One of the most striking moments in the gospels is our Lord’s prayer in Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39–46). For one thing, in those moments we are given compelling evidence of our Lord’s true humanity. This is not a story the Gnostics could tell. It is not a story the Gnostics did tell. The Jesus character in the Gnostic accounts only appears to be human. The Gnostics and Docetics were convinced that he could not actually be human, hence their docetic (from δοκέω, to seem, appear) Christology. The Jesus of history, of the gospel narratives is true God and true man. In that prayer he genuinely struggled. That much is evident from his sorrow and grief (Matt 26:28), from his request that the disciples watch with him (v.38), and from his prayer three times (v.44) that the Father might permit “this cup” to pass from him (vv.39, 42). This is the antithesis of much of the quasi-Gnostic piety of modern evangelicalism, which was crystalized for me c. 1980 in the Doug Oldham song (which the owners of the radio station for which I then worked required us to play, “I Just Came Into His Presence.” That sort of language certainly does not well describe our Lord’s experience of prayer.
Second, this passage is striking for the impulse it generates in us to fix it. The narrative is meant to make us uncomfortable. It was one thing for the disciples to be sleepy and careless. It is another for us, who live in light of the cross, who know better now than the disciples did that night why our Lord prayed as he did, to duck the implications of this text. The hard truth is that our Lord knew what was about to happen. It was not his arrest about which he was praying, as revolting as that scene was. It was neither his humiliation before the soldiers nor his faux trial before the Jewish authorities and the Roman Governor Pilate that caused him pray thus. It was not even the taking up of his own cross up Calvary (which is Latin for Place of the Skull) which caused him to pray so. It was not his awful death about which he prayed. The cup to which he referred was his office of Mediator and substitute. He knew that he was to carry our sins to into judgment, which had been prefigured by the Noahic flood, by the ritual holocaust of countless animals, by countless circumcisions, by the destruction of the Canaanites, by the ten plagues in Egypt, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. All those anticipations were mere shadows of what was to be transacted at the top of this hill. It was not the physical suffering but the spiritual abandonment and the outpouring of righteous divine judgment about which he prayed.
The heroic thing was not the endurance of the physical torture but that he kept the covenant he made with his Father (John 17) from before all ages. Knowing what was to come he said to Peter, “shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Indeed. He willingly took the cup given to him by the Father and he drank it in our place.
When we think of the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer we must do so only against the background of our Lord’s own prayer.
124. What is the third petition?
“Your will be done in earth as it is in heaven,” that is: Grant that we and all men renounce our own will, and without gainsaying obey Your will which alone is good; that so every one may fulfill his office and calling as willingly and faithfully as the angels do in heaven (Heidelberg Catechism).
We pray this prayer as those for whom the perfectly obedient Suffering Servant laid down his life. We do not pray this prayer in order to be accepted with God but because we have been accepted and we have been saved by what Christ has done for us and because his Spirit, which he gave to us, has made us alive with him, and united us to him, through faith alone (sola fide).
Because we are united to him, because his Spirit is at work in us, because he has adopted us as sons, he is enabling us to say, “not my will but yours” to our heavenly Father.
Third, this prayer is perhaps the most counter-cultural thing we could possibly say. We may live in the most Narcissistic age in human history. Vanity is having one’s portrait painted repeatedly, which kings, princes, and popes have always done. Our civil leaders now, however, not only have their portrait painted but they carry their own “selfie sticks” into the Alaskan wilderness to self-document their carefully stage-managed encounter with nature. We have turned the entire world into an opportunity for self-portraiture. It really is, as Darryl Hart keeps reminding us, “all about me.” In contrast, our Lord’s “food” was to do his Father’s will (John 4:34). Thus, the first aspect of our prayer, under this petition, is for the grace to renounce ourselves and our own interests and for the grace to give ourselves and our will over entirely to our Father’s interests and will. According to Paul, the Holy Spirit is working in us “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and lto live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12; ESV).
Second, we are praying that we might fulfill our calling in this world. The Apostle Paul gave a general rule, that upon conversion, not that we should leave what we were doing before and go do something that someone else regards as “spiritual” but rather “in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:24; ESV). This is the biblical and consequently the old Protestant and Reformed notion of vocation or calling. In the 16th and 17th centuries our theologians and confessional documents said very little about a calling to “affect,” “change,” let alone to “transform” society. Perhaps it was because Paul commands us to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs” (1 Thess 4:11; ESV) or because taught Christians “to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess 3:12; ESV). They knew that Paul taught us to pray “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). There is much more explicit language in the New Testament about Christians living quietly amidst the pagans than there is about Christians “transforming” the surrounding pagan culture. When Paul thinks of transformation, he thinks much less about Nero than he does about Christians: “Do not be conformed to this world,* but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2; ESV). Might the transformation of Christians have an “affect” upon the surrounding culture? Perhaps but we cannot ignore Christian history between c. AD 33 and AD 313 (Edict of Milan). In that time Christians were alternately ignored, despised, then openly and violently persecuted. 280 years is a reasonable test period. From a scientific perspective, however, the entanglement of Christianity with the empire post-Constantine not only changed the status of Christianity legally but also Christian expectations relative to the culture. In contrast to the lofty expectations of some, in the 20th century and after, about the effect of Christianity upon culture, the catechism is relatively subdued. It speaks of our “office” and our “calling.” When we pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” it is a modest prayer that we might be enabled to do those things to which Paul exhorted. If we deliver milk, that we might do it well each day. If we cut hair or teach school, that we might do it as unto the Lord (Col 3:23).
Finally, Psalm 103:20 tells us that the angels, about whom we read relatively little in Scripture, are models of total devotion to the Lord’s will. When we pray that God’s will might be done on earth as it is heaven, we are not praying to know what God knows (the categorical distinction), nor are we praying for secret knowledge about his will. Rather, we are praying for the grace to do what has been revealed to us. Our prayer is that the Holy Spirit would work “in us that which is pleasing” in our Father’s “sight, through Jesus Christ” (Heb 13:21).
Like the petitions we have already considered, this too is a prayer for Spirit-wrought sanctification, that our union and communion with Christ might be more fully realized in this life, in anticipation of the life to come. It is not the prayer of over-realized eschatology. It is not a prayer that the kingdom might be realized fully in this life prior to Christ’s return. That is a theology of glory, which Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) repudiated in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) chapter 11:
We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.
Our Lord Jesus was in a covenant of works, for us, that we, who believe, might receive all the benefits of the covenant of grace: justification, sanctification, and glorification (salvation). As we pray, “not my will but yours” may the Lord gradually realize in us conformity to the image of Christ.