El Greco - The Agony in the Garden

Agony in the Garden, El Greco 1590

“In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation.” (Hebrews 5:7-9)

In the midst of proclaiming Jesus as our new High Priest, who not only offers sacrifice for our sins but who himself becomes the sacrifice, the writer of Hebrews suddenly and powerfully evokes the memory of our Lord’s last night and his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. That is when “he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.” As Luke tells us, “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground”. His anguished prayer was, “Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42-44)

What does this have to do with Jesus being our High Priest? In short, everything.

First, the very prayers themselves are part of his ministry for us.  As Benedict XVI so eloquently said,

These cries and pleas are seen as Jesus’ way of exercising his high priesthood. It is through his cries, his tears, and his prayers that Jesus does what the high priest is meant to do: he holds up to God the anguish of human existence. He brings man before God.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, p. 164)

As he takes the sin and death of the world onto himself, the frightened prayer before the forces of death, “let this cup pass from me”, becomes his cry not only for himself, but ultimately for us all.

Even more, it is in conforming his human will to the will of God, even in suffering, that he lives out the sacrifice that brings forgiveness and new life to us for whom he died. Hebrews says he “learned obedience by what he suffered”. In the words of Raymond Brown:

“In these spiritually daunting and humanly terrifying moments he did not resist the sovereign purposes of God… Gethsemane is the most moving example of that humble submission which characterized his whole life….This is not meant to imply that Jesus learned obedience as one who had no previous knowledge or experience of it…He was always obedient and in the moment of deepest agony he continued and maintained that same attitude of submission to his almighty sovereign and Father.” (Brown, Hebrews, IVP, p.100)

Moreover, the seemingly odd little phrase “and when he was made perfect” is even greater confirmation of this. Here we are not to think of perfection as we normally do, as if before this moment Jesus was lacking in something, rather we are to think of it in its original sense: something was perfect if it “fully carried out the purpose for which it was made and designed.” (Barclay, Hebrews, p. 46) Also we need to realize that in the Old Testament the phrase “make perfect” is only used to mean “consecrate as a priest”. So by his “yes’ at Gethsemane to fulfill the will of God,  his willing obedience “unto death, even death upon a cross” (Phil 2:8), Jesus was truly consecrated as our priest, our high priest.

Perhaps, though, the most surprising  phrase in this important little passage is the one which clearly states that Jesus’ prayer was answered positively at Gethsemane:

“and he was heard because of his reverence”.

I thought God said “no”, didn’t he? The cup did not pass from him and he drank it to the dregs. True, unless God’s “Yes” was on a deeper and more wonderful level than we can imagine.  Benedict XVI sees the whole of Jesus passion as being permeated by this same prayer, “one long impassioned plea to God for life in the face of the power of death.

And this is exactly what he received:

“the Father raised him from the night of death and, through the Resurrection, saved him definitively and permanently from death: Jesus dies no more. “

Amazingly, the answer to Jesus prayer is our answer too:

“yet surely the text means even more: the Resurrection is not just Jesus’ personal resurrection. He did not die for himself alone. His was a dying “for others” ; it was the conquest of death itself….On the Cross, Jesus becomes the source of life for himself and for all. On the cross death is conquered. The granting of Jesus’  prayer concerns  all mankind: his obedience becomes life for all. The conclusion is spelled out for us in the closing words of the passage we have been studying: ‘He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a (The, our) high priest….’” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, pp. 162-166)

Soon we will focus our attention on the Cross of Christ. On Good Friday we will go with him to Golgotha and watch, weep and pray. And we will give thanks. Today we are called by our reading to go with him to Gethsemane, the place where his yes embraced the Cross. Should we not watch and weep and pray here as well? And should we not give thanks? After all it is here that his “yes” to death guaranteed our “yes” to life. “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”(II Corinthians 9:15)


Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.