His final hours were spent in prayer. Yet, the Gospel of Luke tells us that there was nothing unusual about this practice. “And he came out and proceeded as was his custom to the Mount of Olives…and when he arrived at the place…he withdrew from them…and knelt down and began to pray.”(1) As was his custom, Jesus would go to pray. We do not often hear the content of these prayers, but in this case, in these final hours, we see him gripped with passion. Luke tells us that he was in such agony that his sweat “became like drops of blood.” Under conditions of extreme duress, it is possible to rupture capillaries in the head. Blood pours out of the skin like perspiration. Whatever the case, Jesus had never been in this much distress before—even in his wilderness testing—we have no other portrait of him in anguish during prayer.
“And being in agony he was praying very fervently,” writes Luke. What was the source of his agony? Was Jesus in agony over the physical torture and death he was about to endure? Was he in agony over the spiritual condition of his disciples, one who would betray him and the others who would all abandon him in his time of need? Certainly, the latter is a real possibility as he exhorts his disciples at least two times to “watch and pray that you might not enter into temptation.”(2)
Whatever the reason for his agony, Jesus’s humanity was on full display in his prayer. He did not want to walk the path that was unfolding before him, and he pleads with God to provide an alternative path. Matthew’s gospel reveals more of his struggle. He tells his disciples “I am deeply grieved, to the point of death.” Then he prays to his Father, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but your will be done.”(3) The via dolorosa, the way of suffering, unfolded before him and he would go to his death, despite his anguished prayers for another way.
As Christians meditate on the passionate prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, his human agony and suffering on full display, all are brought face to face with the contrast between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the agony that now awaited. How easy it is to follow Jesus as the victorious, but not as a fellow sufferer. How often the pursuit is after the glory and the grandeur of Palm Sunday as the entryway to the kingdom. But as author Kim Reisman has noted, “That is not the Jesus way. God doesn’t dispense with death. God resurrects us from it. The truth is that the Jesus way isn’t about God taking pain away from God’s people; it’s about God providing us with strength, courage, and meaning, with abundant life, often in the midst of pain.”(4)
Even those who do not share this Christian conviction might wonder at the very human portrait of Jesus’s agonizing struggle with his own suffering. This one has also suffered, struggled, and wrestled with the circumstances of this life. Perhaps Jesus knows something of my own suffering, and of yours. And this man from Nazareth shows the God who takes on death and suffering and brings about resurrection from the dead. As Christian pilgrims, and all those who wonder and might long for a closer look, turn toward Gethsemane and remember this one who reigns not from a throne, but from the Cross.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Luke 22:39-41.
(2) Luke 22:40; 46.
(3) Matthew 26:38-39.
(4) Kimberly Dunnam Reisman, Following At a Distance (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 75.