Agony in the Arena

There is no hope without struggle.

In the ancient world, arenas hosted brutal spectacles where gladiators fought to the death. But not every heroic contest played out in stone stadiums. For history’s most momentous struggle, the arena was a quiet garden, and the champion a solitary, defenseless figure. As the scene unfolds, we see it’s sometimes victory rather than defeat that brings us to our knees.

 

Read

To get the most out of this study, read Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-52, and Luke 22:39-46. But first, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in these passages. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. Above all, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.

Key Passage: Luke 22:39-46

 

Background

By this point in the gospel narrative, Judas Iscariot has conspired with the chief priests and agreed to help them for 30 pieces of silver (Matt. 26:14-16). During the Passover celebration in the upper room, Jesus identifies His betrayer. Judas then leaves to set in motion the events that will eventually lead to Calvary.

 

Reflect

After partaking of His last meal with the disciples, Jesus departs the relative comfort and security of the upper room for a familiar retreat—the Garden of Gethsemane.

  • Reread Matthew 26:36-39, and note how Jesus progressively separates Himself from the disciples. Why do you think He ultimately made sure He was alone when addressing the Father? What does this scene suggest about the interplay between corporate support and personal burden?

  • Pay close attention to verse 39, which says Jesus “fell on His face” before starting to pray. In what way does that image change how you perceive the extent of the Lord’s physical distress?

  • Now look at the words Jesus used in addressing the sleeping disciples in Matthew 26:41: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Consider how the statement could also apply to Jesus, who was Himself fully human—what does this illuminate for you about the Savior’s struggle?

 

Continuing the Story

No one would doubt that Jesus’ Gethsemane experience is painful, but His suffering is even deeper than we might imagine.

Jesus’ suffering is even deeper than we might imagine.

  • Mark 14:33 says that upon arrival, Jesus begins to feel “very distressed and troubled.” According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek for “distressed” is ekthambeō, which means “to alarm thoroughly, to terrify, to throw into terror or amazement.” Can you think of a moment in your life when you were terror-struck? Try to recall the physical sensations and emotions that accompanied that reaction. Now imagine Jesus experiencing the same thing. How does knowing that He personally relates to your human experience of overwhelming fear impact your relationship with Him?

  • One further word study on this verse fills out the picture even more: The Greek term for “troubled” is adēmoneō, which can also mean “depressed.” Strong’s Concordance specifically notes that of the words in the New Testament for depression, adēmoneō is the strongest. Is it strange for you to think of Jesus experiencing depression, however brief? Why or why not?

 

Reflect

The prophet Isaiah, in describing God’s anointed one as a suffering servant, chose language that helps us better comprehend the intensity of Christ’s struggle in the Garden.

  • Isaiah 53:4, which is commonly recognized as a messianic prophecy speaking of Jesus, says that the suffering servant was “crushed for our iniquities” (emphasis added). With this in mind, consider that Gethsemane means “oil press.” We typically think of Christ’s crushing as a physical event taking place solely on the cross. But what if the “punishment that brought us peace” (Isa. 53:5) began the night before in the Garden? How does that change your perspective on sorrow?

  • Consider that Isaiah 61, another messianic passage, notes that one of the duties of God’s Anointed is ministering to the grief-stricken by “giving them [...] the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isa. 61:3). What connection do you see between Jesus being crushed at the Oil Press (Gethsemane) and His assignment to anoint the mourning with oil? How does His suffering translate into our gladness?

  • Being fully divine did not save Jesus from the deeply human experience of grief. That’s because suffering isn’t a divergence from God’s path—it is the path to triumph, healing, and beauty. And it’s a journey on which we must also embark, embracing Christ’s suffering so that we may also share in His joy (1 Peter 4:13).

 

Revisit

Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.

The word agony describes supreme misery and conjures up images of tears, tension, and sobs. It’s an undignified, powerless state—and one Jesus is intimately familiar with. Hours before His arrest, He prays fervently, in agony so severe that droplets of blood are wrung from His skin. Though it appears to be the picture of defeat, this moment is more triumphant than anyone would suspect.

Agony is an undignified, powerless state—and one Jesus is intimately familiar with.

  • Reread Luke 22:39-44, noting an angel strengthens Jesus (v. 43). What does that imply about the draining effects of this moment on Him? How does this scene illuminate the verse “My grace is sufficient for you: for My strength is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NKJV, emphasis added)?

  • The other gospels tell us Jesus asked God three times to excuse Him from the torture of the cross. If the answer didn’t change, why do you think Jesus made the request repeatedly? If it were any other parent-child pair, how would you characterize such an exchange? Have you ever engaged in a similar tug-of-war with God?

  • Strong’s Concordance says that agōnia, the Greek word translated as “agony,” means “a struggle for victory” and originally referred to gymnastic exercises like wrestling. Thinking of your own life, how do you feel about struggling with God—do you see it as a sign of immaturity or, worse, an act of disobedience? Realizing Jesus was not disobeying or acting immaturely, how does knowing He struggled with His Father impact the way you view wrestling with God?

  • Human nature tries to avoid struggle—painful and exhausting, it seldom seems worth the effort. But unlike ancient Greek gymnastic exercises, the agony experienced wrestling with God ultimately strengthens us, aligning our heart, mind, and body with His will.

 

Illustration by Adam Cruft

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What happens to my notes

36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, Sit here while I go over there and pray."

37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed.

38 Then He said to them, My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me."

39 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."

40 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?

41 Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

42 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."

43 Again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.

44 And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more.

45 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.

46 Get up, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!"

32 They came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, Sit here until I have prayed."

33 And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled.

34 And He said to them, My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch."

35 And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by.

36 And He was saying, Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will."

37 And He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?

38 Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

39 Again He went away and prayed, saying the same words.

40 And again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to answer Him.

41 And He came the third time, and said to them, Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough; the hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.

42 Get up, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!"

43 Immediately while He was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs, who were from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.

44 Now he who was betraying Him had given them a signal, saying, Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him and lead Him away under guard."

45 After coming, Judas immediately went to Him, saying, Rabbi!" and kissed Him.

46 They laid hands on Him and seized Him.

47 But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear.

48 And Jesus said to them, Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as you would against a robber?

49 Every day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me; but this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures."

50 And they all left Him and fled.

51 A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him.

52 But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.

39 And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him.

40 When He arrived at the place, He said to them, Pray that you may not enter into temptation."

41 And He withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and began to pray,

42 saying, Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done."

43 Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.

44 And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.

45 When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow,

46 and said to them, Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation."

14 Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests

15 and said, What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?" And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him.

16 From then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus.

36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, Sit here while I go over there and pray."

37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed.

38 Then He said to them, My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me."

39 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."

41 Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

33 And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled.

4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.

5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.

3 To grant those who mourn in Zion, Giving them a garland instead of ashes, The oil of gladness instead of mourning, The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.

13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.

39 And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him.

40 When He arrived at the place, He said to them, Pray that you may not enter into temptation."

41 And He withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and began to pray,

42 saying, Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done."

43 Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.

44 And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.

9 And He has said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

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