Today we begin a series of messages focusing on the last hours of Jesus. It is a question where to begin such a presentation but we’ll begin on the basis of Jesus’ aloneness. When Jesus and the disciples left the upper room, they went out to the garden of Gethsemane and this was when Jesus began to be more alone so we will start with that.
These events in the last hours of Jesus are especially recorded in the Bible in each of the four gospels:
There are lessons for us in this section, especially concerning prayer. So let’s take a look.
Why Have A Group Pray?
Jesus brings along all the disciples but Judas. Why? Why have a group pray? They were accustomed to being together. They could pray for themselves and for Him. And did Jesus know that those with Him that night would see Him taken? We can be sure He did. He understood Himself to be the fulfillment of the passover. Passover was a symbol pointing to Him. He was the true sacrifice. Surely He wanted His disciples together for that awful moment for their own benefit as well.
We are always stronger spiritually when we are with a group of likeminded, likehearted believers. We are much more likely to fall for deception when we are alone. Predators look for the weaker animals, the stragglers, the sick, those who can’t keep up, those at the edges of groups.
We are not stronger if we are in groups with diverse mindedness, groups having a variety of conflicting and contradictory purposes. In Acts chapter one what do you have? A group of at least 120 (Acts 1:15), double that if women and children were bot included in the count. Luke says “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” In Acts 4:32 believers there assembled are called a “multitude” and “were of one heart and one soul.”
We look around the modern church, so wrenched by division and contradictory ideas and goals, and we find it difficult to envision a church united, praying together, and the Holy Spirit answering with power. But we should look for unity among ourselves, and we should combine together in prayer among ourselves, and see what God will do. Jesus here brings His chosen apostles together so they can pray for Him and for themselves in this extraordinary moment.
Why Have His Three Closest Disciples Pray?
Jesus leaves eight of His disciples near the entrance of the garden to pray. But He takes Peter, James, and John in closer. Why this?
Peter, James, and John were Jesus’ closest human companions. They had beheld His glory on the mount of transfiguration. They had heard the voice from heaven. They alone had seen Him speaking with Moses and Elijah. The past three years they had often been with Jesus at night in this very spot. Now, in this moment of monumental struggle, He wanted them near Him, praying with Him, watching with Him.
At the same time, He did not want them to see His agony. So He went on a bit further. They could still see but they could not make out the struggle on His face nor hear His deep groanings. There were other occasions where, when prayer was offered for someone or a particular healing miracle sought, the leader would put out of the room those who were less believing so as not to hinder the working of God’s power (Mark 5:40-41; Luke 8:54; Acts 9:40). These disciples were Jesus’ most faith-filled. He wanted them near.
Jesus Prays (Round 1)
So Jesus withdraws a distance from them, then kneels down and prays. Matthew 26:39 adds that when Jesus came to His place of prayer, He knelt down until His face was touching the ground. He could go no lower, His face was literally on the ground. He was completely submitted to God. This report presumably made its way into the Bible because either Peter, James, or John, told Matthew Levi. They were still awake, and they saw Jesus kneel down all the way down.
Mark confirms the report that Jesus sunk to the ground as He prayed. This position is called prostration, It indicates total submission. It is as low as one can go on obeisance. When we are all His He can use us. But we do not give ourselves to Him to get something, something where our will differs from His will. Rather, we are entirely submitted and entirely trusting of Him and His will. His will is what is best for us.
When you stop and think about it, isn’t it amazing that we sometimes think we have a better plan, a better idea than God does, for ourselves? He is the infinite all-loving God. We are finite creatures. We do not even see very far into our own moment in time. Ellen White very wisely wrote, “Prayer does not bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him.”(Steps to Christ, p. 93) So we pray in faith. We trust that He knows the best way to answer. We seek Him; we seek out His will, and we accept it.
What Does Jesus Feel?
So Jesus prays for a period of time. What does He feel?
Matthew and Mark’s reports are identical. Jesus is sorrowful and deeply distressed. He says to them “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.” Think back across the testimony of the four gospels. Very rare indeed is the moment when Jesus tells how He feels. There are times when He weeps; there are times when He demonstrates a righteous anger and indignation, but how many times does Jesus speak to His disciples about His feelings? But here, in the hour of supreme crisis, He speaks plainly and openly to Peter and James and John. He feels like He is dying. He feels isolated and alone. He feels shut out.
