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Jesus agonizes in Gethsemane
Matthew chapter 26, verses 36-46
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
The name Gethsemane means “olive oil press.” Evidently the garden on the slope of the Mount of Olives was a place where they brought olives to be squeezed so that the oil could be sold. There was a ready market in the temple on the opposite side of the Kidron Valley.
Luke tells us that “each evening” during the final week of his life Jesus “went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives” (Luke chapter 21, verse 37). And so on Maundy Thursday evening, “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him” (Luke chapter 22, verse 39). Thus “Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples” (John chapter 18, verse 2).
Peter, James, and John had been privileged to witness the display of Jesus’ divine glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matthew chapter 17, verses 1-8). Now they were going to see Jesus in the depths of his humiliation.
The anticipation of a painful ordeal is often more agonizing than the ordeal itself. That is one reason we are better off not knowing exactly what the future holds. But Jesus knew what he would have to endure in the hours ahead. He was face-to-face with death. Before he could witness another sunset, his bruised and bloody body would be taken down from the cross and hastily placed into a borrowed tomb. Jesus knew what was coming. The extreme agony of body and soul that he suffered in Gethsemane was even greater than the physical pain inflicted upon him by his enemies.
Jesus’ agony was intensified because he was not facing death as an ordinary man. We are born into this world with the taste of death in our mouths. Our entire lives are a gradual process of dying. Still it is a fearful and terrible thing for a mortal man to die, because we were originally created to live. The bond between body and soul was not intended to be broken. But when sin came into the world, that bond weakened. Sooner or later our souls will be separated from our bodies. For the sinless Son of God, however, death was most unnatural, not ordinary at all.
The agony of anticipating death was so much greater for Jesus, not only because he was no ordinary man but also because his was no ordinary death. We experience the natural consequences of our own sins when we die. But Jesus’ death was the unnatural consequence of the sins of others. The burden of the sins of all people was upon his shoulders. Just think of the terror that a guilty conscience can bring upon one sinner who is face-to-face with death. Then consider the fact that Jesus had voluntarily taken the guilt of the whole world upon himself. It is no wonder that he said to Peter, James, and John, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” We cannot begin to comprehend his anguish. We can only thank him for what he endured for us.
Jesus’ agony of body and soul was increased by the fact that he was facing a lonely death. He knew that his disciples would soon be scattered. Satan would attempt to divide and conquer. In a sense, the disciples had already abandoned him. Three times he returned to find Peter, James, and John fast asleep.
Jesus did not deny their good intentions. He knew they sincerely meant what they had said about being willing to die with him. But they had failed to take the weakness of their flesh into account. When he came back and woke them up the first time, they must have been embarrassed that they had disappointed Jesus.
Since Jesus was the Son of God, it would seem that he would have been aware of the absolute necessity of his substitutionary suffering and death. After all, that was why he had come into the world in the first place. So how could he now seem to forget it? We can solve this mystery only by pointing to another one: the humiliation of Christ. He took upon himself our human nature, and without giving up any of his divine powers, he refrained from using them for his own benefit. Paul says that he “made himself nothing” (Philippians chapter 2, verse 7). The Greek word literally means “he emptied himself.” That is why the almighty Son of God was not strong enough to carry his own cross all the way to Calvary.
Jesus illustrates the old saying that prayer changes things. But when I pray, prayer does not change God; prayer changes me. As Jesus fell on his face (the only time in his whole life that we are told he assumed this common Old Testament prayer posture) his first prayer was a heart-wrenching plea: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” There is no question about the sincerity of his words. He had a genuine desire to be relieved of the agony he had just begun to endure. Although he knew of no alternative—and suggested none—he earnestly desired that there might be one.
Jesus’ second prayer is slightly different from his first one. Instead of saying “if it is possible,” Jesus said, “If it is not possible . . .” His vision is beginning to clear. It is as though before his first prayer the crushing load of sin that he was bearing and the furious assaults of Satan had combined to cloud his vision. So very recently he had explained to his disciples that it was necessary for him to suffer all these things. But once he was alone in Gethsemane, the burden seemed too great. Until he took it to his Father in prayer.
