32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.”35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. 41 And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

Mark 14:32-42

Gethsemane: Its Meaning and Significance

Among all the various narrative units in the Gospels, few are more riveting than Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42). The contrast between the life of the garden and the darkness of impeding death is encapsulated in the very name Gethsemane. A compound of gat, which means “a place for pressing oil (or wine)” and shemanim, which means “oils,” Gethsemane was located on the slope of the Mount of Olives. During Jesus’ lifetime, heavy stone slabs pressed olives and squeezed the olive oil out of the pulp, which was collected in clay jars.[1] The image of olive oil in a garden was highly significant for the Jewish imagination. Hebraic works such as 2 Enoch and Ben Sira reimagined the Tree of Life as an olive tree (see 2 Enoch 8:3-4; Ben Sira 24:15).[2] And yet, the ‘pressing’ significance of Gethsemane suggests that the weight of the sins of the world are pressing upon Jesus, crushing him as prophesied in Gen 3:15. This perhaps explains Luke’s observation that Christ’s sweat became as drops of blood falling on the earth (22:44). While the Miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11) was the occasion for water turning into wine in anticipation of the rivers of the new creation (Joel 3:18), Gethsemane was the occasion for the first of the cursings in Egypt to come upon Jesus.

The Structuring Role of Prayer

What is particularly striking about this passage in Mark 14 is the way in which it is structured by and through prayer. Three times Jesus goes to the Father in prayer, in v.35, in v. 39, and implied in v. 41 (“He came to them a third time”). Moreover, we see images of the Trinity manifested through prayer. The Son goes to the Father in prayer, and they are clearly distinct in terms of their roles in redemption. A church father, Metropolitan Philaret, spoke of “The Love of the Father crucifying, the love of the Son crucified, and the love of the Holy Spirit triumphant in the invincible power of the cross.” So the church has affirmed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct in terms of their relationship with one another, and this relationship is captured over and over again through the act of prayer.[3]

Prayer is thus the essence of this passage, and it organizes the flow of events in at least three ways:

First, in v. 34 Jesus alludes to a number of Psalm passages, such as Pss 41 and 42, which are very close in wording: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation.” These laments involve what are called ‘vows to praise,’ chief of which is Psalm 22 (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”), especially vv. 22-31. So Jesus is beginning a series of prayers that involve the laments of Israel but always end with vows to praise, thus affirming that God always delivers those who cry out to him.

Secondly, we see the posture of prayer used by Christ. In v. 35, we read that “he fell to the ground.” This is in contrast to Jesus’ other prayer postures where he looks up when he prays (Mark 6:41; 7:34; 11:25). It does appear to indicate distress; the same verb (piptō) is used in Mark 9:20 for when the demon-possessed man “falls to the ground” convulsing in pain and distress. That Jesus asks the hour and the cup to be passed should not indicate that he is afraid of death. Over and over he has been telling his disciples that he is voluntarily going to his death. Instead, he appears overwhelmed by the weight of what he is about to do: bearing the sins of the world. Joel Marcus writes: “Jesus is then engaged not in a personal confrontation with his own death but in eschatological warfare against the cosmic forces of evil, and his anguish is part of an ongoing battle for the salvation of the world.”[4]

Thirdly, a number of scholars see the Lord’s Prayer behind this narrative. For example, in v. 36, Jesus calls God ‘Abba, Father,’ and then prays that God’s will be done. In v. 38, he calls on Peter to pray “that you may not be led into temptation.” And deliverance from the presence of the evil one (Satan) is subtle and implied; we have already seen Satan as the chief antagonist towards Jesus’ work in Mark 1:13 and 4:14 (the parable of the sower) and the various exorcisms; these narrative units combine to show that Jesus is constantly combatting the devil who is putting obstacles in front of his ministry.

Christ’s Great Tribulation

The significance of Christ’s prayer appears when we understand it against the backdrop of what is known as the Markan Apocalypse in chapter 13. There, in 13:36, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be alert lest the master of the house comes and finds them asleep. Then in Mark 14:37-38, we see Jesus imploring his disciples to be alert, only to come back and find them asleep. In Mark 13, Christ references temporal indicators: “but of that day or hour” (13:32), and then declares the “hour is at hand” in 14:41.

So, Chapter 13 is the eschatological drama of the world, while Mark 14 is the eschatological drama of Jesus. Chapter 13 involves the end of the old world in time and space while chapter 14 centers the end of that old world in Christ himself. What is happening to Christ in his passion is what is going to be happening to this world.

Thus, we might appreciate how Jesus himself acts throughout this passage. Historically speaking, a major concern in the history of interpretation is that Christ appears way too human here; he looks embarrassingly weak. Notice, for example, how different Jesus appears in this passage than say in Mark 4, where he’s the one sleeping and his disciples are freaking out.

Now, why would this be so concerning for the early church? Do you remember the Arian controversy? The Arians believed the Son to be the first and foremost among God’s creation, but he was not himself God. They appear to have appealed to Christ’s despair in the Garden of Gethsemane as proof. Regarding this passage, Ambrose of Milan (339-97) writes: “Do not open your ears to those treacherous people [Arians] who suggest that it was out of infirmity that the son of God prayed, as though he had to ask for something that he was powerless to achieve himself.”

The Power of Prayer: Turning Resignation into Resolve

Rather, Christ reveals to us what appears to be the true nature of the Lord’s Prayer. It is through the Lord’s Prayer that we are able to fulfill his command to be watchful and alert. In other words, being watchful and alert means being in prayer. In the darkest moment of his life, the prayer that Jesus gave to us in the Sermon on the Mount becomes his own, and it is what sustains him through the agony of Gethsemane.

I can’t help but think that as part of the last acts of his humanity prior to his death, Jesus modeled for us how we are to withstand our own Gethsemanes. We of course are all familiar with what happened on September 11, 2001. Two airplanes seized by terrorists plunged into both towers of the World Trade Center while another crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane was also hijacked, but a group of passengers rose up and overwhelmed the terrorists before the plane ditched into the ground in field in rural Pennsylvania. It never reached its target. The heroics of the passengers are known because one of those men, Todd Beamer, a young husband and father, called an operator of GTE, the company that provided telephone service for United Airline flights. Not wanting to worry his wife, he spoke with the operator, Lisa Jefferson, for 13 minutes, and told her of what they planned to do. But just before he took on the terrorists, Todd and Lisa together recited the Lord’s Prayer.

This was Todd’s Gethsemane; our Lord’s prayer became his own.

The Garden of Gethsemane is a powerfully intense scene of Christ preparing to take the weight of the world upon himself. But it is also a magnificent testimony to the power of prayer and its centrality for the Christian life. For in it we see how Jesus moves from turmoil to resolve, standing resolute for what lies ahead, knowing that even in the darkest moments of life, he was at the center of God’s will.

***

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[1] https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/gethsemane-and-the-olive-press.

[2] G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 325 n.41.

[3] Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 24.

[4] Cited in Karl Olav Sandnes, Early Christian Discourses on Jesus’ Prayer at Gethsemane: Courageous, Committed, Cowardly? (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 127.

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