If you’re familiar with the Easter story, you’ll remember the poignant scene of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Here’s Matthew’s account.
“Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.’ And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.’ And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.’ Again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. Then He came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners’” (Matthew 26:36-43 NAS).
Three times Jesus prayed the Father would “let this cup pass.” What did He mean by that?
Most people will say that Jesus was praying to avoid the pain of the cross and the separation from the Father. They summarize it like this: “Jesus was God, but He was also man. His spirit was willing, but His flesh didn’t want to suffer on the cross. He prayed the Father would give Him a way out, but He didn’t. In the end, Jesus obeyed the Father and suffered and died for our sins.”
I’ve always taken issue with this stance. First, Jesus told the disciples they should pray to avoid temptation. He said their flesh was weak, not His.
Second, Jesus had just spoken of His coming death and resurrection that very night during His last supper with the disciples.
“And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God'” (Luke 22:15-16 NAS).
He also instituted communion, a prophetic symbol of His coming death:
“And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:19-20 NAS).
Would He, just hours later, pray the Father would allow Him to avoid that very suffering?
After dinner, on His way to Gethsemane, Jesus warned His disciples:
“’For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, “AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH TRANSGRESSORS”; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment’” (Luke 22:37 NAS).
Jesus was quoting Isaiah:
“Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12 NAS).
The cross was God’s plan to redeem His people to Himself. Jesus, as part of the Trinity, was a willing participant in that plan. His entire life and ministry was focused on fulfilling that purpose. Why, then, would Jesus pray for a way out at the last minute?
After Jesus prayed in the garden, Judas betrayed Him. One of the disciples defended Jesus by striking the slave of the high priest. Jesus responded:
“Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:53-54 NAS).
Again, Jesus pointed His disciples to the Scriptures which prophesied His death and resurrection. However, He also referenced His ability to call upon the Father and receive help. Since angels did not appear from Heaven to prevent His crucifixion, we know that He did not pray for that.
What, then, did Jesus pray for in the garden?
What was the cup He prayed would pass Him by?
I think the answer is in Luke’s account of that evening:
“Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:43 NAS).
Luke was not speaking in literary terms. Hematidrosis is a real medical condition in which a person sweats blood. It’s associated with extreme fear or stress. As God, Jesus would have no cause for fear, though He could have experienced stress as He awaited His fate on the cross. However, Scripture tells us that Jesus would have felt a lot more than His own emotions.
“But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:5-7 NAS).
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NAS).
It was our sins and illnesses that weighed heavily on Jesus that night in the garden. How His heart and body must have ached with the vileness of the world! How long could His human body withstand their burdens? What if Jesus had passed out or slipped into a coma? What if He had died before He could reach the cross?
I believe it was this very scenario that Jesus prayed to avoid. The responding angel then “strengthened” Him—not to give Him courage but to give Him physical strength to withstand the coming abuse prior to His crucifixion.
Jesus’ prayers were not to avoid the cross but to fulfill it.
This explains how Hebrews 5:7 can be true:
“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety” (Hebrews 5:7 NAS).
Jesus knew His purpose, and He never wavered. He came to earth willingly that He might preach the gospel, die a sinner’s death on a cross, and raise Himself on the third day. (Tweet This) When our sins wore heavily on Him, He prayed for strength to carry on and fulfill His purpose. Aren’t you glad we have such a Savior? Isn’t our God worthy of praise?
Additional Reading About Easter
I’ve included Isaiah 53 below. I encourage you to read through it with new eyes. Take a moment to stop and appreciate this prophetic word that foretold the death of Jesus—a sinner’s death for a perfect God. Then celebrate that Easter didn’t end with the cross but with an empty tomb! Hallelujah!
“Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:1-12 NAS).