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Matthew 26:31-35 -
Preparation for Jesus’ Arrest,
31Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:
“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
32”But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
33Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
34“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
35But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.
During the evening and night of the Last Supper, Jesus was to spend His time in prayer at Gethsemane, to prepare for the suffering He was about to endure. Before that, Jesus wanted to apprise the disciples of the trials they would face, presumably so that they also would spend the time in prayer: “Then Jesus told them, ‘This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered”’” (vs. 31). “The intimacy of the Last Supper is shortly to be replaced by disloyalty and cowardice” [Carson, 540].
On this occasion, Jesus is very specific about the time of the suffering; it is “this very night.” “He has during more than six months repeatedly foretold that He should be put to death in Jerusalem and rise again (see 16:21; 17:22ff; 20:18ff). At the close of His public teaching, He declared that He should at the Passover be delivered up and crucified (see 26:2). Now He is perfectly definite as to the time” [Broadus, 533].
Jesus’ charge is serious; they would “fall away”. The Greek words here used suggest a forsaking of Christ, possibly even an apostasy or renunciation of one’s belief. And this “falling away” was not to be an isolated stumbling, they would “all”, to a man, fall away.
Jesus was certain this would occur. There is no wiggle-room in His words: “This very night you will…” In fact, the isolation and forsaking of the Messiah during His sufferings was predicted in the Old Testament. Jesus cites one of the prophetic statements: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (vs. 31, taken from Zech. 13:7). Isaiah (in the amazing prophetic chapter Isaiah 53) also alludes to Jesus’ isolation during His suffering, telling us none of His followers would defend Him: “By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?” (Isaiah 53:8). And what if the disciples, rather than “scattering”, stood with Jesus and “protested” His innocence, His sinlessness. What if Peter had got up, and preached to the mob about the significance of the suffering and death of Jesus, as it was happening? Would not this have served to open their hearts to the promptings of the Spirit of God, as they watched Jesus die for them? What if the disciples had prophesied aloud the resurrection of Christ to the throngs that had gathered, before it occurred? Would not many of the throng have been inclined to worship Jesus as their Savior after His resurrection, having been told beforehand of the significance of His death, and the surety of His resurrection? Yet instead, they denied Him, disowned Him, and “fell away”.
By citing the prophecy of the “striking” and the “scattering”, Jesus is letting the disciples know that the horrible things that were about to occur, were to be all part of God’s plan, foreknown to Jesus Himself. “What the Lord knew by immediate prevision, He nevertheless connects with a prophetic word: partly for the sake of the disciples, partly on account of His relation to the law; and further to prove that the course of His suffering was not contrary to Old Testament predictions, but that the carnal notions of the Jews as to a Messiah exempt from suffering were in direct contradiction to the Old Testament” [Lange, 478]. “In laying out in advance much of the tragedy of the coming hours, [this passage] shows that Jesus is not a blind victim of fate but a voluntary sacrifice; and simultaneously He is preparing His disciples for their dark night of doubt” [Carson, 540]. “His agonizing trials came not on Him by surprise or accident; all was foreknown and forearranged. The very prospect of all our life trials would crush us long before they came; but Christ had that sublime magnanimity that enabled Him to look at them in all their enormity in the distance, approach them without a faltering step, enter them with a spirit of unconquerable loyalty to Heaven, and pass through them with the moral energy of a God” [Thomas, 500].
To console them, Jesus lets the disciples know that all will end well: “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (vs. 32). Despite the predicted “falling away”, Jesus, in His grace and forgiveness, says that He will meet them after His death and resurrection. “Both His knowledge and His purpose stretched beyond His death; that He should rise, knew that He should meet them after His resurrection. He speaks of all with most unquestioned certainty” [Thomas, 501]. This prophecy was directly fulfilled when Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission in Galilee (see Matt. 28:16ff).
