Great Texts of the Bible
The Prayer in Gethsemane
And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; remove this cup from me: howbeit not what I will, but what thou wilt.—Mark 14:36.
At the close of his account of the Temptation, St. Luke tells us that then the devil left our Lord for a season. Doubtless there was no time throughout His life—which indeed was one victory over evil—in which that great adversary left Him wholly unassailed; but the words lead us to look for some special manifestation of his malice,—some sequel to his first desperate attempt,—some last struggle with his Conqueror. Nor is the expectation vain. The Agony in the garden is in many respects the natural correlative to the Temptation. In this we see Christ’s human will proved to be in perfect harmony with the righteous will of God, just as in that His sense and soul and spirit were found subjected to the higher laws of life and devotion and providence. The points of similarity between them are numerous and striking. The Temptation occurred directly after the public recognition of our Lord’s Messiahship at His Baptism: the Agony was separated only by a few days from His triumphal entry into the Holy City. The Temptation preceded the active work of our Lord’s prophetic ministry: the Agony ushered in the final scenes of His priestly offering. The Temptation was endured in the savage wastes of the wilderness: the Agony in the silent shades of the night. Thrice under various pleas did Satan dare to approach the Saviour: thrice now does the Saviour approach His Father with a prayer of unutterable depth. When the Temptation was over, angels came and ministered to Him who had met Satan face to face: during the Agony an angel was seen strengthening Him who fought with death, knowing all its terrors. But there are also differences between the two events which give to each their peculiar meaning and importance for us, though they are thus intimately connected. At the first our Lord was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted: at the last He retired into the garden to seek the presence of God. At the first He went alone to meet man’s enemy: at the last He takes with Him three loved disciples to watch and pray while He approaches His Father. At the first Satan lures Him to gratify each element of His nature: at the last he endeavours to oppress Him by fear. At the first our Lord repels the Tempter with the language of invincible majesty: at the last He seems to sink under a burden—like the cross which He soon carried—too heavy for Him to bear.
The prayer contains:—
His Assurance of the Father’s Ability
His Acceptance of the Father’s Will
It is introduced by the invocation, “Abba, Father”; and it leads to a consideration of Christ in Prayer.
1. The combination, “Abba, Father,” occurs three times in the New Testament, with a meaning which is the same every time but is not fully understood until the three occasions are studied separately and then brought together. The three occasions are these: (1) By Jesus in Gethsemane. The words are: “And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; remove this cup from me: howbeit not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36). (2) By St. Paul, in writing to the Galatians. The words are: “But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them which were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:4-6). (3) By St. Paul, to the Romans. The words are: “For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).
Take the thoughts in order—
(1) Here are all the persons concerned in redemption: (a) the Father, to whom the cry is made; (b) the Son, who makes the cry for Himself in Gethsemane; (c) the Spirit of the Son, who makes it in the heart of the other sons; (d) the sons themselves, who, under the power of the Spirit, cry, “Abba, Father.”
(2) The cry is the cry of a son to a father. That in every case is the whole point and meaning of it. In one case it is the cry of the Only-begotten Son; in the other cases it is the cry of the adopted sons. But it is always the cry of a son who has the heart of a son. An adopted son might not have the heart of a son. But in each case here the Father says, “My beloved son”; and the son responds, crying, “Abba, Father.”
(3) The true heart of a son, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father,” is due to the gift of the Spirit. Look at St. Paul’s argument to the Galatians. There he states two things: first, that when the fulness of time came, God sent forth His Son into the world; second, that because we are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts.1 [Note: Expository Times, xx. 358.]
2. Our Lord’s appeal to God as “Father” was evidence that He was not, even then, forsaken in His humanity. He experienced the deep depression, the spiritual eclipse, the midnight darkness, under which we may speak as if utterly desolate. But a, feeling of forsakenness is no proof of the reality. As the sun is not altered when eclipsed, so God was as near in Gethsemane as on the Mount of Transfiguration. The Sufferer expressed this confidence when calling on Him as “Father.” God has forsaken no one who utters this cry. The appeal is the response to His own call. If as a child I say, “My Father,” He as Father has already said, “My child.” Mourning after an absent God is an evidence of love as strong as rejoicing in a present one.
Speak to me, my God;
And let me know the living Father cares
For me, even me; for this one of His choice.
Hast Thou no word for me? I am Thy thought.
God, let Thy mighty heart beat into mine,
And let mine answer as a pulse to Thine.
See, I am low; yea, very low; but Thou
Art high, and Thou canst lift me up to Thee.
I am a child, a fool before Thee, God;
But Thou hast made my weakness as my strength.
I am an emptiness for Thee to fill;
My soul, a cavern for Thy sea.
“Thou makest me long,” I said, “therefore wilt give;
My longing is Thy promise, O my God.”1 [Note: George Macdonald.]
