Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 33: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 26:36-44; MARK 14:32-40;
36. Then Jesus cometh with them to a place which is called Gethsemane, and saith to the disciples, Sit here until I go yonder and pray. 37. And, having taken with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be affected with grief and sorrow. 38. Then Jesus saith to them, My soul is sorrowful, even to death: remain here, and watch with me. 39. And proceeding a little farther, he fell on his face, praying, and saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; but yet not as I will, but as thou wilt. 40. And he came to the disciples, and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, Couldst not thou watch with me one hour? 41. Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. 42. He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, My Father, if this cup cannot pass from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. 43. And he came, and found them sleeping again; for their eyes were heavy. 44. And he left them, and went away again, and prayed a third time, saying the same words.
32. And they come to a place which is called Gethsemane; and he saith to his disciples, Sit here until I have prayed. 33. And he taketh with him Peter, and James, and John. And he began to be afraid, and to be very sorrowful. 34. And he saith to them, My soul is sorrowful, even to death: remain here and watch. 35. And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him; 36. And said, Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me: but yet not what I will, but what thou wilt. 37. And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith to Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? Couldst thou not watch one hour? 38. Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. 39. And he went away again, and prayed, saying the same words. 40. And he returned, and found them sleeping again; for their eyes were heavy, and they did not know what to answer him.
39. And he came out, and went (as he was wont) to the mountain of Olives; and his disciples also followed him. 40. And when he came to the place, he said to then, pray that you may not enter into temptation. 41. And he withdrew from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, 42. Saying, Father, if thou wilt, remove this cup from me; but yet not my will, but thine be done. 43. And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44. And, being in agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. 45. And when he had risen from prayer, and come to his disciples, he found them sleeping through sorrow. 46. And he saith to them, Why do you sleep? Arise; and pray, that you may not enter into temptation.
Matthew 26:36. Then Jesus cometh with them. Luke mentions the mountain of Olives only. Mark and Matthew add a more minute description of the place. But Luke expresses what is still more to the purpose, that Christ came there according to his custom. Hence we infer, that he did not seek retirement for the purpose of concealing himself, but, as if he had made an assignation with his enemies, he presented himself to death. On this account John says (Joh 18:2) that the place was known to the traitor, because Jesus was wont to come there frequently. In this passage, therefore, his obedience is again described to us, because he could not have appeased the Father but by a voluntary death.
Sit here. By leaving the disciples at a distance, he spares their weakness; as if a man, perceiving that he would soon be in extreme danger in battle, were to leave his wife and children in a situation of safety. But though he intended to place them all beyond arrow-shot, yet he took three of them who accompanied him more closely than the rest, and these were the flower and choice, in which there was greater rigor. And yet he did not take them, as if he believed that they would be able to sustain the attack, but that they might afford a proof of the defect which was common to them all.
37. He began to be affected with grief. We have seen that our Lord formerly contended with the fear of death; but as he now fights face to face with temptation, such an attack is called the beginning of grief and sorrow. Hence we infer that the true test of virtue is only to be found when the contest begins; for then the weakness of the flesh, which was formerly concealed, shows itself, and the secret feelings are abundantly displayed. Thus, though God had already tried his Son by certain preparatory exercises, he now wounds him more sharply by a nearer prospect of death, and strikes his mind with a terror to which he had not been accustomed. But as it appears to be inconsistent with the divine glory of Christ, that he was seized with trembling and sadness, many commentators have labored with toil and anxiety to find some way of evading the difficulty. But their labor has been ill-judged and of no use; for if we are ashamed that Christ should experience fear and sorrow, our redemption will perish and be lost.
Ambrose justly says: “I not only do not think that there is any need of excuse, but there is no instance in which I admire more his kindness and his majesty; for he would not have done so much for me, if he had not taken upon him my feelings. He grieved for me, who had no cause of grief for himself; and, laying aside the delights of the eternal Godhead, he experiences the affliction of my weakness. I boldly call it sorrow, because I preach the cross. For he took upon him not the appearance, but the reality, of incarnation. It was therefore necessary that he should experience grief, that he might overcome sorrow, and not shut it out; for the praise of fortitude is not bestowed on those who are rather stupefied than pained by wounds.” Thus far Ambrose.
