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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
AGONY.—This word is used in Luke 22:44 to describe the sorrow, suffering, and struggle of Jesus in Gethsemane. The Greek word agônia (ἀγωνία) is derived from agôn (ἁγών), meaning: (1) an assembly of the people (cf. ἁγορά); (2) a place of assembly, especially the place in which the Greeks assembled to celebrate solemn games; (3) a contest of athletes, runners or charioteers. Ἀγών is used in a figurative sense in Hebrews 12:1 ‘let us run with patience the race that is set before us.’ The word has the general sense of struggle in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 ‘in much conflict’; Philippians 1:30 ‘having the same conflict’; 1 Timothy 6:2 ‘the good fight of faith’; 2 Timothy 4:7 ‘I have fought the good fight.’ It means solicitude or anxiety in Colossians 2:1 ‘how greatly I strive for you’ (literally, ‘how great an agôn I have for you’).
The state of Jesus in Gethsemane is described in the following phrases: Matthew 26:37 ‘he began to be sorrowful and sore troubled’; Mark 14:33 ‘he began to be greatly amazed and sore troubled’; Luke 22:44 ‘And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.’* [Note: On the genuineness of this passage see the ‘Notes on Select Readings’ in Westcott and Hort’s NT in Greek.] Jesus confesses His own feelings in the words, ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death’ (Matthew 26:38, Mark 14:34). That He regarded the experience as a temptation is suggested by His warning words to His disciples: ‘Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’ (Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38; cf. Luke 22:40; Luke 22:46). That He was conscious of human weakness, and desired Divine strength for the struggle, is evident from the prayers, in reporting the words of which the Evangelists do not verbally agree, as the following comparison shows:—
‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.’
‘Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; remove this cup from me: howbeit not what I will, but what thou wilt.’
‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done.’
St. Mark and St. Luke give the words of one prayer only, although the former evidently intends to report three distinct acts of prayer (Luke 22:35; Luke 22:39; Luke 22:41), and the latter apparently only two (Luke 22:41; Luke 22:44). But St. Matthew gives the words of the second prayer, which he reports as repeated the third time (Luke 22:42; Luke 22:44): ‘O my Father, if this cannot pass away, except I drink it, thy will be done.’ It is not at all improbable that there was such progress in Jesus’ thoughts. At first He prayed for the entire removal of the cup, if possible (Mt.), because possible to God (Mk.), if God were willing (Lk.); and then, having been taught that it could not be taken away, He prayed for strength to take the cup. It is not necessary for us to decide which of the reports is most nearly verbally correct, as the substance of the first prayer is the same in all reports. Although St. John gives no report of the scene in Gethsemane, yet in his account of the interview of Jesus with the Greeks there is introduced what seems to be a faint reminiscence: ‘Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name’ (John 12:27-28). It is substantially the same request, expressed in the characteristically Johannine language. But even if this conjecture be unwarranted, and this be an utterance on the occasion to which the Fourth Evangelist assigns it, the words serve to illustrate Jesus’ struggle in view of His death. Much more confident can we be that Gethsemane is referred to in Hebrews 5:7-8 ‘Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear; though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered.’ Having passed in review the material which is offered us in dealing with the question of the nature of the agony in Gethsemane, we may now concentrate our attention upon it, excluding all reference to other matters which are dealt with in their own place.
Many answers have been given to the question, What was the cup which Jesus desired to be taken away?
(1) The most obvious, but not on that account the most intelligent and reverent, answer is that in Gethsemane Jesus was overcome by the fear of death, from which He longed to escape. But this is to place Christ on a lower plane of manhood than many men, even among the lowest races. If the love of Christ has constrained many martyrs for His name to face rack and block, water and flame, and many other painful modes of death without shrinking, and even with the song of praise upon the lips, is it at all likely that He Himself shrank back?
