The Awful but Beautiful Gethsemane

Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethseman. . . . Matt. 26:36ff.

When one speaks of Gethsemane and tries to understand something of what happened there a certain awe enters his soul. The name suggests profound mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. When we try to discuss it we peer into depths to which we see no bottom. We are talking about the immeasurable suffering of the Son of God. An account of the suffering and obedience of Jesus in His love for us would not be complete without a reference to Gethsemane. Who does not know the song:

Lest I forget Gethsemane, Lest I forget Thine agony Lest I forget Thy love to me, Lead me to Calvary.

Gethsemane is awful in telling us how God’s Son suffered in the flesh for us, but beautiful in telling us how thoroughly human our Savior was in this revelation of His love.

It was dark in the olive orchard, at perhaps, about ten o’clock on Thursday night. The next day would become “Good Friday.” Jesus and the disciples had left the upper room after the Passover had been celebrated, the Lords Supper instituted, and Judas had been dismissed. They had all sung a hymn.

Going east they crossed the brook Kidron, the same stream that David had once crossed centuries earlier when he fled in fear and sorrow from his son Absalom. Here, where there may have been an olive press, the Son of God was put into God’s press. And He almost died, for Matthew says that His soul was sorrowful unto death. Something apparently so deeply troubled and terrified His soul that He almost died.

Remember that this was God in the flesh. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus’ strong crying and tears. He who was God was crying out loud because of the agony. One translator uses the word “bellow.” Having been born and reared on a farm I can still hear a cow bellow in agony. It made the chills go down my spine. Imagine, He who was the Infinite God, yet in the dust, “bellowing” like an animal! Who can understand or describe this? Language is always inadequate to describe experiences and feelings. Who, for example, can describe the sorrow of a mother‘s heart upon the death of her child? Who, then, can even begin to explain these spiritual, heavenly mysteries in man’s language? We may only he amazed and like Moses lake the shoes off our feet when we approach something so holy and Divine.

What really happened here?

We think of Jesus’ life and recall how He had always been master of the situations in which He found Himself. When as King He had made His royal entry into Jerusalem He was in command. Also on the previous night in the upper room, when the devil was there in Judas, the betrayer, He was in control. They had even been able to sing. Now, suddenly . . . here was Gethsemane.

One might try to answer the question of what was happening by saying that Jesus was now faced with the suffering to come, somewhat as we are when we have to go to the hospital for major surgery and the anticipation of what is about to happen suddenly grips us. But have not many people faced great calamities and even death with courage? Think of Socrates fearlessly drinking the poisonous hemlock. Throughout history there have also been thousands of people who faced death on the battle field with courage, and martyrs who sang while dying. How then can we explain the attitude and action of Christ?

We must always remember that Jesus was Unique, by Himself. He could be compared with no other. His suffering was the penalty for sin. One would really have to be in hell to understand what was tearing Jesussoul apart. There people pay the ultimate penalty for sin.

We must also remember that man is appointed to die. He has no choice regarding that. Death is his lot. But it was not so with Jesus. It must be and was His choice to die. He must die voluntarily. Otherwise His death would be no atonement.

Remember also that when man dies he is usually busy especially or only with himself. But Christ was the Head of His people, of millions of sinners and ungodly people. He must pay the penalty for all of these people.

Another difference between Jesus’ death and otherswas that when the Christian dies in faith He looks beyond death and grave. But Jesus could not comfort Himself with that at this time. It was all dark. There are surely more differences. But we must always remember that Jesus’ suffering was in a class by itself. Jesus suffering may be partly understood in the light of the fact that Jesus saw the devils coming in Judas and the mob that accompanied him. The “dogs and bulls of Bashan” were going to attack Him (Ps. 22:12–16). (Bashan was a mountain in Israel. Wild dogs roamed in the valleys and wild bulls grazed on the grassy slopes. These animals were extremely dangerous. And so devils could be called dogs and bulls of Bashan.) Hell was let loose. Jesus felt that. Soon they would be upon Him.

But even all of these considerations do not fully answer the question why He suffered. The final answer must be that here God was beginning to forsake Him. For Jesus this was terrifying. Constantly throughout His life He could “find” His Father and enjoy the assurance of His nearness and His promises. Now that was changing. The late Dr. Schilder compared Him with a ship that is coming out of the stormy sea and entering the harbor to be moored at the pier. The pier is always solid and dependable. Christ wants to moor the ship of His soul to the solid pier of His Father‘s faithfulness and justice. But the awful fact was that now God was receding from Him, the pier was sinking away, solid ground was receding and the ship was left alone to drift in the stormy sea. An intense soul struggle followed. Jesus was on His knees, His face in the dust. Who knows what it means to sweat blood? Did you ever try to imagine what He must have looked like after he stood up, bloody sweat mixed with dirt and mud on His face? Remember He was God! Also here the Lord says, “Behold your God! See His love . . . Gethsemane . . . awful, but also beautiful!

He conquered. Although Cod already here forsook Him, He did not forsake God. He was submissive in the greatest hour of trial, willing to “drink the cup to the last bitter dregs.” This was part of His atonement, of His payment for sin, the sins of His people. As a result of this we may be assured now and throughout our lives, even in our worst trials, that the pier will never recede from us. The Lord’s promises stand. He will always be faithful to those who trust in Him, in spite of their failures. He is our Lord today.

Wonder of Bethlehem! But also, wonder of Gethsemane! O come, let us adore Him!

John Blankespoor is pastor of the Pine Creek Christian Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan.