Jesus’ prayers the night before he died

Sermon Date: 
21 Apr 2011
Bible Base: 
Matthew 20

David Jeans

Tonight and tomorrow night we will be focussing on Jesus’ prayers; tonight his prayers on the night before he died; tomorrow his prayers on the cross. On Sunday we will be celebrating God’s answer of ‘yes’ to those prayers through the resurrection – but that is Sunday, and it is still Thursday.
In the extreme stress of the hours before he was cruelly killed, Jesus’ prayers reflect the solid ground upon which he stood himself. His life was built around three foundations:
his love and obedience to his Father;
his love for his disciples;
and his love for a sinful world
At the beginning of the evening John records a symbolic prayer – the washing of the disciples’ feet. It is of course an act of service and humility, an act which puts the needs of others before his own, a demonstration of his love for his disciples. It is of course an example to be followed. But it is also a symbolic act of cleansing, of forgiveness. Jesus knew they would let him down, even deny him, even betray him. As they later pondered these events they would come to see that this acted prayer was a prayer for their forgiveness.
John also records the teaching of Jesus at the Last Supper and that teaching includes prayers for the disciples – he says that he will ask the Father to send the Spirit to them; he prays for their protection from the world; and he prays for their unity – so that the world may believe. Prayers which are for us as well as for those first disciples. Our Lord’s prayers are still heard by his Father and are still answered by his Father. He sends us his Spirit; he prays for our protection; he calls us to unity that the world may believe.
At the heart of Jesus’ prayers for the disciples is his awareness of their sinfulness and of their impending failure and desertion of him. He doesn’t pray for them because they are the best ever disciples. He prays for them because of his love for them despite the messes they will make. He loves sinful people so much that he calls them – he calls us – to be his disciples. Luke’s account of Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial includes Jesus saying this to Peter:-
I have prayed for you Peter that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
Jesus knows that Peter will not withstand Satan’s attack – he will deny his Lord. But Jesus prays that Peter’s faith will not fail, that he will turn back to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and that he will strengthen his brothers. Peter’s experience of falling and failure will make him a better pastor and leader – provided he gets back on the bike!
When you fall off, when you fail your Lord, remember that he is praying for you to get back on the bike. Remember, too, that God can use the enemy’s attempts to derail us to strengthen us – particularly through the experience of turning back to God.
As the events of that night move on to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ prayer focus is centred on his love and obedience for his Father, and his love for a sinful world.
His love relationship with his Father allows him to pray honestly – Lord, I do not want to do this! But he gets no easy answer – in fact the suggestion of the text is possibly that all he hears is silence. So he arrives at the place of loving obedience – not my will, but yours be done.
But that is not a prayer of resignation to the mysterious and unfathomable will of God. Jesus is able to pray as he does because of the depth of his understanding of God’s will and purposes. He sees beyond God’s will and purposes for himself to God’s will and purposes for a sinful world. The key here is the symbolism of the cup. Earlier in Matthew (ch 20) Jesus challenges the disciples about whether they can drink the cup that Jesus will drink. We are used to the idea of the cup as a symbol of blessing – but more often and particularly here the cup is a symbol of God’s judgment.
Ps 75:7-8 It is God who judges...In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs
Is 51:17 Rise up Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath; you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes people stagger
(also in Jeremiah 25, Ezekiel 23)
In his prayer Jesus is saying that he does not want to drink this cup of God’s judgment. Is there any other way?
But look at where his prayer ends up
My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.
Through his wrestling with his Father in prayer, Jesus arrives at a place of obedience to his Father’s will for the sake of a sinful world. Judgment must happen if the creation is to be just and righteous; wrongdoing cannot be swept under the carpet; the only way for the cup of judgment to be dealt with is by Jesus to drink it. His love for his Father and his love for a sinful world come together in this prayer and the road to Calvary that follows it.
But there is one more prayer that night which only Luke records. As Jesus is arrested one of the disciples uses his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the arresting party. Jesus’ final prayer that night is for the healing of an enemy. A prayer that fits all that has gone before on that night, and that fits all that lies ahead. In and through his prayers, the Son of God embodies his love for his Father, his love for his disciples, and his love for a sinful world. In the words of an old hymn “Alleluia, what a Saviour!”