In the previous chapter, we entered the sacred precincts of Gethsemane, and in the dead of night beheld a Divine Form kneeling there. Olivet rises above Him, silvered with the Paschal moon. Pomegranate and cypress, olive and palm which encircle His solitude--the silent witnesses of His unspeakable anguish--are hanging thick with dew; as if sympathetic nature would shed her mute tear-drops over the Adorable One, wrestling unsuccoured at the base of that mountain which had so often been trodden by His footsteps of love, and listened to His words of tenderness.
We now come to speak of the DEEPER MYSTERIES of the scene. It is one thing to contemplate the mere framework of the picture--another to comprehend the meaning of the picture itself; to enter the dreadful depths of that olive-grove, and understand the secrets of what is transacting there.
"The synoptic record of Gethsemane," says Stier, an able commentator, "follows in strong contrast with the seventeenth chapter of John." Striking indeed is that contrast! In an instant, we become spectators of a strange, and, at first sight, unaccountable disturbance--a mystery of suffering. The customary calmness and equilibrium of that divine-human nature seems, for the time, shattered and destroyed. A few moments before, He is the mighty cedar--now He is a bruised reed. A few moments before, we contemplate a sea of glass mirroring the peace of heaven--now every billow seems crested with wrath and woe. A few moments before, when under the quiet moonlit heavens, He pours out His soul in a majestic utterance of devotion--sublime unfaltering accents--the co-equal, co-eternal Son claiming the rights of His elect Church and people in the language of a conqueror--now, by a sudden collapse, the voice of triumph is subdued, and merges into a wail of tearful anguish. Bewildered, fearful, panic-stricken, He lies prostrate on the ground, with blood forced from the pores of His sacred body--the expounders of a supernatural and ever-deepening agony. That cup--that agony, what is their inner meaning? The Greek liturgy speaks of "all the sufferings of Christ known and unknown." What is the nature of sufferings which can thus be measured by no earthly plumb-line? We may venture on three preliminary remarks regarding them.
(1.) It is manifest that this struggle in the garden was one Jesus had been looking forward to with profound emotion. "There is a terrible baptism ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished." "Now," says He, "is the hour and the power of darkness." "Now is my soul troubled, what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour; but for this cause came I unto this hour."
(2.) Another element that strikes us in the agony is, that there was no visible outward cause for it. There was no hand of man upon Him--no crown of thorns, no sword, no nails, no spear, no scourging, no frown of mortal foe! No, He had sympathy so far--He knew that though they were asleep, there were sympathizing hearts among the slumberers at the gate, and He had the higher sympathy and support of the ministering angel. Yet, notwithstanding, we hear, groans, and mark tears and blood. He seems to make the words of the prophetic psalm His own, "I am poured out like water;" and, in the absence of any apparent reason, to utter the appeal in that midnight of suffering, "Behold, and see--was there ever any sorrow like unto my sorrow?" Or, as that has been paraphrased from the original by an eminent divine, "Were ever wounds like unto my wounds, causing me to be melted as in a furnace, with which the Lord, in the day of his fierce anger has stripped me bare, as a tree that is stripped of its leaves?"
(3.) Another feature in this mysterious hour, worthy of note, is, that He never lost the consciousness that God was His Father! "Father!" "My Father!" "Abba, Father!" are the expressions used by the different Evangelists as proceeding from the lips of the majestic Sufferer. He approaches the garden, saying, "Father, glorify your name." He speaks of the cup as His Father's mingling, and the prayer for deliverance is a prayer to His Father. Though He lies struggling on the earth, apparently a weak, helpless worm, "I am a worm and no man;" yet He never loses the consciousness that He is a Son.
Again, then, we ask, what was the cause, what the constituents and ingredients of that bitter cup, what the mystery of that agony and bloody sweat?
We may arrive most satisfactorily at an answer to that question, by one or two negative assertions. Let us state what does not account for these sufferings. This may be done in a series of propositions.
