Gethsemane


Matthew 26:36-46

Text Comment

v.36     “Gethsemane” means “oil press.”  John tells us it was a garden, so perhaps we are to think of an enclosed olive orchard with its own press, located we know on the slopes of the Mount of Olives.  We know from the other Gospels that it was a regular rendezvous for the Lord and his disciples; perhaps it belonged to a friend or a disciple of Jesus.  That explains how Judas knew to find them there.  Had the Lord wanted to avoid detection, he could easily have chosen an unfamiliar spot instead of Gethsemane.  He was giving himself into the hands of his enemies.

v.38     Peter, James, and John, who had also accompanied the Lord at his transfiguration, were the innermost ring of the circle of the Lord’s disciples.

v.39     “My Father…” indicates the intimacy with which Jesus communed with his heavenly Father.  As P.T. Forsyth writes in his great book on prayer, “’Thy will be done’ was no utterance of mere resignation; though it has come to mean this in a Christianity which tends to canonize the weak instead of strengthening them.  As a prayer it was a piece of active cooperation with God’s will…. It is one thing to submit to a stronger will, it is another to be one with it.”  [The Soul of Prayer, 83]  Here we have a remarkable blend of a straightforward request with an acceptance that his request might not be granted. The only issue that matters to Jesus is what are the limits of the will of God.  His prayer is an exploration of those limits but does not seek to break outside them.  [France, 373]

In the OT “cup” and drinking the cup often have associations of suffering and especially of the wrath of God.  Those are surely the associations here as well.  Drinking this cup on Jesus’ part meant suffering and a terrible death and this death was a death for sin, a suffering of the holy divine wrath against human sin.

v.41     The disciples’ physical weakness – their inability to stay awake – becomes the occasion of an exhortation to spiritual watchfulness.  The word used here is not literally “body” but “flesh,” indicating the weakness of sinful man, not so much the physical weakness of the human body.  That is why Christians must live their lives by prayer.  They are too weak to manage in their own strength.  They must have God’s help.

v.42     The second prayer shows an advance: a more firm acceptance that his coming suffering and death is his Father’s will.

As more than one commentator has written over the centuries, the temple of the Lord’s suffering and sacrifice had a forecourt and an inner room.  The forecourt was all that happened after the Upper Room until the cross itself – Gethsemane, the arrest, the trial before the Jewish authorities and then before Pilate, the scourging and the via dolorosa – and the inner room was the crucifixion itself.  Here in Gethsemane, the Lord steps into the forecourt of his passion.

Think of the Lord through the few hours that he had just spent with his disciples.  He had been then as through the three years before, the Master, the teacher, the rabbi.  He had washed his disciples’ feet; he had presided at the Passover and created from it the Christian Lord’s Supper.  He offered his great prayer, the prayer that through the Christian ages has been known as his “high priestly” prayer.  He had predicted his betrayal and delivered his final discourse on the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In all of that he was in complete control, entirely the man he had always been before his disciples.  Through those hours he had been hard at work training the Twelve, and at some point the remaining Eleven.  He did as he had already done those three long, exhausting years.  And he did that work calmly as he always had.  “But the clock of God is striking now!” [Schilder, Christ in his Sufferings, 307]

All the Gospels note the great change once he has come into Gethsemane.  There is a sudden and definite intensification.  The sorrows and fears he had held at bay in the Upper Room he could no longer control.  Matthew records in v. 37 that once he had left the other disciples and had walked deeper into the olive grove with Peter, James, and John “he began to be sorrowful and troubled.”  The disciples could see the definite change for themselves.  He had always been to them the unflappable masters of every situation, the unshakeable rock and now he seems overwhelmed and even says that he feels as if he may not be able to withstand the pressure that he is feeling:  “my soul is overwhelmed to the point of death.”  They had never heard him say anything like that before.  Is this the same calm and commanding figure who had stilled the storm, cast out demons, and driven the money-changers out of the temple?  Is this the same man who now laid prostrate, fearful, weeping and crying out to God in desperation?  Was it embarrassing for them even to see him in such a state?

