[November 21, 2010] Today is the celebration of “Christ the Victor,” the last Sunday of the church year. It is the Sunday I will be finishing my messages on the Gospel according to Mark. We spoke on the remainder of the gospel during Lent and Easter.
As Adam committed the act of disobedience that brought our race to spiritual ruin in a garden, so now Christ commits the act of obedience that saves us in a garden. In fact, what He does now, in the Garden of Gethsemane, is what saves us; the rest is the carrying out and fulfillment of this inner resolve. It is not His death per se that saves us but, according to Paul, the laying down of His soul in loving faithfulness and obedience to His Father. The judgment of God falls completely on Him, but what saves us is His faithful submission to it, not His mere suffering of it. Suffering is the consequence of God’s judgment, but it is not what God is looking for from His creature man. What God is looking for is repentance, the acknowledgment of God’s rightness in judgment and the turning of the heart back to Him. This is what Christ—in our place—offers to the Father in our place: vicarious repentance.
So here we are at the heart of the Gospel. His complete faithfulness at this most important point, the moment when His final resolve is made, is set in the context of the disciples’ failure. That is part of the meaning of His act. The faithfulness that God requires of us, the faithfulness that if we could offer it might save us, we are not capable of. “You will all be stumbled,” Jesus says to His disciples. In Matthew’s gospel He is specific, “You will all be stumbled because of Me this night” (26:31), but here He is general. It recalls His warning of persecution in chapter 13, and it recalls the test through which the first audience of the Gospel according to Mark was going, the awful persecution of Christians in Rome under Nero. They were being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum and burned alive in Nero’s gardens. Christians were betrayed by fellow Christians, by members of their own family, and by their Jewish and pagan neighbors. They also were stumbled under the pressure and denied Christ, as Peter did. Jesus’ warning, though—this is hinted at by the way of Mark generalizes the words—speaks of all of us. The faithfulness that God requires of us, none of us are capable of. Jesus is faithful to God in our place.
It is not that we do not have to render it. We still do. The point is rather that we cannot render it on our own. In the Last Supper, Jesus gives us His body to eat and the cup of His blood, signifying by partaking of it our union with Him and His indwelling us. He gives us Himself, and the faithfulness of His Person, to “constitute” (kathis´tēmi in Greek) us as righteous (Romans 5:19). On the one hand, the pouring out of His blood forgives and redeems us; He bears our judgment and the Father accounts us as having the righteousness of Christ. On the other hand, however, we are constituted righteous because of His indwelling. That righteousness of Christ is in us, not just smeared on the outside doorposts and lintels of our house (Exodus 12:7). We have the strength for all things through Him who is within us.
What is required of us is to rest in Him, and for that we need to not rely on ourselves. In order not to rely on ourselves we need to come into two things: an inner revelatory knowledge of Christ in our spirits and a deep and experiential knowledge of ourselves (our souls) in the light of Christ. We do not know Christ and we do not know ourselves, and this is why we continue to hold onto our selves. It is not really a question of will but of this special kind of knowledge, which is more like “seeing.” Where the will comes in is in our willingness to give up the denials on which we depend. But we often cannot see what we are denying until we are ready to stop denying it.
Our Failure in the Face of the Test (14:26-31)
At this point in the gospel, the disciples do not yet know Christ’s indwelling. Though He has given them the gift of the Supper in verses 22-25, the gift is still anticipatory, and they do not comprehend it. The resurrection will have to take place before the Holy Spirit is actually given to them. We still barely comprehend, even though the Holy Spirit has come to us through the Gospel, yet what we do comprehend is no longer anticipatory but participatory. We comprehend it through faith, which comes from spiritual sight. Only then can we actualize the reality of it through faithfulness.
“You will all be stumbled,” Jesus says to His disciples, “because it is written,” He says, and then He quotes Zechariah 13:7. In Mark’s gospel, most of the fulfillment citations in Matthew’s gospel are left out. They are usually meant for the hearer or reader of the gospel. This one however functions as a prophecy on the lips of Jesus for the disciples in the story, a prophecy that is fulfilled in Mark 14:50. It is given, like the revealing of Judas’ apostasy in 14:18-21, to assure the disciples that their failure does not surprise Him or cause God to lose control. Even our failure—as disappointing as it is—acts to fulfill God’s purpose, which is our salvation.
