Jesus and the disciples leave the Upper Room and go out to the Mount of Olives, stopping at the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prays and the disciples fail to keep watch with him.
Jesus and the disciples leave the Upper Room and go out to the Mount of Olives, stopping at the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prays and the disciples fail to keep watch with him.
Hello and welcome to the Life of Jesus. This is the beginning of Series 13, Episode 1. We are on late Thursday evening in the last week of Jesus' life. The Last Supper has just taken place, and this episode is about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This story is recounted to us in Matthew, Mark and Luke; John just makes a passing reference to it. We are going to take the story as given in Matthew 26: 36 - 46.
Introduction and Recap
If you've been following Series 11 and Series 12, you'll know that we've been going slowly through the very dramatic events of the last week of Jesus' life. Every day during that week, something very dramatic happened. On the Sunday, the first day of the week, Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph with huge crowds. On Monday, he entered the Temple compound. He went to the market trading area and turned the tables over of all the market traders that had been put there by the priests and by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. That was a very confrontational gesture. On Tuesday, he went back into the Temple compound again. There was much time spent debating and arguing and cross-questioning between Jesus and the religious leaders. During that evening, he spoke to his disciples privately about how judgement was going to come on Israel. He also explained to them about his future return to the earth, which we call the Second Coming. These are very dramatic days. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Jesus was having a meal in the nearby village of Bethany, just a few kilometres out of the city, where he appeared to be staying every night. During this meal, Mary, one of the disciples of Jesus based in Bethany - one of his friends - anointed him with oil. During that famous incident, Jesus' disciple - Judas Iscariot - left the party in Bethany and went back into the city of Jerusalem and betrayed Jesus to the authorities by offering to work with them to organise his arrest. They offered him money, and he said he'd come back to them when he could give them a time and a place where they could come and arrest Jesus out of the public eye, away from the crowds. We have to bear in mind at this time that the city was full of thousands of pilgrims, because one of the main religious feasts was taking place - the Feast of Passover. As we've stated before on many occasions during the previous episodes, the authorities were totally hostile to Jesus. The religious authorities have decided they needed to get rid of him because he was a false messiah, misleading the people and undermining the Jewish religion as they understood it. There was a head-on confrontation between Jesus and his claims, and the position taken by the religious leadership, represented primarily by their ruling council, 70 men, who met under the chairmanship of the High Priest, and who had the right to organise and legislate over the conduct of the Jewish religion. That conflict was coming to a head. On Wednesday, a decisive moment happened when Judas Iscariot decided that he was going to work with the authorities and he betrayed Jesus at that point. No-one else knew what he'd done amongst Jesus' followers.
We are now, in this episode, very late in the night on Thursday evening. During the Thursday evening, as we saw in the second half of Series 12, Jesus had been spending time with his disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem - a room that was prepared specially in a friend's house for him and his 12 disciples to share the Passover meal - the traditional Jewish Passover meal - which took place on the evening and was being celebrated all over the city, and indeed all over the country, but particularly in the city. Jesus was the head of this family, so to speak, of friends, and they were gathered together. We've looked at them in some detail and all the things that happened: the meal; Jesus' sacrificial act of washing his disciples' feet; the way Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper, Communion or Eucharist, through the Last Supper; and we've looked at Jesus' teaching about servant leadership.
We looked at the fact that Judas, who was with them as he'd come back on Thursday, halfway through the meal, quite suddenly left the table, and disappeared without explanation, in a very dark moment. He headed from there straight to the religious authorities because he knew now where Jesus was going to spend the evening. Jesus was here, in the Upper Room, he was heading back towards the Mount of Olives, and was probably going to go to a place called the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas passed this information on to the authorities.
Then, in the Last Supper, we also see from John's material, how Jesus spent a lot of time teaching, reassuring his disciples, explaining things that were going to happen, talking to them, particularly about how the Holy Spirit was going to come and live in them, and replace Jesus' presence by the divine presence of the Holy Spirit living within them, and empowering them. That all ended, according to John's account, which runs in John 14, 15 and 16 - three chapters, in John 17, when there is a prayer recorded which we studied in the last episode of Series 12. Just before leaving the Last Supper and the Upper Room, Jesus prayed for himself, for his disciples and for all future believers.