His Assurance of the Father’s Ability
“All things are possible unto thee.”
The words are without reservation and they must be accepted unreservedly. All things are possible to God always. There is no question of His power under any circumstances. The only question is as to His will. “All things are possible unto thee.”
It was so with our Lord on earth. “If thou wilt,” said the leper, “thou canst make me clean.” His answer was, “I will.” Whereupon the leprosy departed from the man.
This is a most comfortable doctrine. There is nothing impossible with God. We never have to do with a baffled, helpless God. He is always able. And so, as the only doubt we can ever have about Him is His willingness, we know that whatever we do not receive is something that would not be good for us to receive. For we know that His will is to do us good. We know that He will never withhold any good thing from them that love Him.
The cup which was put into the hands of our Lord in Gethsemane was so bitter that if He had not known absolutely that all things are possible to God, He would have thought that the Father could not help offering it. And that is actually how we look upon it. There was no other way, we say. We limit God’s resources. We curtail God’s power. We may say that there was no better way; for that is self-evident. He took this way of redeeming us because it was the best way—the way of love. But if it were not that His will always is for the best—the best for us and the best for our Saviour—who can tell that He would not have chosen another way than this strange way of agony and bitter tears?
It was the best way for our Saviour. When He was able to say, “Not my will but thine,” He entered into rest. He despised the shame. And it is the best way for us. “Father, if it be possible,” we say. But let us never, never end with that. For it is possible if it is His will. Let us always add—“Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.”
“Remove this cup from me.”
What was the Cup? In considering this question, says E. L. Hull, we have to take account of two things at the outset:
(1) On the one hand, we must never forget that the suffering of Christ is a mystery too profound for us ever fully to understand. The very fact that the Divine One could suffer is, in itself, beyond our comprehension. The fact that Christ’s sufferings were vicarious, invests them with still deeper darkness. That in Christ the Divine was manifested in a human form, and was thus connected with the human, is the source of the profoundest mystery in His sufferings. We know that in man the soul and body mysteriously affect each other; that the agony of the spirit will, by some inexplicable method, shatter the material frame; but what effect the manifestation of Divinity had on a frail human body we can never understand. Thus it must not be forgotten that the sufferings of Christ as the Divine Man are veiled in impenetrable darkness, and form a subject which must be approached with deepest awe. The man who boldly speculates on this has lost all reverence, while he who stands before it in reverential love will be able partly to comprehend its mystery.
(2) The second point is, that while the sufferings of Christ are awfully mysterious, we may obtain some dim insight into their character and source by considering that, though Divine, Christ was also perfectly human—subject to all the sinless laws of our nature. We are spirits in human forms; we know how the spiritual can suffer in the material, and have thus one requisite for forming a feeble conception of the source of the Saviour’s sufferings.
Luther was once questioned at table concerning the “bloody sweat” and the other deep spiritual sufferings which Christ endured in the Garden. Then he said: “No man can know or conceive what that anguish must have been. If any man began even to experience such suffering, he must die. You know many do die of sickness of heart! for heart-anguish is indeed death. If a man could feel such anguish and distress as Christ felt, it would be impossible for him to endure it, and for his soul to remain in his body. Soul and body would part. To Christ alone was this agony possible, and it wrung from Him ‘sweat which was as great drops of blood.’ ”1 [Note: Watchwords from Luther, 17.]
1. Was the Cup the physical pain of His sufferings? He endured physical anguish to a degree inconceivable by us; for if it be true that the more sensitive the spirit the more it weakens the bodily frame—that intense and protracted thought diminishes its vigour—that mental labours waste its energy and render it susceptible of the keenest suffering, then we may well suppose that Christ in the agony of the garden and the cross endured physical suffering to an inconceivable degree. But apart from the frequent occasions on which He showed that His spirit was troubled, we may perhaps perceive that bodily suffering was not the chief source of His sorrow, from one fact, namely, that physical suffering is endurable, and by itself would not have overwhelmed Him. Man can bear bodily anguish to almost any degree. Granting the consciousness of rectitude, you can devise no pain which cannot be borne by some men.
