After a month’s hiatus we return to the Gospel of Luke, taking up where we left off, with the Lord in the Upper Room, having spent the evening with his disciples over a Passover meal.
Luke says only that what happened next took place on the Mount of Olives. Matthew and Mark identify the exact place as the garden as Gethsemane. Luke’s “as was his custom” indicates that he had frequented this spot before. You can visit Gethsemane today and there is little reason to doubt that its location is not original. The guides would have you believe that the olive trees there, which are, indeed, very ancient, were the very ones amid which the Lord gave way to agony and fear. However, that is unlikely. Virtually all the trees that covered the Mount of Olives would have been cut down for the cooking fires and the siege works of the three Roman legions that invested Jerusalem for several years before the city’s fall in A.D. 70.
Think about this, however. The Lord’s enemies were in Jerusalem, behind him. Ten minutes hard walking would have brought him to the summit of the Mount of Olives with the desert open before him. Escape would have been easy. But instead he sought strength in prayer for the ordeal to come. [Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land, 146]
- Luke, as you can tell, condenses the story, providing his readers with but one example of the prayers that Jesus prayed in the garden. Nor does he mention that the Lord had singled out Peter, James, and John to accompany him further into the garden.
“Cup” and “drinking the cup” in the OT are metaphors for the experience of the judgment of God.
v.43 John Duncan, the famous “Rabbi” Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, said that this was his “favorite angel!”
- This is the only appearance of the word “agony” in the NT.
- The New English Bible has “worn out by grief.”
- The repetition of the exhortation to pray that they not enter into temptation emphasizes it. This moment was all about the Lord’s temptation and they would have to face great temptations as well. They could surmount their temptations only as Jesus had surmounted his: by prayer.
As more than one commentator has written over the centuries, the temple of the Lord’s sorrow had a forecourt and an inner room. The forecourt was all that happened after the Upper Room and before the crucifixion itself and the inner room is his hours on the cross until finally he uttered the words, “It is finished.” So it is that in this scene in Gethsemane the passion begins, the forecourt is entered, and the Lord comes directly under the shadow of the cross.
And this point is made powerfully in the Gospel narrative itself, each of the four Gospels contributing a part of the story but the same powerful impression communicated in every one. Think of the Lord Jesus, just moments before we encounter him in Gethsemane. He was for some hours in the Upper Room with his disciples and throughout he was entirely in command of the situation. He had washed the disciples’ feet and given them an exhortation to do the same, he had presided at the Passover table and created from the ancient feast the Christian Lord’s Supper, he had delivered his great discourse on the coming of the Holy Spirit, he had offered the prayer that has ever since been known as the High Priestly Prayer, and he gave those final warnings and encouragements that we considered last time. He had been in all of that entirely the man he had always been before: the teacher, the Rabbi, the Messiah, which is to say, the King. Through those hours he had been hard at work, putting his final touches on the training of the twelve disciples. He had done that work, as he had done all his work, calmly, with deliberation, and with his unique, personal touch. But as the great preacher, Klaas Schilder put it, “…the clock of God is striking now!” [Christ in His Sufferings, 307]
All the Gospels note the great change that came over him as he came to Gethsemane. There is a sudden intensification of emotion. The sorrows and especially the fears that he had held at bay during the previous year and all the more as he approached his passion, even during the hours in the Upper Room, could be controlled no longer. Mark tells us that he had told the three disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” They had never heard him say anything like that before! He had always been indefatigable, unshakeable, unperturbed. But now he was staggering. The calm, assured, commanding presence who had ordered storms to cease, had made the demons cower, had swept the money-changers out of the temple court now lay on his face prostrate, fearful, weeping, and desperate in the dark of the olive grove. Did it embarrass his disciples to see him like that or simply confuse them?
And don’t suppose that the appearance of the angel changed all of that. Luke makes that clear. Only for a moment does the glory of the heavenly messenger cast a gleam into the garden, only for a moment was the Lord’s heart lifted. I think we must believe that the angel’s ministry to Jesus was absolutely necessary, that without it the Lord would not have had the strength to continue on. He said he was on the point of death. But once given that strength the angel left him to his woe once more. Luke tells us that it was after he left him that he was in agony, his sweat falling from him like great drops of blood.
