How are we to look at Jesus’s struggle in Gethsemane? When you read the Gospel of Matthew at a stretch you will meet a mystery. As it is, Matthew emphasises Jesus’ power (among others Matt. 7:29, 9:6, 12:29). Jesus cures many ill people. He calms the storm at the lake. In discussions Jesus proves to be superior to the spiritual leaders. Jesus even forgives sins and is stronger than death (Matt. 9:6&25). Jesus is always Lord and Master. He really is God with us (Matt. 1:23).
Until Gethsemane, it seems. Jesus falls down. He begs His Father if the cup may pass from Him. He almost perishes from pangs of death. What is the matter? Understanding Jesus’s struggle in Gethsemane is itself a struggle. It is too much for the disciples. They fall asleep. But Jesus urges for vigilance (Matt. 26:41). So, understanding is not the right word. The Dutch Liedboek number 177 prays accurately:
Leer mij, o Heer, uw lijden recht betrachten,
in deze zee verzinken mijn gedachten.
(Teach me, o Lord, to justly look at your sufferings. My thoughts sink away in this sea.)
The cup that has to be drunk in Gethsemane points at God’s wrath at sin (Isa. 51:17 & 22, Jer. 25:15, compare Ps. 42:8). Does Jesus fear God the Father’s wrath? Some exegetes focus on the difference in the relation between God the Father and Jesus His Son. This way Jesus’s weakness as a human being is stressed. Accordingly, the Dutch theologist J. van Bruggen writes in the Commentaar op het Nieuwe Testament: “From bewilderment Jesus approaches God now. Does He really choose for the suffering of His beloved Son?” And N.T. Wright says in Matthew for Everyone: “Jesus did not want to drink. He badly did not want to.” According to Wright Jesus is “a man, as we might say, in melt-down mode.” Jesus prays “with a sad recognition that God had the right to say ‘no’” (Wright).
He, who explains Gethsemane in this way, emphasises that the Son of God has become a real human being. This is important (Hebr. 5:8; 1 John 4:2). Yet you get stuck with this exegesis. This is caused by detachment. As if there is Jesus and also God. Gethsemane witnesses a divine intimacy. Jesus prays “My Father”. This intimacy is no surprise. The gospel according to Matthew witnesses the divine secret of the Father and the Son. Yes, even the secret the church later on called God’s trinity (Matt. 1:18, 3:16&17, 11:25-27, 12:32, 16:15-17; 17:5, 22:41-46, 28:19). In Gethsemane intimacy is heard when a gang arrives to arrest Jesus. Jesus says that He has only to pray to His Father and He can make use of a heavenly army. Jesus is the Old Testamentary Lord of the heavenly hosts (Ps. 46, John 12:6)!
Two perspectives are helpful to get a good view on Gethsemane. The first perspective comes from The Crucifixion by F. Rutledge. Rutledge discusses Gethsemane in the chapter “Apocalyptic War”.[i] Gethsemane prepares for the decisive struggle with sin, the realm of the devil and death. God Himself wages this war (Aulén). He does so in Jesus. When Jesus “rose from prayer” (Luke 22:45) in Gethsemane He is a warrior (Luke 22:44) ready for the fight.[ii] Everything becomes new. Jesus goes to Golgotha and will return as majestic Judge and Saviour. The prayer not to be led into temptation (Mat.26:41) deals with more than the daily temptations we are liable to. Jesus summons us to consider the new world He is preparing (Matt. 24 & 25).
The perspective of the apocalyptic war matches with the Scriptures. The Old Testament announces the day of the Lord as a day of judgement, fear and deliverance (among others: Ezek. 7 and 34). The conclusion of the old testament is that God Himself must wage the war. Help from man has appeared to be in vain (Ps. 108:13 & 146:3). “God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered” (Ps. 68). The perspective of the apocalyptic war also matches with the gospel according to Matthew. The evangelist occasionally tells that Jesus withdraws (Matt. 4:15, 12:15 and 14:13). In Gethsemane “the hour is at hand” (Matt. 26:45).
