Our Lord selected to be specially near Him in Gethsemane—Peter, James, and John. He loved all, but especially those who believed in Him. He loved all His chosen disciples, but did not think it necessary to show impartiality by the absence of all preference. Some people's benevolence seems to embrace all mankind in general and no one in particular. Jesus was more human. He had a dear home at Bethany, and He "loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus." When the latter was dying, the urgent sisters could employ no designation so precise and prevailing as "He whom You love is sick." He who was "made like unto His brethren" found solace, not only in general benevolence, but in particular friendships.
He may do what He will with His own, giving no reasons. But sovereignty would be dishonored if exercised merely to display power, apart from wise and beneficent purpose. Such purpose always exists in the mind of God, though often concealed. Let us inquire what may have prompted the selection of these three.
PETER had just been warned of his danger. Special help for special peril was provided by special love. If the foresight of failure did not destroy Peter's freedom, this election to privilege aided the repentance which was also foreseen. Jesus already beheld Peter shrinking under the questions of the maid-servant, and heard the denial with an oath; but He also had purposed the look of loving reproof which would break the heart, and the message that would heal it, "Go tell my disciples and Peter."
Jesus knew that with all his faults, Peter was not treacherous; and though by lack of watchfulness he would yield to a sudden temptation, all the time it had been true—"You know all things—You know that I love You." Others of the disciples did not thus deny Him, but they did not follow, as Peter did, to the judgment hall. They did not fall so low, but they never soared so high in habitual zeal and fervent affection. To Peter, emphatically among the disciples, were entrusted "the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven," for it was he who was to be the first after the descent of the Spirit to preach salvation both to Jews and Gentiles. The memories of Gethsemane would help to produce the repentance which so soon followed, and qualify Peter to be a chief teacher and apostle of the Church, fulfilling the word—"When you are converted strengthen your brethren." How tender was the forgiving love of Christ in this selection, and how full of the consolation provided beforehand for His sorrowing and suffering disciple!
JAMES, the partner of Peter in fishing and his intimate friend, one of the "sons of thunder" who had avowed their readiness to "drink of the cup" that Jesus drank, was the first to endure this mortal test. "Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword." An ancient tradition states that the officer who conducted him to the tribunal was so impressed by his bold avowal of the faith, that he himself confessed Christ, and was beheaded at the same time. The considerate love of the Master was shown in preparing the disciple for this speedy drinking of the same cup, by selecting him to be a near witness of His own conflict.
The third was JOHN the brother of James, "the disciple whom Jesus loved," who "leaned on His bosom at supper," to whose care the dying Savior committed His mother, who would be most qualified by special love to remember and record what he was privileged to witness, and who was to live the longest to bear testimony of the sufferings and triumph of the Lord.
These three had previously been selected for special privileges. They alone entered the chamber where the daughter of Jairus was raised to life. They alone had witnessed the Transfiguration, and had heard Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus concerning that "decease at Jerusalem" which was so near. They had beheld their Lord when His face was radiant with glory, and had heard the voice of the Father—"This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased."
Thus they had been fortified for this contrasted scene of woe. They who are favored with special privileges may expect special trials. Moments of ecstacy are often followed by seasons of depression. If we climb the mountain we must expect to descend the valley. The vision of God is to help us in the conflict with Satan. The nearer we are to Christ the more we may expect to be partakers both of His joys and His sufferings.
There are many disciples who remain on the plain when others go up where celestial glories flash and angelic voices enchant; and there are many who remain outside the garden, while those who had been on the mountain enter the inner gloom and share the Master's agony. Would we lose the ecstasy rather than share the grief, give up the honor of higher service rather than endure the severer discipline it involves? We should not, like the sons of Zebedee, desire seats of special honor in His kingdom; but may we not desire to be among the inner circle of His friends, though we may thus have to share His grief as well as His glory?
With these three our Lord withdrew farther into the Garden of Grief. "He began to be sorrowful and very heavy." He was less restrained in the company of these chosen few. It was the darkening eve before the blackness of night; the lowering of the cloud before the scathing flash and deafening roar. "He feared as He entered into the cloud."
All His allotted trial had been accepted—foreseen, forefelt, embraced in loving purpose; yet when it was approaching, His humanity shuddered. Herein He showed that He "was in all points tried as we are." It is one thing from a distance to consent to some bitter trial, but quite another thing to remain calm, when the iron is about to enter the soul depressed by the horror of a great darkness. The patient who has long resolved to undergo a painful operation may quail at seeing the scapel. Hearts that had long been familiar with the prospect of separation, have broken with anguish when the inevitable hour approached. "He began to be sorrowful and very heavy."
The three had noticed—the dejected countenance—the pallid cheek, the downcast eye—the trembling gait—the agitated gesture—the altered voice. And now He gave His grief verbal expression. "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." His human spirit was oppressed with an anguish which, more bitter than death itself, might overpower the vital forces.
