The Agony of Gethsemane – Matthew 26:36-46
By: Alistair Brown
Was Jesus’ crucifixion the most agonizing moment of his life? Surely it must have been. Death on a Roman cross was excruciating pain, and none of that was spared to Jesus.
But perhaps, for Jesus, what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane was suffering just as great as crucifixion.
When the Passover meal was eaten Jesus left with his disciples, except Judas, who had already gone to fetch soldiers to arrest Jesus. Jesus and the other disciples went to Gethsemane, an area filled with olive trees. Jesus needed to pray, to pour out his heart to God, and he took three of the disciples to stay close to him.
In the hour or two that follows, Jesus bares his soul and we see pain beyond imagining.
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.”
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. “Couldn’t you men 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 flesh 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? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Three things mark out the time in Gethsemane.
1. It is a time of deep agony.
Several of the words in verses 37 and 38 are filled with appalling pain and anguish for Jesus. He was “sorrowful” and “troubled.” He told the disciples: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
The gospels don’t often describe any emotion of Jesus other than compassion. So the gospel writers saw this time and this experience in Gethsemane as something almost unique and certainly important to record.
There are martyrs who have gone silent or with brave words to their death, as if it is nothing to them that they will be burned at the stake or torn by wild dogs or executed with a sword. Not Jesus. Inside him is a sorrow and an agony so strong, so all-consuming that he feels he might die there and then, and he pours out that sorrow to God.
Why such pain?
Above all, perhaps two reasons.
For one thing, Jesus knew that crucifixion lay ahead. Death on a cross was death by prolonged torture. The piercing of hands and feet with nails, the exposure to burning sun or bitter cold, the humiliation by mocking crowds, the near-impossible strain of lifting the collapsed body to breathe, the physical frame becoming weaker, the mind becoming delirious… all excruciating pain. And it lasted a long time, maybe hours, maybe days. Crucifixion was an intentional slow death so the condemned person experienced maximum agony and so those who watched learned never to rebel against the state.
Crucifixion was so cruel that the Romans usually crucified only slaves, pirates, or their enemies and not their own citizens.
Jesus knew crucifixion lay just ahead. Who would not be in an agony of soul?
For another thing, Jesus’ death would be no ordinary death. Yes, he would suffer and die like any man. But he would be the man whose suffering included bearing the sins of the whole world in his own body. No one can know all that meant for him – perhaps more intensified pain, perhaps separation from his perfect communion with his Father. Whatever exactly was before Jesus, it was a ‘cup’ he dreaded drinking. N.T. Wright says: “He had looked into the darkness and seen the grinning faces of all the demons in the world looking back at him. And he begged and begged his father not to bring him to the point of going through with it.”
Whatever the trials or suffering of our lives, however great our darkness or our pain, Jesus understands. He knows deep agony, he knows what it is to dread what lies ahead, he knows the need to get down on the ground and cry out to God to be released. He knows.
2. It is a time of wrestling and resolution.
Jesus’ prayer in the Garden is remarkable for its straightforward honesty. “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (v. 39).
I have known people who prayed for a dreadful future to go away:
- The person diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease which would lead inevitably to death.
- The mother told the baby in her womb was anencephalic, and without full development of the child’s brain and skull the baby would not live for more than a few hours after birth.
- The parents of a beautiful seven year old girl diagnosed with a brain tumor, life supported only by medical equipment, waiting for the day their child’s time in this world would certainly end.
For these people and others like them, their deepest longing was that somehow that unimaginably dreadful future would not exist. If only somehow – by a miracle of miracles – what they know will happen will not happen. If only the impossible could become possible. How can they not pray for that?
So Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Is Jesus simply voicing his agony and his longing? Or did Jesus truly think the cup of suffering could be taken away?
When Jesus prays the prayer the second time he seems to know the answer. The words are slightly different. “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (v. 42). Had Jesus sensed the answer to his prayer was ‘no’? Perhaps that is reading too much into the slight change of words, because Matthew records that Jesus prayed the same prayer a third time (v. 44).
But it makes sense that Jesus would ask if he could be released from the appalling suffering of death on the cross. There is a deep inner wrestling here.
