Praying Like Our King (Matthew 26:36-46)
I. The Cup of His Wrath
Let's begin this morning with two verses from the Old Testament (OT). Listen and see if you can hear what they have in common. The first is Isaiah 51:17...
Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering.
The second is from Jeremiah 25: Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.” (v. 15)
Obviously what these verses have in common is this image of “the cup of [God's] wrath”. Later the book of the Revelation will utilize that same imagery in Revelation 14:10 & 16:19 in regard to the wrath of God that is still to come. But my goal in beginning with those verses is simply to set the stage for the powerful scene we're about to witness in this morning's passage. Turn, if you haven't already, to Matthew 26:26-46, a passages from last week in Our Bible Reading Plan.
II. The Passage: “He Fell on His Face and Prayed” (26:36-46)
Having just shared his last Passover meal with the Twelve, verse 30 tells us that after “they [i.e., Jesus and his disciples] had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” This means they left Jerusalem through one of the Eastern gates into the Kidron Valley . It was most likely getting very late. But the night was not over, as verse 36 goes on to reveal...
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.”  And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.  Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death [i.e., grief-stricken enough to die]; remain here, and watch with me.”  And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?  Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.  So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.  Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
Now, did you catch the cup imagery in this passage? Yes, Jesus talks about it explicitly in verse 39, and then alludes to it again in verse 42. But how are we to understand that imagery here? Well, several chapters earlier, the Gospel writer recorded this exchange in 20:22–23, where the mother of James and John comes asking for special positions of honor for her sons: “Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”  He said to them, “You will drink my cup...” What does Jesus mean? If we keep the context in mind, where honor and glory and privilege are being emphasized, I think we can say that Jesus is talking here about drinking the cup of dishonor and shame and rejection... and for some... drinking that cup even unto death.
And that's exactly what happened to these men, as Jesus told them in Matthew 24:9... “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.”
But the exchange Jesus had with James and John and their mother in Matthew led directly to a lesson about serving one another in humility, a lesson that ended with this stunning statement: “...even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Unlike the figurative 'cup' the disciples would one day drink, the cup that Jesus alone would drink would result in a ransom. Why? The best explanation is that the cup Jesus prayed about in this passage was, in fact, the cup of God's wrath.
Now this may be surprising to you, but, to my knowledge, there is not a verse that explicitly uses the word “wrath” in connection with the cross of Christ. No verse that explicitly describes Jesus as the wrath-bearer. But... that connection, that identification is almost inescapable when you read about Jesus bearing “our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24), when you read about Jesus “becoming a curse for us” on that same “tree” (Galatians 3:13), when you read about Jesus being sent as “the propitiation [i.e., a wrath-satisfying sacrifice] for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
But keeping that amazing truth in mind, think with me about how Jesus prepares to face this “cup”. In 17:22, 20:18, and v. 2 of this chapter (26), Jesus foretold or spoke of being “delivered up/over” to sinful men. That very moment was fast approaching. In fact, when Jesus alerts us to the “betrayer” in the final verse of our passage, he is pointing us to this fulfillment in verse 47. So how did Jesus face the beginning of what John's Gospel calls his “hour”? He prays. And wonderfully, parts of his prayer were preserved... for us. Why? So that we might learn about and love our Redeemer even more, and... that we might learn from our King; that we as disciples might follow our Teacher's example in prayer. What do we learn here about his example? Well...