Not only do we notice a difference between his first and second prayers, but after his second prayer he does not bother to rouse Peter, James, and John again. The feeling of desperation is fading. A grim determination is growing in his heart. After his third prayer, he is able to say, “Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” Yes, prayer changes things.
It is also worth noting that even Jesus did not always get what he asked for when he prayed. There certainly was no sin in asking for something that his Father chose not to give him. But when we say prayer changes things, that does not mean all you have to do is pray long enough and hard enough, and God will give you what you want. Part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray is, “Thy will be done.” Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane demonstrate what it means to pray the Third Petition: “Lord, bring my will into perfect harmony with your good and gracious will.”
Jesus never ceased to desire the redemption of the world with all his heart. Even as his bloody sweat dropped to the ground, he was willing to endure all the agony and loneliness if there was no other way to do it. Never for a moment did he feel that the price he was paying was too great and that he would rather permit all people to be cast into hell. If there was no alternative, he was determined to go ahead, and the very assurance of his heavenly Father that there was no other way would be a source of strength and encouragement to him.
Jesus is arrested
Matthew chapter 26, verses 47-56
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.” Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” At that time Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
It came as no surprise to Jesus when Judas arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane with an armed band to take him into custody, although this may have been the first time it dawned on the Eleven why Judas had not rejoined them in the upper room. But they were just waking up from a nap when Judas arrived, so it may have taken them awhile to put two coherent thoughts together.
We get the impression that maybe Judas hoped to pull off his plan without the Eleven ever realizing what had happened. He knew that Jesus knew what was going on, but in the upper room, Jesus had acted as though he were willing to keep it between the two of them. Was Judas hoping Jesus would somehow miraculously escape? Maybe he even thought he could defraud Jesus’ enemies and in the process give Jesus another chance to demonstrate his almighty power. Was Judas trying to play both sides against the middle? The signal he had arranged would fit with that scenario: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.”
John chapter 18, verses 4-6 tells us that Jesus went out to meet the mob and identified himself to them, so it was not really necessary for Judas to go through with his plan. But he did it anyway. Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and, without waiting for a response from Jesus, he kissed him. The Greek word says “he covered him with kisses.” Judas must have been extremely agitated. Although he was trying to act as if everything were still as it had previously been, he overdid it. Maybe he hoped that this exaggerated display of affection would make it look like he was overjoyed to see Jesus. Perhaps it was also designed as a diversionary tactic, to buy a little time for the guards to approach Jesus and arrest him. The treachery of Judas knew no bounds. He used an expression of friendship to betray his truest Friend.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke conceal the identity of the disciple who drew his sword and cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. John tells us that it was Peter. Perhaps this is because Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their gospels while Peter was still alive, and they did not want to provide any evidence that could be used against him in a court of law. But by the time John wrote his gospel, Peter had been martyred.
There may have been as many as a hundred men in the mob that came out to arrest Jesus. So it was a courageous but foolhardy gesture on Peter’s part to take them on with his short sword. Just before this, he had been sleeping when he should have been praying. So now he was trying to make up for it. But he was a fisherman, not a swordsman. Evidently when he took a swing at the man who happened to be nearest to him, he almost missed. Instead of inflicting a more serious wound, all Peter managed to do was slice off his ear.
John tells us that the man’s name was Malchus. Since John was familiar in the court of the high priest (see John chapter 18, verse 15), it makes sense that he would have known Malchus.
Luke, the physician, is the one who tells us that Jesus performed a miracle of healing and reattached Malchus’ ear. It is remarkable that Jesus would do that under the circumstances, isn’t it? Although Malchus was one of the men who had come out to arrest him, Jesus healed him. This miracle anticipates his prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And so for the rest of his life, every time Malchus touched his ear, he was reminded of that fateful Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the man he had been told to hate showed kindness to him. Could it be that after Easter he became a believer?