The exactitude, and imminence of their Lord’s prediction of their “falling away” should have put the disciples on guard, and should have incited the disciples to prayer and deep reflection. Instead, they rejected that what Jesus prophesied would occur. Peter spoke up: “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (vs. 33). “Since he did not know [or fully understand] what he would be called upon to go through, it was a thoughtless and foolish boast, but it reflects the deep-seated loyalty in the heart of this disciple and his determination at the time he spoke to be faithful, whatever the circumstances” [Morris, 665]. But Jesus had said “all”, and He meant “all”, even Peter. Peter’s reply to Jesus was quite presumptuous, given that Peter earlier professed Jesus to be “Messiah. The Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). The words, “No, Lord” should never be spoken together. Peter would learn that Jesus knew his heart better than he himself did.
Jesus contradicts Peter’s prideful (almost boasting) statement, “Even if all fall away…”, by informing Peter that indeed he would fall away in a more shameful way than the other disciples: “‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times’” (vs. 34). Peter would sink far lower than he thought capable of himself. “In the best of men there may sleep certain elements of depravity, which, if roused by powerful temptation, would prompt them to actions, the very thought of which a few minutes before would make them shudder” [Thomas, 501].
This is a specific prediction, not a vague forecast. It was to happen “This very night, before the rooster crows”. The specificity should have given Peter pause, and caused him to stop and reflect. Instead, Peter doubles down: “But Peter declared, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’” (vs. 35). To Peter’s credit, I believe that he was ready to actually die with Christ. Peter demonstrates this by drawing his sword, and even beginning to fight with it when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus (see John 18:10). Peter imagined possibly dying for Christ, in a blaze of glory, in a brave fight against the soldiers. Peter did not, however, imagine the way it would actually turn out: Jesus rebuking him for drawing his sword; Jesus voluntarily going to His death. Peter, I am sure, was caught off-guard by this, and the unexpectedness of Jesus’ voluntary surrender, led to (I believe) his denials and his disowning of His Lord. Sometimes, yea even most times, I dare say, God does not work things as we planned them. We need to be prepared to stand firm with our Lord when this happens.
We tend to fault Peter specifically, because of his outspoken vehemence, but he was not alone in faultily professing future bravery: “And all the other disciples said the same” (vs. 35). All of the disciples said that they would stand by Jesus, and all, to a man, fell away. Jesus faced His suffering entirely alone. And sadly, Jesus also faced the preparation for His suffering, in prayer, all alone, as we see in the next section.
Matthew 26:36-46 -
Prayer at Gethsemane
36Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
45Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
After the Last Supper concluded, Jesus and His disciples headed to the Mount of Olives (see vs. 30). Specifically, they went to Gethsemane: “Then Jesus went with His disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and He said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray’” (vs. 36). Acting as a type of Jesus, King David also went to pray on the Mount of Olives, when one of his most trusted friends, Ahithopel, betrayed him (see II Sam. 15:30-31; Ps. 41:9).
Jesus, as we see in this passage, went to the Mount of Olives, specifically the Garden of Gethsemane, to pray concerning the coming hours of suffering. In my opinion, and the opinion of many others, this is one of the most significant passages in the Bible. We learn much from it: we learn about the humanity of Christ, about the depth of prayer needed to face serious trials, about surrendering to God’s will, about being watchful in times of trouble. There is also much that we do not fully understand about what happened in Gethsemane: what was the source and manifestation of Jesus’ distress? At what point did Christ’s physical and spiritual suffering for our sins begin; was it here at Gethsemane? What was the nature of the need that Jesus had for companionship as He faced what was coming? What was the nature of the struggle between the two persons of the Holy Trinity? Despite the mysteries, we are blessed and enriched to have this passage in the Bible. It provides much food for meditation, and deep thought. “It is a passage which undoubtedly contains deep and mysterious things. We ought to read it with reverence and wonder, for there is much in it which we cannot fully comprehend” [Ryle, 361]. “Here we come to the Holy of Holies of our Lord’s life on earth. This is a mystery like that which Moses saw when the bush burned with fire, and was not consumed. No man can rightly expound such a passage as this; it is a subject for prayerful, heart-broken meditation, more than for human language. May the Holy Spirit graciously reveal to us all that be can be permitted to see of the King beneath the olive-trees in the garden of Gethsemane!” [Spurgeon, 461].
