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Edington Chapel: Devotion and study notes
November 22nd: Luke 22:39-46
Jesus Prays on the Mount of Olives
There are many things in life that are difficult to do—write a PhD, climb Everest, build a sky scraper, give birth, mine for coal, send a man in a rocket to the moon…you get the picture! But I would also add to that list — prayer. Moreover, to earnestly pray with effectiveness in times of difficulty. This is one of the great lessons of the Garden of Gethsemane.
We have entered into the stage where the time is coming nearer for the Lord to accomplish the reason why He had come into the world. The disciples still seem to be confused about what exactly is going on. Last week we learned that even the seemingly bravest of disciples, the one who said he was ready to go to prison and death, would deny that he knew Jesus—even three times.
As they came out of the upper room, having been given their final instructions, He went to the Mount of Olives. If you go to Jerusalem today and climb the Mount of Olives, which takes about 30 minutes, you will have a wonderful view of the old city and the temple mount. Today the Islamic golden dome of the rock sits on the temple mount, but in Jesus’ day they would have been able to clearly see the second Herodian Temple. Matthew mentions there was a specific place on the Mount of Olives that Jesus took the disciples—the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36). He told eight of the disciples to sit and guard at the gate that he might pray. He then took Peter, James and John with him further into the garden, and removed Himself from the three about a stone’s throw away. Again, if you visit Jerusalem today the garden is traditionally situated at the bottom of the mount.
This was a place that Jesus was accustomed to going—it offered Him a place of peace and solitude. Yet this time it would also be a place of anguish. Way back some 700 years BC the prophet Isaiah had foreseen the struggles of the messianic person. The servant of the LORD is pictured as one who appears to be struggling with the seeming lack of success surrounding His mission: “And He said to Me, You are My servant, O Israel, In whom I will be glorified. Then I said, “I have laboured in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and in vain…” (Isa. 49:4).
One of the problems with this passage is that in Isaiah both the messianic person and the nation of Israel are referred to as the servant. For example, if we go back to Isaiah 45:4 we see that Jacob (Israel) is God’s servant. In the context of 49:3 the servant is also called O Israel. Yet this servant is different from the nation in that He will actually restore the nation of Israel in 49:6. Moreover, the same verse states that it is too small a thing for Him to be sent only to redeem ethnic Israel. He will also be given as a light to the Gentiles. Why? “That You should be My salvation to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6b). The Messiah would be both the Saviour of Israel and the entire world. While Isaiah pictures the messiah as struggling with the point of His ministry up until this point, He is comforted in knowing that the mission is not in vain. Indeed, it will result in Him being the Saviour of all men. Paul later writes about this to Timothy: For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe (1 Tim. 4:10).
We will see that these negative thoughts surrounding His mission will be taken away and replaced with comfort and strength for the hours to come.
To clarify: Here the messiah is called O Israel as a reference to His status in the sight of God (Isa. 49:3). The name Israel translates as Prince with God.
Why this questioning of all that He has laboured for this far? Think about the the situation that Jesus finds Himself in at this point in time. He has toiled for over three years in ministry. The multitudes have followed Him. He has been rejected By His own people. And now one of twelve is about to betray Him. All that is left is a motley crew of eleven disciples!
And when He came to the desired area He gave instruction to the disciples what they should do: Pray that you may not enter into temptation (v40).
Now what kind of temptation did Jesus think that the disciples would enter into at this time? We need to think about the context of everything that has just been said and the things that are about to take place. At this stage Judas had already left to betray Him. Jesus knew who His betrayer was, so He was not warning the remaining disciples concerning that they should think before they commit this crime. Of course they were still unaware at this stage that Judas was actually the betrayer. What Jesus was making reference to was that when the party finally came to arrest Him they would not fall into the temptation to run away. Or as Simon Peter wanted to do—fight with the sword.
The command was clear. Prayer was the way to resist the pitfalls that they were about to face. Having given the command Jesus removed Himself (about a stone’s throw away) and there he knelt down and prayed: Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done (v42).
