Even when one’s best is done to study about and meditate on the Lord Jesus Christ, it becomes clear that the mystery is far too deep for human comprehension. We know and believe that He is fully God and also fully man, but to state and even sincerely believe such a paradox is not to understand it.
By now it was probably near midnight on the Thursday of Passover week. Jesus’ three years of ministry were completed. He had preached His last public sermon and performed His last miracle. He also had celebrated the last Passover with His disciples. But infinitely more important than that, He had come to be the last and ultimate Passover Lamb, the perfect and only sacrifice for the sins of the world.
As we look further into our Lord’s last night before death, we grasp what we can of the sacredness of this powerful moment in His life and ministry. But we realize that no amount of study or insight can give more than a glimpse of the divine-human agony He experienced there.
One of Philip Bliss’s beautiful hymns contains the words,
Man of sorrows, what a name, For the Son of God who came, Ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah, what a Savior!
The hymn writer borrowed his description of Christ from Isaiah, who predicted that the Messiah would be “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).
There is no record in Scripture of Jesus’ laughing, but there are numerous accounts of His grieving, His sadness, and even His weeping:
- He wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35)
- He wept over Jerusalem at the time of His triumphal entry (Luke 19:41).
Jesus knew sorrow upon sorrow and grief upon grief as no other man who has ever lived. But the sorrow He experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane on the last night before His crucifixion seemed to be the accumulation of all the sorrow He had ever known, which would accelerate to a climax the following day.
We cannot comprehend the depth of Jesus’ agony, because, as sinless and holy God incarnate, He was able to perceive the horror of sin in a way we cannot. Therefore even to attempt to understand the suffering of Jesus that night on the Mount of Olives is to tread on holy ground.
The mystery is too profound for human beings to comprehend and even for angels. We can only stand in awe of the God-Man.
Like every other aspect and detail of Jesus’ life and ministry, His agony in the garden was integral to the foreordained, divine plan of redemption. It was part of Jesus’ preparation for the cross, where the climactic event in the work of that redemption would transpire.
Ever and always the teacher; Jesus used even this struggle with the enemy in the garden the night before the cross to teach the disciples and every future believer another lesson in godliness, a lesson about facing temptation and severe trial. The Lord not only was preparing Himself for the cross but also, by His example, preparing His followers for the crosses He calls them to bear in His name (see Matt. 16:24).
Matthew 26:36-46 reveals three aspects of Jesus’ striving in the garden: His sorrow, His supplication, and His strength. And in clear contrast to their Lord’s unremitting struggle we see also the disciples’ indifferent lethargy
36 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.”
After the eleven disciples echoed Peter’s boast and insisted on their loyalty to Jesus even to the point of dying with Him if necessary (v. 35), they then moved with Him to a place on the Mount of Olives called Gethsemane. Although He had not announced in advance where He was going, “Jesus had often met there with His disciples,” and it was that fact that enabled Judas to find Him so easily later that night (John 18:2).
The name Gethsemane means “olive press,” and the garden probably belonged to a believer who allowed Jesus to use it as a place of retreat and prayer.
William Barclay points out, the owner of Gethsemane, like the owner of the donkey on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem and the owner of the upper room, was a nameless friend who ministered to the Lord during His final hours. “In a desert of hatred,” Barclay observes, “there were still oases of love” (The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2 [Westminster, 1958], p. 384).
It is likely that the garden was fenced or walled and had an entrance, perhaps even a gate. Jesus asked His disciples to sit at the entrance and keep Him from being disturbed while He went into the garden to pray.
Our Lord took only three with Him to pray. He wanted to teach them further about facing strong temptation with confidence in God rather than in themselves. In light of their self-declared dependability (v. 35), the disciples needed to learn the humility and poverty of spirit that is necessary before God can effectively use His people (see Matt. 5:3).
He wanted Peter, James, and John to be convinced and convicted of their foolish smugness and feelings of invincibility. And He wanted them, in turn, to teach their fellow disciples that lesson. He took them along for their benefit, not His.
His purpose also was to teach that, as important and helpful as the fellowship and support of other believers can be, there are times when one’s only help is direct communion with God in prayer. He wanted to show them vividly that, in His humanness, even the divine Son of God needed the sustenance of His heavenly Father.