The eleven disciples at the Last Supper all went with Jesus to Gethsemane. Jesus separated Himself with the three closest disciples (Peter, John and James): “He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with Him, and He began to be sorrowful and troubled” (vs. 37). Implied here is that Jesus had a need and desire to be with His closest human companions during His time of trouble. He pours His soul out to them: “Then He said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me’” (vs. 38). In this, Jesus displays traits of humanity. “Urged by the social instincts of His [adopted] nature, Jesus sought the presence and sympathy of His friends in the dark hour of sorrow.... This is natural, this is right. Man is made to help man, is bound to help man. God frequently helps man through man” [Thomas, 503]. It is significant that the three disciples who saw Jesus in His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matt. 17:1-9), should be called to support Jesus in His time of suffering.
In Gethsemane, Jesus “began to be sorrowful and troubled” and told His close disciples that His “soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” What was the source and cause of this deep and overwhelming sorrow? Was it just the anticipation of the excruciating physical pain that He was to suffer? I think it was more than that, though that was certainly part of it (in His incarnation as a human, Jesus was to suffer great physical pain). Jesus was not only to face great physical pain, but He was also to bear the spiritual burden of every sin ever committed and ever to be committed by those he was dying for. Jesus was facing the death due to all sinners, even those who had committed the most heinous of sins. We cannot imagine the burden that Jesus was beginning to bear—in conscience, in physical pain and anguish, in being literally God-forsaken—that such a death brings, especially to one who is Himself sinless. The number and heinousness of all sins is unimaginable, and this guilt and shame was all put on Jesus in the hours of His sufferings. This, I believe, was why His “soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” “Thousands have endured the most agonizing sufferings of body, and died without a groan, and so, no doubt, might our Lord. But the real weight that bowed down the heart of Jesus, was the weight of the sin of the world, which seems to have now pressed down upon Him with peculiar force” [Ryle, 361-362]. “Jesus went to His death knowing that it was His Father’s will that He face death completely alone ([hence the cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ in Matt. 27:46]) as the sacrificial, wrath-averting Passover Lamb. As His death was unique, so also His anguish; and our best response to it is hushed worship” [Carson, 543].
Notice the wording here: Jesus “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (vs. 37). Could it be that it was here, at Gethsemane, that Jesus was beginning to bear the burden of our sins, that the “overwhelming sorrow” was the sorrow of a conscience bearing sin?
Properly, and as we should, Jesus goes to pray when His “soul is overwhelmed”: “Going a little farther, He fell with His face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.’” Jesus’ bodily attitude during His praying reflected the extent to which His soul was overwhelmed: “…He fell with His face to the ground, and prayed.”
Interestingly, Jesus had foreknowledge that He was to bear our sins and to die for us very soon; He expressed as much not long beforehand, when He told the disciples that “this very night” they would fall away, and that “after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (vss. 31-32). Yet, Jesus prayed anyway that the “cup” be taken from Him. At times we pray, even though we know God’s desired outcome. This is okay. Prayer is at times a struggle to get our own spirits in line with God’s will: A wrestling with God, as Jacob did.
That Jesus prayed this prayer, that the “cup” be taken away, teaches us that Jesus could have walked away from dying for us, and God could have, if He desired, stopped the whole thing to save His Son. This should emphasize to us what a great gift to us the death and resurrection of Jesus was. As we should already know, Jesus’ sacrifice was a great and magnificent gift to us, the greatest and most magnificent gift ever given from anyone being to another. It is the crowning proof that God loves us, as we have been told by John: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Paul echoes this: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things” (Rom. 8:32).
