Did Jesus Desire To Escape The Cross?
By Tim Haile
In the garden of Gethsemane, immediately before His arrest, Jesus prayed to the Father, "Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but thy will be done" (Matthew 26:39). For what was Jesus praying? Was He praying for deliverance from the cross? Some argue that He was. They tell us that Jesus strongly desired to escape His impending death on the cross. They argue that since Jesus distinguished the Fatherís will from His own will, then He must have been seeking to avoid doing the Fatherís will. However, this was not the case at all. There was no conflict of wills in the garden. Jesus and the Father have always shared perfect unity (John 10:30), and Jesus always did the Father's will (John 8:29; 4:34). There was no fracturing of the Godhood. This prayer does not reflect a potential for sin, error and rebellion on the part of Jesus. It merely reflects that, outside of the realm of specific revelation and divine planning, God has various options available to Him in the performance of His will. This is the realm of "secret things" (Deut. 29:29), and we are not at liberty to tread there. For example, we may not know exactly what it was that so troubled Jesus in the garden, but we do know that Jesus was not "beside Himself" with fearful anxiety. We know that He was not praying to avoid doing the very thing He came to the earth to do, that is, die on the cross! We must look for another explanation.
What About The Contrast Of "Wills"?
The "thy will" -- "my will" distinction merely reflects the fact that, outside of the realm of specific revelation and planning, there was more than one way for Jesus to accomplish His work. For example, the Old Testament taught that Jesus would experience grief, sorrow, oppression and affliction (Isa. 53:4,7), but how much, and for how long? Neither was it specified in prophecy or by Jesus Himself, just how long the Lordís body would survive on the cross. Scripture revealed how long Jesus would be dead, but not how long He would be alive. The average man lived for about 3-4 days, yet Jesus lasted for only a few hours. He had already died by the time the soldiers got to Him to brake His legs (John 19:33). Why did Jesus die so quickly? Why did He spend such a comparatively short time on the cross? The only answer that can be safely given is that God willed it to be so. While in the garden, Jesus prayed the same words in 3 separate prayers (Matt. 26:44). This means that in each prayer, He prayed that the Father's will might be done. Regardless of what it was that Jesus prayed for, His attitude toward the Father was always to "finish His work" (Jn. 4:34). There was no potential for conflict between Jesus and the Father. The only sense, in which the garden prayer suggests a difference in wills, is that God had two different ways of accomplishing the same purpose! This prayer did not involve the possibility of divine failure as some are suggesting. It was a prayer for physical strength.
We know that even though His spirit remained fully divine (Matt. 1:23; 1 Tim. 3:16), Jesus had accepted the physical limitations of the human body. In this area of His "flesh and blood" existence, Jesus "put His trust" in the Father (Hebrews 2:13-14). The Lordís garden prayer was a prayer for physical help. Jesus relied upon the Fatherís help to fulfill His ministry. This would not be the first time such physical help was provided. Matthew 4:11 tells us that the angels ministered to Jesus after the wilderness temptations. Two simple facts tell us that the Father provided this type of help in response to Lord's garden prayer. One, Luke 22:43 tells us that immediately following the Lord's prayer, "An angel appeared from heaven, strengthening Him." Two, all three of the synoptic gospels depict Jesus as completely calm and ready to meet His enemies after rising from the third prayer (Matt. 26:45-46; Mk. 14:42; Lk. 22:45-ff). This proves that, whatever it was that Jesus prayed for in the garden, He felt the benefits of the Father's answer and He was now ready to proceed with His mission.
When contemplating a difficult passage, one should always begin his study with the facts he knows. He must first gather information from the clearest passages on the subject, then move on to the more difficult ones. This process allows one to approach the more difficult passages from a clearer perspective.
Given the variety of views of this passage, and the tendency for people to base their conclusions on emotions and personalities rather than true conviction, I urge the reader to weigh the arguments in this article very carefully. Let us look for an explanation of this passage that allows for scriptural harmony. Whether the subject is that of the nature and person of Christ, or any other subject on which God has spoken, we are obligated to believe what God says, and we are limited to conclusions which allow for scriptural harmony of all related passages. Let us examine some of the clear and certain facts relating to Jesus' view of the cross.
Some Things We Know For Sure
We know that while in the garden, and immediately before the prayer, Jesus told the apostles, "Tonight all of you will be offended at me, as it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' After I have been raised, I will go before you into Galilee" (Matthew 26:31-32). Notice the certainty with which Jesus spoke. He foresaw His arrest, death, resurrection and the betrayal of the disciples. He knew and predicted everything that was about to take place. He knew what He would do and He had even looked into the choices that the apostles would make. Those who argue that Jesus' garden prayer was a prayer for deliverance from the cross must view Jesus the same way they do fallible Peter. Peter had made the claim, "Though all men forsake you, I will never be offended" (Matt. 26:33). We later read that Peter did forsake Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). Was Jesus no different than Peter? Did He make a claim and then seek to dishonor it? No, Jesus' garden prayer harmonized with everything He had said previously. There was no conflict or contradiction.
