In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus agonized in prayer as the hour approached for Him to endure the wrath of God for the sins of His people. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his sermon series in the gospel of Luke and considers what Jesus’ prayer reveals about both His humanity and His deity.
We will continue now with our study of the gospel according to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 22:39–46, which is a record of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
We have heard this poignant account Luke gives us of our Lord’s struggle in the garden of Gethsemane in the final hours of His life. This account is the inspired record of the event, inspired by God, and it is His Word of truth. Please receive it as such and be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father, we hear this account and are observers to the distant past of what our Savior endured for our account. We have precious little understanding of the cost He paid for our redemption. We ask that the Spirit of truth descend upon us, illumine this text for us, and pierce our souls with it. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jesus’ Dramatic Night
This was a night of intense drama. It began innocently enough with Jesus’ instructions to His disciples to prepare and make ready for the celebration of Passover. He already was troubled in His soul. He already was overcome by a profound sense of sorrow, and He said, “I earnestly desire that one more time, one last time, I might eat the Passover with you.” The preparations were made, and the disciples met in the upper room. They celebrated the event, and since then we call it the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
It was a night punctuated by the ominous announcement that someone in that group would betray Jesus. When that person was identified as Judas, Jesus dismissed him summarily and said, “What you have to do, do quickly.” In like manner, Jesus announced to His disciples that even Simon Peter would publicly deny Him, to which Simon vehemently protested, denying that it should ever come to pass. We know better.
It was the night that was the birthday of the Christian church, when Jesus instituted a new covenant in His blood for remission of sins. It was a night of instruction, where Jesus gave the lengthiest discourse we find anywhere in sacred Scripture of the person and work of God the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.
It was also a night of intense prayer. Jesus offered the longest recorded prayer of intercession for His disciples and for us in what is called His High Priestly Prayer. It was a night followed by His movement to the garden of Gethsemane, where He interceded not for us, but for Himself.
It was the night in which He was betrayed with a kiss from His friend, was arrested by men with swords and clubs, and taken away for a kangaroo court and trial before the Jewish authorities, then the Roman authorities. It was a night in which He was mocked, scourged, and tortured; a night in which He was sentenced to execution in the hours to come. This was a very dramatic night in the life of Jesus.
Two Distinct Wills
Jesus, we are told, went to the garden of Gethsemane. He went with His disciples, particularly Peter, James, and John. Then, as we read in the other Gospels, He requested they watch with Him. Then He removed Himself about a stone’s throw distance from His inner circle of disciples and began to pray alone.
In Jesus’ prayer, we find a difficult-to-understand tension between His description of His will and the will of the Father. He said to the Father, “Let this cup pass from Me.” If we reflect upon this question theologically, we might find it difficult to understand. Was Jesus praying to Himself? This was the God-man. How do we understand this discourse?
As long as Jesus had been alive, even from His conception, there had been a perfect unity between His will and the will of the Father. At no time in the history of His earthly ministry had the wills of the Father and the Son ever been in conflict. In fact, the Scriptures teach us that it was the meat and drink of Jesus to do the will of the Father. Yet here, He made a distinction between His will and the Father’s will.
In the seventh century, in Armenia, there arose a very serious heresy called the Monothelite heresy. This heresy taught that in the mystery of the incarnation, in the union between the two natures, the human and the divine, there was only one will. There were two natures, one person, and only one will, a sort of mixture or blend between the divine and the human will. This heresy was in stark contrast to the teaching of the church in earlier years when they faced the heresies of Arianism and later Monophysitism and Nestorianism.
At the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 the church declared that the mystery of the incarnation involved a true unity of two natures, one that was vere homo, truly human, and another vere Deus, truly divine. The two natures were without mixture and confusion, without division or separation, each nature retaining its own attributes. This formulation of our understanding of the person and work of Christ has been mutilated and butchered in every generation since.
It did not take long after Chalcedon until, in the seventh century, the Armenian Christians carried on a Monophysite error by saying that there was only one will, neither human nor divine, but a mixture between the two. The Scriptures tell us plainly that there was not just one will, but two wills. The reason this heresy emerged was because we in the church were so accustomed to seeing the perfect and pure unity between the divine and human will. In this text, however, there was tension.
Let This Cup Pass
Touching His human nature, there is something that Jesus did not want to do. There was a conflict between His desire and the mandate of His Father. He asked permission to be excused from His mission: “Father, let this cup pass from Me. I don’t want to touch it. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to drink it. I know My hour has come, and this is My destiny, My appointment from eternity and the covenant of redemption, but Father, there has to be some other way. Please, let this cup pass.”
I do not think Jesus took a breath before He said, “Nevertheless, not My will—I’ve just expressed My will—but Your will be done.” I do not think there is a chance that, this side of heaven, we will have an exhaustive or comprehensive understanding of this passionate agony and struggle in which Jesus was engaged.
We must ask the question: What was in the cup? Why was Jesus so terrified of the content of that cup? To give us a hint of that, let me read briefly from a passage in Revelation 14:17–20:
Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.
You have heard these words in different form:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
How these words ever became incorporated into a political and military hymn called, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” escapes me altogether. It gives us a clue as to the contents of the cup.
The Unbearable Cup
In the cup were the grapes of wrath, the grapes that had been trampled outside of the city and prepared for consumption. Jesus looked at that cup and its content, and in His heart and will said: “No, let it pass from Me. I don’t want anything to do with that horrible cup.”
