Dr. Brent Van Elswyk, PhD
In the movie, The Return of the King, there is a quiet moment before the terrible battle between Gondor and the devilish hordes of Mordor, when Pippin and Gandalf are standing outside on a balcony in Minas Tirith looking at the violent dark clouds gathering. Pippin says, "A storm is coming." To which Gandalf said, "This is not the weather of this world. This is the devise of Sauren's world. A broil, a fume that he sends ahead of his host." Later Pippin says, "It is so quiet." to which Gandalf replied, "It's the deep breath before the plunge." The fear and tension keep growing in Pippin until he finally says, "I don't want to be in a battle, but waiting on the edge of one I can't escape is even worse."
For Jesus, the Garden of Gethsemane was a "deep breath before the plunge," the moment when He could clearly see the violent dark clouds of Calvary gathering. In many ways, Gethsemane was harder for Jesus than Calvary. The spiritual battle Jesus came to fight was fought at Calvary, but it was in Gethsemane that He waited terrified on edge of the battle He could not escape. Those Garden hours were the darkest hours, but it was in those dark hours God's grace shined brightest.
On the way to Gethsemane, Jesus predicted the disciples would all desert Him. He had already predicted Judas' betrayal and then He quoted the prophet, Zechariah, "I will strike the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered." Peter was offended at the suggestion he would desert the Lord, and quickly asserted, "They, all might desert you, but I never will!" But Jesus knew Peter would not only desert Him, he would deny Him with curses. For Jesus, Gethsemane and Calvary were lonely places. He faced and fought these battles totally alone as friends abandoned Him.
Gethsemane was an olive grove and its name meant oil press which indicated there was an oil press there. A press had a heavy beam that was lowered onto a sack of olives and weight was increased until the oil of the olives was squeezed out. When Jesus arrived at Gethsemane, He left eight of the disciples at the edge of the garden and took Peter, James, and John further into it. As the four walked in the Garden, Jesus’ spirit filled with angst and He said, "My soul is sorrowful even to death." Like the weight added to press the oil out of the olives, the weight of sorrow for what was to come pressed on Him so heavily it almost killed Him.
In the Garden, Jesus didn't face His death like many human heroes who shook their fists in the face of the evil they faced. Jesus appeared weak, scared, and trembling. Before, Jesus had shown unflinching courage in the face of danger. But this night, Jesus sensed something and was deeply troubled by it. The word troubled means "shocking horror." What Jesus sensed horrified Him, putting Him under such stress that He sweat drops of blood. Here is the Son of God, who with words spoke the universe into place, who walked on angry waves, who calmed fierce storms, who cast out demons, who healed diseases, who brought the dead back to life, so horrified that His capillaries were bursting. He fell to the ground and, crying out to His Father.
This wasn't a normal fear of dying. As Gandalf had said this was not the weather of this world. What Jesus saw in the quiet of the Garden was Hell with its hoards and its unspeakable horrors opening in front of Him. As one person put it, the coming battle was a "boiling cup mixed with all the sin of the world, the full assault of demonic hordes, and the fierce wrath of God." On this night, the fierce wind of hell washed over Jesus and He cried out to His Father. But, this time there was no response. While Jesus had always enjoyed immense intimacy with His Father, in the hour Jesus needed Him the most, there was nothing but silence. Looking for comfort He stumbled back to His disciples and founding them sleeping He cried, "I need you to be with me! Can't you stay awake?" He went back to His Father, praying again and again. And was met with silence each time.
Could it be that God has already begun to turn His face away from Jesus? It appears Jesus' soul had already begun to experience abandonment by the Father--The Father He had lived to please. Yet, when He needed the Father the most, the Father remained silent. He sought His Father and found Hell instead and for the first time in all eternity Jesus was totally alone.
Have you ever felt totally alone? Maybe a close friend turned deserted you when you needed their support. Maybe a spouse betrayed you. Maybe your parents failed to protect. Maybe your grown children have chosen to not let you see your grandkids. Jesus had the same sense of being desperately alone. Jesus also experienced the pain of rejection. And this rejection was in the closest relationship He had and the reality is that the closer the relationship the more painful the rejection.
