Dark night without answers (Matthew 26:36-46)

Gethsemane isn’t the end, but it sure can feel like it.

Every fibre of his being wanted to run. He wouldn’t last twenty-four hours if he stayed. Grief, anxiety, debilitating distress was killing him.

One of his friends had turned traitor, agreeing to hand him to his enemies (26:20). His other friends didn’t understand, asleep while he faced the dark night of the soul. Though he felt like running for his life, Jesus spent his last moments of freedom facing his Father.

When I’m depressed or distressed, the Psalms advise me to hope in God … my Saviour and my God (Psalms 42:5, 11; 43:5). We’ve heard that nothing is impossible with God. Facedown in the dirt in abject submission, Jesus prayed, My Father, if it’s possible, let the cup pass me by (Matthew 26:39).

Why was God handing him a deadly chalice? It was tearing him apart as he prayed, If it’s what you want, I’ll take it.


Remember when his Father proclaimed, This is my son, the one I love, the one who pleases me (3:17 and 17:5). Not tonight. There’s no word. No alternative to his looming death.

It seems incredible that God refuses to fight evil. We expect God to side with the righteous and destroy the wicked. God offends our idea of justice when he leaves a good man to die while the killers remain in power.

This is not a unique case. This is the history of humanity since Cain killed Abel (23:35). This the history of God’s nation, fallen as an enemy stuck down their last good king (26:31). Now, in Gethsemane, God does not intervene to save his anointed. No wonder it felt like the heavenly sovereign handed his Son a poisoned chalice.

With the problem unresolved, Jesus turns to his friends. They reckoned they could drink the cup with him (20:22). But they’re sleeping, oblivious to the danger. I guess they’d learned to feel safe with Jesus since that time when he fell asleep in the boat while they were terrified of the storm (8:24).

Tonight they’re not safe. The shepherd will be stuck down, placing them in danger (26:31). For the third time, he tells them to keep watch, like guards on a city wall (2 Esdras 17:3) or soldiers anticipating an attack (1 Maccabees 12:27). Well intentioned, but physically inept — that’s a very mild rebuke from a king to a sleeping watchman (26:41).

Every muscle in his body must have felt like running to save himself, and them. Jesus turns back to his Father, If it is not possible for this to pass me by without drinking it, let it be what you want. He waits in the stony silence. No word.

Eventually he turns to his friends. They’re asleep. He needs them to keep watch, but they can’t keep their eyes open. This is what his Father expects him to die for?

He turns back to his Father with the same request. No one stands up for him, God or human. Feeling like God is abandoning him (27:46) and people don’t care, he’s alone. Frozen out, somewhere between heaven and earth. The witless sleepers are startled by his sardonic irony: Keep sleeping! Take the rest of your nap! (26:45)

There’s no rest tonight. The sleeping watchmen have failed their king. And it’s an inside job: Look: the hour has arrived. The son of man is being handed over to sinners’ hands. Rouse yourselves so we can get away! Look: the one who is handing me over has arrived! (26:45-46).

God had promised to sort out the injustice one day. He said he would take the kingdom from the beastly rulers and give it to someone more human, one like a son of man (Daniel 7). This night was not that day. This night, evil still reigned, injustice ruled, and the world was still running amok. His friends abandoned him. His Father did not rescue him.

It would be three more days before that day dawned.

The text

Matthew 26:36-46 (my translation, compare NIV)
36 Then Jesus accompanies them to a space called Gethsemane, and says to his followers, “Sit here while I’ve gone over there so I can pray.” 37 Taking Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, he started to feel distressed and anxious. 38 Then he says to them, “My inner self is being crushed to death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 And going a little further, he fell face-down, praying these words: “My Father, if it’s possible, let this cup pass me by. Not as I want; but as you do.”

40 Returning to his followers, he finds them asleep and says to Peter, “So, weren’t you able to keep watch with me for an hour?” 41 Keep watch and pray so you don’t succumb to the pressure. Well intentioned, but physically inept!”

42 Going off again for a second time, he prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this to pass me by without drinking it, let it be what you want.”

43 Coming back, he found them asleep, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open.

44 Dismissing them again, he went and prayed the same thing again, a third time.

45 Then he comes to his followers and says to them, “Keep sleeping! Have the rest of your nap! Look: the hour has arrived. The son of man is being handed over to sinners’ hands. 46 Rouse yourselves so we can get away! Look: the one who is handing me over has arrived!”

What others are saying

Stephen Voorwinde, Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 112–113:

In Gethsemane Jesus … is overwhelmed and perplexed, bewildered and afraid. France explains that in Mark ekthambeomai is ‘a particularly strong term for people’s surprise or shock on seeing something remarkable and unexpected … the verb contains an element of fear. Jesus’ “shock” here, however, is not caused by an event already witnessed, but by the prospect of what is to follow.’ … In anticipation of the dreaded cup and dark hour that lie before him, perhaps ‘shock’ is too tame a word to express Jesus’ overpowering emotion.

David E. Garland, Mark, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 539:

Mark uses a word to suggest the greatest possible degree of horror and suffering (ekthambeo) in 14:33. He boldly allows us to see Jesus suffering psychological anguish before his physical suffering. Jesus is in the grip of a shuddering horror as he faces the dreadful prospect before him.

Hebrews 5:7–9 (NIV):

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

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Used with permission of the author, Allen Browne.

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