“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)
In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins must enter the cave, confront a dragon, and meet his fate by discovering the ring. As is often the case in a hero’s quest, he must confront his own fear before confronting the enemy itself. Indeed, the confrontation with the enemy itself is often not nearly as challenging as the prior decision to keep moving toward that moment of confrontation. “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.”
Jesus has precisely this sort of moment. He has it in the Garden of Gethsemane, the garden of tears.
A Problem Passage
Jesus in the Garden was a “problem passage” for the early church. You see, from the very beginning, Christians have insisted that Jesus is God: God made man, God incarnate. But if that’s true, then what’s happening here? A “God” who prays? A “God” who asks that “God’s” will be done? A “God” who is anxious and afraid? How does that even work?
Julian the Apostate, one of Roman emperors and a critic of the Christian faith, says that here Jesus pleads “as only a miserable person can, who is not able to bear his fate … even though he is ‘God’!”
For Julian, the scene in Gethsemane is proof positive that Jesus isn’t God. For others, it has been proof that he wasn’t even a great man. Jesus is not the first man to face his death. Death comes to all of us. Most of us fear it to some extent. But many people—both religious and not, face their death with dignity and courage. Jesus on the other hand faced his death with an apprehension that many without his faith seem to have overcome.
And recall, Jesus is not facing the ravages of cancer or aging—awful though that is. He’s a leader, a prophet—a man about to be killed for what he believes in.
He’s not the first one. In the very recent history of Israel, the Maccabean revolutionaries had faced their death with courage and conviction. And after the death of Jesus, many of his followers have died for him in a like manner. Even in the pagan world, stories of dignified deaths (one thinks of Socrates) were told to inspire and fortify. And yet here is Jesus, overwhelmed by what is about to happen to him, pleading that he would be spared.
Rather than being an embarrassment, I think the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is a clue—perhaps the most profound clue—for answering the question that is driving this series: “Why did Jesus die?” Let’s see if we can puzzle this through.
The Prayer in the Garden
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.” (Matthew 26:26)
Jesus was a man of prayer. He prayed. He taught others to pray. He taught them the Lord’s Prayer. There’s nothing unusual in the thought that Jesus would now take time to pray. But events take an unusual turn:
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Matthew 26:37–38)
Hebegins to be sorrowful and troubled. His meaning is not that he’s overwhelmed with sorrow at death—that is, at the thought that he is about to die. What he means is: “the sorrow I have now feels like it will kill me.”
Some of us will have known a sorrow of the calibre. The sort of sorrow that feels like it’s swallowing you into the darkness. The sorrow that engulfs and suffocates. That feels like it is about to drag you under and into the grave. The claustrophobia of inescapable darkness. Jesus is saying he feels like that.
We’ve never seen Jesus like this before. They’ve never seen Jesus like this before. It must look to them (and it looks to us) as if Jesus is—and I don’t know how better to phrase this—not coping.
Do you remember the first time you saw your dad cry? This will depend a bit on the kind of family you came from and the kind of dad you had. But for lots of families, the whole point of dads is that they cope. When you’re a kid, they just seem so strong. And by their strength you gather the feeling that things are going to be okay, because he’s okay.
In his song “Tank Park Salute” singer-songwriter Billy Bragg’s sings about the early death of his own father:
I accept the commiserations Of all your friends and your relations But there’s some things I still don’t understand You were so tall How could you fall?
For many of us that’s the thing about your dad. He was so tall, how could he fall? And so, one day, you find your dad crying, or not coping, or diagnosed with something that will fell him. And, as a child, everything you thought was true and made this world safe and good is brought into question.
Something like that must be going on for the disciples. Jesus’ shoulder was the one they cried on. He’s the one who said to them, “Come to me all you who are laboured and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He’s the one whose job it was to cope, so that you knew everything was going to be okay.
The one who said time and time again to them, “I’ve got this,” is now saying, “I haven’t got this. Stay and keep watch.” Twice (verse 40,45) he comes back and they’ve fallen asleep and he pleads with them: “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” Everything you thought was true and made this world safe was being brought into question.
How do you make sense of what is happening here to Jesus? The clue is in the prayer. The prayer about the cup.
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”
The focus on Jesus’ prayer is not a general prayer that he be saved from death, but a specific prayer that he be saved from drinking the “cup.”
