Did Jesus Really Pray to Avoid the Cross?

Did Jesus Really Pray to Avoid the Cross?
Apr 2023

You might wonder, does it really matter whether or not Jesus prayed to avoid the cross? I think it does...Perhaps the most poignant prayer in the Bible is that prayed by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39, NIV).For most of my life, I've heard it said that, in praying this, Jesus was asking to be spared the cross--that He wanted, if possible, to be allowed to save humankind through another means.But several years ago, I came across a different perspective. And it got me wondering: Did Jesus really pray to avoid the cross? Could there be a different explanation than what is commonly taught? These questions prompted me to dig deeper into Jesus' prayer by exploring the Scriptures, reading commentaries, and having conversations with friends and my pastor. In the course of my study, I found multiple reasons to question the common interpretation of this prayer. Here are five big ones:

1. Jesus said He wouldn't ask to be saved from "this hour."

Shortly after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and just days before His death, Jesus said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds...Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour" (John 12:23-24, 27, NIV).Jesus is clearly speaking of His impending death, and He clearly states that He will not ask to be saved. So why would He, just days later, do exactly what He said He would not do?

2. Jesus foretold His crucifixion.

Jesus directly predicted His death multiple times. In Matthew's account of Jesus' third prediction of His death, Jesus explicitly stated that He would be crucified: "On the way [to Jerusalem], he [Jesus] took the Twelve aside and said to them, 'We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!'" (Matthew 20:17-19, NIV).Jesus knew the plan was for Him to be crucified, so why would He ask God to change the plan at the last minute?

3. Jesus' crucifixion was prophesied in the Old Testament.

Not only did Jesus predict His crucifixion, but the manner of His death was also prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. David revealed details of the Messiah's death in Psalms 22, including the fact that His hands and feet would be pierced:"Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment" (16-18, NIV).In an article titled "What the Bible says about Prophecies of Jesus Christ's Death," Richard T. Ritenbaugh quotes Henry Halley, the author of the well-known Halley's Bible Handbook, as saying "[T]hough written a thousand years before Jesus, it [this psalm] is so vivid a description of the crucifixion of Jesus that one would think of the writer as being personally present at the Cross."Ritenbaugh himself goes on to state that "Psalm 22 is so specific and detailed in its descriptions of Christ's crucifixion that it can in reality only be a divinely inspired prophecy of the execution of the Son of God--a full millennium before the events took place in Roman Jerusalem."David wasn't the only one to prophesy the crucifixion. Both Isaiah and Zechariah foretold that the Messiah would be pierced (Isaiah 53:5; Zechariah 12:10), and Moses foreshadowed the crucifixion when he wrapped a snake around a pole, which, when lifted up, caused the Israelites who looked upon it to be cured from the bites of venomous serpents (Numbers 21:6-9). Jesus knew all the prophecies about His life and death, and He knew that He must fulfill them all. He stated this explicitly in Luke 18:31: "Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, 'We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled'" (NIV).Consider also His post-resurrection conversation with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. When speaking to these disciples of the prophecies about His life and His crucifixion, Jesus said, "How slow [you are] to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory. And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:25-27, NIV).Jesus had to suffer these things. There was no other way than the way of the cross. If Jesus didn't fulfill every prophecy, then He wouldn't be the Messiah.So, knowing this, why would Jesus ask for another way? Would He have really asked for the plan to change in such a way that a prophecy about Himself would not have been fulfilled?

4. The statement "Not my will, but yours" does not mean Jesus' will was different from the Father's.

As we've seen, Jesus' request for the cup to be taken was followed by this statement: "Yet not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42, NIV).The perspective that Jesus was asking to avoid crucifixion presumes that this statement indicates that Jesus' desire was different than the Father's--that He wanted something that turned out not to be His Father's will. But take a look at what Jesus said in John 6:38-40: "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life" (NIV).Here, Jesus says He came "not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me." Does that mean that Jesus' will was different than His Father's? That it wasn't Jesus' will to save humankind? Certainly not! Clearly, Jesus demonstrated by His actions that He, too, willed what His Father willed. His statement simply reflects that coming to earth and giving eternal life to all who believe in Him wasn't only His idea, but it was the Father's will as well, and that He was acting on the authority given to Him by the Father.A similar argument can be made regarding Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane. Just because Jesus said, "Not my will but yours be done," in and of itself does not mean He was asking for something that was not God's will. Yes, He was clearly submitting His will to His Father's. However, such submission does not mean that His will was contrary to the Father's.