The Lord’s divine glory has cast such an aura of majesty around his person that it has always been difficult for us even to picture the Lord at some of the coarser activities of human life. It is hard for us even to imagine him vomiting, for example, or relieving himself. He seems to us above such things. But here he is in a paroxysm of fear, the sweat pouring off his face like rain, his stomach churning, his hands shaking.
There are so many sermons here, so many great and vital truths that find powerful support in this brief account of the Lord’s agonizing struggle to remain faithful to his mission. 1) We have here one of the most dramatic and irrefutable demonstrations of the Lord’s true and authentic humanity. The theologians of the early church pondered this scene with great deliberation. It was one of the principal texts by which they articulated the doctrine of Christ’s true humanity and one of the principal arguments against what came to be called the monothelite heresy, namely that while Jesus was a man of a kind, he did not have a separate human will or power of self-determination. There was but one will, the divine, that operated in Christ’s life. “No,” said the church after careful reflection on Gethsemane. To be a man the Lord Jesus must have had a human will. We see him there wrestling with a choice and making a choice. He was and is a true man like us who must make choices all the time. [Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 113, 128-131] 2) Or the sermon could be on the measure of the Lord’s love for us that he was willing to endure a fate that was so terrifying to him as he faced the prospect of it in the garden that night. 3) From the Lord’s use of the term “cup” we could make a sermon on the nature of the cross, as Jesus suffering in our place the righteous judgment and punishment of sin. 4) Or we could speak of the lesson he himself both taught and exemplified at the time: viz. that great temptations can only be overcome by the power of God received through prayer. 5) Or we could consider the Christian life as a life of obedience, for it was finally the Lord’s obedience to his calling that resulted from his agony in the Garden. 6) Or we could learn from this text the nature of the Christian life as normality punctuated by crises. No doubt the Lord was tempted at many times and in many ways throughout the course of his life, but there were obviously two great concentrations of temptation, one that lasted for forty days at the beginning of his ministry and one that lasted for only a short while at the very end of it. We could not endure life if it were Gethsemane from beginning to end. Apparently, given the angel’s appearance, neither could he. And on and on the lessons come from this short but dramatic narrative of this terrible and remarkable moment in the history of salvation.
We must choose our subject among so many legitimate and profoundly important lessons of the text. The first thing it occurs to me to say about the scene Luke has described for us is how intensely real, how authentic it is. No disciple of Jesus who wanted to demonstrate to others that his Master was the Christ of God would ever or could ever have invented this scene! That he, the Son of God, at this late date, after so many times telling his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to die, should have fallen under such a cloud of fear and doubt, should have come so near to faltering, is an idea that no one would have invented who wished the world to worship Jesus as God. Only the event itself can account for the narrative we have read.
But how then are we to understand that sudden intensification of sorrow and fear, this sudden break-down that occurred as the Lord entered Gethsemane? He had long known of the death he was to die. He had for the past year set his face like flint toward Jerusalem and this very hour. He had known even that Judas would betray him. No, you cannot explain Gethsemane as a sudden dawning of realization on Jesus’ part. Only one explanation will suffice and it has been given from the very beginning of the church’s thinking about and reflecting upon this sacred history.
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. That is why he was so utterly alone, no matter the proximity of his friends. Peter, James, and John, at best, could go only as far as the threshold of his agony and they didn’t make it even that far. They had fallen asleep. He had to drink the wine-press of the wrath of God alone! That was part of the price of our redemption. It had to be made as difficult as justice required and this was one way in which it was. Our Lord began to be sorrowful in that Garden because his Father began to depart from him there, to forsake him and because of the immediate recognition of what it would mean for him to bear the full fury of the divine wrath on the morrow.
I want us this morning to consider more carefully what made that experience so terrible for the Lord and why Gethsemane shows us a Christ we had never seen through the long stretches and even through the immense difficulties, frustrations, and disappointments of the three years of his public ministry. There are many things, of course, that might be said. I have read a magnificent exposition of the suffering of the Lord in Gethsemane by the Dutch theologian and preacher Klaas Schilder, and he had some ten separate explanations for the unique depth and pain of the Lord’s sorrow in the Garden.
But we can concentrate our attention this morning on perhaps the two most important of those explanations.
- First, the intensity of the Lord’s agony is the direct result of his sinlessness.
Believe me, brothers and sisters, this is why we have such a hard time even grasping the outer edges of this event in our Savior’s life. 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. We are comfortable with it, and, shameful as it is to admit it, we still love it so. And human beings who are so soaked with sin and so made of sin that we hardly know what is sin in us and what is not are in no position to understand or appreciate what it must have been for a sinless man to be made sin for us.
