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Even in events that seem as disastrous as Jesus' arrest and execution seemed to the first disciples, God may be preparing his sovereign purposes (compare 2:16-17). Nevertheless, he gives us a part to play--and in this case all of our spiritual forebears failed. The disciples would deny him, despite their protestations (26:31-34); indeed, in their failure to remain prayerful in advance, they had failed the test before it arrived (vv. 40-45).
I weep when I remember how often these disciples stand for us. We forget too easily that Jesus became one of us, became flesh. He made himself vulnerable, depending in his most difficult hour on the support of his friends--and we let him down. Reigning as Lord of the universe, he does not depend on our support in the same way now; but is it possible that Matthew still intends us to hear the plaintive cry of the Lord of harvest in this narrative? The burden of his heart remains the mission of the world's redemption, yet he continues to cry out to a sleeping church governed by other agendas.
Jesus knows better than we do what we are made of. This theme appears in verses 31-32, 34, 41. Jesus thus tells us what it will take for us to succeed in his mission (v. 41)--for testing must come (vv. 45-46). When Jesus warns that they would fall away because of him (v. 31; compare Is 8:14), he probably refers to apostasy (compare Mt 5:29-30; 13:41; 16:23; 17:27; 18:6-9). Despite Peter's objection that he would not stumble (compare Test. Job 4:2; 5:1), Jesus responds that he will indeed do so, and three times at that (26:34; compare Jn 13:36-38). Jesus promises that the denial will happen before daybreak--which means that this Peter who is vigorously protesting that he will never deny Jesus is already on the verge of renouncing him.
Yet in promising to meet them in Galilee (which normally has positive associations in Matthew--4:12, 23; 10:5) after he has risen (28:7), Jesus promises a restoration beyond their apostasy (26:32; see Petersen 1978:76). Jesus' demands are high (10:33), but he does not automatically repudiate those who fail; this is important for us to remember as we encounter frustration while seeking to bring both ourselves and our fellow disciples to maturity.
Only devotion to prayer can carry us through the hardest times. Our best intentions (26:33, 35) cannot protect us in the time of severest testing unless we have learned how to seek God in prayer (v. 41). The three disciples worthy of special censure here (vv. 37, 40) are the three who had witnessed Jesus' glory on the mountain (17:1), including the disciple most adamant about his faithfulness (26:35). Spirit (v. 41) refers to the purpose of the human spirit versus the weakness of mortal humanity (in contrast to Paul's usual contrast between God's Spirit and human flesh). Jesus had already warned his disciples to pray lest they succumb to the test, a warning applicable to all disciples (6:13); his admonitions to watch likewise apply to all disciples in all eras (24:42-43; 25:13; compare F. Bruce 1972a:71 n. 14; Jeremias 1972:44, 55; pace Barrett 1967:47). The lesson of Gethsemane is thus for all generations.
The disciples' failure reminds us that they were people of flesh and blood just like us, not superspiritual people whom God would use because they had earned his favor. Even the big meal should not have put them to sleep so quickly; it was customary to discuss God's redemptive acts for a few hours after the meal before singing the Hallel (t. Ketubot 5:5). Some Jewish tradition suggested that those who fell asleep to the point they could not even answer thereby dissolved their Passover group--which the disciples inexplicably did by the time Jesus had finished praying (Daube 1956:342). Jesus did not regularly hold "all-night prayer" as a mark of being spiritual, but he did expect the disciples to take seriously his need in this emergency situation. If staying awake on this one night was a test, the disciples failed it. Peter undoubtedly comes in for special rebuke (v. 40) because he had most vehemently pledged his faithfulness till death (v. 33).
God's call may lead through unbearable pain. If this was the case with Jesus (vv. 37-39, 42, 44), his servants should expect no less (10:24-25). By describing his sorrow as to the point of death (26:38), Jesus underlines the intensity of his grief: of itself the grief could kill him (Meier 1980:323).
When we are in such pain, we need the strength of others' presence. Jesus' disciples provide a stark contrast in this narrative, a foil that reveals our Lord's own sacrifice all the more powerfully. Some popular authors and speakers emphasize "being positive" in all circumstances without exception, but despite the importance of a cheerful disposition (Prov 15:13, 15; 17:27; 18:14) and the normalcy of Christian joy (Gal 5:22; Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16), in the psalms God's servants also repeatedly pour out broken hearts to him (for example, Ps 39:10-13; 40:13-17; 89:46-51). Jesus does not complain, but he does ask for support in prayer, and finds strength for his mission in God alone. The world and the church around us are full of suffering; they will hear God's heart for them best if we share their suffering in prayer (Mt 26:38-41) rather than if we dismiss genuine pain with platitudes about "being positive."
Cup refers to Jesus' sufferings and death on the cross (20:22; 26:27-28; compare 27:48). The image probably alludes as well to the frequent biblical picture of God's "cup of wrath" against the nations (Ps 60:3; 75:8; Is 29:9-10; 51:17, 21-23; Jer 25:15-29; Lam 4:21; Zech 12:2). Thus Jesus may shrink not merely from death but from dying as a sacrifice under his Father's wrath (Gundry 1982:533; Is 53:10).
No matter what the pain, we must obey the mission God has given us. Jesus had lived his life in filial obedience to his Father's will; now he chose the Father's plan over his own desire (Mt 26:39, 42, 44). Being fully human, Jesus experienced the full human dread of death; because the Son is distinct from the Father, his own desire might differ from the Father's, though he was ready to submit to the Father. Jesus' obedience is thus an example for us (12:50; compare 7:21). Loving God does not always mean that we want to face what God calls us to face; it does mean that we choose to face it anyway. Thus when the test arrives, Jesus summons all his disciples to rise to face it--ready or not (26:45).
From this point forward, passive verbs depicting Jesus' suffering and actions done to Jesus dominate most of the narrative (Perrin 1976:91); having labored until his hour, he now relinquishes his destiny to the Father. Yet even in his surrender, he remains in majestic control; only his own words (v. 64) will allow his accusers to condemn him (see Rhoads and Michie 1982:88).