I have been struck lately, in reading works by some writers who belong to the Romish Church, with the marvellous love which they have towards the Lord Jesus Christ. I did think, at one time, that it could not be possible for any to be saved in that Church; but, often, after I have risen from reading the books of these holy men, and have felt myself to be quite a dwarf by their side, I have said, “Yes, despite their errors, these men must have been taught of the Holy Spirit. Notwithstanding all the evils of which they have drunk so deeply, I am quite certain that they must have had fellowship with Jesus, or else they could not have written as they did.” Such writers are few and far between; but there is a remnant according to the election of grace even in the midst of that apostate Church. Looking at a book by one of them the other day, I met with this remarkable expression, “Shall that body, which has a thorn-crowned Head, have delicate, pain-fearing members? God forbid!” That remark went straight to my heart at once.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
2. Was the Cup the fear of Death? We cannot conceive that the overwhelming sorrow of Jesus arose from the prospect of His approaching dissolution. For the suffering of men through fear of death may be ascribed to two causes,—either the sense of sin, or a doubt regarding the nature of the future life. We can well conceive how a man who has a half dread lest death may be the extinction of being, or who knows not whether futurity will bring him blessedness or woe, should be overcome with a strange horror of dying. To such a man the uncertainty is terrible, as he feels death may be but the escape from ills that are bearable to ills that may be infinite. But we cannot suppose that anything like doubt or a fear of the change of death for one moment overshadowed Jesus Christ. For, take one illustration out of many, and compare the language of Christ with that of the apostle Paul in prospect of dying, and we shall perceive that dread of the mere change of death could not have affected Jesus. Paul on the very threshold of martyrdom wrote, “I am ready to be offered.”
Celsus and Julian the Apostate contrasted Jesus, sorrowing and trembling in the garden, with Socrates, the hero of the poison cup, and with other heroes of antiquity, greatly, of course, to the disadvantage of the former. “Why, then,” said Celsus, scornfully alluding to Jesus’ conflict in the garden, “does He supplicate help, and bewail Himself and pray for escape from the fear of death, expressing Himself in terms like these, ‘O Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me’?” The Emperor Julian, quoted by Theodore of Mopsuestia, uses, if possible, still more scornful language: “Jesus presents such petitions as a wretched mortal would offer when unable to bear a calamity with serenity, and although Divine, He is strengthened by an angel.” To these heathen philosophers Jesus, trembling and agonised in Gethsemane, seemed to come far short of the great men of classic antiquity.1 [Note: A. B. Cameron.]
Whence did the martyrs draw their fortitude? Where did they find their strength to meet death so bravely? Why could they look the great enemy in the face without flinching, even when he wore his grimmest aspect? They were “strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” His example was before them, His spirit within them, His face above them. They saw Him standing at the right hand of God, the Victor in His glory. They knew Him as the conqueror of death and the great ravisher of the power of the grave. They passed into the valley treading in the footprints He had left; they looked up through its darkness at their Leader on the mountain-top. “The Breaker had gone up before them,” leaving the gates open for them to pass through.2 [Note: G. A. Sowter.]
Thus every where we find our suffering God,
And where He trod
May set our steps: the Cross on Calvary
Beams on the martyr host, a beacon light
In open fight.
To the still wrestlings of the lonely heart
He doth impart
The virtue of His midnight agony,
When none was nigh,
Save God and one good angel, to assuage
The tempest’s rage.
Mortal! if life smile on thee, and thou find
All to thy mind,
Think, who did once from Heaven to Hell descend
Thee to befriend;
So shalt Thou dare forego, at His dear call,
Thy best, thine all.
“O Father! not my will, but Thine be done”—
So spake the Son.
Be this our charm, mellowing earth’s ruder noise
Of griefs and joys;
That we may cling for ever to Thy breast
In perfect rest!1 [Note: J. Keble, The Christian Year, 85.]
3. There are several ingredients in the Cup. They may not be all equally evident, and when we have considered them all we may still be far from the bottom of this mystery of mysteries. But it is helpful to consider them, if it is done reverently and self-reproachfully.
(1) The Cup was the necessity of coming into closest relations with sinners, the exceeding guilt of whose sin He alone was able to understand. Like the dwellers in a city slum, they were unaware of the foul air they were breathing, they were ignorant of the uncleanness of their lives. He came from the purity and holiness of God’s throne. How could He breathe in this atmosphere? How could He touch these defiled garments? Yet He must come into the very midst of it. His sympathy for the sinner is not less than His loathing for the sin.
We know that the sympathy which a human spirit has with man is in proportion to the magnitude of that spirit’s powers, and the depth of its emotional nature. It is impossible for a human soul to sympathise with all humanity, but the men of greatest genius and profoundest feeling have the strongest sympathy with the race. Men of feebler and narrower natures care but little for those beyond the circle of their own friends, while the heart of the patriot beats in sympathy with the sorrows of a nation and measures the wrongs of an age. Christ’s sympathy as the Divine Son of Man was wide as the world. On all who lived then, on the men of the past, on the generations of the future, He looked. For all He felt. The pity of the Infinite One throbbed in His heart. To His ear the great cry of the world was audible, and to His eye all the woes of humanity were clear. Rise a step higher, and consider that Jesus saw the deep connection between suffering and sin—saw men being driven like slaves in the chains that connect the sin with the suffering, and at the same time blinded by their own evil. He saw in sorrow more than sorrow. Every tear of the weeping world and every death that broke the fair companionships of earth, touched His sympathy, not simply by their agony, but because they were the fruits of sin. Here we find the meaning of the sighing and sadness with which He looked on suffering, for, while He denounced the narrow notion that each man’s suffering springs from his own sin, yet suffering and death were to Him the signs of man’s universal wandering from God. Rise one step higher—a mighty step, yet one the extent of which we may faintly apprehend. Christ knew the power of sin just because He was free from it. He entered into the very awfulness of transgression because of His perfect sympathy with man. Does this seem perplexing? Do we not know that the purest and most compassionate men ever have the keenest perception of the sins of their brethren, and feel them like a burden on their own hearts? Must not Christ, the Perfect One, have felt the evil of the world’s sin, as it pressed against His soul, most profoundly because He was sinless?1 [Note: E. L. Hull.]
