36 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.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 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.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 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. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” – Matthew 26:36-46 ESV
Having completed the Passover meal, Jesus and His disciples made their way through the city of Jerusalem, out the eastern gate, and onto the Mount of Olives. They stopped at a place called Gethsemane, which means “an olive press.” Here, Jesus took three of His disciples, Peter, James and John, and found a secluded place where He could pray. These are the same three men He took with Him when He experienced His transfiguration. On this occasion, rather than seeing Jesus in His glorified state, they would watch as He agonized over His coming trials.
Jesus described to them His state of mind: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38 ESV). His emotional state was one of deep and overwhelming sadness over what was about to happen. His sorrow alone was enough to kill Him. But what was it that caused such a drastic state of deep melancholy in Jesus? Was He afraid to die? Did He regret His decision to sacrifice Himself on behalf of sinful mankind? Was He having second thoughts? The text, along with the words and actions of Jesus, provide us with the answers. Matthew relates that Jesus went off by Himself and immediately fell on His face before His Father in a state of prayer. He pleaded, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39 ESV).
One of the things this passage reveals is the human side of Jesus’ nature. He was 100 percent God, but also 100 percent man – a state often referred to as the hypostatic union. At His incarnation, Jesus, the eternal, second person of the Trinity, became the God-man. His assumption of a human nature was essential to the role He would play as the Savior of mankind. The author of Hebrews explains:
Because God’s children are human beings–made of flesh and blood–the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. – Hebrews 2:14 NLT
The apostle Paul would put it this way:
[God] sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT
Jesus never relinquished any of His divine nature, but, in becoming a man, He combined His human and divine natures into one person. And as a man, Jesus felt pain, experienced hunger, grew tired, and, as we will see, could suffer death. In His humanity, Jesus knew that what He was about to endure would be excrutiatingly painful. He would be scourged mercilessly with a flagellum, a whip featuring multiple leather strands, each weighted with lead balls or pieces of bone. He would be beaten, spit upon, slapped and degraded. And eventually, He would be nailed to a wooden cross and left to die by exposure and suffocation. Jesus’ human nature was repulsed by the prospect of facing such a painful and gruesome death. He longed for another way, a plan B. But, in His divinity, He knew that this was all part of His Father’s sovereign will. Which is why He stated, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39 ESV).
But there is a second explanation behind Jesus’ intense sorrow and His cry for an alternative plan. He was fully aware that, upon the cross, He would be taking on the sin debt of the entire world. He who never committed a single sin would bear the weight of God’s wrath against all the sins of men for all time.
For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT
Sin separates mankind from God. And Jesus knew that, when He took on the sin debt of mankind, He would become separated from His Father for the first time in all of eternity. Their fellowship would be broken. And, in His divine nature, that prospect was unfathomable and unthinkable to Jesus. But He knew it was all part of God’s plan and, therefore, necessary.
Jesus longed for this “cup of wrath” to pass. If you recall, back in chapter 20, Matthew recorded an encounter between Jesus and the mother of James and John, the two brothers who were with Him in Gethsemane that night. She had asked Jesus to allow her two sons to sit on His right and on His left when He established His kingdom on earth. But Jesus had responded to her two sons, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22 NLT). Only He was worthy to suffer for the sins of mankind. He alone could meet God’s demanding criteria for an acceptable sacrifice – an unblemished, sinless Lamb.
And it’s interesting to note that when Jesus stopped to check on Peter, James and John, He found them asleep. While He had been agonizing over His coming death, these three were obviously unconcerned with and unsympathetic to His pain. They slept while Jesus wept. And Jesus made an interesting observation, stating, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41 ESV). This was most likely aimed at Peter, who had been the one who had vehemently denied Jesus prediction that they would all bail on Him in His time of greatest need.
“Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” – Matthew 26:33 ESV).
And yet, here was Peter finding it difficult to even stay awake while His master suffered under the weight of His pending death.
Three separate times Jesus expressed His feelings to His heavenly Father, and three times He communicated His willingness to do His Father’s will. He was committed. Every ounce of His humanity longed to escape what was to come, but His divinity provided the strength He needed to do what He had been called to do.
In his commentary on the book of Matthew, D.A. Carson writes:
“In the first garden ‘Not your will but mine’ changed Paradise to desert and brought man from Eden to Gethsemane. Now ‘Not my will but yours’ brings anguish to the man who prays it but transforms the desert into the kingdom and brings man from Gethsemane to the gates of glory.” – D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” p. 545.
Jesus was willing to face the fate God had planned for Him, because He trusted His heavenly Father. He knew that there was no other way. Salvation was only possible through His obedient submission to the sovereign will of God the Father. And the hour had come for Him to begin His journey from Gethsemane to Golgotha. Having finished His prayer time with the Father, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Matthew 26:45 ESV). Judas was on his way, bringing with him the guards of the high priest. The darkness of that night was about to deepen as the forces of evil began their ill-fated attempt to snuff out the Light of the world.
But as John would later write:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. – John 1:5 NLT
God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants. – John 3:19-21 NLT
Jesus would end up buried in the darkness of a borrowed tomb. His life would be forcefully taken from Him, but as He had predicted, it would be on His terms.
“No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” – John 10:18 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.