“The Agony in Gethsemane” A Sermon delivered by C. H. Spurgeon October 18, 1874
At the Metropolitan Tabernacle,
“And being in an agony be prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
Our Lord, after having eaten the Passover and celebrated the supper with his disciples, went with them to the Mount of Olives, and entered the garden of Gethsemane. What induced him to select that place to be the scene of his terrible agony? Why there in preference to anywhere else would he be arrested by his enemies? May we not conceive that as in a garden Adam’s self-indulgence ruined us, so in another garden the agonies of the second Adam should restore us. Gethsemane supplies the medicine for the ills which followed upon the forbidden fruit of Eden. No flowers which bloomed upon the banks of the four-fold river were ever so precious to our race as the bitter herbs which grew hard by the black and sullen stream of Kedron.
May not our Lord also have thought of David, when on that memorable occasion he fled out of the city from his rebellions son, and it is written, “The king also himself passed over the brook Kedron,” and he and his people went up bare-footed and bare-headed, weeping as they went? Behold, the greater David leaves the temple to become desolate, and forsakes the city which had rejected his admonitions, and with a sorrowful heart crosses the foul brook, to find in solitude a solace for his woes. Our Lord Jesus, moreover, meant us to see that our sin changed everything about him into sorrow, it turned his riches into poverty, his peace into travail, his glory into shame, and so the place of his peaceful retirement, where in hallowed devotion he had been nearest heaven in communion with God, our sin transformed into the focus of his sorrow, the center of his woe. Where he had enjoyed most, there he must be called to suffer most.
Our Lord may also have chosen the garden, because needing every remembrance that could sustain him in the conflict, he felt refreshed by the memory of former hours which there had passed away so quietly. He had there prayed, and gained strength and comfort. Those gnarled and twisted olive trees knew him well; there was scarce a blade of grass in the garden which he had not knelt upon; he had consecrated the spot to fellowship with God. What wonder then that he preferred this favored soil? Just as a man would choose in sickness to lie in his own bed, so Jesus chose to endure his agony in his own oratory, where the recollections of former communings with his Father would come vividly before him.
But, probably, the chief reason for his resort to Gethsemane was, that it was his well-known haunt, and John tells us, “Judas also knew the place.” Our Lord did not wish to conceal himself, he did not need to be hunted down like a thief, or searched out by spies. He went boldly to the place where his enemies knew that he was accustomed to pray, for he was willing to be taken to suffering and to death. They did not drag him off to Pilate’s hall against his will, but he went with them voluntarily. When the hour was come for him to be betrayed there was he in a place where the traitor could readily find him, and when Judas would betray him with a kiss his cheek was ready to receive the traitorous salutation. The blessed Savior delighted to do the will of the Lord, though it involved obedience unto death.
We have thus come to the gate of the garden of Gethsemane, let us now enter; but first let us put off our shoe from our foot, as Moses did, when he also saw the bush which burned with fire, and was not consumed. Surely we may say with Jacob, “How dreadful is this place!” I tremble at the task which lies before me, for how shall my feeble speech describe those agonies, for which strong crying and tears were scarcely an adequate expression? I desire with you to survey the sufferings of our Redeemer, but oh, may the Spirit of God prevent our mind from thinking aught amiss, or our tongue from speaking even one word which would be derogatory to him either in his immaculate manhood or his glorious Godhead. It is not easy when you are speaking of one who is both God and man to observe the exact line of correct speech; it is so easy to describe the divine side in such a manner as to trench upon the human, or to depict the human at the cost of the divine. Make me not an offender for a word if I should err. A man had need himself to be inspired, or to confine himself to the very words of inspiration, fitly to speak at all times upon the great “mystery of godliness,” God manifest in the flesh, and especially when he has to dwell most upon God so manifest in suffering flesh that the weakest traits in manhood become the most conspicuous. O Lord, open thou my lips that my tongue may utter right words.
Meditating upon the agonizing scene in Gethsemane we are compelled to observe that our Savior there endured a grief unknown to any previous period of his life, and therefore we will commence our discourse by raising the question,
WHAT WAS THE CAUSE OF THE PECULIAR GRIEF OF GETHSEMANE?
Our Lord was the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” throughout his whole life, and yet, though it may sound paradoxical, I scarcely think there existed on the face of the earth a happier man than Jesus of Nazareth, for the griefs which he endured were counterbalanced by the peace of purity, the calm of fellowship with God, and the joy of benevolence. This last every good man knows to be very sweet, and all th
e sweeter in proportion to the pain which is voluntarily endured for the carrying out of its kind designs. It is always joy to do good, cost what it may.
