Was there ever an occasion when Jesus was afraid?
The writer of the book of Hebrews speaks of the time when Christ was “in the days of his flesh,” i.e., during his earthly sojourn (5:7). The expression implies both a “pre” and “post” existence of the Lord, apart from the flesh.
In describing the agony through which the Savior passed just prior to his crucifixion, the inspired writer says that the Lord “offered prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him who was able to save him from [ek – out of] death.” This seems to suggest a strong confidence in the impending resurrection, which was to follow the ordeal of the cross.
The sacred writer also affirms that Jesus “was heard for his godly fear.” Commentators have long been divided over the meaning of this text.
Does the passage suggest that Christ was delivered from a fearfulness that he entertained in view of the looming crucifixion—at which point he would be paying the price, potentially at least, for the entire panorama of human sin, past and present? Or were his prayers heard because of his “pious reverence” for his heavenly Father, as he courageously faced the death ordeal ahead?
Neither view is adverse to the context, nor general tenor of the New Testament, and each view has been defended by respectable scholars (cf. Danker et al. 2000, 407). Let us consider each viewpoint.
It is not in the least disrespectful to acknowledge that the Lord Jesus, as a human being who was tempted in all points of human vulnerability (Romans 8:3; Hebrews 4:15), should have entertained an occasional moment of anxiety. Such does not nullify his confidence in the Father, but appears to be a part of his identification with man in order to function on our behalf as an efficacious high priest (Hebrews 2:17-18).
It thus seems unrealistic to suppose that the Son of man never had an anxious moment. If his soul trembled with trepidation as he neared the experience of bearing the consequence of human sin, he could have been comforted to the extent that he could mingle godly fear with joy, and therefore bravely endure his redemptive mission (cf. Hebrews 12:2). Robert Milligan makes an able defense of this view (1956, 157-159).
Others allege that Jesus’ “fear” (i.e., trembling anxiety) was not under consideration in this text. Rather, they would assign to the text the sense of “reverential awe.” This is the thrust of the Greek expression in Hebrews 12:28; the Christian pleases God when submitting to him with “reverence and awe.” And so the same term is employed in both passages. Some would thus argue that Christ’s prayers were heard because of his “humble devotion” to his Father (Bruce 1990, 128).
To us, the practical lesson would be that our prayers are enhanced greatly when undergirded with pious submission to the will of God.
A helpful Bible note on this text might therefore reflect these possibilities: Prayer heard; either: (a) Jesus freed from anxiety; or, (b) because of reverent submission to the Father.
Here is an important point to remember in responsible Bible interpretation. Occasionally there are texts “elastic” enough in terminology so as to contain possible alternative interpretations, neither of which would be adverse to other parts of the Scriptures.
When such is the case, with great care the student can draw his own conclusion. Yet he may respectfully acknowledge that there are other possibilities. One is not required to draw a hard-line interpretation on every passage of the Bible.
Dogmatism, in such instances, does not reflect careful research and balanced judgment.