The Greatest Prayer in the World
It is Thursday, the night before Jesus’s crucifixion. This evening has been laden with teaching (John 13–17), shocking with foot-washing by the greatest for the least (John 13:3–20), epoch-making with the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:20–30; Mark 14:17–26; Luke 22:14–20), and pivotal with the departure of Judas (John 13:30).
Now Jesus and the eleven have gone to the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:1; Mark 14:32). Here Jesus prays the greatest prayer in the world. What hung in the balance was the glory of God’s grace and the salvation of the world. The success of Jesus’s mission to earth depended on Jesus’s prayer and the answer given. He prayed with reverence and his request was given.
The question I would like to try to answer is: How does Hebrews 5:7 relate to the prayers in Gethsemane? Hebrews 5:7 says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” He was heard. He got his request. What does this refer to in Jesus’s life?
Loud Cries in the Garden
Nothing in Jesus’s experience comes closer to this description than the prayers of Gethsemane. “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,” corresponds emotionally to Luke 22:44, “Being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” “Loud cries and tears” is a description of the “agony” of Jesus.
What was the content of Jesus’s “prayers and supplications” in Hebrews 5:7? If we assume the content was: “Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36), then what would it mean that “he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7)? Hebrews teaches that, precisely because of his “godly fear,” Jesus “was heard,” that is, he received his request.
But the cup was not removed. He suffered the fullness of physical pain and divine wrath. So in what sense was Jesus “heard because of his reverence”?
His First Prayer and the Angel’s Help
Both Matthew and Mark portray Jesus as praying three separate times, and each time returning to the sleeping Peter, James, and John. Luke, on the other hand, gives a single summary description of Jesus’s prayers, and includes a detail that points to an answer to our question, namely, the visitation of the angel. Luke writes,
He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41–44)
Before the angel came “to strengthen” him, Jesus prayed that the cup be removed (Luke 22:42). Then the angel came, “strengthening him.” Strengthening him for what? Presumably to do what he had to do. In other words, the angel was God’s response to Jesus’s first prayer. The angel bears God’s message that there is no other way, but I will help you. Do not turn from your mission now, in spite of the terrifying prospect. I will help you. Here is my angel to strengthen you.
Then the question is: What was the content of the prayers that followed? Luke 22:44 says, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly.” Does this mean he kept on saying: “Remove this cup from me,” even more earnestly? That assumption would be unworthy of Jesus. What then was he praying? And is this different prayer what Hebrews says “was heard because of his reverence”?
He Prays a Second Time
According to Matthew, when Jesus went away a second time to pray, he did not say the identical words as the first time. The first time he said, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” The second time he said, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:42).
May we not assume that the angel had come to Jesus the first time he prayed, and had made plain to Jesus that it was, in fact, not possible for the cup to pass from him, but that God would help him drink it? Which is why, in his second prayer, Jesus does not ask for the cup to be removed, but instead asks for God’s will to be done in view of the revealed fact that “the cup cannot pass”: “If this cannot pass unless I drink it [which has now been made plain to me by the coming of the angel], your will be done.”
When Mark says, of the second prayer of Jesus, “And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words” (Mark 14:39), it need not contradict this, as though only the same words were spoken all three times. “The same words” may simply refer to, “Your will be done,” which indeed Jesus prays each time.
If we are on the right track, then the content of Jesus’s supplications after the angel came was not the same as before. He did not go on praying: “Let this cup pass from me.” It says, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44). If he was not praying more earnestly for the cup to be removed, then what was he praying?
His Greatest Act of Obedience
Hebrews 5:7 says, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” If “save his soul from death” does not mean, “Remove this cup from me,” what does it mean? For he was certainly heard and received this request.
Jonathan Edwards answers,
This was the greatest act of obedience that Christ was to perform. He prays for strength and help, that his poor feeble human nature might be supported, that he might not fail in this great trial, that he might not sink and be swallowed up, and his strength so overcome that he should not hold out, and finish the appointed obedience.
He was afraid lest his poor feeble strength should be overcome, and that he should fail in so great a trial, that he should be swallowed up by that death that he was to die, and so should not be saved from death; and therefore he offered up strong crying and tears unto him that was able to strengthen him, and support, and save him from death, that the death he was to suffer might not overcome his love and obedience, but that he might overcome death, and so be saved from it. (“Christ’s Agony”)
Jesus did not go on praying for the cup to pass. He went on praying for success in drinking it.
When Paul says, of Jesus’s resurrection, “Therefore, God has highly exalted him” (Philippians 2:9), the “therefore” refers to Jesus’s unwavering obedience unto death: “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore . . .” (Philippians 2:8). God saved Jesus from death because he was obedient. His prayers were answered.
The Father’s Answer
If Jesus had not been obedient unto death, he would have been swallowed up by death forever and there would be no resurrection, no salvation, and no future world filled with the glory of God’s grace and God’s children. This is what Jesus prayed for “to him who was able to save him from death” — that is, save him from a death that would not succeed its saving mission.
“He was heard for his godly fear.” God did save him from the threat that such a death posed to his obedience. Jesus did succeed. There is salvation for all who believe. There will be a new world full of the glory of God’s grace and God’s children.
And all of this is owing to the greatest prayer in the world. Every hope of the gospel succeeds because of Jesus’s reverent earnestness in prayer, and the answer of the Father. “Being in an agony he prayed more earnestly . . . and he was heard because of his reverence” (Luke 22:44; Hebrews 5:7).
Evidently, by the time Jesus was done praying in Gethsemane, the Father had not only made clear that there is no other way than the cross, but also that this way would succeed. The Lamb would have the reward of his suffering. He will “see his offspring; he will prolong his days; the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he will see and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:10–11).
Surely this is why Hebrews 12:2 could say, “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.” Beneath the terrors of present agony was the taste of future joy. The angel had come, “strengthening him” — clarifying, confirming, connecting the coming joy.