What strikes us most as we approach Gethsemane is the shocking contrast it presents with what has preceded. The events of Passion Week, up to this point anyway, seemed to have the aura of divine control. His display of confidence and courage and determination reassures and reaffirms our faith in him. In his handling of each situation and in the unfolding drama of Passover, the prelude to his death, he expressed a calm dignity, a quiet power that cannot help but evoke awe and amazement.
But with Gethsemane, everything changes. Suddenly the sovereign Son of God is found beseeching the Father that if possible he be spared this horrid death. He who only moments earlier sat rejoicing with his friends in the fellowship of a common meal is now grieved and distressed, groveling in the dirt with loud cries and tears. Why?
The word Gethsemane itself means "oil press," and was the name given to this particular enclosed garden in which gnarled olive trees were the most distinguishing characteristic. I believe there is significance in the fact that Jesus retreated to a garden:
"May we not conceive that as in a garden Adam's self-indulgence ruined us, so in another garden the agonies of the second Adam should restore us? Gethsemane supplies the medicine for the ills which followed upon the forbidden fruit of Eden. No flowers which bloomed upon the banks of the four-fold river were ever so precious to our race as the bitter herbs which grew hard by the black and sullen stream of Kidron" (Spurgeon, 104).
As D. A. Carson has said,
"In the first garden 'Not your will but mine' changed Paradise to desert and brought man from Eden to Gethsemane. Now 'Not my will but yours' brings anguish to the man who prays it but transforms the desert into the kingdom and brings man from Gethsemane to the gates of glory" (545).
After exhorting his disciples to remain behind in prayer, he took Peter, James, and John with him. Eventually, he left them behind and prayed alone.
"Joy is a partnership,
Grief weeps alone;
Many guests had Cana,
Gethsemane but One" (F. L. Knowles)
The first thing that strikes us about Gethsemane is the portrayal of the almost indescribable mental, emotional, spiritual and physical anguish that Jesus experienced. The synoptic gospels together paint a graphic picture:
1) he "grieved" (lupeo; Mt. 26:37) - to be sad or sorrowful.
2) he was "distressed" (ademoneo; Mt. 26:37) - a word, says Lightfoot, that "describes the confused, restless, half-distracted state, which is produced by physical derangement, or by mental distress as grief, shame, disappointment" (123).
3) he was "deeply grieved" (perilupos; Mt. 26:38) - an intensified form of the first word above; hence, grief added to grief, grief once felt and now multiplied; sorrow upon sorrow.
4) he was in "agony" (agonia; Lk. 22:44)
5) he was "very distressed" (ekthambeo; Mk. 14:33) - a word that denotes "a being in the grip of a shuddering horror in the face of the dreadful prospect before him" (Cranfield, 431). It is a "strong expression, suggestive of shuddering awe, as of one conscious of being in the presence of a supernatural mystery which excites terror" (Rawlinson, 211).
Jesus was gripped by unbounded horror and suffering, the force of which drives him first to his knees, then face down upon the ground. He prayed fervently with torment so utterly overwhelming that his heavenly Father dispatched an angelic attendant to strengthen him (Lk. 22:43), for "his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground" (Lk. 22:44). Let's briefly consider both of these statements.
First, his weakness was so severe that God the Father felt moved to send an attending angel. Yet "how strange it sounds to our ears," observes Spurgeon, "that the Lord of life and glory should be so weak that he should need to be strengthened by one of his own creatures!" (100). "He is the Lord of angels as well as of men. At his bidding, they fly more swiftly than the lightning flash to do his will. Yet, in his extremity of weakness, he was succoured by one of them. It was a wondrous stoop for the infinitely-great and ever-blessed Christ of God to consent that a spirit of his own creation should appear unto him, and strengthen him" (104). But how could/did the angel "strengthen" the Son of Man? What did he say? What did he do? What did he bring? What did he impart?
(1) I suggest he actually infused new physical strength and energy into his weakened frame, even as was true of Samson.
(2) Perhaps the mere presence of holy company was reassuring to him. His disciples, weak in flesh, could not stay up with him. The angel was there lest he struggle alone.
(3) Surely the angel must have communicated tender sympathy to him, perhaps reminding him that all the angelic host felt the same as they watched him in agony.
(4) Spurgeon suggests that "our Saviour was comforted by the angel's willing service. You know, dear brothers and sisters, how a little act of kindness will cheer us when we are very low in spirit" (105).
(5) Perhaps the angel bolstered his sagging spirit by worshipping him!
(6) Perhaps he came to remind Jesus of his ultimate victory, to remind him of the fruit that would grow from his sufferings, to remind him that Satan who tormented him would soon endure everlasting defeat. As Spurgeon notes,
"the angel may have whispered the promises; pictured before his mind's eye the glory of his success; sketched his resurrection; portrayed the scene when his angels would bring his chariots from on high to bear him to his throne; revived before him the recollection of the time of his advent, the prospect when he should reign from sea to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth; and so have made him strong" (119).
(7) Assuredly, he must have come with a message from the Father. Perhaps he whispered something like this:
"Be of good cheer; thou must pass through all this agony, but thou wilt thereby save an innumerable multitude of the sons and daughters of men, who will love and worship thee and thy Father for ever and for ever. He is with thee even at this moment. Though he must hide his face from thee, because of the requirements of justice that the atonement may be complete, his heart is with thee, and he loves thee ever" (Spurgeon, 106).
Second, the statement in Lk. 22:44 ("his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground") has been variously interpreted. (1) It may be a figurative expression like our "tears of blood". (2) He may be saying that the sweat was the color of blood. (3) Others contend that he actually exuded blood through the pores of his skin. (4) Many have argued that he means his sweat was falling on the ground "like" drops of blood. In other words, he was sweating so profusely that it appeared like the shedding of blood.
Third, it is said that he "was praying very fervently" (v. 44). Spurgeon describes the nature of his praying:
it was lonely prayer
it was humble prayer ("Luke says he knelt, but another evangelist says he fell on his face. What! Does the King fall on his face? Where, then, must be thy place, thou humble servant of the great Master? Doth the Prince fall flat to the ground? Where, then, wilt thou lie? What dust and ashes shall cover thy head? What sackcloth shall gird thy loins?" (117).
it was filial prayer (he prayed, "Abba, Father")
it was persevering prayer (he prayed three times)
it was earnest prayer ("he prayed fervently/earnestly")
it was a prayer of resignation ("yet not my will, but Thine be done")
Why would the Son of God display such anguish and distress in the face of a future that he himself prophesied? Several explanations for the horror of Gethsemane have been made.
1. Some have argued that the "cup" and "hour" from which he prayed for deliverance was not death on Calvary but rather the intense suffering and agony of Gethsemane itself. Charles Spurgeon was an advocate of this view. He explains:
"I do not consider that the expression 'this cup' refers to death at all. Nor do I imagine that the dear Saviour meant for a single moment to express even a particle of desire to escape from the pangs which were necessary for our redemption. This 'cup,' it appears to me, relates to something altogether different – not to the last conflict, but to the conflict in which he was then engaged. . . . [That is to say], in the garden he felt a sinking of soul, an awful despondency, and he began to be very heavy. The cup, then, which he desired pass from him was, I believe, that cup of despondency, and nothing more. I am the more disposed so to interpret it, because not a single word recorded by any of the four evangelists seems to exhibit the slightest wavering on the part of our Saviour as to offering himself up as an atoning sacrifice. . . . Thus it appears to me that what he feared was that dreadful depression of mind which had suddenly come upon him, so that his soul was very heavy" (81).
It was, then, that depression, despair, and despondency settling upon his soul as he reflected on his present condition and his future sufferings which constituted the "cup" from which he asked to be delivered. Spurgeon then points to "how tranquil and calm he is when he rises up from that scene of prostrate devotion! He remarks, as though it were in an ordinary tone of voice he announced some expected circumstance, -- 'He is at hand that shall betray me; rise, let us be going.' There is no distraction now," notes Spurgeon, "no hurry, no turmoil, no exceeding sorrow even unto death" (85). Thus his prayer was answered and the cup of torment soon passed, enabling him to regain his composure and face his accusers with courage and strength.
2. Others suggest that Jesus was not seeking deliverance from death on the cross but from a premature death in Gethsemane at the hands of Satan. On this view, Jesus was praying for strength to reach the cross, not for mercy to escape it. But in the gospels "hour" and "cup" consistently refer to his death at Calvary (Mt. 20:22; John 2:4; 12:23,27; 13:1).
3. Yet another view is that Jesus was not requesting exemption from the cross but that his suffering there not be prolonged for eternity. He was asking that once the agony of the hour had come that it might pass, that he might be delivered from it. He was concerned lest, when he drank the cup of divine wrath, it not be removed and he be eternally engulfed in it. Thus this prayer is for deliverance out of death by means of the resurrection rather than for deliverance from the sufferings which death on a cross would bring.
4. The most likely interpretation, in my opinion, is that Jesus was asking the Father to remove the cup from him, if that should be His will. But note that Jesus asked for removal of the cup on one condition: only if the Father should will it. If the Father willed it, so did Jesus.
But we are still left with the question, "Why did he seek deliverance from death on the cross and why did the prospect of that death evoke within him such incredible anguish?"