Certainly those who imagine that the Son of God was exempt from human passions do not truly and sincerely acknowledge him to be a man. And when it is even said that the divine power of Christ rested and was concealed for a time, that by his sufferings he might discharge all that belonged to the Redeemer, this was so far from being absurd, that in no other way could the mystery of our salvation have been accomplished. For Cyril has properly said: “That the suffering of Christ on the cross was not in every respect voluntary, but that it was voluntary on account of the will of the Father, and on account of our salvation, you may easily learn from his prayer, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. For the same reason that the Word of God is God, (Joh 1:1,) and is naturally life itself, (Joh 11:25,) nobody doubts that he had no dread of death; but, having been made flesh, (Joh 1:14,) he allows the flesh to feel what belongs to it, and, therefore, being truly a man, he trembles at death, when it is now at the door, and says, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; but since it cannot be otherwise, let it be not as I will, but as thou wilt. You see how human nature, even in Christ himself, has the sufferings and fears which belong to it, but that the Word, who is united to it, raises it to a fortitude which is worthy of God.” He at length concludes: “You perceive that it was not for the sake of the flesh that the death of Christ was voluntary, but that it was voluntary, because, on account of it, according to the will of the Father, salvation and life were bestowed on men.” Such are the views of Cyril.
Still the weakness which Christ took upon himself must be distinguished from ours, for there is a great difference. In us there is no affection unaccompanied by sin, because they all exceed due bounds and proper restraint; but when Christ was distressed by grief and fear, he did not rise against God, but continued to be regulated by the true rule of moderation. We need not wonder that, since he was innocent, and pure from every stain, the affections which flowed from him were pure and stainless; but that nothing proceeds from the corrupt nature of men which is not impure and filthy. Let us, therefore, attend to this distinction, that Christ, amidst fear and sadness, was weak without any taint of sin; but that all our affections are sinful, because they rise to an extravagant height.
The kind of feelings, by which Christ was tempted, is also worthy of notice. Matthew says that he was affected by grief and sorrow (or anxiety;)Luke says that he was seized with anguish; and Mark adds that he trembled. And whence came his sorrow and anguish, and fear, but because he felt that death had something in it more sad and more dreadful than the separation of the soul and body? And certainly he underwent death, not merely that he might depart from earth to heaven, but rather that, by taking upon himself the curse to which we were liable, he might deliver us from it. He had no horror at death, therefore, simply as a passage out of the world, but because he had before his eyes the dreadful tribunal of God, and the Judge himself armed with inconceivable vengeance; and because our sins, the load of which was laid upon him, pressed him down with their enormous weight. There is no reason to wonder, therefore, if the dreadful abyss of destruction tormented him grievously with fear and anguish.
38. My soul is sorrowful. He communicates to them his sorrow, in order to arouse them to sympathy; not that he was unacquainted with their weakness, but in order that they might afterwards be more ashamed of their carelessness. This phrase expresses a deadly wound of grief; as if he had said, that he fainted, or was half-dead, with sorrow. Jonah (Jon 4:9) makes use of a similar phrase in replying to the Lord; I am angry even to death. I advert to this, because some of the ancient writers, in handling this passage with a misapplication of ingenuity, philosophize in this way, that the soul of Christ was not sorrowful in death but only even to death. And here again we ought to remember the cause of so great sorrow; for death in itself would not have so grievously tormented the mind of the Son of God, if he had not felt that he had to deal with the judgment of God.
39. And he went forward a little. We have seen in other passages, that in order to excite himself to greater earnestness of prayer, the Lord prayed in the absence of witnesses; for when we are withdrawn from the gaze of men, we succeed better in collecting our senses, so as to attend more closely to what we are doing. It is not, indeed, necessary — nay more, it is not always proper — that we should retire to distant corners whenever we pray; but when some great necessity urges us, because the fervor of prayer is more freely indulged when we are alone, it is useful to us to pray apart. And if the Son of God did not disregard this aid, it would be the greatest madness of pride in us not to apply it for our own advantage. Add to this, that when God alone is witness, as there is nothing then to be feared from ambition, the believing soul unfolds itself with greater familiarity, and with greater simplicity pours its wishes, and groans, and anxieties, and fears, and hopes, and joys, into the bosom of God. God allows his people to make use of many little modes of speaking, when they pray alone, which, in the presence of men, would savor of ostentation.
