On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper and interprets this meal as a remembrance of his death (Mt 26:26-29). He knows infallibly that he will die and what his death will accomplish. Indeed, he has taken several opportunities before this night to speak of his forthcoming death, always characterizing that death as both certain and ordained, never mind the plots and strategies of his enemies, who include both the “chief priests and elders” (26:3) and Judas Iscariot (26:14-15).
Jesus even knows the precise identity of his betrayer, and signals his identity with the dipping of bread (26:20-25). Therefore, when a woman anoints his head at Bethany, in the home of Simon the Leper, Jesus interprets this deed as preparing him for burial (26:11). In effect, she has pre-embalmed Jesus, given the certainty of his death. Nothing will stop Jesus from dying and dying for a specific reason—not for himself, but rather for us. If the crucifixion were not guarnateed to occur by the Father’s sovereign will, we could not know with certainty that it satisfies his demand for justice in the wake of our sin. A crucifixion that God merely uses—rather than ordains—provides an uncertain basis for our eternal security, being reactive to contingent circumstances.
These facts would tell us why Matthew’s gospel includes the events of 26:36-46, where Jesus prays—even begs—the Father for the “cup” of suffering to pass from him, if it possibly could. Certainly if Jesus does something that we also must do, his conduct becomes our living example; and Matthew might have told us about Gethsmane simply for that reason. However, the certainty that Jesus has shown thus far about his death suggests that Matthew has a larger, soteriological point to make in these verses.
Notice, specifically, the content of Jesus’s prayer. First, he asks to be rescued from the events to come, if possible; and secondly, he submits to the Father’s will in this regard. Yet, as said above, Jesus has consistently declared that he will suffer betrayal and death. We also know the Father says ‘No’ to the Son’s request, “Let this cup pass from me.” Therefore, we can see how the events of vv. 36-46 would interpret the Lord’s crucifixion and death. Jesus asks about what is possible and the answer is, ‘Nothing else.’ This cup cannot pass from Jesus without losing our souls to hell; and yes, these events conform to the Father’s will. Jesus will die, because such is the Father’s plan.
In Gethsemane, Jesus hears the most significant ‘No’ ever heard in history. Can we be saved without the cross? No, we cannot. We have sinned against God, and the Son’s atoning death is the one solution that fits the size of our problem. Nothing less than that blood will do. At the same time, we see that these events conform to the Father’s sovereign plan—our Father, who goes this far to save us from our sins. While his disciples slept, Jesus pleaded with his Father. While they slept, he resolved to do the Father’s will. When they ran away, and even denied knowing him, Jesus stayed to face the cross. He did so, because his suffering and death was the only way to save us; and saving us was the Father’s gracious will. This soteriological point is the main idea of vv. 26-46, as we have said; but the same text tells us something about prayer after all.
We tell ourselves that prayer works, which actually means: God works through prayer. But how do we define ‘works,’ when we say that prayer does? If we do not watch our step, we will find ourselves saying the following in our hearts and even out loud: “Prayer works – I know, because when pray, I often get what I want.” But if the Lord’s prayers from the garden teach any lesson about prayer, they teach this one: sometimes, the ‘No’ that we hear tells us more than any ‘Yes’ could have done. The ‘No’ assures us—however cold this comfort—that what we face is the Father’s will for us, that he has chosen these events as our path. In fact, the more times we pray and hear this ‘No,’ the more certain we can be of the Father’s will, just as the Lord prayed ‘three times’ for the cup to pass and then heard ‘No’ (cf. 2 Cor 12:8-9) himself. Therefore, when we face life’s challenges, from great to small, let us pray all the more and also never forget: the event which gives us access to God in prayer was indeed the Father’s will. The ‘No’ received by Jesus speaks that volume to us.