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Jesus' Prayer at Gethsemane - a study of Matthew 26:36-46

Thank God that Jesus had the strength to endure our punishment.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 26:36-46

Jesus asked His disciples to stay alert in prayer with Him for one last night, and they couldn’t do it. How committed are we to prayer? How seriously do we take our search for God’s will? How seriously do we try to avoid temptation? How sorrowful does it make us when we let Jesus down? Lots to think about . . .

“My Father! If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.” Matthew 26:39

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Staying Alert.

I still don’t understand how medical interns do it. 48 hour shifts in a high-stress environment? I had enough trouble pulling the occasional all-nighter in college! And my wife can tell you that I wasn’t very much help with the middle-of-the-night parenting stuff. Consequently, I’m very sympathetic to the disciples falling asleep when Jesus needed them to stay awake. You could kickstart your discussion with two questions: (1) what is something that has happened in your life where you have needed to stay awake and alert for longer than your body wanted to? (Sometimes it’s with a job, maybe someone in the hospital, maybe a long drive.) And then the follow-up question: (2) how did you cope with staying alert? What did you do to keep yourself focused? I’ve learned that a lot of people use energy drinks or other extreme sources of caffeine. (Obviously, that can become a big problem because caffeine is addictive.) Some people set a series of alarms for themselves. In that spirit, ask members of your class to set a phone alarm that will go off every 10 minutes (or just do it yourself). Then, each time it goes off, ask your class members to admit if they were “zoning” or distracted. I’m pretty sure you’ll learn that all of us have trouble staying focused even for a short period of time!


Your Prayer Place.

Here’s another direction you can go: ask your class if they have a place they like to pray. A movie like War Room shows the value of having a special place set apart for prayer. I know people who have certain gardens or parks they like to go to, or certain rooms in their church. It’s a place that, when they enter, their heart automatically settles into a prayer mode. Doesn’t that sound really helpful? Well, we are extremely blessed as a church to have that space: our sanctuary. We have today’s lesson in stained glass in our sanctuary (it's the picture at the top). I wonder how many of our people take it for granted? (It’s essentially priceless; it's a dying art.) Sometime during the lesson, take a field trip to the sanctuary and have your class members sit in a pew and look at that window and think about what it represents and ask themselves this important question: “Am I attentive to Jesus when I am in this room for worship? Or am I like the disciples, falling asleep or being worried?”

This Week's Big Idea: Prayer—What Is It?

Any chance to talk about prayer is a good chance. Here’s a brief summary of a class I taught on prayer a while back; if you need explanations or Scripture references, please let me know!


Why do we pray? This starts with what we believe about God. Even after much debate, I think we can agree on this:

  • God truly loves us and wants what is best for us.

  • God comprehensively cares for all of creation.

  • God has authority over everything, including nature and spiritual beings.

But I also believe that humans are truly free beings and fully responsible for all of our actions, which means that I am very reticent when asking God to “change someone’s mind.” I also believe that God has many more ways to act in history than I realize, so I am also very reticent about telling God what to do. So here’s my brief summary of everything I can say for sure about prayer:

  • God would not tell us to do something for no reason.

  • God has chosen prayer to be a means by which He accomplishes His will.

  • In prayer, we do not seek to change God’s mind but to discern His will.

  • God does not need us in order to act but delights to respond to our prayers.

  • There is something valuable behind true corporate prayer.

With respect to the content of prayer, here is what I can gather from the Bible. In the Old Testament, God answered prayers with respect to

  • childbirth,

  • physical healing,

  • rain/drought,

  • victory in battle,

  • forgiveness/compassion, and

  • His presence.

Many people who prayed did so with the understanding that God’s attentiveness would be in part based on the quality of their heart and lives, but that did not stop anyone from praying what was on their heart. The most humble prayers seemed to emphasize God’s keeping His promises. In the New Testament, here are the types of prayers mentioned favorably:

  • blessings on evangelists, missionaries, and children,

  • desire for unity, mercy, spiritual maturity, enlightenment, gospel boldness, patience, wisdom, and healing, and

  • prayer for the government and the gospel.