But Jesus was not rejecting God’s will. We might do that. When Alison and I told friends we were leaving the UK to follow God’s call to work in the USA, more than a few of our friends said, “I couldn’t do that.” Well, of course they could. Apart from getting a job and obtaining a visa, you just buy an air ticket and off you go. So when they said they “couldn’t do that,” they meant they “couldn’t bring themselves to do that,” meaning leaving their homeland, their security, and being four thousand miles away from children and grandchildren. It worries me that their answers implied that no matter the will of God, there were callings they would not accept. That could be true of any of us. We might question and perhaps reject any plan of God too difficult for us to face.
But Jesus was not doing anything like that in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was not trying to avoid the will of God, he was ensuring this cup of suffering was the will of God. Certainly his flesh recoiled from the prospect of dying in agony, and certainly it was an unimaginable burden to absorb the pain and sin of the world in his body, but the heart of his prayer was always “may your will be done.” He wanted nothing other than what the Father wanted for him. He had no agenda other than to do the Father’s will.
And as he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, the matter was settled. There was no more time for questioning. It was resolved, and Jesus would go forward into the hands of those who would crucify him.
3. It is a time of weakness and failure.
The disciples persistently let Jesus down. At the start he told them to keep watch with him (v. 38). After his first time of prayer, Jesus returned to them, found them sleeping and urged them again to watch and pray (v. 41). A short time later he came back to them again, and again found them sleeping (v. 43). And when his prayer was finished and he rejoined them, it was no different. “Are you still sleeping and resting?” he asked them (v. 45).
It was the night and therefore no surprise they were tired and fell asleep. But Jesus needed them. One of the greatest struggles of all human history was happening only a few paces away, but these men curled up and went to sleep. Even though they were asked several times to stay awake, still they slept. What Jesus wanted was not difficult to understand and not impossible to do. But they let him down.
We are no different. We don’t sin out of ignorance. We sin because of weakness, unwillingness, selfishness, or carelessness. At times when the deep spiritual battles are at stake, we’re not on the alert, not at our posts, not playing our part.
Thankfully Jesus did not give up on these disciples, just got them to their feet since the force coming to arrest him was in sight (v. 46). Jesus does not give up on us either. That does not mean our failures don’t matter, only that Jesus won’t let us wallow in past mistakes for there are new challenges to face just ahead.
A time of deep agony.
A time of wrestling and resolution.
A time of weakness and failure.
There are three short but important lessons.
1) Prayer is not always answered as we might wish.
Jesus, the perfect Son of God, poured out his heart. There is no doubt he longed to escape the cross. But God said ‘No.’
There was no fault in the person praying. There was nothing wrong with the prayer. It would have made no difference if the prayer time had lasted all night, or if the prayer had been repeated a million times by a million people. The answer would still have been ‘No.’
The lesson? We can and should pour out our hearts to God, but with humility let us recognize that the will of God we find may not be the same as the will that we brought to the prayer.
2) The deepest of inner agonies can be shared with God.
Jesus was troubled, and he tells his disciples his soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Some Christians think of any form of depression as weakness of faith. If that were true, then many of the Bible’s greatest saints were weak. And Jesus was weak in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was, but it was no sin. Weakness is common to human experience and, at times, it is the very thing that drives us to God.
There is no sin in being real about our feelings, and no sin in coming to God confessing our struggles. God copes very well with honest people. Cures are rarely instant, but being open before God is always the right start.
3) God’s will does get done.
Jesus prayed for that: “…not as I will, but as you will” (v. 39). And God’s will was done.
We may never face death on a cross, but we may see some other appalling future that sends dread through our whole being. At times like that we are tempted to say: ‘How can God be so absent or impotent? Where is God at a time like this?’
The answer is God is right there. Just as he was in Gethsemane, as he was at the cross, and as he was at the tomb raising Jesus back to life. Through all of it, God was there.
Our challenges and our agonies overwhelm us, and we feel so alone. But God is there, always there. He is not hiding, not gone astray, not become unwilling. And God is at work, and his work is always good.
When Jesus left Gethsemane, the challenge of the future was still there. The agony of the cross was still ahead. Easter was about to come. But Jesus came through Gethsemane strengthened in knowing God’s will more surely and he could face anything God allowed in his life. Because of what happened in his Gethsemane, he was now prepared even for the cross. May God also make us ready for his perfect will, whatever that may be.
 T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 160.
 In these I am paraphrasing comments made by Craig Blomberg, Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 395.
 Rom. 8:28