And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” — Luke 22:39-46
In this passage, Luke shows us Jesus in a garden full of trees, on a mountain, experiencing temptation. All of this should ring a bell for us: the Holy Spirit means for us to read this and think of Adam in Eden, and to reflect on the contrast between Adam and Jesus.
God had promised Adam that eventually “every tree” would be given to him (Gen. 1:29). But Adam had to wait to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This tree’s name links it with the kingly privilege of exercising judgment. Adam impatiently seized this fruit before his time, before he had endured and matured. In just the same way, the Father intended to give Jesus a kingly seat over all the rulers of the earth. If at this point in Luke we knew only what had happened to Adam, this would leave us on the edge of our seats: Would Jesus call upon the angels for the wrong kind of help? Would he seize his seat at the Father’s right hand, or would he patiently suffer injustice and death in order to gain it? Would he be willing to be made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10)?
In the very middle of this passage Jesus does receive help: “an angel from heaven” strengthens him. The way Luke has structured this passage draws attention to this heavenly night-time help, making it the hinge, the turning point, of the passage. This is a kind of midnight Passover deliverance—but it is not the kind of deliverance you might expect. The angelic help does not seem to be a turning point for the better. Jesus was “delivered”—but straight into the Passover holocaust. Everything that happens afterwards is not relief from what came before, but an intensification of what came before, a realization and fulfillment of what was prophesied.
After Jesus received this help, it got much worse before it got better. His battle really begins in earnest as soon as he receives help.
This is frequently how God works. We pray for and receive preliminary help, sometimes even a preliminary victory. But then there is a further test, a greater battle. Adam received a helper, but then encountered a serpent. Jacob was delivered from Laban, then heard fearful news that his brother Esau was coming; Jacob even prefigured Jesus by wrestling in prayer at night over this. Israel was delivered from Egypt, then had to face Pharaoh and his armies. They were delivered miraculously from these at the Red Sea, and given the gift of manna, but then had to face Amalek in battle. Jesus was baptized and filled with the Spirit, only to face Satan in the wilderness. After Jesus’s resurrection, the church in Jerusalem experienced an initial period of growth and fruitfulness, only to have to battle Jews and Judaizers, until the church was sent out to the four corners of the earth by persecution.
We know that it is because Jesus endured his trial that we are able to receive heavenly help in our own trials. It is because he endured that we have received the Holy Spirit, our great helper and strengthener. Adam was not willing to die to defend his bride, but Jesus, in his death, succeeded in rescuing and providing for us. We also know that our own trials will never be so great as his, because he endured the very wrath of God in our place. But there are a few more reflections I want to draw from what we have seen here.
First, it is startling to see that Jesus needed heavenly help to endure his temptation and suffering. Elsewhere, Peter tells us that Jesus had to exercise faith in order to endure (1 Pet. 2:23). This adds greater depth to the assurance in Hebrews that Jesus is a sympathetic high priest, and a king who gladly welcomes us to his throne of grace and mercy. He is sympathetic and understanding even to the point that he needed help to strengthen him to resist temptation.
Second, along with the disciples we are chided by Jesus’s words. Help is available in our need—all we have to do is pray.
Finally, we have a sobering lesson in how help often comes to us in our trials and suffering. God does send us help, through his Spirit, his word, and one another. But very often this help is the prelude to the real battle. The Spirit carries us into the thick of battle. The Spirit strengthens us to fight. He enables us to be full of faith, full of hope, and full of the fruit of the Spirit in spite of the storm that is raging around us.
In the words of Peter: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Pet. 5:10) Amen.