Agony in the Garden

32 Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. 34 Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.” 35 He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; 36 he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” 37 When he returned he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” 39 Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing. 40 Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open and did not know what to answer him. 41 He returned a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough. The hour has come. Behold, the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. 42 Get up, let us go. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Mark’s account of Jesus’ agony in the garden is comprised of  two scenes. In the first (vv. 33–36), Mark’s readers witness Jesus’ profound humanity, as he is overwhelmed by fear and sadness at the prospect of his imminent death (i.e., the cup of v. 36). They also recognize in his final acceptance of his Father’s will the ultimate act of his loving humanity, i.e., his choice to give up his life for the Father and for all people.

The second scene (vv. 37–42) focuses the readers’ attention on the disciples who fall asleep as Jesus struggles in prayer. Mark hopes that his readers will face life and choose to be human like Jesus, not like the disciples. The profundity of Jesus’ choice to take the cup can be grasped, ironically, only by certain readers of Mark’s Gospel — that is, only those who have come as close to despair as Jesus did in the garden can really identify with him. Mark hopes that Jesus will be for them a realistic (truly human) model of trust and love in their painful “hour” (v. 41) of Christian and human life.

Scene One – The Eucharistic account of the Last Supper has made clear that the Kingdom will be established, not by the warrior king messiah, but by the blood of the covenant. From the upper room, Jesus and his disciples move to the “place called Gethsemane.

Separating himself from the other disciples, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him as he did when he restored Jairus’s daughter to life (5:37) and at the transfiguration (9:2). Mark likely intends us to recall the latter scene, in which Moses and Elijah appear from heaven and the divine voice pronounces that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, as they witness Jesus’ prayer to his Father. Readers who remember the transfiguration know that God will not abandon Jesus but will exalt him to a position of heavenly glory greater than that of Elijah and Moses.

Jesus’ outlook was clear – and expressed to his disciples – “My soul is sorrowful even to death…” (v.34) The unusually strong language indicates that Mark understood Gethsemane to be the critical moment in Jesus’ life. It is here and now that the full meaning of his submission to the Father confronts him. Jesus had spoken repeatedly and in detail to the disciples about his passion; he had set his face toward Jerusalem with a resolve that flummoxed his disciples and made them afraid (10:32). The earlier reference to his baptism and his cup (10:38) implies an awareness of the cost of submission to the will of God. – and doubtless Jesus had seen other men crucified. Yet we will read that his demeanor moving forward is absolute calm. How are we then to understand his prayer in sorrow unto death? Is it an expression of fear before the coming physical suffering, pain, and death? Or is it something more chilling? William Lane [516] suggests that “It is rather the horror of the one who lives wholly for the Father at the prospect of the alienation from God which is entailed in the judgment upon sin which Jesus assumes.”

The imagery of Jesus praying echoes the psalm of lament by a righteous person suffering affliction: expression of deep sorrow (v. 34); acknowledgment of God’s power to save (v. 36a); and acceptance of what comes from the hand of God (v. 36b). Typical of laments, which often include reference to abandonment by friends, the sleeping disciples effectively abandon Jesus in his suffering. But unlike many laments, which conclude with words of praise for God’s deliverance, in this case both Jesus and Mark’s readers know that God will not deliver Jesus by taking away the cup of suffering. The conclusion of the prayer—“Not what I will, but what you will” (v. 36b)—reminds readers that Jesus has been devoted to doing the will of God from the beginning. Those who belong to Jesus’ new family must have a similar commitment to doing the will of God (3:35).

Scene Two – Jesus’ instruction were simple, “Remain here and keep watch.” The failure of the three disciples to obey even these simple commands to stay awake and watch (v. 34) recalls the general warning at the end of the discourse on the end time: “Keep awake!” (13:37).  These three disciples were privileged to participate in Jesus’ cup (v.36) – yet when Jesus returns from prayer Jesus finds Peter, James and John asleep

