The Lord had told his disciples many times over the past year that he was going to Jerusalem to be arrested and killed. He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in a way designed to throw down the gauntlet to the religious authorities and to precipitate their plans to seek his death. His public teaching during the days of the Passion Week was such as to offend and provoke the priests and scribes still further. The Lord knew what was coming. Far from acting to prevent it, he hurried it along. He had come into the world precisely for this and his hour had come. No one took his life from him; as he once said, he laid it down of his own accord.
But, and this has often surprised and even troubled readers of the Gospels, before the cross came Gethsemane, a moment in which the entire matter of the Savior’s calling and purpose was reconsidered. As the agony of his death drew very near, the Lord passed through a crisis of his own. At this last hour, would he continue to surrender his will to that of his Heavenly Father? Would he continue on the course that had been set for him and that he had so obediently followed those past three years? As it turned out, our salvation – yours and mine – in a manner of speaking was won not on Golgotha or Calvary, but in an olive grove on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. Once the Lord Jesus finally and conclusively submitted his will to that of the Father in heaven, the triumph of the cross was assured. But that submission was itself an act of supreme and terrible self-surrender.
Gethsemane, a Hebrew word meaning “olive press” was a place Jesus had gathered with his disciples on previous occasions. That explains how Judas knew to find the Lord there. It was likely an olive grove or orchard, as the presses were usually located in the orchards.
Peter, James, and John were the Lord’s inner circle, his closest friends among the Twelve. Interestingly all three of them had boasted of their mettle, of their fortitude in crisis, and of their willingness to share in the Lord’s suffering…. Gethsemane is at one and the same time a study in human weakness and the moral strength of Jesus Christ.
The “little farther” suggests that he remained within earshot of the three disciples. [France, 583] The question, of course, is how did the disciples learn the content of the Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane. The Lord may have told them in the days following his resurrection; but it is entirely possible that they had not fallen asleep until having heard his prayer. If so, their falling asleep seems even more disreputable an act of disloyalty and a failure of sympathy.
There has been much ink spilt on the meaning of Abba as an address to God. It is the ordinary Aramaic address of children to their Father – which is why preachers have often likened it to our “Daddy” – but it is also used by adults, even of disciples to their rabbi. There is nothing particularly childish about the use of the term. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that Jews, and all the more the rabbis, did not use such a familiar term in addressing God. It is a term of intimacy and trust. That is why Paul will later refer to the Christian use of Abba as evidence of a relationship between the believer and God unique to the Christian faith. In any case, what we have here is the relationship between the heart of the Son and the will of his Father. [Edwards, 434]
The grim realism of Gethsemane is the proof of his historicity. The early church would never have made this up about Jesus, making him appear undecided, unsure, even afraid.
The Lord’s words to his Father “take this cup” are further proof that God was in entire control of the process that would culminate in Jesus’ death. Father and Son together knew precisely what had to be done. [France, 585]
The threefold repetition demonstrates the disciples’ failure to watch and pray, as they had been told the first time, and to appreciate the momentous significance of what was happening just a few feet away. A feast, several cups of wine, and the lateness of the night conspired to make them tired. But Jesus had eaten and drunk and worked harder through the day than they had; he was wide awake because he was alert to the tide of history that was now upon him.
It is hard to know how to translate the word the NIV renders as “Enough.” It seems to be an expression of exasperation. Perhaps “What’s the use!” comes close the mark.
We are now well into the once-for-all history of our redemption. Most things in human life happen repeatedly. But some things happen and can happen but once. The world can be created but once. The world can be destroyed but once. And the work of God by which he redeems his people: that too happens but once. There is but one Gethsemane, one final crisis of doubt and fear that must be weathered before the final step is taken to the cross. [Schilder, Christ in His Sufferings, 313] We will sometimes say that a period of intense doubt or fear was a person’s Gethsemane, but in fact, no one has ever experienced Gethsemane but Jesus and no one ever will.
