Letting Go of Control: Jesus Prays in the Garden
Letting go of control and submitting to the will of God, even in the best of times is difficult for most of us to do.
Even when we know in our hearts that God’s ways are always best, our fears and emotions get the best of us and we tend to default to our standard behavior of control. Somehow, it just feels better when we think we are in control. We try to control the situations that come our way; what feelings we feel; how we are treated by others; the outcomes of the situation. We feel our control slipping away when the heat gets turned up, and our circumstances become even more serious or threatening. We feel uncomfortable, uneasy, fearful and we panic. We want to do something to take back the control we think we’ve lost. It’s not an ideal time, in our humanity, to submit to the will of our Father and let go.
Jesus was in this very situation – multiplied by 1,000.
Jesus knew what was coming and how his life would end. He knew that his purpose on Earth was to become the perfect lamb to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. He understood that to become that perfect sacrifice he would suffer greatly, be put to death and have the relationship between him and the Father broken for a time.
Throughout every story in Matthew, we see Jesus behave calmly, trusting the Father at every turn. Jesus relied on the Father to guide him, strengthen him and work through him. He trusted that the Father’s will for him (and all of us) is perfect and right. Jesus taught the disciples to live their lives the same way, even as he warned them that very soon, he will be arrested and ultimately be put to death for the sake of the world.
In Matthew chapter 26 the situation reaches a new level of intensity. The hour is at hand, and the circumstances are falling into place to put God’s plan into motion. In other words, it’s becoming real. It’s time. Safety and security are slipping away. It’s when you and I, and all humans, tend to go into control mode. We feel uncomfortable, uneasy, fearful and panicky. We latch on to whatever we can change or manage and try to ‘make it happen’.
Here’s what’s happened so far in Matthew 26
- Jesus warns the disciples one more time that he will soon be arrested and crucified. (Matthew 26:2)
- The chief priests and elders secretly plot to arrest Jesus and kill him. (Matthew 26:3-5)
- Judas agrees to betray Jesus to the chief priests. (Matthew 26:14-16)
- Jesus has one last dinner with the disciples, warning them that one of them will betray him. (Matthew 26:21-25)
- Jesus predicts the disciples will abandon him and Peter will deny him three times. (Matthew 26:31-35)
It’s been a heavy day for Jesus. He sees the pieces falling into place. He knows he is hours away from being arrested and the humanity of Jesus is in full display for us in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Matthew 26:36-46)
Jesus is fully man and fully God
In these verses, we get a glimpse of Jesus as he was fully man and fully God. We see his anguish, fear, and dread. He was overwhelmed and sorrowful as he is betrayed and abandoned. Jesus was suffering in his soul as well as in his body. It was a sorrow that leads to death. A sorrow that you and I couldn’t survive; soul sorrow; even agony. Every one of us can identify with deep sorrow on some level. At some point in our lives, most of us have felt these deep emotions, maybe even to the point of wishing we would die instead of suffering so much. These feelings are human. There is nothing sinful about any of them. Even Jesus felt this way. It’s what we do with these feelings that matters.
Jesus is in Agony
The gospel accounts describe Jesus as being in a type of agony. He was sorrowful and very heavy; signifying a sorrow that makes a man neither fit for company nor desirous of it. Even so, the first thing we see Jesus do is gather his closest friends for support. He doesn’t bring all twelve disciples to Gethsemane, only three; the closest three, Peter, James, and John. These were the ones who witnessed his glory in his transfiguration.
“His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” (Matthew 17:2-3)
Just as they were amazed at what they were seeing, the voice of God the Father came from a bright cloud telling them, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5)
Peter, James, and John have witnessed Jesus’ glory as no one else had. Because of their witness, they are the most prepared of all the disciples to witness his agony. They know Jesus in a different way than the others. So Jesus chooses them to share in his emotional agony. He rallies them for companionship and asks them to pray.
We Need Each Other
This is a lesson for us. Jesus gathered his friends and expresses his sorrow. We need friends too; not as a substitute for God, but as an earthly comfort. There’s a delicate balance between oversharing and putting on a happy face to suffer in silence. In times of heartbreak, grief, and sadness, we need our closest friends to surround us. We need to share our feelings with them asking for support, companionship, and prayer. We don’t need to broadcast our situation to everyone we know or blast it on social media, but it is helpful – even necessary to gather our closest friends and be honest with them. Keep watch with me. Pray with me. Stay with me. Support me. Even Jesus did that.