And fell on his face. By the very gesture of falling on the earth, Christ manifested his deep earnestness in prayer. For though kneeling, as our expression of respect and reverence, is commonly used in prayer, Christ, by throwing himself on the ground as a suppliant, placed himself in a pitiable attitude on account of the vehemence of his grief.
My Father, if it be possible. In vain do some persons labor to show that what is here described is not a prayer, but only a complaint. For my own part, while I own that it is abrupt, I have no doubt that Christ offered a prayer. Nor is it inconsistent with this, that he asks a thing that is impossible to be granted to him; for the prayers of believers do not always flow on with uninterrupted progress to the end, do not always maintain a uniform measure, are not always arranged even in a distinct order, but, on the contrary, are involved and confused, and either oppose each other, or stop in the middle of the course; like a vessel tossed by tempests, which, though it advances towards the harbor, cannot always keep a straight and uniform course, as in a calm sea. We must remember, indeed, what I lately mentioned, that Christ had not confused emotions, like those to which we are accustomed, to withdraw his mind from pure moderation; but, so far as the pure and innocent nature of man could admit, he was struck with fear and seized with anguish, so that, amidst the violent shocks of temptation, he vacillated—as it were—from one wish to another. This is the reason why, after having prayed to be freed from death, he immediately restrains himself, and, submitting to the authority of the Father, corrects and recalls that wish which had suddenly escaped him.
But it may be asked, How did he pray that the eternal decree of the Father, of which he was not ignorant, should be revoked? or though he states a condition, if it be possible, yet it wears an aspect of absurdity to make the purpose of God changeable. We must hold it to be utterly impossible for God to revoke his decree. According to Mark, too, Christ would seem to contrast the power of God with his decree. All things, says he, are possible to thee. But it would be improper to extend the power of God so far as to lessen his truth, by making him liable to variety and change. I answer, There would be no absurdity in supposing that Christ, agreeably to the custom of the godly, leaving out of view the divine purpose, committed to the bosom of the Father his desire which troubled him. For believers, in pouring out their prayers, do not always ascend to the contemplation of the secrets of God, or deliberately inquire what is possible to be done, but are sometimes carried away hastily by the earnestness of their wishes. Thus Moses prays that he may be blotted out of the book of life, (Ex 32:33;) thus Paul wished to be made an anathema, 201 (Ro 9:3.) This, therefore, was not a premeditated prayer of Christ; but the strength and violence of grief suddenly drew this word from his mouth, to which he immediately added a correction. The same vehemence of desire took away from him the immediate recollection of the heavenly decree, so that he did not at that moment reflect, that it was on this condition, 202 that he was sent to be the Redeemer of mankind; as distressing anxiety often brings darkness over our eyes, so that we do not at once remember the whole state of the matter. In short, there is no impropriety, if in prayer we do not always direct our immediate attention to every thing, so as to preserve a distinct order. When Christ says, in the Gospel by Matthew, that all things are possible to God, he does not intend by these words to bring the power of God into conflict with unchangeable truth and firmness; but as there was no hope—which is usually the case when affairs are desperate—he throws himself on the power of God. The word (ποτήριον) cup or chalice — as we have mentioned elsewhere — denotes the providence of God, which assigns to each his measure of the cross and of affliction, just as the master of a house gives an allowance to each servant, and distributes portions among the children.
