All three Synoptic gospels report that just prior to being arrested, Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Matthew and Mark specify that the location is called Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36; Mark 14:32). Today the site is commemorated by The Rock of Agony, a large slab of bedrock on the chancel floor of the Church of All Nations.
While praying in anticipation of the events that lay head, Jesus becomes overwhelmed (Matthew 26:38, Mark 14:34; Luke 22:44). Luke alone, with its emphasis on the physical maladies, records a curious detail: Jesus’ profuse sweat “became like drops of blood” (Luke 22:44 NASB).
And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. (Luke 22:44 NASB)This verse and its predecessor (Luke 22:43-44) are not found in some ancient manuscripts and as such are excluded from the Revised Standard Version (RSV). David L. Tiede (b. 1940) acknowledges:
Both the external evidence of manuscripts and the internal evidence of the reading can be used as arguments either for the inclusion or the exclusion of Luke 22:43-44. It may be best to regard these as a very early elaboration, noting that Luke’s narrative does not require them. (Tiede, Luke (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 391-92)E.J. Tinsley (1919-1992) defends:
These verses are omitted by some manuscripts but since it is not difficult to see the motives which led to their removal they are probably genuine. (Tinsley, The Gospel according to Luke (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the New Testament), 194)Jesus’ peculiar sweat is the physical manifestation of the psychological pain he is enduring. He is said to be in “agony” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NLT), “anguish” (HCSB, NIV, NRSV) or “great pain” (CEV). The cognate agonía is found only here in the New Testament (Luke 22:44).
Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) defines:
The word translated “anguish” (agōnia) can also be translated “struggle,” as in an athletic contest, and the profuse sweat fits this image. This description, too, could serve as a model for prayer in a time of crisis. There is need to pray intensely, but divine help is available in this struggle. (Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 324-25)The term originates from the field of athletics (e.g., Epictetus [55-135], The Discourses 1, 24, 1-2). Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) interprets:
To read Luke 22:44 as suggesting that Jesus’ resolve is weakening is to misunderstand both the vocabulary and the imagery involved. The word translated as Jesus’ “anguish,” like the image of sweat pouring off his body, comes from the realm of athletics. Both point not to hesitancy or uncertainty, but to the intensely focused energy of an athlete just as a contest is about to begin—for example, of a racer on the blocks, set to run a hundred-meter dash. The prayer finds Jesus focused and ready for the struggle at hand. (Ringe, Luke (Westminster Bible Companion), 266)From this perspective Jesus’ agony is indicative of his getting his adrenaline flowing while preparing for the monumental task ahead. His perspiration is attributable to preparation.
The text does not claim that Jesus sweat blood but rather that his sweat becomes like drops of blood; the words for “sweat” (hidrós) and “drops” (thrómbos) appearing only here in the New Testament. Though not indicated by the text, sweating blood is humanly possible.
Lee Strobel (b. 1952) relays:
Medical doctor and Biblical scholar Dr. Alexander Metherell [b. 1939] says...“This is a known medical condition called hematidrosis,” he says. “It’s not very common, but it is associated with a high degree of psychological stress. What happens is that severe anxiety causes the release of chemicals that break down the capillaries in the sweat glands. As a result, there’s a small amount of bleeding into these glands, and sweat comes out tinged with blood. We’re not talking about a lot of blood; it’s just a very, very small amount.” (Strobel, The Case for the Resurrection: A First-Century Investigative Reporter Probes History’s Pivotal Event , 18)Forensic investigator Steve A. Rush documents cases of hematidrosis:
A May 11, 1918, British Medical Journal article, A Case of Haematidrosis, describes a young girl, who having a fear of air raids during World War I, developed this condition after a gas explosion in the next door neighbor’s home...Johann S. Grafenberg [1530-1598], in his 1585 article Observations Medicae de Capite Humano, tells of a Catholic nun who was so terrified after being threatened by sword-beating soldiers that she bleed [sic] from every part of her body and died...In the 1996 Journal of Medicine article Blood, Sweat, and Fear: A Classification of Hematidrosis seventy-six cases of this phenomenon were studied. (Rush, CSI: Gethsemane to Golgotha, 17-18)Mormons read this passage as Jesus literally sweating blood because the Book of Mormon records a prophecy purportedly issued around 124 BCE which states that the Christ would sweat blood (Mosiah 3:7). There is no Old Testament parallel to this belief.
As noted, Luke does not claim that Jesus sweat blood but rather that “his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:44 NASB). There are several meanings to this analogy.