“But” Jesus says, “after I have been raised, I will go before you into Galilee.” The word “but” (alla´ in Greek) is stronger than in Matthew 26:32 and points to the contrast between now and then. The Shepherd will be smitten and the sheep scattered, but He will rise from the dead and gather His sheep. They scattered because they were stumbled, but He will constitute them anew in His resurrection. The resurrection will not only gather those who are scattered, but it will also make a difference to them as those who scattered because they were stumbled, for He will still be with them.
(The fact that Jesus says here that He will go before them into Galilee and the fact that chapter 16 makes no reference to this tells us that the original ending of the gospel—the one that Peter gave—is missing. What is called the “longer ending” was probably provided later by Mark himself.)
Peter reacts to Jesus’ assertion that they will all be stumbled by insisting that he would be an exception. (We are reminded of John 21:15, where Jesus asks him, “Do you love Me more than these?”) Rather than assuring Jesus, however, he only condemns himself because he has so little knowledge of himself. Because he has so much faith in himself, he will certainly fail. Jesus assures him that he will deny Him three times before the cock crows twice, a detail missing from Matthew and Luke’s accounts. Instead of denying himself, Peter will deny Christ. Earlier, Jesus said in Matthew 10:33, “Whoever will deny Me before men, I also will deny him before My Father who is in the heavens.” Peter’s denial is very serious, more serious than the “scattering of the sheep.” Yet because of his self-confidence, it was necessary for Peter to fail to such an extent in order for him to know himself.
Self-confidence can be effective in other aspects of our lives, such as business, and sometimes that self-confidence is appropriate. Sometimes you can “fake it until you make it,” acting as if you were self-confident in order to acquire the success that will give you a real basis for self-confidence. This makes sense.
But when it comes to dealing with the powers of the world, and the power of sin (the power that alienates us from God and turns us against God), our confidence is misplaced. We do not have this capacity within ourselves and to “fake it” will not acquire it for us. Here we are at God’s mercy and need to be grounded in reality, for only then will we rely on the true source of strength, which is Christ in us—the strength which God gives us through the revelation of Christ and the indwelling of Christ (through the Holy Spirit) that results from that revelation. Only when we die to ourselves and let go of our souls and the strength that is in our souls will we find life and the strength that we need.
Peter, however, does not understand—for he has not yet experienced failure to this extent. “Even if I must die with You, I will by no means deny You!” It is the extent of his failure and humiliation that makes Peter such a great shepherd of Christ’s sheep later. Even when Paul rebukes him in Antioch (Galatians 2:11), Peter readily repented (Galatians 2:9; Acts 15:7-11).
The Failure of the Disciples to Watch (14:32-42)
Even in Gethsemane, the disciples fail Jesus. In 13:33-37 Jesus warned His disciples to watch. Here He asks them to watch and pray for just one hour (verse 37), but even Peter, for all his bravado, cannot. “Watch and pray that you may not come into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” If we do not wish to fail the test (what the word “temptation” means), we need to be mentally vigilant and alert and we need to be in prayer. Without prayer, without maintaining our communion with God, we cannot “watch.” To be tested means that we are confronted with a situation that demands that we choose between options, and our choice will reveal what we really value. It is not our words that matter, but our choices. If we rely simply on our own reserves, we will fail the test. We will fail because our flesh does not have the strength to follow through with what the spirit wants. The flesh has its own agenda and goes with that.
The remedy is prayer. We need to not only try to be vigilant, but we need to become vigilant by means of prayer. We need to exercise our spirits by communion with God so that what is in our spirit can permeate our soul. We need to cultivate the spirit in our souls. This requires care and discipline. To watch with Christ requires that we have a practice of prayer and meditation and communion with God. Rather than relying on our weak “flesh”—in which case we will fail—we learn to rely on the indwelling Holy Spirit, Christ in us. We can only do this by cultivating our souls in the direction of our spirits by constant prayer.
The disciples could have found the strength to watch if they had relied on the presence of Christ with them and put their trust in Him. While they had no strength in their weak flesh, He was remaining faithful to the end. We rely on the presence of Christ within and among us through the Word and the Spirit.