The words “…if it is possible…” in Jesus’ prayer are significant. Jesus did not mean “if it is possible” in the sense of questioning the possibility that God had the power to cause Jesus to escape the crucifixion. Certainly, God the Father, and Jesus Himself, had the physical power to escape any Roman guard or prison. The words “…if it is possible…” were spoken within the implied context that both God the Father, and Jesus, wanted to save mankind; they were agreed in the desire, based on their love for us, to free us from the punishment we deserve for our sins. Jesus in His anguish, in those hours at Gethsemane, was asking, essentially, for another mechanism that the redemption and salvation of mankind could be achieved. And so, in the end, what we learn from the fact that Jesus did go on to sacrifice Himself for us, is that this was the only way to effect our salvation.
Jesus’ use of the “cup” enlightens us a bit on what exactly the cause of Jesus’ anguish was. The word “cup” was used multiple times to denote a portion of God’s wrath (see Isa. 51:17; Ezek. 23:33; Ps. 11:6, in the KJV). So, Jesus, in His time of anguish, did not want to face the wrath of God, which was falling on Him because He was bearing our sins. As stated earlier in this article, I don’t think that any of us humans can know or imagine what the bearing of all the sins of mankind feels like—the extent of the physical, spiritual, and soulful pain of the entire “cup” of God’s wrath is unimaginable to us. We should not be surprised that Jesus asked for another way for the goal, common to the Father and Jesus, of human redemption and salvation to be achieved.
Note also that the use of the word “cup” points back to the Sacrament of Holy Communion. As we take the “cup” to remember the pouring out of Jesus’ blood for us during Communion, we should also remember His anguish in Gethsemane, and the choice that Jesus made to go ahead and bear the full “cup” of God’s wrath on Golgotha.
The end of Jesus’ prayer to the Father in Gethsemane was, as the end to all of ours anytime and anywhere should be: “Yet not as I will, but as You will” (vs. 39). “This was the vital part of His petition, its true essence; for much as His human nature shrank from the ‘cup’, still more did He shrink from any thought of acting contrary to His Father’s will” [Spurgeon, 463]. There’s so much to learn from Jesus’ prayers at Gethsemane, not least of which is that our prayers should be earnest, but in the end submissive to God’s will.
“Then He returned to His disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Couldn’t you men keep watch with Me for one hour?’ He asked Peter” (vs. 40). Jesus had been praying about an “hour” at that point. It was no doubt an intense, lengthy prayer, the gist of which we have been given in vs. 39.
To me, one of the most heartbreaking moments in the Bible is when Jesus returns from this intense prayer, and finds Peter, John, and James “sleeping”. Our Lord desired their support and companionship during His time of overwhelming anguish, and they were “sleeping”. “It is one of the saddest things in the Gospel accounts that in this critical time, when Jesus was so disturbed in the face of the ordeal that confronted Him, and when He had appealed to the three who were closest to Him on earth to watch with Him, they were so far from understanding the situation that they went to sleep” [Morris, 669].
Jesus directly addresses Peter, when He asks about the three of them sleeping. Rightly so. It was Peter who led the disciples in the protestation about them falling away (see vs. 33, 35). “They had professed their loyalty and their readiness even to die for Jesus. But when the first test came, they were tired and lacked the strength to watch with Jesus even for one hour” [Morris, 569].
Jesus advises: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (vs. 42). Given Jesus’ previous warnings about the disciples falling away—that very night, even—they should have been on guard, and spiritually prepared. “Watching and praying were enjoined for a special purpose: ‘that ye enter not into temptation’. He knew what sore temptations were about to assail them, so he would have them doubly armed by—‘watching unto prayer’” [Spurgeon, 478]. “Watch—Act the sentinel, look about you, observe the perils that threaten and the foes that surround; and Pray—look above you, ever realize your dependence upon God for guidance, protection, and support” [Thomas, 504]. “Watchfulness sees temptation coming; prayer gives strength to withstand it” [Pulpit Comm., 527]. The failure of Peter, John, and James to “watch and pray” quite probably directly led to their falling away, and even disowning Jesus, after His arrest.
