To Pray or Not to Pray
The meal was finished and it was time to leave. Jesus led his disciples out of the city and headed off towards one of his favourite places – the Mount of Olives.
When it was a question of finding a safe place where he could share the Passover meal with his disciples Jesus had taken great care not to be disturbed. But now the end is fast approaching and he chooses a place that is anything but safe. He is ready and makes no attempt to avoid being found by his enemies. He was used to going to the Mount of Olives – he went there often with his disciples – and Judas knew the place too.
The place was Gethsemane, a garden on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives, and as Jesus went there he was followed by his disciples. That was of course what a disciple should do, follow his master, so far so good. But a disciple ought also to learn and do what his Master tells him to do. Upon arriving at the garden Jesus would give them some very important instructions but they wouldn’t pay attention to what he said. They weren’t bad men they were just imperfect disciples.
Jesus was going to speak out of his deep love and concern for them. How he loved them and how he longed to spare them needless discouragement, distress and disaster! So he would give them good wholesome and helpful instruction. He knew that that night was going to prove tiring and trying for them and he wanted to prepare them for what lay ahead.
As we think about our text today we’re going to consider it under the following headings:
Jesus tells his disciples to prayer
Some reasons why disciples don’t always do what they’re told
Some consequences that flowed from Jesus’ praying
So let’s get to it.
Jesus tells his disciples to pray
As soon as they arrived in the garden Jesus turned to his disciples and told them that they had to set themselves to pray. In fact as far as Jesus was concerned this was of pressing importance. Not only did he tell disciples at the beginning of this little episode he repeated the exact same instruction at its end when they had so patently failed to take him seriously.
v.40 "Pray that you may not enter into temptation."
Cf. v.46 "Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation."
Jesus knew that what was shortly going to take place would prove to be unsettling in the extreme for his disciples and they would find the unfolding events both trying and testing. How would they conduct themselves when those things happened? Would they react in the right way or would they not? Would they honour their Lord and Master by their faithfulness or would they not? The only way they would be properly prepared was if they gave themselves to prayer now. Prayer would keep them from giving way to temptation. Prayer would keep them from failing the test when the time came.
Jesus wasn’t telling them to pray that they might never ever be exposed to tests or temptations – that would be impossible – they would never here on earth be so cocooned that trials and temptations would never affect them. No, Jesus was telling them to pray that they might not sin by entering into the temptation when it came, that they might not prove themselves to be false when tests did come their way.
And what did they do?
Nothing. They didn’t pray. Instead they went to sleep!
The heat would soon be turned up and they would not be ready at all. They would be at a complete loss as to know what they ought to do and how they ought to conduct themselves. In their disarray they would desert him – all of them.
Some reasons why disciples don’t always do what they’re told
It would be easy enough to sit on judgment on those disciples after all they had received clear instructions and they had failed to act upon them. But before we are too quick to dismiss them as hopeless cases we need to ask ourselves are we really much better. What have we done with these clear instructions in our own lives?
Now, of course, it is possible that this is the first time for someone here this morning to hear Jesus tell his disciples that they need to pray so as not to fall into temptation. But I think most of you have heard these words before. So let me ask you a question: when did you last pray like that yourself? Have you prayed like that today? And if not why not?
We may well have prayed such a prayer at some time in the past but why not yesterday or today? What might be some of our reasons?
Forgetfulness is always a possibility – yes, we’ve been told but then our memories are poor and we forget. But then all that means is I don’t think the matter very important because for the things that I consider important I take steps to remember. Medicines, meals, holidays, anniversaries, birthdays – yes I might occasionally forget but not often, not regularly because they are important to me.
Well we might look at our situation and imagine that the dangers are not as great as that and we under-estimate the difficulties that may be just around the corner.
Or we may think that we’re strong enough or mature enough not to need to pray like that any more. How easily we can overestimate our own capacity to overcome temptation and to cruise through any trial that might come our way.
Maybe we find it all a bit too demanding and we excuse ourselves by saying I’m not the praying type, or I don’t have the time to pray right now.
Perhaps when we have a moment we’re simply too tired: sleep and rest are so much more appealing than prayer.
Or perhaps we secretly imagine that Jesus is a hard-taskmaster and that it is unrealistic to expect busy people like us to have to pray.
Again we might imagine that Jesus is overstating the case and conclude that he didn’t really mean what he said.
Sometimes we might not pray because we value the approval of others more than we do his.
The common factor of all these reasons or, to be more accurate, excuses for not praying lies the conviction that we know better than Jesus does what we need. And we know how better than he how best to serve our own interests. And so we turn an instruction into a mere suggestion and of course we can put that to one side without troubling my conscience too much.
Let those of us who are disciples of Jesus recognise that Jesus knows best and if he tells us to pray so that we might not enter into temptation or fail the test then let us be serious about prayer to that end!
Jesus’ instruction was designed to protect his disciples and to promote their best interests – if we think of him as a hard taskmaster we don’t know him very well at all!