I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) surveys:
The metaphor can be variously explained: 1. It is simply a rhetorical expression like our ‘tears of blood’. 2. The sweat was falling like drops of blood (Theodor Zahn [1838-1933], 691, Walter Grundmann [1906-1976], 412). 3. The sweat was the colour of blood (cf. Joseph and Aseneth 4:11; Apollonius of Rhodes 4:1282f.; Aristotle [384-322 BCE], Historia Animalium 3:19; Theophrastus [371-287 BCE], De Sudore 11f.). Alfred Plummer [1841-1926], 510f. cites cases of blood exuding through the pores of skin; Johannes Weiss [1863-1914], 514, regards the description as legendary; and Lyder Brun [1870-1950] sees it theologically as an anticipation of Jesus’ baptism by blood. The ancient parallels support view 3., but view 2. fits in better with Lucan style (Luke 3:22); the stress is on the falling, rather than the colour, and the implication is that the sweat was like the shedding of blood. (Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 832-33)Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) adds:
The comparison is made between profuse perspiration and copious drops of blood splashing to the ground; the text does not hint at a comparison of color. Cf. Walter Grundmann [1906-1976], Evangelium nach Lukas, 412. The text is often misunderstood as if it referred to a “bloody sweat,” i.e. that Jesus sweated blood. Ancient and modern interpreters have often restricted the meaning to the comparison of quantity (thus Theophylact [1055-1107], Euthymius Zigabenus [12th century], Theodor Zahn [1838-1933], Joachim Jeremias [1900-1979]). André Feuillet [1909-1998] (“Le récit lucanien”) has tried to undermine this interpretation by appealing the Lucan use of hōs or hōsei in the sense of real identity (Luke 15:19, 16:1; Acts 2:3), a highly dubious interpretation. Apart from the text-critical problem involved, it is stretching matters to invoke alleged instances of haematidrōsis. For the approximative sense of hōsei, see Luke 3:23, 9:14, 28, 22:41, 59, 23:44, 24:11; Acts 1:15, 2:3, 41, 10:3, 19:7, 34. (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (Anchor Bible), 1444-45)Theologically, there is a large gap in understanding between sweating blood and sweat like blood. Joel B. Green (b. 1956) clarifies:
The image Luke employs is of sweat dripping so profusely that it was like (ὡσεί) drops of blood, not that Jesus was actually “sweating blood.” Luke’s portrait thus gives no basis for interpretations that focus on the blood of Jesus on the Mount of Olives—e.g., that of J. Massyngbaerde Ford [b. 1928] (My Enemy Is My Guest, 118): “his redemptive blood begins to flow in the garden.” For examples of Luke’s fondness for simile, see, e.g., Luke 3:22, 10:18, 11:44, 22:31; et. al. (Green, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 780)The use of the word “drops” has led some to believe that Luke is stressing than in this case the water of sweat is as thick as blood.
Whatever his physical condition, Jesus’ humanity is on full display. Eduard Schweizer (1913-2006) observes:
“Like drops of blood” leaves open the question whether blood was mixed with Jesus’ sweat; in any case, Jesus is not depicted as a Stoic (cf. sweat as a sign of wrath, rejection, and remorse in Joseph and Aseneth 4:9, 9;1). (Schweizer, The Good News according to Luke, 343)David E. Garland (b. 1947) reports:
Sweating so profusely, like drops of blood pouring out, may make Jesus seem too human. Celsus [2nd century] used it in his attack on the claims that Jesus was divine (Origen [184-253], Contra Celsus 2.24). The earliest orthodox fathers cite the passage against Docetists, who denied that Jesus was fully human (Justin Martyr [100-165], Diaogue with Trypho 103.8; Irenaeus [130-202], Adversus Haereses 3.16.1)...That it was appealed to in doctrinal disputes does not mean that it was created and inserted for polemical purposes. Raymond E. Brown [1928-1998] notes that Docetists, for example, could have easily responded that it was not the divine Savior who prayed. (Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 882)As a literary device, the simile creates sympathy for the hero in the climactic scene of the book. It accentuates Jesus’ internal struggle with the events that await him. He does not enter into death lightly. Jesus makes a conscious decision to die for others. It is a true sacrifice.
Phil Ryken (b. 1966) explicates:
When Jesus said that his soul was sorrowful to the point of death...he was not exaggerating. In describing the same scene, Luke tells us that as Jesus prayed “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). When Jesus said he was “sorrowful, even to death,” it was as if to say that he almost died in Gethsemane before he went to Calvary. “In those supreme moments,” wrote B.B. Warfield [1851-1921], “our Lord sounded the ultimate depths of human anguish...In the presence of this mental anguish the physical tortures of the crucifixion retire into the background, and we may well believe that our Lord, though he died on the cross, yet not on the cross, but of a broken heart, that is to say of his mental suffering.” (Ryken, Loving the Way Jesus Loves, 125)
Why does Luke include the unnecessary detail that Jesus’ “sweat became like drops of blood”? Why does he use this particular analogy to describe the phenomenon? Have you ever had a physical reaction to a psychological condition? Is Jesus afraid? Are you comfortable with the thought of Jesus having ever been scared? Why is Jesus in so much anguish? What does Jesus dread most?
Leon Morris (1914-2006): speculates:
Why was Jesus in such perturbation as he faced death? Others, including many who owe their inspiration to the Master, have faced death quite calmly. It cannot be death as such that caused this tremendous depth of feeling. Rather it was the kind of death that Jesus would die, that death in which he was forsaken by God (Mark 14:34), in which God made him to be sin for us (II Corinthians 5:21). (Morris, Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 340-41)Jesus is willing to suffer to save. Warren W. Wiersbe (b. 1929) compares the sweat demanded by the eviction in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:19) to the sweat produced in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44).
The First Adam sinned in a garden and was condemned to living by the sweat of his brow (Genesis 3:19). Jesus, the Last Adam, obeyed the Father in a garden and conquered Adam’s sin (Romans 5:12-21). (Wiersbe, Be Courageous: Take Heart from Christ’s Example (Luke 14-24), 139)Jesus consents to God’s will (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42) and produces God’s desired result: Salvation. Jesus’ anguish in Gethesemane is a reminder that, contrary to much popular theology, deep dependence on God can come with great pain.
Which trial do you feel was harder for Jesus, Gethsemane or the cross? What is the most agony you have ever been in? Has following God ever caused you pain?
“In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not.” - C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), “The Efficacy of Prayer,” The World's Last Night: And Other Essays, p. 5