"Let this cup pass from me."
In venturing to ask "why this agony?" we think of Moses who, at the burning bush, was commanded to take the shoes off his feet, for it was holy ground. Here is no place for cold criticism or speculative curiosity.
Was it caused by apprehensiveness of the Cross? The evangelists emphatically indicate that He knew all that awaited Him. Mark, specially instructed by Peter, records that when at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus taught His disciples "that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected, and killed." Again He relates that when they were going up to Jerusalem, "Jesus went before them," urged onward by an intense desire to reach the altar of sacrifice, so that "they were amazed, and as they followed were afraid; and He began to tell them what things would happen unto Him, saying, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man shall be delivered unto the chief priests; and they shall condemn Him to death—and they shall mock Him, and shall scourge Him, and shall spit upon Him, and shall kill Him." John relates how at Jerusalem, a few days before His crucifixion, Jesus said, "Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour—but for this cause I came unto this hour. Father, glorify Your name. Now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This He said, signifying what death He should die." At the supper He had said, "All of you shall fall away because of me this night. You shall leave me alone. One of you shall betray me. You (Peter) shall deny me thrice."
It is thus evident that He not only knew, but that He revealed to His disciples that He knew all that awaited Him. Everything was depicted vividly in His mind. He foresaw the treacherous betrayal, the cowardly forsaking, the shameful denial. He felt already the cords that bound Him, the hands that smote Him on the face. He saw the murderous looks of the scribes and priests at the midnight trial, and heard their decision to put Him to death for avowing Himself the Son of the Blessed. Already He stood before Pilate and heard the cruel clamor of the multitude, "Crucify Him! crucify Him!" and felt the torment of the lacerating scourge. Even now He saw Himself clothed in a robe of mockery, and felt the smiting by the sceptre-reed and the piercing of the thorny crown, and heard the crude jeers of the insulting soldiers. Even now He bent beneath the burden of the cross, and saw the lamenting women struggling through the heartless throng, and endured the indignity of being stripped of His clothing, and the torture of the piercing nails, and the shock of the cross as it was uplifted, and the burning fever, and the thirst, and the slow sinking of the life; and He heard the fresh taunts which His increased torture provoked.
But still greater was His distress at witnessing the anguish of the mother standing beneath the cross, to soothe the Sufferer by her presence and her tears. Above all, He felt beforehand the darkness that would overcast His soul, the sense of utter abandonment, the temporary loss of even Divine comfort, the anguish which forced from Him the cry, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" All this was vividly present in Gethsemane, and helped to produce the agony.
Some have objected to this idea, as if dishonorable to the great Champion of mankind. It is true that many of His followers, even women and children, have endured bodily torture more keen and protracted, not only with patience but with cheerfulness. It is true that the anticipation of it has sometimes even caused delight. But Christ was to share fully our humanity, and therefore it was necessary that He should share with the weakest as well as the strongest. As in outward condition He was poor and not rich, in order to sympathize with the poor, so in temperament He shared with those who are not born with iron nerves, but who are most keenly sensitive both to bodily pain and mental anguish. Else it would not be true of multitudes that He was tried like as they are. So He shared their humanity in shrinking from the suffering He was about to endure, and was in agony because of this shrinking.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, proving that Christ is fully qualified by sympathy to be our High Priest, speaks of Him as "in all things made like unto His brethren; for in that He Himself has suffered being tempted, He is able to support those who are tempted; for we have not a High Priest who cannot be touched with a feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin"—such fellowship with us in suffering having been exhibited "in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong cryings and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death," and so "He learned obedience by the things which He suffered." (Heb. 2:17, 18; 4:15; 5:7.)
The first and obvious interpretation of the narratives of the Evangelists, with this explanation, would suggest that our Lord was shrinking from the death of agony He was about to suffer. But can we suppose that He whose great object in coming to the world was to die for its sin, in accordance with His Father's will, would wish to escape the sacrifice and leave undone the work for which He came? He would not, could not return to His throne unable to say, "I have finished the work which You gave me to do."
But might He not, as man, sharing human infirmity, so shrink from the process as to pray that, if possible, the work might be done without the extreme anguish? He came to redeem us from death by dying. This was the cup long in His view, the cup He had long been preparing to drink. But when it was actually presented to His lips, His human sensitiveness might recoil. That cup was so full, so bitter, so awful; the sight of it approaching, the foretaste of it so appalling that, if He were really partaker of our infirmities, He could not but shrink from it.
Though there are some who, apart from religion, regard death without terror, there are others to whom, physically, it is intensely repellent, in spite of Christian faith. Some of the best prepared for heaven have a constitutional dread of the act of dying. Did not our Elder Brother share the infirmities of the weakest? But in His case there was more than this. It was death in the midst of life, not by disease but violence, not at a stroke but by protracted torture. It was death associated with betrayal, denial, desertion by His disciples; with accusations He loathed, with the cunning spite of the rulers and the passionate frenzy of the people He came to save; the death of one condemned as a blasphemer and impostor, a thief and a murderer; the death of the Representative of mankind, bearing their sins, crushed with the sense of their guilt—the Lord "laying on Him the iniquities of us all;" during the suffering of which He was to experience what seemed desertion by His Father, as though, while earth was rejecting Him, heaven was closed against Him, while man was murdering Him, God was forsaking Him—O was it wonderful that if really Man, "compassed with infirmity, tempted like as we are," His most sensitive, though sinless humanity shuddered, and that He should pray, submissively to His Father's will, that if it were possible, consistently with the great purpose of His mission, THAT CUP might pass from Him?
All these approaching agonies were simultaneously present to the Savior's mind. To us sorrows come separately. We can bear, one by one, trials which, coming all at once, would be overwhelming. If we can anticipate a few, others are mercifully concealed from our wisest calculations or saddest forebodings. Looking backward, we wonder how we passed through such difficulties. One reason is that they did not, and could not, occur together. The path must have led us quite through the morass before it climbed the precipice; must have guided across the burning sand before it reached the roaring torrent.
In His case all the distresses of the future were piled together to appall His soul. The water of the lake, which in its gradual descent by its torrent-outflow, rolls harmlessly along the well-guarded channels, will, if bursting forth in sudden flood, strain to the utmost, or sweep away, the strongest barrier. No wonder that the human nature of Christ was in agony!
Besides, our fear for the future is more or less mitigated by hope. What we dread most may not come to pass. Something may intervene to divert the peril. The dark cloud may disperse without breaking over us. Or the reality may prove far less injurious than the fear. But in the agony of our Lord all the foreboding was certain to be verified. His foreknowledge was all-comprehensive, precise and certain. Therefore His suffering was unexampled. "Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow."
Let not such considerations be regarded as inconsistent with His divinity. He was also veritably Man; not in mere outward aspect, but with all the sinless infirmities and sensibilities of humanity. As "God manifest in the flesh" He could not be exempt from the varied sufferings to which men in the flesh are liable. The Example for all must show to all how to bear all trials. To underrate His keen sense of pain is to underrate His qualifications as "the Apostle and High Priest of our profession." It is our consolation in every sorrow, that we have the presence and sympathy of One who fully knows, not merely by His Divine omniscience, but by His personal human experience, our fears and pains and temptations and woe.
Thus, as the Son of Man, His experience resembled, while it surpassed in sorrow, that of David, as expressed in Psalm 55—"Give ear to my prayer, O God; and hide not Yourself from my supplication. My heart is sore pained within me—and the terrors of death are fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror has overwhelmed me. And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. Cast your burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain you."
The neglect of this truth has been the fruitful cause of the superstitious worship paid to the mother of our Lord. By many who devoutly exalt His Divinity, His real humanity has been lowered, as if detracting from it. The effulgence of the former has been allowed to outshine or eclipse the latter, instead of being reflected in it. The practical result in many cases has been worship to Christ as another God, instead of to the one God revealed in humanity. If Christ is thus thought of only as the infinitely glorious Ruler of the Universe, instead of as being also the true Brother of Mankind, there is a vacancy left in the human heart, requiring human compassionateness to fill. Where is this to be found so fully as in woman's tender heart? How natural then for frail, sensitive, sad men and women to invest the mother of Jesus with that tenderness and capacity to sympathize of which her Divine Son has been divested. No wonder that multitudes of trembling penitents, of heart-broken sorrowing suppliants, should feel more sure of a listening ear and pitying heart in a woman, who remembers all her womanly anguish and retains all her womanly sympathies, than if they applied directly to the King of Glory. So they ask the mother to intercede with her Son, as if He had not a heart of infinite tenderness, and had not experienced the same human griefs.
