Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jesus’ Prayer in Gethsemane

I’ve blogged about this before -- that the traditional take on Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane seems to be that Jesus asked God the Father to spare him from the Cross, and that God the Father said “no.”

The traditional view requires what seems to me to be two problematic assumptions: first, that God the Father would reject one of his Son’s prayers, and, secondly, that Jesus would actually ask his Father to be spared the Cross.

Neither of these assumptions seems consistent with what the Scriptures teach.

My argument is two-fold: Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane was not a prayer to be spared from the Cross, but rather was a prayer to be resurrected from the dead after his death and judgment on the Cross. And so, secondly, God the Father answered Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane in the affirmative.

Let’s start with the second point first. It seems to me that Heb 5.7 pretty much states that God answered "yes" to Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer (while the traditional view requires that God answers "no" to Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane):

“In the days of his flesh, he offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the one able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his piety” (Heb 5.7).

How could this be, particularly since Jesus did in fact die? If the traditional view is correct, then Heb 5.7 must be wrong, because the Father did not save Jesus from death on the cross; he did not "hear" his prayer to be spared the cross.

But that’s not the point of Heb 5.7. The point is that God the Father "heard" Jesus’ prayer and so Jesus was saved from death by resurrection from the dead.

The author of Hebrews has Jesus asking God the Father not to be spared from the Cross, but to be resurrected after dying on the Cross. And that prayer God the Father dramatically answers in the affirmative. This answers the first problem with the traditional view – whether God the Father said “no” to Jesus in Gethsemane. Heb 5.7 says that the Father answered “yes" to his Son's prayer in Gethsemane.

This, in turn, raises the question of what Jesus asked of the Father in the Garden. If Jesus asked to be spared the Cross, then the Father must have said “no” (since Jesus in fact went to the cross). So the passage in Hebrews requires that we look again at what Jesus asks in the Garden.

Before going there, though, consider first a couple of other passages.

For example, in the Book of John, Jesus expressly rejects the idea that he would ask God the Father to be spared from the cross:

"Now my soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour” (Jn 12.27-28).

It's a reductio. Jesus basically says, "How can I pray to be saved from this hour, since this hour is the purpose for which I came."

The traditional view requires Jesus several hours later to pray what he says in John that he would not pray.

So, too, later in John, Jesus reaffirms his mission:

"Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, 'Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?'" (Jn 18.10-11).

Also, recall in the Gospel of Matthew, that Jesus rebukes Peter with a “get thee behind me Satan” when Peter wishes Jesus to avoid the Cross (Mt 16.21-23). Yet the traditional reading of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane would have Jesus asking God the Father for the same thing that he rebuked Peter for wishing.

But given the passages above, is there a reasonable way to understand Jesus’ petitions in the Garden that is consistent with those other passages?

Jesus’ prayer that the cup pass away is not necessarily a prayer that he not drink of the cup at all, but that he not drink of the cup of judgment eternally – i.e., that he would be resurrected after the cross.

The cup is the cup of judgment (compare Rev 14.10). Consistent with Heb 5.7, that Jesus was not asking to avoid the cup altogether seems obvious from Mt 26.42, when Jesus prays, “My father, if this cannot pass away until I drink it, your will be done.”

Note here that Jesus contemplates that the cup “pass away” after he drinks it. Nonetheless, the “if” makes it sound as though Jesus is requesting that the cup pass away without his drinking it. But the Greek word “if” can also be translated as “since.” More consistently with Heb 5.7, perhaps Jesus is praying, “My father, since this cannot pass away until I drink it, your will be done.” That is, Jesus is willing to endure eternal judgment if it is the Father’s will. (This is consistent with the fact that Jesus went to the cross “for the joy set before him” in redeeming humanity, Heb 12.2).

Jesus’ first prayer in the Gospel of Matthew can be similarly translated, “My Father, since it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mat 26.39).

This is Jesus praying not to avoid the Cross, but to be resurrected after the cross – that the cup of judgment pass away after Jesus drinks it, rather than that Jesus suffer death and the curse eternally (i.e., that Jesus drinks the cup of judgment forever).


Blogger Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

This is quite a cool argument. I'll have to mull it over a little bit.


March 19, 2008 10:48 AM  
Blogger CPA said...

I think you've sold me, especially with the Hebrews quote.

March 24, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger me said...

Jesus said "yet not as I will, but as you will" which reveals that two wills are in play, and they do not agree. If Jesus is praying for exactly what God had planned, how is that 'not as I will'?

March 29, 2008 10:57 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


That's fine, but irrelevant to the argument: Jesus asks for resurrection, but is still willing to go to the cross even if he is not resurrected (as Paul is, Ro 9.3).

In any event what does Heb 5.7 mean? Biblically speaking, what was the prayer that Jesus prayed "with loud crying and tears" that was "heard" if not for the prayer in Gethsemane?

March 30, 2008 6:42 PM  
Blogger me said...

I don't see the irrelevance at all. Jesus prayer contained two requests (at least):
1. Let this cup pass
2. Not my will but thine be done

Certainly the second request was answered, as God's will was in fact done. If the 'letting the cup pass' was not in fact what was against God's will, what was?

March 30, 2008 7:33 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


You'll need to post an active bloglink to continue to post here.

Here's how Jesus' petition would be understood: "Let me be resurrected from the dead ("let the cup pass"). But I am willing to undergo eternal death if that is your will ("not my will but thine").

As the author of Hebrews states, Jesus' prayer was heard, it was not the Father's will that Jesus be condemned eternally, so the cup passed. God the Father said "yes" to Jesus' petition.

March 31, 2008 6:29 AM  
Blogger Molly said...

I'm really delighted to see your blog, Jim, as I've been studying the same questions. I absolutely agree with you on both these assumptions--I think that God did say yes to the prayer in the garden, and I don't think for a moment that Jesus asked to be spared the cross.
I would add another problematic assumption: that Jesus could have a will different from the Father's will--this idea directly contradicts every statement Jesus made.

My conclusion is different from yours, but I think it's a good one. I believe the answer is found in the psalms and supported by passages in Isaiah, Exodus, and others in the old and new testaments, and it doesn't require any fudging of Jesus' teaching, character, or relationship with the Father as the traditional view does.

I wrote it all out last summer. My argument is pretty long (several pages)--do you want to hear it? I can send you my pdf, or shorten it to post here if you are interested.

June 21, 2008 4:08 AM  

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