(1.) The agony was not caused by the presence of SATAN. Some have thought so. They have resolved the whole story of Gethsemane into a stupendous conflict with Satan. True, he was there. We have reason specially to believe that on that hour of supernatural suffering he concentrated all his might; that he regarded it as the decisive moment which would determine whether he was to retain the world in vassalage, or be himself vanquished and destroyed. In the description of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, when the Arch enemy found himself foiled and baffled at each successive attack, the description closes with the words, "And the devil left him for a season"--"For a season!" language that would seem to indicate that he went back beaten and panic-stricken to the place of darkness, to concoct with his emissaries one other grand assault against the world's Incarnate Redeemer. The season--the time for this great struggle had arrived, and, with his newly-forged weapons, he comes forth, burning with revenge, to try and reclaim his former defeat.
Nor was he, at the moment, without ready material for malicious assault. With bitter irony he could use the old argument and temptation of the desert--to unbelief and distrust in the divine protection and goodness. Would not such barbed missiles as these be hurled at the Adorable Sufferer--'Where are Your trusted friends at the hour they are most needed? One of them is a traitor plotting Your death--some are asleep; all the rest will before long prove craven and coward, and be scattered like deer upon the mountains. Where is Your Father? Where the answer to Your prayers? God-deserted and God-forsaken--unsuccoured in Your agony, "O Lucifer, Son of the morning, how are you fallen?"'
Christ, also, had evidently anticipated his coming and his assaults. He speaks of "the hour and power of darkness"--The "Prince of this world comes and has nothing in me." No, we are forced to infer that some dread spirit of temptation WAS prowling in these gloomy precincts, and that the Redeemer found it necessary, three times, to warn His disciples of his presence, "Watch and pray that you enter not into TEMPTATION." We recognize, therefore, the presence and power of Satan as one dreadful element in these moments of suffering; and, to the pure, stainless soul of Jesus, contact with this 'spirit of evil' must have been anguish indeed. Even for a pure, high-minded human being to be compelled to associate with the degraded and polluted and profane--how painful the association. What, then, must have been the meeting of purity with impurity--essential holiness with essential sin--the Prince of darkness with the Prince of light?
But the presence of Satan cannot account for all. The great Redeemer encountered, as we have just noted, the same antagonist in the wilderness. But we read of no such overpowering prostration of soul and body, we read of no tears, no groans, no convulsive struggles, no prayer for the passing of the cup, no copious sweat of blood. No, rather, all was the calm majesty of triumph; the King of Truth silencing the Father of lies with no other weapon but the Word of God, saying, "It is written."
(2.) The agony was not caused by the dread of DEATH. Some have thought so. They dwell exclusively on the words, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." True, indeed, He who was bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, could not be exempt from this fear. There is an instinctive law in human nature which leads to a recoil from the thought of dissolution, and the finer the sensibilities are, the greater this shrinking is. His sinless nature made Him no exception to the sentiment of universal humanity, "It is a dread and awful thing to die."
Death, moreover, to the Lord of life must have been "a strange contradiction"--or rather, it must to Him have been a sad and terrible testimony to the fearfulness of sin. "Death by sin" had wrought such havoc in His own world, He could not fail to shrink from the anticipation of it. But the mere dread of dying, in itself never could account for such intensity of agony. To say so, would be to represent the Divine Master as infinitely beneath His disciples and martyrs in courageous endurance and magnanimity. Thousands of them faced death, and that, also, in its most revolting and aggravated form, without a pang; rejoicing, in the very hour of ignominy and torture, that they were accounted worthy to suffer shame for His name.
Nor, indeed, do we require to go to the Christian Church and the noble army of martyrs for examples of brave and heroic suffering. The 'common soldier' is ready, for a meager pittance, to join the forlorn hope, and face without wincing the terrible assault and the cannon's mouth. Shall we mock the Prince of Sufferers by assigning as the main (or sole) reason for that horror of great darkness, that prostrate body, that thrice-repeated agony of prayer, these drops of blood exuding from His brow, that He is merely standing in dread of the hour, which even the wretched felon is found to confront with the smile of indifference?