(2) This Cup of suffering was embittered by the behaviour of those for whom He was suffering. As the wretched victims of debauchery will sometimes refuse the sympathy and help of those who seek to restore them to a better life, so Christ was despised and rejected by those whom He desired to redeem. The Gentiles crucified Him; the rulers of His people condemned Him to death; His disciples forsook Him and fled; one of them betrayed Him. He that ate bread with Him lifted up his heel against Him.
This is a grief which strikes deeply and keenly into the soul, in proportion to its own elevation and purity. Such souls care not for the opposition and for the obloquy of the stranger, or the worldly, or of those from whom nothing better can be expected. But the real keen and piercing grief of noble minds is when they feel that the familiar friend in whom they trusted has turned against them, that the leader and companion on whom they leaned, as on a part of themselves, has given way. This is, indeed, agony. Of all the dreadful experiences of human life is not this one of the darkest, the moment when the truth may have first flashed upon us that some steadfast character on whom we relied has broken in our hand; that in some fine spirit whom we deeply admired has been disclosed a yawning cavern of sin and wickedness? Such was His feeling when He saw that Judas could no more be trusted; when He saw that Peter and James and John, instead of watching round Him, had sunk into a deep slumber—“What, could ye not watch with me one hour?”
(3) This want of understanding of even His own disciples drove Him into a solitude that at such a time and to such a nature must have been very hard to bear. Notice the words, “He went a little further.” Do you not already feel the awful loneliness conveyed by these words: the sense of separation, the sense of solitude? Jesus is approaching the solemn climax of His life, and as He draws near to it the solitude deepens. He has long since left the home of His mother and His brethren, and will see it no more. He has but recently left the sacred home of Bethany, that haven of peace where He has often rested, and where the hands of Mary have anointed Him against His burial. He has even now left the chamber of the Paschal supper, and the seal of finality has been put upon His earthly ministry in the drinking of the cup when He said to His disciples, “Remember me.” He has just left eight of His disciples at the outer gate of Gethsemane, saying, “Stay ye here while I go and pray yonder.” A few moments later, and He parts from Peter and James and John, saying, “Tarry ye here and watch with me,” and He went a little further. It was but a stone’s throw, says St. Luke, and yet an infinite gulf now lay between Him and them.
This loneliness of life in its common forms we all know something about. We know, for instance, that the parting of friends is one of the commonest experiences of life. People come into our lives for a time; they seem inseparable from us, and then by force of circumstances or by some slowly widening difference of temper or opinion, or by one of those many social forms of separation of which life is full, they slowly drift out of our touch and our life. “We must part, as all human creatures have parted,” wrote Dean Swift to Alexander Pope, and there is no sadder sentence than that in human biography. It strikes upon the ear like a knell.1 [Note: W. J. Dawson.]
But no boldness of thought and no heroism of conduct will ever be possible to us until we have learned to stand alone and to go “a little further.” You remember that the favourite lines of General Gordon, which he often quoted in those splendid lonely days at Khartoum, were the lines taken from Browning’s “Paracelsus”—
I see my way as birds their trackless way.
I shall arrive! what time, what circuit first,
I ask not: but unless God send His hail
Or blinding fireballs, sleet or stifling snow,
In some time, His good time, I shall arrive:
He guides me and the bird.
4. But there is a greater sorrow here. In some way, mysterious but most assured, He had to make the guilt of the sin of mankind His own. He had to take the sinner’s place—his place as a sinner—and accept the burden of his sinfulness. His agony becomes intelligible only when we accept His own explanation of all His suffering and woe, that He had come to give His life a ransom for many, and to shed His blood for the remission of their sins. In other words, He had come to make the sins of others His own, and to suffer and die as if He had committed them, and as if the guilt and the penalty of them were His.
