We are not this evening going as far as to Calvary, but I believe we may go as far as to Gethsemane, which was in preparation for the offering of Christ as our great Sacrifice.
Gethsemane is to Calvary what anticipation is to fulfilment. Gethsemane is Calvary in anticipation; and Calvary is Gethsemane in its consummation. They are of course intimately related, the one to the other. I believe that the greatest and most important lesson taught us in the Scriptures, as we view the sufferings of Christ in Gethsemane is this. It is the central lesson that Christ must offer Himself freely. Christ must offer Himself voluntarily.
You will appreciate that Christ’s sacrifice is the means whereby the sin of the world is forgiven. What gives value to the sacrifice of Christ is that He is God. As man, he suffers and dies because God cannot die, but it is as God in our nature that the Lord Jesus Christ suffers in that nature and dies in that nature. Sin was committed by man in human nature; sin must therefore be atoned for by man in the same nature. The same nature which committed sin must pay the price for sin. Hence, the last Adam comes to put right what the first Adam had put wrong. But now, in order to see that that sacrifice is acceptable to God in its preciousness, it must be a sacrifice which is freely given. One of the precious elements within it is, it must be voluntary. If Christ’s self-giving was a matter of necessity – outward necessity that is – if it was constrained by circumstance or by some forces external to Christ, then it was not a sacrifice offered freely, voluntarily and of His own good pleasure. That is the conflict which our Lord faces. It is the demands made upon His holy will by the Father that He should voluntarily, and freely give Himself; and that is the point of conflict and struggle within the holy, perfect and sinless soul of Christ. It is the recognition of the demand of the Father, that He should voluntarily give Himself to be the Saviour, and it is His sinless recoil from the implications of that demand, because of the enormity of what it would involve of suffering for Him. All of that is seen, of course, on the cross but the conflict as it affects our Lord’s will is seen still more clearly in the Garden. That is what I come to consider with you this evening. Gethsemane exhibits the voluntary obedience of Christ.
Before I come to the text in greater clarity and fullness, allow me just to make one passing observation, and it is this. The history of the world here reaches its highest moment. There never was anything comparable to this moment since the world began, nor ever would be. Gethsemane and Calvary, taken as one event, are the culmination of the ages; they are the climax of all history; they are the apex of the destiny of the world. This is the greatest thing that was ever done, or could be done: that God in human nature would give Himself, a sacrifice, to reconcile the world to God. What could be greater? What could be conceived of as even approximating to the glory and the majesty of so great an action? All the angels of heaven, doubtless, held their breath with astonishment, as they began to see what was involved for Christ in the Garden and on the Tree.
However, it must not escape our attention that earth had not the faintest recognition of what was about to take place. The Jews were seething for His blood, the Romans were utterly unconcerned, and even the people of God were sleeping. It is a melancholy thought. No wonder our Lord said, “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow”, which was not even alleviated by the active understanding and compassion of His own disciples – still less by the co-operative understanding of the Jewish nation. They were dead to these things, which shows us that He trod the winepress alone, and that itself stands out starkly before us here in this picture. Our Lord was a lonely figure in this great transaction and work of redemption. No angel gave Him meritorious assistance; no disciples contributed towards this work. It was His single-handed, glorious achievement as He gave himself to God.
In connection with the text, verse 38, Jesus says, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” We must notice that Christ in Gethsemane was in an abnormal state of soul. He was not in a normal frame at all. He was in agony. This contrasts with anything we have really met before. We have never seen our Lord stagger in this way before: not at His baptism; not at His transfiguration; never in His preaching; never when confronted with the hard questions of His enemies. There are only just three hints that I am aware of in the Gospel of anything that approximates to this.
Our Lord on one occasion said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I to be straitened till it be accomplished” (Luke 12:50). Still more He said on another occasion, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name” (John 12:27-28). Now that indicates a little before this passage, a little before it in time, that the shadow of Calvary then was beginning to fall upon our Lords consciousness.
Now here in verses thirty-seven and thirty-eight, we are told things about Christ which are unparalleled in the past. He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee – that is, of course, James and John – and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. He was like a man stunned – as though His very body was too difficult for him to conveniently move about. He said unto them, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” So that the elements in Christ’s sorrows this time were this: He was profoundly distressed. There was deep heaviness.
