“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will,” prays Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Many sermons and commentaries take Jesus’ prayer to be a prayer to the Father to avoid the cross, “if it is possible.” This displays his true humanity. After all, the thought goes, which of us when faced with the excruciating trial of the cross and separation from God would not pray the same prayer?
To be sure, I accept Jesus as fully human (as well as fully divine). I have no desire to minimize his humanity. But I don’t think that Jesus’ humanity rides on reading the Gethsemane passages as Jesus asking to escape the cross and God the Father answering with a “no.”
There are a couple of reasons for my skepticism. First is that an early commentator, no less than the author of the book of Hebrews, suggests that the Father answered Jesus’ Gethsemane prayers in the affirmative: “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.”
The author of Hebrews must be mistaken if the common take on Jesus’ Gethsemane prayers is correct, and Jesus asked to be spared the cross. After all, the author writes that God “heard” Jesus’ prayer. Yet Jesus went to the cross and in fact died.
The author of Hebrews suggests another reading of Jesus’ prayer, however, a reading in which the Father responds in the affirmative to his prayer, thereby “sav[ing] him from death,” even though Jesus went to the cross and died. The author of Hebrews does not have Jesus asking God the Father to be spared from the cross. Rather the author has Jesus’ prayer to be a request to be resurrected after dying on the cross. And that prayer the Father answers with a dramatic affirmative.
Do the Gospels support the reading of Hebrews’ author? I want to return to the texts to see if we can read them likewise. Before considering them, though, I want to note a couple of other items that would also make it problematic to read Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane as a request to escape the cross.
For example, in the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus tells the disciples that he “must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things . . . and be killed, and be raised up on the third day,” Peter takes him aside and rebukes him, wanting instead that God would be “merciful” to him. To this benign wish, Jesus responds to Peter with the bracing retort, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Implicit in Peter’s desire for mercy is that Jesus would avoid the cross, and in that very desire, according to Jesus’ response, is satanic temptation. Yet this common reading of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane would have Jesus asking God the Father for the same thing that he rebuked Peter for wishing.
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.” N. T. Wright’s complaints about Christians too easily skipping from Jesus’ birth to his death not withstanding, Jesus basically says, “How can I pray to be saved from this hour, since this hour is the purpose for which I came?”
While this is in John’s Gospel and not in the synoptics, the conventional view requires Jesus several hours later to ask the Father what he says in John that he would not ask the Father.
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?’”
But given these texts, is there a reasonable way to understand Jesus’ petitions in the garden that is consistent with the commentary in the book of Hebrews and the upshot of these other texts?
As I mentioned, I think the author of Hebrews orients us to the resurrection in writing that Jesus prayed to “the one able to save him from death” and that Jesus was “heard because of his piety.” The salvation from death that the author writes of in this passage is salvation from eternal death; the salvation from death is not that Jesus wouldn’t die at all, but that he would be brought back to life after he dies.
How would this affect how we read these Gethsemane accounts in the synoptic Gospels? Jesus’ prayer that the cup pass away would not a prayer that he not drink of the cup at all. Rather, it is a prayer that he not drink of the cup eternally—i.e., that he would be resurrected after the cross.
The cup is the cup of judgment (recall the cup of God’s wrath in Revelation).
An interpretation consistent with the claim of the author of Hebrews—that Jesus was not asking to avoid the cup altogether—would seem to be suggested in Matthew’s account, which reports that Jesus prays, “My father, if [or perhaps “since”] this cannot pass away until I drink it, your will be done.”
This is a prayer that the cup of judgment pass away after Jesus drinks it. It is a prayer not to have to drink of the cup forever; it is not a prayer to avoid the cup altogether.
I don’t think that praying this prayer makes Jesus any less human. If God was going to reckon me as very sin, curse, and death, I’d certainly be praying that the judgment not continue eternally. The thing is, however, that on this reading, Jesus is willing to undergo eternal separation from his Father to save his people, if that in fact is his Father’s will. But the Father did not desire it. Instead, Jesus tasted death for all humanity, then was resurrected. The Father said “yes” to Jesus’ prayer, and the cup passed away.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.