(2) A more ingenious view, which has an apparent verbal justification in Matthew 26:38, Mark 14:34 (‘even unto death’), and Hebrews 5:7 (‘to save him from death’), is that Jesus felt Himself dying, and that He feared He would die before He could offer the great sacrifice for the sin of the world. But to this suggestion there are three objections. Firstly, there is no evidence of such physical exhaustion on the part of Jesus as would justify such a fear; although the stress of His work and suffering had undoubtedly put a severe strain upon His bodily strength, yet we have no proof that His health had given way so far as to make death appear at all probable. Secondly, only a very superficial and external view of His work as Saviour warrants the supposition that His sacrifice could be accomplished only on the Cross; that its efficacy depended in any way on its outward mode; that His death, if it had come to Him in Gethsemane, would have had less value for God and man than His crucifixion has. Thirdly, even if this supposition be admitted, we may be sure of this, that Jesus was so confident of His Father’s goodness and guardianship in every step of His path, that it was impossible for Him to fear that the great purpose of His life would be left unfulfilled on account of His premature death. His rebuke of the ‘little faith’ (Matthew 8:26) of His disciples during the storm at sea would have been applicable to Himself had He cherished any such fear.
(3) A much more profound view is offered to our consideration, when not the death itself, but the circumstances of the death, are represented as the cause of Jesus’ agony. He regarded His death not only as a sacrifice which He was willing to offer, not only as a tragedy which He was ready to endure, but as a crime of man against God from which He shrank with horror. That the truth and grace of God in Him should meet with this insult and injury from the race which He had come to save and bless—this it was that caused His agony. He could not endure to gaze into ‘this abysmal depths’ of human iniquity and impiety, which the murder of the Holy One and the Just opened to view. Surely this apocalypse of sin was not necessary as a condition of the apocalypse of grace. If we look more closely at the conduct of the actors in this drama, we shall better understand how appalling a revelation of sin it must have appeared to Jesus. The fickleness of the multitude, the hypocrisy and bigotry of the Pharisees, the worldliness and selfishness of the priesthood, the treachery of Judas, the denial by Peter, the antagonism of the disciples generally to the Master’s saving purpose, the falsehood of His accusers, the hate and the craft of His persecutors,—all these were present to the consciousness of Jesus as an intolerable offence to His conscience, and an unspeakable grief to His heart. To His moral insight and spiritual discernment these were not single misdeeds, but signs and proofs of a wickedness and godlessness spreading far and wide in the life of mankind, reaching deep into the soul of man. Must this antagonism of sin to God be forced to its ultimate issue? Could He not save mankind by some mode of sacrifice that would involve the men concerned in it in less heinous guilt? Must He by persevering in His present course drive His enemies to do their worst against Him, and thus by His fidelity to His vocation must He involve all who opposed Him in this greater iniquity? That such questions cannot have been present to the mind of Jesus, who can confidently affirm? He foresaw the doom of the guilty nation, and He also saw that it was the crime about to be committed against Him that would seal its doom. That He shrank from being thus the occasion of its judgment cannot be doubted. But if in Gethsemane Jesus anticipated distinctly and accepted deliberately what He so intensely experienced on the Cross, then this solicitude for all who were involved in the crime of His death does not at all exhaust His agony. The words of darkness and desolation on the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46), must be our clue to the mystery of this experience.
(4) The only view that seems to the present writer at all adequate is that what Jesus dreaded and prayed to be delivered from in the experience of death was the sense of God’s distance and abandonment. His sorrow unto death was not the fear of death as physical dissolution, nor of dying before He could finish His work on the Cross, but the shrinking of His filial soul from the sting of death, due to sin, the veiling in darkness of His Father’s face from Him. His prayer was answered, for He was saved from death, inasmuch as the experience of darkness and desolation was momentary, and ere He gave up the ghost He was able to commit Himself with childlike trust unto His Father. ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). His agony in Gethsemane was worthy of Him as the Son of God, for it was the recoil of His filial spirit from the interruption of His filial communion with His Father, which appeared to Him to be necessarily involved in the sacrifice which He was about to offer for the sins of the world.