In that moment, Jesus experienced desertion, aloneness, rejection, and the equivalence of an eternity in hell for us. For Hell is the complete abandonment by God. The "deep breath before the plunge" for Jesus was in the Garden as Jesus stared into the horror of hell and voluntarily chose to go to hell for us. I've always thought what made Jesus' death so bad was the horrors of the crucifixion with its public humiliation and its pain, but that wasn't what filled Jesus with angst in the Garden. It was the abandonment by God that horrified Him. He looked full into the cup of God's wrath and was overwhelmed to the point it almost killed Him and cried out, "If there be any other way, let this cup pass from me." And Jesus resolved to go to the cross and on the cross all the filth, moral rot of the human race, the immeasurable foul weight of all the sin of human history was poured on the perfect, sinless Jesus. And His Father, with whom He had only known perfect fellowship, abandoned Him, pouring all of His hatred of sin on Him. That is why Jesus staggered in the Garden, crying, "Father remove this cup from me." In His humanity, Jesus desperately wanted the cup to be removed from Him. He wanted to avoid the cross. He wanted to avoid drinking from the cup of suffering. But His prayer—it didn't end with, "Remove this cup." It ended with, "Yet, not what I will, but what you will!"
The hand that increased the weight on Jesus' soul was the loving hand of His Father. That hand was put there to save you and to save me! And what was pressed out of Jesus was pure, undefiled love. Isaiah 51:17 describes God's wrath like a cup full of toxic poison! The wrath was for our rebellion, our selfishness, our immorality, and for our sin. In Gethsemane Jesus decided to step in the way the cup of wrath we deserved, drinking it all so not one drop of God's wrath could touch us. That was why He could declare on the cross, "It is finished!"
The purest essence of the gospel is about substitution. Jesus lived the life we should have lived. He died the death we should have died. He drank the cup we should have drank so there would not be condemnation left for us because by faith we are in Christ Jesus. It isn't just that God felt merciful towards us, but every bit of God's justice and every bit of His condemnation for sin was put on Jesus so there was nothing left to pour on us. Salvation offered by faith is a free gift.
In Gethsemane, we see the love of Jesus fully displayed. When He rose from His prayer and left the Garden, the internal battle done, we never again see Him wavering again. He faced humiliation, illegal trials, mocking, scourging, and crucifixion with unwavering resolve because of His love for us and His obedience to the Father. In the Garden He found the peace, the strength, and the resolve to go to the cross unshaken. Satan may have been destroyed on the cross, but he was defeated in the dark of Gethsemane. The victory was set in stone when Jesus resolved to drink the cup for us.
Without the agony of Jesus in the garden and without the pain He bore on the cross there would be no Resurrection, no freedom from our sin, and there would be no comfort for our own suffering. Perhaps God let Jesus see this horror before the cross so we could see Jesus choosing to go to the cross knowing full well what He would experience so we could see the fullness of His love for us.
Hebrews 12:2 says that for the joy set before Him He endured the cross. What was the joy set before Him? It couldn't be the approval of God, He already had that. It couldn't be the Kingship of the Universe, He already had that. The only thing He gained from the cross was us. He was doing this to save us because He loves us. And we want to hold on to the truth of His love in our dark hours when we suffer and feel utterly alone. We can look to Gethsemane and realize Jesus didn't abandon us when He faced the horror of Hell and He surely won't abandon us in our pain. If we do feel abandoned by God, we're believing a lie. He went through Hell to rescue us and our names are engraved on His palms and Jesus cannot forget those who names are etched on the palms of His hands. When we feel abandoned, we can visit the Garden again and again and preach the gospel to ourselves. The true beauty of Gethsemane is that we are the undeserving recipients of the pure love that was pressed out of the Savior during His dark night in Gethsemane.
*Based on a sermon given by J. D. Greear