How Jesus could assume and have this personal relation to sins not His own is the real mystery here. It must ever be, like much else in His Divine human being, largely beyond our finite thought. It goes so far to explain it that He was the Son of Man, and that in this unique character He could be for men what no other could possibly be. As the God-man He was related to humanity, to its burden and its destiny, as no other could be. He was its head and representative. As such He could, while sinless Himself, make the sin, the agony, and the conflict of our fallen race His own. The suffering and the death which this involved He as the second Adam underwent, not for His own sake, but for the sake of humanity, that all might issue in salvation. Thus far the Incarnation throws light upon Gethsemane and Calvary. It did not merely add another to the number of our race, but it gave a new Divine centre or head to it, and one in whose personal history the agony and conflict of humanity because of sin might be endured and brought to the victory of redemption.
It affords us, also, a new revelation of God, showing Him in the glory of His grace. We can understand charity and self-denying beneficence meeting the results of evil in this world—the poverty, misery, and suffering it has caused—with their bounty and all the services and forms of self-sacrifice possible to them; but here is philanthropy on the Son of Man’s part going so far as to deal with the evil itself and all its demerit and guiltiness, its relations to the moral order of the universe, and to the claims and glory of God. For Divine love to relate itself to human need and suffering, and to multiply its offices of charity in relieving them is a great thing; but for Divine love to clothe itself with the shame and guilt of the sufferers and make their cause its own is another and an infinitely greater thing. For God’s Son to come into the midst of suffering men that He might share their ills and sorrows, and provide them with comforts and abatements, would reveal a beautiful compassion and beneficence. But for Him to descend from His Divine throne, step into the sinner’s place, and suffer Himself to be numbered with the transgressors, bearing their burden and blame—this is grace beyond all we can conceive of grace.
5. But what is it that makes it so hard for Him to have to take the sinner’s place? It is that the sinner is an outcast from God. Sin has broken the communion. And now He who was spoken of as the beloved Son has to bear the Father’s displeasure and feel the unutterable pain of separation. No wonder He prayed, “Father, glorify thou me with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.” For that glory was to be loved by the Father: “For thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” The Father loves Him still and will glorify Him again. But now He feels that He is about to be separated. One with the sinner in his sin, He must feel that He is separate from the Father in His holiness. The Agony in the Garden is the cry on the cross—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It casts its dark shadow before. If He accepts the Cup now He will go through it all, even though when the moment comes that cry may yet be wrung from Him.
Imagine the evil of the world being felt by Him as a mighty burden, and that feeling gathering and deepening until over His frail humanity it rolled like a flood,—the sense of the world’s sin cleaving to Him, the sense of the world’s woe rousing Him to compassion till its mighty mass seemed to be tearing Him from God, and the awful cry came at last, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Add to this the mystery of His Divinity—the Divine capacity of sorrow within the human form—and who can tell what suffering His soul knew? Who can tell the horror of darkness and the shuddering agony of pity that thrilled Him as the cry burst forth, “O my Father, let this cup pass from me”?
To bear the weight of sin, and by it to feel cut off from the communion with God which is Life Eternal—this is the one thing absolutely unbearable. We sinners know it, if ever we have felt what men call remorse for our own sin, or for its consequences, which we would give worlds to undo—if ever we know what it is to struggle with all our might against the bondage of conscious sinfulness, and to struggle in vain. The sense that sin has gained an absolute mastery over us, and that in the darkness of its bondage God’s face of love is hidden from us for ever, and the unwilling terrors of His wrath let loose upon our unsheltered heads—which of us would not count light in comparison the very keenest agony of body and soul? You remember how St. Paul cries out under it, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But this sense of our own sin is but a faint shadow of the burden on our Lord’s spirit of bearing, in the mysterious power of Atonement, the sins of the whole world—“made” (as St. Paul boldly expresses it) “sin for us,” entering even into the spiritual darkness which cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”1 [Note: Bishop Barry.]
Into the woods my Master went,
Clean forspent, forspent;
Into the woods my Master came,
Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to Him,
The little grey leaves were kind to Him,
When into the woods He came.
Out of the woods my Master went,
And He was well content;
Out of the woods my Master came,
Content with death and shame.
When death and shame would woo Him last,
From under the trees they drew Him last;
’Twas on a tree they slew Him—last
When out of the woods He came.2 [Note: Sidney Lanier.]
His Acceptance of the Father’s Will
“Howbeit not what I will, but what thou wilt.”
1. Not what I will.—It was His meat and drink, as He Himself has told us, to do His Father’s will and to finish His work. We can understand Him doing the will of His Father with gladness when, in accordance with it, He had miracles to perform, Divine blessings to spread abroad, and His own perfectly pure and good life to live. We can also understand Him bravely doing it when, with His soul which loathed evil and every kind of wrong, He bore up unflinchingly against the wrongs and the evils with which He was Himself assailed. But Jesus’ subjection went far beyond this when He took the cross from His Father’s hand, and meekly said as He did so in Gethsemane, “Not what I will, but what thou wilt.”
