The scene of Jesus praying in the garden, on the night before his death, is among the most disturbing presentations among the gospel narratives. Specifically, Jesus’ immense sadness and personal distress seem much out of character with what the gospel stories—up to this point—would lead the reader to expect. What has become of the serenity and self-assurance that tells the leper, “I will it; be cleansed” (Matthew 8:3)? Where now is the confidence that announces to the centurion, “I will come and heal him” (8:7), or commands the wind and sea, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39)? In short, the image of Jesus in the garden stands in stark contrast to the picture we have of him from all prior scenes in his life. From very early times, pagans themselves were quick to notice in the agony what they took to be an inconsistency with Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. Late in the second century, when the critic Celsus wrote the first formal treatise against the Christian faith, he cited Jesus’ fear and discomposure in the garden as evidence against the doctrine of his divinity. Celsus inquired, “Why does [Jesus] shriek and lament and pray to escape the fear of destruction, speaking thus: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me’?”
…Even as we reject that critic’s conclusion, we are obliged to recognize its force. That is to say, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity was most manifest in the event described in the epistle to the Hebrews as “the days of his flesh” (5:7). In the Savior’s agony, believers perceive the most profound and disturbing inferences of the doctrine of the Incarnation—the “enfleshing” of God’s Son. More than anywhere else in the New Testament, the garden scene presents us with the phenomenon of frailty and conflict in the mind and heart, as Jesus struggles with the trauma of his impending Passion. Indeed, he speaks of this conflict in terms of spirit and flesh. It is during—and with respect to—his experience in the garden that he declares, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). To be in the flesh is to feel weak. He knew whereof he spoke! Whether the conflict is portrayed in terms of sorrow (Matthew and Mark) or of fear (Luke and Hebrews), the New Testament sources agree that Jesus did not want to suffer and die this painful and most ignominious death, and he prayed to be delivered from it.
…Here, above all, we are presented with the profound mystery of self-emptying that the apostle Paul called “the weakness of God.” Each account of the agony likewise demonstrates, nonetheless, how “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). The inner conflict described in the New Testament was based on an opposition between the powerful psychological disposition of Jesus—his desire to live!—and what he perceived to be the will and call of God. The two options were mutually exclusive. Luke calls the experience a “struggle,” an agonia. In this scene, according to all four sources, Jesus’ intense psychological experience of weakness and turmoil was followed by a determined resolution, which is perhaps the most significant element in the story. Jesus was clearly stronger and more serene when he left the garden, even though his captors had forcefully bound him.
…His final statement to the Sanhedrin was both solemn and self-assured. No less dignified and confident were his few pronouncements to Pilate, and he honored Herod’s curiosity with not a single syllable (Luke 23:9). In all these cases, Jesus acted with a dignity beyond his tormentors’ reach. This renewed strength, moreover, was conveyed to Jesus through his experience of prayer. According to all four accounts of the event, it was in prayer that Jesus resolved the conflict in his soul. In fact, each writer goes into some detail to describe this prayer and the transforming resolution to which it led. We recognize, in short, that Jesus’ prayer in the garden—his prayerful acquiescence in the Father’s will—strengthened him for the dreadful ordeal to come. The Passion story testifies to the personally transforming power of this prayer.
…Only Peter, James, and John were permitted entrance into the chamber where Jesus confronted and conquered the power of death in the person of Jairus’s daughter.6 These three, likewise, were the sole witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. Over the centuries, Christian homiletics and hymnography have copiously testified to a common Christian persuasion on this point: Peter, James, and John received these special revelations of Jesus’ innate glory and his sovereign power over death, in order to be strengthened to endure the sight of his agony in the garden. We do well to consider the element of “planning” in this matter because the preservation of this story was neither a decree of fate nor an accident of circumstances. It was entirely deliberate. Jesus could certainly have suffered this agony in solitary privacy, but he determined that there would be witnesses to it—close enough to behold the scene—because he wanted this scene to be recorded!
