Apostle Barbara Childress
The Son affirms the cross: Gethsemane
Matthew 26:39; Hebrews 5:7
As we have seen in earlier chapters, it was determined in eternity past that the Second Person of the Trinity would take unto himself our humanity and in that humanity would die on the cross. Through that death he would purchase as his own the love-gift the Father promised to give him. That agreement between the three persons of the Trinity established the cross of Christ as the central event of all time. Everything began to look forward to that, the Son of God began to approach that cross. It was announced there in Eden by God the Father. It was anticipated throughout the entire Old Testament period through various types and through the preaching of the prophets.
Finally, the time arrived for the Son to leave heaven's glory and come to this earth as a mere baby. The angels announced that he had come to be the Saviour. The cross was in view that night in Bethlehem.
The Lord Jesus began his public ministry with the cross very much in view. John the Baptist announced him as the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world, and Jesus raised no protest. The cross was in view. It was in view when he encountered Satan in the wilderness. The temptation to avoid the cross was dismissed along with Satan himself. Jesus kept that cross in full view all during his public ministry and in his private comments to his disciples. It was definitely before him on the Mount of Transfiguration and during the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was still before him there in the upper room as he washed his disciples' feed and offered them words of encouragement and comfort. It was there when he prayed the marvelous prayer of John 17. At each one of these major junctures there was an unruffled calm about Jesus.
Then came Gethsemane, and all that seems to have been in place suddenly appears to go out the window. All that has been nailed down suddenly seems to come loose. Gethsemane seems to be the place where the Lord Jesus Christ threw overboard his firm resolution to go to the cross and made a last ditch, frantic effort to find a way round it. The whole plan of salvation seems to hang by a mere thread there in Gethsemane as Jesus cries, 'O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me...' (Matthew 26:39).
The sudden unwillingness of the Saviour seems further to be forced upon us by the way in which the author of Hebrews describes Jesus' experience in Gethsemane: 'In the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death...' (Hebrews 5:7).
We have already noticed his statement that Satan had nothing in him. But here it seems as if Satan may very well have found something after all, as if there is at last a lack of willingness on Jesus' part to go to the cross. Are these Scriptures telling us that Jesus finally wavered in his determination to go to the cross? Was the salvation provided by Christ's death on the cross the work of a Saviour sullied with reluctance and grudging obedience?
Credit John Flavel with putting the problem succinctly: 'Here is the difficulty, how Christ, who knew God had from everlasting determined he should drink it, who had compacted and agreed with him in the covenant of redemption so to do, who came (as himself acknowledges) for that end into the world...who foresaw this hour all along, and professed when he spake of this bloody baptism with which he was to be baptized, that he was "straitened till it was accomplished"...How (I say) to reconcile all this with such a petition, that now when the cup was delivered to him, it might pass, or he excused from suffering; this is the knot, this is the difficulty.'
When we tiptoe into Gethsemane to hear the Saviour's anguished pleas, we must recognize we are entering the realm of infinities and immensities. We are out of our element here. No mere human analysis will ever be able to explain fully the awesome dimensions of what took place there. Here the Son of God approaches God the Father. The Son of God makes this approach as one who is fully divine and fully human. Furthermore, the Son of God makes this approach only hours before carrying out the plan formalized in eternity past. Who can understand such things? We must content ourselves with a faint insight or two into the blackness of Gethsemane.
The fact that we cannot understand everything about Gethsemane does not mean we cannot understand anything at all. We are able to penetrate some of its mysteries by keeping in mind a couple of things.
Jesus fulfils a requirement for his mission
The first of these is that Gethsemane was not an aberration in the plan of salvation. It was not a temporary detour down a side-street on the road to redemption. The plan of salvation did not precariously hang by a single thread there. Gethsemane was part and parcel of the plan of redemption.
In Gethesemane we see the Saviour doing something that had to be done in order to be our Saviour. The author of Hebrews, in writing about Christ as our High Priest, says Gethsemane was the means of perfecting Christ. He puts it in these words: 'And having been perfected, he became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him' (Hebrews 5:9).
That word 'perfected' does not imply that Jesus was morally imperfect or deficient. It refers to being fitted or qualified for a task. What was the task Jesus had to be fitted for? The task of being our High Priest. What was the work of the high priest? It was to make atonement for the sins of people, to represent sinners before God. What was necessary for someone to be a high priest? He had to be one of those he was representing. He had to partake of human nature himself; he had to have a bond, a sympathy, with those he was representing.
