After having the Passover meal and clarifying the true meaning of the cup, Jesus goes with His disciples to Gethsemane.
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.” And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:36-39).
We enter into a very emotional part of the story. Jesus has explained that He will not drink of the cup again until He drinks it again in His Father’s kingdom with His disciples. He has predicted His death numerous times. He knows what He must do. He takes Peter, James, and John with Him deeper into the garden and grieves. Matthew does not tell us why Jesus grieves, only that His soul is grieved to the point of death. He prays a prayer that catches us off guard, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” He still prays for the Father’s will. But, Jesus, in some way, does not want to die. This can mess with our minds because Matthew has established Jesus as God from the beginning of His gospel (Matthew 1:23), yet Jesus seems to have a will different from that of the Father.
Before I take time to answer the apparent incoherence of the story, I want to first consider the cup. Matthew places this in his text purposefully where it is, directly following the Passover meal. The cup Jesus is referring to here is meant to connect to the cup to which Jesus assigned meaning in the previous selection. Jesus taught that the cup was His blood of the covenant. Here, he is talking about the spilling of His own blood as an atoning sacrifice. He is about to drink this cup. If the Father’s kingdom is not established and present, Jesus breaks His own word spoken during the Passover meal. The kingdom is at hand. It will be present at the moment Jesus drinks from this cup, the cup of His own covenantal blood. Matthew’s entire Gospel is meant to show that the Jewish Messiah has successfully established His kingdom and the Messiah has been given all authority in Heaven and on Earth as is foretold by the Prophets.
We understand that in the incarnation, God the Son assumed human flesh and nature and will. We refer to this assumption as the hypostatic union whereby none of Christ’s divinity was lost but a body and second nature and will were assumed. It is the only way God can be part of His creation and the present ruler of His creation. This, and no other reason, seems to me the purpose of the incarnation and death of Christ. In Jesus’s flesh, that is His humanity, Jesus suffered every temptation that is common to humankind (cf. Hebrews 4:15). He had a human nature, and we see that here. Jesus did not sin. He literally denies Himself, takes up His cross, and obeys the will of the Father—a trait of God the Son in the Old and New Testaments; The Father wills, the Son reveals, the Spirit effects. There is no incoherence, here, when we consider the historic operations of the godhead and the hypostatic union.
And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).
Jesus, being a divine person who has assumed human flesh and nature, understands what it is for the spirit to be willing but the flesh weak. We are seeing the truth play out here in the garden. Jesus reveals that His disciples face the same kind of battle. In this life, while we still inhabit this worldly flesh, our born-again spirits are often willing even though our flesh is weak. Jesus tells His disciples not to rest at this moment. They must remain alert so that they will not enter into temptation. By the willingness of their spirits, they are to restrain their flesh into submission. They will not succeed in these hours, but Jesus will.
He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.” Again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. Then He came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!” (Matthew 26:42-45)
Jesus knows that He must drink the cup of the new covenant in His blood. When He refers to something passing away, it is not directly perspicuous as to what He means. From the context of Matthew’s gospel we may be able to figure that he is referring to the abundance of sin under the old covenant or the death of people opposed to God represented by the passover celebration—the very death of God’s firstborn (Israel). Whatever Jesus is referring to, He knows that the pouring out of His blood will accomplish something significant for people. It will be an atonement. It will, as Jesus taught, accomplish the forgiveness of the sins of many (Matthew 26:28).
While the disciples sleep, Jesus is fighting a spiritual battle only He can fight. He is about to drink from a cup only He can drink from. As is foreshadowed in Zechariah 11:11-16, Judas comes to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. The time is at hand, it has come. The kingdom is nearer than ever before. Jesus must drink from the cup He said He would not have again until He did so in His Father’s kingdom and so establish the new covenant—which is a fulfillment of the old, the kingdom of God finally established.