“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane… And… he began to be sorrowful and troubled.” – Matthew 26:36,37
As we approach that day of remembrance we Christians call Good Friday, a day which remembers the crucifixion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is good to prepare our hearts and minds beforehand. The crucifixion of Jesus is the central event of human history. It is the solid-ground on which our faith is built and our lives find meaning and purpose. In preparing our hearts to worship Christ in gratitude for what He accomplished on the cross, it should be helpful to “walk with Jesus” as he himself approached the cross. This blog post is the first in a series as we endeavor to come to nearer to Christ on the Cross.
The statement quoted above from Matthew 26 is significant in its description of how Jesus approached his own day of crucifixion. No doubt, Christ had known real sorrow before this night in Gethsemane, but it is significant that here the author tells us that Jesus began to be sorrowful and troubled. Frederick Leahy remarks that there is now this “sudden and steep descent into the billows of distress. Now, as never before, all God’s waves and billows began to sweep over him (Psalm 42:7).”
This is certainly in clear contrast to the sweet calm and peace that Jesus enjoyed in the upper room. He and his disciples had just sung psalms of praises and enjoyed a meal of fellowship and communion together. But now, the singing has stopped. There is an awful anguish which has suddenly gripped the soul of the Savior as he begins to be “sore amazed, and to be very heavy” (Mark 14:33 KJV). The picture being painted by these words is one of a sudden horror and alarm at an approaching object of terror. The feast is over and now the shadow of the cross makes him to exclaim, “My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38).
Leahy comments again: “This is no ordinary distress. No man had ever experienced such distress before and no one would ever do so again. In a unique sense Jesus of Nazareth was a ‘man of sorrows’. His acquaintance with grief was unparalleled.” John Calvin, remarking on the same passage says that “though God had already tried his Son by certain preparatory exercises, he now wounds him more sharply by a nearer prospect of death and strikes his mind with a terror to which he had not been accustomed.”
History is full of comparisons, contrasting the calm and stoic death of the philosopher Socrates to the agony of Christ as he approached the cross. Yes, Socrates faced death fearlessly and calmly because he had mastered the art of suppressing his emotions. But as Klass Schilder reminds us, he lived only a half-life and died only a half-death. Christ, on the contrary, suppressed nothing either in life or in death, and in the cold shadows of Gethsemane he gave full vent to his feelings, full rein to his emotions.
It is to be remembered that Christ’s death is different from every other death. True, the physical aspect of his death has much in common with other deaths, but there the comparison ends. Jesus died as a Surety for his people and as their Substitute. Not only must he experience physical death, but he must also taste eternal death – damnation – separation from God! There is no analogy between the death of Socrates (or any other human being!) and that of Christ. For Christ took upon himself what no other man would or could ever do.
But why the agony and mental distress shown in “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7)? It is true that Jesus in his sinless human nature recoiled from the prospect of death and shrank from it with horror, for death itself was and is intimately tied to sin. It is also true that in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus wrestled more intensely with the temptations of Satan. And we can not overlook the fact that Jesus, now more than ever, anticipated the fast approaching wrath of a holy God. But Frederick Leahy says that “none of these facts can account for the distress and sorrow that were to prove too much for unaided human nature (albeit sinless) to bear. There must be something deeper and more actual to account for our Lord’s struggle in Gethsemane.”
The name Gethsemane means “the oil press”. And it was there in the oil press of Gethsemane where Jesus began to be crushed and bruised without mercy. Now we know that Jesus knew about and awaited the foreordained time of his death. He had even prayed confidently for its accomplishment (John 17). Why then is there this sudden plunge into such awful agony, this shuddering of horror? Might it be that now, as he comes down from the upper room and steps into Gethsemane we begin to see Jesus himself enter into the oil press of God’s crushing wrath. Was it not that God began to forsake him there?
Jesus wept before, but never like this. It is interesting that in Gethsemane Jesus begins to speak of the cup of God’s wrath in the present tense, where as before it was always in the future; some future cup to drink. Now as the “oil is beginning to be pressed” Jesus begins to cry out, “Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has now given me?” (John 18:11)
As Leahy writes, “The cup that was only symbolized in the feast of the upper room has now become actual: God was placing it in the Savior’s hands and it carried the stench of hell. But stop! Schilder is right; Gethsemane is not a field of study for our intellects. It is a sanctuary of our faith. Lord forgive us for the times we have read about Gethsemane with dry eyes.”
This post is a summarized adaptation from chapter 1 of Frederick S. Leahy’s book “The Cross He Bore: Meditations of the Sufferings of the Redeemer”, published by Banner of Truth Trust, 2011. Read this excellent book for a fuller treatment.