As Easter approaches, I can think of no better book to read to prepare your heart and your mind for our celebration of our Savior’s suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection than the book by Frederick S. Leahy, The Cross He Bore. The subtitle of the book is “Meditations on the Sufferings of the Redeemer” and that is exactly what this book is. Because I think so much of this little work, I am going to post the first chapter of it here. For around five dollars, you can purchase this wonderful little book. And if you can’t afford it and don’t have it already, I will buy a copy for you.
The book starts off, the first chapter entitled, “Man of Sorrows”:
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane . . . And . . . he began to be sorrowful and troubled (Matt 26:36:37).
The record of our Lord’s passion looms large in the Gospels. Almost one third of the space is devoted to the account of his sufferings. The Gospels are not mere biographies; indeed, strictly speaking, they are not biographies at all, for they are silent on much of the earthly life of Christ. Their purpose is theological, to convey to mankind what God has done in Christ for the salvation of sinners. They proclaim good news and the cross is the centre of that saving message. While they speak of the joy and the peace of Christ, the emphasis is on his suffering. He is presented essentially as the man of sorrows. Matthew, in his account of the agony in Gethsemane, brings that fact sharply into focus.
AFTER THE FEAST
The statement in Matthew 26:36,37 is significant. Christ has known sorrow before this, but the assertion that in Gethsemane he began to be sorrowful and troubled indicates a sudden steep descent into the billows of distress. Now, as never before, all God’s waves and billows began to sweep over him (Psa 42:7). What a contrast to the sweet calm and peace of the upper room! He and his disciples had just sung from that wondrous Passover hymn, the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) and Christ sang that hymn as it had never been sung before and as it never could be sung again, for he was about to fulfil it as he went to his cross.
Now the singing has stopped. The holy peace is no more and an awful anguish suddenly grips the soul of the Redeemer as he begins to be ‘sore amazed, and to be very heavy’ (Mark 14:33, KJV; Moffatt translates, ‘appalled and agitated’). Referring to the experssion ‘sore amazed’, Dr. Frederick Krummacher says that Mark ‘makes use of a word in the original which implies a sudden and horrifying alarm at a terrific object . . . something approached Him which threatened to rend His nerves, and the sight of it to freeze the blood in His veins’. The feast is over. The sacrifice it symbolized is imminent. The language used in the original is vivid and forceful. It indicates torment of soul, a state of intense anguish. ‘My soul’, he said, ‘is very sorrowful even to death.’ This is no ordinary distress. No man had ever experienced such distress before and no one would ever do so again. In a unique sense Jesus of Nazareth was a ‘man of sorrows’. His acquaintance with grief was unparalleled.
After the feast Christ was suddenly plunged into an abyss of anguish so intense that he declared himself overwhelmed to the point of death. Calvin says, ‘Though God had already tried his Son by certain preparatory exercises, he now wounds him more sharply by a nearer prospect of death and strikes his mind with a terror to which he had not been accustomed.’
It has been common to contrast the calm and serene death of Socrates, condemned to drink the poisoned cup, with the agony of Christ at the prospect of death. Socrates faced death fearlessly and stoically because he had mastered the art of suppressing his emotions, but in this, as Klaas Schilder reminds us, he lived only a half-life and died only a half-death. Christ, on the contrary, suppressed nothing either in life or in death, and in the cold shadows of Gethsemane he gave full vent to his feelings, full reign to his emotions. Indeed, he brought men to witness (however briefly) his agony and, by his Spirit, had a detailed account of his sufferings recorded.
It is not necessary to turn to Socrates in order to contrast calmness in the hour of death with the dread that gripped the Saviour’s soul. Countless numbers of Christ’s own redeemed people have faced torture and martyrdom with courage and serenity. They were more than conquerors, facing their ordeal with praise on their lips. Like Stephen they saw the glory of God as they stepped into eternity. But the death of Christ is different from every other death. True, the physical aspect of his death has much in common with other deaths, but there the comparison ends. He died as the Surety for his people and as their Substitute. Not only must he experience physical death, but also he must taste eternal death — damnation — separation from God! In all of this he must grapple with Satan and destroy death itself (Gen. 3:15, 1 Cor. 15:26). There is no analogy between the death of Socrates and that of Christ. Christ’s death is not to be compared with any other. True, but why the ‘loud cries and tears’ (Heb. 5:7), the mental distress, the nameless grief?
ENTERING THE DARKNESS
It is true that Christ in his sinless human nature recoiled from the prospect of death and shrank from it with horror, for death came with sin. It is also true that he sensed the approach of Satan who after the temptation in the wilderness ‘departed from him until an opportune time’ (Luke 4:13). It is also the case that he anticipated the approaching wrath of a holy God. But none of these facts can account for the distress and sorrow that were to prove too much for unaided human nature (albeit sinless) to bear. There must be something deeper and more actual to account for our Lord’s struggle in Gethsemane.
Gethsemane means ‘the oil press’. David could say, ‘I am like a green olive tree in the house of God’ (Psa 52:8). Israel in her long history could say the same. But the suffering Saviour could say it best of all, for there in Gethsemane — the oil press — he was crushed and bruised without mercy. But how and why? How is the sudden and dramatic change of atmosphere between the upper room and Gethsemane to be explained, even in a measure? Christ knew all along the death that awaited him. He had grappled with Satan and his legions more than once. He had repeatedly spoken of his death to his disciples, telling them what that death would accomplish. He had prayed with the utmost confidence in his high priestly prayer (John 17). Why, then, is there this sudden plunge into such awful agony, why this shuddering horror? Why is this fruit of the olive tree so severely crushed? Why does the divine record say that in Gethsemane our Lord BEGAN to be sorrowful, sorrowful in a new and terrible way? Was it not because God began forsaking him then? How else is this sorrow unto death to be understood?
‘Jesus wept’, but never like this. No previous sorrow of his could match this. At the time of his arrest he declared, ‘Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?’ (John 18:11). That cup was constantly in view as he prayed in Gethsemane. What cup? ‘THIS CUP’ — not some future cup. Th
e cup that was symbolized in the feast (Matt. 26:27,28) was now actual; God was placing it in the Saviour’s hands and it carried the stench of hell. But stop!
Schilder is right. ‘Gethsemane is not a field of study for our intellect. It is a sanctuary of our faith’. Lord, forgive us for the times we have read about Gethsemane with dry eyes.