Such a word is often used under the shock of grief. People say they can endure no longer; they are ready to die. We know how to interpret such expressions. But how much more emphatic such a word from the lips of One so uniformly calm; and who, while ever sympathizing with the grief of others, was so reticent respecting His own!
We have here a revelation of the inner experience of the Savior's heart. The strongest in public, have often been agitated and oppressed in private. The calmness witnessed by the crowd is often preceded by a sorrow "even unto death" known fully to God alone, and only partially to a few bosom friends. Deeds which the people witness and history records, have often been the outgrowth of hidden agony. The calmness has been the result of the conflict—the triumph the fruit of the struggle—the exulting joy the harvest of the briny tears.
Jesus had said to the rest of the disciples, "Tarry here while I shall pray." It was from His Father alone He could obtain efficient help. Yet He took with Him these three. And when He went further, to be quite alone with God, He went only "a stone's cast"—the distance of a stone when tossed carelessly away; so that they were near enough to witness the struggle and hear the prayer. Evidently Jesus needed them. He wished to feel He was not quite alone; that, while praying to His Father, they were near to aid by their human sympathy whenever He might seek the expression of it. He condescended to ask their support. "Watch with me." The prayers of the sinless Savior, bearing the sin of others, must at this time have been so peculiar to Himself that He could not say, "Pray with me." But He did say, "Watch with me."
How pathetic this appeal! There was a kind of help which even His Father could not give except instrumentally through them. Without irreverence may it not be said that even God alone did not suffice? As man He needed man also. Some Christians have spoken as if with God they were independent of others. Christ, our Example, was more human than some of His followers seem to be. He wanted the response of a human heart, the grasp of a human hand, the blending of a human tear, the solace of a human voice; and so He said, "Tarry here, be close at hand, be ready to cheer, be vigilant to warn—watch with me."
With this human heart craving human help it was additional bitterness in His cup when again and again He found His disciples sleeping, instead of heeding His request, "Watch with me." "Sleeping for sorrow" indicated sorrow of an inferior quality. True sympathy should stir our energies to useful help, not soothe them in indolent laments. These three missed an opportunity never to return. Deeply also He felt it when they with the other eight "forsook Him and fled." This was already in His mind. He had expressed the grief it would give Him when He said, "You shall leave me alone—yet I am not alone, but the Father is with me." The presence of the Father did not prevent, though it mitigated, the pain of being "left alone" by them.
Let not mourners be discouraged when they desire additional consolation to that which comes direct from the Unseen God. The most eminent saints have often been most dependent on, most responsive to, human affection. When most earnest in seeking help from Heaven, let us not fear to say to chosen friends, "Watch with me." In the fiercest conflicts and beneath the heaviest burdens we sometimes wish to be quite alone with God. But this may not always be best. A friend at hand, in the intervals of wrestling, may be as an angel of God strengthening us. And if such friends fail us at seasons when we specially need them, slumbering instead of watching, or leaving us when their presence is most desired, let us take comfort from remembering that our Lord endured the same, and that He will, by sympathizing support, supply their lack of service.
Jesus withdrew a few steps even from the chosen three that He might pray alone. He could take them with Him some little way, but there were conflicts none could share, a cup none else could drink. So with us all. Every soul must in some respects be apart from all others. Each has his own special sins, struggles and woes. Dearest friends may be very near us, but cannot be with us in the most secret place of the soul. They may often watch with us when they cannot pray with us. They may see our tears but not the deep fountain; hear our sighs, but not the heart-throb; know we are sorrowful unto death, but cannot share our crushing woe. Jesus can. He who felt the need both of Divine and human consolation can, as God, give the help His Father gave to Himself; and can, as Man, supply the sympathy He Himself sought from His friends. He watches with us, suffers, prays; and He never slumbers nor sleeps.
By such ministry we may render to others the help we have needed ourselves. We watch at the bedside of a sick friend; so let us watch with those whose hearts are wounded. Thus we may share the privilege of the disciples, and minister to Christ Himself. If we watch with His afflicted friends in Gethsemane He will say, "Forasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren you did it unto me." The heart intent on comforting others will feel its own load lightened, and watching in their garden of grief may prove an medicine of healing in our own.
Deliver us, blessed Master, from all self-seeking, emulation and spiritual pride; let us envy none on whom You bestow special honors; may we rejoice if permitted to occupy any position however obscure, and engage in any service however lowly. Increase in our hearts that love to You which shall expel whatever is not in sympathy with Yourself. O for increased delight in Your society and service, more readiness to follow You wherever You go! Then shall we esteem it an honor and delight to be among Your chosen ones, even if we are called to Gethsemane to witness Your agony, and in our measure to share it too.
O for the love, the perfect love,