Before Christ went to the cross, he agonised with drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jonathan Edward’s sermon, ‘Christ’s Agony’, points out that we know Jesus meant what He said, because this prayer was our supreme model. I don’t think we spend enough time considering Jesus’ example. It does say that without Him we can do nothing. And that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
What has most struck me in Edward’s sermon is that Jesus feared not having the strength, in his human weakness, to endure to the end:
He was afraid lest his poor feeble strength should be overcome, and that he should fail in so great a trial, that he should be swallowed up by that death that he was to die, and so should not be saved from death; and therefore he offered up strong crying and tears unto him that was able to strengthen him, and support, and save him from death, that the death he was to suffer might not overcome his love and obedience, but that he might overcome death, and so be saved from it. If Christ’s courage had failed in the trial, and he had not held out under his dying sufferings, he never would have been saved from death, but he would have sunk in the deep mire; he never would have risen from the dead, for his rising from the dead was a reward of his victory. If his courage had failed, and he had given up, he would have remained from under the power of death, and so we should all have perished, we should have remained yet in our sins. If he had failed, all would have failed. If he had not overcome in that sore conflict, neither he nor we could have been freed from death, we all must have perished together. Therefore this was the saving from death that the apostle speaks of, that Christ feared and prayed for with strong crying and tears.
This may depend on which Christology you hold, but there must have been a part of Christ, if he was truly human, that shrank from the dreadful sufferings that were about to overwhelm him. The physical suffering was nothing compared with the weight of sin and the fury of God’s judgment. How could he have kept going if it wasn’t for the love that He had for us?
The heart of Christ at that time was full of distress, but it was fuller of love to vile worms: his sorrows abounded, but his love did much more abound. Christ’s soul was overwhelmed with a deluge of grief, but this was from a deluge of love to sinners in his heart sufficient to overflow the world, and overwhelm the highest mountains of its sins. Those great drops of blood that fell down to the ground were a manifestation of an ocean of love in Christ’s heart.
It has often struck me as particularly vile and hateful, that Jesus should have died in such a way. If he really had to die, it should have been in the gentlest and quietest way possible. Yet the manner of Jesus’ death blasted out the need of humankind for redemption. It illustrated in a most graphic form how depraved, how worthless, how sadistic, and how irrevocably malevolent the human heart is. Let’s lose the triumphalist vibe in our Christianity that proclaims humanity’s goodness and worth at the expense of our need of Him. All of our goodnesses are corrupt and tainted. We can only be sure, in this life, of pleasing the Lord when we are safe in His death and resurrection. As Edwards remarks:
It was the corruption and wickedness of men that contrived and effected his death; it was the wickedness of men that agreed with Judas, it was the wickedness of men that betrayed him, and that apprehended him, and bound him, and led him away like a malefactor; it was by men’s corruption and wickedness that he was arraigned, and falsely accused, and unjustly judged. It was by men’s wickedness that he was reproached, mocked, buffeted, and spit upon. It was by men’s wickedness that Barabbas was preferred before him. It was men’s wickedness that laid the cross upon him to bear, and that nailed him to it, and put him to so cruel and ignominious a death. This tended to give Christ an extraordinary sense of the greatness and hatefulness of the depravity of mankind.
And indeed when Jesus was praying in Gethsemane, He was praying for the Father’s will to be done. Partly, as we have seen above, because He feared that He would not have the strength to carry out the work that the Father had for him. I was listening this morning to Zac Poonen’s sermon ‘Only One Life Will Soon be Past’, and he was talking about the work that God has set aside for us to do. It is in THIS context that we can do all things through Christ. A lot of what we do, the Father has no interest in whatever. But don’t you want to do some stuff today that the Father is interested in? Don’t you want to please him, and to follow his path? It will not be an easy path if you are following it. If life is soft, and dreamy, and self-satisfied, you are not following Christ.