But if Jesus does possess that human and therefore that womanly heart, having suffered and still remembering all human sorrows, then there is no need for any other Mediator. "There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus." There is one High Priest and only One who can atone and fully sympathize, who ever lives and is ever present everywhere, to pity and support and save. In Him our complete humanity dwelt and still dwells. That complete humanity comprises both the masculine and the feminine natures. Every true woman has much of man's heroism, strength, resolve, endurance; and every true man has much of woman's gentleness, sensitiveness, tenderness, compassion. Both are perfected in Christ, who became Man in the completeness of His dual nature—not as the masculine only, but as humanity, the race—"The Man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5). So that whatever is characteristic of woman's nature, as well as of man's, is found in Him in all its perfection. As there was never man so brave and so strong; so there was never woman so gentle and compassionate. To go from Him to find sympathy in any one of His servants is to leave the sun, in order to find better light in the moon which only reflects it.
An additional source of the Savior's agony, a bitter element in His cup, was the special assault of the devil in Gethsemane. He had said, "The prince of this world comes, and has nothing in me;" and when His captors arrived He said to them, "This is your hour, and the power of darkness." The final agony of His conflict with Satan had begun. The enemy of souls took advantage of the Savior's depression of mind and body to offer suggestions which were abhorred and repelled, but which intensified His grief and the agony of His conflict. As in the wilderness Satan tempted our Lord in His loneliness and faintness to avoid suffering and win His kingdom by unlawful means; as by the medium of Peter he tried to dissuade the Victim from going onward to the Cross, and Jesus, addressing the foe who was making use of the friend, said, "Get behind me, Satan, for you savor not the things which are of God, but those which are of man;" so in the garden the enemy was trying to harrow the Champion's mind by the impious thought—"Save Yourself."
Herein again the humanity of Christ has been invalidated by representing Him as if incapable of being tempted to sin. Moral incapability of yielding is one thing; natural capability of being tempted is another. Else there could have been no conflict in the Champion's case, and therefore no true championship, and no example of victory by conflict. It was the real humanity of Christ which made it possible for Satan to tempt Him—"for God cannot be tempted of evil," as God; but God, manifest in the flesh, could be and was so tempted.
Was not the severity of this conflict with sin the cause of the exudation of blood with the sweat of agony? This may explain the language of the writer to the Hebrews, when he encouraged persecuted believers by the example of their Lord, saying, "You have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin." The Captain of Salvation never resisted His persecutors, never strove against sinners; but He did resist temptation and He did strive against sin, even unto blood, in Gethsemane. (Heb. 12:4.)
"Touched with a sympathy within
"But spotless, innocent, and pure
There are seasons when believers are specially assailed by the devil. He often comes into our garden of grief, aggravating it by making our depression an occasion of endeavoring sometimes to crush the spirit by despair; at other times inspiring hope by suggesting escape from duty, or by tempting us to distrust God and murmur at His dealings, or to cherish revengeful feelings towards men as instrumental in our sufferings. Sometimes dark forebodings, cowardly shrinkings, wicked imaginations, even horrible blasphemies may cross the mind, which we feel cannot be the outcome of our own renewed hearts, but must be suggestions of the prince of darkness. But sometimes we may feel as Bunyan's Pilgrim in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. "I took notice that now poor Christian was so confounded that he did not know his own voice; and thus I perceived it—just when he was come over against the mouth of the burning pit, one of the wicked ones got behind him, and stept up softly to him and, whispering, suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind. This put Christian more to it than anything that he met with before, even to think that he should now blaspheme Him that he loved so much before."
In all such trials incident to our humanity it is a consolation to be assured that "no strange thing has happened unto us." We are liable to them while in the flesh. Multitudes of our fellow-believers have suffered in like manner, but passed through the dark Valley to the Delectable Mountains and the Land of Beulah and the Celestial City. More than all, our Divine Leader and Captain felt the like infirmities, fears, depressions, pains of body, agony of spirit, conflicts with Satan.
"Christ leads us through no darker rooms
He knows all we suffer; watches, pities, suffers with us, and still is "touched with a feeling of our infirmities, having been in all points tempted like as we are."
Now, having won eternal victory, and spoiled principalities and powers, and led captivity captive, He is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, our Almighty Champion to help us in every conflict. Though we fight "against principalities and powers, against spiritual wickedness in high places," we do not fight alone. "Faith sets the Lion of the tribe of Judah against the roaring lion of the bottomless pit—this delivering Lion against that devouring lion." (Leighton.)
When Satan comes to us in our garden of grief, he comes not as our enemy alone, but as Christ's also, an enemy defeated and despoiled by Him who in Gethsemane resisted unto blood, and by whom we shall triumph too, "more than conquerors through Him who loved us."