Now the Lord, in one way, was no stranger to sin. From his youth up he had watched sinners sin, had been continually surprised at the folly, and the stupidity, and the irrationality, and the misery, and the intractability of their sin. Through his ministry he had seen many times how multitudes of otherwise clever men and women were content with their sin and had no interest in being delivered from it, ugly and destructive though it plainly was.
He had become a master of the duplicity and the meanness and the foolishness of human hearts in bondage to sin. Sin was not a new subject or a new study to Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But, still, the Lord learned something new about sin that night that he had not known and could not have known before. For to his amazement and to his horror, he suddenly found himself made sin himself, carrying the weight of it, the guilt of it, the stain and shame of it, before a holy God as if he had committed every sin ever committed in this world. He fell on his face in that Garden because the Lord his God was laying on him the iniquity of us all.
We know that in theory, in principle, and, to be sure, in fact. But we do not know what that was like, not in the least. We do not know and cannot know what it would be like for a man to have the sin of the world laid upon him who hated sin with a perfect hatred and who loathed sin with all his soul, with all his heart, with all his mind, and with all his strength. He had never once admitted even the least sin into his attitudes, his thoughts, his words, or his deeds in all the years of his life, and the longer he had lived, the more he had come to hate it and now, suddenly, it was lying on top of him, and clinging to every part of him, and being poured into him, filling up his soul with its shame, its evil, its stain, and its guilt. [Whyte, The Nature of Angels, pp. 175-177]
There have been times in your life, I’m sure, there have certainly been times in my life, when I have hated sin. I have said something or done something that has made me deeply ashamed and perhaps deeply afraid of possible consequences, horrified at myself, almost despairing that I could be so bad. Or, someone I love has sinned badly to his or her own shame and to the harm of others and all can see how ugly it all is. In that moment we don’t wish for anything so much that sin might be removed from us forever. In such a moment we genuinely hate sin. But how few such moments have there been? But imagine being pure and holy and feeling that way about every one of your sins every single day! You wouldn’t be able to keep food down for more than a few minutes. You would be sweating until you had no moisture left in your body. You would be revolted by who you are and what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. So was Jesus. He was without sin, and then he was being treated as if he were the worst sinner that ever was, as sinful as the whole world taken together. Shame upon shame, disgust upon disgust, fear of consequences upon fear of consequences, pouring into the soul. Judas was to do that one terrible thing and his shame drove him to suicide. Jesus, as it were, had done that and every other wicked thing that had ever been done. Or, at least, he was being treated as if he had. No wonder an angel came to strengthen him!
And then, when he thought nothing could conceivably be worse than that, at that very moment, as sin was laid upon him, he felt his God and Father departing from him, turning away from him. The father with whom he had enjoyed an absolutely unprecedented, wonderful, unbroken and intimate communion throughout his whole life, from who’s nearness and fellowship, love and support he had drawn strength to face every utterly exhausting day after day through his public ministry, that God was turning his back on him and living him alone to face his fate.
No man, no woman can know what a horror that was who is not sinless himself or herself. There is only one thing in our lives that even comes remotely close to being something like it and maybe only a few of us have ever really experienced it. That would be when we were accused of a serious wrong, a terrible wrong, a shameful wrong, and many hands are raised against us for it, and we feel the hatred and the condemnation of many on account of it, and we are innocent, but no one will believe us. And how little does that ever happen; because how rarely are we ever really accused of something of which we are completely innocent! But Jesus was. He was Ryan Braun the drug cheat, and Anthony Wiener the sex-addicted fool of a politician, and every unfaithful spouse who has broken a husband or a wife’s heart and the hearts of his children, every thief, every murderer, and every selfish and petty, small-minded and disreputable man or woman, while never having actually done any of the things they did! This is a high mystery but it explains the great drops of sweat cascading from the Savior’s face like rain, the pounding of his heart, and the shaking of his hands there is the darkness of Gethsemane.
There is the first explanation of Gethsemane — the first reason why the Lord’s soul is so overwhelmed to the point of death, his body couldn’t bear it anymore — he who was without sin, was now bearing sin and feeling the beginnings of the wrath of God against sin. As he said, in that garden he was lifting the cup of God’s wrath to his lips!