The Geography of the Mount of Olives
Then, according to Matthew 26: 30, ‘When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.’ We need to think about the geography here. Jerusalem is a city set on a hill, surrounded by walls. To the east, there is the Kidron Valley, and you go down out of the city into the valley and then up the other side to a small hill which is slightly higher than the city of Jerusalem. That hill is called the Mount of Olives, and gives a very wonderful viewpoint that you can look over the city of Jerusalem. Tourists today go to the Mount of Olives to take photographs of the Old City of Jerusalem, as we now know it. Jesus left the city, heading to the Mount of Olives. In order to do so, he needed to walk down into the Kidron Valley, and eventually up the other side. We're going to follow the account and read the story in Matthew 26: 36 - 46,
‘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.” 37He 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.” 39Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” 40Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn't you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” 43When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. 45Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”Matthew 26:36-46, NIV
The Hymn They Sang
What a dramatic scene! Full of profound emotion and deep suffering on the part of Jesus, as he anticipates what is going to happen. Immediately after this moment, Judas Iscariot appears with an armed group from the Jewish authorities. We'll look at that in the next episode. Jesus knew what was happening, and he knew what was going to happen. Let's just retrace the steps for a moment, and imagine the scene as the disciples leave the Upper Room, sing a hymn, and walk through the city late at night. What sort of hymn would they be singing? It was customary at the time of the Passover, and in the Passover meal, to sing extracts from a series of psalms that were used at this time. They were known as the halal, Psalms 113 to 118. We've mentioned Psalm 118 already, because it's considered to be a messianic psalm that speaks of the coming of the Messiah. Here are some of the verses that they might have sung if they were singing this particular psalm, which is very likely:
‘1Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. 2Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.” 3Let the house of Aaron say: “His love endures forever.” 4Let those who fear the Lord say: “His love endures forever.”Psalm 118:1-4, NIV
These psalms were often sung with somebody leading and the rest of the group following and sharing the words between a leader and a chorus. We can imagine Jesus as the leader, singing the words of the psalm, or one of the others in the group, and the disciples responding. If they'd sung Psalm 118 on that occasion, they would have come across these words, which you may remember from our earlier studies, Psalm 118: 22,
‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’Psalm 118:22, NIV
This is a prophecy that Jesus identified as being fulfilled in himself, and it's referenced several times in the New Testament. Then they would have come across, a few verses later, Psalm 118: 26,
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you’.Psalm 118:26, NIV
This saying had been sung by the crowd on Palm Sunday as Jesus entered into Jerusalem, as a welcome statement for the Messiah, which was how it was understood by many Jews at the time. You can imagine the disciples and Jesus singing as they left, maybe even singing on the street. Other people around who had had their meals, were in a good mood, had drunk some wine, were maybe singing and praising as they were walking through the streets.
The Garden of Gethsemane
Jesus didn't go straight to the top of the Mount of Olives. He went to a garden called Gethsemane. Gethsemane literally means an olive press, and if you go to that area today, as I've had the privilege of doing, you can find a proposed location for the Garden of Gethsemane. In fact, there are several. Nobody knows exactly where it was, but one thing you notice is olive trees everywhere. The Garden of Gethsemane was probably somewhere near the bottom of this valley - just a quiet, secluded place late at night. It might be at around 11 o'clock, or midnight, or 1 o'clock in the morning; it's this sort of time that we're talking about. The disciples have had a really good meal; they've drunk some wine; they're feeling tired; their stomachs are full; and they head to this Garden of Gethsemane. The first thought they have is to rest. It would be fairly warm, the weather would probably be good - hot - and they want to rest in the evening. Jesus wasn't going to be able to rest.
He divides his 11 remaining disciples into two groups. In verse 36, he says to eight of them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He takes three of them, verse 37, ‘Peter and the two sons of Zebedee’, along with him. Eight of them are resting in one place, three of them are asked to come with Jesus to another part of the garden some distance away, where he's going to pray. The three who were chosen are Peter, James and John, who are known as the sons of Zebedee. Peter, James and John, as we've mentioned on a number of occasions, were the inner circle of the 12 disciples. Peter, the leader in effect of the group of disciples, the two brothers James and John with him. These three were sometimes picked out by Jesus to be with him on special occasions. For example, when he was healing the daughter of Jairus in Galilee, much earlier in the story and ministry. He went into the room where the child had recently died; he prevented people coming into the room; he would only allow Peter, James and John to come with him, and the family. On the Mount of Transfiguration, when Jesus went up a high mountain after spending some time in the town of Caesarea Philippi, he took just three disciples with him for a long walk up a very high mountain, and those three were Peter, James and John. They witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. These three were given special conversation with Jesus, special opportunity to know his inner thoughts, special opportunity to be with him at critical moments. The Mount of Transfiguration experience was a critical moment. They're the only three who saw Jesus transfigured - his whole being transformed by the glory of God temporarily. No-one else saw that. Now, at his moment of great need at a human level, he wanted Peter and James and John to stay awake, to pray with him, and to share the experience of the suffering that he had in anticipation of his arrest, his humiliation, his trial, beatings that he was going to experience, and the execution that he was going to suffer that would lead to his death. All this was going to happen within a few hours. Jesus knew it and he wanted his friends to be with him. One of them is John, who we see from John's Gospel, in Series 12, is described as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, and he sat next to him in the Last Supper. John is close in friendship to Jesus, and he's been called to be with him on this occasion, along with Peter and James.
