I have long felt that the Garden of Gethsemane is one of the most powerful, poignant scenes in the Gospels – even in the whole Bible. It feels a privilege to preach on it – like walking onto holy ground, eavesdropping on an immensely personal moment between the Son of God and his Heavenly Father, just hours before he died. I want to briefly draw our attention to four features of this powerful, poignant scene: Jesus’ fear, Jesus’ isolation, Jesus’ prayer and Jesus’ obedience. But first, let me pray: Lord Jesus, on this night before you died, help us to understand and appreciate all that you experienced for our salvation. Amen.
- Jesus’ fear: The cup he had to drink
We join Jesus and his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper. They have walked a short distance from the room where they ate that meal, to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives – just outside the city of Jerusalem.
Jesus tells his friends to watch and wait, while he goes off to pray alone. His parting words to them in verse 34 are “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” They provide a hint of the inner turmoil he was going through – the great fear and distress that he was experiencing.
Moments earlier Jesus had shared a meal of bread and wine with his friends. Together they had eaten bread and drunk from a cup. But now Jesus knows the time has come to drink from a different cup. A cup of suffering, not one of wine.
In one sense the fear Jesus was experiencing was entirely normal and natural. As a fully human being, Jesus understandably felt fear and aversion to the suffering and death that he knew would befall him in the coming hours. No sane human being could face the prospect of execution by crucifixion without a strong sense of dread.
But more than just fear of the physical pain that awaited him, Jesus was also deeply distressed by the spiritual ordeal that he was about to go through. He knew that on the cross he would have the weight of the world’s sins upon his shoulders. On the cross he would shortly experience the wrath of God. The settled anger of God against the sins of the world would be focused on him – he would be taking the blame in our place.
We know this fear of God’s wrath was going through Jesus’ mind, because in verse 36 he refers to the “cup” he is about to drink from. The Old Testament books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Lamentations and Psalms all refer to God’s wrath as a ‘cup’. It was cup that Jesus knew he would have to drink. For the first time in eternity he would feel God’s anger against sin directed at himself instead of sinful humanity. Jesus knew that on the Cross he would go through hell so we don’t have to. He would be punished in our place. No wonder he was fearful and distressed. We should be grateful for what he went through to take away our guilt before God.
- Jesus alone: Forsaken by his friends and his Father
The second thing that should strike us in this scene is that Jesus was alone. Before he even arrived at Gethsemane Judas had already betrayed him and departed from his side. And as Jesus arrived at the Garden, he separated himself off from his disciples and went to pray on his own. In fact, it seems that only he remained awake and alert. Even Peter, James and John slept and slumbered while Jesus prayed alone.
By the end of our reading, Jesus isolation becomes even more intense. As soon as Judas arrives and Jesus is arrested, his disciples decide to flee. As the prophet Zechariah predicted, ‘strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ Verse 50 is very poignant – “they all left him and fled.” Even Peter would deny knowing Jesus that night.
From Gethsemane onwards, and throughout Good Friday, Jesus was acutely alone. His loneliness climaxed at the Cross, where he even felt abandoned by his Father. “My God, my God’ he cried, “Why have you forsaken me?” As Christ become sin for us on the Cross, even his Heavenly Father had to turn his face away.
In many ways Jesus’ isolation on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is like that of the scapegoat in Old Testament times. In Leviticus chapter 16, on the Day of Atonement, the sins of the people would be symbolically laid on the head of a goat, and it would be sent out into the wilderness. The scapegoat, the carrier of sin would be cast out from God’s presence, he would carry the sins of God’s people far, far away. Wonderfully, Jesus was (and is) our scapegoat. He was separated from God’s people and God’s presence to take our sins away.
There is a great paradox here. Jesus was left alone, so we could be brought near to God. During the hours of his Passion his closest relationships were shattered so our relationship with God could be restored.
- Jesus’ prayer: Honest and heartfelt
As Christian believers, as people who are now friends with God for Christ’s sake, one of the ways we cultivate and enjoy our relationship with God is through prayer. And Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is a great model for us to emulate. That is the third lesson from our passage.
Verse 36 tells us exactly what Jesus prayed: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” It was a prayer that was honest and heartfelt. Jesus shared with God exactly what was on his heart. There was no pretence, no fancy words or false piety. Like many of the Old Testament Psalms, Jesus was painfully honest with God about his emotions – about his fear of the Cross and his desire for a way out. In prayer (as in life) honesty is always the best policy. Christ kept no secrets from his Heavenly Father, and nor should we.
It was also an intimate prayer. There was no formality. It was like real conversation between a human child and his parent. “Abba” says Jesus – “Father”. The New Testament tells us that as Christians we too can call God ‘Abba, Father’. What a privilege. What a right of access to the throne room of Heaven! Because of Christ’s Cross, we can know God intimately as our Father, not as a distant deity or an angry Judge.
Jesus’ prayer is also a prayer of faith. He believes in the power of God to answer prayer: “All things are possible for you” he says. May we pray with the same faith and expectancy, with the same confidence that God is listening and can act, even if the answer is not always to our liking.
- Jesus’ obedience: Thy will be done
That brings me to our fourth and final observation from our passage this evening – Jesus’ total obedience to his Father. An obedience even to death that secured our salvation. Because Jesus concluded his prayer with the words “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Or as the Lord’s Prayer puts it “Thy will be done”. God could not answer Jesus’ prayer for deliverance in the affirmative. Had he done so our salvation would not be possible. Our sins would not have been paid for. So Jesus humbly submitted to the wisdom of his Father, even at great personal cost to himself.
Jesus’ obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane is a striking contrast to the disobedience of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. Their rebellion against God in Eden brought sin and spiritual death into our world. But Christ’s obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane has brought forgiveness and eternal life into our world. Thank God that Jesus loved us enough to simply say, “Thy will be done.”
So as I finish, we’ve seen four things we can learn from the Garden of Gethsemane. Four things for us to reflect on tonight:
- First, Jesus fearfully drank from the cup of God’s wrath – so we sinners don’t have to.
- Second Jesus was isolated and alone. At the cross he was even forsaken by his Father – so our relationship with him could be fully restored.
- Thirdly, Jesus’ prayer provides a model of honesty, intimacy and faith for us as God’s adopted sons and daughters today.
- And finally, it was Jesus’ obedience to death that has won for us eternal life.
May we all be truly thankful.