(3.) These sufferings were not for PERSONAL GUILT. Who among us, if God were in a moment to gather into one heap, and place vividly before our eyes the sins of our past lives--unveiling all the turpitude and malignity of our transgressions--who among us, but might well clasp the ground in trembling agony and be filled with the horror of despair? Cases there have even been, of bodily interpreters of mental anguish, akin to those of which we have now been speaking. History records of the royal murderer of hapless thousands at the massacre of Bartholomew--that the thought not only haunted his dying moments--but saturated his dying pillow with blood. This was conscience waking up in avenging retribution against the guilty.
With the 'Sufferer of Gethsemane' all was different. He was without sin--not a shadow of impurity ever darkened that stainless soul. He could at that moment have summoned from every hamlet and village in Palestine, which His steps of mercy had visited, hundreds of witnesses to His pure and holy and beneficent life and deeds. Here was a tongue that knew no deceit--an eye that never cast a lustful look--a soul that never harbored an unholy thought. Without one shadow of deviation, His food had been to do the will of His Father in Heaven. Even devils had been forced to bear the attestation, "We know you who you are, the HOLY ONE of God." Every other child of humanity might have pointed to that cup filled to the brim with personal transgression, and trembled at the retributive vengeance of hand; but there could have been nothing of personal retribution in these untold sufferings of the pure and holy Jesus!
(4.) These sufferings were not necessarily connected with His death and resurrection. It is true He needed to die before He could rise--He needed to descend into the grave, before He came forth 'the abolisher of death' and the 'Resurrection and life' to all His people--"Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.'' But why such sufferings? If He required to die, merely, that He might rise from the dead and be a pledge of resurrection, why not some gentle dismissal of His spirit? Why spread that couch of protracted anguish in Gethsemane? Why not a death-pillow tended by His own disciples or by the gentle hands of the brother and sisters at Bethany? What the need of these superfluous tortures of mind and body?
If all these different surmises fail to explain the causes of His sufferings, let us devoutly ask, though it be but in a single sentence--Why and whence this agony?--why the Rock of Ages thus "stricken, smitten of God"--or buffeting these waves of woe? I answer--Reader! it was your SINS and mine that were filling that cup and extorting that wail of sorrow! Jesus was there as our Substitute and Surety. The infinitely pure ONE was there standing at the bar of Justice--"The Lord laid upon Him the iniquities of us all." Sinless Himself, He was 'federally' counted as guilty. "Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust." "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us."
Mark, it is SOUL SUFFERING that is the burden of His anguish. In fulfillment of the words, "You shall make his soul an offering for sin," He cries, "Now is my soul troubled"--"My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death.'' That cup was filled to the brim with curses--His holy soul was like a vast reservoir, into which the transgressions of every elect child of Adam rushed from every age, demanding satisfaction. He was "filled with horror and deep distress!" He was filled and overwhelmed with horror and consternation at the fearful havoc sin had wrought, and at its dreadful penalty, which He was now bearing. The wrath of God--the terrible manifestation of His displeasure at iniquity--was upon Him. He was the true spiritual Atlas, bearing on His shoulders the sins of a guilty world.
He, was the true antitype of the Red Heifer, immolated somewhere close by, on that same Mount, its fleece stained with blood. "Surely," we may well exclaim, as we see drop by drop crimsoning the sods of Gethsemane, "He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." "He has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin."
In all these respects it is manifest, that a parallel between His and His martyrs' tortures is inadmissible. The mysterious withdrawal of the Divine countenance, in consequence of imputed guilt, was an element of soul-anguish all unknown to them. Oh! no other, no less a cause, will suffice to explain this tragedy of suffering. Take away the idea and element of vicarious sacrifice, and Gethsemane becomes a sealed mystery. Take away the element of vicarious sacrifice, and we ask in vain, how could He who stilled the waves and walked on their crested tops, who made devils crouch submissive at His word, who made disease take wings and flee away, and plucked the very crown from the brow of death--how could He, on any other or lower supposition, be subjected to such apparently helpless and humiliating ignominy--saving others, and yet with an apparent inability to save Himself?