Fallen, sinful humanity refuses to acknowledge its weakness, but the unfallen, sinless Son of Man well knew His human weakness. When He became flesh and dwelt among men as a man, He accepted the weaknesses that are common to all humanity. He experienced the weaknesses of hunger, thirst, pain, and temptation. Now He was about to experience the supreme human weakness: death.
In acknowledging His human weakness and His consequent need for His heavenly Father’s presence and strength, Jesus did what the disciples saw no need for doing. It was because He looked to His Father that He endured and passed every temptation, including sin-bearing and death—the severest test of all. Every moment of Jesus’ life, from His first cry as an infant to His last cry from the cross, was lived in total submission to His heavenly Father. And through that sinless submission during His humanity He became a high priest who can fully “sympathize with our weaknesses,… one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
As He went into the garden with the three disciples, Jesus began to be grieved and distressed. It was not that He had never experienced grief or distress over sin and death and over the isolation from His heavenly Father they would bring.
He had always known that He had come to earth to suffer and die for the sins of the world. But the climax of His anguish now began to intensify as never before, as His becoming sin in our place and His consequent estrangement from God drew near. His very soul was repulsed by the encroachment of His sin bearing, not because of the physical pain. He would endure but because of His taking upon Himself there the full magnitude and defilement of all man’s iniquity. His agony over that prospect was beyond description or understanding.
When Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35), it was not for Lazarus or for the grieving sisters, because He was about to restore His dear friend and their brother to life. He rather wept because of the power of sin and death over mankind.
But now a very deep and desolate kind of loneliness began to sweep over Him that caused Him to be severely distressed.
In addition to the rejections were the blatant injustices He would face. The very Creator of justice would Himself be subjected to the ultimate injustice of mankind. He would be vilified and defrauded in the petty courts of sinful, spiteful, lying men—and that in the name of God. The One whom angels praise and with whom God the Father is well pleased would be cursed and mocked by the vile and wicked multitudes, many of whom had a few days earlier sung His praises and attempted to make Him their king.
Jesus confronted a loneliness that no other man could experience. The Son of God, who communed with the Father and the Holy Spirit and with all the holy angels of heaven, would find Himself forsaken by His Father as He became sin. He would be so identified with iniquity that the hosts of heaven would have to turn their backs on Him. And the same sin that repulsed them repulsed Him, the sinless, holy, pure, and undefiled Son of righteousness.
The agony of this temptation was unequaled. It was Jesus’ most intense struggle with Satan, more agonizing even than the encounter in the wilderness. The magnitude of His grief apparently caused Jesus’ subcutaneous capillaries to dilate and burst. As the capillaries burst under the pressure of deep distress and blood escaped through the pores of His skin, it mingled with His sweat, “falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:44).
It was to this experience, no doubt, that the writer of Hebrews referred in saying that Jesus Hebrews 5:7 (NIV) 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.
Jesus was not grieved because of fear He would succumb to Satan’s temptations. As mentioned above, He had already declared that Satan “has nothing in Me,” meaning that ‘there was no sin or evil in Him in which temptation could take root. Nor was He grieved over a possibility of not conquering sin or surviving death. He had repeatedly spoken of His coming resurrection and even of His ascension. There was no doubt in our Lord’s mind about the outcome of the cross, by which He would become victor over sin, death, and the devil. Jesus was deeply grieved, to the point of death because of His having to become sin. That was the unbearably excruciating prospect that made Him sweat great drops of blood. Holiness is totally repulsed by sin. The prophet Habakkuk revealed this when he wrote, “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13).
In that deep sorrow Jesus knew His only solace was with His heavenly Father, and with each wave of temptation and anguish He retreated to a place of seclusion some distance away (see vv. 36, 39, 42). Luke reports that “He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw” (Luke 22:41), which amounted to thirty to fifty yards. The intensity of temptation and of Jesus’ prayer response increased with each of the three sessions and is reflected in the positions the Lord took. At first He knelt (Luke 22:41), but as the intensity escalated He fell prostrate on His face (Matt. 26:39).
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?
These verses focus alternately on Jesus’ supplication to His heavenly Father and on the three disciples’ falling asleep. On the one hand is Jesus’ intense, self-giving desire to do His Father’s will, even to the point of becoming sin to save sinners and by prayer to deal with temptation cast at Him.
