in such a setting.
45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
The last two verses conclude the section on the Garden of Gethsemane and lead us right to the point of our Lord’s arrest. In verse 47, Luke will go on to tell us that it was as Jesus was saying these words (of verses 45-46) that Judas and the arresting party arrived on the scene. In a general description of the disciples as a whole, Luke informs us that when Jesus returned to the place where His disciples were to be “watching and praying” He found them asleep. Luke alone tells us that their sleep was induced by sorrow. This was not merely physical fatigue, or the lateness of the hour, nor apathy. The disciples, I believe (cf. “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” Mark 14:38) wanted desperately to stay awake and to “keep watch” with Him, but could not. Their sorrow, perhaps somewhat vaguely understood or recognized by them, was too much for them.
The human weakness of the disciples did not totally excuse the disciples, however, and thus the final rebuke of the Savior in verse 46. They were urged, one final time, to awaken, to arise, and to pray, so that they would not fall into temptation. There was no more time, however, for Judas had now arrived, along with a group that was heavily armed, coming on Jesus as though He were a dangerous criminal, a robber, perhaps.
This passage may be short, but it is weighty indeed. I find myself emotionally worn down just in the reading of it. Let us consider some of the implications and applications of our text as we conclude.
First, the suffering of Jesus was not only his humanity struggling with the physical agonies of the cross, but Jesus’ deity and humanity inseparably coming to grips with the awesome agony of Calvary. It is not Jesus’ humanity which dominates this text, but the disciples’ humanity. It is His deity and humanity, dying for man, that is in focus. It is supernatural suffering that is in view here.
Second, the measure of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane is the measure of man’s sinfulness and of its disastrous and painful consequences. We read the words, “the wages of sin is death,” but these words take on a vastly deeper and more personal meaning in the light of Gethsemane.
Third, the measure of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane is the measure of the suffering which Christ endured in bearing the wrath of God toward sinners at Calvary.98 The immensity of Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane is in direct proportion to the agony which unsaved men and women will face in hell, when they drink of the “cup” of God’s wrath. The doctrine of propitiation focuses on this area, stressing the fact that Jesus bore the wrath of God on the cross, satisfying His righteous anger, so that men might have peace with God.
Fourth, the measure of Christ’s agony at Gethsemane is the measure of the love of God for sinners, which caused Him to die that we might live. The songwriter put it well when he wrote, “What wondrous love is this … ?” It is, indeed, amazing love which caused the Son of God to voluntarily pursue the path of pain which led to the cross. If you are troubled by the thought of an angry God and of hell, do not forget that this same God bore His own wrath for sinners. Those who will suffer the torment of hell will do so only because they have chosen to reject the love of God which brought about salvation on the cross for all who would receive it.
Fifth, this text makes it clear that what Jesus did for the salvation of men, He did alone. The disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing. They tried to resist it when it began to take place, by drawing the sword. They did not watch and pray with the Savior. They did not bear Him up in His hour of grief. Jesus suffered and died alone, unaided by men, even the closest of His followers. What Christ did, He did in spite of men, not because of them.
Sixth, the suffering of our Lord is the test, the standard, for all suffering. Let those who think they have suffered for God place their suffering alongside His, as described here. The writer to the Hebrews reminded his readers that they had not yet suffered to the shedding of blood (Hebrews 12:4). But whose suffering will ever begin to approximate His? The best that we can do in our suffering is to gain some sense of fellowship with Christ and His suffering, some minutely small sense of what He underwent for us (cf. Philippians 3:10). His suffering should surely silence our complaints of giving up much for Him.
Finally, we are reminded of the tremendous power of prayer. Prayer, in this text, did not deliver our Lord from suffering, but it did deliver Him through it. So often we pray that God might get us out of adversity, rather than through it. Prayer is one of God’s primary provisions for our endurance and perseverance. His words to His disciples apply to us as well: “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”
96 It would seem from Matthew’s account that there was some progress in the prayer(s) of our Lord in the Garden. In His first prayer, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (26:39). In the second prayer Jesus said, “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Thy will be done” (26:42). The prayer of our Lord thus changed from “If it is possible… ” to “If it is not possible…”
97 Much less frequently, the Bible speaks of another cup—the cup of salvation or of rejoicing (cf. Psalm 16:5; 23:5; 116:13; cf. Jeremiah 16:7). I think that the disciples had the two “cups” confused. Thus, when James and John sought permission to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in the kingdom, and Jesus asked them if they were able to drink the “cup” that He would drink (Matthew 20:20-23), they were thinking of the “cup” of salvation, of rejoicing, not of His suffering on the cross, when they quickly responded, “We are able.”
98 It is my understanding that our Lord endured suffering all of His earthly life. He endured suffering in His identification with sinful men, and in having to “put up with” us (cf. Luke 9:41). He suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, and perhaps other times as well, in anticipation of the wrath of God which He would bear (cf. Hebrews 5:7-10). And finally He suffered the ultimate agony of the cross of Calvary.