Oh how sober a garden that must have been. Here Jesus has come just prior to his arrest at the hands of the children of the Serpent; he has been betrayed by one of his twelve; he will soon be denied by Peter, the leader of the twelve; and abandoned, at least for a while, by all of the rest (John and the women make their way to the cross). Jesus is intentional. They have come into this garden so that he can retreat from the world and pray, seeking strength and an internally unified approach to the passion that was to come. Peter, James, and John, he has taken to the side to pray on his behalf as he seeks the Lord’s face.
There are many things that we can learn from this passage; a few are worth noting:
1) For the Christian, when preparing to face great trial, prayer must be our primary retreat. Here, even Jesus, the very Lord of Creation is seeking his father’s face. Oh, how we make a mess of this principle. Prayer so often is our last resort, when for the Christian it must be our first. Look here, dear Christian, if the Lord of the heavens needs to pray for strength before trials, then how much more do we, the frail and sinful, need that same prayer.
2) Jesus shows us the value of intercessory prayer. Here Jesus has taken three of his trusted apostles to the side. Jesus continues on to pray for a spell and leaves the three of them to wait. What, dear Christian, do you think that they were meant to be doing while Jesus prayed? If they were meant to be chatting about the day’s events in Jerusalem or swapping jokes, then why was Jesus so upset when they chose to take a catnap? No, these three were meant to be praying for Jesus that he would have strength to lift his prayers and burdens before his father. Brethren, do you want to know who your faithful friends are? It is those brothers and sisters who agonize with you in prayer before the father’s throne.
3) Times and trial and tribulation can cause us to have great internal struggles of faith, but disunity of spirit and body will cause us to stumble. Our Lord had two natures, a human one and a divine one. His petitions before the Lord were partly out of a desire to approach the coming suffering with the assurance of a unified witness. His human nature would not fail him, but would be faithful to the divine will. It is times when we are filled with indecision that we fail in our appointed task. As terribly important as Jesus’ next days were, not merely to his mighty work, but to the very future of mankind, Jesus was aligning his human and divine natures together for this task.
Yet what strikes me about this passage is how sad a place the garden must have been that night. There was a time that the Garden would have been a place for celebration and joy amongst the olive trees, but that night was quite different. Oh, the weight, not only of the task ahead, but of disappointment in his faithful apostles for their lack of faith even after all they had seen.
It must have taken Jesus back to another garden, Eden, recalling the disappointment that must have been felt at the time of the fall of our first parents. That garden as well was turned from a place of joy into a place of sadness. How often we do this with the gardens of blessing in our own lives. We take the gifts of God for granted and we bring sin into those gifts. We bring sin into our homes, or jobs, and our families. And we bring sin into our churches. Psalm 128 paints a picture of the blessing of work, family, and Church fellowship that God gives to those who fear him; we bring sin into all of these areas.
That same psalm describes our children as olive shoots. I want to be careful about how the analogy it draws, so as not to spiritualize the connection of olive shoots and the mature garden of Gethsemane, but it is worth noting the garden imagery. As with any garden, olive shoots need care and they need a strong fence to support them as they mature. If they do not have that fence to support and mold them, the shoots will creep across the ground and quickly become diseased, rotten, and die.
The sadness of Gethsemane came as a result of our sin. Adam and Eve sinned and fell, and Jesus, in this next garden, is preparing for the task of making right that which we made so wrong. As he leaves his time of prayer, he does so with a renewed determination. Notice that Jesus does not hide from the people coming to arrest him; he does not seek out just a few more minutes of prayer. He lays his prayer before his father three times and then, with renewed determination sets forward and presents himself to the children of darkness. It is as if he is saying, “let’s do it…” and entering into the belly of the beast—offering his life before them. And this he does on that lonely cross.
Loved ones, this was a path we could not walk; yet, Christ walked it so that we might not have to. This is the promise of the Gospel—we who deserve death are offered life and he who is the Lord of Life went to his death on our behalf. What wonder that this should raise in our heart, what amazement it should birth in our souls, yet how often we go through this time of the year thinking only of our own desires and wants. For you who are already trusting in Christ, let this Passion Week renew your adoration of and commitment to the Lord of your life; for those who are suffering in your own futile struggle against sin and guilt, know that Christ offers life—come to him and live!