There is, of course, a great mystery here.  The greatest mystery of all:  The genuine humanity of the person of Jesus Christ.  God the Son had taken to himself a true human nature in the womb of his mother, the virgin Mary, and had lived for thirty years a true human life.  But never have we seen how real the incarnate Son’s humanity was until now.  Here he is a man indeed and without question.  Here the Son of God is afraid, terrified really, and he is even asking to be released from the assignment for which he entered the world and toward which he had been pointing himself throughout the entire course of his public ministry.  Still more, that the Son of God should want the company, should need the company, the moral support of three men as weak and clueless as Peter, James, and John is as grand a demonstration of the paradox and mystery of the incarnation as can be imagined.  Here the Son of God needs men, really he craves their support and encouragement.  So truly is Jesus a man in these moments in Gethsemane, so completely has his deity disappeared from view that we lose all thought that this one in the Garden is the Living God, the Second Person of the Triune God, and the Maker of heaven and earth.

But how real is this scene!  No disciple of Jesus who wanted to demonstrate to others that his master was the Messiah sent from God would ever or could ever have invented this scene!  That the Son of God, at this late date, should have fallen under such a cloud of self-doubt and sorrow that he should have come near to faltering, is an idea that no one would have invented who wanted the world to worship Jesus Christ as Lord of Lords and the Savior of sinners.  Indeed, even Christians have stumbled at this account, believing that Jesus could not really have asked his heavenly Father to be allowed not to complete his mission.  Not after hearing him say in so many ways that he had not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  Not after telling his disciples times without number that he was going to Jerusalem to be arrested, that he would be crucified and that he would rise again.  Even our own beloved Dr. Buswell, former president of Wheaton College and longtime professor at Covenant Seminary, argued that Jesus couldn’t have been asking his Father to be released from his obligation to die for sinners precisely because his so-often stated commitment to his mission makes it impossible to believe that he would ever shrink from the cross.   No, what Jesus was afraid of, thought Dr. Buswell, was that he might die before the cross!  [Systematic Theology, ii, 64]  But that is not what his words mean.  That is not what is described in the four Gospels.  Christ is not afraid of dying in the Garden before he gets to the cross, he is afraid of the cross itself, the cup of divine wrath against human sin that he is about to drink to its dregs.  Few have followed Dr. Buswell in his interpretation of Gethsemane, because that is not what the words mean.  In v. 42, with calm resolution, he expresses his intention to drink this cup, not to avoid it!  If Dr. Buswell were right, he would have to avoid this cup – dying in the Garden – in order finally to reach the cross.  But Christ is ready to drink it.  No, what we have here is a narrative of Christ’s terror at the thought of doing what he had come into the world to do, what he had prepared his entire life to do, and what he had promised his disciples he would do.  How utterly unexpected this is. Only authentic history can account for what we have read this morning.

But how then are we to understand this sudden intensification of sorrow and fear that occurred in the Lord’s heart as he entered Gethsemane?  He certainly knew what was before him.  He had long known both that he would die and how they would execute him.  He had known even that Judas would betray him.  No, you can’t explain Gethsemane as a dawning of understanding or a realization that Jesus did not have before.  Only one explanation will suffice and it has been given from the very beginning of the church’s reflection on this most sacred and mysterious history that occurred at one of the holiest sites in all the world.

What was happening here was that God the Father was now beginning to pour out into the soul of his beloved Son the cup of his holy wrath.  Matthew, with the words he uses to describe the Savior’s woe, leaves us in no doubt that there was something unique in the inner turmoil that Jesus was experiencing in that olive grove.  Jesus was a brave man, and plenty of lesser people, lesser by far, including many who have owed their bravery to him, have faced death calmly.  It is not the fact that he was going to die that so terrified the Lord.  It was rather the kind of death he would die.  It was he who knew no sin being made sin for us that so overwhelmed him. [Morris, 667]  Matthew tells us that he took Peter, James, and John further with him into the grove, but he could take even these best friends only to the threshold of the house of sorrows.  He had to drink the wine-press of the wrath of God alone!  Our Lord began to be sorrowful to the point of death in that grove because he began to feel the weight, the guilt and the evil of our sin being poured out into his heart.  He began to feel what it would be like on the morrow finally to bear the full weight of God’s wrath.

We can gain a better understanding of this if we remember two facts, two facts that go a long way to explain what the Lord was feeling that night in the olive grove of Gethsemane.

  •  First, the intensity of the Lord’s agony was the direct result of his sinlessness.

Believe me, brothers and sisters, this is why we have such a hard time grasping even the outer edges of this history.  We are used to sin.  We are accustomed to it.  It lives always and everywhere within us.  We eat it like food, drink it like water, and breathe it like air.  It is part of us.  We are comfortable with it, used to it, and, shameful as it is to admit, we still love it.  And human beings who are soaked in sin and made of sin as we are hardly know what is sin in us and what is not.  We are the last people to be able to appreciate what it must have been for a sinless man, an infinitely pure man, a holy man to be made sin for us.  That difference between Christ and all sinners is emphasized here.  He told his disciples to watch and pray against temptation and they promptly fell asleep.  Their flesh was weak.  His was not.  He watched and prayed all night long — no matter his weariness and his fear.