We know that shortly after the garden prayer, Jesus rebuked Peter when he attempted to save Jesus from being arrested. Jesus told him, "Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11). If the Lordís garden prayer was an effort to avoid the cross, then Jesus condemned Peter for doing the same thing He had done! John had earlier recorded the Lordís words, "Now is my soul troubled and what shall I say? Father save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour" (John 12:27). We learn that: (1) Jesus did not want Peter, or anyone else, interfering with His mission, and (2) dying on the cross was exactly what Jesus came to the earth to do! This was His "cause" for coming to the earth. Jesus did not come to the earth to die on the cross, and then turn around and pray for deliverance from that cross! He did not pray to avoid the cross, then turn around and condemn Peter for helping Him avoid the cross! Infallible God is not inconsistent. He does not contradict Himself. Any position on any passage that makes God a hypocrite is certainly a false position.
We know that some time before the garden prayer, Jesus strongly rebuked Peter for suggesting that Jesus would not die on the cross. Matthew tells us of the time when Jesus "began to show unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day" (Matthew 16:21). Peter responded, "Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee." Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men" (Vs. 22-23). As a result of Peterís suggestion that Jesus not die, Jesus accused Peter of thinking and acting like Satan. This is one of the strongest rebukes the Lord ever made. If Jesusí garden prayer was an earnest request to avoid the cross, how was Peterís expression any different? If Peter were Satan for stating his desire that Jesus not die, wouldnít Jesus have also been Satan if His garden prayer was that He not die? Where is the consistency in such a view? Was it right for Jesus to condemn Peter for suggesting that Jesus would not die, and then turn around and pray for the very thing Peter suggested? The answer is simple. Jesusí garden prayer was not a prayer to avoid death on the cross. It was for an entirely different purpose.
We also know that whatever Jesus prayed for in the garden, His prayer was answered! Hebrews 5:7 says, "In the days of His flesh He brought forth petitions and pleas with loud crying and tears to the one who could save Him from death, and he was heard because of His reverence." This passage plainly states that Jesus was "heard." In fact, the Father "always" heard Christ when He prayed (John 11:41-42). A prayer that is heard is a prayer that is answered (Lk. 1:13; 1 Jn. 5:14-15; Jn. 9:31). In John 11:41-42, Jesus provides us with insight into the closeness of His relationship with the Father. He said that the Father always heard Him when He prayed. The Psalm 22 prophecy that was based upon Davidís type of Christ also teaches that Jesus' prayer was "heard" (Ps. 22:24). If the garden prayer was a prayer to avoid the cross, and since Hebrews 5:7 states that the prayer was answered, then one would have to conclude that Jesus did not die on the cross! Since this conclusion contradicts the plain testimony of other passages, one is forced to reconsider the premises from which it was inferred. The scripture cannot be broken (Jn. 10:35).
However, someone may ask, "What death does Hebrews 5:7 refer to? Is it not the death on the cross?" The answer is no. As F.W. Farrar states in the Cambridge Greek New Testament for Schools and Colleges, this death refers to the deadly anguish that Jesus experienced in the garden. His sweat was like "great drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44). Jesus' physical body was suffering the affects of fatigue, stress and strain. In accepting His role in the form of a servant, Jesus accepted the physical limitations of the human body. He had, in a sense, tied His own hands with regard to His physical strength. His work as the Lamb compelled Him to accept whatever physical consequences may come in the performance of His sacrificial work. Jesus refused to use His own divine powers to solve the problem of His physical weakness. This explains His prayer to the Father. He relied upon the Father's help, and as we have already seen, this is exactly what was given (Lk 22:43). His prayer was answered. Those who say that Jesus prayed for deliverance from the cross, are forced to say that Jesus' prayer was not answered! The Bible says it was.
What Does the Expression "Pass Away" Mean?
The most obvious fact about this expression is that a thing cannot "pass away" if it has never existed in the first place. Jesus said, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." How will the universe pass away? Hebrews 1:10-12 tells us that it will grow old and Jesus will fold it up as one folds up a garment. 2 Peter 3:10 tells us that the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat... Notice that in order for the universe to "pass away" it had to first exist. In order for a generation to pass it had to have first lived (Matt. 24:34). In order for a man to "pass away" he had to first live. In like manner, the Lord's "cup" had to be an existing condition for it to be able to "pass."