We cannot expect to be in the Father’s will if we are not agonising as He agonised. I think there was another false note in the 70s and 80s renewal that had the watchword: “Do not strive”. If we are interceeding according to His will, we are going to be agonising from time to time. Notice as Edwards says the extent to which Jesus prayed, and agonised, before the Cross:
It was meet and suitable that Christ, when about to engage in that terrible conflict, should thus earnestly seek help from God to enable him to do his will; for he needed God’s help–the strength of his human nature, without divine help, was not sufficient to carry him through. This was, without doubt, that in which the first Adam failed in his first trial, that when the trial came he was not sensible of his own weakness and dependence. If he had been, and had leaned on God, and cried to him for his assistance and strength against the temptation, in all likelihood we should have remained innocent and happy creatures to this day.
But was there ever any prayer that manifested love to enemies to such a degree, as those strong cries and tears of the Son of God for the success of his blood in the salvation of his enemies; the strife and conflict of whose soul in prayer was such as to produce his agony and his bloody sweat?
He who then prayed was the most worthy person that ever put up a prayer. He had more worthiness than ever men or angels had in the sight of God, according as by inheritance he has obtained a more excellent name than they; for he was the only-begotten Son of God, infinitely lovely in his sight, the Son in whom he declared once and again he was well-pleased. He was infinitely near and dear to God, and had more worthiness in his eyes ten thousand times than all men and angels put together. And can we suppose any other than that such a person was heard when he cried to God with such earnestness? Did Jacob, a poor sinful man, when he had wrestled with God, obtain of God the name of ISRAEL, and that encomium, that as a prince he had power with God, and prevailed? And did Elijah, who was a man of like passions, and of like corruptions with us, when he prayed, earnestly prevail on God to work such great wonders? And shall not the only-begotten Son of God, when wrestling with God in tears and blood, prevail, and have his request granted him?
Surely there is no room to suppose any such thing; and therefore, there is no room to doubt whether God will bestow salvation on those that believe in him, at his request.
That final statement is one of the most powerful justifications I have read for salvation to be assured; and yet in that assurance is also the need to recognise who we are before Him, and what we would have been without Him. This sermon of Edwards is unusually lengthy, but the application at the end I think is powerful in its argument that we ought to imitate Christ in our prayers for the salvation of others. There is no way in which we are called to relax and say: Well, Christ, has done it all. Yes, He has, but we have a part to play. We are now Christ’s hands and feet, we are now Christ’s voice to the lost, and also on behalf of the lost. Have no doubt, He is up there interceding for us. But we are to intercede for those who do not yet know him.
What an outrage it will be, every single soul who should have been plucked from the flames of hell, and was not, because we did not stir ourselves up to pray for them! How can we leave our children to perish in hell? How can we not attend to our duty for our neighbours, for our friends, for our work colleagues, and for this poor nation and this bemired and beleaguered world? Can we allow the devil to have the victory, when Christ fought so well and so hard and so beautifully, and He was a man just like us? If we are truly to follow Christ, we must follow him in intercession and in drinking the bitter cup to the end, knowing that it will achieve a weight of glory. Jesus meant what He said, because he modelled what He said. We must do likewise. To finish with Edwards:
Hence we may learn how earnest Christians ought to be in their prayers and endeavours for the salvation of others. Christians are the followers of Christ, and they should follow him in this. We see from what we have heard, how great the labour and travail of Christ’s soul was for others’ salvation, and what earnest and strong cries to God accompanied his labours. Here he hath set us an example.
Herein he hath set an example for ministers, who should as co-workers with Christ travail in birth with them till Christ be found in them. Gal. 4:19. “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again, until Christ be formed in you.”
Here is an example for parents, showing how they ought to labour and cry to God for the spiritual good of their children. You see how Christ laboured and strove and cried to God for the salvation of his spiritual children; and will not you earnestly seek and cry to God for your natural children?
Here is an example for neighbours one towards another how they should seek and cry for the good of one another’s souls, for this is the command of Christ, that they should love one another as Christ loved them. John 15:12. Here is an example for us, showing how we should earnestly seek and pray for the spiritual and eternal good of our enemies, for Christ did all this for his enemies, and when some of those enemies were at that very instant plotting his death, and busily contriving to satiate their malice and cruelty, in his most extreme torments, and most ignominious destruction.