Jesus says, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” This is not pacifism. The point is that we do not advance the kingdom of God by the use of the sword. The numerous religious wars that have been fought down through the centuries testify to the deep emotions that are stirred up in men by spiritual things. But all wars waged in the name of Christ are a disgrace to the name of Christ. To attempt to convert people to Christianity by the threat of the sword is no more effective than using the sword to try to compel Christians to give up their faith. The only weapon Christ has given to his church is his Word, which is “sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrews chapter 4, verse 12).
The real issue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders was his doctrine. “Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching,” Jesus reminds them, “and you did not arrest me.” The fact that they had determined to seize him by treachery, outside of the city, and in the middle of the night, was an admission on their part that Jesus was innocent. They could not refute his doctrine. They were not interested in the truth.
Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin
Matthew chapter 26, verses 57-68
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, “Prophesy to us, Christ. Who hit you?”
Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin was conducted backwards. The verdict had been arrived at before the trial began, and the trial began before they had accused him of any specific crime. Furthermore, the man who acted as judge, Caiaphas, the high priest, also acted as the prosecuting attorney. And the gentlemen of the jury, the members of the Sanhedrin, behaved like anything but gentlemen.
Caiaphas had arrogantly but accurately asserted that it was better “that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John chapter 11, verse 50). So as they plotted to put Jesus to death, they determined not to do it during the Feast (Matthew chapter 26, verses 3-5). But when Judas appeared and volunteered to hand Jesus over to them (chapter 26, verses 14-16), they decided to go ahead and execute him during the Feast anyway.
The question that suggests itself is: why did they need Judas? As Jesus pointed out in Gethsemane, he had been teaching in the temple every day. It should not have been hard to locate him. But not only were they afraid of what the reaction of the people might be, they were also afraid of Jesus. On a previous occasion, they had sent the temple guards to arrest him, but the guards had come back empty-handed, saying, “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John chapter 7, verse 46). They did not deny that he had done mighty miracles. His violent cleansing of the temple on Monday of this week had intimidated them as much as it angered them. They were afraid he might resist arrest if they tried to seize him in the temple. So they needed someone on the inside who could advise them as to the most opportune time to take Jesus into custody (see Matthew chapter 26, verse 16).
Now it would stand to reason that they had explained to Judas why they did not want to arrest Jesus during the Feast. No doubt they told Judas to take that into consideration as he looked for an opportune time to hand Jesus over to them. But something must have convinced Judas that Maundy Thursday evening provided the golden opportunity they were looking for. And then Judas had to convince Caiaphas that this was the time to act. What was it that persuaded both Judas and Caiaphas to shift into high gear on the very night when everyone in Jerusalem was eating the Passover meal? It must have been the way Jesus was talking to his disciples in the upper room. “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.”
Was Judas alarmed that Jesus had found out about the deal he had made with the chief priests? Perhaps. But it seems more likely that he reported to Caiaphas, “If we move tonight, Jesus will allow himself to be taken. His mood is down. He is talking about dying very soon. This is our chance.” And so it was that Jesus was delivered into their hands sooner than they had anticipated. That is why they were not ready. The trial began before they had settled on a specific charge to bring against him. So they hastily rounded up a number of people who were willing to testify against Jesus. But all their perjury did them no good. It was all so obviously contradictory that even shrewd and unscrupulous Caiaphas could not make any use of it.
The Law of Moses stipulated, “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy chapter 19, verse 15). Moses went on to say that the penalty for a false witness was to be whatever sentence would have been imposed on the defendant if he had been guilty (see Deuteronomy chapter 19, verses 16-21). In other words, the false witnesses who testified against Jesus were risking the death penalty themselves.
