Depression in the New Testament

by Cliff McManis

Peter the Apostle Experienced Depression
Just like the Old Testament (you can read my article on Depression in the Old Testament here), the New Testament is no stranger to depression. A fisherman, Simon Peter, was the head of Jesus’ twelve apostles. He was vocal, impetuous, emotional, courageous, bold, and the best thing of all, saved by grace (1 Pet 1:3). He was a dynamic, colorful personality. And he had his ups and downs.

Peter too often gets a bad rap from Bible teachers and preachers. He had his faults, but he knew and loved God (John 21:17). From the very beginning when he was called by Jesus to follow Him, Peter answered with great humility and faith. And he knew he was not worthy because he was acutely aware of his sin. When seeing the glory of Christ revealed for the first time Peter was overwhelmed with a holy fear. Luke explains it: “But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!’” (Luke 5:8). 

Peter was privileged to walk and talk and be discipled by Jesus for over three years. Nevertheless, because Peter walked with feet of clay like we all do, he was prone to bouts of fear (Luke 5:10), insecurity (John 16:16-18), lapses of faith (Matt 14:31), panic-attacks (Matt 16:22-23), delusion (Matt 26:33), and even depression.  

Peter’s greatest experience with depression was no doubt at the time of Christ’s arrest and death.

Peter’s greatest experience with depression was no doubt at the time of Christ’s arrest and death. Peter’s Lord, Rabbi, and friend had been suddenly snatched away without cause. Peter was confused and afraid during that period. When Jesus was arrested and undergoing trial, Peter was tormented with fear and denied Christ three times. He “began to curse and swear”when others questioned if he knew Jesus (Matt 26:74). After denying Jesus three times “he went out and wept bitterly” (Matt 26:75). Paralyzed with sorrow, Peter would hide in isolation for the next few days. On Resurrection Sunday morning Peter initially refused to believe Martha’s testimony declaring Jesus was risen (Matt 28:11). But Peter came around. God helped him persevere (see Luke 22:31-32).   

At Pentecost Peter helped found the Church and became one of its primary leaders. For the next thirty years he would remain steadfast, despite ongoing persecution from hostile unbelievers and conflicts within the church. Peter would eventually be murdered by Nero in the mid 60’s AD. But through it all, he knew faith in Christ was the only thing that provided stability in this fallen world and only Jesus was a reliable anchor for the soul. Before he died he wrote to distressed fellow believers to encourage them, reminding them that life was hard:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.

1 Pet 4:12-13

Peter could legitimately counsel and encourage anxious, frightened, depressed Christians because he went through similar experiences. And he knew first-hand that God was committed to helping believers persevere through the trials and hardships of life. And amazingly, God has promised in His Word to give real joy in the very midst of the worst of trials and hardships to those who trust Him.

Paul Faced Times of Depression    
Who was the greatest Apostle? If you don’t say Peter then you’d probably say Paul, and for good reason. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13). A former Christian killer (1 Tim 1:13), he planted many churches during a ministry that lasted over four decades. He penned thirteen of the twenty-seven New Testament books. In many ways, Paul was incomparable and inimitable as a Christian, missionary, theologian, prophet, shepherd, and man of God. Yet he also walked with feet of clay, had his weak moments (Acts 23:3-5), battled with indwelling sin (Rom 7:14-25), was routinely discouraged and, at times, depressed. 

Over a thirty-year period Paul travelled thousands of miles making a priority of evangelizing in towns and cities that never heard the gospel of Christ. He would preach to Jews in synagogues (Acts 17:2) and to Gentiles wherever he could find them (Acts 13:46). The response to his message and ministry became predictable: a few were intrigued, a few believed, and many were overtly hostile. He was routinely chased out of town (Acts 17:10). He was mocked, threatened, slandered, arrested, whipped, imprisoned, and even stoned to the point of death. Over the years, many professing Christians who once called him a friend abandoned and betrayed him (2 Tim 4:14, 16). Paul’s whole Christian life and ministry was one mostly of hardship (1 Tim 1:12; 2:9).

Paul had great successes and victories as well, but he was also realistic about life—living in this sinful and fallen world is arduous. Twenty years after being saved and ministering as a church-planting apostle, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians around AD 56. As his most personal and autobiographical letter, this book reveals much about the details of Paul’s suffering and also his mental state during times of duress. In 2 Corinthians we learn first-hand that depression was often Paul’s companion. He opens the letter writing to fellow Christians by saying he recently was at the point of discouragement so severe that he even despaired of life itself:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life.

2 Cor 1:8

Here Paul is being honest about his emotional weakness, and he admits he was distressed to the point of wanting to die. This is the severest form of depression in this life. In a previous article, we saw how other godly believers got so low in life they wanted to die: Job, Jeremiah, Elijah, Jonah. And now even the great apostle Paul! But as a believer who knew the God of the universe personally through faith in Christ, Paul depended on God to deliver him through his rock-bottom time of depression. And God was true to His promises:

indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.

