READ : Mark 14:32-36
In the way he faced suffering and death, Jesus offered us a powerful example to follow. He gave one of his primary lessons in a garden, where he spent his last hours in prayer.
We sometimes make the contradictory -sounding point that the most important thing about Jesus’ life was his death. More than just to live as a teacher, healer, or miracle worker, Jesus came to die. His purpose in life was to give his life as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. One piece of evidence supporting this fact is the make-up of the four Gospels. If you look carefully at them, you discover that each writer has devoted the lion’s share of his space – anywhere from a third to a half of the entire book – to the report of just the last week of Jesus’ life. We often think of the Gospels as biographies of Jesus, but they really weren’t written to tell the story of his life. They were written to tell the unique story of his suffering and death.
This message is one in a series following very closely the account of Jesus’ final hours in those Gospels, when his rejection and abuse reached their climax and he was brought to the cross. After spending Thursday evening with his disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus led them outside the city to a garden – actually an olive orchard – on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. The garden was called Gethsemane.
Jesus and his disciples went to a place called Gethsemane. Jesus said to them, “Sit here while I pray.”
He took Peter, James and John along with him. He began to be very upset and troubled. “My soul is very sad. I feel close to death,” he said to them. “Stay here. Keep watch.”
He went a little farther. Then he fell to the ground. He prayed that, if possible, the hour might pass by him. “Abba, [Father]” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup of suffering away from me. But let what you want be done, not what I want.”
Mark 14:32-36 (NIrV)
AN HOUR OF AGONY
Jesus knew that his time now was very short. Judas the traitor was on his way to the authorities; he would soon return with soldiers to arrest Jesus. That night would be his last on earth. Jesus wanted to spend as much of it as he could in prayer. So he retreated to the familiar confines of the Garden of Gethsemane, just outside the east wall of Jerusalem, across the Kidron brook, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. There Jesus knelt beneath the ancient olive trees to pray. All his life Jesus had turned to his Father in prayer for wisdom, comfort and strength. Often he withdrew from the stress of ordinary life to spend a night alone with God in prayer. It was those regular times of quiet intimacy alone with his Father which kept Jesus going. Tonight it would be no different.
But it was different there in the garden. For one thing, Jesus didn’t seem to want to be alone. He needed his friends that night. He asked them to watch and wait with him. Repeatedly he called on his disciples to stay awake and pray with him, especially Peter, James and John, the three who were closest to him. And Jesus himself struggled. He was obviously going through some kind of terrible emotional and spiritual battle there in the garden. The Gospel writers all bear witness to this. “He began to be very upset and troubled,” Mark says (Mark 14:33). “He began to be sad and troubled,” adds Matthew (Matthew 26:37). “My soul is very sad. I feel close to death,” they both record him telling the disciples; “Stay here. Keep watch.” (Mark 14:34). Then, after Jesus had wrestled in prayer for a long time, Luke says that “being in anguish (literally, in “agony”), he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling on the ground” (Luke 22:44). What Jesus prayed for with such intensity was simple. No long, fancy petitions, no flowery words; just a heart-wrenching plea. “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup of suffering away from me.”
This is an astonishing scene. Here is Jesus struggling, trembling, groaning, sweating, crying out to be delivered from suffering and death. Is that how you usually think of him? Nothing in all the Bible so clearly reveals the humanness of Jesus as his hours there in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus wasn’t a phantom or a ghost – bloodless, feeling-less, passionless. His human nature wasn’t an illusion. He wasn’t some kind of god dressed up in a body, pretending to be a man. Jesus was not immune to any of the physical and emotional and spiritual trauma we humans undergo in our hours of crisis. His pulse raced, his heart pounded, his head throbbed, his sweat poured out on the ground. Jesus felt all the same things we do. When faced with the inescapable prospect of torture and a painful death, he was afraid. He wanted to escape. He looked for a way out. When the cold, dark hours of night descended upon him, he was desperately lonely. He asked his friends to stay close, to be with him. And when they failed him, he was upset and disappointed with them. Jesus was human, just like us.
