The Essential Jesus: His Life & Teaching

Jesus' Prayer in Gethsemane

Matthew 26:31-56

Teaching t10179

Introduction

We come now to one of the most poignant and important moments in Jesus’ ministry--his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, which immediately precedes his arrest.

Timing (late at night; after Last Supper & just before arrest) and location (in an olive grove on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem). Let’s start by reading the entire event--read Matt. 26:31-56.

I want to look at this event from two perspectives--what it teaches us about Jesus’ ministry, and what it teaches us about following Jesus.

What it teaches us about Jesus’ ministry

Jesus uses two terms in this passage that provide important information about his ministry: “the hour” and “the cup.”

Jesus’ “hour” refers to the crucial stage of his ministry, during which he will either succeed or fail in his mission. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, people would urge him to publicly reveal himself as the Messiah, but Jesus would refuse by saying “My hour is not yet at hand” (Jn. 2:4; 7:6,8). Or his enemies would try to arrest him, but they would fail because “his hour had not yet come” (Jn. 7:30; 8:20). But now Jesus says that his hour has come (26:45)--and that begins not with public coronation, but with private arrest. In fact, in Lk. 22:53, Jesus says that this “hour” belongs to them (his enemies) and to the powers of darkness working through them.

If Jesus’ “hour” involved falling under the power of his enemies, what was his mission in that “hour?” It was to drink “the cup.” This is a common Old Testament figure of speech referring to God’s allotted role or task for someone. As Jesus comes to his “hour” and peers down into the “cup” his Father is giving him to “drink,” it is so vile that he gags (soul lethally grieved, recoils in agony, falls down, breaks out in profuse sweat [Lk. 22:44]). What is this “cup?”

For one thing, of course, it involves the excruciating physical ordeal of scourging and crucifixion. Jesus had seen what this entailed--and now, thanks to “The Passion,” we know how incredibly painful this was.

But the “cup” went beyond this to something unimaginably worse. The Old Testament prophets spoke (15 times) of a specific, terrifying “cup”-- read Ps. 75:7,8; Isa. 51:17b,20b; Ezek. 23:32-35. This is the “cup” of God’s infinite, burning judgment poured out on human sin.

Sin is not a psychological neurosis, or an illusion of the unenlightened--it is rebellion against a holy God that accrues true moral guilt which God must judge. And because we have all sinned, we all deserve God’s judgment.

The amazing thing is not that God judges sin--but that God has provided a way to exempt us from his judgment. Although his justice demands judgment for sin, his love provided a way to satisfy his judgment while still being able to accept us. God took all of our “cups” of judgment, poured them into one huge, vile “cup”--and put it before Jesus to drink. That’s what happened on the Cross. Jesus actually took our sin and guilt onto himself, and then he bore the fury of God’s righteous judgment in our place--so we wouldn’t have to “drink” it.

I am full of sin--yet when I think of being immersed in the sin of what the human race has done, it gags me. Imagine how Jesus (who had never known sin or guilt) must have felt as he peered into this “cup!” Imagine how Jesus (who had always been in perfect communion with his Father) must have felt as he contemplated the prospect of experiencing his wrath! No wonder Jesus recoiled!

What kind of love must God have for you to send his Son to drink this “cup” for you? What kind of love must Jesus have for you to voluntarily drink it (the point of this passage)? God’s justice and love are both supremely demonstrated on the Cross.

But Jesus won’t forcibly take your “cup” from you. You must personally choose to pour your “cup” into his “cup” and ask him to drink it for you. Have you done this? If not, why not do so today? Then you will experience God’s forgiveness, and you will know that you are forever exempt from God’s judgment because Jesus drank your “cup.”

What it teaches us about following Jesus

On one level, then, Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane is unique. But on another level, it is something that all who follow him can relate to. The way this passage is written invites us to compare Jesus and the disciples (and ourselves). Notice:

Both were facing a serious test. Will the disciples remain faithful to Jesus, or will they run away to save their own skins? Will Jesus remain faithful to his Father and drink the “cup,” or will he turn aside? Both were physically fatigued, afraid, and deeply depressed (26:37,38; Luke 22:45).

Yet the outcome of their tests couldn’t be more different. The disciples panicked and reacted rashly (26:51)--and then ran away. Jesus was strengthened by angels (Lk. 22:43) and walked into and through the ordeal with amazing calm and authority.

