What is the Garden of Gethsemane and Why Was it so Crucial to Jesus' Life?
It is a vulnerable moment just after the Last Supper when Jesus has told His closest friends on earth what would soon happen to Him — the painful betrayal He would endure from one of them, and His coming arrest, torture, and crucifixion.
Filled with anguish and deep dread over what He would soon experience, Jesus withdraws with His inner circle, the three disciples closest to Him, and takes refuge in a special place. There, alone on His knees in the dark night beneath the shelter of olive trees, in a place called the Garden of Gethsemane, He cries out to His Father God.
And then, resolutely, He does what He needs to do to save all humankind.
Where Is the Garden of Gethsemane?
While the exact location is difficult to pinpoint, the Bible indicates the Garden of Gethsemane is on the Mount of Olives, a historic place of great meaning throughout the Bible. The Mount of Olives was a “Sabbath day’s walk from the city,” we are told in Acts 1:12. Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary tells us the Mount of Olives was named as such because it was clothed in olive trees. Sitting about 200 feet above sea level, it was one of a few mountain ridges east of Jerusalem and afforded a good view of the city. The valley of Kidron lies between the mountain and Jerusalem, and the whole region was a place Jesus often visited in his travels throughout the Gospels.
The Mount of Olives is a place of significance; King Solomon erected a “high place” there for the worship of foreign gods, causing the Lord to become very angry with him (1 Kings 7-11). King David and his followers fled Jerusalem through the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives, weeping and barefoot, after his son Absalom rebelled with an uprising (2 Samuel 15:13-30). The Old Testament prophet Zechariah prophesied that “a day of the Lord” would be coming when the Lord would stand upon the Mount of Olives, ready for battle, and be king over the whole earth (Zechariah 14:1-9).
The garden was a place of profound weight, where not only a momentous happening in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ occurs, but also where we can learn critical lessons about what it means to be a Christian.
What Is the Garden of Gethsemane?
The Garden of Gethsemane was a place of great importance to Jesus, referred to in all four Gospels as a place where Christ retreated into deep prayer and a time of agony before His arrest and crucifixion, and near where He ascended to heaven in the Book of Acts.
According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Gethsemane is translated from the Greek to mean “an oil press.” It is a place thought to be situated at the base of the Mount of Olives beyond the Kidron Valley. Because of its reference to an oil press on a mountain ridge covered in olive trees, it is assumed to be a small garden, plot of ground or enclosure tucked away and relatively private. It also likely contained an oil press, a mechanical device of sorts used to crush olives and then extract their oil for cooking and other uses.
Gethsemane is mentioned specifically by name only twice in the Bible, though references to it are peppered throughout the New Testament as a place Jesus traveled to and through frequently.
In the Gospel of Matthew, it notes Jesus took His three closest disciples — Peter, James, and John — with Him “to a place called Gethsemane” (Matthew 26:36) so He could pray. There He wrestled in great sorrow with the torture and humiliation He knew was before Him.
The Bible recounts much the same in Mark 14:32, where that Gospel account also notes Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him “to a place called Gethsemane,” where He prayed in deep distress, overwhelmed about what was to come.
What Happened in the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives?
The Gospels note that Jesus told His disciples to “sit here while I pray” (Mark 14:32). He acknowledged His sadness, asking them to keep watch, as “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (14:34). He walked a bit farther from them, sank to His knees, and cried out to His Father, God. “‘Abba, Father,’ He said, ‘everything is possible for You. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what You will’” (14:36). This was no casual prayer — Jesus was distraught. Matthew’s Gospel tells us “He fell with His face to the ground” (Matthew 26:39) as He prayed with all His might.
He prayed throughout the night, periodically returning to His disciples to find them sleeping. The Gospels recount Jesus chastising them for their weakness and inability to keep watch during this time of deep need, a time when He prayed so earnestly the Gospel of Luke said “His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44). When He returned to wake His friends the third time, however, Jesus appeared resolute, ready to face the path His Father had laid before Him. “Are you still sleeping and resting?” Jesus asked. “Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes My betrayer!” (Mark 14:41-42).