Mark tells us in the parallel passage, that ‘He was filled with amazement’. Luke tells us ‘He was in an agony’; so much so, that He was overwhelmed almost to the point of death. Great drops of blood fell from him in prayer; or sweat, at any rate, like great drops of blood; which may well mean clots of blood mingled with His sweat as they poured forth from His face. These clots of blood and sweat were occasioned by His own experience of what it was to face so immense a decision, and so tremendous an experience as He was facing at that time. Obviously, His body was tremendously weakened because an angel must needs come from heaven and strengthen Him in some way physically. We may not know quite how that took place. It may be that the angel spoke words of comfort and reassurance to Him, or it may very well be that the angel took hold of Him physically and lifted our Lord forward, not indeed contributing meritoriously to the action of His death and crucifixion, but helping Him along towards it.
What was causing all this agony, and amazement, and fatigue? The answer is given to us in verse thirty-nine which I gave particularly as the text, “That he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” – and the cup is the cross. The prayer as I understand it means: ‘If it be possible deliver Me from going to the cross’.
Which brings us to ask the question why does He use the expression ‘cup’ in reference to the cross? In order to interpret these terms we must understand what these terms are used as in Scripture, in Old Testament Scripture. That is why I had us singing from Psalm 11:
“Snares, fire and brimstone, furious storms,on sinners he shall rain:This, as the portion of their cup,doth unto them pertain.”
So the ‘cup’ in that passage is a symbol of the damnation of God: the curse, the wrath, the malediction, and the damnation of God. That is what the ‘cup’ is a symbol of (Psalm 11). It is so indeed, in other passages of Scriptures such as in Psalm 75.
“For in the hand of God most highof red wine is a cup:Tis full of mixture, he pours forth,and makes the wicked allWring out the bitter dregs thereof;yea, and they drink them shall.”
It is the same teaching.
One further reference may be brought in and it is from the prophets. More than once the prophets speak like this, they say, speaking to the heathen nations roundabout Israel; God speaking to them by prophecy says: “Hear you Ammonites, you Moabites, you Egyptians, you Assyrians”…and so forth, “…drink of this cup. Drink ye, and be drunken, and spue, and fall, and rise no more.” It is of course a figure of speech taken from the picture of a man who is intoxicated and who therefore cannot walk straight and stumbles and falls. It is a prophetic picture of the damnation of God upon these nations. They are cursed. All of that, of course, we must carry along with us in our understanding of what is said here in this passage. It is the picture of being forsaken of God, judged of God, and brought under the infinite wrath of God. So when our Lord prays here, “If it be possible let this cup pass from me”, He is asking of His Father that if it be possible – a word we must look at in a moment – “Let me pass from the possibility of having to drink from the curse and infinite anger of a holy God.”
There are three things at least that Christ here, surely, shrank from. He shrank from them not sinfully, of course, but sinlessly. He shrank from them because of the dreadfulness of what they involved, and they must be these: He shrank from being made sin for us upon the cross. Now sin is that thing which Christ hates with an infinite hatred, because sin is the very antipathy of God, the very opposite of God and the very contradiction of God. Christ as God could not but detest sin and count it to be execrable and abominable.
But now, this is what was involved in His being made sin for us. It was that He was to be so closely identified with sin, as that the Scriptures would tell us: “He was made sin for us.” Not that He was made a sinner, which is not true, but that He was made sin. Not simply made a sin offering, which is true, but more than that; He was so identified with sin as though He was the very embodiment of sin, the very incarnation of sin. And God so dealt with Him on the cross in His wrath and judgement. That is one thing from which our Lord legitimately and understandably shrank and recoiled. The one thing, which above all things He hated, He naturally shrank from. As it would seem to me, He was so closely identified with sin, as closely as it was possible for Him to be identified, without Himself being contaminated by our sin. It is a great mystery how God could make Him to be sin without also making Him to be sinful – which is certainly not the case.