Use your imagination. Suppose it was you praying in the garden of Gethsemane, and you faced what Jesus faced, that horrible cup. When I think of being in that situation, I think that if God asked me to put the rim of that cup up against my lip—not to drink it, not to swallow it, just to touch it with my lip—that would be enough to experience a cosmic blast of wrath that would blast me to smithereens. I could not endure its touch, nor could you.
It was not like God said, “Take this cup and put it against your lips.” No. He did not even say, “Jesus, I know how terrible this is, how frightened you must be, but Son, this is Your mission, this is Your duty, and I have to ask You, as My beloved Son, just take a little sip.” No, that was not what the Father was asking, but rather: “Jesus, take this cup. Don’t just sip it, swallow it to its bitter dregs. Ingest it. Let it fill Your stomach, and then Your soul.”
When I was a young man about to be ordained to the gospel ministry over fifty years ago, it was a tradition in the church in which I was ordained that the person being ordained had the privilege of selecting the ordination hymn. The hymn I chose for my ordination was a somewhat obscure hymn called, “‘Tis Midnight and on Olive’s Brow.” Some of you may have heard it and know it; most of you probably do not. It describes the lonely venture into the garden, where the suffering Savior prayed alone.
The hymn goes on through a few verses that are quite moving. Then it comes to one sentence that—to this day—jars, startles, and troubles me theologically. It says that the suffering Savior “is not forsaken by His God.” I thought: “What? Have you not read the Scriptures? What do you mean that the suffering Savior is not forsaken by His God?”
What was in the cup? It was the curse of God. It was the wrath of God. It was His absolute forsakenness that Jesus had to experience for your salvation and for mine. Even so, He cried from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He was not just quoting poetry from Psalm 22; He was forsaken. Nothing less would do. Hymns are wonderful things, but sometimes they can be conveyors of awful heresy, and I chose one for my ordination.
Luke also tells us that when Jesus knelt to the ground, He began to sweat profusely. The sweat was so intense that Luke says it was like weighty drops of blood falling to the ground. One little detail later in the text is that after Peter followed Jesus at a distance and was gathered with spectators outside the judgment hall where the trial of Jesus was taking place, those who were gathered built a fire. Why? Because it was cold that night.
As cold as it was out there, Jesus was not running. He was not actively involved in any exercise that would produce this sweat other than the exercise of being subjected to the will of the Father in light of the cross. He was sweating it out so profusely that it says He sweat drops of blood. That may simply be a metaphor, but like Jonathan Edwards, I believe that Jesus really did sweat blood, that His agony was so intense that as He concentrated on this vision, the capillaries in His forehead burst and streams of blood began to flow down His face.
In just a few hours, those who would judge and mock Jesus placed a crown of thorns upon His head that would pierce His skull again. The pain of those thorns was not worthy to be compared with the pain of the sweat He endured as He faced that cup set in front of Him.
We live in a time where we find it difficult to understand what Jesus was going through, for many reasons. Do you know what I think is the main reason why we struggle with this text? We do not believe in the wrath of God. It does not bother us. We think: “Maybe if Jesus would have just taken a drive up I-4, He would have seen the billboard that says, ‘God is not angry.’ He could have read that billboard and said: ‘Why am I sweating? I might as well go take a nap or go on vacation.’”
Beloved, there is nothing more real or terrifying than the wrath of God, and do not think for a moment that even Jesus’ work on the cross ended the wrath of God forever. The salvation He won for us is salvation from what? From the wrath that is to come, and it will come. If your life is not hidden in Jesus Christ, it will come upon you. You will drink that cup with no assistance from Jesus.
People say to me, “I don’t need Jesus.” I respond: “Are you crazy? If you want to drink that cup by yourself, go ahead. If you want to stand naked someday before the wrath of almighty God, be my guest, but you’re not thinking; you’re denying reality.”
Three times Jesus went over to see His disciples in the middle of this prayer. Every time He went over there, they were sound asleep. It had been a busy night. They were tired. They were sorrowful. Sometimes sorrow is a weighty drug, a soporific that makes us want to retire to our beds and go to sleep.
Jesus did not say to the disciples, “Please watch over Me.” He said, “Please watch with Me.” The disciples could not do it. They fell asleep. Jesus was puzzled, and He said to them: “Can’t you watch with Me one hour? I’m not asking you to drink the cup. I’m not asking you to carry My cross. I’m not asking you to give your life for the sins of other people. All I wanted you to do was to watch with Me for one hour.” They could not do it.
Beloved, it was not like no one was watching over Jesus. We are told in this text that at one point in His prayer, while the disciples were asleep, an angel appeared and ministered to Him. There was only mention of one angel, but do you think there was only one angel there?
Jesus even said, at the time of His execution: “If I want to, I can give the nod, I can say the word, and there’s a heavenly host up there, invisible to your eyes, Herod; invisible to your eyes, Pilate; invisible to your eyes, centurion. There is a panoply of a heavenly host staring at this very moment, observing everything that is taking place, listening to every word that I utter or is spoken to Me.”
The angels watched, and they waited. At the Lord of Hosts’ command, they watched Him die and drink the cup to its final dregs. They watched Him be carried to the tomb and placed there for a while, until the Father shook His head: “Get that stone out of the way.” They came and rolled the stone away and set Him free, because it was impossible for death to hold Him or the grapes of wrath to destroy Him.
The disciples and the angels together said: “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He’s trampled out the vintage where the grapes of wrath were stored.” He has taken the sickle to that wrath for you, if you believe it.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.