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Fight or Flight (Luke 22:39–46)

by Stuart Chase | Miscellaneous Sermons 2024

When I was in Grade 7 in Kenton Primary School, we went on a Standard 5 Tour to the Kwazulu-Natal. We spent a week at Stewart’s Farm (Kwabhekithunga) in the heart of Zululand and then a week in St Lucia. I have several memories of the trip, two of which stand out quite prominently.

The first memory is that the bus driver was obsessed with Roxette, because for two weeks all we listened to on the bus was Roxette’s 1988 album Look Sharp!

The second memory was the variety of Zulu cultural experiences to which we were exposed during our stay at Stewart’s farm. There was some exposure to various traditional Zulu foods. There was a day when all the boys were invited to pick up traditional Zulu weapons and get pounded in a fight with a young Zulu boy. I think I might still have the bruises. But the most vivid memory was the night around the campfire.

One night, we sat around the fire, listening as the owner of the farm regaled us with stories of past events. Unknown to this small group of primary school-aged children, the farm owner, with the blessing of our teachers, had arranged for a group of Zulu warriors to sneak up on us in the darkness and to suddenly jump out at us with all sorts of war cries. The result was Exhibit A of the flight-or-fight syndrome.

A small handful of boys immediately sprang into fighting positions. Most joined the bulk of the girls in screaming and running for dear life. Me? Let’s just say that I proved myself to be more of a pacifist than a fighter. I might have screamed louder than anyone!

The fight-or-flight syndrome was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon, an American psychologist who theorised that, when faced with a threat, animals (and humans) react with a discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares them to either stand their ground and fight or to flee the threat.

Ongoing research has revealed that fight or flight are not the only two responses. The phenomenon has come to be known as “acute stress syndrome” (or hyperarousal), which is a little easier to say than “fight-flight-fright-freeze-fawn-faint.”

Stress, even acute stress, is a part of the human experience. It is unavoidable. Sometimes, we invite stress through our own folly or sinfulness. Sometimes, as Christians, we experience unjust stress because of our faith and our commitment to righteousness. Sometimes, we experience stress simply because we live in a sin-cursed world. And sometimes we experience stress because the teachers who were assigned as our guardians have deemed it to be funny for a group of Zulu warriors to creep up on us in the pitch darkness. One thing is certain: We cannot entirely avoid stress in this life. But that doesn’t stop us from trying, whether by fighting, fleeing, fainting, or any number of other methods.

I think it is safe to say that there was never a greater experience of acute stress than the stress Jesus faced, beginning in Gethsemane’s garden and leading to the cross. Gethsemane was a time of acute stress for both Jesus and his disciples, and how he faced the stress, and how his disciples failed the stress, teaches us a great deal about how we should respond to acute stress.

In the text before us, Jesus and his disciples came to their favourite prayer closet—the Garden in Gethsemane—where he urged them to pray (vv. 40, 46). Specifically, they should pray “that you may not enter into temptation.” They were facing temptation and they needed to pray for the strength not to cave to the temptation they were facing.

After telling them to pray for the power to resist temptation (v. 40), Jesus “withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed” (v. 41). The implication of the text, I think, is that he prayed for the same thing that he told them to pray for: that he would not give into temptation. His prayer highlights for us the specific temptation that they needed to pray against: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (v. 42). Both he and they were facing the temptation to sidestep God’s will for his life and they needed to pray for the strength to resist the temptation. In the end, he would succeed by the power of prayer while his disciples would fail by the power of prayerlessness.

Jesus’ prayer is the thread that holds this text together. In his acute stress, he prayed for the strength to submit to God’s will. The disciples ought to have been praying the same, but since they failed to pray, they failed to resist the temptation. The text reveals two ways in which they did so, which contrast with Jesus faithfully following God’s difficult will for his life.

The Failing Followers

The fight-or-flight syndrome describes the physiological reaction that occurs in us to the presence of fear or acute stress. When we are faced with a fearful or acutely stressful situation, the body releases hormones that prepare us to either stay and deal with the threat or to run for safety. Jesus predicted that his disciples would face this dual fight or flight temptation (and knew that he would face those temptations himself) and urged them to pray for the strength to resist (as he would do).

The Temptation to Flee

First—and perhaps more implied than specifically stated in our text (though it is more clearly highlighted in parallel Gospel accounts)—the disciples would face the temptation to flee.

In vv. 31–34, Jesus told Peter that he would soon face the temptation to deny any association with him. While there was an element of this that was unique to Peter, Matthew reveals that Jesus issued a similar warning to the disciples collectively.

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

Matthew 26:33

When the arresting soldiers arrived, the disciples would be tempted to run to safety. Jesus would face the same temptation. The strength to resist that temptation would be found in prayer.

In the end, Jesus and his disciples faced the temptation very differently. When crunch time came, “all the disciples left him and fled” (Matthew 26:56). Only Peter followed, and then from a distance (v. 54), which would set him up for an even greater failure to come (vv. 55–62).

The Temptation to Fight

The second temptation the disciples (and Jesus) faced is more explicit in our text: the temptation to fight.

Verses 35–38 reveal an interaction between Jesus and the disciples that is frequently misunderstood.

