Mark Bonnington

The Obedient Son: Jesus in Gethsemane

Much recent reflection on Jesus in Gethsemane has concentrated on his suffering, using this as a basis for addressing contemporary questions about pain and injustice. Mark Bonnington challenges this emphasis, arguing instead that Jesus' obedience to his Father is the key to understanding the Gethsemane narrative. This conclusion has important implications for our understanding of the atonement.

According to Bonheoffer's famous statement 'Only a suffering God can help'. In what the modern media would call a single sound-bite, the relevance of the death of Christ for the post-holocaust world is summed up. This theme of the creative suffering of Christ the crucified God has become a seminal theme of theological discourse in a world burdened by questions of innocent suffering. It has also been a major influence in the spread of a spirituality of empathetic solidarity with the suffering of the world. In his influential The Crucified God, Moltmann picked up this theme of Christ's suffering in addressing the central theological question: 'Who is the God in the cross of Christ who is abandoned by God?' . In asking this question Moltmann located the central problem of the Passion and death of Christ right at the end of the Passion narrative, in Christ's cry of dereliction on the cross. His response was to attempt to develop a novel trinitarian reading of the cross while steering a careful path through traditional theological problems like divine impassability, patripassianism and the unity of the divine will.

Relatively less theological attention and weight has been given to the other end of the Passion narrative, to the events of Gethsemane. Here too Christ suffers in his anticipation of the cross and here too he addresses the Father. It is the events in the garden that frame the whole narrative, and they represent an important counterpart and counterbalance to concentration on the cry of dereliction as a jumping-off point for theological construction. Starting with the Gethsemane account in the Gospel narratives (and its absence in the case of John), and some brief wider theological considerations, I want to emphasize an alternative reading of the suffering theme. The focus here is on the theme of obedience as central to the way in which the sufferings of Christ and their culmination in his death are to be understood. Thus the sufferings of Christ in his Passion and death are to be seen as the embodiment of his obedience, rather than in the way they are commonly read, as being about enduring pain or undergoing innocent suffering. We are no longer stuck on Schleiermacher's question of how physical sufferings of Christ were enough to atone for the sins of the world. We have a broader understanding of Christ's sufferings to include the suffering of separation from the Father and the sinless one becoming sin. But from this often springs a spirituality that is grounded in more in theodicy than in atonement - the uniquely suffering Christ who empathises with a suffering world. I want to offer a different and perhaps complementary move from Christ's innocent suffering to obedience and point out some advantages for both atonement theology and spirituality.

Gethsemane in the Synoptics

Nowhere is the humanity of Christ more graphically portrayed in the Gospels than in the events in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Here he struggles in prayer and for the first time we see Christ grappling deeply in his anticipation of death. At the heart of the scene is the reconciliation of Christ's will with that of the Father, to whom he prays his final prayer before the cross. Gethsemane is therefore essentially about the obedience of Christ embodied in Christ's acceptance of his Father's will.

Two broad ways of reading the Gethsemane story can be identified in the history of interpretation and both focus on the prayer of Jesus as the heart of the account. The Christological reading of the Fathers is dominated by the implications of Gethsemane for the problem of the two natures in Christ. Language of soul and spirit (Mark 14:34a,38b), the evident suffering of Jesus and a prayer which suggested a distinction and potential difference between the wills of Father and Son (Mark 14:36) all contributed to a patristic preoccupation with questions of how Gethsemane squared with the humanity and divinity of Christ. More recent interpreters have been less concerned with Christological problems and have usually seen the force of Gethsemane as paraenetical. In particular, Christ in Gethsemane is understood as a model of prayer by embodying his own teaching, a theme that receives particular emphasis in Matthew with his heightened echoes of the Lord's Prayer. All three Synoptics have Jesus praying alone (cf Matt 6: 6) using the address 'Father' and each includes the prayer of submission and warning of the disciples 'so that you may not enter into temptation' (Mark 14:36 and 38 pars). Matthew has the detail 'My Father' at 26:39 and 'your will be done' at 26:42 both of which echo closely his version of Jesus' instruction on prayer (cf 6:9-10). The prayer theme is also heightened in Matthew by the clarifications that Jesus prayed on his face in prostration (26:39) and that he prayed three times (26:39, 42 and 44). By imitatio Christi Jesus is teaching us how to pray in extremis and in so doing is exemplifying his own teaching.