The second thing our Lord shrank from, I believe was this. It was the punishment which God the Father would mete out to Him on the cross: the punishment, due to that sin. If He is to be made sin, then He is also to be punished in that capacity. This is the second thing our Lord shrank from. He cried, “I thirst,” and you will remember that that is the cry of the rich man being in hell: in the flame and in the torment. That is the condition in which men feel themselves to be when they are in the flame of God’s terrible justice and naked, punishing anger. Christ is brought there and cried out, “I thirst.” That was His hell. He did truly come into the condition, of which we say in the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into hell.” But let us be very clear, our Lord descended into hell, not after He died, but before. He descended into hell while still on the cross, alive in this life and crying, “I thirst.” With the darkness all around Him – symbolising His forsakenness of God – and as a sign to us that the suffering of our Lord was so intense that even the sun itself must hide its face so that we may never know, and never begin to know, the depth of our Lord’s distress, forsakenness and abandonment by the Father in that condition. Now our Lord saw that that was the implication of His coming to the cross and legitimately I say, sinlessly He shrank from it and recoiled from it. That is how He prays, “Oh My Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me.”
There is a third thing here, and it is this: that He saw that the One who would judge him, curse Him and punish Him, was no lesser One than His own Father; that itself, surely added poignancy to His sufferings. It is one thing to be struck by one that is your enemy, but it is altogether more awful to be struck by one who is your friend. Let us suppose a young person is returning in the dark, a young woman let us say, returning at night: in the dark, afraid, along a lonely road, returning home from somewhere. Let us imagine that as she walks along, her eyes are to the right and the left peering at all the shadows, as a young woman might well do in a strange place, isolated, on her own, in the dark. Let us suppose in that state of mind, walking along, suddenly a dark figure leaps over and strikes her to the ground and begins to hit her on the head with great ferocity and anger. When she looks up, she imagines she will see some strange man whom she never saw before, only to discover it is her own father. Now that adds terribly to the shame and the dreadfulness of the experience.
In a congregation that I know, there was once a little black child who came for some years to the congregation: a little girl who had been terribly misused by her own mother. On one occasion when she came to trust me, she said this to me. “My mother did this,” she said, “and then she did that. And it was my own mother,” she said. “It was my mother who did that!” The child was overwhelmed by the thought that the one that so treated her, was not some stranger, but her own mother. Now our Lord very well recognised that the hand that would smite Him was the Father’s hand. It pleased the Lord to bruise Him. It is true that Satan smote Him in His heel, but it was the Father who caused the sword to awake and to be plunged into His very soul and into His innermost Man. “Awake oh sword that is against the man that is my shepherd and against the man that is my fellow. Smite the Shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered and I will return my hands upon the little ones.” Our Lord saw that and saw the implications of it.
That is why Christ approaches His death in an altogether more fearful state of mind than that of the martyrs. Many Christian martyrs have approached death with great courage, and they have marched off triumphantly with their heads held high to be roasted alive over fires or shot before firing squads. But our Lord did not face His death in that way, because His death was unique. No one was ever to face what He is here about to face. Let us remind ourselves, my dearly beloved on this pre-communion occasion, that it was your sin and mine that brought Him there. As He is our blessing, so you and I were at this time, His curse. As He is our righteousness, so on this occasion, we were His damnation. As He is our blessing, so at this moment of His life, you and I were His curse. We were His trouble, and His anxiety, and the occasion of all these miseries because of the sin which is in us and belongs to us.
I turn now to consider with you the prayer which our Lord makes in Gethsemane. It is perfectly obvious from the reading that our Lord is most prayerful in Gethsemane. His soul was laden with prayer. He goes again, and again, and again to agonise with God. I do not think we need to doubt but that the passage in Hebrews 5, refers to this, those famous words that say, “Who in the days of his flesh offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying, and tears unto Him that is able to save him from death.” This was that occasion. “Though he was a Son yet learned he obedience by the things that he suffered.” This was the occasion when our Lord was brought to that exquisite agony.
In connection with the prayerfulness, I have to point out that there does appear to be a progression of thought in His mind and in His experience. Let me draw attention to this. In the first prayer in Gethsemane, our Lord says this: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” But then in the second time of praying, verse forty-two, “He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” Then you will know that in John 18:11, speaking to Peter, our Lord says this. Peter had taken out his sword foolishly and recklessly, and smitten off the ear of Malchus the servant of the high priest. Our Lord healed it at a stroke and He turned to Peter indignantly and said, “Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” All of that indicates to us, does it not, that there was something that we might call progression of thought in Christ’s mind. So that His praying against the cup was becoming weaker as He, the more perfectly saw into the will of God. I am speaking, of course, about His human nature.
