[K:NWTS 3/1 (May 1988) 13-19]

The Garden of Jesus' Agony

Matthew 26:36-56

Derke P. Bergsma

A garden can be a place of beauty and peace and quiet reflection. A certain tranquility of spirit accompanies those who withdraw from busy pursuits to stroll slowly through a garden surrounded by plants and flowers patiently growing in their natural setting. Perhaps the popularity of national parks at vacation time is attributable to their garden-like character on a larger scale. But whether the gardens we visit are small or large, they are most pleasant when they are enjoyed together with friends and loved ones. The presence of those we love always makes an enjoyable experience more precious.

For our Lord Jesus, the garden of Gethsemane frequently served as a quiet place of peaceful reflection and especially of intimate fellowship with His heavenly Father. Luke 22:39 implies that Jesus went as a frequent visitor to this garden on the side of the Mount of Olives. He also craved the supporting presence of his disciples whenever he visited that garden. But the last time our Lord visited Gethsemane, it was the very opposite of a place of peace and refreshing renewal. Rather it was a place of lonely agony, an experience of grief and abandonment by both his human companions and his heavenly Father.

 May the Holy Spirit help us to do justice to this powerful biblical theme as we consider:

Its Painful Circumstances

Jesus' agony in the Garden of Gethsemane is seldom given the attention it deserves when we consider the Lord's suffering as the Redeemer of his people. Admittedly it does not stand out as prominently in the gospel record as the agony of the cross. Yet the Gethsemane experience is a crucial part of the passive obedience of our mediator in his redemptive work. Seen in biblical-theological light, it is an event which demonstrates the completeness and perfection of the savior's work. It helps us comprehend the depth of the riches of our standing in Christ and to praise God for the grace revealed in Jesus' perfect obedience to the Father throughout his suffering.

Several circumstantial factors contributed to the intensity of Jesus' agony. One of these factors was the utter loneliness of our Lord. He who bore our sins did so alone. It was a lonely path that the one "despised and rejected of men" had to walk. The "man of sorrows, familiar with suffering like one from whom men hide their faces" knew the loneliness of the abandoned.

Our Lord had left the upper room in Jerusalem where he had instituted the Holy Supper of remembrance. Leading the disciples out of the city, they arrived at the garden on the west side of the Mount of Olives, about a half-mile west of the Temple Square, across the Kidron Valley. Though the garden was not very large (an acre or two at the most) and the disciples could not have been very far away, Jesus still wanted three of them closer. He desired the support, comfort and close presence of Peter, James and John. His sense of loneliness must have been intensified by their apparent indifference to Jesus' suffering. They slept while he prayed. Though he aroused them from sleep after his first session of prayer, it was obviously hopeless to call them back after the second. Then the mob, bent on Jesus' capture, arrived and one of the disciples made a futile effort at resistance with a sword. Jesus' mild reprimand of the aggressive disciple was followed by the desertion of all of them. Jesus was left alone–alone in the clutches of the enemy, abandoned. The song says it well, "He bore it all alone."

A second significant factor which contributed to the intensity of our Lord's suffering was the mental anguish of anticipating the cross. The grief of Gethsemane must have been intensified because Jesus knew what was coming. Via dolorosa: it was the way to the cross and he knew it. So awesome did the crucifixion appear that the anticipation of it caused him to recoil in horror. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." He sweat drops of blood. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association of March 21, 1986, the extremes of stress and dehydration can cause blood to be lost through the pores of the skin. Jesus was at such an extremity of human endurance. Only his perfect commitment to the Father's will determined his victory.

A third factor important for our understanding of our Lord's suffering in Gethsemane is seen in his obedient surrender to the Father's will. No form of resistance would be tolerated. He was being "led like a lamb to the slaughter."

Jesus refused to resort to either swords or angels in his defense. Let the eternal purpose of redemption be fulfilled as the Scripture had declared it! This was his attitude. If there was to be blood shed, it would have to be his own. If angels were to be involved, let them be ministering servants for their master's needs, not warriors in his defense. Swords and clubs (instruments of earthly power) and angelic hosts (emblems of heavenly power) must be set aside. Jesus would do the Father's will. The prophetic word must be fulfilled. Nothing on earth (swords) or heaven (angels) would be enlisted to prevent it. Redemption would be accomplished.

