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.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
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.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
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.”
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”[i]
The essence of Christ’s prayer reveals His dual nature—the human pleading for deliverance from the cross and the divine submitting perfectly to the Father’s plan. It is a prayer we can often empathize with and one we would do well to emulate. But I think there is far more at stake here than we might initially realize, and the consequences are staggering. To unpack this a little more, we must start by backtracking to the beginning of the Gospels. Matthew 4 and Luke 4 both record Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil, and both record three specific temptations posed to him. To be sure, those were not the only temptations Christ faced. Scripture tells us He “has been tempted in every way, just as we are.”[ii] And Luke tells us at the end of the narrative that “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.”[iii] I would suggest that the opportune time in question is several years later in the garden, with the crucifixion bearing down upon Christ.
Scripture does not mention the devil in the garden, nor is there a specific indicator of his presence. But just as the devil isn’t physically or recognizably present in our temptations, neither did he have to be in all of Christ’s. But make no mistake, Jesus was facing a temptation as he prayed. Remember, His very purpose in being born was to die, “to give his life as a ransom for many.”[iv] He repeatedly spoke of doing the Father’s work and fulfilling His divine purpose. To not go to the cross, to walk away, would have been an act of disobedience. In addition to a very real and very human dread of the agony of crucifixion and of the spiritual pain of bearing the wrath of God for the sin of the world, Jesus also bore the weight of this temptation.
Think about it for a moment. Here was a man facing a death sentence, and not a civilized lethal injection but the worst form of death the cruelty of humanity could devise. But unlike every other human who has stood on death row—waiting for the needle, the chair, the hangman’s noose, the guillotine’s blade, or the executioner’s nails—Jesus was different. Unlike everyone else, He was in control of the situation. As He told Peter, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”[v] Earlier, he’d told the Jews “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”[vi] Jesus could have walked away from the cross. At any moment, He could have ended the pain and been done with it all. He knew “all that was going to happen to him”[vii] as He knelt in the garden; as He told Peter, James, and John, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death;” and as He was in such anguish that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”[viii] His brain was being bombarded with reminders of the horror that faced Him, an attack made worse by the temptation to avoid it, to run, disappear, leave His disciples as they would leave Him, and let sinful, rebellious mankind fend for itself. If that seems beneath Jesus, do not forget He was fully human and could not be fully human if not tempted with self-preservation in the face of an excruciating death.
Pulling against that, of course, was Christ’s “reverent submission”[ix] to the Father. He didn’t demand God get Him out of the mess and didn’t plot and scheme last-ditch escape strategies. He acknowledged “everything is possible for you,”[x] but concluded with the famous words, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”[xi] What a battle was raging!
But there is yet one more force at play, one more consequence hanging in the balance. Consider for a moment—and I do not mean this blasphemously or irreverently—that Christ had given in to the terror and slipped out of the garden while the disciples slept, had called those legions of angels, or had “come down from the cross”[xii] and saved Himself. The repercussions would have echoed throughout the ages, because the long-prophesied sacrifice for sins would not have been made. Redemption would not have been purchased. You and I would still be in our sins, the veil separating us eternally from God. All mankind would be doomed to hell. ALL mankind. Every single sinful person ever born—a group that would now include Jesus of Nazareth.
I know we’re speaking theoretically. But had Jesus disobeyed the Father, He too would have been guilty of sin. Since God cannot look upon sin—the very reason he forsook Christ on the cross when He bore the sin of the world—He could not then look upon a sinful Jesus. No longer “a lamb without blemish or defect,”[xiii] Jesus would have been an insufficient sacrifice to redeem mankind . . . and thus to redeem Himself. He would have been relegated to the same fate as every other sinful human being, with no back-up Messiah to come and save Him, no contingency plan. Had He not gone to the cross, Jesus Christ would have been rightfully and justly damned to hell along with the rest of us.
That was the weight that was upon His shoulders as He asked Peter, “Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?”[xiv] That was the burden that brought Him to the brink of death before one lash of the flagellum, one thorn penetrated His skull, or one nail pierced His flesh. That was the enormity of every temptation he faced from childhood and puberty through the time of testing in the wilderness and the soul-crushing agony of the garden.
I do not mean to suggest that it was eternal self-preservation that drove Jesus to the cross; that is clearly not the message of Scripture. He was motivated by His love for us, out of obedience to the Father, and by “the joy set before him.”[xv] Rather, I mean to highlight the incredible gravity of the situation. The temptation to avoid indescribable pain and suffering was as real for Jesus as it would be for you or me, if not more so given His supernatural ability to avoid it. And the consequences of His decision had eternal impact for all of creation as well as for the Creator who had entered into His world. Everything hinged on that moment.
I find this all very fascinating, but it is not just something to ponder for pondering’s sake. Rather, it should give us a greater appreciation for the One “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”[xvi] Similarly, that appreciation is not just for appreciation’s sake. I close with words penned to the Hebrews, as they show us the relevance of this pondering and appreciation:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death . . . For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.[xvii]
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.[xviii]
[i] Matthew 26:36-46
[ii] Hebrews 4:15
[iii] Luke 4:13
[iv] Matthew 20:28
[v] Matthew 26:53
[vi] John 10:18
[vii] John 18:4
[viii] Luke 22:44 (see NIV footnote)
[ix] Hebrews 5:7
[x] Mark 14:36
[xi] Luke 22:42
[xii] Mark 15:30
[xiii] I Peter 1:19
[xiv] Mark 14:37
[xv] Hebrews 12:2
[xvi] Philippians 2:6-8
[xvii] Hebrews 2:14-15, 17-18, emphasis added.
[xviii] Hebrews 4:14-16