[February 10, 2008] This Lent we will focus, as we rarely have occasion, on Matthew’s account of the cross of Christ, beginning after the Last Supper. The cross is the center of the Christian faith, apart from which we do not know Christ. To know the ethical Christ of His sermons is not enough, nor is it enough to know the incarnate Christ of Christmas. Apart from knowing Christ in the cross and resurrection, we cannot be believers.
The cross is the stumbling block of the faith because the world sees it as only a martyr’s death. The Christian faith sees it as much more.
Jesus and His disciples leave the city of Jerusalem, where they celebrated the Passover in the upper room, and cross the Kidron Valley where the brook runs parallel to the city wall. The road turns slightly left toward the Mount of Olives, and after a short walk they leave the road on the right and go to the enclosed garden where they often retreated to pray. The garden was a quiet summer-retreat in the midst of a variety of fruit-trees and flowering shrubs. Its name, Gethsemane, means “oil-press,” so probably there was an olive press, perhaps in a building at the gate.
In another garden, Eden, the first man was tried and failed. Here in this garden the second man, the last Adam, was also tried, and failed not.
When they reach the garden, Jesus leaves eight of the eleven apostles (Judas had left them earlier) at the gate, and takes three of them further in, the three who accompanied Him when He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead and when He was transfigured on Mount Hermon—Peter, James and John. Matthew says He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Jesus tells His disciples, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death,” and asks them to remain and watch with Him. Then He goes further and falls on His face prostrate on the ground.
These words, “sorrowful” and “distressed” (verse 37) and “exceedingly sorrowful” (verse 38) are telling. The first speaks of the pain or injury of grief or anxiety, and the second means depression, utter loneliness, desertion and desolateness. The third means to be grieved or saddened beyond measure. Ponder this deeply, for herein lies the heart of the Lord’s suffering for us.
The disciples, however, could not watch and pray. They fall asleep. When they were in their boat on the Sea of Galilee during a storm, they were terrified, while Jesus slept. “Don’t you care that we are about to die!” they asked Him. Jesus was not terrified. He was not even worried. Now they slept while Jesus was in distressed. It shows how blind we are to what our real danger is.
If we would understand what it means for Jesus to die for us, to die for our sins, we need to understand what happened here as He prayed. This is the heart of the atonement. The suffering and death on the cross was just the playing out and following through of this. It was here that He fought and won the battle with Satan over us, and offered Himself as a burnt offering to the Father for us. (The “burnt-offering”—as opposed to the meal offering, the peace offering, and the sin and trespass offering—was utterly consumed on the altar; all that remained were the bones and ashes. In other words, this offering was meant for no one but the Father, and was given entirely to Him.)
For Jesus to live a life perfectly pleasing to the Father did NOT have to involve His death. He did not deserve that. He deserved a blessed place with the Father in glory. Death had no right to touch Him. That is what Psalm 16:2-3 is trying to say. “My goodness [extendeth] not to Thee” is one translation. “It is for the saints that are upon the earth, and the excellent, in whom is all my delight.” This is hard to grasp, but give it a try. He is saying, “My goodness is not to profit me with You.” My goodness is the love that seeks not its own, but the blessing of others. To call them the “saints” and the “excellent” is in foresight of who they will be, as a result.
He entered our “estate,” in the greatest sympathy and love. He shared the vanity and pain of our lives, the fruit and consequence of our alienation from God. He shared it, yet took on the faithfulness to God demanded IN it and BY it. He took on what was demanded not of Him but of US in our sin and alienation. What was demanded of us was faithfulness under the judgment of God, unto death. He took it upon Himself on our behalf, to bear it for us.
Which meant that He had to go through this ordeal alone. Though He was God in Person, He had to go through this without the outward assistance of God, the assistance of His divine nature, the assistance of the Holy Spirit, without a sense of God’s presence even. He had to go through this ordeal in the faithfulness of His humanity alone.
It was not the physical and emotional suffering that He feared. This He could endure. It was death. We are born with a taste of death in our mouth, but He was not. He was the author and source of life, without any personal experience of death, except in the death of others. This would make it bitter enough for Him. But He was not to endure death in the way that anyone else had ever experienced it. For Him, He was to know death as the utter abandonment by God, an abandonment that no human being has ever had to go through before or since. God had never utterly abandoned anyone to the total consequence of their sin—which is the awful abandonment by God that Jesus experienced. Only Christ could even understand what this meant. It was never the case that a person could not turn to God even at the moment of death. But the Son of God was to drink this bitter cup alone, alone in His humanity, and to drain it to its last drop—for our sake.
So He prayed, not to avoid God’s will, but to see if there was any other way. “My Father,” He said, using an intimate expression He had never used before in the gospels. “Let this cup pass from Me.” Satan fought over His soul, and Christ sweated blood—literally—as He struggled in prayer. When He prayed the second time He had won the battle, He had accepted the Father’s will: “If this cup cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.” When He prayed the third time, His will was sealed.
It never was a question of whether Jesus wanted or was willing to do the Father’s will. He only wanted the Father’s will, always. “Yet not My will” means that it must never be a question of Jesus having any other will. The question was about drinking this particular cup—if it be possible let it pass from me, but only if it be Your will. It was not, and Jesus remained steadfast.
From that moment He entered a solitude that none of us can ever know. His “friend,” Judas, betrays Him with a kiss and His disciples flee. Peter, He knows, will deny Him. He knows that Satan can only sift Peter like wheat so he can strengthen his brothers, but for the time of Christ’s ordeal, Christ is utterly abandoned by His disciples, and even abandoned by God.
This was all unnecessary for Him. The Father would protect Him: He did not deserve this. He did not die because it was unavoidable. He took this on because of His love and solidarity with us, because it was necessary for us to do this, and we cannot. He walked the only path that can reconcile us back to God. He did it for us.
His entire life and His offering Himself up in death was a prayer for us, a prayer that reached its climax and conclusion in the garden. It was a prayer that the Father heard, and answered in resurrection—as Psalm 16 says, and as the Gospel of John spells out fully, from our point of view. Here in Matthew, though, we get to see it more from Jesus’ own point of view.
And now, He rises and wakes His disciples. They come—Roman soldiers recruited by the high priestly families on behalf of the governor—led by Jesus’ “friend.” He hands Himself over into “the hands of sinners”—the very ones for whom He is willing to undergo the extreme depths of suffering.
My friends, He did this for you, out of love that you do not deserve. Jesus of Nazareth in the limitation of His thirty-three years of life on earth did not visualize or think about you personally, but this same Jesus is the very God who does think of you right now, and has always thought of you and been with you from your conception in your mother’s womb, who expressed Himself and who accomplished His will for you in this one Jewish life. You may not comprehend this with your mind, but open your heart to the Spirit of God who wants you to know it in any way you can grasp it. He knows YOU and understands YOU. And it was for YOU that He prayed and struggled in the Garden and gave Himself up the utter loneliness and abandonment of death, swallowing the judgment of God to its very last drop—so that you would not have to, and so that you could know life, real life.
Would you not give yourself to Him? Make Him “the measure of your portion and your cup” (Psalm 16:5)? If you turn to Him, He will receive you.