What Was Jesus Feeling in Gethsemane?

April 13, 2017

As we move through Holy Week, I am contemplating Jesus’ mental state, on the lookout for anxiety. If I had been in Jesus’ shoes that week, anxiety is what I would have been feeling. But that is only projection from a very human point of view! Letting the Scripture speak for itself, we find a window into the soul of the God-Man Jesus in accounts of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Up to this point, Jesus was handling his emotions well. He has spent the evening with his closest disciples, instructing them, explaining the meaning of upcoming events, and reassuring them of the Spirit’s presence. His death is less than a day away. The narrators hint at poignancy and even sadness, especially in reference to imminent betrayal, but we see no fear at the dinner table.

In the Garden, though, we see a different reaction worth noting.

I am comparing the versions proffered by Matthew 26:36-46 and Mark 14:32-42, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Luke, for all the heart-warming humanity in his gospel, includes very little emotional content in the Garden of Gethsemane scene. (All we have is the textually disputed Luke 22:43f that elaborates on Jesus’ anguish in the garden.)

Matthew 26:37 states:
He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved (erxato lupeisthai) and agitated (ademonein).

Mark 14 uses a different verb:
Jesus began to be distressed (erxato ekthambeisthai) and agitated (ademonein).

Lupeo (to grieve) points to deep sadness and emotional pain. Agitation (ademoneo) suggests a physiological disturbance caused by a flush of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone of stress. Physical pain is often accompanied by agitation, which adds to the suffering. So according to Matthew, Jesus was in deep emotional pain, overwhelmed by sadness and apparently unsettled and disturbed in his spirit.

Mark also uses the word ademoneo (agitated), but instead of referring to grief, he uses ekthambeo (be distressed). This word means, “greatly astounded,” with either positive or negative reactions. The positive use of this term would be “to be amazed,” but in this case, the meaning is “to be alarmed.”

What caught my attention is that this word “astounded/alarmed” suggests that Jesus was surprised by something ugly or dangerous. For some time we know he had been aware of the purpose of this journey and its outcome (his death). But in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken aback by a vision of what was to come. Louw & Nida suggest that this word meaning may even extend to fear.

What could possibly surprise Jesus to the point of alarm? The desolation of his own death! Death itself was not new to him; he had wept at Lazarus’ tomb before he shouted for Lazarus to come out. But here in Gethsemane, Jesus is confronted and astounded by the pain of dying and the darkness of his own death.

This reaction is different from the poise he demonstrated in the prior week. So different in fact that I wonder if the first Garden encounter—the one that caused alarm and agitation—was not with his heavenly Father but with the devil. The devil authors fear, disturbance, and destruction. If it can immobilize us by intimidation or threat, it will. God, on the other hand, is the author of peace. He provides courage and instills in us a sense of purpose and resolve. And he gives us the power to proceed on the path he has chosen for us.

By all accounts, Jesus is taken aback by the devil’s threat at first, seems to regroup, and then addresses his Father with “Please, if possible, remove this cup; nevertheless, do your will, not mine.” This is the honest, steady, intimate plea of Son to Father, born out of complete trust in God’s plan.

Jesus, even if he were momentarily afraid as the text suggests, was not sinning by recoiling from the horror of what would happen. But he does not run from this particular peril, because it is his mission to walk into trouble and die for a pre-ordained purpose. He willingly submits to his Father and carries out his assignment knowing full well now what it will entail, in all its gory devil-drawn detail.

As we continue on our Christian walk, there are times and circumstances when we become alarmed, even afraid. Alarm in the midst of a genuine threat to our wellbeing is a gift from God to help us get out of the way, run, remove our hand from the fire, or otherwise escape and survive. When there is danger, the alarm is raised so that we can act appropriately and quickly. There is no sin in recognizing danger. There is no fault in being outraged by death. Please be assured that even Jesus felt these things!

When I think about the moments in which I received bad news in the last ten years or so, I did experience alarm that allowed me to give my full attention to next steps. Yes, I tended to get agitated by the unknowns, unsettled by the ambiguities, befuddled by options before me. But my faith in God’s providence never wavered, because this state of alarm morphed into vigilant trust in the Savior. Focusing, as Jesus did, on walking in God’s Way throughout these ordeals was made possible by God’s Spirit within me. I believe it is that same strength and power that enabled Jesus to walk toward his death, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, resolving to do God’s will without complaint or cowardice.

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One Response to “What Was Jesus Feeling in Gethsemane?”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Mary, how many pastors [of a congregation] have you known who chose to vacation with family out of the country extending through the solemn Holy Week and with return timed to join that congregation for the joy of Easter Day worship?

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