However, it seems to me that this emphasis on prayer is to broaden the 'lesson' of Gethsemane scene too much. It is the section of the Lord's prayer for the Father's 'will to be done on earth' that is most closely echoed by Christ in Gethsemane. The example is surely not so much that of prayer in general, but that to which the prayer points: namely, in this case, the theme of obedience. The link to the Lord's teaching on prayer, made so explicit by Matthew, does not so much say 'look at the praying Christ', as 'look at the obedient Christ', for it is this theme of obedience that is implied by the request for God's will to be done in the Lord's prayer. Jesus' encouragement to the disciples in Mark (14:34) and Matthew (26:38) is not to pray, at least not initially, but rather to stay awake. When the disciples fail by falling asleep it shows both their lack of awareness of impending events and their inability to do what Jesus instructs them to do - their failure to obey. Before their second failure, the disciples are asked to pray: they are to ask not to be brought into temptation (peirasmos, Matt 26:41; Mark 14:38; note Luke 22:40,46) again with echoes of the Lord's prayer. But the use of this from the Lord's prayer phrase in this context is not part of the example of Christ at all. If it is any kind of example for the readers it is of the negative kind. The readers are to see the (repeated) failure of the disciples not as an example to emulate but as a fault to be avoided - the anti-model of the disciples' failure. The contrast between Jesus and the disciples is therefore not principally between his praying and their not doing so but between Christ embracing the Father's onerous will and the disciples failing to keep the simple instructions to stay awake and pray. The Gethsemane scene presents us with a contrast between Christ fully alive to the crisis of ages, struggling to obedience and dopey, disobedient disciples.

Gethsemane also plays an important role in the framing of the unfolding drama of the Passion narrative. It is the final anticipation of the Passion: as Christ prays he anticipates the cup of sufferings to come. Christ is in anguish because he is awake to the impending drama. His disciples on the other hand sleep either because they do not anticipate (Matthew and Mark) or because they are do anticipate but are overwhelmed with grief (Luke 22:45). At the end of the garden scene the Passion drama proper begins immediately 'while he was still speaking' (Mark 14:43 aand pars). Thus Gethsemane introduces the Passion narrative which begins with the arrest, but is anticipated already in the anguish of the garden.

Gethsemane is also the middle of three separation scenes, the first being the last supper complete with predictions of betrayal, death and Peter's denial; we might call this 'separation announced'. The third is the arrest scene where Christ is separated from his disciples: 'separation actualized'. In between is Gethsemane, 'separation anticipated', where Jesus is with his disciples, but apart from them to pray. Through this developing idea of separation the idea of physical separation and the psychological theme of the loneliness of Christ are transformed into the soteriological theme of the aloneness of Christ, his unique ability to do the Father's will at the crucial point in salvation history. The physical weakness of the disciples to watch with Christ reflects the religious inability of anyone to walk the lonely path of the Passion with him.

Gethsemane sets a framework to the Passion narrative because it is here that sufferings begin in the anticipation in the Garden and it is immediately followed by their actual beginning in the arrest scene. Thus the Gethsemane scene provides us with important interpretative clues for how we are to understand the sufferings that follow: it tells us how we are to read the Passion narrative as a whole. In his anticipation of his death, Christ is obediently submitting to the will of the Father which he has embraced in the garden.

Related to the ideas of anticipation and separation is the theme of the silence of Christ. It is not that Christ says nothing in the Passion narrative (eg. Mark 14.48, 62; 15:2), but more that he refuses to defend himself against the accusations made about him (Mk 14:61; 15:5; Luke 23:9). From these might be drawn the traditional theme of the innocent sufferer, who like Isaiah's lamb goes to the slaughter in silence (Isa. 53:7). In the literary context, however, we are given little psychological insight into Jesus' life until the scene on the cross, a gap which highlights the context provided by anticipatory scene in the garden. From this we know that Jesus is not just being herded like a silent lamb from garden to Council, from Council to Pilate, from Pilate (to Herod in Luke) to scourging, to cross but is actively embracing the Father's will.