In Gethsemane the Lord Jesus Christ was fitted to be our High Priest. There we see him descending, as it were, the steep slope of complete identification with those he came to save. There he already began to feel the pangs of damnation their depravity deserved. There he began to experience the reality of being forsaken by God. And there, in his full identification with us, he cried out, as any of the damned would do, 'Let this cup pass!' He had to desire, in his human nature, the cup of God's wrath against sin to pass, or he could not have been identified with us.
The author of Hebrews makes this clear in these words: 'For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin' (Hebrews 4:15). And when he came away from it all, it was as one who could represent his people because he had fully and completely experienced their condemnation, and cried their cry.
Jesus demonstrates the fulness of his humanity
This is not to say that our Lord was putting on an act in Gethsemane. His humanity was a real humanity, and in that humanity he truly felt the anguish and the pain of the cross. It was that humanity that shrank from the cross and longed to have it removed.
The distinction we must make is between the two natures of Christ. He was fully God and fully man. We can say, therefore, that Jesus embraced the cross with his divine nature, while shrinking from it with his human nature.
William Hendriksen expresses this view in these words: 'never shall we, who do not even know how our own soul and body interact, be able to grasp how the human nature of Christ, in these solemn moments, related itself toward the divine, or vice versa. To the intense suffering, experienced in Christ's human nature, was given infinite value by means of the union of this human to the divine nature, within the second person of the Holy Trinity.'
John Gill says of Christ's experience in Gethsemane, 'That there are two wills in Christ, human and divine, is certain; his human will, though in some instances, as in this, may have been different from the divine will, yet not contrary to it; and his divine will is always the same with his Father's. This, as mediator, he engaged to do, and came down from heaven for that purpose, took delight in doing it, and has completely finished it.'
The Lord Jesus himself seems to have suggested this in his words to his sleeping disciples: 'The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak' (Matthew 26:41).
Jesus was struggling with his flesh in Gethsemane. S.G. DeGraaf neatly captures the significance of Christ's struggle by saying, '"Flesh" here does not mean man in his sin, because Jesus had no sin, but man in his weakness. The weakness, of course, is the result of sin but is not the sin itself.'
But why did Jesus struggle so with his flesh? It was more than just the prospect of death. Many have faced death with a substantial degree of calmness. It was not the idea of death itself that caused Jesus to be 'sorrowful and deeply distressed' (Matthew 26:37). It was rather the nature of that approaching death.
F.B. Meyer writes of Jesus, 'He knew that he was about to be brought into the closest association with the sin which was devastating human happiness and grieving the divine nature. He knew, since He had so identified Himself with our fallen race, that, in a very deep and wonderful way, He was to be made sin and to bear our curse and shame, cast out by man, and apparently forsaken by God. He knew as we shall never know, the exceeding sinfulness and horror of sin; and what it was to be the meeting-place where the iniquities of our race should converge, to become the scapegoat charged with guilt not His own, to bear away the sins of the world. All this was beyond measure terrible to one so holy and sensitive as He.'
So the thing Jesus shrank from in Gethsemane was the prospect of being separated from God as he bore the wrath of God against sin. In his spirit he was ready and willing to carry out the plan of redemption, but his flesh revolted at the thought of it.
We know from our own experience that it is possible for us to embrace something with the mind or spirit while shrinking from it with our flesh. Most of us would say this happens when we face surgery, or even a dental appointment. But this was no mere surgery or dental appointment that Jesus was facing! It was the wrath of God against the sins of those whom he had given the Son! We can well understand that Jesus' human nature shrank from that. And we must always remember that the humanity of Jesus was real. It was no mere 'zip-on' humanity.
Our Lord's experience in the garden of Gethsemane is, then, of one piece with the rest of his life and ministry. It was not a last-minute, desperate attempt to persuade the Father to remove the cross. It was the Lord fulfilling another requirement in his mission. As he emerged from Gethsemane it was to say emphatically, 'Shall I not drink the cup which my Father has given me?' (John 18:11).
In his remarkable book, The Cross He Bore, Frederick S. Leahy rightly observes: 'In Gethsemane it was never a question whether the Saviour would obey or disobey. In Eden God asked, "Adam, where are you?" In a sense the question was repeated in Gethsemane and this Adam did not try to hide; he had no need to; his whole response was clearly, "Here am I!'"
JOURNEY TO THE CROSS, by Roger Ellsworth, Copyright 1997, EVANGELICAL PRESS.