But there is more going on there in the garden than merely Jesus’ struggle with his human feelings and emotions. He is also struggling with temptation. What filled him with dread and fear was much more than just the prospect of physical pain or death. “Pray that you won’t fall . . . when you are tempted,” he told his disciples there in the garden (Luke 22:40), and that is exactly why he himself was praying. The temptation Jesus faced in the garden was the very same one he had faced three years earlier when Satan had appeared to him in the wilderness. It was the temptation to turn aside from the path that led to the cross; to be a glorious Messiah without first being a suffering Messiah; to take a shortcut back to the throne of heaven that detoured around the hill of Golgotha.
What weighed so on Jesus’ mind and caused him such torment was something he called the “cup.” “My Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me” (Matthew 26:39). The cup was a symbol representing God’s holy judgment upon sin. The punishment Jesus would have to endure if he accepted the cup went far beyond physical pain and death. It meant he would have to experience separation from God his Father. He would have to taste the infinite pain of hell.
Jesus didn’t deserve that pain, nor did he desire it. Humanly, he hoped there could be some other way. “My Father, if it is possible . . . .” But it was not possible. Jesus’ prayer was denied. He went to the cross. Don’t you think God would have granted his beloved Son’s prayer if he could? But there was no other way for God to forgive sins and save sinful people than for Jesus to take and drink the cup of physical and spiritual death on their behalf. And if it was not possible for Jesus to save us in any other way than by paying for sins with his death, do you suppose it is possible for you to be saved in any other way than by trusting in him alone? If it was necessary for Jesus to die, it’s just as necessary for you to believe in him and to put your faith in his sacrifice.
NOT MY WILL, BUT YOURS BE DONE
Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane ends in triumph as he embraces the will of God. “Not my will, but yours, be done.” “Let what you want be done, not what I want” (Mark 14:36). Jesus had prayed in a similar way just a few days before:
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. . . .
“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
What is your reaction to the scene of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane? I can tell you what mine is. I’m filled with awe. I am moved by his humanity. I am ashamed when I compare his obedience, his readiness to accept the will of God, with my own. And most of all, I am amazed at the depth of Jesus’ love for me. He was willing to do anything in order to save me.
I am also challenged by the way he prayed. So often when I pray it seems like I’m really only interested in getting things from God. “Father, this is my will. Now please do it, and quickly too, if you don’t mind.” Are you like me? Is that the way you pray? And then when God doesn’t give what we ask or do what we want, we become angry and disillusioned. We think there’s something wrong with him, or maybe with us, and we think that prayer is a useless exercise.
But Jesus teaches us the truth about prayer. He shows us the right way to pray. Praying the way Jesus prayed means for us to desire God’s will above all else, even if that means suffering for me. Theologian James Packer has well observed that Jesus’ prayer in the garden illustrates what true prayer really is. “Here more clearly than anywhere the purpose of prayer becomes plain: not to make God do my will (which is practicing magic), but to bring my will into line with his (which is what it means to practice true religion).” To say to God, “Not my will, but yours be done” is to honor him as God and give him the supreme place he deserves. It’s the only right way to pray.
It’s also, if I may put it this way, the only smart way to pray. I like something that John Newton, the great pastor, preacher and hymn-writer, once wrote in a letter to a friend. He offered this testimony, after long experience in walking with God, to the wisdom of allowing God to choose what is best for us:
I can hardly recollect a single plan of mine, of which I have not since seen reason to be satisfied, that had it taken place in season and circumstance just as I proposed, it would, humanly speaking, have proved my ruin, or at least it would have deprived me of the greater good the Lord had designed for me. We judge things by their present appearances, but the Lord sees them in their consequences; if we could do so likewise, we should be perfectly of his mind; but as we cannot, it is an unspeakable mercy that he will manage for us, whether we are pleased with his management or not; and it is spoken of as one of his heaviest judgments, when he gives any person or people up to the way of their own hearts, and to walk after their own counsels.
When you set yourself to want God’s will, and prepare yourself to accept God’s will, and pledge yourself to obey God’s will, you are glorifying him. And you’re also doing yourself a huge favor.
“Lord Jesus, thank you for your wonderful love. Teach us to be obedient as you were, to want what you want, to do your will here on earth as it is done in heaven. In your name, Amen.”