Finally, two came forward and accused Jesus of saying, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.” The basis for this charge was a statement Jesus had made three years previously, after he drove the money changers out of the temple for the first time (see John chapter 2, verse 19). But at that time Jesus had spoken of the temple of his body, and he had said that they would destroy it, not he. So his words were completely distorted. And Mark comments, “Yet even then their testimony did not agree” (Mark chapter 14, verse 59).
All the while Jesus remained silent. Such charges were unworthy of an answer. There was a certain dignity and majesty to his silence, which started to irritate Caiaphas. Jesus’ calm silence was much more eloquent and effective than any words could have been under the circumstances. Finally Caiaphas, who was sitting as judge and presiding over this trial, took on the role of prosecuting attorney. He began to cross-examine Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?”
There was a note of desperation in Caiaphas’ words. His outburst amounted to saying, “Don’t you realize that I am in control here? Why do you refuse to cooperate with me?” He was afraid he was starting to lose control of the process. So Caiaphas decided to take matters into his own hands. He solemnly placed Jesus under oath and demanded, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus was called upon, not to defend himself against charges that were obviously false, but to make a clear-cut confession about himself. To have remained silent would have been tantamount to a denial of the truth, so without hesitation Jesus broke his silence. He said exactly what Caiaphas wanted to hear, “Yes, it is as you say.” And Caiaphas must have heaved a huge sigh of relief. Suddenly he had everything under control again. Jesus had given him the pretext for a death sentence. So, without giving anyone else an opportunity to express an opinion, Caiaphas tore his clothes in mock anguish (something the high priest was forbidden to do according to Leviticus chapter 21, verse 10). “He has spoken blasphemy!” Caiaphas thundered, “Why do we need any more witnesses?
From Caiaphas’ point of view it had been a stroke of genius. The search for two false witnesses who could agree with each other was going nowhere. The Sanhedrin was starting to look ridiculous. So in one dazzling moment, the judge-turned-prosecutor transformed the jury into the witnesses he needed in order to proceed. They had heard Jesus’ blasphemy with their own ears. “He is worthy of death,” they declared. (The death penalty for blasphemy was prescribed in Leviticus chapter 24, verses 10-16.)
Ordinarily, each member of the Sanhedrin was called upon to cast his vote individually. And the votes were all supposed to be carefully recorded and totaled before a verdict would be announced. But once again Jesus was denied due process.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Jesus was condemned to death for telling the truth. It was true that he was the Christ, the Son of God. It was also true that the day would come when the roles would be reversed; he would come on the clouds of heaven to be the judge of all these men who were sitting in judgment on him. The first phase of the trial made it clear that they never would have been able to convict him if he had not been willing to “testify against himself.” Jesus gave Caiaphas what he wanted because “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (chapter 20, verse 28). So we could say that Jesus was condemned, not because Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin hated him, but because Jesus loved Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin and all sinners.
Once it became clear that they would be able to do with Jesus as they pleased, the gentlemen of the jury began to spit in Jesus’ face and strike him with their fists. They blindfolded him (see Mark chapter 14, verse 65) and then slapped him in the face and taunted him, “Prophesy to us, Christ. Who hit you?”
The Jewish trial was over. They were ready now for the Roman trial to begin. But before turning to the next phase of Jesus’ trial, Matthew relates the episode of Peter’s denial, which took place during the Jewish trial.
Peter denies Jesus
Matthew chapter 26, verses 69-75
Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
There are certain sins that only Christians can commit, like denying Christ. Unbelievers cannot deny him. When they say, “I don’t know the man!” they are merely telling the truth. But when a Christian denies his Lord, he is endangering his own faith and salvation.
It had been only a few hours since Jesus had told his disciples, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me” (chapter 26, verse 31). Speaking for himself, Peter boldly declared, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” To which Jesus responded, “I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter vehemently objected, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” At this point Peter did not presume to act as spokesman for the others, but Matthew tells us, “All the other disciples said the same.” And it was true that ten of the Eleven would one day die a martyr’s death, but they were not ready for that yet.