The consent of His will was absolutely necessary. So He said Himself of His life, “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” That consent, again, was needed at every point. At any moment His own words might have been realised, “Cannot I pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” That consent, further, had to be given under a perfect fore-knowledge of all that it implied—every pang of suffering, every cruelty of triumphant evil. In these points, as in all others, His was the one perfect sacrifice, laying a will, itself absolutely free, at the feet of His Father. Doubtless we may follow Him—we must follow Him—but it is afar off.
We read of a martyr of the English Reformation, before whose eyes at the stake was held up the pardon which awaited his recantation; and who cried out in an agony which he found fiercer than the fire itself, “If ye love my soul, away with it.” And the secret of such agony, as also the essence of sacrifice, lies in the submission of the will—in the subjection of that mysterious power, which in man, weak and finite as he is, can be (so God wills it) overcome by no force except its own. “Sacrifice and burnt offering thou wouldest not. Then said I, Lo! I come to do thy will, O God.” I am content to do it.1 [Note: Bishop Barry.]
What a contrast within the space of a few hours! What a transition from the quiet elevation of that, “he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father! I will,” to that falling on the ground and crying in agony, “My Father! not what I will.” In the one we see the High Priest within the veil in His all-prevailing intercession; in the other, the sacrifice on the altar opening the way through the rent veil. The high-priestly “Father! I will,” in order of time precedes the sacrificial “Father! not what I will”; but this was only by anticipation, to show what the intercession would be when once the sacrifice was brought. In reality it was that prayer at the altar, “Father! not what I will,” in which the prayer before the throne, “Father! I will,” had its origin and its power. It is from the entire surrender of His will in Gethsemane that the Hight Priest on the throne has the power to ask what He will, has the right to make His people share in that power too, and ask what they will.
2. What Thou wilt.—Out of that agony—borne through the power of intense prayer of supplication—came forth submission to the will of the Father. Not the acceptance of an inevitable fate, against which it is vain, and therefore foolish to strive—such as a mere Fatalist or Cynic might show. But the submission, first, of a perfect faith—sure that whatever our Father ordains must be well—sure that He will not suffer one tear or pang that is not needed for Salvation—sure that whatever He lays on us, He will give us comfort and strength to bear. “Not my will, but Thine be done—Thine the all-wise—Thine the all-merciful—Thine the almighty will.” But, even beyond this, there is the submission of love. There is an actual delight in sacrifice of self for those we love, which, in the world as it is, makes men count inevitable suffering as joy, and, out of that suffering for others, actually begets a fresh access of love to them, which is itself an exaltation and a comfort.
Christ’s prayer was not for the passing of the cup, but that the will of God might be done in and by Him, and “He was heard in that he feared,” not by being exempted from the Cross, but by being strengthened through submission for submission. So His agony is the pattern of all true prayer, which must ever deal with our wishes, as He did with His instinctive shrinking,—present them wrapped in an “if it be possible,” and followed by a “nevertheless.” The meaning of prayer is not to force our wills on God’s, but to bend our wills to His; and that prayer is really answered of which the issue is our calm readiness for all that He lays upon us.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
3. It is best so. The cup did not pass from Him because it was not possible; but yet in two ways, far above our ways, His prayer was granted. It was granted first of all—(the whole history of the Passion proves it)—it was granted in the heavenly strength that was given to Him to bear all the pains and sorrows that were laid upon Him. As afterwards He said to His great Apostle, “My grace is sufficient for thee,” so, now, God’s grace was sufficient for Him. There appeared, we are told, an angel from heaven strengthening Him; and in the power of that strength He rose from His knees, no longer sorrowful, no longer bowed down with terror and trouble, but calm and cheerful, ready to go forth and meet His enemies, ready to bear all the taunts and pains of His trial and crucifixion, ready to answer a good confession before Pontius Pilate, and to pray for His brothers, and to think of His mother and friend, and of His companions in woe, and to look back on the finishing of His mighty work, and to commend His soul to His Father—more majestic, more adorable, more Divine than He had ever seemed before.
Let us fix our thoughts on that second and yet grander mode in which our Lord’s petition was answered, even according to those sacred words of His own, which are the model of all prayer, which are the key and secret of this Divine tragedy—“Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” That is the sum and substance of the whole narrative of the Passion. Not the substitution of the will of Christ for the will of the eternal God, but the substitution of the will of the eternal God for the will even of His most dearly beloved Son.