Earlier in the narrative, Peter, James, and John play a particular role in scenes concerning the passion. Peter has denied Jesus’ prediction about the passion (8:31–33), a denial followed by Jesus’ teaching on discipleship as taking up one’s cross (8:34–38). On the way to the Mount of Olives, Peter again denies another prediction by insisting that he will never desert Jesus, even if the others do (14:29), prompting Jesus to reply that Peter will deny him three times that very night. James and John have requested the highest places of honor when Jesus comes into his kingdom (10:37). Jesus’ warning that they will indeed “share the cup” that he is about to drink (10:39) again evokes an image of suffering. When the rest of the disciples become indignant, Jesus reminds them that the Son of Man came as a suffering servant to give his life as ransom “for many” (10:45; in the eucharistic formula, Jesus announces that his blood is poured out “for many”). Now, by being brought close enough to witness how Jesus prays, the three disciples have the opportunity to participate in Jesus’ “cup.” Instead, despite their earlier boasting, they fall asleep and fail to watch with Jesus—not just once, but three times (vv. 37, 40, 41). This scene is a stunning portrayal of the failure of Jesus’ most prominent disciples to understand his suffering and glory.

After praying, Jesus finds the disciples sleeping. He rebukes Peter for not being strong enough to stay awake even for an hour (v. 37). Peter’s boast that he would even die with Jesus (v. 31) suddenly seems very distant. Jesus commands all three disciples (v. 38 uses the plural “you”) to pray lest they enter into the “the test” (peirasmos), recalling the account of Jesus’ testing by Satan (1:13), which used the corresponding verb. The exhortation also parallels the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4).612 Hebrews 5:7–10 indicates that there was an early Christian tradition of Jesus’ struggle to accept the Father’s will. But, they do not pray.

Earlier in the narrative, Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a demon, which required prayer (9:29). Now they again fail to pray. Jesus goes to pray for the third time without waking the disciples (vv. 39–40), rousing them from sleep only when the betrayer arrives. Their separation from Jesus is evident when they have nothing to say in reply to him (vv. 41–42). Jesus announces the hour of the passion, “The hour has come. Behold, the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners.” (14:41).


Mark 14:34 my soul: estin psychē can be translated as “I am” or “My soul.” In the Septuagint (LXX; Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) psychē is usually the translation of the Hebrew nep̱eš. It is the nep̱eš makes a person into a breathing and thus living being and “signifies that which is vital in man in the broadest sense” (Von Rad, Theology I, 153). It is simultaneously vital power and life, the person himself or herself, capable of feeling and emotion.

Mark 14:36 Abba, Father: an Aramaic term, here also translated by Mark, Jesus’ special way of addressing God with filial intimacy. The word abba seems not to have been used in earlier or contemporaneous Jewish sources to address God without some qualifier. Cf. Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6 for other occurrences of the Aramaic word in the Greek New Testament.

this cup: The reference to “this cup,” which in the light of 10:38 implies the spectre of death and of God’s judgment that Jesus takes from the Father’s hand in fulfilment of his mission. The thought that the cup could be removed may have come from Isa. 51:17–23 where God, in a proclamation of salvation, summons Jerusalem to arouse from its drunken stupor and to recognize that “the cup of staggering” has been taken away. Yet Scripture also speaks of those who “did not deserve to drink the cup [but] must drink it” (Jer. 49:12). The tension between these alternate expressions of grace and judgment, respectively, seems to be reflected in Jesus’ prayer with its confession of God’s ability (“all things are possible to you”; cf. 10:27) and the firm resolve to submit to God’s sovereign will. The metaphor of the cup indicates that Jesus saw himself confronted, not by a cruel destiny, but by the judgment of God. [William Lane – 517]

What I will…what you will: Some other translations substitute “want” for the NAB’s “will.”  The Greek thelō supports both translations. Note the complete obedient surrender of the human will of Jesus to the divine will of the Father; cf. Jn 4:34; 8:29; Rom 5:19; Phil 2:8; Heb 5:8.

Mark 14:38 the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak: the spirit is drawn to what is good yet found in conflict with the flesh, inclined to sin; cf. Ps 51:5, 10. Everyone is faced with this struggle, the full force of which Jesus accepted on our behalf and, through his bitter passion and death, achieved the victory.


  • Robert Balz Horst and Gerhard Schenider, “psychē’ in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 3:501
  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)
  • Philip Van Linden, C.M., “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, ed. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 932
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press,1994) 8: 707-8
  • The New American Bible available on-line at

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