Although John got Peter into the courtyard of the high priest (see John chapter 18, verses 15 and 16), they apparently did not stay together once they were inside. We don’t know where John went or what he did. We don’t see him again until Jesus speaks to him from the cross (see John chapter 19, verses 26 and 27). Now Peter is alone in the spotlight. Since none of the other disciples were there, Matthew must have heard this story from Peter himself. So it is significant that there is no attempt in this story to cover up Peter’s sin or to explain it away. As we read this account, we are listening to Peter confessing his sin.
The man who had drawn his sword to defend Jesus against a large armed mob in Gethsemane is now put to shame by a lowly servant girl. It is, of course, impossible to say exactly what would have happened to Peter if he had openly confessed that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. At the very least, he probably would have been ridiculed by the others who were gathered around the fire. Peter went out to the gateway to try to avoid any follow-up questions.
His first denial had not been very convincing. A short time later, when he was put on the spot again, Peter considered it necessary to add an oath to his denial. He called upon God to witness the truth and to punish the lie, and in the same breath he denied God’s Son. He hoped that would be good enough to remove all doubt and suspicion from the minds of the people who were standing around him, but he soon learned that that was not the case at all. We are reminded of Jesus’ words of warning regarding oaths: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (chapter 5, verse 37).
Even though they left Peter alone for awhile after his second denial, they did not forget about him. The manner in which he had spoken those words of denial convinced them that his words were not true. When Peter pretended not to be a disciple of Jesus, he acted a lot like Judas did in Gethsemane when he pretended to be a disciple of Jesus. He didn’t really fool anyone. It was obvious that he was very nervous, and his accent was obviously Galilean. So, because he had no way to prove that he was not one of Jesus’ disciples, he reacted in the way that is common among liars. He began to curse and swear. If they knew anything about Jesus, they might realize that profanity was not characteristic of his disciples. And in that moment of fear and shame, Peter had effectively tendered his resignation from his apostolic office. He was no longer a disciple of Jesus any more than Judas or Caiaphas. He had publicly disowned his Lord and Savior.
But Jesus did not turn his back on Peter. “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2nd Timothy chapter 2, verse 13). After his third denial, Peter heard the rooster crow “immediately.” The timing was no mere coincidence. It triggered Peter’s memory; Jesus had warned him only a few hours ago, “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
This event was followed by another providential miracle of timing. Jesus was being led away from the high priest’s palace because his Jewish trial was over, and they were taking him to Pontius Pilate. As the rooster crowed, Jesus came into Peter’s line of sight. “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke chapter 22, verse 61). For a brief moment their eyes met. Not a word was spoken, but a powerful message was conveyed. That look brought a flood of memories to Peter’s mind. As a man’s life is said to pass before his mind’s eye just before he dies, three years of daily communion with Jesus must have flashed before Peter in an instant. “And he went outside and wept bitterly.”
In Gethsemane Jesus told Peter, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Matthew chapter 26, verse 41). Then Jesus practiced what he preached while Peter fell asleep. As Thursday night gave way to Friday morning, Peter and Jesus found themselves in similar circumstances. Both of them were very much alone. Both of them were under considerable stress. Both of them testified under oath. But there were also some glaring differences. Jesus’ oath was administered by Caiaphas, while Peter’s was self-imposed. Jesus told the truth. Peter lied. Peter was very much afraid. Jesus was calm, cool, and collected. Peter did not want to die. Jesus knew very well that he was about to die, and he wanted to pay the debt of human sin—including Peter’s triple sin of denial.
Rise, my soul, to watch and pray,
From thy sleep awaken;
Be not by the evil day
For the Foe,
Well we know,
Oft his harvest reapeth
While the Christian sleepeth.
Therefore let us watch and pray,
Knowing He will hear us
As we see from day to day
Dangers ever near us,
And the end
Our redemption neareth
When the Lord appeareth.
(The Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn 446, stanzas 1 and 6)