Jesus’ Suffering Visible in the Verb Tense

by S. Kent Brown
In the New Testament Gospels, the most striking pointer to Jesus’ unspeakable suffering in Gethsemane, of course, is the notation that Jesus’ “sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44; see also Mosiah 3:7; D&C 19:18). Plainly, Jesus bleeds into his clothing and onto the ground. Importantly, other indicators exist in the Gospels that help us to grasp the enormity of his suffering. These appear chiefly in the tense of the verbs that describe these hours; but other hints appear in the Gospels.

At the beginning of the accounts, we read that, inside the “garden,” Jesus withdraws from his disciples “a little further” or “about a stone’s cast” (John 18:1; Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:41), indicators of eyewitness recollections. For we must presume that the disciples are awake for a while before drifting off to sleep and that they can see Jesus among the trees and rocks because of the bright, full, Passover moon. Thus, though they may not be able to hear what he is saying as he prays, they can see him.

The clearest narrative is Mark’s. But the verbs of Matthew and Luke exhibit the same characteristics. Mark writes that Jesus “went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed . . . [and] said” (Mark 14:35–36). To the casual eye, it may appear that, in one sustained effort, Jesus prays to his Father and, afterward, returns to the disciples and awakens them. But there is more here than meets the casual eye. For the verbs stand in the imperfect tense, not the simple past tense which describes a single action. In Greek, the imperfect usually describes past action that occurs over a period of time. For instance, the verb tense can mean “he used to go fishing.” It can also mean “she kept reaching for the salt.” In the case of Jesus’ actions, the verb tense conveys the second sense, underlining repeated actions. That is, Jesus goes forward, falls, prays, and utters the words of his prayer, then falls, prays, and says the words of his prayer again, and again. It is a reasonable judgment that, before the disciples fall asleep, they witness Jesus moving among the rocks and vegetation, falling and praying, only to repeat his action again and again. It is as if he is struggling to find a body position that lessens the intense pain and discomfort.

Two other elements are important here: Jesus kneels or prostrates himself in prayer (see Luke 22:41). Actually, a better, more vivid description is that he falls hard to the ground rather than stooping to his knees (see Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:35). This observation underscores the severe pain that is now racking Jesus. There is a second hint. It lies in the fact that he goes to the ground while praying. The usual posture for formal prayer is to stand, as we learn from Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and publican—they both stand while praying (see Luke 18:11, 13). Jesus’ act of falling to the ground stresses not only his humility but especially his extreme agony.