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Prayer in the Garden

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Prayer in the Garden

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

One of the most fascinating places to visit in Jerusalem today is the garden of Gethsemane.  There are trees there that date back to the time of Jesus- they bear witness to one of the most important events in Christianity- the temptation in the garden. 

Olive trees have significance. 

What we learn from Gethsemane:

1. When pressure comes into our lives we are to focus on eternal realities 

The Bible says Jesus experienced excruciating emotions while in the garden.  He asked his disciples to stay with him and pray with  him. He was feeling the weight of the universe in those moments. He knew what he had to do and the eternal significance of it; in his humanity he wished the cup could be removed from him, but in his divine nature he was determined to carry it through. The weight of those two opposing pressures bore down on his heart relentlessly. 

The garden was a place of intense emotional struggle.  Interestingly, even the name denotes pressure.  Gethsemane” is a corruption into English of two Hebrew words GAT and SHMANIM. It means literally, “the place where olive oil is pressed”.

Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus, because of the joy set before him, “endured the cross, scorning its shame.”In other words, while under immense torment and suffering, Jesus pressed on and accomplished the task he knew he would need to accomplish. How did Jesus handle this enormous pressure?

The first thing to notice is that Jesus established a singular priority for his life- and that was to do the work he was called to do. He began his ministry by saying, “I must be about my father’s business” and he ended it by saying “it is finished.” The lesson is that no matter how much pressure we may be under in life, it is important to keep our focus on those things that are most important. 

Our sense of pressure and stress in this life often comes from worrying about things that really don’t matter all that much. I love the book title “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff And It’s All Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson. The title says it all- most things we worry about in this life are of very little eternal significance and are not worth the time and energy it takes to stress about them. Jesus said this in Matthew 6:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? (Matthew 6:25-27)

“Stop worrying about the small stuff!”  Jesus is saying. He followed up that statement by saying this,

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

A good question to ask when you are feeling overwhelmed by worry and stress over a particular issue in your life is, “Does this really matter in the eternal scheme of things?  Most of the stuff we worry about won’t matter one year from now or ten years from now much less in eternity! So one of the keys to getting through the pressures in life is to focus your heart on those things that will last for eternity like loving God with your whole heart and loving others as yourself. The other less substantive worries that come into your life, Jesus says, will take care of themselves. 

The second thing to notice about how Jesus handled the pressure in that moment in the garden is that he gave all of his worries over to the sovereign will of the father.  Worry is negative meditation while prayer is positive meditation. When you are feeling pressure you will either meditate in a negative way which only brings you down, or you will meditate in a positive way and turn it over to God’s sovereign will and that lifts you up. 

When I look at my life and my problems from the perspective of God’s work in eternity, they seem much smaller. You often cannot change your circumstances, but you can always change your perspective about your circumstances.  

It is significant that even Jesus spent time in prayer when he was under pressure. The Bible teaches this in Philippians 2: 

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:6-7)

The reason God wants us to pray is not because our prayers give him more information, but because our prayers change the way we think. The greatest work that is accomplished in prayer is the change that takes place in the heart of the person praying! So how should we pray? Prayer is aligning your will to the will of God and the best way to do that is through the promises of scripture. One of the most important things you can do in your stress is to talk to yourself in a positive way by reminding your heart of what is most important by meditating on his word. This is what is accomplished in prayerful meditation- it focuses your heart on God’s promises. Look at this Psalm:

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 43:5)

The psalmist is having a conversation with his own soul and reminding himself of the promises of God. There will be times in your life when you will feel as if the weight of the universe is on your shoulders. In those times, remember that there is only one person who ever literally carried that weight and even he spent time in fervent prayer and found God’s purposes and promises. And that is how you can get through life’s inevitable pressures as well.

2. Jesus gave an example of how to deal with our suffering

Jesus dealt with suffering and so will we.  

Three of the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all make a strong point that the agony of Jesus was uncommonly severe- even more than what you might expect. At one point Jesus said, “My sorrow is overwhelming to the point of death.”  The sentence seems to be saying that Jesus was under so much pressure in that moment that he thought it might even physically kill him. 

Of course we have to believe that Jesus Christ in his pre-existent form would have known about the suffering that he would endure on the cross.  In fact, there are many examples of Jesus telling the disciples that he must suffer and die throughout the gospels. So the knowledge of that suffering would not have been a surprise to him.  So the question is, what was it that was revealed to Jesus in those moments that became so shockingly disturbing to him that the sorrow nearly overwhelmed him? What changed in his heart so suddenly that caused these emotions?

Matthew 26:37 indicates that Jesus suddenly felt overwhelming sorrow as he was walking away from the other disciples with James, John and Peter. This change happened while he was en route, as if it descended upon him in real time. Not only did he think the sorrow would kill him but Mark indicates that Jesus was surprised by the emotion he was feeling.  

Mark uses the Greek word ekthambeisthai, which means to be moved to an “intense emotional state because of something causing great surprise or perplexity” (Walter Bauer in Greek English Lexicon).

Many translators translate that phrase as “deeply distressed”, probably because they are assuming that as deity, Jesus surely would not have felt a kind of surprised anxiety. But I believe there is another explanation- I believe that in that moment Jesus saw the true agony he would experience as the Father turned his face from him and the burden of the world’s sin came on to him. I believe the cold reality of that loss of eternal fellowship was suddenly revealed to Jesus. In that moment he truly understood the horrible and brutal consequences of taking on the sins of world. The true agony of Jesus on the cross was not physical suffering, but the separation from God. 