On the other hand is the disciples’ indifferent, self-centered inability to watch and to confront the conflict and danger with intercession on their Lord’s behalf. While Jesus, understanding the power of the enemy, retreated to prayer, they retreated into sleep.
Again going a little beyond the three disciples, Jesus fell on His face and prayed to His Father.
Jesus implored the Father, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” By asking, “If it is possible,” Jesus did not wonder if escaping the cross was within the realm of possibility. He knew He could have walked away from death at any time He chose.
“I lay down My life that I may take it again,” He explained to the unbelieving Pharisees “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18).
The Father sent the Son to the cross, but He did not force Him to go. Jesus was here asking if avoiding the cross were possible within the Father’s redemptive plan and purpose. The agony of becoming sin was becoming unendurable for the sinless Son of God, and He wondered aloud before His Father if there could be another way to deliver men from sin.
As always with Jesus, the determining consideration was God’s will. “I did not speak on My own initiative,” He declared, “but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me commandment, what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49; cf. 14:31; 17:8).
He therefore said submissively, “Yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”
This conflict between what I will and what Thou wilt reveals the reality of the amazing fact that Jesus was truly being tempted. Though sinless and unable to sin, He clearly could he brought into the real conflict of temptation (see Heb. 4:15).
But when the Lord returned to the three disciples, He found them sleeping. That discovery; though not unexpected, must have added greatly to His grief and distress. No one can disappoint and hurt us so deeply as those we love. Jesus was not surprised, because in His omniscience He was perfectly aware of their weakness and had predicted that it would, that very night, he manifested even in desertion (see v. 31). But that knowledge did not alleviate the pain caused by their not being sensitive enough or caring enough to watch and pray with Him in the last hours of His life.
It was probably after midnight, and the need for sleep at that hour was natural. Jesus and the disciples had had a long and eventful day, and they had just finished a large meal and walked perhaps a mile or so from the upper room to the Mount of Olives. But even the disciples’ limited and confused perception of His imminent ordeal and of their desertion of Him that He had predicted should have motivated and energized them enough to stay awake with Him at this obviously grave time.
In fairness, it should he noted that sleep is often a means of escape, and the disciples may have slept more out of frustration, confusion, and depression than apathy. They could not bring themselves to face the truth that their dear friend and Lord, the promised Messiah of Israel, not only would suffer mockery and pain at the hands of wicked men but would even be put to death by them.
As a physician, Luke perhaps was especially diagnostic in viewing their emotional state, and he reports that, as we might expect, they were “sleeping from sorrow” (22:45).
But even that reason did not excuse their lack of vigilance. They did not fully believe Jesus’ predictions of His death and of their desertion primarily because they did not want to believe them. Had they accepted Jesus’ word at face value, their minds and emotions would have been far too exercised to allow sleep.
The disciples’ predicted desertion of Jesus began here, as they left Him alone in His great time of need. His heart must have broken when He said to Peter, but also for the benefit of James and John, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour?”
Considering the circumstances, the rebuke was especially mild. It was not Jesus’ purpose to shame the disciples but to strengthen them and teach them their need for divine help. “Keep watching and praying,” He implored, that you may not enter into temptation.”
The Greek verbs behind keep watching and praying are present imperatives and carry the idea of continuous action, indicated in the nasb by keep.
The need for spiritual vigilance is not occasional but constant. Jesus was warning His disciples to be discerning enough to know they were in spiritual warfare and to be prepared by God to resist the adversary. He was warning them of the danger of self-confidence, which produces spiritual drowsiness.
The only way to keep from being engulfed in temptation is to be aware of Satan’s craftiness and not only to go immediately to our heavenly Father in prayer when we are already under attack but to pray even in anticipation of coming temptation. Peter perhaps first began to learn that lesson on this night in the garden. And after serving faithfully as an apostle for many years, he admonished Christians: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). He also gave the assurance, however, that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation” (2 Pet. 2:9).
As our Lord taught, we are to pray for God not to “lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13).
The fact that Jesus again… came and found them sleeping indicates that the disciples fell asleep even after He had awakened and admonished them. Their eyes were heavy, and because they would not seek the Father’s help they found themselves powerless even to stay awake, much less to offer intercession for or consolation to their Master.