5. The cup Jesus prayed about was not necessarily referring to death on the cross.

In the Bible, the cup can symbolize many things, including salvation, abundant life, and consolation, as well as wrath, trembling, and death. In general, it is a "metaphor for an individual's fate."The belief that Jesus prayed to avoid the cross assumes that the cup He referred to in the garden was crucifixion. But this is not necessarily the case. Jesus Himself spoke of "the cup" in a sense other than death on the cross when He told James and John that they would drink from the cup He was going to drink from (Matthew 20:20-23). Though James and John did drink the cup in that they suffered for Jesus, and James died a martyr's death, they clearly did not drink of crucifixion. Therefore, Jesus' use of the word "cup" cannot exclusively refer to the crucifixion, and it's possible that the cup Jesus asked to have removed was not death on the cross but rather another fate.

What was Jesus asking?

If Jesus wasn't asking to avoid the cross, what was He asking? Well, there are actually several perspectives, including:-The belief that Satan was trying to kill Jesus in the Garden and Jesus was asking to be spared from such premature death.-The belief that the cup was the cup of wrath and that Jesus was asking God to let the cup pass from Him after His death on the cross so that God's cup of wrath would not rest upon Him permanently, resulting in eternal separation from God. -The belief that Jesus was not praying to escape death but rather to be relieved of the terrible anguish of the soul that came up on Him in the Garden. Charles Spurgeon held this belief and, in regard to it, wrote, "This 'cup,' it appears to me, relates...not to the last conflict, but to the conflict in which he [Jesus] was then engaged...in the garden he felt a sinking of soul, an awful despondency, and he began to be very heavy. The cup, then, which he desired to pass from him was, I believe, that cup of despondency, and nothing more."We don't have space here to go into the strengths and weaknesses of each of these viewpoints, but I believe the most likely explanation in light of the Scriptures presented above is that Jesus, indeed, was facing the risk of death in the Garden, either from an attack from Satan or from the physical repercussions of intense emotional and mental strain. This perspective is supported by the fact that in the Garden, Jesus actually said He felt that He was at the point of death (Matthew 26:38). There is no reason to believe He was exaggerating. If He really felt as if He was dying, it would make complete sense for Him to ask for that cup--that fate--to pass from Him so He could fulfill the purpose He came for--execution on the cross and redemption of humankind. This perspective is also supported by Hebrews 5:7, which says, "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission" (NIV).That Jesus was heard implies that He was helped and that His prayer was answered. (See, for example, Psalm 34:17-18 in which being heard is directly connected to being saved. Additionally, one definition of the Greek word used for "heard" in this passage is "'to hear so as to answer,' of God's answer to prayer"). When would Jesus have prayed to be saved from death--and heard (and by implication answered) other than in the Garden of Gethsemane--a point at which He felt He was dying? There seems to be no good alternative.

Does It Matter?

You might wonder, does it really matter whether or not Jesus prayed to avoid the cross? I think it does, and I think Charles Spurgeon expresses it best when he said: "I am fully persuaded that such a supposition would reflect upon the Saviour a dishonour...It does not seem to be consistent with the character of our blessed Lord, even as man, to suppose that he desired that final cup of his sufferings to pass away from him at all."Personally, I agree that it does our Savior dishonor to imagine that He hesitated in the face of the very purpose for which He came--a purpose that had been preordained from the beginning of time. Our Savior is brave and powered by perfect love. For the joy set before Him (us!), He set His face like flint to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2; Isaiah 50:7). There was no wavering, no hesitation, and no fear, and He deserves all the honor and glory afforded such a wonderful Savior!

Our Triumphant Savior

Regardless of the meaning of the cup and your or my personal beliefs about it, the fact is, Jesus endured the unfathomable, crushing horror of Gethsemane and then, indeed, went to the cross. He laid down His life, rescued us from the curse of the law, and was triumphantly resurrected. Because of Him, we are free from the power of sin and death, and whether or not we agree on the meaning of the cup, I'm sure we can agree that His redemption is something to be eternally grateful for! Photo Credit: (C)GettyImages/mbolina[photo1]Carina Alanson is a former professional counselor turned writer and artist who is passionate about helping women live with purpose and grow in their relationship with God. She lives in the subarctic town of Fairbanks, Alaska, where she enjoys going on scenic drives with her husband, skiing, snowshoeing, and reading by the fire. Visit carinaalanson.com to connect with Carina and get her free journaling workbook, How Do I Know if a Desire is From God? 5 Questions to Help You Decide, plus other resources for purposeful living. You can also connect with her on Instagram @carinaalanson and on Facebook @carinaalanson.