Having spoken to his disciples about their need of prayer Jesus put his own teaching into practice for himself. He prayed.
He set himself at a short distance from his disciples – a stone’s throw away – and he prayed. The distance allowed him not to be distracted or kept from prayer by further discussion with his friends. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to be distracted when it comes to prayer? In a prayer meeting we can take too long in talking about the Bible or of sharing our subjects for prayer and end up not having enough time to pray. At home you can decide that you’ll pray and the phone goes or you suddenly remember an errand that you simply must do before you forget and prayer is pushed back and back.
Well Jesus wanted to pray, needed to pray, and so took some important steps to ensure he could. We would do well to follow his example.
Jesus’ disciples were mere men and acted as though they could get by without prayer but that wasn’t the attitude of their Master who was no ordinary man but God Incarnate. He set himself to pray and prayed with great earnestness, kneeling in a position that demonstrated his humble submission to his heavenly Father.
This was not a time of quiet, restful contemplative prayer for our Lord. Jesus was very conscious that his hour had come and so he wrestled in prayer. Was there no other way whereby he might complete the Father’s will and save sinners? Did the cup that was offered to him, the cup that was filled to the brim with the divine wrath of a holy God, really have to be drained to the last drop? Was all the pain, suffering and death absolutely necessary?
If there was another way then he would prefer it to the hateful and horrible cup that was proffered to him but if it was not possible then he was totally ready and committed to accomplishing his Father’s will.
What a prayer this was!
v.47 "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done."
Do you realise how much was at stake as Jesus prayed thus in the garden? Do you have any idea of just what was riding upon Jesus’ willingness to drink the cup?
We have a slight inkling of the importance of what was going on when we read how he was in agony as he prayed. We catch a brief glimpse of the magnitude of what was taking place when we read of the increasing earnestness of his praying. The greatness of the pressures bearing down upon him caused him to sweat profusely until it poured off him like great drops of blood.
What was it that caused such intensity in our Saviour? Other men have faced their coming execution with a calmness and a moderation that were no part of our Saviour’s experience in the Garden. So what made the coming sufferings and death of our Saviour so different?
Well, the future well-being of his followers was in view but it was not just that. The future of the human race was in view but it was not just that. The future of the entire cosmos was in view but it was not even just that either. The completion of the entire divine plan and purpose of salvation depended upon Jesus drinking the cup of God’s wrath. God’s honour and reliability were irrevocably bound up with the Son’s conscious and voluntary obedience. And that is precisely what Jesus offered when he prayed those most wonderful words:
v.47 "Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done."
Without that willingness to embrace his Father’s will we would have no Saviour, no forgiveness of sins and no hope for the future. The human race would remain forever exposed to God’s wrath and dominated by Satanic forces. The creation would never be renewed but would continue groaning until finally collapsing in utter destruction. God himself could never be trusted ever again for his word and his promise having spectacularly failed would not be worthy of trust.
With so much riding on his willing submission to his Father’s will it is small wonder that Jesus experienced such agony in the Garden. Our hymn writers have sought to catch something of this in their hymns. In the hymn Come ye sinners poor and needy the following lines appear:
View Him prostrate in the garden;
on the ground your Maker lies;
We have already sung:
For me it was in the garden
He prayed – ‘Not My will, but Thine’;
He had no tears for His own griefs,
but sweat drops of blood for mine.
We’ve also sung:
Fierce His torment in that garden
where He prayed in agony;
O the wonder of that moment!
that my Saviour wept for me.
And we’re going to sing:
GREAT High Priest, we view Thee stooping
with our names upon Thy breast,
in the garden groaning, drooping,
to the ground with horrors pressed;
holy angels stood confounded,
to behold their Maker thus;
and can we remain unmovèd,
when we know ’twas all for us?
And so we could go on and on. And each of us should until we begin to understand something, just something of the magnitude of our Saviour’s task and the wonder of his willingness to consecrate himself to accomplishing it!
Some consequences that flowed from Jesus’ praying
On this last point we will be very brief but it is important to notice that:
He was strengthened – an angel strengthened him to help him complete his task. What an amazing thing this is and again speaks to the humiliation of our Lord. He who could have summoned 12 legions of angels to deliver him with a simple word of command now is content to receive the help of one single angel.
He was answered as he prayed – he would in a relatively few hours be able to cry out with a triumphant shout:
"It is finished!" The Father’s will had been fully accomplished.
He was ready for everything that was about to happen and all hell was about to break loose! What a contrast to his prayer-less disciples who are shocked, uncertain as to what to do, and anything but at peace whereas Jesus appears as the only One in the Garden who is at peace even his enemies who had come to arrest him and were themselves agitated.
Lets us then take to heart Jesus’ instruction. Let us stop finding worthless excuses for not following them. Let us be inspired by our Saviour’s own example. And let us experience the joys of answered prayer.
And to God alone be the glory.