Jesus’ actions in Gethsemane hold many mysteries. Expositors normally account for Jesus’ grief and sorrow by relating it directly to his personal angst over the imminent horror of the crucifixion. I have no doubt that the cross contained more then enough grief to overwhelm anyone, and in Jesus’ case his punishment for human sin made the suffering unprecedented. Yet, throughout Mark’s story of Jesus the narrator presents Jesus as in control, without fear, embracing his mission with Spirit-filled courage and determination. It seems out of character that at the last hour Jesus would suddenly quail in the face of the cross, when resurrection would soon come, or seek some other remedy because he is distraught. Are there additional reasons which compound Jesus’ grief as the cross looms before him?
Mark used two verbs in 14:33 that describe a change in Jesus’ perspective at this point in the narrative. One verb is peculiar to this Gospel (ekthambeisthai ; cf. Mark 1:27; 9:15; 10:(24 simplex form),32; 16:5-6) and has the sense of being “overwhelmed to the point of disarray” because of something observed or anticipated. The other verb is adẽmonein which suggests a deep concern for someone. In Philippians 2:26 Paul used this word to describe the concern that Epaphroditus felt for his friends at Philippi because they knew about his serious illness. So these two words in combination suggest that Jesus began to be overwhelmed and deeply concerned about what soon would transpire.
The following verse (14:34) describes Jesus’ message to the three apostles and is translated in the New International Version as “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow (perilupos) to the point of death (heōs thanatou).” Mark used the adjective perilupos to describe Herod Antipas’ response (“was greatly distressed”) to Herodias’ request for the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:26). Despite his internal distress Herod still gave the order for John’s execution. In the case of Jesus we still do not know at this point in Mark’s narrative what is generating such “distress” in Jesus. The use of the term in the Herod story shows that the cause of the distress does not have to be something that directly happens to the person who is experiencing this emotion. John will be executed, not Herod, but it is Herod’s action that leads to John’s untimely and unseemly execution. In some of the Psalms this word describes a deep sadness (Psalm 42:5,11; 43:5)1 because of harassment.
The second part of the description in 14:34 is the phrase “to the point of death” (heōs thanatou). Various interpretations are suggested. Some link this phrase to the Psalmist’s sense of anxiety, but the phrase is not used in these contexts. Others point to Jonah 4:8-9 and the prophet’s sadness to the point of death, i.e. he craves death because of Nineveh’s escape from God’s wrath. But we have no sense in Mark’s narrative that Jesus is expressing a wish to die. Another suggestion is that this phrase defines the deepest kind of sorrow, with an intensity that matches death itself. If this is the meaning, it is not clear again what generates this distress on the part of Jesus. That he feels intense sadness seems to be without dispute.
Jesus continues to pray that “the hour might pass by” and “the cup be taken away” (14:35-36). The Markan narrator expresses the first by indirect discourse and the second he iterates in a direct statement. In two other Markan contexts “cup” refers to Jesus’ death (10:38ff; 14:23-24). It seems odd that in 14:23-24 Jesus “gives thanks for the cup” which symbolizes his imminent, sacrificial death, but a few verses latter is asking that he be preserved from this experience because of personal distress and anxiety. The other term “hour” has eschatological connotations in 13:32. Jesus has prophesied at least four times in Mark 8-10 that he will be rejected, executed and resurrected. In Mark 10:32-34 Jesus is explicit that his death will occur shortly in Jerusalem. If this “hour” only has reference to his death as a personal experience, then it again seems strange that he would pray that God “save him” and stop the process. His whole mission has led to this very event.
I would suggest that the grief that Jesus experiences is not only focused upon himself nor is his desire that the cup be taken away expressed for personal benefit. Rather, Jesus knows that his death will mark his rejection by Israel. But this in turn will bring God’s judgment and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, as he has prophesied in Mark 13. The Synoptic Gospels describe two occasions when Jesus expresses his grief for Jerusalem. At the end of Matthew 23 Jesus laments Jerusalem’s unwillingness to accept him. He prophesies that “your house is left to you desolate” (23:37-39). Again in Luke 19:41-44 when Jesus is approaching Jerusalem “he wept over it” because they refused God’s offer of peace and “did not recognize the time of God’s coming.”
Jesus knows what his death will precipitate for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. He longs for their rescue and redemption and laments on different occasions the consequences of their lack of repentance. I would suggest that this reality, if not the major cause of Jesus’ sorrow in Gethsemane, at least is a significant contributor to his distress. His injunction to the three apostles who accompany him to watch and pray connects with the same instruction that ends Mark 13. Their failure demonstrates that not even his most intimate associates have the spiritual discernment to understand what is happening.
- what are the occasions in Scripture when God weeps? What causes the Holy Spirit to grieve? Does God’s grief ever affect us?
- is there something you are doing that you know causes God grief? Why do you persist? Is God’s joy important to you?
- 1Greek translation is numbered Psalm 41:6,12; 42:5.