But yet not as I will, but as thou wilt. We see how Christ restrains his feelings at the very outset, and quickly brings himself into a state of obedience. But here it may first be inquired, How was his will pure from all vice, while it did not agree with the will of God? For if the will of God is the only rule of what is good and right, it follows, that all the feelings which are at variance with it are vicious. I reply: Though it be true rectitude to regulate all our feelings by the good pleasure of God, yet there is a certain kind of indirect disagreement with it which is not faulty, and is not reckoned as sin; if, for example, a person desire to see the Church in a calm and flourishing condition, if he wish that the children of God were delivered from afflictions, that all superstitions were removed out of the world, and that the rage of wicked men were so restrained as to do no injury. These things, being in themselves right, may properly be desired by believers, though it may please God to order a different state of matters: for he chooses that his Son should reign among enemies; that his people should be trained under the cross; and that the triumph of faith and of the Gospel should be rendered more illustrious by the opposing machinations of Satan. We see how those prayers are holy, which appear to be contrary to the will of God; for God does not desire us to be always exact or scrupulous in inquiring what he has appointed, but allows us to ask what is desirable according to the capacity of our senses.
But the question has not yet been fully answered: for since we have just now said that all the feelings of Christ were properly regulated, how does he now correct himself? For he brings his feelings into obedience to God in such a manner as if he had exceeded what was proper. Certainly in the first prayer we do not perceive that calm moderation which I have described; for, as far as lies in his power, he refuses and shrinks from discharging the office of Mediator. I reply: When the dread of death was presented to his mind, and brought along with it such darkness, that he left out of view every thing else, and eagerly presented that prayer, there was no fault in this. Nor is it necessary to enter into any subtle controversy whether or not it was possible for him to forget our salvation. We ought to be satisfied with this single consideration, that at the time when he uttered a prayer to be delivered from death, he was not thinking of other things which would have shut the door against such a wish.
If it be objected, that the first movement, which needed to be restrained before it proceeded farther, was not so well regulated as it ought to have been, I reply: In the present corruption of our nature it is impossible to find ardor of affections accompanied by moderation, such as existed in Christ; but we ought to give such honor to the Son of God, as not to judge of him by what we find in ourselves. For in us all the affections of the flesh, when strongly excited, break out into rebellion, or, at least, have some mixture of pollution; but Christ, amidst the utmost vehemence of grief or fear, restrained himself within proper bounds. Nay more, as musical sounds, though various and differing from each other, are so far from being discordant, that they produce sweet melody and fine harmony; so in Christ there was a remarkable example of adaptation between the two wills, 203 the will of God and the will of man, so that they differed from each other without any conflict or opposition.
This passage shows plainly enough the gross folly of those ancient heretics, who were called Monothelites, 204 because they imagined that the will of Christ was but one and simple; for Christ, as he was God, willed nothing different from the Father; and therefore it follows, that his human soul had affections distinct from the secret purpose of God. But if even Christ was under the necessity of holding his will captive, in order to subject it to the government of God, though it was properly regulated, how carefully ought we to repress the violence of our feelings, which are always inconsiderate, and rash, and full of rebellion? And though the Spirit of God governs us, so that we wish nothing but what is agreeable to reason, still we owe to God such obedience as to endure patiently that our wishes should not be granted; 205 For the modesty of faith consists in permitting God to appoint differently from what we desire. Above all, when we have no certain and special promise, we ought to abide by this rule, not to ask any thing but on the condition that God shall fulfill what he has decreed; which cannot be done, unless we give up our wishes to his disposal.
It comes now to be inquired, what advantage did Christ gain by praying? The apostle, in writing to the Hebrews, says that he was heard (ἀπὸ τὢς εὐλαβείας) on account of his fear: for so ought that passage to be explained, and not, as it is usually explained, on account of his reverence, (Heb 5:7.) That would not have been consistent, if Christ had simply feared death; for he was not delivered from it. Hence it follows, that what led him to pray to be delivered from death was the dread of a greater evil. When he saw the wrath of God exhibited to him, as he stood at the tribunal of God charged with the sins of the whole world, he unavoidably shrunk with horror from the deep abyss of death. And, therefore, though he suffered death, yet since its pains were loosed—as Peter tells us, (Ac 2:24,)—and he was victorious in the conflict, the Apostle justly says, that he was heard on account of his fear. Here ignorant people rise up and exclaim, that it would have been unworthy of Christ to be afraid of being swallowed up by death. But I should wish them to answer this question, What kind of fear do they suppose it to have been which drew from Christ drops of blood? (lu 22:44) For that mortal sweat could only have proceeded from fearful and unusual horror. If any person, in the present day, were to sweat blood, and in such a quantity that the drops should fall to the ground, it would be reckoned an astonishing miracle; and if this happened to any man through fear of death, we would say that he had a cowardly and effeminate mind. Those men, therefore, who deny that Christ prayed that the Father would rescue him from the gulf of death, ascribe to him a cowardice that would be disgraceful even in an ordinary man.