After He found the disciples sleeping the second time, Jesus left them again, and went away and prayed a third time. Although the gospels do not indicate it specifically, it would seem possible that, as already mentioned, Jesus had three sessions of prayer in response to three specific waves of Satanic attack, just as in the wilderness. It took three attempts for Satan to exhaust his malevolent strategy against the Son of God. Each time Jesus suffered more extreme torment of soul, but each time He responded with absolute resolution to do the Father’s will. After the third siege, our Lord said the same thing once more to His heavenly Father, that is, “Thy will be done” (see v. 42).
After the third session of prayer, Jesus came to the disciples, and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” Even after the two rebukes and heartfelt admonitions from the Lord, the three men were still sleeping. Their eyes were still heavy (cf. v. 43) because they were controlled by the natural rather than by the spiritual. They were so totally subject to the flesh and its needs that they were indifferent to the needs of Christ. They were even indifferent to their own deepest needs, because, just as Jesus had warned a short while before, they were about to be overwhelmed by fear for their own lives and by shame of Christ. Yet instead of following their Master’s example through agonizing in prayer, they blissfully rested in sleep.
Jesus was teaching the disciples that spiritual victory goes to those who are alert in prayer and who depend on their heavenly Father. The other side of that lesson, and the one the disciples would learn first, was that self-confidence and unpreparedness are the way to certain spiritual defeat.
Matthew 26:45-46 (NIV) Mt 45 (NIV) 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!”
The word behold is used to call attention to something. As Jesus walked back to the three disciples, the men coming to arrest Him were already within sight. In fact, they arrived “while He was still speaking” (v. 47). As they approached, Jesus could make out the Roman soldiers from Fort Antonia and the chief priests and elders. Most clearly of all, He could see Judas, who led the motley contingent.
With great sadness, Jesus said, “The hour is at hand.” He was not sad because He was unwilling to face the cross but because He was about to become sin. And His sadness was made the more bitter because His beloved disciples would not stand with Him as He gave His all for them. With a strength made even more magnificent by its contrast with their weakness, the Son of Man graciously submitted to being betrayed into the hands of sinners.
There was nothing more that Jesus needed to do and nothing more the disciples were willing to do. “Arise” Jesus therefore said, “let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!” Rather than being weakened and deterred by the temptations, Jesus became stronger and more resolved; and instead of waiting for His enemies to come to Him, He went out to meet them.
With the courage of invincibility, Jesus had made the ultimate and final act of commitment to His heavenly Father, who He knew would raise Him from the dead on the third day. As He moved toward the crowd who came to arrest Him, He also resolutely moved toward the cross. “For the joy set before Him [He] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).
Matthew 26:36-46 gives the pattern and sequence of spiritual tragedy, which may be summarized in the words: confidence, sleep, temptation, sin, and disaster.
- Self-confidence always opens the door to temptation. The first step of a believer’s falling into sin is false confidence that he is able to be faithful to the Lord in his own power. Like the disciples on the Mount of Olives, he is certain he would never forsake Christ or compromise His Word.
- Following self-confidence comes sleep, representing indifference to evil and lack of moral and spiritual vigilance. The sleeping believer has little concern for what he reads or listens to, even when it is clearly unchristian and debasing.
- The third step is temptation, which Satan’s system is constantly ready to place in the way of God’s people. As with Jesus, the temptation appeals to one’s personal rights and calls for rebellion against God.
- The fourth step is sin, because a believer who is spiritually self-confident, who is indifferent to sin, and who does not turn to the Lord for help will inevitably fall into sin. No person, not even a Christian, has the capacity within himself to withstand Satan and avoid sin.
- The fifth and final stage in the sequence is disaster. Just as temptation that is not resisted in God’s power always leads to sin, sin that is not confessed and cleansed leads to spiritual tragedy.
But this passage also contains the pattern for spiritual victory, manifested and exemplified by Jesus. The way of victory rather than tragic defeat:
- confidence in God rather than self
- moral and spiritual vigilance rather than indifference
- resisting temptation in God’s power rather than in our own
- and holding to obedience rather than to the rebellion of sin.