As the centuries have passed theologians and scholars have poured over these words to determine exactly what Jesus was asking His Father. Some see the cup as that of physical suffering, of which those who were crucified would suffer beyond comprehension. Others view the cup as that of His spiritual suffering. Remember that for the first three hours He would suffer the wrath of man, and for the last three hours, He would suffer the wrath of God. It would be during the last three hours that He would feel completely forsaken by the Father, and for the first time throughout His earthly ministry cut off from fellowship with Him. That is why at the crucifixion scene, during the final three hours, he prayed to the Father in the first time in his ministry using the term: “My God”, as in “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). The intimate connection between Him and the Father had changed dramatically.
There is a problem with viewing the cup as that of physical death. Why? From before the foundation of the world it had been determined that the Son would take on flesh and blood for that very purpose. On various occasions Jesus spoke about the necessity of His coming death:
Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again (Jn. 10:17).
Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour (Jn. 12:27).
It would be a rather odd thing for the Son of God to ask His Father to save Him from the physical suffering and death He was about to face. This is due to the fact that this was the reason why He had come into the world. Furthermore, the prophets had foretold that this event was necessary to provide atonement for sin. Remember what the heart of the Law stated:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul (Lev. 17:11).
It was therefore necessary for Him to die physically and to fulfill the law and the prophets. Thus, He would make a way for the permanent forgiveness and removal of sin.
In the OT the cup was often a symbol of divine wrath poured out:. One example of this is in the psalms: “Upon the wicked He will rain coals; Fire and brimstone and a burning wind Shall be the portion of their cup” (Ps. 11:6).
Another example is in the prophet Jeremiah: For thus says the LORD: “Behold, those whose judgment was not to drink of the cup have assuredly drunk. And are you the one who will altogether go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, but you shall surely drink of it” (Jer. 49:12).
It has been further noted that while physical death was necessary to provide atonement, spiritual death was not. Neither was the Messiah’s spiritual death specifically foretold by the prophets—even though alluded to in Psalm 22:1. So what Jesus was requesting at this point was to be relieved of that which was not deemed necessary for His atoning mission. Yet later in the book of Hebrews we are told that it was necessary for Him to suffer spiritual death in order to function in His current office as High Priest. As a result He would be able to sympathise with those who suffer with every human weakness (Heb. 4:14-15).
As unbelievers we were once spiritually dead, cut off from God as a result of our sinful nature. In fact we were born spiritually dead. Yet through faith we received the Spirit and were regenerated. We were made spiritually alive. Yet Jesus was not born spiritually dead, He had always been spiritually alive and intimately connected to the Father in a way that we will never be able to comprehend. This is what drinking down the cup of the wrath of God would do—it would bring Him spiritual death. Peter would later expound on this very issue: “…he was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit…” (1 Pet. 3:18). Remember before he bowed His head and gave up the ghost He also said, “It is Finished!” The relationship that He had enjoyed from all eternity was now restored. The Father is no longer addressed as My God but “Father, into your hands I commit My spirit.”
So He too knew what it was to suffer spiritual death—in this sense He can relate to all of our human weaknesses. The difference is that He was without sin.
So great was the anguish concerning what He was about to face, that the request comes to take it away—if it is indeed possible. So He prays: Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me…” Now without those words, “if it is Your will…”, then the sentence holds a whole new meaning. It would say, “Father, take this cup away from Me…” It is a direct request without bringing the will of God into it! Yet that is not what He prays. He always seeks to do the will of the Father. That is why we get the affirmation, “…nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” He is, as He always was, under total submission to the will of the Father. And it was the will of the Father to make Him drink the cup of wrath.
There are also lessons for us from this passage. When we pray do we pray asking in the will of God? Or is it our way or the highway? Often unbelievers say they do not believe because God never answered their prayer. Is that a reason not to believe? Well, of course NOT! There is never a reason not to believe. Was that prayer asked in the will of God? Yet as believers we can also get caught thinking that we can have anything that we pray for. You may have heard the song by Janice Joplin: “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz!” There are actually some circles that encourage that kind of praying.