If it be objected, that the fear which I am describing arises from unbelief, the answer is easy. When Christ was struck with horror at the divine curse, the feeling of the flesh affected him in such a manner, that faith still remained firm and unshaken. For such was the purity of his nature, that he felt, without being wounded by them, those temptations which pierce us with their stings. And yet those persons, by representing him not to have felt temptations, foolishly imagine that he was victorious without fighting. And, indeed, we have no right to suppose that he used any hypocrisy, when he complained of a mortal sadness in his soul; nor do the Evangelists speak falsely, when they say that he was exceedingly sorrowful, and that he trembled
40. And he came to his disciples. Though he was neither delivered from fear, nor freed from anxiety, yet he interrupted the ardor of prayer, and administered this consolation. For believers are not required to be so constant in prayer as never to cease from conversing with God; but on the contrary, following the example of Christ, they continue their prayers till they have proceeded as far as their infirmity allows, then cease for a short time, and immediately after drawing breath return to God. It would have been no slight alleviation of his grief, if his disciples had accompanied him, and taken part in it; and on the other hand, it was a bitter aggravation of his sufferings, that even they forsook him. For though he did not need the assistance of any one, yet as he had voluntarily taken upon him our infirmities, and as it was chiefly in this struggle that he intended to give a proof of that emptying of himself, of which Paul speaks, (Php 2:7,) we need not wonder if the indifference of those whom he had selected to be his companions added a heavy and distressing burden to his grief. For his expostulation is not feigned, but, out of the true feeling of his mind, he declares that he is grieved at having been forsaken. And, indeed, he had good grounds for reproaching them with indifference, since, amidst the extremity of his anguish, they did not watch at least one hour.
41. Watch and pray. As the disciples were unmoved by their Master’s danger, their attention is directed to themselves, that a conviction of their own danger may arouse them. Christ therefore threatens that, if they do not watch and pray, they may be soon overwhelmed by temptation. As if he had said, “Though you take no concern about me, do not fail, at least, to think of yourselves; for your own interests are involved in it, and if you do not take care, temptation will immediately swallow you up.” For to enter into temptation means to yield to it. 206 And let us observe, that the manner of resistance which is here enjoined is, not to draw courage from reliance on our own strength and perseverance, but, on the contrary, from a conviction of our weakness, to ask arms and strength from the Lord. Our watching, therefore, will be of no avail without prayer.
The spirit indeed is willing. That he may not terrify and discourage his disciples, he gently reproves their slothfulness, and adds consolation and good ground of hope. And, first, he reminds them, that though they are earnestly desirous to do what is right, still they must contend with the weakness of the flesh, and, therefore, that prayer is never unnecessary. We see, then, that he gives them the praise of willingness, in order that their weakness may not throw them into despair, and yet urges them to prayer, because they are not sufficiently endued with the power of the Spirit. Wherefore, this admonition relates properly to believers, who, being regenerated by the Spirit of God, are desirous to do what is right, but still labor under the weakness of the flesh; for though the grace of the Spirit is vigorous in them, they are weak according to the flesh. And though the disciples alone have their weakness here pointed out to them, yet, since what Christ says of them applies equally to all, we ought to draw from it a general rule, that it is our duty to keep diligent watch by praying; for we do not yet possess the power of the Spirit in such a measure as not to fall frequently through the weakness of the flesh, unless the Lord grant his assistance to raise up and uphold us. But there is no reason why we should tremble with excessive anxiety; for an undoubted remedy is held out to us, which we will neither have nor to seek nor to seek in vain; for Christ promises that all who, being earnest in prayer, shall perseveringly oppose the slothfulness of the flesh, will be victorious.
