Identifying the Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane

C.S. Lewis, regarding the issue of prayer, once spoke in his book The Great Divorce identifying the two kinds of people, “Those who say to God: ‘Thy will be done,’” and “Those to whom God must say: ‘Have it your way’.” Prayer is obviously a significant matter. Likewise, the prayer that Jesus implored in the Garden of Gethsemane has been referred to as “the most difficult prayer to pray” (Campbell 51). Therefore, it would only seem reasonable to study this prayer with supreme detail. Biblical scholars have produced multiple views on this topic, with variations to each position. Overall, there seems to be essentially five major views to keep in mind. Though some may not find this topic to be a matter of great significance, it is of utmost importance to consider what this passage is discussing. Jesus, the Son of God, speaking to God the Father regarding the agonizing situation at hand. This passage affects Christian beliefs such as the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, prayer, the humanity of Jesus, the obedience of Jesus, and Jesus’ role as High Priest. Clearly, the passages on the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane are quite significant. After examining the Biblical passages and evaluating the different positions which theologians propose, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane can be better understood and provide a tremendous blessing for the reader of God’s Word.

Before examining the multiple views, it is important to first identify the texts of Scripture. Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, and Luke 22:40-46 include the prominent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Additionally, Hebrews 5:7 refers back to the Gospel to provide yet another recording of the same situation. Among these passages, there seems to be four significant phrases that can altar one’s view on what Jesus was praying for. The first critical phrase is “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications” (Hebrews 5:7). While this is a clear reference to the Gospel accounts, it also plays a major part in interpretation, particularly the word “supplications.” The Greek word ἱκετηρία means “that which is being urgently requested by a suppliant” (Louw and Nida 123). Certainly, there was a legitimate plea from Christ, a request that needed provision from the Father. Secondly, the phrase “he was heard because of his reverence” plays another significant part in determining the appropriate interpretation (Hebrews 5:7). The Greek word εἰσακούω does not just mean to listen, but can also carry the meaning of “to gratify” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). This also dramatically affects the interpretation. The third significant phrase is found in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” In this particular passage, understanding what “the cup” means can shape the prayer itself and plays a huge role in interpreting the prayer. Finally, the concluding phrase in Matthew 26:39, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” is altogether influential for each view. Taking these texts of Scripture into focus, it is also beneficial to survey the dominant views of interpretation.

The first view to consider in relation to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is the “Description of God” view (Hullinger). It appears that this view holds the belief that the author of Hebrews was just making the point that God answers prayer, and does not make the connection to the prayer in the garden (Hullinger). This view is very uncommon, and rightly so. Though it acceptable to pronounce that this view is very partially correct in the fact that God answers prayer, the focus is clearly on Jesus’ human qualifications for being a High Priest which is crucial in this context. To refute the idea that there is no connection to the garden, one must remember that God the Father could “save [Jesus] from death” and also “heard” Jesus’ anguishing cries for “supplication” (Hebrews 5:7). These were legitimate requests which, due to the severe circumstances identified and the specificity entailed, must refer to the garden prayer (MacDonald 2171). Additionally, Jesus was not purposefully and solely setting an example on how pray to God, for that was the purpose of the model prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13. Finally, regarding the “Description of God” view, one must question why the author would not refer to the prayer in the garden (Hullinger). After all, the example of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane perfectly fits the context of approving Jesus’ humanity. Therefore, it is reasonable to affirm that this prayer must refer to the garden prayer which paves the way for further exegesis and a comparison of more views.

A second view on Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is the belief that Jesus feared death in the garden itself, not just the cross. T. Hewitt is a proponent of this view and proposes, “If Christ had died in the Garden, no greater calamity could possibly have fallen on mankind” (100). This view essentially suggests that Jesus prayed “that He might be saved from dying there and then, either through physical exhaustion or by satanic assault” (Bruce 99). This view does have some faults, however. One passage for refutation would be John 10:17-18 which states, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Implications from John 10 would insist that this view is absolutely incorrect. However, proponents of this view could counteract this accusation with the argument that this was a test of Jesus’ humanity. Obviously, based on the impeccable nature of Christ and His omniscience, He would complete His tasks given from the Father. What this view does misconstrue, however, is the reference to “the cup” (Hullinger). In Matthew 26, after Jesus prays once for God to remove the cup and rebukes the disciples for sleeping, He prays “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). This implies something that needs to occur in the very near future. Additionally, Jesus says in John 18:11 after Peter cut off the ear of Malchus, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” Therefore, it is logical to conclude that the “cup” did not refer to simply the agony in Gethsemane, thus negating this view as a contending interpretation.

