During the final hours of Jesus’ life, His disciples stumble. They stumble for the same reason that John and his disciples were in danger of being scandalized. A Messiah who leaves suffering and imprisonment in His wake is not much of a Messiah. A Messiah who gets seized and tried and crucified, and doesn’t do anything at all in his own defense – that’s not the kind of Messiah any Jew wants.
Paul said that he preached Christ crucified, foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. The disciples are typical Jews in this regard, offended by a suffering Messiah.
The word “deny” is crucial here. The word is used in Matthew in contexts where Jesus commands His disciples to deny themselves and take up the cross. There are only two choices, as far as Jesus is concerned: Either deny one’s self, give up all hope of security and safety, and follow Jesus to the cross; or, deny Jesus, and find safety among the multitude in the court of the high priest. The disciples will fail; they will not deny themselves, but deny Jesus.
As always, Jesus sees these events in the light of prophecy. In general, the notion that the people of God will be scandalized, will stumble over a stumbling stone, is nothing new. Yahweh threatened to set up stumbling stones in the way of His unfaithful people. When they keep turning from Him, and refuse to repent, He threatens to make them stumble and fall once and for all, by setting up a stone to make them fall. Jesus is that stumbling stone that will cause Israel to fall.
But the specific prophecy that Jesus has in mind is from Zechariah. The rejected Shepherd-King that Yahweh had placed over Israel (Zechariah 11:4-17) will be struck, and the people scattered into the refining fire of exile (13:7-9). When we look at that prophecy, we realize that the scandal, the stumble, is not permanent. This is a prediction of the disciples’ failure, their faithlessness to Jesus.
But it is also a prophecy that the disciples will go through a process of scattering, a process of purification, but that this dispersion will end in regathering, the fire of exile will purge and purify the disciples so that they will become a new Israel, a purified Israel.
It’s a prediction of fall and restoration, but beyond that it’s a prediction that the disciples will eventually share in the sufferings of Jesus. For now, they are going to scatter, but they are the one-third that is left, and that one-third will be refined like silver and tested like gold. This night, Jesus will be alone; this night in the garden, Jesus will be alone before his captors.
But the remnant will not escape purging and purification. Peter says he will die with Jesus, and that is true: He will die to the feeble discipleship he has exhibited, and rise with Jesus to become the leader of the Twelve. On this night, he will stumble; on this night, the disciples all will scatter. Eventually they will all be regathered, and they will be sent into the world to make disciples of the nations.
Based on this prophecy, Jesus predicts a mini-exile, but also an eventual “return from Babylon,” as the disciples gather with Him in Galilee (Matthew 26:32). This is the way God always works. He never glorifies His people, or extends His kingdom, in a straight line. For our God, the way to glory, to life, to health, to safety, to salvation is always a crooked path.
There’s always a deviation through exile, through scattering, through the waters and the wilderness, through death. Glory is always on the far side of the cross; to have a bride, you always have to be taken near death and torn in two; to have day, you have to pass through night. This is the lesson that Jesus learns in the garden, in His prayer to His Father. This is part of the process of Jesus’ perfection.
Through His experience in the garden, through the prayers He offers, He learns obedience, He learns that His Father never brings glory in a straight line. He has to learn the crooked way to glory.
This may sound like an odd way to put it. Isn’t Jesus God? How can He learn anything? Isn’t Jesus always faithful, sinless, completely obedience? How can He learn obedience? Wasn’t He perfect from the get-go? How can he be “perfected” or “made perfect”?
We don’t have space to go into all the theological niceties here, and even if we had world enough and time, we would be far from understanding the mystery of what’s happening in the garden. What we can say, with assurance, is that Jesus learned obedience by His sufferings, and particularly in the prayers that He offers here. This is part of His qualification as priest, the “filling of His hand” as the high priest.
The writer of Hebrews refers directly to this event (Hebrews 5:7-10). Jesus asks for the cup to be removed; the Father doesn’t answer. He prays three times, and the Father does not deliver Him from death. He will have to drink the cup; the only way for the cup to “pass away” is for Jesus to drink it. He submits to the Father, praying the prayer that He taught the disciples, “Thy will be done.” He denies Himself, and takes up His cross, in submission to the Father’s will.
The author of Hebrews seems to be reading an alternative account. The author of Hebrews says that “He was heard because of His piety.”
As we read Matthew, we might conclude that the Father did not hear or answer. There’s no voice from heaven, no splitting of the sky, no sudden rescue, no invasion of 12 legions of angels. But Hebrews is right, of course: Jesus is delivered from death. The Father does hear Him. Jesus is delivered from death, however, only after going through death. He does not sidestep the grave, but is taken to it. He learns that the way to life is not a straight line; the way to life deviates through death. The way of life is always a crooked way.
Paul also prayed three times for deliverance. The Lord gave him a thorn in the flesh to prevent him from becoming proud; it was a “messenger from Satan.” Three times Paul prayed for deliverance, and finally the Lord answered: “My grace is sufficient; power is perfected in weakness.” He was delivered from the thorn, but not by having it removed. He was delivered by passing through it to life. This is the lesson Jesus learns in the garden: “power is perfected in weakness.”
The last time Jesus was with these three disciples, Peter, James, and John, there was a voice from heaven, a bright light, an answer from the Father. He took the same three disciples up to another mountain, where Jesus was transfigured before them, his face shining like the sun, His clothes flashing like lightning. The last time Jesus was with these three, they saw a glimpse of Jesus’ glory.
The garden seems to point in the opposite direction. Nothing could be more different. Instead of glory, Jesus grieves to the point of death. Instead of the voice of the Father, there is silence. Instead of light brighter than the sun, the night remains dark, and the powers of darkness seem to be in charge.
Not that the disciples see it anyway. When He arrives at the garden, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with Him to pray (vv. 36-37). He warns them to watch with Him as He prays. But they can’t. Three times he finds them sleeping. They are not alert, watchful, waiting. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus warned the disciples to be alert and prepared for the coming of the bridegroom (25:1-13), but the disciples don’t watch and pray with Him but instead fall asleep.
The warnings in the earlier chapter were warnings about being alert, watchful, awake, because the Son of Man was coming. Those were in the context of the destruction of the temple, and the coming of the Son of Man in AD 70.
But the Son of Man is coming here in Gethsemane as well. This is the hour of the Son of Man, just as much as the hour of the destruction of Jerusalem. Here is a temple falling, and the disciples are not watchful. The disciples can stay awake for a light show on the mount of transfiguration. That’s dazzling, and even though they are drowsy they are instantly awake. But a Jesus groaning and crying and sweating blood and speaking cryptically of a cup that He has to drink – that can’t hold their attention.
If they had been able to watch, though, they would have observed something even more awesome than the transfiguration. On the mount of transfiguration, Jesus was glorified and illuminated by obvious, self-evident glory. The glory is not apparent at all on the Mount of Olives, in Gethsemane. But this is true glory, the glory of the Son’s submission to the Father, the glory of the Son willing to drink the cup. This is not straight-line glory, but it is glory, the glory of the Triune God who gives Himself for His people, the Shepherd struck for His sheep, the glory of power made perfect in weakness.