Gethsemane and The Father – Son relationship

I would now like to revisit Matthew 26 and Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. You will recall from earlier posts that the events here are central to our discussion about how the Son relates to the Father.  Orthodox Christology asserts that because Jesus is one person with two natures and that he is fully God and fully man that this means he must possess two wills. Furthermore, orthodox Trinitarianism insists that God has one will because will relates to nature.

This means that it is important that we do not interpret Matthew 26 in a way that does not undermine those doctrinal positions. The reason for that is not that we want our doctrine to control our interpretation but because the doctrine itself is a summary of what the whole of Scripture teaches. We know from Deuteronomy 6 that there is one God, from John 1 that Jesus is fully God and from John 5 and 17 that he shares a unity with the Father.

However, as Ovey argues, Scripture is clear that we believe in the distinction of the persons (John 1 again) and so we don’t want to interpret Matthew 26 in a way that appears to endorse modalism.

“Tertullian is surely right to stress that the prayers between Father and Son in the incarnation do speak of a real distinction of Persons. So, exegesis should not take us down a line that obscures that difference of persons: that is exactly the mistake modalistic Monarchianism made in its attempt to defend divine monarchy.”[1]

Further, whilst we talk of the two wills in Christ, we do not want to describe them in such a way that we move into Nestorian territory and treat him as 2 persons in one body. So have another look at Matthew 26:36 -46 with me. 

Notice first of all that Jesus when he gets to Gethsemane goes a short distance and takes Peter, James and John with him. He them moves a little further away from them to pray but still presumably within ear shot. France’s view is that this is not insignificant.

“Jesus prays a short distance away from the smaller group of disciples suggesting that they are intended to overhear.  The prayer is for their benefit.”[2]

If for their benefit and since it was included in Scripture, I would suggest that as so often is the case, Jesus’ words are for our benefit too. We are meant to overhear the conversation. The pray acts as revelation to enable us to learn something about the relationship of Father to Son.

Jesus is in emotional and physical anguish at this point. In Luke’s account we are provided with this additional detail.

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.[3]

The presence of blood in his sweat suggests a condition called, Hematidrosis a condition linked to extreme stress or fear.[4] This is important because whenever we talk about Jesus suffering including his death, we describe The Son as suffering with regards to his human nature. WE do not say that God suffered because God cannot suffer, this would imply that he can change and that he can be manipulated and harmed by his rivals.  At the same time, we do not say that his human nature suffered. It is Jesus the person who experiences suffering.

Jesus then begins to pray, addressing God as his Father. France comments:

“Jesus often referred to God as “my father” but the vocative “My Father” in prayer here and in v42 rather than the simple “Father” as in 11:25-26 further emphasises that it is the relationship between Father and Son that is being  tested and reaffirmed.”[5]

This means that there is a relational and personal dynamic to the prayer. The Son prays to the Father. It is not about a conflict between the human will and the divine will. It is not about the son, here on earth praying to the triune God. As Ovey argues, this would completely change the nature of the prayer.

“If this is a conversation between the ‘two natural faculties of wills’ then  ‘It not only means we must re-construe ‘Father’ as referring to the triune God generically, but perhaps even more significantly it also creates a real rupture in the united person of the Son.’”[6]

Notice two things at this point. First of all, Ovey’s concern is that this would make little sense of the actual meaning of the text. Jesus says “you” when in fact he means “we” but also once again he is expressing his desire that we interpret the text in Matthew 26 so that we don’t end up with an interpretation that undermines the unity of Christ.

John Calvin when he engages with this passage has a linked by slightly different concern. He does not want us to interpret this passage in such a way that it suggests that it is God that experiences turmoil and suffering.  He observes that this is a real and important test for Christ.

We have seen that our Lord formerly contended with the fear of death; but as he now fights face to face with temptation, such an attack is called the beginning of grief and sorrow. Hence we infer that the true test of virtue is only to be found when the contest begins; for then the weakness of the flesh, which was formerly concealed, shows itself, and the secret feelings are abundantly displayed. Thus, though God had already tried his Son by certain preparatory exercises, he now wounds him more sharply by a nearer prospect of death, and strikes his mind with a terror to which he had not been accustomed.[7]

However, we cannot think of God the Son experiencing this and so many have tried to make a careful theological distinction but often failed.

“But as it appears to be inconsistent with the divine glory of Christ, that he was seized with trembling and sadness, many commentators have labored with toil and anxiety to findsome way of evading the difficulty. But their labor has been ill-judged and of no use; for if we are ashamed that Christ should experience fear and sorrow, our redemption will perish and be lost.”[8]

Calvin’s aim is to avoid any sense of trouble, fear or change in God’s will and so he goes on to say:

“But it may be asked, How did he pray that the eternal decree of the Father, of which he was not ignorant, should be revoked? or though he states a condition, if it be possible, yet it wears an aspect of absurdity to make the purpose of God changeable. We must hold it to be utterly impossible for God to revoke his decree. According to Mark, too, Christ would seem to contrast the power of God with his decree. All things, says he, are possible to thee. But it would be improper to extend the power of God so far as to lessen his truth, by making him liable to variety and change. I answer, There would be no absurdity in supposing that Christ, agreeably to the custom of the godly, leaving out of view the divine purpose, committed to the bosom of the Father his desire which troubled him.”[9]

He appears here to emphasis that the distinction is between the two wills of nature, divine and human.  There can be no place in his exposition for Monothelitism which he explicitly rules out saying:

This passage shows plainly enough the gross folly of those ancient heretics, who were called Monothelites, because they imagined that the will of Christ was but one and simple; for Christ, as he was God, willed nothing different from the Father; and therefore it follows, that his human soul had affections distinct from the secret purpose of God. But if even Christ was under the necessity of holding his will captive, in order to subject it to the government of God, though it was properly regulated, how carefully ought we to repress[10]

However, it is worth noting that Calvin also does not wish to fall into Nestorianism. He says:

“Nay more, as musical sounds, though various and differing from each other, are so far from being discordant, that they produce sweet melody and fine harmony; so in Christ there was a remarkable example of adaptation between the two wills, the will of God and the will of man, so that they differed from each other without any conflict or opposition.”[11]

The wills are not in opposition to each other. It is not that any one moment, Jesus will act and speak with his divine will and at another moment with his human will. This begins to provide potential for harmonisation with Ovey’s insistence that there is no “rupture” between the natures. Instead:

“It is perfectly possible for the one unified Person to be able to actualise the same thing as a person using two different faculties in two different natures.”[12]

Conclusion The prayer is therefore a conversation between persons. It is a genuine Father-Son moment.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that this prayer happens specifically within the context of the incarnation and EFS advocates should not down play that. Nor, however should those opposing EFS downplay the extent

[1] Ovey, Your will be done, 107.

[2] France, Matthew, 1004.

[3] Luke 22:4.


[5] France, Matthew, 1004.

[6] Ovey, Your will be done, 111-112.

[7] Calvin, John. Commentary on Matthew (Kindle Locations 10400-10404). Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition.


[9] Calvin, John. Commentary on Matthew (Kindle Locations 10461-10466). Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition.

[10] Calvin, John. Commentary on Matthew (Kindle Locations 10501-10504). Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition.

[11] Calvin, John. Commentary on Matthew (Kindle Locations 10498-10501). Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition.

[12] Ovey, Your will be done,112.

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