There is a friend of mine, a dear and brilliant friend, whose name would be honoured by you all if I were free to mention it. He told me the other day the darkest chapter of his life. He told me how his whole life lay suddenly broken off in disaster: his work ended, his heart broken, himself in hospital suffering cruel pain. And then he said: “Oh, Dawson, what visions of God I had as I lay in hospital! what a sense of eternity, and the reality of things spiritual! I tell you, if I knew to-day I could gain such visions of God and truth only by repeating my sufferings, I would crawl upon my hands and knees across this continent to get that disease!” Ah! there lies the justification of our Gethsemanes. We need the utter loneliness, we need the separation from friend and lover, to make us sure of God. “And Jacob was left alone,” says the older record: “and there wrestled a man with him till the breaking of the day.” Even so—till the breaking of the day, for the divinest of all dawns shines in the Gethsemane of sacrifice.1 [Note: W. J. Dawson.]
4. How blessed was the Result. He prayed His way to perfect calm, which is ever the companion of perfect self-surrender to God. They who cease from their own works do “enter into rest.” All the agitations which had come storming in massed battalions against Him are defeated by it. They have failed to shake His purpose, they now fail even to disturb His peace. So, victorious from the dreadful conflict, and at leisure of heart to care for others, He can go back to the disciples.
And so you find that from this moment Jesus moves to His end in majestic calm. The agony is passed, and it is passed for ever; He knows the darkness to be but the shadow of God’s wing. He speaks henceforth as one who sees the dawn, and has the light of dawn upon His brow.
And how great is the Encouragement. Christ’s agony is the very consecration of human suffering, the fresh spring of human hope. There is no depth into which we can be plunged that He has not fathomed, no gloom into which we can be cast that He has not illumined. There are trials harder to bear even than death itself, but Christ has known their bitterness, and if we recognise the source of sin from which they first flowed, He can turn those bitter waters into rivers of comfort.
We very properly distinguish in ourselves two wills, the one of natural inclination, the instinctive will, if you please; the other the deliberate purpose and choice of the moral and rational nature. Our first effort must be the complete surrender of our deliberate rational will to God, to work ever in submission to His gracious ordering for our lives. Then the constant discipline of the Christian life becomes the stern struggle to subdue the will of natural inclination and to bring it a captive to our Lord. This is the sacrifice we have to offer Him, a feeble counterpart in our small way, of the heroic self-sacrifice He offered that day in Gethsemane.1 [Note: A. Ritchie.]
I know, O Jesus, in the bitter hour
Of human pain, that Thou hast felt the power
Of deeper anguish, and my lips are still,
Because in silence Thou hast borne God’s will.2 [Note: E. H. Divall, The Ways of God, 22.]
Christ in Prayer
What is prayer? It is to connect every thought with the thought of God. To look on everything as His work and His appointment. To submit every thought, wish, and resolve to Him. To feel His presence, so that it shall restrain us even in our wildest joy. That is prayer. And what we are now, surely we are by prayer. If we have attained any measure of goodness, if we have resisted temptations, if we have any self-command, or if we live with aspirations and desires beyond the common, we shall not hesitate to ascribe all to prayer.
1. Christ is an Example in prayer. There is many a case in life, where to act seems useless—many a truth which at times appears incredible. Then we throw ourselves on Him—He did it, He believed it, that is enough. He was wise, where I am foolish. He was holy, where I am evil. He must know. He must be right. I rely on Him. Bring what arguments you may; say that prayer cannot change God’s will. I know it. Say that prayer ten thousand times comes back like a stone. Yes, but Christ prayed, therefore I may and I will pray. Not only so, but I must pray; the wish felt and not uttered before God, is a prayer. Speak, if your heart prompts, in articulate words, but there is an unsyllabled wish which is also prayer. You cannot help praying, if God’s spirit is in yours.
2. Christ’s Prayer is an Example of what prayer is. A common popular conception of prayer is, that it is the means by which the wish of man determines the Will of God. This conception finds an exact parallel in those anecdotes with which Oriental history abounds, wherein a sovereign gives to his favourite some token, on the presentation of which every request must be granted. As when Ahasuerus promised Queen Esther that her petition should be granted, even to the half of his kingdom. As when Herod swore to Herodias’ daughter that he would do whatever she should require.
(1) Try this conception by four tests:
(a) Try it by its incompatibility with the fact that this universe is a system of laws. Things are thus, rather than thus. Such an event is invariably followed by such a consequence. This we call a law. All is one vast chain, from which if you strike a single link you break the whole. It has been truly said that to heave a pebble on the seashore one yard higher up would change all antecedents from the creation, and all consequents to the end of time. For it would have required a greater force in the wave that threw it there—and that would have required a different degree of strength in the storm—that again, a change of temperature all over the globe—and that again, a corresponding difference in the temperaments and characters of the men inhabiting the different countries. So that when a child wishes a fine day for his morrow’s excursion, and hopes to have it by an alteration of what would have been without his wish, he desires nothing less than a whole new universe.
