NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Early church leader Leo the Great gives us an interesting insight into what he feels our Lord’s prayer here is trying to communicate, not only to the Father but also to us. He says: “The disciples were admonished, and the Lord bid the Father that they might confront the force of the present temptation with watchful prayer: ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as you will.’ The first petition arises from weakness, the second from strength: He desired the former based on our nature and chose the latter based on his own. Equal to the Father, the Son knew that all things were possible to God; rather, he descended into this world to take up the cross against his will so that he might suffer through this conflict of emotions with a disquieted mind. But in order to show the distinction between the receiving nature and the received nature, what was proper of humanity desired divine intervention and what was proper to God looked upon the human situation. The lower will yielded to the higher will, and this demonstrated what the fearful person may pray for and what the divine healer should not grant. ‘For we do not know how to pray as we ought,’1 and it is good for us that what we want, for the most part, is not granted. God, who is good and just, shows mercy toward us by denying us those things we ask for which are harmful.”2
Jesus uses the drinking of a cup to describe what awaited Him. One polemic writer questions why Jesus was asking for His heavenly Father to remove the cup if it is His will. He writes: “…then the wills are not the same, and if they have two wills, then Jesus could not be God.”3 Our Rabbi friend forgets that Jesus was letting the Father know that if He was thinking about sparing His only Son the agony of suffering and death He would abide by His Father’s decision. However, He knew what the Father wanted and so He pledged to do what the Father had sent Him to do. In other words, Jesus was sure His Father would not change His mind.
But why a cup? The drinking of a lethal substance by one’s own hand has been a method of suicide for ages. But Christ was not taking His own life nor was He being involuntarily killed. Drinking the cup that contained a fatal substance became a symbol of voluntarily dying for the cause. He was not at the mercy of a superior force. He willingly forfeited his own life knowing at the time He had to make a last minute choice between saving Himself or saving the world. So the question may be asked: when did He drink the potion, thereby passing the point of no return?
When Peter brandished the sword, Christ admonished him and said that He could have called for help from multiple angelic legions had He wanted to. But this would have been a forced deliverance. Much like submitting to a stomach pump after you’ve swallowed the poison. I think that within seconds after Christ said, “Nevertheless, not My will but Your will be done,” He drank the bitter cup, and prepared to go on to His death without ever looking back.
NOTE: In the Jewish Mishnah we find a description of the duties of the high priest leading up to the Day of Atonement. In reading this we can see how Jesus fulfilled this duty as our High Priest just days prior to His death and sacrifice. “Seven days before Yom Kippur they seclude the High Priest from his home to the chamber of the officials [since it is only the High Priest who performs the Yom Kippur service he is secluded within the Temple confines to assure that he does not become defiled and disqualified.” In other words, he does no work. We find that the last miracle Jesus performed was the healing of the two blind men as they were leaving Jericho on their way to Jerusalem (See Matthew 20:29-34). It also says, “If he was a scholar he would lecture [the entire night] but, if not, scholars would lecture before him.” In Matthew Chapters 21 through 25, we find where our Lord spent quite a bit of time teaching about the anticipation of the return of the Messiah. It goes on to say, “Throughout the seven days they did not withhold from him food or drink even those kinds that may cause emissions. But on the eve of Yom Kippur near nightfall, they would not allow him to eat a lot because food induces sleep and he is not allowed to sleep the night of Yom Kippur.” From the time they left the meal with Simon the Leper in Bethany (See Ch. 26:6-7), our Lord did not eat again until He ate with His disciples. And then He did not eat very much. The high priest was also prevented from sleeping. Says the Mishnah, “If he wanted to sleep, young priests would snap their middle finger before him and say: My Master the High Priest, stand up once on the cold floor and drive away the sleep and they would keep him busy until the time of the slaughter of the daily morning offering.” We know that from the time Jesus at the last supper until He was led off to Calvary, he did not sleep. There were times when He was slapped in the face, just like the high priest lest he falls asleep.4
Verses 40-41: Then He went back to His followers and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “Could you men not stay awake with me for one hour? Stay awake and pray for strength against the temptation to give up. Your spirit wants to do what is right, but your body is weak.”
Some people have criticized these apostles for not being alert and steadfast as they waited for their Master to finish His prayer. But we must remember, they had been up all day, and after their last supper with Jesus had gone over to the Mount of Olives. So this incident took place some time after midnight. It is no cause for wonderment why Jesus spoke directly to Peter here. Just minutes before he had declared loyalty to the death. Now here in the peace and quiet of the garden he falls asleep. How often, in the heat of persecution and impending disaster we pledge our life’s allegiance to the Master, only to either fall asleep during the lull or ultimately deny Him before His persecutors. Peter’s actions should not surprise us.
We should not fault the disciples too severely, because there are other instances of persons in excessive grief and trouble falling asleep, as Elijah,5 and Jonah,6 so that this did not arise from a secure, lazy, indolent frame of spirit; or from any disregard to Christ, and neglect of him, and lacking in concern for Him; but from their great sorrow of heart; for, the trouble and distress that He was in, added to the causes above mentioned. How many Christians have you heard stand up in the heat and fervor of revival and proclaim their loyalty to God, to the Bible, and to their Lord Jesus Christ, only to be found guilty of diminishing ardor when at their workplace or among friends at a social event?
Verse 42: Then Jesus went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if I must do this and it is not possible for me to escape it, then I pray that what you want will be done.”
The same thing that incapacitated Peter’s fidelity to Christ often renders us helpless in times of trial, and that is we lose faith in ourselves, but do not have enough faith in Christ to overcome it. How different the attitude of the second man Adam. The first Adam wanted to do his own will, here Jesus prays to the Father, “Your will be done.” This self-will was the beginning of sin and still remains its main cause today. But if sin imprisoned mankind through the disobedience of self-will, in the beginning, man can be freed from sin through Christ who sacrificed His own self-will on the altar of God’s will. Whenever we are confronted with sin and the temptation to do things our way instead of God’s way, the altar of God’s will is always ready to give us the same victory won by of our Lord Jesus Christ’s willing sacrifice.
1 Romans 8:26
2 Leo the Great: Sermon 43.2
3 Naẓẓaḥon Vetus, op. cit., Comment , p. 186
4 Mishnah, Second Divison: Mo’ed, Tractate Yoma, Ch. 1:1-7
5 I Kings 19:4-5
6 Jonah 1:5