But, with this Gospel key, we can somewhat (yet, how feebly) understand and unlock the secret. We can withdraw these curtains of thick darkness, and find them shrouding the peerless truth, "Christ our passover, has been sacrificed for us." These sufferings were not calamities--they were punishment judicially inflicted. Christ was the Sin-bearer, bearing not merely the punishment of sin, but sin itself. "Deep," in His case, literally "called unto deep." Need we wonder that humanity should stagger and tremble in an hour like this? It was anguish beyond the endurance of any finite nature--an eternity of woe was condensed into it!
Who has failed to be arrested by that significant question of the Sufferer, "Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say?" "What shall I say?" Shall it be, 'This cup must pass--I shall dash it untasted to the ground--I shall cancel my covenanted engagements--I shall escape this travail of soul--wipe the blood drops from my brow--cast the garb of flesh aside, and ascend to my Throne above the stars of God?'
No! as He struggled, "like some strong swimmer in His agony," with the billows of wrath sweeping over His defenseless head, He heard a voice of woe (loud as the sound of many waters) coming floating up from the future--a surging never-ebbing tide of human anguish. Is He to listen to this cry of suffering ages, and by His own baptism of blood to work out for perishing millions an everlasting salvation? or is He to snap these chains which bind Him, "save Himself," and leave the world and its myriads to perish? "Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive be delivered?" (Isa. 49:24.) Shall He convert that Jehoshaphat Valley, where now we behold Him, into (what the Jews supposed it to be,) the place of Judgment? Shall He erect a throne of retributive vengeance on the heights of Olivet, and utter the word of terrible condemnation?
The dreadful alternative--"condemn" or "not condemn," seemed, at this moment, in His hand--trembling in the balance--to pass the cup or to drink it; to save Himself or to save others. But, it is done!--the work is accomplished! His soul "HAS been troubled," and what has He said? Let the hosts of heaven tune their harps and sing the glorious answer--"God sent not His Son into the world to CONDEMN the world, but that the world through Him might be SAVED!"
"O Holy Jesus, who for our sakes suffered incomparable anguish and pains, commensurate to Your love and our miseries, which were infinite, that You might purchase for us blessings upon earth and an inheritance in Heaven!" (Jeremy Taylor)
Here we might well pause. But to complete the "memories" of that ever memorable night, in their relation to Olivet, let us, in a few sentences, follow the Divine Sufferer on leaving the scene of His supernatural struggle. He rejoins His still sleeping disciples. He employs words of tender reproach--reminding them that the opportunity they had of watching with Him and for Him was now over. Once (a few moments ago) it was theirs. But the one chance they had, of keeping such holy vigil in the hour of His sorest need, had passed away forever--"Sleep on now, and take your rest." Often, doubtless, in the future, must the merited taunt have come back upon them, forcing a pang from their inmost hearts. This we may imagine, in spirit at least, would be the soliloquy evoked by so painful a remembrance --'What an opportunity we lost by these unhappy slumbers! How sad--how ungrateful then; of all times, to have wounded and lacerated His loving soul by our faithlessness! How undeserving we were of the shelter of His extenuating words--His merciful excuse--the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.'
Oh, are we not reminded, from the case of the disciples,
of our own similar often and cruel defections?--traitors to holy
trust--unfaithfulness to holy vigils, at the very time when these were most
sacredly imperative--great opportunities of watching with Christ and
glorifying His name, which, forfeited and foregone once, can never return.