And, it seems clear, even Jesus experienced Gethsemane but once. Whatever we might imagine about the Lord’s thought processes as he faced the prospect of his arrest and his execution in Jerusalem, the Gospels give us no reason to think that he struggled against that prospect on other occasions. We have a great temptation of the Lord by the Devil at the outset of his ministry, immediately following his baptism by John, and we have this great temptation at the very end. In between, no doubt he was tempted in many ways, but there was nothing like this.
It is the utter uniqueness of Gethsemane that I want to consider with you this morning. It is the way in which Gethsemane was and could be the experience of but one man, Jesus of Nazareth; that is what I want you to consider. There are no psychological explanations for Gethsemane. No master of human behavior can explain this to us. Gethsemane is a riddle that no human being can solve. The Bible says that perfect love casts out fear. And Jesus was the only man who ever loved perfectly both God and man. But never was a man as afraid as Jesus was that night in the olive grove. Martin Luther reminds us of this: “No man ever feared death like this man.” Surely other men faced death with greater aplomb than Jesus did that night. We have read of other men going to their death, Christian men, who were not devastated by the prospect as Jesus was here. Psychology, human experience: these will not explain what happened here.
In fact the entire event is an impenetrable mystery. Luther says that Jesus’ request to his Father, “Take this cup from me,” are the most astonishing words in the Bible. [In Whyte, Lord Teach Us to Pray, 134] He said that because he appreciated the mystery, the impenetrable and imponderable nature of this moment in the Savior’s life. It is worth our pausing to consider how little we really grasp any of this; how little we understand the experience of our Savior late that Thursday night in that dark olive grove.
Perhaps the finest Protestant and evangelical systematic theology of the Christian faith ever written, at least next to the Institutes of John Calvin, is Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, long available only in Dutch but now appearing in an English translation. It is nothing short of monumental in its breadth, its depth, and its magisterial learning. Fine as may be the theologies of Turretin or Hodge, Bavinck casts them both into the shade. Bavinck begins his four large volumes this way:
“Mystery is the vital element of Dogmatics. …the idea that the believer would be able to understand and comprehend intellectually the revealed mysteries is…unscriptural. On the contrary, the truth which God has revealed concerning himself in nature and Scripture far surpasses human conception and comprehension.”
Well that is surely right and Gethsemane is a perfect example of the point. And that is so in two respects in particular.
- The first is the mystery of the person of Jesus Christ himself.
I’m not sure what the ordinary reader of this history thinks when he reads it but I expect that he is not baffled by it as he ought to be. He thinks, she thinks: well, the cross was going to be terrible, no wonder he blanched; no wonder he recoiled from it as he did.
But who is it that blanched here and recoiled and hesitated and wavered? It is the incarnate God, the second person of the Triune God now come in the flesh. Here is a mystery within a mystery: the triple personality of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the divine and human natures combined but not mixed or mingled in the person of Jesus Christ. We see Jesus in Gethsemane as a man, entirely as a man, as nothing but a man. He is the God/Man, but where is his deity here?
- He is in prayer, something only men do. God does not pray because he has no one to pray to, there is no one above himself.
- He is seeking help from his Heavenly Father.
- He is asking to be released – if such a thing could be possible – from the assignment that he was given to redeem his people from their sins.
- But in this same Gospel of Mark (10:45) we read that the Son of Man came not to be served but to give his life a ransom for many. He came, that is, he came into the world. The one who would give his life a ransom for many came into the world. He took to himself a human nature, to be sure, but as a person he did not begin to be when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit as a human being in the womb of his virgin mother. Far from it. We read in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament that God the Son, the same God the Son who would become Jesus the man, created the world. We read that he brought his people Israel out of Egypt on eagles’ wings. We read that his glory filled the ancient temple? We read that he spoke through the prophets. This God, Yahweh of eternal years, was Jesus Christ in Gethsemane. How can that be?
- This one, Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth, who came into the world, is now, as a man asking to be released from his assignment. Where is God the Son in Gethsemane? Where is the deity of Jesus Christ, his divine, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent nature; where is that in the olive grove late that Thursday night?