Most of the New Testament prayers focus on seeing God’s will done, and there is one prayer for prosperity. More of the New Testament has to do with the pray-er (not the prayer, if that makes sense). These are the characteristics of the right heart of a pray-er:

  • praying in mutual agreement with other believers,

  • praying in belief and faith,

  • praying for the Spirit’s help,

  • being willing to hear “no”,

  • praying with right motives, and

  • walking in righteousness.

Here’s my summary: if we pray

in repentance | with humility | focused on God | intentionally/purposefully | with forgiveness | persistently | honestly | in unity | fervently | in the Spirit | with joy | in thanksgiving | constantly | boldly | reverently | without doubt

then we never have to worry about praying “for the wrong thing”. Besides, God would never do the wrong thing, even if we asked Him persistently for it! Jesus’ model prayer (“The Lord’s Prayer”) is built with these head-and-heart matters in mind. Its outline does us a world of good to follow (which is why Jesus told us to pray in that way!). For even more content, we can go to the “high priestly prayer” of John 17 for excellent guidance.

David has taught the Lord’s Prayer with the acronym ACTS:

A—Adoration (Your name be glorified, Your kingdom come, Your will be done)

C—Confession (Forgive us our debts)

T—Thanksgiving (For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever)

S—Supplication (Give us our daily bread, lead us not into temptation)

Every time we pray (except in the case of little one-sentence prayers), we should try to incorporate all of these elements. Of the characteristics Jesus did not mention in His model prayer, here’s what I suggest we do with them:

  • Honestly. There are times when we know we aren’t being honest with ourselves or with God. Invoke the Spirit’s help! “Spirit, sort through my heart, show me who I am and who you’re making me to be, and give me peace.”

  • With joy. Sometimes it’s hard to pray joyfully. But there is always one thing that must give us joy, and in that we pray as David did in Psalm 51, “Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit.”

  • With thanksgiving. Again, sometimes we don’t feel thankful. Paul wrote, “(1 Thessalonians 5:18) Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Say those words, tell God what you are thankful for, and let Him restore your heart to thankfulness for the blessing of salvation in Jesus.

  • Without doubting. This might be the hardest one of them all. I can only offer this very earnest plea from Mark 9, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” I have prayed that many, many times.

  • Intentionally and fervently. No one can force you to do these things. When you notice that your prayers have become flippant, predictable, or without any real meaning, stop what you’re doing and look through a prayer book.

  • Persistently. Unless you have a great memory, there’s only one way I know to pray in this way: keep a prayer journal. Write down the things you are praying about with the dates you started. Keep praying until God answers.

  • Constantly. How do we pray without ceasing? This is a matter of awareness—God is always listening to your thoughts. Just remember that! You can also use an ancient method called a breath prayer; just Google that for more information.

Prayer in Crisis

Everything I just said is all fine and good. But what about in a time of crisis, like losing your child, or receiving a terminal diagnosis, or losing a job, or your home, or any other of significantly traumatic life events? How can we pray when we can’t even think rationally? That’s beyond tough; here’s what I can suggest:

  • Ask the Spirit to pray for you.

  • Surround yourself with Christians who can pray for you.

  • Have a short list of Bible verses you can call on for such awful times. I suggest Psalm 27: David was in an awful way, and this psalm wobbles between having confidence in God and asking for confidence in God. It’s real.

Importantly, do remember that trauma is no excuse to abandon your Christian principles. God can handle your anger, but don’t let anger get ahold of you. In our passage today, Jesus is struggling with the news that He has to be executed . . .

Part 1: Committed to the Task (Matthew 26:36-39)

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and He told the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is swallowed up in sorrow—to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with Me.” Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Just like last week, some Christians have a real problem with these verses. Look—Jesus was genuinely scared to death; He genuinely wanted the plan to change. That doesn’t make Him a bad human, and it doesn’t make Him less God. We cannot remotely comprehend what Jesus went through while in prayer. If anything, being God made Him even more aware of what was about to happen!


It is beautiful that Matthew framed Jesus’ earthly ministry with two very similar events: the temptation of Satan and the prayer of Gethsemane. Satan tempted Jesus three times to abandon His course. Jesus prayed three times that God would let Him abandon His course. But in the end, Jesus did not falter. Make it clear to your class that being tempted is not a sin! Having second thoughts or concerns is not a sin. But acting on any of those is. Jesus, under the worst pressure imaginable, stayed true to what He believed God wanted Him to do. Why? Because He loved us. Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to ignore a friend in need or fail to obey God in any way.


There are several human elements to this. First, Gethsemane was a very familiar place to Jesus—a place that brought Him comfort. Second, Jesus wanted His friends nearby while He was going through this. In particular, He pulled three of them even closer to Him, but still did the praying on His own (because He was the leader; the disciples were incapable of bearing His burden). Third, His extreme sorrow drove Him to desperate prayer. The words used mean “intense grief” and “miserable”. Being miserable isn’t a sin! And fourth, He didn’t want to die, at least not like that. Does that give you any encouragement in your life? In facing your troubles or dealing with grief? It certainly does me. Look up “Suffering Servant Isaiah” to see that Jesus was destined for this sorrow. God did not spare Him this grief, but God did raise Him from the dead after it!

Aside: Gethsemane

We roughly know where Gethsemane is on the Mount of Olives. The word is Hebrew for “press of oils”, meaning there was an olive grove (sadly, the Roman army destroyed every tree around Jerusalem during its siege, but current trees may have sprung from their roots) which further means it was private property. It would have been on the Jerusalem side of the Mount (the Mount of Olives rises 300 feet above the Temple Mount, so that gives a little leeway where it could be). The slope is littered with graves and tombs. Two specific sites are proposed. The main one goes back to a 326 AD tradition and is currently inside the walls of the Church of All Nations (quite a sight to behold). A dark horse candidate is a large cave further down the slope (currently under a large building); it has evidence of an olive press.

Being in a grove in full view of the Temple Mount, Gethsemane would have been a cool refuge from the heat and bustle without being too far removed, with privacy and a garden feel. Today, the Mount of Olives is covered with buildings and tombs and not very many trees, so it is apparently hard to imagine a lush, peaceful garden on the site.


The Mount of Olives

This is the view Jesus would have had of the Old City from a traditional spot of Gethsemane (try to imagine more trees around you). It’s a stunning look down over the entire Temple Mount. Today it is quite covered in tombs, but even in Jesus’ day many Jews were buried there. Jews (and Muslims) interpret Zechariah 14 to mean that the Kidron Valley (also called the Valley of Jehoshaphat) will be the site of the resurrection and final judgment, and the Mount of Olives will be the starting point for the Messiah (so, better be buried as close to it as possible, right?). Jesus very likely had this landscape in mind when He called the Pharisees a bunch of whitewashed tombs. Any reference to a hill “east of Jerusalem” is going to be part of the Mount of Olives, which is actually a series of three peaks (many pagan altars were built somewhere on it). The village of Bethany is on the far side of the Mount from Jerusalem. Several of Jesus’ teachings during Holy Week took place somewhere on the Mount during their travel to and from Lazarus’s house. Jews believe that Noah’s dove found her olive leaf on this peak. Muslims believe the final judgment will take place here. It’s a very combustible location politically.

Part 2: Asleep on the Job (Matthew 26:40-43)

Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping. He asked Peter, “So, couldn’t you stay awake with Me one hour? Stay awake and pray, so that you won’t enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done.” And He came again and found them sleeping, because they could not keep their eyes open.

I bet many of us can relate to this passage. Has anyone ever depended on you to pray for them? How did you do with that? Jesus is so stressed that He is sweating blood and His close friends are falling asleep! (Jesus meant “this cup” to refer to the cup of God’s wrath against our sins as described in Isaiah 51 and 53; no one wants to suffer Almighty God’s wrath.) Most likely, Jesus came back to them for encouragement; what a letdown to find them asleep. Of course He knew they would be asleep, but He wanted them to know their own actions so the Gospel accounts could be complete. Peter had just said that he would die for Jesus, but he couldn't stay awake for Him . . . Jesus follows with one of the most quotable verses in the Bible. Ask your class which temptations are the most dangerous: the obvious, or the subtle? We need to stay alert in order to stay out of them (note that we pray the same thing in the Lord’s Prayer). But if being tempted is not a sin, why do we pray this? Think about it. What’s the surest way not to sin? Not to be tempted! You can’t fall off the cliff if you’re nowhere near the edge! Jesus had already told the disciples that they wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to deny Him in fear, and now we learn that they weren’t even praying for help. Then Jesus mentions the “spirit” and the “flesh”. Sadly, many of us use this as an excuse for our sins, as in “we just couldn’t help it”. But that would be missing the point. It’s simply a fact. And because our flesh is weak, we should all the more pray for God’s help in avoiding and resisting temptation. Wow—do these verses speak as loudly to you as they do to me?

Part 3: Realizing the Moment (Matthew 26:44-46)

After leaving them, He went away again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing. Then He came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the time is near. The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up; let’s go! See, My betrayer is near.”

If you can put yourself in this story, you can better grasp the raw emotions in play. I am utterly astounded at how well Jesus “kept it together” knowing how this would turn out. Frankly, it’s heroic. (It certainly points to the value of staying calm under intense circumstances; lashing out would have helped nothing here.) Do note that Jesus’ persistent prayer was not answered in the way He wanted! There is no magic formula for having your prayer approved! God’s will is perfect and right, and that’s why the bulk of our prayer time should be spent in seeking God’s will and plan, not trying to tell Him what to do. “The time is near” can equally be translated “the hour has arrived”. There is no more important statement in the entire history of God’s plan of salvation. Every action, every prophecy, every plan led to this, and there was no turning back. Note the double use of “betray”—without question making this whole ordeal all the more emotionally destructive. But let your class know that “let’s go” is positive, not negative. It’s not a “let’s try to escape” but “let’s face the moment”. There are two directions you can apply this. (1) Worship Jesus. He went through hell for you in more ways that we will ever understand. (2) Consider your prayer attitude. Do you willingly accept God’s will, or do you fight and fuss? Are you alert to the temptations around you, or are you lackadaisical in your spiritual life?

Aside: Judas Iscariot

“Iscariot” likely means that Judas’s family came from Kerioth, east of the Dead Sea (some have said it means “dagger” which put Judas as a Zealot, or “false” which means the name was given to him posthumously). He was fully accepted into Jesus’ circle, and he was trusted enough to be the treasurer. He went everywhere with Jesus; he was sent out to preach the gospel and perform miracles. And that’s really all we know about him. So...how did he become a betrayer? We all know people who have grown up in church to no effect. I remember doing very spiritual things in church as a child long before I actually became a Christian. It was a show; anyone can learn to put on a good show. Here is how I explain Judas: he was susceptible to the influence of Satan, which is why God allowed him to be a disciple. For prophecy to come true, Jesus would have to be betrayed, showing the true depravity of humanity. Yes, being Judas would be a fate worse than death, but he willingly chose his own course.

Closing Thoughts: Jesus’ Prayer for Us

Rather than describe it, let me just give you the words of Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17. “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him. 3 This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent —Jesus Christ. 4 I have glorified you on the earth by completing the work you gave me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with that glory I had with you before the world existed.


Jesus Prays for His Disciples

6 “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from the world. They were yours, you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you, 8 because I have given them the words you gave me. They have received them and have known for certain that I came from you. They have believed that you sent me.


9 “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, because they are yours. 10 Everything I have is yours, and everything you have is mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I was protecting them by your name that you have given me. I guarded them and not one of them is lost, except the son of destruction, so that the Scripture may be fulfilled. 13 Now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy completed in them. 14 I have given them your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 I sanctify myself for them, so that they also may be sanctified by the truth.


Jesus Prays for All Believers

20 “I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. 21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. 22 I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.


24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they will see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world’s foundation. 25 Righteous Father, the world has not known you. However, I have known you, and they have known that you sent me. 26 I made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them.”

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