How do we account for the difference? It isn’t because Jesus was God, while the disciples were mere men. Jesus was God--but he faced this as a man, without using his divine prerogatives (26:53). Nor is it that they were fated to respond in this way because the Old Testament prophets foretold their reactions (26:31,54,56). God’s predictions never cancel out our free choices and responsibility.

No, the reason why Jesus passed his test while the disciples failed theirs was that Jesus laid hold of God’s strength by praying, while the disciples (in spite of Jesus’ repeated warnings) slept instead of praying (“watch” as in 26:41).

If you follow Jesus, you will have many Gethsemane’s--you will be tested many times. Jesus has a redemptive role for you to play--but there are powers of darkness who will do everything they can to turn you away from this role. They will usually not confront you directly; they will usually work through other people and circumstances. They will especially play on your fears by threatening you, in order to get you to back down from doing what Jesus wants you to do (WITNESSING OR TEACHING; COSTLY CONFRONTATION; CONFESSING SIN; LEAVING COMPROMISING JOB OR RELATIONSHIP; FAMILY/LOVER/FRIEND PRESSURE TO BACK OFF SERIOUS COMMITMENT). Some of you are in Gethsemane right now.

God will never let you be tested beyond what you are able to take, and he will provide you with all the resources you need to pass the test (1 Cor. 10:13)--but you have to lay hold of those resources by praying (not “sleeping”), and by praying as Jesus prayed. When I have failed the test, it has always been because I didn’t pray--or because I didn’t pray this way.

So let’s look again at how Jesus prayed (re-read 26:39,42). There are two key elements of his prayer, and both are equally important when we pray during testing.

Honestly express your negative feelings to God. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me . . .” Jesus is amazingly candid in expressing his fears to God. He protests, “I don’t want to do this” and he cries loudly as he protests (Heb. 5:7).

Some macho men (and women) are repulsed or embarrassed by Jesus’ behavior--but it demonstrates both his psychological sanity (he doesn’t want to suffer) and his emotional health (he is aware of and able to express his feelings).

God is not like your junior high football coach, who was disgusted by your fears. He is your loving Father, who wants you to share your fears with him. Spirituality is not stoically repressing your fears; it involves honestly expressing them to a God who can help you overcome them.

It’s easier for me to do this because Jesus did it. Sometimes it’s easier to do this by first confiding your fears to another trusted Christian friend, and even praying along these lines with them.

Firmly resolve to follow God’s will in spite of your negative feelings. But this is not all Jesus did. Even before he knows if there is a legitimate way to avoid the “cup,” he commits himself to do God’s will rather than his own (26:39). And once he becomes clear again that this is indeed God’s will (26:42 “since”), he actively embraces this path (contra passive, fatalistic “whatever”).

For most of this, this is the part we most need to learn. Our culture used to emphasize repressing your feelings, but now it emphasizes uncritically following your feelings. Our therapeutic culture teaches that to say “No” to your feelings and “Yes” to someone else’s will (even God’s) is pathological. But it is not. What is pathological is to be so self-centered and self-absorbed that you can only obey your fallen feelings.

How do you know what God’s will is? The same way Jesus knew--the Bible. The Old Testament passages concerning his mission provided the objective guidance for his decision--no matter how strong his feelings were to the contrary. In the same way, we need to go to God’s Word during our Gethsemane’s and make our decisions based on what he says. If you don’t know what God says, get biblical counsel from a Christian friend.

The same God who is your loving Father cares about your feelings and wants you to express them is also your wise King who knows what is best and calls you to trust and obey him (1 Pet. 4:19). And it is only when we align our wills with his (against our feelings) that he begins to strengthen us to do his will.

Jesus’ decision in Gethsemane here had uniquely significant consequences for his own life (success vs. failure), for our lives (forgiveness vs. judgment), and for God’s plan (redemption vs. ruin). Our “Gethsemane” decisions are not as momentous as Jesus’ (thank God!)--and because Jesus drank our “cup” we can be forgiven when we choose wrongly (PETER). But they are truly significant for us (growth vs. stagnation), for others (spiritual impact vs. no/negative impact), and for God’s purpose in history. So make them properly in prayer like this!

Copyright 2005 Gary DeLashmutt