- Second, the intensity of the Lord’s agony is explained by 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, what you may have thought yourself, that many men and women through the centuries have faced death with greater aplomb than did our Savior. Indeed, many of the Lord’s own disciples have faced death with more poise and confidence than did their Master. Many even died violently but still faced their death serenely; but Jesus did not.
Even unbelievers can sometimes face death with serenity. Of course that is because they are deceived and do not know what death means and what it will bring. Or, as I have found in my own experience, unbelievers can die calmly simply because they are dead at the top, and, through much sinning and suppressing of the truth, have lost the capacity to feel deeply about life.
But Christians face death serenely not because they are stronger than Christ, but because he was stronger than they. They are able to face death with serenity and assurance precisely because Christ already suffered its fears and pains for them, in their place, and robbed death of its sting. Their peace and serenity is the fruit of Christ’s sorrow and terror, just as their forgiveness is the fruit of his having borne the guilt of their sin on the cross.
But Jesus Christ, as it were, could not pluck the fruit of a tree that had been planted by some other person, the way Christians can in the hour of death. [Schilder, Christ in Sufferings, pp. 294, 303] He must produce the fruits which his disciples will later pluck for themselves when they are about to die.
No one ever faced death, or died, as Jesus Christ had to face death and die. He is the only man who ever had to face death full in the face, neither able to take refuge in ignorance or hardness of heart nor to find relief and courage in someone else’s victory over death. Every other human being, besides Jesus Christ, confronts and must confront death as an individual struggle, as an individual experience, and as an individual and personal reality. It was that for Jesus too, of course, I don’t mean to minimize that, but it was 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 his people, the new humanity. As Klaas Schilder put it, in that beautiful and powerful manner of thought which is so characteristic of his preaching:
“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…”
Jesus was alone, no Redeemer to count on, no Savior’s victory to give him hope, and not only his own life and existence to worry him, but that of a multitude no man can number, the people his father had entrusted into his care.
He could not even take comfort in death as human beings do, as their lot, as the inevitable end of life which we can do nothing about and so must face sooner or later. He could not accept death passively as something that overtook him. He had to endure it as his own willing act; he had to accept it as God’s righteous judgment of him, whom Luther called the greatest sinner who ever lived, because of our sins which he was bearing. He had to choose death, and embrace it all alone, and embrace it as a sinner with no cover for his sins as the full weight of the divine wrath was laid upon him and the full fury of that wrath was unleashed against him.
I say to you again; not one of us, no mere human being has ever really understood anything but the outskirts of what that meant for Jesus and what an agony that must have been for him. We should look at him, face down on the ground in Gethsemane, all alone and terrified, and crying out against what he had all his life set himself to do. We should ponder as hard as we can what we see there and consider all that it might mean. But understand it we will not; measure it we will never. But we must believe that, in all the world, there has never been anything more mysteriously wonderful or powerful than this.
This is salvation, and the forgiveness of sins, and peace with God, and eternal life. And nothing else, no one else, in any other way, could have accomplished it.
And, then, out of that agony came the victory! Though he shrank, he did not fail; though he wavered, he did not turn away from his calling. Though his nature faltered, his love for us held on to that cup and would not let it fall from his hands; as he began to drink it his whole body shook with sobs, his stomach revolted, but drink it he did!
Now, my friends, what of this history for you? Have you considered 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 taken from us, and that Garden silenced of its agony and its cries that long ago night, you would be of all men the most miserable because you would know that you were still in your sins? Out of Gethsemane you would have no place in all the world to lay your guilty head!
[Whyte, Nature of Angels, p. 186] If you know that and if you believe that then you are the most fortunate and the happiest of all men or women, boys or girls, and the future lies before you in sunny outline, brave and clear, whatever may be the difficulties of the present. Your sins were carried away by the one who took them upon himself!
But if you have not yet received this history into your conscience and fixed it in your soul, then listen to me. We do not think about anything in such a shallow and untrue and feeble way as we think about our own sin and our sinfulness before a holy God. And if it remains true of you that you would prefer to have your sins than to have them forgiven and to forsake them, if you think your sins light and inconsequential things, and that God will easily overlook them, then, please look again at Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the sight of him, lying prostrate and broken under the weight of those sins you think so little of, and the sight may, by God’s grace, stop you, and turn you even yet before it is too late. It is not ours to save ourselves. We cannot! At the critical hour, at the decisive moment, the disciples are useless; the Lord must do everything by himself.