Among other things, Jesus urged his disciples, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (v. 36). In gun control debates, pro-gun Christians often cite this verse as if Jesus was commending the use of weapons for self-defence. Indeed, the disciples also understood him to be saying this, because when the arresting mob came, Peter (John 18:10) drew one of the swords to start fighting. Luckily, his first target managed to dodge his attack and so lost only an ear instead of his head, but then Jesus immediately healed the man and rebuked his over-zealous followers: “No more of this!” (v. 51). Evidently, their interpretation of his words as a call to arms was faulty.

But if Jesus did not intend to call his followers to arms, what purpose did the swords serve? In fact, there is no mystery, because Jesus tells us exactly why the swords were necessary: “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfilment” (v. 37). The swords were necessary for the Scripture to be fulfilled. But how so?

There were several things that needed to happen for Jesus to pay the penalty for sin. He had to die, because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). It needed to be a bloody death because ”without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). But Galatians 3:13 reveals another necessary aspect of Christ’s death: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Crucifixion—being hanged on a tree—was the death Christ needed to die to fulfil what was written.

Since Israel was under Roman occupation in the first century, only Rome could order Jesus’ execution by crucifixion. The Jews had no authority to do this. But Rome did not crucify rabbis who aggravated intramural Jewish debates. Rome crucified revolutionaries. Rome would only order Jesus’ death by crucifixion if it could be shown that there was a credible charge of revolution against him. And for that charge to stick, he needed to be arrested in possession of weapons because what sort of a revolution did not bear arms. That’s why Jesus said that two swords were enough (v. 38)—not because two swords were enough to fight off the band of arresting soldiers, but because two swords were enough to allow the charge of revolution to stick, thereby allowing him to be numbered with the transgressors in fulfilment of Scripture.

Taking all of this together, we see that the disciples would be tempted not only to flee God’s will, but also to fight God’s will. The fight-or-flight response to acute stress would be on bold display. Jesus would face the same dual temptation but, while they would miserably fail, he would wonderfully succeed.

The Successful Saviour

Even as he instructed the disciples to pray that they “may not enter into temptation,” Jesus “withdrew himself from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done’” (v. 42).

This was a moment of intense stress for Jesus, whose “sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground” (v. 44). It was also a time of great stress for the disciples, whom Jesus found “sleeping for sorrow” (v. 45). “Sorrow” translates a word that speaks of mental pain and anxiety. Their stress doubtless paled in comparison to his in this moment, but it was real nonetheless.

Both Jesus and his disciples, in their acute stress, faced the temptation to sidestep God’s will by fight or flight. The disciples’ prayerlessness left them powerless to resist; Jesus’ prayerfulness empowered him to resolutely embrace God’s difficult will for his life.

The Pertinent Principle

In 1774, hymnist William Cowper wrote a song whose title quickly entered common Christian parlance: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Cowper writes,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace.
Behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.

Christians know what it is to face frowning providences: dread disease; financial difficulty; relational heartache; unfulfilled desires; etc. These things come to us from God’s hand. “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:37–38).

In the face of frowning providence, we are tempted to sidestep God’s will, by either fighting or fleeing. We live in a world that increasingly champions assisted suicide as a way to run from the frowning providence of dread disease. We may fight the financial difficulties we face by resorting to unethical means to meet our needs. We run from relational heartache by withdrawing and refusing to form any more relationships in which we might get hurt. When God doesn’t give us the spouse we so desire, we fight his will by sleeping around or resorting to digital means to fulfil our longings.

But when we look to Christ, we find a man who desperately wished, if it were at all possible, to escape what he knew to be his Father’s will for him. In his humanity, Christ faced the overwhelming desire to sidestep the cross. The unbelieving world piled on by urging him show his divinity by coming down from the cross. And yet he went to the cross. When his disciples fought and fled from God’s will, he faced it resolutely. And what made the difference? Prayer.

Prayer makes all the difference when we face frowning providences. As we draw this to a close, let’s consider some of the ways, revealed in Scripture, we can pray in times of acute stress that will help us to face our afflictions as Christ did.

First, in your acute stress, pray for God to be glorified. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7). Learn from Jesus who, in his acute stress, prayed, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (v. 42).

Second, in your acute stress, pray for God to teach you what you need to learn. “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9). Learn from Jesus, who, as he went from the garden to the cross, “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Third, if the source of your acute stress is another person, pray for their good. “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). Learn from Jesus who, as he died on the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Fourth, ask God to help you face your acute stresses with faith rather than being battered by fear. “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). Learn from Jesus, who, as he gave up his spirit, in an act of final faith, prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).

Ultimately, we can face our acute stresses because we know that, in his death and resurrection, Christ has conquered every source of trial and trouble in this world. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). As Christ moved from the garden to the cross to the tomb, before rising from the dead and ascending to his Father, he offered us the perfect example of how to face our stresses. But let us remember that he did far more than offer us an example. By dying for our sins and by rising victoriously from the grave, “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15). Because Christ took upon himself the sin of the world, we can face our acute stresses, not by fighting or fleeing, but by prayerfully trusting the one who promises that these very stresses are but “light momentary afflictions” that are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18).