Jesus Prays to His Father
Jesus, as he was with them, became really troubled. The emotions were at the surface, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” His whole body was affected by his emotional state. There's something very terrible about anticipating serious suffering; you're close to it and you've got to face it. He was sorrowful and troubled. He prays - and he prays three times, according to Matthew's account. The first time,
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”Matthew 26:39, NIV
Jesus, in his humanity, is calling out to his Father, and asking him if there's any other way that God's purposes can be fulfilled without him having to go through the terrible suffering that he is anticipating will happen shortly. Mark records that when he's calling out to God, he's using the Aramaic term, ‘Abba, Father’. Matthew says ‘my Father’, but Mark gives us that precise detail, ‘Abba, Father,’ that intimate word that Jesus could use with his heavenly Father. He described God as ‘our Father,’ for the disciples, but ‘my Father’ in a very specific and unique sense, in terms of his divine eternal relationship as Son of the Eternal Father, Abba, Father, can this cup be taken from me? But I want to do your will. Whatever I have to do, I will do your will.
Luke gives us some other details that are not present in Matthew's account, . Luke 22: 43,
‘An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.’Luke 22:43-44, NIV
Divine help comes through the literal physical appearance of an angel, but his suffering is so great that the bodily sweat almost looks like blood. The disciples, even the three, Peter, James and John, fall asleep. They can't continue with this time of prayer that Jesus is having; they can't fully engage with it. Jesus found them asleep and had to wake them up just before Judas Iscariot and the group from the religious authorities came down the hill from Jerusalem, armed and ready to arrest him.
The Cup of Suffering
An obvious question arises out of this passage. What is ‘this cup’? Verse 39 ‘May this cup be taken from me’. This term, the cup, or the cup of suffering, has two implications. It obviously represents a symbol or a metaphor of personal suffering that Jesus is going to endure and undergo. He has to drink this cup of suffering but it has another meaning scripturally. All the way through the Old Testament and the New Testament, the cup is a reference to God's wrath, or God's opposition to sin, and anger over sin that will ultimately lead to judgement upon sin. For example, Psalm 75: 8,
‘In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.’Psalm 75:8, NIV
And in Isaiah 51: 22,
‘This is what your Sovereign Lord says, your God, who defends his people: “See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again.”’Isaiah 51:22, NIV
This is after the Israelites had experienced God's judgement for unfaithfulness and gone into exile. Even in the New Testament, we have a very similar use of this terminology in Revelation 14: 9 - 10, the cup of God's wrath is spoken of in an end-time judgement scenario. The cup is the experience of suffering, and the experience of absorbing the wrath of God against sin in Jesus' own body and life. He's paying the price that was demanded by God's wrath, and fulfilled by substitution and sacrifice and atonement. His death will be a substitute and a sacrifice for the death of other people that would come about as a result of God's judgement on man's sinfulness. He's going to be the substitute; he's going to take the cup of wrath. God's anger, or wrath, is not just an emotion like we humans feel. It's a settled permanent opposition to, and judgement of, and intolerance of sin. God ultimately cannot coexist with sin. It will bring his judgement unless there is a path of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Jesus provides that path of reconciliation for us.
One of the interesting observations that we can make at this time of Jesus's life is concerning the importance of prayer. The last thing he did in the Last Supper, was to spend time praying to his Father, and John records the three dimensions of his prayer that I mentioned earlier. He comes to Gethsemane, and in a different emotional mood now, he's also praying. Jesus' humanity is crying out to his heavenly Father, and asking whether the suffering has to be undergone. Jesus in his divine nature will always perfectly obey the will of his Father, but in his humanity that obedience is tested by every new circumstance, and found to lead to obedience in every case, through the experience of being tested. This is the biggest test of all. It says in Hebrews 5: 7 - 9,
‘During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.’Hebrews 5:7-9, NIV
That's a wonderful description. That has a particular application to what happens specifically in the Garden of Gethsemane. We can learn from Jesus about the power of prayer even in the most severe testing difficulty and suffering.
I want to conclude this episode by reflecting for a moment on another of the important sayings from this passage. Matthew 26: 41 says,
‘“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”’Matthew 26:41, NIV
This is an interesting saying which has provoked a lot of thought. It has become a very well-known saying, and Jesus is speaking into the particular circumstance, but I think we can learn something more generally. When he says, ‘watch’, he means ‘be alert, be alert to the circumstances around you’. You see, the disciples were failing to be alert to what was happening. They'd found out a lot of things about what was going to happen at the Last Supper. Jesus had explained a lot of things. They knew that his death was very imminent; they now knew that Judas had gone to betray Jesus and yet they weren't alert. They were sleeping. They weren't awake; they weren't aware. ‘Watch and pray’ - Jesus is talking about active, specific prayer. Specific times of prayer make us stronger to resist temptation. The spirit might be willing. We might desire to serve God very wholeheartedly but the flesh, the human nature that we have, is weak. There can be lack of focus, lack of discipline, lack of concern. At this particular point, the disciples fell into that trap. They just collapsed in tiredness, and thought ‘we need to rest’. They weren't alert to what was happening. Therefore, they were vulnerable to fall into temptation. They were going to be taken off-guard by the challenges that were about to take place. There were some really big challenges because within a few minutes of this being said, suddenly a great crisis was going to come upon them. Judas Iscariot was going to arrive with an armed crowd from the religious authorities, and their position was going to be very vulnerable. We'll see what happens to them in our next episode. I hope you can join us.