Just then, Judas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, arrived with a large crowd armed with swords and clubs. With a kiss, Judas betrayed Jesus, and the Son of God was seized and arrested (Mark 14:43-46). One of Jesus’s disciples — John says it is Peter — attempts to defend Jesus, drawing his sword and slicing off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest (John 18:10). But after His all-night agony of sorrow and prayer, Jesus knew what needed to happen. He would have no violence or resistance. “Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And He touched the man’s ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51). Then, He went with the crowd willingly. At that, as Jesus had predicted, “All the disciples deserted Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56).
Later, after His death and resurrection, the Book of Acts, also known as Acts of the Apostles, places Jesus again upon the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12). The disciples asked Jesus whether He would now be restoring the kingdom to Israel. Jesus responded, “‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After He said this, He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight” (Acts 1:6-9).
As the disciples stood, staring into the sky where they had last seen their Lord ascend, two angels appeared beside them, reproving them for standing and staring into the sky, and letting them know Jesus would come back in the very same way they’d seen Him depart. Then the disciples headed back from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, ready to do the work Jesus had planned for them (1:10-12).
Why Is the Garden of Gethsemane Important?
Not only was the garden an important locale, special to Jesus as a place where He sought much-needed comfort and solace with His Father in a time of pain and sadness, and the place where He was betrayed and arrested, but it also serves as a setting for important instruction on key concepts critical for today’s Christians. First, we are shown Jesus as the true “Word (that) became flesh” (John 1:14), the incarnate Son of the Lord God, born of a virgin and called Immanuel — God with us (Isaiah 7:14). This means that Jesus, though very much divine, also shared fully and completely in the human condition. There in the Garden of Gethsemane, He felt sorrow and great distress over the hardship He would need to endure. He sought out the quiet and privacy of this special place so He could go before God and beg for a reprieve — though not a reprieve from the will of God, which Jesus was committed to.
Then, when His closest friends, whom He’d implored to stay awake and keep watch, couldn’t do even that for Him, Jesus reacted with what could be interpreted as impatience, disgust, or scolding. He, just like us, likely felt the sting of alienation, isolation, and betrayal. “‘Couldn’t you men keep watch with Me for one hour?’ He asked Peter” (Matthew 26:40b). Second, Jesus’s references to the coming sacrifice and pain by referring to them as “this cup” (Matthew 26:39, 42, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42) are thought to be a reference to the cup of “the blood of the covenant” (Matthew 36:27-29). This blood is Jesus’s blood (Mark 14:23-24), which He said at the Last Supper was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. There with His disciples at their last major gathering before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus did not merely share a holy meal with His closest friends. Rather, He told them what was going to happen: He was going to be a living sacrifice, offered as a debt payment for the sins of all humankind. He revealed He would be betrayed by one of them, indeed that all of the disciples would scatter, and even Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed the next morning (Matthew 26:34).
Third, Jesus’s nonviolent reaction when the armed and angry crowd came to arrest Him underscores His message of peace and love, which He spent a great deal of time teaching His followers during His time on earth. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered wisdom such as turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-39), loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us (5:44), giving to the needy (6:1-4), serving God and not money or other temporary things of the earth (6:19-24), etc. He exemplified that message in the final moments in the garden as He was confronted with His arrest, both sides brandishing swords.
“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?’” (Matthew 26:52-54). The will of the Father would be done no matter what, Jesus was saying, and there was no point in resisting or causing further bloodshed. And finally, Jesus’s urging of the disciples to stay awake and keep watch in the garden helps us remember what He wants us to do: to be on guard, to not succumb to temptation, to face even difficulties we would rather avoid by turning to the Father and not to ourselves.
Even though they failed to do what He asked, His requests of them — and His modeling of the right way to behave in times of distress and anguish — illuminates what we are to do today as Christians. Today, the Garden of Gethsemane is a holy place, a pilgrimage site where people flock today to wander among still-growing olive trees and try to pinpoint the exact place where Jesus sank to His knees or offered Himself willingly over for arrest and sacrifice. Whether they travel to the accurate location or not, or simply read about it, for many Christians meditating upon the Garden of Gethsemane and its importance to Jesus is a significant step in understanding the actions, the message, and the will of Christ.
Photo credit: Unsplash/David Boca
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.