Now, to be sure, the Lord Jesus was no stranger to sin.  From his youth up he had watched sinners sin and had more than ample opportunity to witness the folly, the stupidity, the irrationality, the misery, and the intractability of human sin.  Through his ministry he had observed time and time again multitudes of otherwise clever men and women who were content to be sinners and had no real interest in being delivered from this power that polluted, spoiled, and corrupted their lives and were not inclined to worry what God thought of their sin or sinfulness.  Their sin had blinded them to nothing so much as the extent and the ugliness of their own sin.

By this time Jesus had become an expert in the duplicity, the meanness, and the foolishness of human hearts in bondage to sin.  Sin and sinners were not a new subject or a new study to Jesus Christ in Gethsemane.

But, still, the Lord learned something new about sin that night, something he hadn’t known and couldn’t have known before.  To his amazement and to his horror, he suddenly found himself made sin himself, carrying the weight of it, feeling its guilt and shame, and, still more feeling God’s wrath against it, as if he himself had committed all of that sin that human beings have committed since the beginning of the world.  He fell on his face in the olive grove because his Father in heaven was laying on him the iniquity of us all.

We know that in theory, in principle, we know the fact, but we do not know what it was like, not in the least.  We do not know and cannot know what it was like for a man to be made sin who had God’s own revulsion for sin, who loathed sin with all his heart and soul and strength.  He had never once admitted even the slightest sin of thought or attitude into himself and the longer he lived, the more he came to hate it – and now, suddenly, it was lying on top of him and suffocating him like a heavy weight, clinging to every part of him like a swarm of biting insects, being poured into him like some foul, nauseating liquid, filling up his soul with its shame, its evil, and its guilt.  [Cf. Whyte, The Nature of Angels, 175-177]

And then, when he may have thought that nothing could conceivably be worse than this, under the weight of that sin and feeling the pollution of it and the guilt of it, he began to feel his heavenly Father depart from him.  No man or woman can possibly know what a horror that was who is not sinless himself and who does not love God and love holiness with a perfect and infinite love.  There is only one thing in human life that could come remotely close to such an experience and that is when a person is accused of a terrible crime, a shameful crime, and people believe him guilty and he feels their hatred and their disgust and their revulsion, when in fact he is entirely innocent.  No one will believe him innocent but he is.  Everyone hates him for what they are sure he is and what they are sure he did, and he did nothing of the kind; in fact, the very idea of such a deed revolts him; it is the very last thing in all the world that he would ever do.

But how little does that ever happen? For we are rarely accused of something of which we are entirely innocent.

Imagine for a moment that O.J. Simpson was, in fact, entirely innocent of the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.  Most people today think that he committed the murder and got away with it.  But suppose that not only did he never kill his wife, but, in fact, contrary to what some people said at the time, there had never been a more devoted, thoughtful, generous, affectionate husband than O.J. Simpson and no one had ever loved her husband more than Nicole Brown Simpson.  Suppose that everything we were told about them was a lie and this was as happy and fruitful a marriage as ever existed in the world.  Imagine being O.J. Simpson then and having no one believe you; having everyone believe that you murdered the woman you loved and that in all the time you lived with her before you killed her, you made her life and the life of your children miserable.  That would be something slightly akin to, a small window into the suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane, who was being made sin for us who himself knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

There is the first reason why the Lord was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death:  he who knew no sin was now beginning to bear our sin for us.

  •  Second, the intensity of the Lord’s agony in Gethsemane was the result of the fact that he was not suffering simply as a man, but as THE MAN, the substitute for all God’s people.

It has long been pointed out – you may have thought it yourself – that many men and women through the centuries have faced death with greater aplomb than our Savior showed in the olive grove that night.  Indeed, many of the Lord’s disciples faced their deaths with more poise and self-control than did their own Savior.  Many have faced death with serenity, but Jesus didn’t.

Now people can sometimes face death with serenity simply because they are deceived and do not know what death means or what it will bring.  Or, sometimes, as I have found in my own experience, people can face death calmly because they are dead at the top and have lost, through a lifetime of sinning, a lifetime of ignoring God and his truth, they have lost the capacity to feel deeply about life.