Jesus poetically summarizes the struggle that Peter, John, and James were having: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (vs. 41). “The apostles had shown a certain readiness of spirit when they offered to die with Christ; but the flesh, the material and lower nature, represses the higher impulse, checks the will, and prevents it from carrying out that which it is prompted to perform” [Pulpit Comm., 527]. Indeed, we all encounter this struggle between the willing spirit and the weak flesh. It is a universal Christian condition. “Spiritual eagerness is often accompanied by carnal weakness—a danger amply experienced by successive generations of Christians” [Carson, 544]. The Apostle Paul speaks of this battle in Romans 7, especially in this passage: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing... So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:15, 17-19, 21).
There is some sympathy implied in the statement by Jesus to the disciples about the willing spirit and the weak flesh, for Jesus Himself was at that time in the midst of a flesh vs. spirit battle. “Christ Himself is included in this declaration, with the difference that He gave as high and pre-eminent an example of its truth, as the disciples afforded a low and ignoble one: He, in the willingness of the spirit, yielding Himself to the Father’s will to suffer and die, but weighed down by the weakness of the flesh; they, having professed, and really having, a willing spirit to suffer with Him, but, even in the one hour’s watching, overcome by the burden of drowsiness” [Schaff, in Lange, 480]. Jesus overcame His spirit vs. flesh battle by His deep, fervent, and lengthy prayer, with “Yet not as I will, but as the Father wills” as the foundation and emphasis.
Jesus went away again, prayed the same prayer, returned and found the three sleeping. This time, He did not wake them, resembling how the pull of the Holy Spirit on us lessens as we ourselves fall away. And then again, a third time, Jesus prayed the same prayer: the three prayer sessions paralleling the three temptations in the desert (see Matt. 4), as well as the three denials of Christ by Peter.
After the third time praying, Jesus roused the disciples, in preparation for His arrest, saying: “Rise! Let us go!” (vs. 46). The result of Jesus’ prayer was that He willingly, without hesitation, went to His death. “After His prayer, all the terrific excitement seemed to pass away; the inner storm subsided, the clouds broke, and the sun shone; a halcyon calmness came over Him, and His soul rose to an energy equal to His fate. He rose from His devotions with a new power, went to His drowsy disciples, and said, ‘Rise, let us be going,’ and began His way, with a firm and majestic step, to the cross” [Thomas, 504].
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Alexander, Joseph Addison. The Gospel According to Matthew. New York: Charles Scribner Publishers, 1861.
Broadus, John. Commentary on Matthew. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886.
Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke. 3 Vols. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1846. (Originally published in Latin in 1555).
Carson, D. A. “Matthew” from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, ed. by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Clarke, Adam. The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Vol. I. New York: G. Lane & C. B. Tippett, 1846. (Originally published in 1831).
Dickson, David. A Brief Exposition of the Evangel of Jesus Christ According to Matthew. Cornhill, U.K.: Ralph Smith, 1651.
Exell, Joseph S. and Henry Donald Spence-Jones, eds. The Pulpit Commentary. Vols. 33 & 34. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1884.
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. IV. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Jamieson, Robert; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments. Glasgow: William Collins, Queen’s Printer, 1863.
Lange, John Peter, ed. and Philip Schaff, trans. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1865.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1992.
Ryle, J. C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857.
Spurgeon, Charles. The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Popular Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1893.
Thomas, David. The Genius of the Gospel: A Homiletical Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew. London: Dickinson & Higham, 1873.
All of these books, except Carson, and Morris, can be downloaded free of charge from: