Since it’s Easter weekend (hey, I know when Easter is this year—first time in several years I’ve known before the day itself!), I thought it would be good to take a closer look at a famous scene from the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Gospel of Mark records Jesus praying the following:
αββα ὁ πατήρ, πάντα δυνατά σοι· παρένεγκε τὸ ποτήριον τοῦτο ἀπ᾿ ἐμοῦ· ἀλλ᾿ οὐ τί ἐγὼ θέλω ἀλλὰ τί σύ.
“Abba! Father, all things are possible for you! Remove this cup from me! But no, not what I want; rather, what you want.”
This is really a remarkable prayer, one that does not get nearly the attention that it deserves.
It was a core teaching of the early Church that Jesus was tempted in every way, just like any other man who has ever lived (thus Mk 1:13 & parallels; Heb 2:18, 4:15; 1Jn 4; Rom 8:1–4). This was an absolutely central teaching to early Christianity inasmuch as Christ’s victory over temptation and sin in the flesh—the same flesh with the same drives and desires that every human being has ever had—is the guarantor of the Spirit’s capacity to bring about righteousness in the present life of the believer. Since Christ was victor over the desires of the flesh through the Spirit, so also the believer can share in this victory in the present life. Without this key teaching, the gospel could provide no assurance of victory over the flesh—since Jesus’ obedience would have been over a lesser temptation or a less powerful or less “depraved” flesh—but because Christ truly “came in the flesh,” the believer who shares in his obedience through his Spirit can have assurance that there is no temptation beyond what can endured by the power of the Spirit.
This Gethsemane prayer is so important because it illustrates the total humanity of Jesus (something the earliest Christians seemed to find more important to defend than his divinity)—his flesh resists the cross and cries out against its own mortification, pleading against the very will of God. But right then, the Spirit checks the prayer, and Jesus immediately corrects himself, cutting off the outcry of the flesh and yet again submitting himself to the will of his Father, against his own desires. Right here, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Synoptics show a man—the man—at the very breaking point, a man wrestling with himself to go through with the will of God, a man committed to the mortification of the flesh and its desires—but a man whose flesh was yet alive and kicking. As he says two verses later: the Spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.
Think about that: according to the Gospels, Jesus‘ flesh was weak and prone to temptation, and he prayed and wrestled with his own flesh lest he fall short of accomplishing his task. For the early Christian preachers, it was this fact—not so much Jesus’ divinity but that the human Jesus had overcome by the power of the Spirit —that was the guarantor of justification, because the same Spirit that had overcome the flesh in Jesus could do the same in the believer also.