Well may we breathe the prayer in all such times of our weakness–
The hour of sleep, however, is now ended, and the trumpet again sounds for battle--"Rise, let us be going; behold, he is at hand who betrays me." It cannot escape the observation of attentive readers of the inspired narratives, that from this moment, onwards to the last bitter cry on the cross, (which does not fall within these memories,) the Sufferer of Gethsemane presents a different and totally altered bearing. The hand of MAN is indeed now upon Him; the gleam of the lantern--the midnight torch, and the flash of the traitors' swords, beheld from the scene of the agony coming down the opposite ravine, all tell of dastardly purposes of betrayal, torture, and death.
But they disturb Him not, in comparison to His sufferings in Gethsemane. The climax has been reached--the death of His death is over in that garden. The confidence which characterized His customary life is restored. He emerges from the gloomy glades, no longer a trembling, agitated, convulsed sufferer; but composed--resolute--self-possessed. The storm is changed into a calm. A learned commentator heads this new chapter significantly as "The Invigoration." Invigorated--revived--indeed He was. He had "poured out His soul in strong crying and tears, unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared."
Even with Calvary before Him, God, His Heavenly Father, seemed to have already taken off His sackcloth and girded Him with gladness--joyfully the Good Shepherd goes forth to lay down His life for the sheep. The last jubilant words of the Hallel hymn He had sung in going to the Mount, might appropriately still be in the lips of the Great Victim on His way to the sacrificial altar--"God is the Lord, who has showed us light--bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will praise you--you are my God, I will exalt you. O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good--for his mercy endures forever," (Ps. 118:27-29.)
Even the troop of traitors who are now confronting Him, composed, as they were, of iron soldiers of Rome as well as Jewish mercenaries, are awestruck by His 'meek majesty'. They require no torch or lantern to track out His lurking-place--He is ready to meet them, and answer their demand by self-surrender. "Whom do you seek?" He asks, in a voice of unfaltering composure; and when He again says, in similar calmness, "I am He"--so staggered were they at the demeanor of their Victim, that, as if struck with a thunderbolt from heaven, they reeled backwards conscience-smitten, and fell to the ground!
Nor need we add, was there any attempt at resistance, although it is too evident, from the recorded incidents, that any encouragement on the part of the Divine Master would have received a willing response from the surrounding disciples. It is not too much to affirm, that, had He pleased, He might have easily escaped from the sufferings that were gathering around Him. In the light of that full Passover moon, His captors could not stealthily come upon Him, as they might have done had the night been dark. Even when lying, as they now were, panic-stricken on the earth, might He not (leaving them thus unmanned and paralyzed) have fled like His royal ancestor across the Mount, and taken shelter amid the wild ravines of the Jordan wilderness?
Or, to make a supposition more befitting the dignity and divine glory of His Person, might He not either have exercised His own supreme prerogative as the Lord of Life; or summoned that strengthening angel (who had just been with Him in the garden) as a minister of vengeance, and left the ground strewed with corpses? He desires, however, no such evasion. The lost apostle might have spared the injunction, "Take Him and hold Him fast." He calmly awaits His fate. He wishes to illustrate His own former saying, "I have power over my own life--I have power to lay it down." "For this cause came I unto this hour." With the Kedron before Him, and the dark memories of that night on Olivet left behind, "He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem."
Let us leave Gethsemane with the saying of the Master in our ears--His noble, unselfish appeal to these murderers--surrendering Himself--shielding His disciples--"If therefore you seek Me, let these go their way." It sounds like the voice of the Shepherd regarding "other sheep not of that fold." They seem befitting words in His lips, just as He emerges from the agony. It was, in a sentence, the announcement of the great principle for which His soul-struggle had there been undergone--giving up Himself, that these--(yes, these countless millions on millions of all time)--might have their captive bands loosed, and "go their way," "walking and leaping ,and praising God." "He saved others, Himself He cannot--no, Himself He WILL not save." "Let these go their way!" As we hear this petition of the Mighty Pleader ascending before the bar of Justice for us, and see the Sinless One going forth, across the Kedron valley, a willingly bound Victim, that the guilty, through eternity might be free--well may we catch up from His lips the glorious refrain of His own Hallel hymn--"O give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good--for His mercy endures forever!"