It is not the function of this article to offer a theological interpretation of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane; but a justification of the above answer to the question of the nature of Jesus’ agony may be briefly offered in a psychological analysis of His experience. First of all, then, we note Jesus’ sense of solitude. He must leave behind Him the disciples except three, and even from these three He must withdraw Himself (Matthew 26:36; Matthew 26:39). He sought this outward isolation because He felt this inner solitude. Since His announcement of His Passion (Matthew 16:21) the disciples had been becoming less and less His companions, as they were being more and more estranged from His purpose. At last He knew that they would abandon Him altogether, their outer distance but the sign and proof of their inward alienation. Yet the comfort of the Father’s presence would remain with Him: ‘Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is come, that ye shall be scattered every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me’ (John 16:32). But now in Gethsemane He began to realize that it might be necessary for the accomplishment of His sacrifice that even the Father’s presence should be withdrawn from Him. That dread drives Him to the Father’s presence, but the assurance that there is no ground for this fear does not come to Him. Again He turns to His disciples. Secondly, therefore, we note His need of sympathy. When He withdrew from the three, He asked them to watch with Him; when, returning, He found them sleeping, His words are a pathetic reproach: ‘What, could ye not watch with me one hour?’ (Matthew 26:40). He craved sympathy, not only because He felt solitary, but because this solitude was due to His love for man. The sacrifice He was about to offer, in which the sense of His Father’s abandonment was the sting of death, was on behalf of, and instead of man; and yet not even the men He had chosen would sorrow with Him, although He was suffering for all mankind. Thus man’s denial of sympathy must have made Him feel more keenly the dread that even God’s comfort and help might be withheld from Him. Thirdly, we note that this dread was not groundless, but was rooted deep in His experience and vocation. We must then go beyond any of the words uttered in Gethsemane itself to discover all that was involved in His agony there. As the incarnate love, mercy, and grace of God, His experience was necessarily vicarious. He suffered with and for man. He so identified Himself with sinful mankind, that He shared its struggle, bore its burden, felt its shame. Himself sinless, knowing no sin, He was made sin for mankind in feeling its sin as it were His very own. The beloved of God, He became a curse in experiencing in His own agony and desolation the consequences of sin, although as innocent He could neither feel the guilt nor bear the penalty of sin. So completely had He become one with mankind in being made sin and a curse for man, that even His consciousness of filial union and communion with God as His Father was obscured and interrupted, if even for only a moment, by His consciousness of the sin of man. God did not withdraw Himself from, or abandon His only-begotten and well-beloved Son, but was with Him to sustain Him in His sacrifice; but the Son of God was so overshadowed and overwhelmed by His consciousness of the sin and the consequent curse of the race which He so loved as to make Himself one with it, that He dreaded in Gethsemane to lose, and did on Calvary lose for a moment, the comfort and help of His Father’s love. In this experience He exhibited the antagonism of God and sin, the necessary connexion between the expulsion of God and the invasion of sin in any consciousness, since His self-identification with sinful man involved His self-isolation from the Holy Father. This, then, was the agony in Gethsemane, such a sense of the sorrow, shame, and curse of mankind’s sin as His very own as became a dread of the loss of God’s fatherly presence. Although He at first prayed to be delivered from this, to Him, most terrible and grievous experience, yet He afterward submitted to God’s will, as God’s purpose in the salvation of mankind was dearer to Him than even the joy of His filial communion with God His Father. In this surrender He was endowed with such strength from above that He finished the work His Father had given Him to do, and in His obedience even unto death offered the sacrifice of His life, which is a ransom for many, and the seal of the new covenant of forgiveness, renewal, and fellowship with God for all mankind. See also art. Dereliction.
Literature.—The standard Commentaries and Lives of Christ; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. 712 f.; Jonathan Edwards, Works, ii. 866 ff.; Expos. Times, vi. [1894–1895], 433 f., 522; Expositor, 3rd ser. v. 180 ff.; Fairbairn, Studies in the Life of Christ, ‘Gethsemane,’ where the explanation numbered (3) above is fully elaborated.
Alfred E. Garvie.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Agony'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/a/agony.html. 1906-1918.