Had he succumbed to the pressure of the physical and emotional distress? Was it the prospect of separation from family and friends that accounts for this posture? Was it the shame and reproach he knew his death would bring on them that caused him to hesitate? Or was it loneliness, the prospect of facing death in solitude? No. As Spurgeon has pointed out,
"Read the stories of the martyrs, and you will frequently find them exultant in the near approach of the most cruel sufferings. The joy of the Lord has given such strength to them, that no cowardly thought has alarmed them for a single moment, but they have gone to the stake, or to the block, with psalms of victory upon their lips. Our Master must not be thought of as inferior to His boldest servants; it cannot be that He should tremble where they were brave" (107).
There is only one explanation for the mystery of Gethsemane: the death our Lord envisioned, the sufferings he knew lay before him, was no mere physical death, no ordinary martyr's anguish. It was nothing short of the death and sufferings of one who offers himself as a penal, substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. It was the cup of divine and holy wrath he was to drink; it was his Father's cup he was to drink. It was judgment he faced, but not of a political or civil nature. It was divine and eternal judgment, and that for something he did not do! It was the prospect of enduring the righteous wrath of an infinitely holy God that alone can account for the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane.
Were that not enough, one can only imagine what hideous words Satan must have spoken in his ear. Spurgeon has captured what may well have been the gift of Satan's cruel temptations:
"'Son of God,' the tempter said, 'is it so? Art thou really called to bear the sin of man? Hath God said, "I have laid help upon one that is mighty," and art thou he, the chosen of God, to bear all this load? Look at thy weakness! Thou sweatest, even now, great drops of blood; surely thou art not he whom the father hath ordained to be mighty to save; or if thou be, what wilt thou win by it? What will it avail thee? Thou hast glory enough already. See what miscreants they are for whom thou art to offer up thyself a sacrifice. Thy best friends are asleep about thee when most thou needest their comfort; thy treasurer, Judas, is hastening to betray thee for the price of a common slave. The world for which thou sacrificest theyself will cast out thy name as evil, and thy Church, for which thou dost pay the ransom-price, what is it worth? A company of mortals! Thy divinity could create the like any moment it pleaseth thee; why needest thou, then, poor out thy soul unto death?'" (11)
Perhaps Satan would have sought to undermine our Lord's confidence in his strength necessary to see it through:
"I imagine that the foul fiend would whisper in his ear, 'Thou! Thou endure to be smitten of God and abhorred of men! Reproach hath broken thy heart already; how wilt thou bear to be publicly put to shame and driven without the city as an unclean thing? How wilt thou bear to see thy weeping kinfolk and thy brokenhearted mother standing at the foot of the cross? Thy tender and sensitive spirit will quail under it. As for thy body, it is already emaciated; thy long fastings have brought thee very low; thou wilt become a prey to death long ere thy work is done. Thou wilt surely fail. God hath forsaken thee. Now will they persecute and take thee; they will give up thy soul to the lion, and thy darling to the power of the dog" (12).
That Jesus was alone must also have provided Satan with arrows to fling at our Lord:
"'See,' said Satan, as he hissed it out between his teeth -- 'see, thou hast a friend nowhere! Look up to heaven, thy Father hath shut up the bowels of his compassion against thee. Not an angel in thy Father's courts will stretch out his hand to help thee. Look thou yonder, not one of those spirits who honored thy birth will interfere to protect thy life. All heaven is false to thee; thou art left alone. And as for earth, do not all men thirst for thy blood? Lo! thou hast no friend left in heaven or earth" (12).
Amazingly, in the midst of his anguish and torment, it was the welfare of the disciples that was uppermost in his mind! No less than twice Jesus interrupted his prayer and went to see if they were holding up under the strain. Each time he returned to prayer, having found them weak and weary and unwilling to sustain him, Satan must have gloated: "See, I told you so! They care so little about you that they are not even willing to stay awake for one hour to render aid in your time of need! And yet you intend to endure an eternity of wrath for them?" I can almost hear Jesus respond: "Yes, Satan, I will die for them. I will suffer an eternity of hell for them, though they fail to give an hour of help to me!"
Spurgeon sums up:
"How black I am, how filthy, how loathsome in the sight of God, -- I feel myself only fit to be cast into the lowest hell, and I wonder that God has not long ago cast me there; but I go into Gethsemane, and I peer under those gnarled olive trees, and I see my Saviour. Yes, I see him wallowing on the ground in anguish, and hear such groans come from him as never came from [the] human breast before. I look upon the earth and see it red with his blood, while his face is smeared with gory sweat, and I say to myself, 'My God, my Saviour, what aileth thee?' I hear him reply, 'I am suffering for thy sin,' and then I take comfort, for while I fain would have spared my Lord such an anguish, now that the anguish is over I can understand how Jehovah can spare me, because He smote His Son in my stead" (131).
"For me it was in the garden,
He prayed: 'Not my will, but Thine.'
He had no tears for His own griefs,
But sweat drops of blood for mine.
How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be,
How marvelous! How wonderful!
Is my Savior's love for me!"
Charles H. Gabriel