- Surely God knows, God the Son knows, what is to come, what cannot and will not be changed and precisely how Jesus will accomplish the salvation of the world. Surely God is not overwhelmed and shaken. God cannot be overwhelmed and he cannot be shaken. But where is God the Son in Gethsemane?
- We see only a man, Jesus of Nazareth, a man who is afraid, terrified really – sweating, Luke tells us, drops of water from his face so large that they look like drops of blood – not sure he can continue, no matter how many times he told his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem to die. Where is the divine nature coming in to help the human here?
Well, you don’t know and I don’t either. No one knows. No one can begin to explain the psychological and personal effect of the incarnation, of the eternal Son of God becoming also and at the same time a genuine, authentic human being, with all the limitations and weaknesses of humanity except for sin. How did thoughts occur in the mind of a true man who was also true God but one and only one person? How did the two natures relate to one another in that single personality? How could the person of the omniscient God be ignorant of so much as Jesus the man was ignorant? How was Almighty God tired and weary as Jesus was so often tired and weary? And how was the eternal God frightened of the events of the next day as the man Jesus was frightened in Gethsemane? How was Jesus both God and man but his deity and his humanity were not mixed to become something else: a human God or a divine man? It is a fundamental assertion of the NT that Jesus remained fully God and fully man. But how did he remain so? No one has the vaguest idea. It is beyond our knowing. The Bible never begins to address this question. It simply reveals to us a person who is both God and man. It does not explain how it is so or what that meant for him and how his life took the form that it did. It never explains how Jesus could be so much a man that it seems he is not God at all.
Here in Gethsemane it certainly appears as if Jesus were only a man, as if he were not God at all. We cannot see God the Son, Yahweh himself, on his knees, terrified and overwhelmed to the point of death. It is absurd; impossible. But we see Jesus, the God-man, in just that position. How is that possible? I do not know. It is a complete and utter mystery to me. And it is to you as well. And if you think you can explain it, you have misunderstood what must be explained. Your salvation required something so phenomenal that even the Word of God cannot explain it to you, so wonderful that only God himself really understands it.
But impossibly beyond our knowing as the terrified humanity of the God/Man is, there is more. A second mystery.
- There is also the mystery of sin.
Oh we have some idea of sin, to be sure. We know that we are sinners. We know we break God’s law. We sometimes feel the weight of our sin and sometimes see its stain. But here in Gethsemane we are confronted with something we do not understand and cannot measure.
Why did Jesus fear death as he did? Jesus was a very good man, a man of impossibly great goodness. His heart was full of love for God and man. He was a brave man. He had lived his life indifferent to the risk that he was taking every time he spoke in a way that offended the religious leadership and every time he acted in a way that made them fear him. He knew for a long time that they wanted him dead and he continued resolutely in the pursuit of his calling. He had set his face like flint toward Jerusalem for a year now, completely aware of the consequences that would ensue upon his arrival there. He had entered the city and dared the authorities to do something about him. He had orchestrated the entire affair and placed himself on purpose in harm’s way.
Why on earth would he flinch now? It certainly was not the fear of death per se. Everyone dies eventually. No one was better prepared to die than Jesus. He was so aware that his death would take him home to heaven that he would speak confidently of that prospect to another man in the midst of his agony on the cross. Many men have suffered worse physical pain than was inflicted upon Jesus by the Roman soldiers. Many men who were crucified as he was remained on their crosses alive for days in the throes of unbearable agony. He was on the cross for but three hours, a remarkably short time in fact.
We know of Christian martyrs who faced execution with calm, even with peace and joy in the prospect of heaven. Even an unbeliever like Socrates could greet death as a friend. There is agitation to make assisted suicide legal in our state. There are obviously people who think that death is better than life in certain circumstances. No, it cannot be simply the fear of death that so unnerved Jesus in Gethsemane.
It is the cup that he fears, as we read in v. 36. “Cup” is a metaphor for the wrath of God and divine judgment (10:38-39). “Cup” points to the same reality to which the Lord refers when he speaks of “the hour that has come” in v. 41. He means the hour, the appointed hour, the time for which he came into the world, the time of the ransom he had come to pay with his own life. So what made him so afraid? What caused him to recoil from the entire purpose of his life at this last hour?