Luke does not directly name Jesus’ feelings, but he points out a remarkable feature. “And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”(44) He is in physical agony, but moreso, mental. What is behind this enormous sorrow? Ellen White has the answer in her chapter in The Desire of Ages:
He felt that by sin He was being separated from His Father. The gulf was so broad, so black, so deep, that His spirit shuddered before it. This agony He must not exert His divine power to escape. As man He must suffer the consequences of man’s sin. As man He must endure the wrath of God against transgression.
Christ was now standing in a different attitude from that in which He had ever stood before. His suffering can best be described in the words of the prophet, ‘Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, and against the man that is My fellow, saith the Lord of hosts.’ Zechariah 13:7. As the substitute and surety for sinful man, Christ was suffering under divine justice. He saw what justice meant. Hitherto He had been as an intercessor for others; now He longed to have an intercessor for Himself.
As Christ felt His unity with the Father broken up, He feared that in His human nature He would be unable to endure the coming conflict with the powers of darkness.(The Desire of Ages, p. 686)
Jesus felt, for the first time in all eternity, separated from the Father. Divine power by right was His; He was God. But that power He had laid down, that power He had laid aside, and that power He must not under any circumstance recover and take back to Himself in this moment. He was our example. Therefore, as man He must experience the wrath of God against transgression.
These terrible, ultimate, depressive, hopeless feelings He must experience in our place because He is our Substitute. He bears our sins. But He must also endure them because He is our Example. He must show a self-control stronger than life or death or anything because He is providing us the example for how to live for God. We cannot at any time reach into a divine bag of tricks and press a button or go zap and have things our way. So He cannot do that ever while on earth. He is our Example.
What Does Jesus Pray?
Let’s consider now the content of His prayer. “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”(39) Mark’s gospel has, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”(36)
First is the fact that He is addressing the prayer not to an impersonal being or an indifferent CEO but to His Father. It is a very personal address, even intimate. Next, He affirms God’s sovereignty. All things are possible for You. God His Father has all power. But while Jesus does not mention it, there is one thing that is not possible for God. It is impossible for God to act in a way that is contrary to His character. He cannot not be Himself. He is the ultimate example of the principle of self-sacrificing love, other-love. He cannot act in contradiction to love for others. He cannot act in contradiction to what is right and doing right for others.
He has all power but even He who has all power does not have the power to be what He is not. And certainly Jesus knows this. By the way, this is why there is no one safer to talk to, no one safer to share your intimate details with, than God. He already knows them. More than that, He is other-love; He cannot not be other-love. Because of who and what He is He cannot act in a malevolent way towards you, whether you are the world’s nicest person or the world’s most evil person. Even Lucifer himself cannot prompt God to be vicious or mean or unfair or harsh. God is love and He is always love.(1 John 4:16)
Someone coined a saying that God is good and that He is good all the time, and we sometimes utter it in a kind of superficial manner. Well, the statement is true and it is way, way, way more than a superficial platitude.
Jesus asks, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Jesus has ultimate free choice. He can choose not to drink this cup of suffering. He is not a sinner, He is not guilty, He is righteous and under no obligation to give us any gift of forgiveness or eternal life. He is a free agent. It is clear that Jesus has free choice here, for as the only person on planet earth who had never acted in sin, Jesus was free.
But He submitted voluntarily to the Father. This was the course He had set out on when He became incarnate. When He took our humanity He determined He would live as a man under God the Father’s ordering. He and the Father, before He came here, had discussed and agreed upon the plan of salvation. It all hinged on Jesus living a right life and paying the penalty for our sin.
As Jesus prayed, He made a specific request. I want out of the contract. But I only want out of the contract if You agree. If you don’t agree, and it is Your will for Me to continue, then I will continue. But I feel so alone. I’ve never felt so alone in all eternity. If I go through with this it seems like You and I will be separated for eternity. I can’t fathom what that would be like. I cannot bear the thought of it. But ultimately I trust You. If there is no other way to save these people who have sinned, I will go through with this.
After long prayer there was no response. At last Jesus arose and went to His disciples.
Asleep and Not Praying
When He returns to them, He finds them asleep. Now, at His supreme moment of test, now when he has asked His closest friends to join Him in prayer, they are sleeping.