The Faithful One (14:32-42)
The word Gethsemane means “olive press.” Probably there was an olive press there. Olives, of course, are a source of oil, but for that they need to be pressed. And olive oil typically signifies the Holy Spirit. The name makes us think of how Jesus was pressed, and as a result the Holy Spirit was released from Him and became available to all who believe into Him to constitute them as His church.
Jesus separated Himself from His disciples for in this sacred moment He was alone before the Father. In this moment, He surrendered and laid down His soul, accepting the Father’s will. The Father’s will, the “cup,” was not simply our Lord’s death on the cross. The Lord was brave and would have been willing to suffer a martyr’s death for God’s sake. That was not what was so difficult. What was so difficult was that He should bear the judgment of God on sinners—in obedience to the Father—even though He Himself was without sin. The judgment of God is to give to sinners what they want. Since to be a sinner is to turn our backs on God and to seek to exist without God, God’s judgment is to allow it—to abandon the sinner. God has never fully abandoned a sinner before. God has only partially—outwardly—abandoned us in order to show us what is the consequence of our choice. We imagine that He has abandoned us—only because we are in denial of how we have abandoned Him—but He is never far from any of us, no matter who we are. But what the Father demanded of the Son (and of Himself in that He dwelt in the Son) is that the Son—in His humanity—be utterly abandoned by God, to accept the full judgment of God against humanity upon His own humanity. It is not possible for us to imagine this, even in our darkest moments.
Jesus wants the Father’s will, not His own, but He asks that it not be this cup. May there be some other way to redeem humanity! In the end, Jesus accepts the Father’s will—which is this cup—and in doing so renounces every last drop of His soul. In a way, Jesus already died in His soul in the garden of Gethsemane by accepting the Father’s will.
Two wills struggle within Jesus. The Father’s will is the will of the Son—this is the divine will. Jesus’ human will is distinct from the divine will; though it is never independent of it. Here Jesus brings them into accord. In His humanity He never questioned doing God’s will, only whether God’s will must take this form.
He did not accept the Father’s will as a necessity—for He could still command twelve legions of angels to save Him (Matthew 26:53). He makes the Father’s will His own will, and He submits to this will—this particular “cup”—in loving obedience, in full acknowledgment of the rightness of God’s judgment. The salvation of the human race depends on the loving acceptance of this judgment, the acknowledgment of its rightness, and the loyal bearing of it for the sake of God’s honor and holiness.
It would not have been “right” for Jesus to suffer the judgment of God except as an intercession for others. It would not have been “right” unless He accepted it willingly with love for God and in obedience to the will of God (objectively, the will of His Father).
The divine nature is impersonal and imposes judgment simply because it is holy. This judgment is absolutely right and good. However, the personal side of God—the personal side of this impersonal nature—is love and cannot be satisfied with simply the judgment of humanity. (Indeed, it is the personal side of God that gives rise to the impersonal—the judgment is “what happens” when the Person of God is rejected.) The resolution of love is for the Person of God, in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to bear His/Her own judgment of the creation: to become created themselves—embodied in Jesus—and to suffer the judgment.
That suffering of God’s judgment can now be effective to any who believe into Christ, the judgment He bore becomes our own judgment. We suffer that judgment in Him. And His survival of that judgment in resurrection—which is far more than survival, for His human nature is fully recreated and fully divinized in resurrection—becomes our own survival, or rather, our salvation and, indeed, eventual glorification.
The struggle for Christ, however, took place before the cross. It took place in the garden when He took this particular cup as His own human will in accord with the Father’s will. This obedience, which He then acted out in the events that followed, is what saves us. It was this obedience that made the abandonment on the cross effectual for us. Here He broke His flask of alabaster and poured it out; here He became a burnt offering to the Father. It is only as the burnt offering—the offering that is utterly consumed by the flames of the altar (Leviticus 1)—that He could be the sin and trespass offering of Leviticus 4-5.
Here, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus—the last Adam and the second Man—is the Victor over all that opposes God.
It is as such, as the faithful One, that He dwells in us as our life. It is by this indwelling that we too can offer ourselves to God as a broken alabaster flask and as a burnt offering. We may think of this as loss, for we do lose the “fool’s gold” that we have stubbornly clung to, but it is this offering up of ourselves as living sacrifices that we partake of the life of resurrection. We give up what is refuse (Philippians 3:8) that we may have what is authentic and rich—a human life that is real and that partakes in the glory of God’s nature.