In the divine nature Christ knew all things, but in the human nature he was susceptible to progression of thought just as you and I are. His human nature was a true, real, human nature. The progression of thought evidently was this: The more our Lord came to the cross, the more He saw the absolute necessity for His death, the more He saw the Father demanded of him, the more perfectly He yielded up perfect obedience to His Father’s will. So that His reconciliation and His self-giving to the Father, were commensurate with His perception of the demands Of God upon Himself. The more the Father demanded, the more our Lord yielded, until we see that from putting against the cup as it were, “if it were possible”, He comes finally to say, “The cup that my Father hath given me to drink, shall I not drink it?” In other words our Lord was offering Himself voluntarily as a holocaust.
Now, a holocaust is a whole burnt offering, and our Saviour was giving himself as a whole burnt offering to the Father. The more perfectly He saw into the implications of that self-giving to the Father as a holocaust, the more perfectly He yielded obedience to the will of the Father.
We must say something about Christ’s shrinking, because He clearly shrinks from the cross. That is what we have in the praying, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” But this shrinking was not through weakness or disobedience; it was a lawful recoil from a known coming evil, but by His holy will He submitted to all that God required. There is something very practical here that you and I must draw out for our own understanding, and it is this. My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, our salvation is extremely costly. We talk about free grace, and so we must, and so we should, but what is free as grace to us, was neither free nor grace to Him. He has to pay the very last farthing: the very uttermost mite, to the justice of God. God did not spare Him one pennyworth of that judgement which our sins deserved. Free grace comes to us, but it did not come to Him. He must work for it. He must pay for it. Oh the preciousness! Oh the costliness of our redemption! That the One who came to take us back to heaven, must needs bring us to heaven at immense personal cost, and immense personal self-giving and self-sacrifice. There is a practical thing that comes to us from that. It therefore follows that the Christians life is one of self-giving to Christ. If He so loved us, then the demand of the Gospel is that we also so ought to love Him. If He is prepared to give His life for me, then it is right I should give my life to Him. It is only the proper recognition and the due response to One Who has given so costly a sacrifice for our salvation. It demands therefore, that you and I should also give ourselves to Him – and He demands that. Make no mistake about it; you cannot be His disciple if you are not prepared to hate father, mother, brother, sister, yea and your own life also. You must deny yourself and every day take up your cross and follow Him, putting Him first before all else: even before father, mother, husband, wife. Even before occupation, whatever it may be. Christ first, and everything else in train afterwards. Our Lord here gives voluntary, visible, submission to the will of God.
That now brings me to what is the most difficult part in the prayer – and it is this word ‘possible’. “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” I do point out that there is nothing comparable to that in any of the prayers that Christ utters on any other occasion. Never again does our Lord use that expression, “…if it be possible…” Indeed, quite the reverse. Remember He teaches on more than one occasion, “With God all things are possible.” And with God nothing is impossible; does He not say that again and again – both positively and negatively. But here is the mystery. He says here to His Father, “…if it be possible…” That brings us to the great question: the question of questions in connection with this prayer: ‘What is possible?’ or, ‘What is not possible?’ That cries out for an answer.
Let’s begin to answer it like this, negatively. First of all, there is no question but that God could easily have delivered Christ from this difficult situation. It was very possible for God, to rescue Christ out of this predicament. That is not what He meant when He said …”if it be possible..” He Himself had said that to Peter, “Could I not now call on my Father who will send twelve legions of angels.” Any one of whom would be sufficient to dispel all His enemies, destroy all His opponents and deliver Christ miraculously. Our Lord only had to click His fingers and all the angels of heaven would rush to His assistance at once. We must remember that. He didn’t mean that He was at His wits’ end because He didn’t know how to get out of the situation. That wasn’t the problem at all. No, no! What He meant was rather this. God could save Christ, and God could save us, but there was something even God could not do: He could not save both Christ and us. That was impossible, even to God.
