Formations 03.22.2015: In the Garden

Psalm 141; Mark 14:32-42

Master of the View of Sainte-Gudule, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

Master of the View of Sainte-Gudule, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

In “a place called Gethsemane” (v. 32), Jesus prayed to be spared the agonizing death he knew was coming to him. In his prayer, he confessed faith in a God who could do anything: “for you all things are possible” (v. 36). At the same time, he recognized that other factors were at play. Therefore his prayer ends with an act of personal commitment: “However—not what I want but what you want” (v. 36). He prayed this way three times while his most faithful followers fell asleep.

I expect all of us can identify with the paradox of Jesus’ prayer. We acknowledge that all things are possible for God, and yet sometimes it seems God chooses not to act—at least not in the ways we were hoping for. What does it mean to express our faith that all things are possible to God at the bedside of a dying loved one or in the throes of family strife? What does it mean in such times to embrace God’s will even when it is at odds with what we would like to happen?


• Have you ever found yourself praying earnestly for something even if you knew it wasn’t likely to happen? How did this realization shape your prayer?
• In what sense can we say that God did indeed hear and respond to Jesus’ prayer?
• What comfort can we take from this story when our own prayers are filled with fear and anguish?

Reference Shelf

A Place and an Event

In the Christian tradition, Gethsemane connotes more than a place; it also alludes to an event. The event is one in which Jesus, alone, wrestles at the depth of his being with issues of ultimate significance for his own future and that of his followers….

The momentous events at Gethsemane caught the attention and imagination of those who described the events and those who have seriously reflected on them since. Some ancient manuscripts include at Luke 22:44, “and being in an agony he prayed…his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” Most likely the writer of Hebrews had the Gethsemane event in mind in certain passages (cf. 5:7-8). Attempts to identify the location have not been universally accepted. One site has been identified as Gethsemane since the fifth century because the olive trees there are so old; however, they do not go back to the first century. In fact, Josephus noted that all the trees in the vicinity of Jerusalem were destroyed during the siege of Titus (70 C.E.).

Robert O. Byrd, “Gethsemane ,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 328.

The Prayer in Gethsemane

Jesus’ action, leaving first the larger group of disciples and then the three closest to him in order to pray alone, vividly dramatizes the isolation of his passion. The disciples will abandon him, and as he dies Jesus will cry, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (15:34). Similarly, “he threw himself on the ground” gives action to Mark’s description that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated” (14:33) and Jesus’ report that he was “deeply grieved, even to death” (14:34). Characteristically, the other evangelists soften this stark image. Matthew echoes biblical language by saying Jesus “fell on his face” (obscured by the NRSV translation; cf. Gen 17:3; Lev 9:24; Num 14:5; 16:4), and Luke says Jesus “knelt down, and prayed” (Luke 22:41).

Jesus’ prayer is reported both indirectly and directly with the metaphors of the hour and the cup being used synonymously for Jesus’ passion. Both the indirect quotation and the direct quotation refer to what is “possible,” a word that resonates with earlier references in Mark. In fact, the verb “to be able” (dynamai) occurs thirty-three times in Mark, and the adjective “possible” (dynatos) occurs five times. The father of the epileptic boy asked Jesus to help him “if you are able” (9:22), to which Jesus responded, “If you are able!—all things can be done for the one who believes” (9:23). Later, when the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus admonished them, “for God all things are possible” (10:27). In the context of Jesus’ prayer, it was not a question of God’s power but of the constraints bearing upon the realization of God’s redemptive purposes….

Verse 36 reports Jesus’ prayer in direct quotation, and Jesus’ appeal is more urgent and forceful than the narrator’s summary of it in the previous verse. The prayer has four parts: (1) an invocation, (2) a confession of God’s sovereign power, (3) a petition for deliverance, and (4) a statement of submission to God’s will. Each merits close attention. The confession and the petition essentially repeat the summary of Jesus’ prayer in v. 35, while the invocation and the statement of submission are new….

In contrast to the conditional statement in the indirect discourse of v. 35, Jesus categorically asserts God’s sovereign power: “for you all things are possible.” Jesus’ petition for deliverance from his passion is based on the clear conviction that God is in complete control of his destiny. Jesus turns to God in prayer because he knows God can change the course of events. Whether God does so or not does not raise any question about God’s power, God’s redemptive purpose, or God’s merciful love. Jesus will submit to whatever God determines.

Almost as an extension of Jesus’ confession
of God’s power, he pleads, “remove this cup
 from me.” See the commentary on the cup of 
suffering in 10:38-39. The metaphor of the
 cup of suffering or punishment is common
in the prophets (Pss 11:6; 75:8; Jer 25:15-28;
 Lam 4:21; Ezek 23:32-34). Jesus was asking no more than God had done on other occasions, as is evident from Isaiah 55:21, “Thus says your Sovereign, the LORD,… See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; you shall drink no more from the bowl of my wrath.” The metaphor of the cup is synonymous with the metaphor of the hour in v. 35, but instead of asking that it “pass” from him, Jesus’ petition is for God’s direct intervention: “remove” this cup! Jesus has already given the cup to his disciples (14:23), however, so his petition stands in tension with his knowledge of what is about to happen.

R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 501–503.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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