(b) Try it next by fact. Ask those of spiritual experience. We do not ask whether prayer has been efficacious—of course it has. It is God’s ordinance. Without prayer the soul dies. But what we ask is, whether the good derived has been exactly this, that prayer brought them the very thing they wished for? For instance, did the plague come and go according to the laws of prayer or the laws of health? Did it come because men neglected prayer, or because they disobeyed those rules which His wisdom has revealed as the conditions of salubrity? And when it departed was it because a nation lay prostrate in sackcloth and ashes, or because it arose and girded up its loins and removed those causes and those obstructions which, by everlasting Law, are causes and obstructions? Did the catarrh or the consumption go from him who prayed, sooner than from him who humbly bore it in silence? Try it by the case of Christ—Christ’s prayer did not succeed. He prayed that the cup might pass from Him. It did not so pass.
(c) Try it by its assumptions. To think that prayer changes God’s will, gives unworthy ideas of God. It supposes our will to be better than His, the Unchangeable, the Unsearchable, the All-Wise. Can you see the All of things—the consequences and secret connections of the event you wish? And if not, would you really desire the terrible power of infallibly securing it?
(d) Try it by its results. If we think that answered prayer is a proof of grace, we shall be unreasonably depressed and unreasonably elated—depressed when we do not get what we wish, elated when we do; besides, we shall judge uncharitably of other men. Two farmers pray, the one whose farm is on light land, for rain; the other, whose contiguous farm is on heavy soil, for fine weather; plainly one or the other must come, and that which is good for one may be injurious to the other. If this be the right view of prayer, then the one who does not obtain his wish must mourn, doubting God’s favour, or believing that he did not pray in faith. Two Christian armies meet for battle—Christian men on both sides pray for success to their own arms. Now if victory be given to prayer, independent of other considerations, we are driven to the pernicious principle that, success is the test of Right. From all which the history of this prayer of Christ delivers us. It is a precious lesson of the Cross, that apparent failure is Eternal victory. It is a precious lesson of this prayer, that the object of prayer is not the success of its petition; nor is its rejection a proof of failure. Christ’s petition was not gratified, yet He was the One well-beloved of His Father.
(2) The true efficacy of prayer is found in the words, “As thou wilt.” All prayer is to change the will human into submission to the will Divine. Trace the steps in this history by which the mind of the Son of Man arrived at this result. First, we find the human wish almost unmodified, that “That cup might pass from Him.” Then He goes to the disciples, and it would appear that the sight of those disciples, cold, unsympathetic, asleep, chilled His spirit, and set in motion that train of thought which suggested the idea that perhaps the passing of that cup was not His Father’s will. At all events He goes back with this perhaps, “If this cup may not pass from me except I drink it, thy will be done.” He goes back again, and the words become more strong: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” The last time He comes, all hesitancy is gone. Not one trace of the human wish remains; strong in submission, He goes to meet His doom—“Rise, let us be going; behold he is at hand that doth betray me.” This, then, is the true course and history of prayer.1 [Note: F. W. Robertson.]
He prayed, but to his prayer no answer came,
And choked within him sank his ardour’s flame;
No more he prayed, no more the knee he bent,
While round him darkened doubt and discontent;
Till in his room, one eve, there shone a light,
And he beheld an angel-presence bright,
Who said: “O faint heart, why hast thou resigned
Praying, and no more callest God to mind?”
“I prayed,” he said, “but no one heard my prayer,
Long disappointment has induced despair.”
“Fool!” said the angel, “every prayer of thine,
Of God’s immense compassion was a sign;
Each cry of thine ‘O Lord!’ itself contains
The answer, ‘Here am I’; thy very pains,
Ardour, and love and longing, every tear
Are His attraction, prove Him very near.”
The cloud dispersed; once more the suppliant prayed,
Nor ever failed to find the promised aid.2 [Note: Jalaluddin Rumi, in Claud Field’s A Little Book of Eastern Wisdom, 49.]
The Prayer in Gethsemane
Barry (A.), First Words in Australia, 93.
Burrell (D. J.), Christ and Progress, 200.
Cameron (A. B.), From the Garden to the Cross, 43.
Dawson (W. J.), The Evangelistic Note, 171.
Hall (N.), Gethsemane, 58.
Hull (E. L.), Sermons preached at King’s Lynn, iii. 58.
Lewis (A.), Sermons preached in England, 61.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions of Holy Scripture, Matt, xviii.–xxviii., 261.
Murray (A.), With Christ in the School of Prayer, 222.
Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, iv. 23.
Sowter (G. A.), Trial and Triumph, 175.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xlvii. No. 2715.
Westcott (B. F.), Village Sermons, 120.
Christian World Pulpit, i. 344 (Stanley).
Expository Times, xx. 356.