According to ancient Jewish sources, the Passover meal could only be eaten until midnight. (Tosefta, Pesahim 5:13) So it may have been around midnight that Jesus and the apostles sang the concluding portion of the Hallel (possibly Psalms 115 through 118) and then headed for the Mount of Olives. Leaving Jerusalem, they descended to the Kidron valley, crossed it, and then ascended the western slope of the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:30, 36; Mark 14:26; John 18:1) Although knowing that he would be betrayed, Jesus did not alter his customary routine. (Luke 22:39)
Arriving at a place called Gethsemane, he and the apostles entered a garden. After telling the others to seat themselves, probably near the area where they entered, Jesus had Peter, James, and John accompany him to a more distant location in the garden where he intended to pray. It may have been before leaving the other apostles behind that he told them to pray in order not succumb to temptation. In view of his earlier comments that all of them would be stumbled on his account, they may have understood that the temptation pertained to circumstances that might induce them to disown him. (Matthew 26:36, 37; Mark 14:32, 33; Luke 22:40; see the Notes section for other comments.)
It may have been close to one o’clock in the morning when Jesus left for a place to pray, and the apostles would have been very tired. Upon becoming distressed and experiencing an inner upheaval, Jesus said to Peter, James, and John, “My soul is [I myself am] greatly distressed, [even] to death. Stay here and remain awake with me.” He then walked on a little farther (“a stone’s throw” or the distance one might customarily toss a stone), dropped to his knees, and prostrated himself, with his face touching the ground. He then began to pray. (Matthew 26:38, 39; Mark 14:34, 35; Luke 22:41)
Earlier that night, Jesus had told the apostles that the ruler of the world would be coming. (John 14:30) The great distress that Jesus experienced in the garden and the intensity of his repeated prayer suggest that he was then subjected to a severe mental assault from the powers of darkness. This was the culminating hour for the devil to try to sway him from carrying out his Father’s will respecting the “cup” or the portion meant for him. For Jesus to partake from that “cup” would mean that he would be viciously abused, humiliated, tortured, and die an excruciating death that would portray him as a vile criminal.
He knew that this was his Father’s arrangement for reconciling humans to himself. It would reveal the depth of his Father’s love for humankind. The Father thereby demonstrated that he so much wanted them to be his children that he did not even spare his own Son to reach their deepest emotions, appealing to them to respond in faith or unqualified trust to his way for having their sins forgiven. For those who would put faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death for them, the recognition of the greatness of the Father’s love would be beyond compare. They would deeply feel that the Father and his Son did this for them personally in expression of their love.
At the same time, the suffering that Jesus experienced would serve to reveal the seriousness of sin. Flawed humans tend to have a dulled sense for what is wrong or hurtful and are prone to justify attitudes, words, or actions that are morally corrupt.
Nothing less than the greatest sacrifice could accomplish what was essential to bring sinful humans into a proper family relationship with the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Upon coming to recognize sin in all its hideousness and the greatness of divine love, sinful humans would be able to respond with the kind of faith or trust that our heavenly Father desires his approved children to have.
The reconciliation of humans with the Father was diametrically opposed to the devil’s aim. If there had been another way in which Jesus would have been able to accomplish his Father’s purpose, he would have preferred that. If it had been possible, he would have wanted the horrific “hour” or time to pass from him. His prayer, though, indicated that he did not yield to any assault from the powers of darkness. “Abba, Father,” he prayed, “all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me, but not what I want but what you [want].” (Mark 14:35, 36; see the Notes section regarding Matthew 26:39 and Luke 22:42.) Jesus’ words reflected complete submission to his Father’s will for him.
He then rose and went to the place where the disciples were. Finding them asleep, he directed his words to Peter, “Simon, are you sleeping? Were you not able to stay awake one hour [probably meaning a short time]?” Addressing all three apostles, Jesus continued, “Stay awake and pray, that you do not come into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:37, 38) In “spirit,” or in their desired inclination under the circumstances, the apostles would have wanted to remain awake, but the limitations their human frailty imposed on them made this impossible. (Matthew 26:40, 41)
After going away from them, Jesus prayed a second time, “My Father, if this cannot pass [from me] unless I drink it [partake of the portion that had been determined for him], your will take place.” (Matthew 26:42; Mark 14:39) When returning to the three apostles, he again found them asleep. They could not keep their eyes open (literally, “their eyes were weighed down” or “heavy”). (Matthew 26:43) In their sleepy state, they were in no position to answer or to respond to Jesus. (Mark 14:40) After going away from them, he prayed a third time that his Father’s will to be done. (Matthew 26:44)
According to numerous manuscripts, Luke 22:43 relates that an angel or messenger from heaven (not a human messenger) came to strengthen Jesus. Regarding his praying, Luke 22:44 says, “And having come to be in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling upon the ground.” If preserving an original account (despite being missing in the oldest extant manuscripts [late second-century or early third-century P75, probably also third-century P69, fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, and a corrector’s reading of fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus]), the incident about the angel is probably to be associated with Jesus’ third prayer. The reference to the sweat may mean that the perspiration flowed from his forehead like drops of blood from a cut. Another possibility is that the extreme emotional stress to which Jesus had been subjected caused blood to seep through his skin and come to be mingled with his sweat. This, however, seems less likely, as it happens rarely and, in the dark, discolored sweat could not have been distinguished from the usual perspiration.
When Jesus approached the apostles for the third time, they were still asleep. His words to them about sleeping and resting indicated that, at this critical juncture, they needed to be awake. The “hour” or time had arrived for the Son of Man to be delivered into the hands of sinners. (Matthew 26:45; Mark 14:41) According to Luke 22:45, sorrow or distress contributed to the sleepy state of the apostles. (See the Notes section regarding Luke 22:46.) This sadness appears to have been because Jesus told them earlier about his leaving them. (John 16:6, 7)
As the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, was about to arrive with an armed crowd who had come to seize him, Jesus said to Peter, James, and John, “Rise, let us go. See! The one betraying me is approaching.” (Matthew 26:46; Mark 14:42) Based on the narrative in John chapter 18, this did not mean that Jesus planned to escape, leaving and, as on earlier occasions when his life was in danger, concealing himself. His prayer had been answered. Through loyal submission to his Father’s will, he had defeated the powers of darkness. So he would “go,” willingly and courageously facing those who had come to arrest him.
Luke chapter 22 does not mention that Jesus took only Peter, James, and John with him when setting out for a place to pray. Therefore, it is not certain whether the words of Luke 22:40 about praying so as to not enter into temptation were directed to the apostles whom he told to seat themselves or to Peter, James, and John. In Luke 22:46, the thought regarding praying to avoid succumbing to temptation is repeated, “Rise, pray, that you do not enter into temptation.” This appears to relate to the third time Jesus found Peter, James, and John asleep. The condensed nature of Luke’s account, however, does not make it possible to be certain about which time it was and to whom the words were directed (either to Peter, James, and John, to all the apostles, or to the apostles who were situated closer to the garden entrance).
Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, and Luke 22:42 express the thoughts of Jesus’ prayer, but the wording is not identical. This is understandable, for the actual words would not have been spoken in Greek. For Matthew 26:39, manuscripts either start the prayer with “My Father” or “Father” and then continue, “Take this cup from me; yet not as I want but as you want.” Luke 22:42 reads, “Father, if you wish, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours come to pass.”