First, we see here that our King's exemplifies what we might call dependent prayer. It is certainly true that some people only pray, or only pray fervently and sincerely, in the worst of times. But it is equally true that the worst of times can also tempt us away from prayer. Jesus was beginning to experience here what would later be called his passion (i.e., his suffering). As was predicted through the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years earlier, he is most clearly here “a man of sorrows... acquainted with grief...”, for “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”. All of it now was beginning to wash over Jesus. Maybe the words of his ancestor David came to his mind as he fell down before God: “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” (Psalm 55:4-5)
But Jesus was not tempted away from prayer by the overwhelming nature of what he was and would suffer. He was not tempted away from prayer by a plan to escape under cover of dark-ness, or by schemes to overpower the authorities and exact revenge on Judas. He was not tempted away from prayer by any other worldly solution to his suffering. Instead, he brings his grief to God. As the coming storm begins to hit, Jesus seeks refuge in God. You see, we could also say that Jesus was not tempted away from prayer by any false notion that God didn't care. He knew his Father cared. And he wants us to know that as well. As he previously taught his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you... If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (7:7, 11) Our “heavenly Father feeds [the birds of the air]. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26)
Second, we also find in this passage how our King beautifully models for us persistent prayer. After the first hour of bringing his grief to God, we read in verse 42 how “for the second time, he went away and prayed”. And verse 44 mentions a “third time” as well.
Such faith is not content with transactional prayers. What Jesus models for us is rich, relational prayer. He is not arguing his case before God, thinking that he will be heard for his many words. No. He is finding comfort in talking with God about the heaviness of this heart. Let that inspire us, brothers and sisters, to think about God and about our prayers in this same exact way.
A third and final point: we see in this passage how Jesus exemplifies for us what we might call submissive prayer. Jesus is not afraid to bring his request to the Father. What is that request? That, if possible, the cup might “pass” from him. I take that to mean, “Father, if there is any other way to pay that ransom, please let it be so.” What inspired this request? Was it doubt or self-ishness on the part of Jesus? No. Not at all. It was simply a human being recoiling in light of certain suffering and death. The 17th century commentator Matthew Henry describes it so well...
He had a full and clear prospect of all the sufferings that were before him. He foresaw the treachery of Judas, the unkindness of Peter, the malice of the Jews, and their base ingratitude. He knew that he should now in a few hours be scourged, spit upon, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross; death in its most dreadful appearances, death in pomp, attended with all its terrors, looked him in the face
But again, this recoiling was not wrong. In fact, that's what God designed us to do. We have built-in self-protection protocols. They help keep creatures like us alive in a world like this. And yet, the best proof that neither doubt nor selfishness was motivating Jesus was the submissive spirit he demonstrates here, right from the outset. Look at verse 39 again: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” You see, Christlike faith is not disengaged resignation to whatever may be. No. Christlike faith asks God for things. It makes requests of Him. But it always does so while anchored in the priority and goodness of God's will. This is why Jesus taught them to pray this way, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (6:9–10) To address God as “Father” points us to his incomparable goodness. But He is our “Father in heaven”, which reminds of his unrivaled position over all things. It is these two realities that inspire Jesus-like, submissive prayer. Jesus practiced what he preached. What a powerful reminder that the ultimate aim of all prayer is not to acquire what we want, but to align us with what God wants. Why? Because we can never do better than the Father's will. And for us, His will is always that we become more and more like Jesus. Matthew Henry again...
Though we may pray to God to prevent and remove an affliction, yet our chief errand, and that which we should most insist upon, must be, that he will give us grace to bear it well. It should be more our care to get our troubles sanctified, and our hearts satisfied under them, than to get them taken away.
III. The Flesh is Weak, But Our Savior is Strong
Brothers and sisters, what an example for us! And what Savior for us? But it's also important for us to grapple with the stark contrast presented here. What did Jesus ask of his companions? v. 38: “...remain here, and watch with me [i.e., stay spiritually vigilant].” Not a lot to ask, right? But as see here, they failed repeatedly. I don't know about you, but that sounds familiar to me. Their struggle looks a lot like my struggle with watching and praying. Sadly, far too often I am more like these disciples than their Teacher when it comes to prayer. But as we read in verse 41, Jesus understands. He understands this struggle, and wants to equip them for the struggle: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” So we thank God this morning for the suffering of Jesus that began in the garden and culminated on the cross. We thank God for the wrath-bearer. And... we thank God for Christ's resurrection, that now empowers us with hears that long for God and his will. May God help us live from that new heart... and in light of Christ's example here... to pray from that new heart.
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