A third and very popular view is the belief that Jesus so greatly feared physical death. Before considering the Hebrews 5 passage, proponents of this view will latch on to a Gospel account of Jesus’ prayer in the garden. This view essentially teaches that Jesus prayed if there would be any other possible way rather than dying on the cross to fulfill what God had planned, then that alternative should be sought. Here is a perfect situation where understanding the “cup” is absolutely crucial. The Bible Knowledge Commentary provides three possibilities for what the cup necessitates: His imminent death, His coming separation from the Father, or His coming contact with sin as He became sin for mankind (83-84). Though the cross undoubtedly seems to be on the mind of Jesus, it seems to be that physical death was not exactly the horrifying fear that overcame Him. Hebrews 2:14 says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary speaks of “propitiation” as “the appeasement of an offended party” (533). Though some might argue, it appears that the cup perfectly corresponds with Jesus’ actions of propitiation, which satisfies God’s wrath. For example, the “cup” terminology is frequently used as a symbol for God’s wrath or judgment (Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15; Ezekiel 23:31-32; Revelation 14:10, 16:19). A constant problem with the “physical death” view is that the bodily crucifixion is seen as the most horrifying reality for Jesus in the garden, though it was certainly grotesque. Likewise, this view fails to reconcile the fact that Jesus was “heard” by God. What this view does not reconcile is the fact that Jesus was “heard” (Hebrews 5:7). Since this view states that the greatest fear of Jesus, and similarly the specific request, was that the death on the cross would be avoided, the question remains of what the answered prayer could be. After all, since the word necessitates a responsive gratification, or an “answered prayer,” evading the cross does not seem to capture the full essence of the prayer. Also, though this view seems to have the right idea that Jesus drank the cup, the wrath of God, it appears to place emphasis on the cross itself, in relation to physical pain, as the overwhelming fear. While much strength is provided in this argument in how the Scriptures support some of the evidence, possible alternatives appear stronger in interpreting the overwhelming fear and in understanding the answered prayer that the Father supplied.

The fourth and certainly intriguing view is the belief that Jesus prayed, not to be saved from physically dying, “but to be saved out of death- that is, to be saved from remaining in death. He was not asking to avoid the cross but to be assured of the resurrection” (MacArthur 124). Both Paul Ellingworth and John MacArthur insert that the translation in Hebrews 5:7, “who was able to save him death,” could also be translated “who was able to save him out of death” (Ellingworth 288; MacArthur 124). In relation to examining just the text itself in Hebrews, this view seems to make a compelling case. Yet, a difficulty that arises is that Jesus does not mention His request in the Gospels to necessarily refer to His resurrection. His request was “let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). A possible answer to this problem could be that Jesus indeed feared both the coming physical and spiritual death, He submitted to the Father’s will nonetheless, and prayed that His life offered as the perfect sacrifice would indeed satisfy the wrath of God. Singer/Songwriting Michael Card wrote a song relating to this topic, “He Was Heard.”  Referring to Jesus as High Priest, Card writes “In the fullness of the promise time, the Final Priest did come, and He offered up a living sacrifice. Now, we His children wait for Him with hope and joyful praise. For we know that God has heard Him, for we know that He was raised.” This is rather interesting, since it fits with the context of what the author of Hebrews is doing. In Hebrews 5:1, the subject is the “High Priest” who is described as one who “is chosen to act on behalf in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Perhaps Jesus was praying for the resurrection, and rightly so, due to the fact that He was indeed raised from the dead. Though this view possesses many possible explanations for some of the passages involved, a fifth view just might be even better.

The final and very well-defended view is the “spiritual death” view. In other words, this belief goes further than the idea that Jesus feared physical death, and therefore proposes that He wrestled with the agony of knowingly being forsaken by the Father because He would become “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The New Bible Dictionary states, “Death is the epitome of sin’s penalty” (Wood and Marshall 1106). Without trying to undermine the physical torture that Jesus endured as the sacrifice sin, it is important to consider the death that Jesus endured. Though it is true that Jesus physically died by “giving up the ghost,” He also underwent a spiritual death (Luke 23:46). Dr. Jerry Hullinger, professor at Piedmont Baptist College, offers an intriguing perspective on this issue. He suggests that “eternal spiritual death” is what Jesus was so horrified about. After all, he died physically by His soul being separated from the body and He died spiritually by His soul being separated from the Father. Dr. Hullinger also concludes that “Jesus was willing to do this if it was the Father’s will. This is a greater expression of His love than dying for us.” The “spiritual death view,” even if there are slight differences with what Dr. Hullinger suggests, matches up very closely with Scripture and is a view to be considered.

Though much is involved in this prayer, in all reality it is still very simple and is important to quickly summarize these findings. First of all, Jesus knew that he would have to drink the cup of God’s wrath (John 18:11). Obviously, this entailed an enormous price to pay which from what has been concluded was both a physical death on the cross, and even more significant, a spiritual death. Secondly, since “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” it is evident that Jesus was struggling through severe stress and agony. Though commentators have and will disagree on this issue, the most likely position as argued on this would have to be the fear of “spiritual death,” possibly even the fear of “eternal spiritual death” (Hullinger). Thirdly, Jesus certainly had an earnest supplication request from the Father. Once again, though this is often disagreed among many theologians, this at the very least must have referred to being saved from death as the author of Hebrews describes in chapter five. Evidence does not seem to be overwhelmingly conclusive and thus could refer to “the resurrection,” “spiritual death,” or perhaps even a combination of both. Finally, the fact to rejoice in was that Christ was “heard,” enabling Him to complete the finished work on the cross and satisfy God’s wrath (Hebrews 5:7). Because of the substitutionary death of Christ, “He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” In conclusion, the beauty of studying a passage of this nature is not simply for informational knowledge confirming what Jesus has accomplished, but to encourage the Christian to persevere in faith, and recognize that Christ’s sacrifice is fully satisfactory to God, thus authenticating the power of grace.

Works Cited

Campbell, Roger F. Preach for a Year. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988. Print.

Hewitt T. The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary. London: Tyndale,

1960. Print.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001. Print.

Hullinger, Jerry. Hebrews Notes. Winston-Salem: Piedmont Baptist College, Summer 2011.

Microsoft Word.

Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1978. Print.

Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament :

Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews. Chicago: Moody,

1983. Print.

MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995. Print.

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and

Gerhard Friedrich. electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.

Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge

Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983. Print.

Wood, D. R. W. and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Leicester, England;

Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

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