I must say something about that statement because we do say, do we not, that all things are possible to God. But there are three things that are not possible to God: He cannot lie, die or deny Himself. He can’t do those three things. He cannot lie, He cannot die and He cannot deny himself. Therefore, since God cannot deny Himself it means that He cannot do anything inconsistent with His own holy nature. God could save the world, but only in a manner which is consistent with His holy nature and the demands of that holy nature. One of the demands of His holy justice is that ALL SIN IS PUNISHED! That is the foundational law of the universe. ALL SIN IS PUNISHED sooner or later; either in me or in Him, Christ; either in you, or in Him, Christ. It has to be judged. Every sin, even the slightest, must be judged. That is the foundational law of the nature and character of God. Because He is God and He cannot turn a blind eye to sin, and He will not sweep sin, as we say, under the rug and forget about it as though it did not exist; He will not and He cannot, because that would be to deny himself as perfect holiness, and perfect justice, and perfect righteousness.
So when our Lord prays here, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” what He is meaning is this. “If it is possible at this late hour to save My people by some other means, then let that other means now be brought to light. If it be possible that some angel could do it, if it be possible that some act of intervention by God could do it, let that intervention now appear.” It did not appear. It could not appear, because there was no other way.
You may know that John Owen, the great theologian of England in the seventeenth century, I believe as a younger man, used to speculate that if God had a wish to do so, He could have saved the world by some other means than by the cross. But when He came to his maturer years he came to believe, as I believe we must believe, that there was no other way to save the world, but by the cross. We have a word for this. I know it is difficult but it is well worth my mentioning it, because this is the perfect definition of what we are talking about. We say the cross is a matter of ‘consequent absolute necessity’. By which we mean, that consequent on God’s making a decree to save the world, it was absolutely necessary to save the world in this way, and not by any other way. There could be no other way.
I can put this another way round if it helps you and say this: God cannot exercise His will in a manner to contradict His nature. He cannot. He cannot exercise His power in a manner which contradicts His attributes. God can make the world out of nothing – that is easy to God. God can bring the world to nothing again – as He will in Judgement – through the fire, and make a new heaven and earth. That is easy to God. But to save the world, and to pardon our sins is the problem of problems. It is the master problem. Sin is not simply ‘a’ problem; it is the ‘master’ problem of the universe, because the forgiveness of sins involved the reconciliation of attributes in God Himself. The justice and mercy in God had to be reconciled. As the Psalm tells us, “righteousness and peace must kiss one another” in the character of God. God must be both just and the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus. That means the reconciliation of something, not in us or in the universe, but in God Himself. That is the sacredness of the cross. And this is the sacredness of Gethsemane: that our Lord voluntarily, freely and of His own good pleasure, gave himself for us, in love for us, and in obedience to His Father as well. “No man taketh my life from me,” He says, “I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up. This commandment have I received of my Father.”
Why was He so concerned to drink the cup of damnation? It wasn’t, of course, for any comfort of His own personally. He had enjoyed eternity of glory behind Him, before He came into the world. He Himself was worshiped of all the angels of heaven. Why then should our Lord drink the cup and put himself to so great distress and agony of soul? Well we are not left in the dark as to the answer. Hebrews 12 gives us the answer like this: “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The question then is – and with this question we close tonight. What was the joy that was set before our Lord? Well you say, it was to return back to heaven, and to be with God the Father as He had been before, in all the fullness of that union, and communion, and love of the Father. Yes, that is true; but more, more is true. He did not want heaven for Himself; He wanted to share His heaven with you. My will, He said, is “That they whom thou hast given me may be with me. That they may behold my glory, and that the glory which thou hast given me may be in them; and the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them”. And that is why we prepare for the Lord’s Supper. It is because it is a great occasion, and a great commemoration of a great self-giving. In Gethsemane, we see the costliness and the voluntariness of that self-giving as the cup of damnation was placed before Him by the Father. He was not compelled to go to the cross by the will of the Father; He was invited freely to go. And our Lord freely went.
You will know how Rabbi Duncan saw this in a classroom one day in the college in Edinburgh. He was lecturing theological students. His manner was to walk up and down and to meditate; and then suddenly he stopped speaking. That was always a foretaste of something wonderful to come. The students put their pens down and they looked at him, and they watched him. In perfect silence walking up and down: wrestling with some great thought. Tears began to run down Rabbi Duncan’s face, in Edinburgh. The thought gained momentum upon his mind. Then when he could articulate the thought and put it into words he said, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, it was damnation, and He took it lovingly.” That is our Saviour; that is our Friend. O that we might be prepared, in heart and mind to remember this great transaction until ‘He come’.