Its Redemptive Meaning

The deeper meaning of our Lord's work in Gethsemane cannot be understood unless the "garden theme" of Scripture is understood. Geerhardus Vos in his book entitled Biblical Theology observes that the symbol "garden" stands in the biblical record as a place of fellowship between God and his people. It identifies the divine/human encounter that is played out in salvation history. "Garden" therefore represents the context of covenant life, the relationship of harmony and unity between God and mankind. In the garden of Eden fellowship between God and mankind was established. Human beings, as divine image bearers, were created to live in covenant fellowship with their God. A garden was prepared by God as the arena of this happy divine/human fellowship. God was man's friend. They walked together as Friend with friend in unity and peace. Everything for human life and well-being was provided.

But then came the FALL. Falling for the Devil's lie the original humans declared their independence from God. They broke covenant. The God/man relationship was shattered. They, therefore, had to be evicted from the garden. There was no place remaining for Creator/created harmony and peace. The Great Divorce had taken place.

The rest of the Bible, after the event of the fall, recounts for us what God determined to do, in His mercy and grace, to right the wrong of man's corrupting rebellion. Accordingly, there are repeated anticipations of the restoration of fellowship with God under the symbol of restored gardens. Psalm 23 describes a garden scene with green pastures and quiet waters, where the Shepherd will restore the soul. Ezekiel 36:35 speaks God's word of promise to the restored exiles that the "land that was laid waste will become like the garden of Eden." Ezekiel 47 records the vision of a river flowing from under the temple entrance bringing verdant vegetative life to the valley. The vision closes with "garden" terminology.

"Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both sides of the river bank. There leaves shall not wither nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing." (v. 12)

Isaiah 65:25 uses "garden" language to describe the ultimate place of fellowship God will provide, where "the wolf and lamb will feed together–they will not harm nor destroy in all my holy mountain."

The garden of Gethsemane occupies a crucial place between the broken fellowship of Eden and the restoration of fellowship that the prophets' visions anticipated. To restore mankind to fellowship with God, the divine Son had to endure the agony of Gethsemane; he had to endure the alienation that the sin in the first garden caused. Jesus went to the garden craving fellowship with his heavenly Father. He prayed a heart wrenching prayer: "Father, don't forsake me now. Let this cup pass, for to drink it I'll have to cry 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!' To live apart from you is death. Don't leave me now."

Gethsemane was the second Eden. The Second Adam in the second Eden endured the consequent rejection of the Father that the sin in the first Eden caused. But Gethsemane is also the reverse of Eden. In the first Eden, Adam forsook God and God had to evict him from the garden, for fellowship was broken. In Gethsemane, God forsook the God-man, the second Adam, and man, in the form of an unbelieving mob, evicted the divine Son from the garden. It had to be. He who bore man's sin must bear its penalty: alienation from God, forsaken, death. There was no other way. It was the Father's will.

And, like the first Eden, there was temptation in Gethsemane too. Jesus was tempted to avoid the cross, tempted to move contrary to the Father's will. But the second Adam did not yield to temptation. The perfect representative man knew well the power of temptation even as he spoke to his garden companions, "Pray that you do not enter into temptation."

The garden theme of Scripture continues from Gethsemane, to the cross, to the garden tomb.

Jesus was buried in a garden from which he triumphantly arose. "Death could not hold its prey." He arose. The resurrection garden assured the restoration of fellowship between the offended Lord and his offending people. In the resurrection the heavenly Father placed the stamp of divine approval upon the savior's work of redemption. So that now, "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved."

The Covenant Mediator has restored covenant fellowship for his covenant people, because where Adam failed, Christ prevailed. Where the first Adam failed, Jesus prevailed. The note sung by the angels at Jesus' birth rings now with realized joy. God and sinners are reconciled. "You who were once afar off have been brought near by the blood of the cross." Enemies have been made friends.

But there is still more to come. The Bible closes with a description of a garden scene. Like the first garden in Scripture (Eden), it is God who provides it. But unlike Eden, nothing impure will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful. And there will be no more curse, no more demonic temptation, no more fall.

The heavenly garden includes a "river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb" and "the tree of life yielding its fruit, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations." The throne of God and of the Lamb will be there and "his servants will serve Him. They shall see his face and his name will be on their foreheads; and they will reign forever and ever" (Rev. 22:1-6).

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California