“…of one thing we may be certain: it was not fear of death that made Jesus shrink. Many martyrs have faced the last hour unflinching with a song upon their lips – and Jesus was braver than them all. It was not death that made him cry to God; it was sin. It was the shame of all the world, the burden of all the sons of men, which in that dread hour he was taking upon his own sinless heart. It was the sudden sense of sin’s sheer horror and loathsomeness and Godforsakenness. It was, as Paul with characteristic daring expressed it, one who ‘knew no sin’ being ‘made sin’ for men.” [J.S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 150-151]
In ways we cannot begin to understand Jesus was facing damnation as a sinner in our place. He was facing the prospect of the wrath of God, the eternal divine enmity against sin falling upon him as a sinner because he was to take our sin upon himself in some way no merely human mind can begin to comprehend. A man who was without sin, who had spent his entire life resisting every temptation to its bitter end, a man who had in himself a perfect disgust and abhorrence and fear of sin, a man whose life had been lived in perfect communion with God because he had no sin, was about to become, as Luther put it, the greatest sinner that ever lived and be treated and punished by God as such.
Every effort you ever make to understand that results in your minimizing what the Lord faced and feared and eventually endured. You cannot understand Gethsemane because you do not understand or grasp your own sin and have very little grasp of the wrath of God against sin and the hatred of God for sin.
Oh, our sins trouble us from time to time, but not very much and not for very long. We are sinners and we are very well used to sin. And though as Christians we know we ought to hate our sins, truth be told our problem with our sins stems in large part from the fact that we love them so much. In our worship in this church from time to time we ask of God that he would forgive our secret sins. We do not mean by “secret sins” the sins that we know about but that others do not. There is a world of such sin in our lives we know. But that is not what we mean by “secret sins.” By secret sins we mean our sins that God knows and we do not. They are a secret even to us. We live our lives day by day utterly unaware of the fact that we are sinning against God and man in thought, word, and deed. And this actually must be the largest part of our sin and sinning. The part of our sin that we know and feel is the smallest part of our sin.
Surely the worst of our sins are our sins of omission. The things we ought to do, the love we ought to give to God and man that we do not do and do not give; why, we don’t even think of giving it. It is not as if we knew we should do this or love in this way but nevertheless do not. That happens often enough. But much more often it never occurs to us what we should have thought, should have said, should have done. Day after day, we breathe iniquity like air and drink it like water and are largely oblivious. That is how sinful we are! It is utterly natural to us. We are utterly thoughtless sinners so much of the time.
And natural as sin is to us, try as we might we can’t begin to fear it or hate it as Jesus did. We never see our sin as God sees it. We are never revolted by it as God is. It never makes us as angry as it does him. The thought of bearing it doesn’t cause us to recoil. And the thought of God’s judgment of it, while it strikes fear in our hearts from time to time, is sufficiently bearable to us that we don’t think of it and don’t fear it almost all of the time. People like us cannot enter into what a person like Jesus was thinking and feeling that night in Gethsemane. It is a mystery to us and it will remain a mystery perhaps even to some extent after we have beheld the divine glory and have found out what it is really like to have a sinless heart.
Jesus, the sinless one, was so identifying himself with sinners that he was about to treated as the worst of sinners by the holy God. He and he alone could feel the terror of that! No, the mystery of all of this – the mystery of the very person of Jesus Christ and the mystery of sin – I say the mystery of Gethsemane leaves us out, with the disciples. We may as well be asleep for all that we would or could understand. It was a sin for them to fall asleep; a despicable act of disloyalty, an utter failure to appreciate the moment. But had they stayed awake, they wouldn’t have grasped what Jesus was facing.
This was a meeting of Father and Son over realities they and they alone understood. Our salvation is so little our achievement and so much God’s gift to us, that we can’t even begin to understand how it was achieved or what it required. Our salvation was secured when Jesus’ love for his Father and for us led him to say, “Abba, not what I will, but what you will.” Eternal life was gained for impossibly small people by those impossibly large words!