…It is important to reflect that we are acquainted with the failure of these apostles because they were the ones who testified to it. Their failure was part of the story, and they recognized it as such. Consequently, when they later narrated to others the events of that night, they made sure not to omit the account of Jesus’ disappointment with them. Indeed, they failed the Savior. Had Jesus seen the three of them steady at prayer, supporting him in his time of fear and sorrow, his spirit—like any human spirit at such a time—would have been strengthened. Thus, an added component of his trauma that night was the loss of human encouragement from those witnesses, who should have supplied it. He knew these men well enough, nonetheless. Earlier in the evening, had he not told them, “All of you will be tripped up tonight” (Matthew 26:31)?
…The epistle to the Hebrews—which may be our earliest written reference to the agony—let us begin with this account. It is the shortest, speaking only of Jesus, who, in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save him from death, and was heard because of his godly fear, though he were a Son, yet he learned obedience by the things which he suffered. (Hebrews 5:7–8) This terrible scene took place, says Hebrews, “in the days of his flesh.” The “flesh” here refers not to the Incarnation as such (because the Word’s assumption of our humanity is permanent, not temporary), but to the condition of human weakness, which God’s Son willingly assumed so “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). This is a major argument in the epistle to the Hebrews. The author of this work speaks of Jesus’ death not just as an objective and clinical fact but as a matter of experience; he employs the metaphor of taste.
…According to Hebrews, then, God’s Son assumed, not simply human nature, but the existential burden of human experience. His was to be a full and felt solidarity, in which “he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to my brothers’” (Hebrews 2:11–12). For this reason, declares Hebrews, “in all things he had to be made like the brothers” (2:17). These “all things” particularly included the tasting of death.
…This obedience of Jesus was not theoretical, detached, or instantaneous. He learned it through the actual process of suffering and dying. Jesus was inwardly changed through this experience, thereby becoming “perfected” (Hebrews 5:9). He was “made perfect through sufferings” (2:10).
…The early believers easily perceived that whereas the first man attempted, in rebellion, to become God’s equal, the second, being in the form of God, did not regard being equal to God a usurpation [harpagmos], but he emptied himself, taking the form of a bondservant, being made in the likeness of men, and being found in shape as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death. (Philippians 2:6–8) It is important to bear in mind the traditional contrast between the obedient Jesus and the disobedient Adam when we come to the Gospel accounts of the Savior’s struggle at “Gethsemani.”12 The very name of this place means “olive garden,” abbreviated to simply “a garden” by John (18:1).
…This petition—“Thy will be done”—does not represent a hypothesis or a limitation laid on the prayer. “What You will” is not a restriction of Jesus’ confidence but an elevation of it. It expresses a constitutive feature of his prayer and an essential component of his faith. The real purpose of the Son’s prayer, after all, is not to inform the Father what he wants but to hand himself over more completely, in faith, to what the Father wants. The purpose of all prayer, even the prayer of petition, is living communion with God. The man who tells the Father, then, “Thy will be done,” does not thereby show himself a weaker believer but a stronger one. Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” models this prayer. He gives his disciples, in this form, the very essence of true prayer. The “will of God,” in which Jesus places the trust of his petition, is not a blind, arbitrary, or predetermined will. It is, rather, the abiding love of the Father. This theology of prayer is conveyed in Jesus’ prayer in the garden, by which his own human will is obediently united with the will of God.
…First, the sweat of blood is a condition called hematidrosis. This pathology, which results from an extreme dilation of the subcutaneous capillaries, causes them to burst through the sweat glands. This symptom, mentioned as early as Aristotle,19 is well-known to the history of medicine, which sometimes associates it with intense fear. It is not without interest, surely, that Luke, the only Evangelist to mention this phenomenon, was a physician.
…The theological significance of this feature in Luke is that Jesus’ internal conflict causes the first bloodshed in the Passion. His complete obedience to the Father in his prayer immediately produces this initial libation of his redemptive blood, the blood of which he had proclaimed just shortly before, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). Prior to the appearance of his betrayer, then, Jesus already begins the shedding of his blood. He pours it out in the struggle of obedience, before a single hand has been laid upon him. In Luke’s account the agony in the garden is not a prelude to the Passion but its very commencement, because Jesus’ stern determination to accomplish the Father’s will causes his blood to flow—already—as the price for man’s redemption.