Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
Understanding And Applying the Text
After sharing the Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus took them to Gethsemane. Luke adds a detail that lets us know it was a place Judas knew where to find Him. Luke says He went there according to His custom. (Luke 22:39) This is the place Judas would expect to find Jesus. John tells us Judas knew the place. (John 18:2) Jesus was not hiding.
Why did Jesus leave the disciples to pray? This would be a time when He would need companionship. The most common response is he wanted to be alone to pray. He would often go by Himself to pray. That is not an unreasonable assumption. Calvin has a different and interesting take on it. Jesus went off alone so they would not suffer with Him. Here is what Calvin wrote.
By leaving the disciples at a distance, he spares their weakness; as if a man, perceiving that he would soon be in extreme danger in battle, were to leave his wife and children in a situation of safety. But though he intended to place them all beyond arrow-shot, yet he took three of them who accompanied him more closely than the rest, and these were the flower and choice, in which there was greater rigor. And yet he did not take them, as if he believed that they would be able to sustain the attack, but that they might afford a proof of the defect which was common to them all.The Complete Biblical Collection Of John Calvin on Matthew 26:36
Why was Jesus so sorrowful? He knew the end. His suffering, though severe, was only for a short period of time. Other men had suffered crucifixion. In fact, Peter would die in a similar fashion, upside down. There is no record of Peter in such agony. Plus, in three days Jesus would rise in glory. Sure He was not looking forward to it. But the amount of grief seems extreme.
The response is easy. Jesus knew what was coming. The agony He would experience was more than physical pain. He was going to bear the sins of the entire world. When that occurred the Father would look away. The Father would forsake Him. That is a pain we cannot imagine. Even in our sinfulness, God has not forsaken us.
Second, this is the ordinary fear of death. Knowledge does not overcome such fear. The true test of virtue is only in the event. The flesh is weak no matter how well we conceal it. The flesh reveals its weakness once the battle begins. The brave soldier in training may turn into a ball of whimpering flesh when bullets start flying. God had already tried his Son with preparatory exercises. Now His battle begins. Bravery is not the absence of fear. It is not allowing fear to overcome us. Christ had fear. But He overcame it. Fear appears inconsistent with Christ’s divine glory. Many commentators have worked hard to find some way of evading this difficulty. But their effort is ill-advised. It provides no value. If we are ashamed that Christ should experience fear and sorrow. There is no shame or even weakness in that. Christ was fully human as well as fully God. While these stand in tension, we must never allow our understanding to raise one over the other.
“I not only do not think that there is any need of excuse, but there is no instance in which I admire more his kindness and his majesty; for he would not have done so much for me, if he had not taken upon him my feelings. He grieved for me, who had no cause of grief for himself; and, laying aside the delights of the eternal Godhead, he experiences the affliction of my weakness. I boldly call it sorrow, because I preach the cross. For he took upon him not the appearance, but the reality, of incarnation. It was therefore necessary that he should experience grief, that he might overcome sorrow, and not shut it out; for the praise of fortitude is not bestowed on those who are rather stupefied than pained by wounds.”The Complete Biblical Collection Of John Calvin on Matthew 26:37
Still, we must distinguish Christ’s weakness from ours. There is a vast difference. We do nothing or love nothing without the effect of sin. But Christ did not sin. He obeyed the Father at every turn. His affections were pure since He was sinless.
Though Jesus took three with Him. He left them and went further to prayer. Though not a great distance. They could hear Him before they fell asleep. The act of falling on the ground showed Christ’s earnestness. We kneel to express respect and reverence. That is why it is a common posture in prayer. But Christ threw Himself to the ground. This showed both His complete submission and total grief.
Christ prayed that what He was about to experience would not occur. He asks for something that was impossible to grant. Believers often pray for things that are inconsistent with God’s will.
Sometimes people say we should never qualify our prayer with, “if it be Your will.” they claim it shows a lack of faith. I disagree. I disagree strongly! It shows submission. Some claim it is an act of unbelief. They tell us to “name it and claim it.” Nothing is more foreign to the teaching and examples of Christ. We come to God’s presence in boldness, but never arrogance. Let us never forget who we are. God is sovereign over all. We are children of the most high. But we are only children.
Why would Christ pray such a prayer? He was aware of the Father’s will. He was aware of the absurdity of the request. The reality is there is no absurdity. Christ was committed to the will of the Father. He was pouring out His heart. He had real emotions. And He was expressing them. But at no time was He in conflict with the Father’s will. That is not to agree with Monothelitism. Monothelitism is a heresy because a will is an essential part of a nature. Jesus had both a human and divine will. The human will can desire something contrary to God’s will without sin. It becomes sin when it is not constrained. Christ was without sin. For the human will was always constrained to come into alliance with the Father’s will.
Christ returns from prayer twice and finds the three sleeping. They were not sleeping because of overindulgence from the meal. Luke tells us they sleep because they were sorrowful. (Like 22:45) We often seek escape from reality. The disciples were no different. Jesus had told one of the group would betray Jesus. The religious leaders were about to arrest Jesus. They sought escape through sleep. But Jesus told them to watch and pray. That is cowardice. They allowed their sorrow to cause them to roll up into a ball of flesh. Instead of girding for what was to come. They sought escape through sleep.
The time had arrived. Jesus told them to wake up and face reality. His betrayer had come.