W.E. Vine defines this particular Greek word (parerchomai) as, "to come or go; to pass or pass by." The best explanation of the expression "let this cup pass" in Matthew 26:39 and Luke 22:42 is found in the inspired commentary of Mark's account of the same prayer. The KJV tells us that Jesus prayed that, "if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him" (Mark 14:35). The same word is found in Matthew 14:15 where it says, "the time is now past." Luke also used this word in Acts 27:9 when he wrote, "Now when much time was spent." In the garden prayer, Jesus prayed for the Father to help Him get through His cup of agony and that is precisely what the Father helped Him do. As we have already observed, the prayer was answered, the cup passed away.
Having foreseen His future work, and even telling about it hundreds of years in advance, Jesus had sure and certain knowledge that He would die on the cross. Both David's type of Christ in Psalm 22, and the prophet's words in Zechariah 12:10, represent Jesus using first person language to tell the world what He would come to the earth to do. Zechariah recorded the Lord's words, "They will look upon me, the one whom they have pierced." Jesus' fulfillment of these passages was more certain than the universe itself (Lk. 16:17). In the garden prayer, Jesus was not looking for a way to avoid the cross, as some are teaching. He was praying for successful accomplishment. Jesus prayed for the passing of the hour of His grief, and that is exactly what happened. His prayer was answered. The Father provided both the strength (Luke 22:43) and the physical support (Luke 23:26) that Jesus needed to succeed in His mission.
Some Observations About The Passing Of The Cup
Various views are held concerning the "cup" of the garden prayer. Some say it represents the cross. Some say it represents the garden agony. Some say it represents the entire spectrum of the Lord's suffering all the way from the garden through the cross. Others say this cup is not clearly defined and explained in scripture, and that we really have no idea what Jesus prayed for. It is not the intent of this article to answer all of the questions relating to this subject. The primary purpose of this article is to refute the false notion that Jesus' garden prayer was a prayer with disobedient intent.
Some say that the Lord's garden prayer was a prayer to avoid the cross, but that the prayer only reflected the fears and desires of the "human side" of Jesus. They maintain that the "divine side" wanted to continue with the mission while the "human side" wanted to abort. I call this view the Star Wars position, for it always reminds me of that movie's expression, "the dark side of the force." This view of Jesus ascribes two distinct spirits and wills to Jesus. One spirit wanted to walk in the light, while the other spirit desired to walk in darkness. This view is both unscriptural and illogical! The Bible teaches that Jesus was the same person in the flesh that He was out of the flesh. He was God, the Word in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1), and He was God, the Word out of the flesh (Jn. 1:1). His spirit remained unchanged during His days in the flesh (Heb. 1:10-12; 13:8). Jesus' spirit was fully divine and His body was fully human. To argue that Jesus had two spirits is to deny His humanity, for no human has two spirits.
Donít Judge Jesus by the Wrong Standard
The subject of the nature of Christ is no different than other Bible subjects. Many people just ignore what the Bible says on the subject and base their beliefs on either their own feelings or the opinions of others. They judge Jesus by their own human standard. They assume that since they would do anything possible to escape death, then Jesus must have desired to do the same thing! They reason that since they would desire to use unlawful means to satisfy extreme hunger (Matthew 4:1-ff), then surely Jesus "desired" to comply with the devilís request. These folks forget the fact that hunger in and of itself does not constitute sinful desire. A chasm existed between Jesus' external temptation and His inward desire. This chasm can only be bridged by the will. Jesus never bridged that gap, whereas, all humans do bridge that gap at some time or another (Romans 3:23).
Many people limit Jesus to their own personal weaknesses, limitations and abilities. They say things like, "If I desire to do things that are wrong, Jesus must have desired to do things that are wrong." Moreover, "If I am weak in certain areas, then Jesus must have had some weaknesses, as well. Leaving the sure and certain ground of divine revelation, these people freely speculate about what Jesus "must have been thinking," and what He "must have wanted to do" in a given situation. Are we obligated to "speak as the oracles of God" only on subjects like the work, worship and organization of the church? Are we permitted to wander off into the fertile fields of our own vivid imaginations just because the subject is Jesus? Absolutely not! In fact, this is the subject that we should feel the strongest about Ė the subject of our Lord and our God (John 20:28). Failure to understand and accept what the Bible teaches about Jesus is the most fundamental of all religious errors, for it is this misconception that always leads to disrespect for Christís authority. In addition, this leads to a host of false doctrines and practices. Yes, the subject of the nature and person of Christ is indeed an important subject.