Gethsemane (not) in John

Seen within this broad theme of obedience the Johannine use of the same themes makes perfectly good sense. John has no Gethsemane scene, though he does place the arrest in the garden (cf John 18:1). Nevertheless the language of Gethsemane is echoed in John 12.27 'Now my soul is troubled: and what should I say - "Father save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason I have come to this hour'. I think it is right to read this as Jesus considering the idea only to dismiss it. It is hard not to see some distance between this formal declaration of a troubled soul and the agonizing Jesus of the Synoptics, not least because of the lack of the context of agonized prayer. This formal dismissal makes perfectly good sense within the Johannine framework of ideas, for in John, Jesus has embraced his Father's will repeatedly and explicitly throughout his ministry. So, for example, John 5:19-24, especially eg 5:30: 'I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me' and 8.29: 'I am always doing what is pleasing to him.' Presumably John would not want to upset this established pattern of obedience by presenting something like the real doubt of the Synoptics. Rather, in John 12.27 Jesus re-embraces the Father's will, considering not doing so just long enough to dismiss the possibility out of hand. So John drops the Gethsemane story, not because framing the Passion narrative in terms of obedience is not his interest, but precisely because the whole of Jesus' ministry is so explicitly framed in terms of obedience that Gethsemane would become an unnecessary interruption to Christ's purposeful and obedient march to the cross.

Other NT Material

If we look more widely in the NT there are three other significant passages which link the death of Christ with obedience. In the Christ hymn of Philippians 2, the theme of exemplification is to the fore. The exposition of the economy of salvation begins with an exhortation to imitation which becomes rather lost in the exaltation of Christ in the second half of the hymn. The crucial phrase for our purposes is 2:8 'he humbled himself becoming obedient as far as death, even death on a cross (mechri thanatou, thanatou de staurou). Christ's obedience is obviously wider than just his death for it is 'as far as' death. But the cross is the culmination and embodiment of that obedience.

It is quite possible that in Philippians 2, Paul had in mind Christ's death as the inverse of the Adamic disobedience. Whether or not this is correct, the contrast with Adam is explicit in Romans 5:18-19, which speaks of 'one man's trespass bringing condemnation ... one righteous act bringing justification of life ... through the disobedience of one man the many were constituted sinners...through the obedience of one righteous person the many will be constituted righteous.' The one righteous act of verse 18 is clearly the cross and thus by the parallelism with verse 19 it is itself the enactment of the obedience of the one righteous person who is Christ.

Rather different is Hebrews 5:8-9, which may be an explicit reference to Gethsemane: 'though being a son he learned obedience from what he suffered and being perfected he became the source of eternal salvation to all those who obey him.' This passage has to be read alongside the more general idea of the perfecting sons in the linked passage of Hebrews 12:1-11. The learning of obedience is not meant to suggest any disobedience but to suggest progressive degrees of testing of Jesus' obedience. Christ is the perfecter of faith through his suffering, that is, his endurance of the cross (cf. 12:2). As such he points doubly to obedience: he is both source of reward to those that obey and examplar of the obedient endurance of suffering sons.


I offer two reflections on this theme of obedience. First, the obedience in Gethsemane is anticipatory not retrospective. In other words obedience is telling us not (or perhaps better, not mainly) that Christ comes to his Passion as an innocent man, one who has been obedient throughout his life up to this point. Instead it is telling us how we are to read what is to follow, namely, that we are to read the Passion narrative as the action of an obedient Christ.

Second, the temptation which Christ faces in the garden is supremely a religious rather than an ethical one. For an innocent man not to die is a breach of no ethical code but simply the religious failure to do the will of God. In this sense Christ might be compared and contrasted with Kierkegaard's understanding of the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in Fear and Trembling. Here Kierkegaard investigated the question of whether there was a teleological suspension of the ethical when Abraham was required out of pure obedience to the divine command to bring the sacrifice of his son. In Kierkegaard's words 'the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac'. Abraham walked to the sacrifice in silence, according to Kierkegaard, precisely because what is about to do is not defensible in ethical terms. So with Christ we could see his death ethically not as murder but as suicide, but in religious terms it is sacrifice because it is offered in obedience. It is the idea of obedience which makes Christ's sufferings neither the voluntary suffering of the martyr complex nor the involuntary suffering of oppression and injustice. It is this obedience, the God-relatedness of what he is doing, that transforms Jesus' preparedness to die from martyrdom or suicide to sacrifice. It is not just that 'to obey is better than sacrifice' (1 Sam 15.22), but that obedience is expressed through the sacrifice of the Son.