This cruel development could only have added to the nightmare quality of the situation. He feels entirely alone like never before. Why they were so sleepy? Could it have been from demonic presence? Because, not only was Jesus in that garden, but so were demon hoards. Jesus in that garden was enclosed in legions of fallen angels. Everything is at stake for them and they press temptations upon Him, whispering plausible, extremely persuasive, perfectly reasoned, lies.
The disciples awake when He comes to them and they see Him, almost unrecognizable. The mental and emotional struggle in which He is engaged has been intense. Yet even now He has guidance for them and for us. At Mark 14:38 He asks them: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
This is an interesting phrase, “watch and pray.” It occurs four times in the Bible (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38; Mark 13:33; Luke 21:36). As you might expect, the part about watching means to be in heightened alertness. Three other texts speak similarly, of “night watches” (Psalm 63:6; 119:148; lamentations 2:19). But is there any special benefit to our praying at night? Shouldn’t we normally be sleeping in the night? Is one practice against another?
Prayer at night has some advantages, mostly less distraction and more focus. Listen to this: “When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God.”(Ministry of Healing, p. 58)
That is the principle. “The silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God.” Distraction is one of the strongest enemies to meaningful prayer. Night is a minimum-distraction opportunity. The disciples should be able to pray for and with Jesus here to powerful effect. But they can add the fellowship element by watching together. There is a place for this spiritual practice of being alert and quiet and with receptive spirit seeking God’s help. Although Jesus is suffering under the weight of the sins of the world and God is not responding to Him, the disciples are not under this weight. Indeed, they might have strengthened Jesus considerably in this ultimate hour. But the opportunity was lost. Jesus had the three disciples closest to Him come closer to pray with Him but they sleep instead
Jesus urges the disciples to watch and pray so that they do not enter into temptation. Literally, to not enter into temptation means not to be put to the test. The disciples were both to watch and pray, with the hoped-for outcome that they would not be put to test. There is a testing that comes to us where we are not ready for the test. That kind of test is to be avoided. There is a testing of our faith where we are ready which actually makes us stronger. We are not to be presumptuous.
Is it because the world around us does not take spiritual matters seriously that we ourselves do not take them seriously? The outcome of these things bring eternal results, life or death. We cannot afford to enter into these challenges flippantly. We should not seek out confrontation with evil but engage under the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. God will guide us in situations where we should engage, but our unstable hearts can guide us into situations which lead to terrible loss.
Jesus Prays (Rounds 2 and 3)
Because there was no apparent answer the first time Jesus prayed did not mean He should not continue to pray. After admonishing the disciples to pray, He enters into another long season of prayer. An angel is sent who comes and strengthens Jesus. If our heart is open to God He will give us just exactly the kinds of help we need just when we need them.
In the gospel accounts no verbal or intelligible response is mentioned. Eventually God sends an angel to strengthen Jesus. Imagine being Jesus, always having Father answer your prayer all your life, but now at your moment of maximum need, He is silent. And meanwhile the devils are whispering their most sophisticated lies to you. This is what Jesus experienced.
But after the second prayer period God is still silent. And the same after the third. But His non-answers are answers. He is telling Jesus, just not through words, that He is not withdrawing the cup and that He is giving Jesus the strength He needs to endure the experience victoriously. Jesus understands and does not persist. The Father has answered.
Finally, the sound of the mob rises I the distance, but we will carry on into that hour next time.
The last hours of Jesus are a period when He enters into the strongest testing but in aloneness. Prayer is essential to us in these times. It is the central feature of Jesus’ last hours in the garden of Gethsemane. The weight of the sins of the world came upon Jesus in this time. All of your sins were then upon Him. He felt totally shut out from the Father. The Father was present in that time and place as He is present in every time and place. But Jesus could not perceive it. Sin was blocking. God was in Christ reconciling the world with Himself. It is amazing that Jesus did this for us, the Just suffering for the unjust. But He did it in hopes of seeing us transformed, redeemed, restored to fellowship with Him and with each other. All our petty gripes and complaints and battles should be laid aside as we humbly seek to have our part in God’s plan.
2021-09-04 Fremont MI SDA church
2021-09-04 Muskegon MI SDA church