2 Cor 1:9-11

For decades Paul’s life was full of hardships, just like Joseph in the Old Testament. And just like Joseph he faced life’s trials with the one thing—the only thing—that could rescue him from depression at the deepest level, and that was his faith, his view of ultimate reality, and his love for God’s truth:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

2 Cor 4:7-9

Few Christians will ever endure the kind of hardship, trials and suffering that Paul was subjected to, but every believer can adopt Paul’s perspective on living in a fallen world to find relief in the worst of circumstances. He writes,

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

2 Cor 4:16-18

Paul lived in tension. He had an internal, inescapable joy that came from knowing Christ. At the same time he often experienced dejection due to his own failures, the reality of demonic forces, the hostile sin of others, and living life on a cursed earth. His secret was that he welcomed both realities. He was not an idealist or a shallow optimist. He lived in light of how God has defined reality in His Word. Because of this, he could live in light of the greatest antinomy or paradox, as he declared he was “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). We can learn much from Paul’s walk of wisdom.

Jesus, Man of Sorrows, Acquainted with Grief
Years ago, I preached a series of sermons on “What the Bible Says About Depression.” In one of the sermons I said, “Jesus got depressed.” I even shared a Bible verse to back it up. The next day, I got reamed with a sharp email from someone in the congregation because of that statement. This person was furious, and the essence of his complaint went like this: “Pastor, did I hear you say yesterday that ‘Jesus got depressed?’ I can’t believe it if you said that. Jesus never sinned and He was perfect. Depression and anxiety are sins, therefore there is no way Jesus ever got depressed!” 

We had a back and forth email exchange and even some personal conversations on the matter, but in the end he was not convinced. He adamantly maintained, “Jesus NEVER got depressed!” How depressing….

It is true that Jesus was perfect and sinless (1 Pet 2:22) during His thirty-three years on earth. And it is true that worry and depression can sometimes be related to sinful thinking or sinful behavior. But I also maintain that according to the Bible there are times when Jesus experienced depression.

Jesus was full deity (John 1:1) and in the incarnation He took on full humanity (John 1:14). As a real man, He had a genuine human nature, and He experienced the full spectrum of human infirmities: His body got tired (John 4:6), hungry (Matt 4:2), and thirsty (John 19:28). He grew up as a child and went through the normal human maturation process (Luke 2:52). He felt joy, anger, sadness, and desperation—all human emotions. He was even tempted in all ways that we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15).

The critical congregant I mentioned above was wrong on two counts when he insisted that Jesus never experienced depression. One, he assumed that all depression is a direct result of sin, but it is not. And two, his view of Jesus’ deity did not allow for a biblical view of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus was fully God and fully human. When you overemphasize one at the expense of the other you end up with a heretical view, or, at least, an unbalanced view of Jesus.

Actually, there is a third reason he was wrong—the Bible actually says Jesus got depressed. After the Last Supper, Jesus took His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Jesus would be betrayed by Judas, the other eleven disciples would scatter and abandon Him, and He would soon be subjected to beatings and crucifixion. And the worst torment yet to come would be absorbing the full fury of the Father’s wrath as a substitute for sinners while on the cross (Isa 53:4-6). With all that to shoulder, Jesus reached the greatest level of human distress possible, or ever known.

Matthew says at this time in Gethsemane He took Peter, James and John with Him “and began to be grieved and distressed” (Matt 26:37). The Greek word for “grieved” is from the verb lupeŌ and means “sorrow.” The parallel passage in Mark says Jesus “began to be very distressed and troubled”(14:33). The word for “distressed” here is the Greek verb ekthambeŌ and means “bewilderment” or “to be terrified.” Both Matthew and Mark also use the word ademoneŌ which means “be in anxiety, be distressed, deeply troubled.”

In the next verse in Matthew, Jesus elaborates on the nature of His emotional distress: “Then He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death’” (Matt 26:38). No human has ever experienced this level of emotional turmoil. This was depression of the first order. Jesus was not in a state of sin during this depression. He was simply living the reality of the human experience in the frailty of human emotion.

This episode in the garden is not the only time Jesus experienced severe distress and depression. Isaiah 53 predicted the Messiah would be familiar with sadness and emotional turmoil, for the Messiah was to be “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (53:3). The feeling of human depression came with the role of being the “Suffering Servant.”

When Jesus experienced distress, dejection or depression He dealt with it properly. He sought His Father in prayer for perseverance, comfort, and relief (Matt 26:36). He did not blame others. He did not blame His circumstances. He did not become idle and unproductive. He did not depend on others to coddle Him. He did not seek quick superficial relief. He did not resort to alcohol or numbing His feelings in harmful ways. He did not take his own life like Judas did (Matt 27:3-5). He welcomed the trials and the disappointing circumstances and lived through the pain.

As our great High Priest, Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses…even depression; for He “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need” (Heb 4:15-16).

When a person is distressed or faced with depression, there is a temptation to respond the wrong way—to sin in the depression or in light of the depression. Jesus felt those temptations, but refused all of them. As our great High Priest, Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses…even depression; for He “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need” (Heb 4:15-16).

Contrary to what many believe, depression is in the New Testament. And it is not relegated to some obscure passage, but seen vividly in the life of the greatest of the apostles, Peter and Paul, and even exhibited in the life of Jesus the sinless Savior. Because of this, the Bible can help us talk honestly about the nature and occasions of depression, and, more importantly, how we might find relief as modeled by the apostolic saints and Christ Jesus Himself.

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