What we should pray is for God’s will to be done because He knows what’s best for us—whether that thing would be good for us or not, or whether it is His will to make it happen. So often we think that we know what is best, even going to the point of begging God to give us something—yet we do not know what is best. Only God knows that. We should always pray whether it His will or not. This is how Jesus prayed—and even He did not get His request for the cup to be removed as it was not in the Father’s will. Instead He received the strengthening of the LORD for the mission at hand.
And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Lk. 22:43-44).
Here we see the great agony of Gethsemane. There is a medical term for what is happening concerning the sweat and the blood—Hematohidrosis. This is a rare condition but it involves a rupture of the capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands, causing them to exude blood, occurring under conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress. The key to working through His pain was communion with the Father.
When Jesus eventually arose from this ordeal He came to the disciples only to find them sleeping. Luke says they were sleeping from sorrow. The grief of what was happening, particularly over the one that they did not know would betray Him, made Peter, James and John not want to pray but rather to sleep. Life can be like that, when we are in a desperate hour, instead of praying we tend to shut down—go to sleep so that we might forget about it. It seems too exhausting to pray. Yet Jesus had specifically told them to pray. Thus, when He goes over to them He finds them sleeping:
Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Lk. 22:46).
Mark adds in the parallel passage:
“Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."Again He went away and prayed, and spoke the same words. And when He returned, He found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy; and they did not know what to answer Him. Then He came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough! The hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.
And while He was still speaking….the multitude arrives with his betrayer (Lk. 22:47).
Here is the constant wrestling match that every believer has…the spirit verses the flesh. In this sense it was the physical flesh. The physical tiredness and fatigue which came as a result of the grief of the situation, had overtaken Peter, James and John. Instead of watching and praying they were doing the very thing that the Lord had not wanted them to do. And now they would suffer the consequences of allowing the physical fatigue to take over. Immediately after the betrayal:
“…they all forsook Him and fled” (Mk. 14:50).
How tragic. Those that had spent the best part of three years alongside Him were now nowhere to be seen…they had run away. Have you ever wondered how you would have responded if you were in the garden? So often as believers we can fall into the danger that somehow we would reacted differently. Yet the reality is that at this moment we would have behaved just the same.
What do we when we find ourselves in a place of great trouble? Do we turn to prayer earnestly and effectively wrestling as our Lord did? Or is it simply all too much? Is the best thing to do just give in to the tiredness and let the conscience sleep? Now of course I do not mean to say that there is a time for resting. There were times in the busyness of ministry that Jesus called the disciples to come aside and rest for a while. Yet this was the hour to remain watchful and prayerful. How is our prayer life when it needs to be active? Let’s not kid ourselves. Prayer can at times be the last thing that we want to wrestle in. And it is a wrestling match. What do wrestlers excel in? It is the ability to pin their opponent to the ground and overcome through perseverance in technique and strength.
We are wrestling not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual demons who seek to stop us from doing such a thing. If Satan spends so much time attempting to hinder the prayer of the saints—then you can see how much power there is in the believers prayers. He knows that God is able to empower the believer as a result of an active prayer life. Maybe there are times when you have realised that in tough situations. You have sensed the power of the LORD enabling you through.
Yet that is exactly what our Lord did and that was what strengthened Him for the time that He was about to enter into. If the disciples had been the same way maybe it may have turned out differently for them in the garden? Yet the temptation to flee became too much.
We will also suffer temptation to enter into that which we know is not the will of God. There will be times when we need to resist and show courage. There will be times when we need to flee from sin and flee to Him. And He always make a way out for us: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
There is always a way out of temptation—but we must be a people of earnest prayer. These are difficult times. Many people are being tested to the brink. Loss of jobs, stuck indoors, loneliness, mental health issues, overworked NHS. Yet we have a Saviour who was prepared to give up everything and more, that He might give us a hope and a future both in and beyond this world. Now He calls you and Me to witness, to be obedient and wrestle in prayer with the great pains of this life.
Not My will but Yours be done! He promises to sustain us and strengthen when the going gets tough.