Moreover Jesus dwelt at perfect peace with God at all times; we know that he did so, for he regarded that peace as a choice legacy which he could bequeath to his disciples, and ere he died he said to them, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” He was meek and lowly of heart, and therefore his soul had rest; he was one of the meek who inherit the earth; one of the peacemakers who are and must be blessed. I think I mistake not when I say that our Lord was far from being an unhappy man. But in Gethsemane all seems changed, his peace is gone, his calm is turned to tempest. After supper our Lord had sung a hymn, but there was no singing in Gethsemane. Adown the steep bank which led from Jerusalem to the Kedron he talked very cheerfully, saying, “I am the vine and ye are the branches,” and that wondrous prayer which he prayed with his disciples after that discourse, is very full of majesty: “Father, I will that they also whom thou has given me be with me where I am,” is a very different prayer from that inside Gethsemane’s walls, where he cries, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”
Notice that all his life long you scarcely find him uttering an expression of grief, and yet here he says, not only by his sighs and by his bloody sweat, but in so many words, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death.” In the garden the sufferer could not conceal his grief, and does not appear to have wished to do so. Backward and forward thrice he ran to his disciples, he let them see his sorrow and appealed to them for sympathy; his exclamations were very piteous, and his sighs and groans were, I doubt not, very terrible to hear. Chiefly did that sorrow reveal itself in bloody sweat, which is a very unusual phenomenon, although I suppose we must believe those writers who record instances somewhat similar. The old physician Galen gives an instance in which, through extremity of horror, an individual poured forth a discoloured sweat, so nearly crimson as at any rate to appear to have been blood. Other cases are given by medical authorities. We do not, however, on any previous occasion observe anything like this in our Lord’s life; it was only in the last grim struggle among the olive trees that our champion resisted unto blood, agonizing against sin. What ailed Thee, O Lord, that thou shouldst be so sorely troubled just then?
We are clear that his deep sorrow and distress were not occasioned by any bodily pain. Our Savior had doubtless been familiar with weakness and pain, for he took our sicknesses, but he never in any previous instance complained of physical suffering. Neither at the time when he entered Gethsemane had he been grieved by any bereavement. We know why it is written “Jesus wept”; it was because his friend Lazarus was dead; but here there was no funeral, nor sick bed, nor particular cause of grief in that direction. Nor was it the revived remembrance of any past reproaches which had lain dormant in his mind. Long before this, “reproach had broken his heart,” and he had known to the full the vexations of contumely and scorn. They had called him a “drunken man and a wine bibber,” they had charged him with casting out devils by the prince of the devils; they could not say more and yet he had bravely faced it all, it could not be possible that he was now sorrowful unto death for such a cause. There must have been something sharper than pain, more cutting than reproach, more terrible than bereavement, which now at this time grappled with the Savior and made him “exceeding sorrowful, and very heavy.”
Do you suppose it was the fear of coming scorn, or the dread of crucifixion? Was it terror at the thought of death? Is not such a supposition impossible? Every man dreads death, and as man Jesus could not but shrink from it. When we were originally made we were created for immortality, and therefore to die is strange and uncongenial work to us, and the instincts of self-preservation cause us to start back from it; but surely in our Lord’s case that natural cause could not have produced such specially painful results. It does not make even such poor cowards as we are sweat great drops of blood, why then should it work such terror in him? It is dishonoring to our Lord to imagine him less brave than his own disciples, yet we have seen some of the very feeblest of his saints triumphant in the prospect of departing.
Read the stories of the martyrs, and you will frequently find them exultant in the near approach of the most cruel sufferings. The joy of the Lord has given such strength to them, that no coward thought has alarmed them for a single moment, but they have gone to the stake, or to the block, with psalms of victory upon their lips. Our Master must not be thought of as inferior to his boldest servants; it cannot be that he should tremble where they were brave. Oh, no; the noblest spirit among yon martyr-band is the Leader himself, who in suffering and heroism surpassed them all; none could so defy the pangs of death as the Lord Jesus, who, for the joy which was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame.
I cannot conceive that the pangs of Gethsemane were occasioned by any extraordinary attack from Satan. It is possible that Satan was there, and that his presence may have darkened the shade, but he was not the most prominent cause of that hour of darkness. Thus much is quite clear, that our Lord at the commencement of his ministry engaged in a very severe duel with the prince of darkness, and yet we do not read concerning that temptation in the wilderness a single syllable as to his soul’s being exceeding sorrowful, neither do we find that he “was sore amazed and was very heavy,” nor is there a solitary hint at anything approaching to bloody sweat. When the Lord of angels condescended to stand foot to foot with the prince of the power of the air, he had no such dread of him as to utter strong cries and tears and fall prostrate on the ground with threefold appeals to the Great Father. Comparatively speaking, to put his foot on the old serpent was an easy task for Christ, and did but cost him a bruised heel, but this Gethsemane agony wounded his very soul even unto death.