Previously, Jesus prayed with and for the Disciples. Now… he prays alone.
We see him do this over and over again throughout the Gospels. There is a time for prayer with others, and there is a time when we must get alone with God to speak our hearts frankly and express our emotions honestly. A time set aside for God to hear and understand our hearts when the words won’t come and we can only groan and cry out.
A Prayer of Petition
Once alone, Jesus falls on his knees; on his face. He assumes a posture of humility and surrender. He begs God, “may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus isn’t necessarily asking not to suffer physically. More than that, he is begging God not to turn his face away from him. The disconnection from his Father his more than he can bear.
The humanity of Jesus is on full display here. He is fully man as he begs God to save him from the pending suffering that is to come. It is a normal and predictable response. Every one of us would react the same way in that circumstance. It is how many of us HAVE responded.
At the same time, the words Jesus uses to pray, are proof that he is also fully God. Jesus models for us how to balance praying our true feelings with submitting to the will of God.
A Prayer of Submission
As he feels free to beg God to save him from this impending pain, Jesus also expresses his full submission to his Father’s will. He begins by addressing God as “My Father” in Matthew 26:39 and as “Abba, Father” in Mark 14:36. These names (Abba meaning daddy) signifies a close relationship. They imply love and trust. Jesus begins there.
Then, Jesus prays, “If it may be possible” (Matthew 26:39). In other words, if you can still achieve your will, the salvation of the world, without me going through this. Jesus is submitting to his Father’s will even as he asks to be saved from this impending pain.
“Yet”… a very powerful word. After begging God to take this assignment from him, Jesus circles back to submitting to the will of his Father.
Ultimately, Jesus offered himself up for the sins of the world. He submitted to the authority and the will of the Father regardless of what that would mean for himself. Make no mistake, this submission was agonizing for Jesus.
Luke, the doctor, describes for us that as Jesus prayed even more earnestly, “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”(Luke 22:44) Even though Jesus was fully God, in this moment, his humanity made it physically and mentally difficult to submit to the will of God. So much so, that God sent “an angel from heaven to strengthen him.” (Luke 22:43)
Jesus seeks to do the will of the father: John 5:30 “… I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”
The Sleeping Disciples
Jesus returns to the three disciples he has brought with him and finds them sleeping. He has brought them along so that they would keep watch and pray with him, and they have failed him. Once again, a lesson for us. Our closest friends and family are important resources for us, especially when we are going through tough times. However, they can never replace the perfect comfort, reliability, and peace that only God can supply. As humans, we fail each other all the time. Our intentions are good, but our own emotions, priorities, schedules, and opinions get in the way of being ‘everything’ for someone else. ONLY GOD can do that.
The Spirit is Willing but the Flesh is Weak
So, Jesus finds the disciples sleeping. Granted, they were “exhausted from sorrow” (Luke 22: 45). Regardless, as well-intentioned as they were, they are unprepared for what is coming. Jesus tells them, their “spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Even in this difficult day, when Jesus has been let down yet again, he shows the disciples grace.
Read more about what we can learn from the sleeping disciples.
Jesus goes away again to pray alone. His prayer is very similar to the first one. He returns to check on the disciples two more times and again finds them sleeping. Finally, the third time he tells them, “Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Matthew 26:45-46)
Jesus doesn’t run away or try to hide from the suffering he knows in coming. He faces it head-on.
God’s Answer to Jesus’ Prayers
It appears that God didn’t answer Jesus’ prayers. At the very least, it would seem that Jesus was told, “No. I will not stop this punishment by death.” It’s true, God’s will was for Jesus to die and become the sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world. He didn’t stop that from happening, but he did answer Jesus’ prayer. He sent an angel to strengthen Jesus to give him the ability to carry through the task before him. Also, he rescued Jesus from death. Although it would be painful for a time, he didn’t allow Jesus to stay dead. He brought him back to life and took him to heaven to sit a the right hand of the Father.
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. Hebrews 5:7
Thankfully, for our sakes and for all of humanity, Jesus’ prayer was answered in the perfect will of our sovereign God. Because of Jesus’ obedience to the will of the Father we have a relationship with Christ today.
That’s why we celebrate Easter and why we serve our risen Savior. We have extravagant Hope.
This post is the fourth in the Easter Series “A JOURNEY TO THE CROSS: 40 DAYS IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF JESUS”.
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