A Little Background To the Garden Prayer Ė The Big Picture
Failure to consider "the sum" of truth on any Bible subject will often lead to false conclusions. Contrary to what is presently being taught by some, Jesus was not just a man in the garden. Jesusí decision to die on the cross was not the free-will choice of an ordinary man. It was the deliberate execution of a divinely foreordained plan. Even though a fully human, flesh and blood body was what was nailed to the cross. The spirit and will that directed and controlled that body were fully divine. Jesusí death on the cross was the fulfillment of divine will and planning. Jesus was "delivered" (to death) by the determinate council and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23). A frightened and vacillating man did not make this decision. God made the decision. Jesusí death on the cross was exactly what Godís "hand and council determined before that should be done" (Acts 4:28). Jesus was the "Lamb slain before the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). The shedding of this Lambís "precious blood" was a matter that was "foreordained before the foundation of the world" (1 Peter 1:18-20). In light of such clear teaching about the sure and certain earthly mission of God, the Word, one should not hastily conclude that God just up and changed His mind in garden. The garden prayer must therefore be interpreted in light of these other passages. "The scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). "God is light" (John 1:4; 8:12; 1 John 1:5). God's council is immutable (Hebrews 6:17). He does not change like the "shifting shadows" (James 1:17). God is faithful (2 Timothy 2:13). He will neither fail, nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Belief in a fallible God amounts to unbelief.
I have observed in the writings and sermons of some, an attempt to radically humanize Jesus Christ. They claim that Jesus' humanity limited Him to whatever knowledge, abilities, and powers are common to mankind. Some have searched the scriptures to find something that would suggest that Jesus was "enticed" by evil. They opine they have found such a passage in Luke 22:42. Some have gone so far as to say that Jesus "desired to do evil." I will grant that a prayerful and active desire to disobey the Father's will would certainly constitute evil desire, for "rebellion is as witchcraft" (1 Sam. 15:22-23). However, I deny that Jesus ever desired such. Jesus "came down from Heaven" to do the Father's will (John 6:38). This was His very purpose for living among men (John 4:34). We have no right or business speculating about the intentions and motives of anyone, much less the matchless mind of God. It is quite sad when someone, calls himself a "Christian," but spends his time looking for passages that may be misused to represent God as being ignorant, cowardly and rebellious. They represent Jesus as being as potentially dumb as the dumbest and as vile as the vilest of all humans. I must say that my soul has no pleasure in such people. They obviously serve a different God than the one I do. I consider it a part of my duty as a Christian to defend the holy honor and integrity of my Lord and Savior. Are you with me?
For What Was Jesus Praying?
The Lordís request in Matthew 26:39 is sandwiched between two other important statements. Jesus had just told the disciples, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me" (Matt. 26:38). Then after the prayer He said to them, "Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). Please notice the statements, "sorrowful unto death," and "the flesh is weak." Jesus was not afraid of dying before He made it to the cross, but He was obviously concerned about the limitations of His physical body. Jesus possessed "all of the fullness of deity," but that divine fullness "tabernacled" or "was housed" in a fleshly, human body. This is what is meant by the expression "dwelt among us" in John 1:14. The Lordís earthly role required a physical, human, flesh and blood body (Heb. 10:5; 2:14). He used this body to "taste death for every man." (Heb. 2:9). A divine person could only experience death by His being joined to a fleshly body, for death occurs when the spirit separates from the body (James 2:26). In accepting this body, Jesus accepted its limitations. This explains why Jesus could be hungry, thirsty, and tired (Matt. 4:2; Jn. 19:28; Matt. 8:20). This also explains the Lordís garden prayer.
As we have learned from clear passages, Jesus knew He would die on the cross. This fact was never in dispute. This was a matter that was foreordained by God before the very foundation of the world. However, as the above passages bear out, Jesus was concerned about His own physical ability. John 18:4 tells us that Jesus knew all things that would come upon Him. Jesus was already physically taxed, and He knew that He would be physically weakened even more by the scourging and other physical abuses. He foresaw that His strength would literally fail before He could make it all the way to Golgotha. We are told that the solders made Simon carry the cross the rest of the way up the hill (Luke 23:26). In the garden, Jesus began to feel the effects of His mission. This was compounded with the knowledge He had of what lay before Him. His garden prayer was not the vacillating prayer of a weak and cowardly man who was trying to avoid death. Quite the contrary, He was praying for the physical strength and help necessary to endure the cross!
Since Jesus had accepted the physical limitations of the human body, He would not work a miracle to avoid personal suffering when such suffering was a part of Godís purpose for Him. In the areas that belonged to the special province of the Father, Jesus simply placed His trust in the Father. He had the power to call for 12 legions of angels (Matthew 26:53), but He refused to do so, knowing that this would not fulfill the eternal divine purpose that was revealed in scripture (vs. 54). Jesus "committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously" (1 Peter 2:23). With regard to His fleshly existence and physical endurance, Jesus placed His complete trust in His Father (Hebrews 2:13). He would not violate His role in "the form of a servant" (Philippians 2:7), by relying upon His own divine powers as a way of escape. Since Jesus "cannot deny Himself" (2 Timothy 2:13), the success of His mission was certain. Quite simply, He was God. He "would not fail" (Isaiah 42:4; Zephaniah 3:5).
7693 Russellville Rd.
Bowling Green, KY. 42101