Lion and Lamb
The second perspective on Gethsemane gets close to the previous one. It has to do with a vision from Revelation 5. John sees a scroll. But no one can open it. The scroll points at the coming of Gods’ kingdom, right through God’s judgement and liberation. It gives much sorrow that the scroll remains closed. Then John sees Jesus. Jesus is, paradoxically, lion and lamb in one. Powerful and slaughtered. He is worthy to open the scroll.
The vision of Revelation 5 shines over Gethsemane. God’s kingdom comes in Jesus and in order to make that kingdom come, Jesus is subdued to all judgements. Gethsemane shows how firmly-closed the scroll is. Jesus nearly dies from fear. Revelation 5 helps to see what the tension of Gethsemane consists of. It is not in the distance between God the Father and Jesus the Son, as if Jesus would fear the judgement of his Father. “Why would God’s sinless Son fear his Father’s judgement. From a trinitarian perspective the Son cannot fear the Father any more than He can fear Himself” (Rutledge). The tension is not only in Jesus’s being human or weak, either. For, how strong must you be in order to be able to open the scroll (Rev. 5)? The tension that is inimitable for us is that Jesus is Lion and Lamb at the same time.
Gethsemane summons us to remain vigilant (Matt. 26:41) and to focus on Jesus. He is absolutely unique. This proves in Gethsemane as a signal to Calvary. The Judge accepts ‘the cup’. That is where our acquittal begins. The Lord of heavenly hosts allows Himself to be arrested like a criminal (Matt. 26:55). In this way Jesus pays our guilt and transfers us into free people. The King is going to destroy death through experiencing fear of death Himself and finally through His death. This is how we receive life. Jesus does this all as Lion and Lamb in our place. This way Jesus makes us righteous and holy (I Cor. 1:30). How unimaginably wise is God’s plan of salvation.
Does Gethsemane show a man in melt-down mode (Wright)? That could be the way we might understand Gethsemane. Because a man can go through deep valleys. But Gethsemane goes further, endlessly further. It is God in a melt-down mode.
Gethsemane makes me think of an impressive passage from The Lord of the Rings. At the end of the book the armies of Gandalf and Aragorn prepare for a decisive battle. They gather at the Black Gate to enter the realm of Mordor. As they are an enormous minority, they are virtually doomed. Fear of death can be read from their faces (the film differs from the book, here). Yet they attack, meeting the end. The end which miraculously becomes a new beginning.
A good view on Gethsemane is important for three things. Firstly, it has to do with God’s view on how He gives us salvation in Jesus. When we solve a problem we look for the right means. He, who wants to vanquish a certain power must be even stronger than that power. And if you are not strong, you must use your wits. But what God does belongs to an altogether different category. God attacks with full power in the humble Jesus, who undergoes fear of death.
Furthermore, a good view of Gethsemane is important for pastoral work. If you think that at this crucial moment Jesus reconsiders (“take this cup away from me”), you might get the impression that Jesus would be some sort of half-fledged saviour who is not continuously focussed on our salvation. But Gethsemane is sheer gospel: Jesus goes the way to Calvary wholeheartedly.
Finally, a good view on Gethsemane gives perspective on the ultimate moment of judgement and liberation: Calvary. Because Calvary lacks the intimacy of which Gethsemane witnesses so impressively. From the cross you no longer hear: “My Father”. From the cursed tree Jesus screams; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46). This is a gruesome cry from hell. Jesus was at the place where you and I have never been nor will ever need to be. This means comfort for all who suffer and are put to the test. Jesus bears and renews our entire existence.
[i] Wright is critical of apocalyptical theology: Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013), 163-175 (among others) and Paul and His Recent Interpreters (2014). See “A Response to Jörg Frey and N.T. Wright” (Addendum to chapter 1) by Martinus C. de Boer, Paul. Theologian of God’s Apocalypse. Essays on Paul and Apocalyptic (2020).
[ii] ‘The Greek word agon (combat, struggle, contest) is related to agonia (agony, anxiety), used by Luke (22:44) to describe Jesus in the garden’ (Brown, Death of the Messiah, in The Crucifixion, Rutledge).