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The Garden and the Gospel: A Maundy Thursday Meditation

By Luke Stamps—

In the traditional church calendar, today is Maundy Thursday, the day of Holy Week that commemorates Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night that he was betrayed.  The name “Maundy Thursday” is taken from the phrase mandatum novum (“a new commandment”) from the Latin version of John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”  Today, Christians around the world will remember the events of that last night of Jesus’ life: his Last Supper, his final instructions to the disciples, his washing of the disciples’ feet, his betrayal and arrest.  But one of the most gripping scenes of Maundy Thursday is Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was there—in a secluded garden on the Mount of Olives—that the Son of God prepared himself for the epoch-shattering events of the next day, which would culminate in his wrath-bearing death on the cross.

There is much that we could say about this dramatic scene in the garden (Matthew 26:36-46 par.).  Some interpreters are fascinated by the physiological effects of Jesus’ struggle (he sweats drops of blood!).  Others focus attention on Jesus’ psychological struggle in the garden: was he fearful of death itself or of the prospect of being separated from the Father or perhaps a combination of the two?  Indeed, this passage has often perplexed Christian interpreters because of its raw honesty about Jesus’ struggle in the face of death.

One Will or Two?

But I want to draw attention to one angle of interpretation that is often neglected today but, nevertheless, has a long and venerable history among Christian interpreters.  Many have seen in this passage evidence for the traditional “two-wills” approach to Christology, especially in Jesus’ words, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  The debate over the number of wills in the incarnate Christ dates back to seventh century when some theologians posited that Christ has only one center of willing (monothelitism, from the Greek for “one will”).  The majority of orthodox Christians responded that since Christ has two natures, he must have two wills–one divine and one human (dyothelitism: two wills; see the Sixth Ecumenical Council of AD 680-81).  When the Son assumed a human nature, he assumed a human will.  Luke 22:42 provides prima facie evidence for this view, because Jesus’ “will” clearly seems to be distinguished from the Father’s “will.”  So, according to the two-wills position, in Gethsemane, Jesus is speaking with reference to his human will, which is being conformed to the divine will.  It is not as if Christ’s human will is finally opposed to the divine will, but it is ontologically distinct, and because he assumed true humanity, the Son had to learn “obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:9).

All of this might sound like needless speculation that detracts from the intended meaning of Matthew 26.  But I would submit that the question of Christ’s human will is intimately related to the gospel itself, as it is presented in the Gethsemane narrative.  Only if Christ assumed a true human will can he adequately serve as a substitute for human wills.  As Gregory of Nazianzus put it, that which is not assumed is not healed.  In other words, if Christ did not assume a human will, he cannot redeem our sinful human wills.  As the Last Adam, he must render obedience to God through a human will in the place of human wills.  But is this position really supported by the Gethsemane narrative?  Is there good exegetical reason to adopt this view?

Two Reasons for Two Wills

Two lines of evidence suggest that there is.  First, the literary connections between Matthew’s Gethsemane narrative and his account of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt  6:7-15) suggest that Jesus’ representative (and thus fully human) role is in view in the former.  As commentators have noted, there are several verbal parallels between the “Lord’s Prayer” and the Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane: “our/my Father” (6:9; 26:39, 42), “into temptation” (6:13; 26:41), and “your will be done” (6:10; 26:42).[1]  Thus, the Lord takes upon his own lips the prayer that he taught his disciples.  He is the Son of God par excellence.  Through agonizing prayer (“with loud cries and tears,” Heb 5:7), Jesus’ human will was perfectly conformed to the Father’s will.  This exemplary and representative role seems to require a human will for its accomplishment—or, again to cite Hebrews, “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17).

Second, the high drama of the Gethsemane narrative itself also points in the direction of the two-wills interpretation.  Jesus is more than a good example in his agonizing prayer.  He is also the representative of God’s people.  In the garden, the disciples are sleeping while Jesus is praying the prayer he taught them to pray (26:40, 44).  He alone watches and prays.  He alone is wholly committed to the petition, “Thy will be done.”  He alone is the obedient Son of the Father.  Thus, Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is a dramatic enactment of his substitutionary work.  Christ’s passion begins in the garden: he suffers while his followers sleep.  James and John had promised that they could share in his “cup” of suffering (20:22), but in the final hour Jesus alone must drink the cup of God’s wrath in their place (26:39, 42).  Perhaps the garden setting itself further illustrates this representative work.  Adam disobeyed in a garden of paradise; the Last Adam obeyed in a garden of agony.  All of this substitutionary evidence only makes sense if Christ can truly stand in the place of Adam, Israel, and the disciples.[2]  He wills salvation through a human will in the place of human wills—in spite of the agony that this choice produces.  Some kind of human volitional equipage seems necessary in order for him to serve as an adequate substitute.

So, as we meditate this Maundy Thursday on the last night of Jesus’ life, let us marvel at the incomprehensible condescension of our Lord.  Let us marvel at his willingness to assume a true humanity and to render perfect obedience to God through a true human will in our place.  Let us marvel at the gospel of the grace of the Son of God, who was obedient unto death, even death on the cross.

[1] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., Matthew 19-28, ICC (London: T & T Clark, 1997), 497.

[2] This emphasis on Jesus’ representative role runs throughout Matthew’s Gospel.  For a brief but excellent treatment of Matthew’s Israel-Jesus typology, see R. T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1989), 207-210.


Luke Stamps is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

Read other blog posts by Luke Stamps here.

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