But Christians face death at peace not because they are stronger than Christ – precisely not for that reason – but because he was stronger than they.  They can face death with assurance, with courage, even with joy, precisely because Christ already suffered death’s fears and pains for them, in their place, and pulled the sting out of death.  Their peace is the fruit of his terrible fear.

But Jesus could not, as it were, pluck the fruit of a tree that had been planted by another, the way Christians can in the hour of death.  [Schilder, Christ in his Sufferings, 294, 303]  He must himself produce the fruit which his disciples will later pluck for themselves when they are about to die.  This is the sense of his words, “Rise let us go, here is my betrayer.” Christ is handing himself over to death — to death for others.

No one, then, ever faced death, or died, as Jesus Christ did.  He is the only man who ever had to face death full in the face, neither able to take refuge in ignorance or a brutish mind and heart nor to find solace in someone else’s victory over death.  Every other human being has confronted and will confront death as an individual experience, an individual struggle, an individual reality.  It was that for Jesus too, of course, but much, much more.

He faced death fully conscious of the fact that he would die not as a man, but as the man, the second Adam, the head of a race.  As the Dutch theologian and preacher, Klaas Schilder put it, in that beautiful and powerful manner of thought that is so characteristic of his writing:

“In his death, it is not a single chip which is broken from some rock jutting off the

mountain of mankind; in it the shock of death is felt in the base, in the foundation of all

humanity for whom he is entering into death.  He stands solitary over against God…”

In Gethsemane, the Lord stands alone by himself: no redeemer to count on, no Savior’s victory to give him hope, no triumph over death to remember and take to heart.  There he stands, not only worrying about his own life, his own existence, his own success or failure at the great hour of testing, but about that multitude that no man can number, the people whom his Father had entrusted into his care. He cannot even take comfort in death, as human beings do, as the inevitable end of life which we can do nothing about and must face sooner or later.  He could not accept death passively as something that overtook him.  He had to suffer death as his own act, accept it as God’s righteous judgment upon him because of the sins he was bearing.  He had to embrace death as a sinner with no cover for his sins, no redemption to plead, no forgiveness to find, embrace it as the full fury of the divine wrath was unleashed against him.

Gethsemane is no play, no pageant.  It is the history of man brought to his knees and then to his face on the floor of that olive grove, terrified as no man has ever been terrified before him or since.  And no mere human being has ever really even begun to understand what that was like for him or what it meant for him, God’s Son to become the object of God’s wrath.  We see the Lord Jesus on his face in that olive grove, crying out to be released from the calling he had given his entire life to fulfill.  We should ponder that scene and try to enter into it, but we will never really understand what it meant for him to be there or what was happening to him or what he was experiencing in the depth of his soul.  In all the world there is nothing more terrible and wonderful than this.  The salvation of the lost, the entrance through the gates of heaven by that great multitude on the last day, all of that takes place, all of that is made sure right here as doubt and fear give way to assurance and holy determination to see the course through.

Now, my friends, what of this history for you?   Have you received it?  You have read it in the Word of God.  Perhaps you have taken it into your creed.  But have you taken it into your conscience?  Have you received it and kept it there?  Do you believe, as you must, that if Gethsemane were somehow taken from us, if the cries of agony and terror in that olive grove were silenced, you would be of all men the most miserable because you would have lost the true man Jesus Christ and lost his true substitution for you and you would still be in your sins having to account for them to a holy God?  Were there no Gethsemane, you would have no place in all this world to lay your guilty head.  [Whyte, Nature of Angels, 186]

If you know that and if you believe that you are among the most fortunate and happy of men and the future lies before you in sunny outline, brave and clear, whatever may be your difficulties in the present.  Your sins have been born by another and carried away!

But if you have not yet received this history into your conscience and fixed it there, then listen to me.  We do not think about anything in such a shallow, untrue, and feeble way as we think about our own sinfulness and our own sins before a just and holy God.  And if it remains true of you that you would prefer to have your sins than to have God forgive them so that you might forsake them; if you think of your sins as light and inconsequential things that God will easily overlook, then look again at Jesus in the olive grove.  See that man who had planned to die for our sins through all his holy life, now recoil in terror from the prospect.  See him lying there prostrate under the weight of your sins that you think so little of, and the sight may, by God’s grace, stop you and turn you to Christ before it is too late.  It is not ours to save ourselves.  We cannot.  Sinners cannot carry away their sins.  At the critical hour, at the decisive moment, the disciples are useless.  The Lord must do everything by himself; must carry the infinitely heavy load by himself.