Keep in mind that the gospel writers would have known by this time the many example of Christians who had stared into the face of execution and experience something dramatically different from what Jesus experienced. Steven the Martyr, for example, faced that moment and Heaven opened up to him in a glorious way. The Bible says his “face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15) 

But no one ever experienced what Jesus experienced. Jesus certainly knew that he would experience the agony of the cross, but until that moment the cold reality of taking on the cumulative punishment of all humanity for all eternity had not been fully realized. Jesus’ sorrow was not caused by fear or by a lack of desire to accomplish the task. Jesus had expected to spend time with the Father in prayer in the garden, but what he experienced instead was shockingly painful to him- he experienced the alienation that comes from our sinful condition. It would be like going into the presence of God and expecting heaven to open to you, but hell opens up instead. 

Jonathan Edwards makes this point about what Jesus experienced 

“The agony of Jesus Christ was caused by a vivid, bright, full, immediate view of the wrath of God. God the Father, as it were, set the cup down before him, which was vastly more terrible than Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace." (Jonathan Edwards “Christ’s Agony”)

Several weeks ago Teri and I went on a long hike up Mount Princeton outside Bueno Vista Colorado with some close friends. The hike turned out to be much more difficult than we anticipated- most of the final ascent was spent climbing over loose boulders. All of us agreed afterward that if we had known it was that difficult we probably would not have tried it. We had all been excited to give it a try, but our excitement faded in the experience. But what if the night before our hike we could have somehow had the reality of the difficulty of the climb vividly revealed to us?  I doubt we would have gone. 

What Jesus experienced in the garden was a full realization of the dreadful consequences of drinking the cup of wrath. One of the most powerful aspects of the story of Gethsemane is that Jesus was given an excruciatingly vivid view of what drinking that cup would be like, and it staggered him. 

But he was obedient and drank anyway.

  1. He was singularly focused on the purposes of God. 
  2. He relied on his relationships. 

“Come pray with me”

  1. He relied on God.  

“Not my will, but yours be done.”  

3. The perseverance of Jesus demonstrates His amazing love

All of Jesus’ earthly life was moving toward one eventuality in the garden that night.  All of history was culminating to this one event; Jesus was about to be arrested and executed. The soldiers and temple guards were bearing down on the garden at the dead of night to arrest him in secret. He knew they were coming. He had prepared and planned for this- he was approaching his final hour. In football terms, he was at the two minute warning at the end of the fourth quarter. He could hear them coming in the distance.  This would have been the time for Jesus to quit. He could have called ten thousand angels if he had wanted, or with one word he could end it.   Back in John 10:17-18 he said, 

No on takes My life from Me; I lay it down of Myself.  (John 10:17-18)

Jesus could have easily said, “I quit.” 

But Jesus never gave up. 

What was it that caused Christ to persevere to the end? 

Romans 5:8 says that Christ died for us because he loves us. Jesus said the greatest kind of love is the kind that is willing to die for others (John 15:13)- the Bible says that God so loved the world that he gave his only son (John 3:16). Jesus persevered because of his love. Paul wrote an entire chapter on love in 1 Corinthians and said this in verse 7:

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:7)

God’s love always perseveres. It never fails you. Jesus endured to the end because of his love for you and me. In Luke 15 Jesus told three parables as a way of illustrating the love of God. There was a story of a lost sheep and a shepherd who wouldn’t quit until he found what was lost. There was a story of a lost coin and a housewife who wouldn’t quit until she found the coin. There was a story of a lost boy and a father’s love that wouldn’t quit until the boy was restored.  All three stories revealed one powerful and important truth about God’s great love for us- He pursues us relentlessly and never gives up.  That’s what love does- it always perseveres. 

Le Ielpi understands the meaning of this kind of love. Ielpi retired as a New York City firefighter after 26 years. He gave most of his life and career to serve his community.  But on September 11, 2001 he gave something much more precious- he lost a son in the twin towers.  His son Jonathan Ielpi was a firefighter who was racing to the top of one of the towers when it crashed to the ground. His body was trapped under several tons of concrete and steel. 

There is an important and touching tradition among firefighters- when one of them dies in the line of duty, no one is allowed to touch the body until someone who is a close friend has a chance to come in and personally carry the body out.  

Le was determined to be the one to carry his son out of that monstrous wreckage.  And so for three weeks he worked relentlessly with his brother firefighters at that 16 acre graveyard to find his son. On Tuesday, December 11, three months after the tragedy, his son’s body was discovered and left where it lay until his father could make his way over.  It was there that Le Ielpi knelt down and lovingly picked up his son and carried him out. 

He didn’t give up. That’s what a father’s love does- it never, ever, ever, ever gives in. His love for his son was greater than the pain of the search. 

When I think of Jesus in the garden those final hours and wonder how he persevered to the end, I think of his great love for us. I think of love that endures.  Why didn’t he quit? Because his love for you and me was much greater than the pain of the search. Jesus has come to pull you out. Your world has collapsed and you are dead in your sin.  There is no way you are getting out of this on your own.  He relentlessly and lovingly pursues you. He loves you. That’s why he never quit. 

Love endures all things.

Love never fails. 


  1. Why do you believe Jesus took the disciples to the garden?
  2. What was Jesus experiencing in his prayer that was so distressing?
  3. What can we learn from this example of Jesus about our own distress?
  4. What does it mean that Jesus said to the Lord God, “Not my will, but yours?” 

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