42. Again he went away a second time. By these words Christ seems as if, having subdued fear, he came with greater freedom and courage to submit to the will of the Father; for he no longer asks to have the cup removed from him, but, leaving out this prayer, insists rather on obeying the purpose of God. But according to Mark, this progress is not described; and even when Christ returned a second time, we are told that he repeated the same prayer; and, indeed, I have no doubt, that at each of the times when he prayed, fear and horror impelled him to ask that he might be delivered from death. 207 Yet it is probable that, at the second time, he labored more to yield obedience to the Father, and that the first encounter with temptation animated him to approach death with greater confidence.Luke does not expressly relate that he prayed three several times, but only says that, when he was pressed with anguish, he prayed with greater copiousness and earnestness, as if he had continued to pray without any intermission. But we know that the Evangelists sometimes leave out circumstances, and only glance rapidly at the substance of what took place. Accordingly, when he says towards the close, that Christ came to his disciples, it is a hysteron proteton; 208 just as, in another clause, he relates that an angel from heaven appeared, before he speaks of Christ’s anguish. But the inversion of the order carries no absurdity; for, in order to inform us that the angel was not sent without a good reason, the necessity for it is afterwards stated; and thus the latter part of the narrative is, in some sort, a reason assigned for the former. Now though it is the Spirit of God alone that imparts fortitude, that does not hinder God from employing angels as his ministers. And hence we may conclude what excruciating distresses the Son of God must have endured, since it was necessary that the assistance of God should be granted to him in a visible manner.
43. And found them sleeping again. This drowsiness arose neither from excessive eating and drinking, nor from gross stupidity, nor even from effeminate indulgence of the flesh, but rather—as Luke tells us—from immoderate sorrow. Hence we perceive more clearly how strong is the tendency of our flesh to indifference; since even dangers lead us to forgetfulness of God. Thus on every hand Satan finds suitable and ready opportunities of spreading his snares for us. For if we dread no danger, he intoxicates and drowns us in sleep; and if we experience fear and sorrow, which ought to arouse us to pray, he overwhelms our senses, so that they do not rise to God; and thus, in every respect, men fall away and forsake God, till he restores them. We must observe also this circumstance, that the disciples, after having been sharply reproved, almost at that very moment fall again asleep. Nor is this said of the whole body, but of the three whom Christ had selected to be his chief companions; and what shall we say of the greater number, when this happened to the flower of them? Now the repetition of the same words was not a vain repetition, (βατταλογία) which Christ formerly condemned in hypocrites, (Mt 6:7) who hope that they will obtain by idle talking what they do not ask honestly and sincerely. 209 But Christ intended to show by his example, that we must not be discouraged or grow weary in praying, if we do not immediately obtain our wishes. So then, it is not a superfluous repetition of the words, if a repulse which we have experienced is so far from extinguishing the ardor of prayer, that we ask a third and fourth time what God appears to have denied.
“A desiré d’estre separé de Christ;” — “desired to be separated from Christ.”
“Avec ceste condition de souffrir la mort;” — “on this condition of suffering death.”
“Les deux volontés.”
Μονοθελὢται is compounded of μόνος, one, and θέλω, I will. The Monothelite heresy sprung up in the Seventh Century, and is fully detailed by our ecclesiastical historians. Its leading tenet was, that Christ had not one will as God, and another will as Man. — Ed.
“Que nos souhaits ne vienent point à loeur issue, quand ainsi luy plaist;” — “that our wishes should not succeed, when it so pleases Him.”
“Succomber et estre viencu;” — “to yield and to be overcome.”
“A requerir qu’il ne veinst point a ceste mort;” — “to ask that he might not com to that death.”
Hysteron proteron (ὕστερον πρότερον) is a figure of rhetoric, by which the natural order of events is reversed. — Ed.
Harmony, vol. 1, p. 313