The source is the Old Testament picture of the cup of God’s wrath. In the book of Isaiah for example, the prophet is declaring that judgement is coming on Jerusalem for her sins. Note the language:
Awake, awake! Rise up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs (Isaiah 51:17)
Do you see? Here is the difference between Jesus and Socrates; Jesus and the martyrs; Jesus and those who would die in his name after him. They looked to their deaths and saw pain, suffering, costly faithfulness. But Jesus alone looked toward his death and saw all the all the sin and guilt of man, all the weight of God’s holy anger against violence, unfaithfulness, injustice, perversion, cruelty, inhumanity, and unholiness. All of that was what he was about to experience in his death. That was the cup he was to drink.
When you understand that, the prayer of Jesus in the Garden is not embarrassing. It is extraordinary.
For one thing, it’s a prayer. This is not Jesus talking to someone else about God. This is Jesus talking to God, to his Father, about the cup. There is an enormous difference between complaining about God and complaining to God. Complaint about God in the Bible is always seen as faithless, disobedient, wicked. But the Bible’s solution to complaining about God is not a stiff upper lip and the “musn’t grumble” attitude. It is rather, to take those complaints to God. To let them fuel your prayer life. This is the testimony of however many psalms and prayers of the Bible. And it is was the Lord Jesus does here.
Notice also the form of the prayer:
“Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me.”
The pray places no condition on God, no threat of disobedience. It is not an “if/then” prayer—“Father if you take this cup from me, then I will ”.
As Karl Barth put it: “He only prays. He does not demand. He does not advance any claims. He does not lay upon God any conditions. He does not reserve any future obedience.”
He submits himself to the will of his Father, resolved to drink the cup that you and I deserve. The battle was won on the cross because the battle was won in the garden. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.
There must have been an awkwardness for the disciples as they watched Jesus face this battle. They must have asked themselves, “What are we doing here?”
It’s a good thing for us, as readers of the Gospel, to ask the same question. Matthew has brought his camera into the Garden and kept it rolling even when things got awkward. Why has he taken us here? What does he want us to learn? Three things:
1. God with us.
The Gospel of Matthew opens with Jesus given the name, “Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’” It ends with Jesus saying, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)
Central to Matthew’s account of Jesus is an affirmation that God is not too proud to be God with us. The garden shows us how dramatically “with us” God is willing to be. In Jesus he knew what it was to be abandoned by his friends. He knew what it was to be lonely. He knew what it was to be betrayed, knew what it was to be afraid.
The Letter to the Hebrews says of Jesus:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
If you have been lonely, betrayed, or afraid, in the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, God in Christ has been there with you.
2. God instead of us.
The Apostle Paul reflects on the reality of the Garden of Gethsemane in these words: “He who knew no sin became sin for us.” (2Cor 5:21)
In the Passover, as God’s judgement came on Egypt, there was a safe place to stand: In the homes that had the blood of the lamb on the door. That was the sign to angel of death: “Pass over. Blood has already been shed here.”
What the blood-marked door was for those houses, the death of Jesus is for those who trust him. To be a Christian is to stand there. It is to look at the death of Jesus and say: “That was instead of me. That cup was for me, deserved by me, but drunk by him.”
3. Christ without us
Jesus was frustrated that his disciples slept. I think that was the for the very human reason that he wanted their company. This was his moment of trial. He did not want to face it alone.
But there was another reason they should not have slept. Do you know what that is?
“Because the LORD kept vigil to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil . . .” (Ex 12:42).
To observe the Passover, you’re supposed to stay up all night. And notice why. “Because the Lord kept vigil to bring you out of Egypt.”
In the language of Exodus, the Lord stayed awake all night to do his work of salvation. And now, on this night, more than a thousand years after the Exodus, Jesus stayed awake all night to do his work of salvation. He did so alone. He alone stays awake, keeps vigil, to secure our salvation. Represented by the apostles, the people of God did nothing.
“It is present, but it has no part at all in that prayer to God. . . . They could not watch even one hour. He alone watched and prayed in their place.” (Karl Barth)
The church is a great and precious gift of God. But the church, as represented by the disciples in the Garden proved perfectly useless at the point of salvation. Jesus did that by himself, without us and for us. In the words of the Hymn, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.”
Rory Shiner studied Arts at the University of Western Australia and theology at Moore College in Sydney. His PhD is on the life and work of Donald Robinson. He is senior pastor of Providence City Church in Perth, where he lives with his wife, Susan, and their four boys. He has written books on Union with Christ and on the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and our own. Rory serves as a member of the TGCA Editorial Panel as Editor for the Arts and Culture Channel and for Book Reviews.