Highlighting the theme of obedience in relation to Christ's Passion and death has a number of broader theological advantages and implications. First, it seems that it broadens out the focus of Christ's salvific work from simply his death to his Passion. Newman could speak of the Passion as 'the History of the Atonement' precisely because he saw that the whole of Christ's sufferings were working atonement, and not merely his death. This makes excellent sense if we see that the thing that binds them together is not suffering but obedience. Indeed we can extend this principle along Johannine lines to see the whole of the life of Christ in the world as an act of obedience. Thus the whole of Christ's life is working atonement, not just in the sense of offering a sinless sacrifice which has to be preserved like virginity throughout a life of obedience, but obedience that asks suffering and death of Christ. In other words it is not obedience then death but the obedience which is death which works the salvation of humanity. Thus even though the atonement is broadened to include the work of all of Christ's life, it remains focused on the death of Christ, for it is here that the greatest demand is made and his obedience finds it focus. This of course also corresponds to the shape of the canonical Gospels with their narrative of the life of Christ focused and shaped by its culmination in the Passion.

Second, highlighting obedience in the work of Christ plays down the idea of blaming Jesus' contemporaries for his death. Despite the presence of this theme in the New Testament, it is contextualized by setting alongside it Christ's active embracing of his sufferings and death. While on Anselm's view humans must participate in the act of atonement, they do so via the existence of the God-man. They do so not by inflicting Christ's sufferings upon him which would be to offer their own sacrifice but by his self-offering on their behalf which then makes Christ the active not the passive agent in the atonement. To understand the sufferings and death of Christ as pain inflicted by others is to point to Christ as victim not victor, to present him as having the atonement worked through the sufferings done to him, rather than him working the atonement through the obedience he is enacting in them.

Obedience is of course central to Anslem's own interpretation of the atonement at roughly this point. 'Mere obedience would not be a gift [that can be given to God voluntarily]; for every rational creature owes this obedience as a duty to God. But Christ is in no way under any obligation to suffer death, in that Christ never sinned. So death was an offering he could make as a matter of free will rather than debt'. This of course moves us decisively away from away from a Christ who is significant because of his solidarity with human sufferings to one who is over against all human beings in his offering of unindebted, gratuitously-offered obedience.

Third, looking at Christ's death primarily in terms of obedience would make for a rather different ethic. It would make the paraenetic model of the obedient Christ which we saw in Gethsemane the principal exemplary force of his life and death . In so doing it would take as its starting-point a spirituality grounded not in theodicy but in atonement. Thus discipleship is not so much watching with Christ in his suffering with the world in Gethsemane but the obedience of Christ to the will of the Father within suffering, despite suffering, irrespective of suffering, through suffering. Modern post-holocaust culture has become preoccupied with the theme of innocent suffering and have found in Christ a ready model: but is this really the most appropriate way to construe the theme of suffering? Does it not have an in-built a tendency to play down the uniqueness of Christ, which could be recovered through reading suffering as obedience rather than undeserved pain? Moreover the obedience embodied in his endurance of suffering turns the intent and direction of Christ's suffering from humanity to God. He is not principally suffering with humanity, nor on behalf of humanity, but for the Father and in relation to will for the salvation of the world.

Finally, if we are right to see the essence of Christ's sufferings in terms of obedience, then this points to the essence of the atonement as being devotion, and therefore love, without returning to Abelard's subjective theory which is so closely associated with the atonement as love. For Abelard the chief consequence of the death of Christ was its demonstration of the love of God for humanity so that 'through this singular act of grace made known in us ... he has more fully bound us to himself by love'. Abelard takes as his starting-point John 15:13 and so stresses the love of God in Christ for humanity as the heart of the atonement. Here the love which Christ exemplifies is that between God and humanity, expressed in Christ. Consequently it is the divine love of Christ for humanity that is his great example. But love seen as the motivation for obedience though suffering, while retaining the exemplary theme which is the strong point of Abelard's exposition, sees the atonement essentially in its God-relatedness. It is not primarily the love between God and man but the love of the Son for the Father which is lies at the heart of the atonement. In Trinitarian terms it is therefore the love within the Trinity itself, the love of Son for Father, that works the atonement. As Thomas Aquinas put it, 'Christ by suffering as a result of love and obedience offered to God something greater that what might be exacted by compensation for whole offence of humanity; firstly because of the greatness of his love, as a result of which he suffered; secondly because of the worth of the life he laid down...thirdly because of the comprehensiveness of his Passion and the greatness of the sorrow which he took upon himself.'.

Dr Mark Bonnington is Tutor in Biblical Studies (New Testament) at Cranmer Hall, St John's College, Durham