Gethsemane and the Mystery of the Gospel
It is an integral part of the passion narrative, but it too easily becomes incidental to the message of the gospel. All three synoptic Gospels include an account of Christ in Gethsemane in some detail, each one from a slightly different perspective. But it is easy to lose sight of the significance of what is going on in the two-dimensional darkness of that night.
At the most basic level, it is tempting to view this merely as part of the record of events leading up to the crucifixion. In all four Gospels, the space devoted to this single week in Jesus’ life and ministry (and, indeed, to the 24 hour period at the end of that week) is disproportionate to the space devoted to everything else. So, clearly, the Evangelists would have us realise that what took place in this timeframe is bound up with the heart of God’s Good News. And, if that were the case, then it would suggest there is more than just historical interest bound up with this level of detail. There is profound theological significance in what happens as well.
We see this broadly in the way the events relating to Gethsemane are handled elsewhere in the New Testament. And if we follow the axiom of Scripture being its own interpreter, this should alert us to key aspects we need to understand.
The book of Hebrews alludes to the events in the garden in at least two places. In the first, with reference to the High Priestly office and ministry of Christ, the writer says,
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek (He 5.7-10)
So, even though it would be easy to view Gethsemane in the Gospel record merely in light of Christ’s personal anguish as he faced the ordeal of Calvary, Hebrews makes it clear there was much more at stake. As Douglas Milne points out, this detail in the account of Christ’s passion is integral to salvation.
The second allusion to Christ at prayer that night comes later in the context of the author’s encouragement to persevere in with the ‘eye’ of faith fixed firmly on Christ. He says,
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (He 12.3-4)
At first glance this may seem to point to Christ’s shedding his blood through his death on the cross. The exhortation, therefore, being, ‘Like Christ, stand firm against temptation, even to the point of death’. But a closer look at the wording would suggest the author actually has Gethsemane in view, since his choice of words in this exhortation contains echoes of Luke’s account of Christ praying in the garden.
The first is his reference to ‘your struggle [Gk: antagonizomenoi] against sin’ (echoing en agonia [Lk 22.44]). The second is his choice of ‘the shedding of your blood’ as the measure of the intensity of this struggle. Although this could legitimately be understood as an exhortation to be ‘faithful unto death’, if Jesus’ ordeal in Gethsemane is indeed in the author’s mind, then it more naturally reflects Jesus’ utter commitment to his mission that would lead to the cross for its fulfilment. Again this tallies with Luke’s earlier reference to Jesus’ resolve to go to Jerusalem (Lk 9.51) despite being aware of the suffering it would entail.
So, as Jesus not only urges the disciples to pray that they would not enter into temptation – ‘stumble in the conflict’ – he also prays with eyes wide open to that looming conflict that he himself would not stumble. And such is the intensity of his struggle in prayer, that the Father provides him with an angel for support and his subcutaneous capillaries rupture and his sweat mingles with his blood as it oozes in great droplets from his pores (Lk 22.43-44).
To understand what lay behind such intense internal conflict, we need to grasp something of the apparent paradox of his prayer: ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done’ (Lk 22.42). At face value, this would seem to suggest a conflict between the will of the incarnate Son and that of the Father. And if that were the case, it would have major implications for the cohesion of the godhead.
However, on deeper reflection, the reality is different. In the first place because, in his request for the ‘cup’ [of judgment] to be taken from him, Jesus could have prayed no other way. As the eternal Son incarnate, from the moment of his conception he had fulfilled all righteousness and deserved only the Father’s vindication, not judgment. But, as he prays in his very next breath, ‘yet, not my will but yours be done’, likewise, he could pray no other way. As the perfect man whose delight had been to do God’s will and keep his law, he offered both these requests, knowing that the fulfilment of the divine will was essential for him to fulfil his saving mission.
It leaves us gazing on yet another facet of the mystery of this great salvation that comes from the God who is both just and yet who justifies sinners. But being allowed to look upon this mystery in the garden puts an altogether different complexion on it. We see its face. We will never fully fathom what went on that night; but we will be able to sing the words of Charles H Gabriel’s great hymn:
I stand amazed in the presence
of Jesus the Nazarene
and wonder how he could love me,
a sinner condemned, unclean!
How marvellous! how wonderful!
this my song shall ever be:
how marvellous! how wonderful
is my Saviour’s love for me!
2. For me he prayed in the garden
and bowed to the will divine;
he had no tears for his own griefs,
but sweat drops of blood for mine.
3. In pity angels beheld him,
and came from the world of light
to comfort him in the sorrows
he bore for my soul that night.
4. He took my sins and my sorrows,
he made them his very own,
he bore the burden to Calvary
and suffered and died alone.
5. When with the ransomed in glory
his face I at last shall see,
my joy will be through the ages
to sing of his love for me
 Milne, D.J.W., Let’s Study Luke (Banner of Truth; Edinburgh) 2005 p. 343