What is it then, think you, that so peculiarly marks off Gethsemane and the griefs thereof? We believe that now the Father put him to grief for us. It was now that our Lord had to take a certain cup fro
m the Father’s hand. Not from the Jews, not from the traitor Judas, not from the sleeping disciples, not from the devil came the trial now, but it was a cup filled by one whom he knew to be his Father, but who nevertheless he understood to have appointed him a very bitter potion, a cup not to be drunk by his body and to spend its gall upon his flesh, but a cup which specially amazed his soul and troubled his inmost heart. He shrunk from it, and therefore be ye sure that it was a draught more dreadful than physical pain, since from that he did not shrink; it was a potion more dreadful than reproach, from that he had not turned aside; more dreadful than Satanic temptation, — that he had overcome: it was a something inconceivably terrible, amazingly full of dread, which came from the Father’s hand. This removes all doubt as to what it was, for we read, “It pleased the Lord to bruise him, he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin.” “The Lord hath made to meet on him the iniquity of us all.” He hath made him to be sin for us though he knew no sin. This, then, is that which caused the Savior such extraordinary depression. He was now about to “taste death for every man,” to bear the curse which was due to sinners, because be stood in the sinner’s place and must suffer in the sinner’s stead. Here is the secret of those agonies which it is not possible for me to set forth in order before you, so true is it that —
“’Tis to God, and God alone,
That his griefs are fully known.”
Yet would I exhort you to consider these griefs awhile, that you may love the sufferer. He now realized, perhaps for the first time, what it was to be a sin bearer. As God he was perfectly holy and incapable of sin, and as man he was without original taint and spotlessly pure; yet he had to bear sin, to be led forth as the scapegoat bearing the iniquity of Israel upon his head, to be taken and made a sin offering, and as a loathsome thing (for nothing was more loathsome than the sin offering) to be taken without the camp and utterly consumed with the fire of divine wrath. Do you wonder that his infinite purity started back from that? Would he have been what he was if it had not been a very solemn thing for him to stand before God in the position of a sinner? yea, and as Luther would have said it, to be looked upon by God as if he were all the sinners in the world, and as if he had committed all the sin that ever had been committed by his people, for it was all laid on him, and on him must the vengeance due for it all be poured; he must be the center of all the vengeance and bear away upon himself what ought to have fallen upon the guilty sons of men. To stand in such a position when once it was realized must have been very terrible to the Redeemer’s holy soul. Now also the Savior’s mind was intently fixed upon the dreadful nature of sin. Sin had always been abhorrent to him, but now his thoughts were engrossed with it, he saw its worse than deadly nature, its heinous character, and horrible aim.
Probably at this time beyond any former period he had, as man, a view of the wide range and all-pervading evil of sin, and a sense of the blackness of its darkness, and the desperateness of its guilt as being a direct attack upon the throne, yea, and upon the very being of God. He saw in his own person to what lengths sinners would go, how they would sell their Lord like Judas, and seek to destroy him as did the Jews. The cruel and ungenerous treatment he had himself received displayed man’s hate of God, and, as he saw it, horror took hold upon him, and his soul was heavy to think that he must bear such an evil and be numbered with such transgressors, to be wounded for their transgressions, and bruised for their iniquities. Not the wounding, nor the bruising distressed him so much as the sin itself, and that utterly overwhelmed his soul.
Then, too, no doubt the penalty of sin began to be realised by him in the Garden — first the sin which had put him in the position of a suffering substitute, and then the penalty which must be borne, because he was in that position. I dread to the last degree that kind of theology which is so common now-a-days, which seeks to depreciate and diminish our estimate of the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Brethren, that was no trifling suffering which made recompense to the justice of God for the sins of men. I am never afraid of exaggeration, when I speak of what my Lord endured:
All hell was distilled into that cup, of which our God and Savior Jesus Christ was made to drink. It was not eternal suffering, but since he was divine he could in a short time offer unto God a vindication of his justice which sinners in hell could not have offered had they been left to suffer in their own persons for ever. The woe that broke over the Savior’s spirit, the great and fathomless ocean of inexpressible anguish which dashed over the Savior’s soul when he died, is so inconceivable, that I must not venture far, lest I be accused of a vain attempt to express the unutterable; but this I will say, the very spray from that great tempestuous deep, as it fell on Christ, baptized him in a bloody sweat.
He had not yet come to the raging billows of the penalty itself, but even standing on the shore, as he heard the awful surf breaking at his feet, his soul was sore amazed and very heavy. It was the shadow of the coming tempest, it was the prelude of the dread desertion which he had to endure, when he stood where we ought to have stood, and paid to his Father’s justice the debt which w
as due from us; it was this which laid him low. To be treated as a sinner, to be smitten as a sinner, though in him was no sin, — this it was which caused him the agony of which our text speaks.