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"Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared: though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered." HEBREWS v.7, 8.
Eight ancient olive trees still mark the site of Gethsemane; not improbably they witnessed that memorable and mysterious scene referred to here. And what a scene was that! It had stood alone in unique and unapproachable wonder, had it not been followed by fifteen hours of even greater mystery.
The strongest words in Greek language are used to tell of the keen anguish through which the Saviour passed within those Garden walls. "He began to be sorrowful"; as if in all his past experiences he had never known what sorrow was! "lie was sore amazed"; as if his mind were almost dazed and overwhelmed. "He was very heavy," his spirit stooped beneath the weight of his sorrows, as afterward his body stooped beneath the weight of his cross; or the word may mean that he was so distracted with sorrow, as to be almost beside himself. And the Lord himself could not have found a stronger word than he used when he said, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death."
But the evangelist Luke gives us the most convincing proof of his anguish when he tells us that his sweat, like great beads of blood, fell upon the ground, touched by the slight frost, and in the cold night air. The finishing touch is given in these words, which tell of his "strong crying and tears."
THE THINGS WHICH HE SUFFERED. What were they? They were not those of the Substitute. The tenor of Scripture goes to show that the work of substitution was really wrought out upon the cross. There the robe of our completed righteousness was woven from the top through-out. It was on the free that he bare our sins in his own body. It was by his blood that he brought us nigh to God. It was by the death of God's Son that we have been reconciled to God; and the repeated references of Scripture, and especially of this epistle, to sacrifice, indicate that in the act of dying, that was done which magnifies the law, and makes it honorable, and removes every obstacle that had otherwise prevented the love of God from following out its purposes of mercy.
We shall never fully understand here how the Lord Jesus made reconciliation for the sins of the world, or how that which he bore could be an equivalent for the penalty due from a sinful race. We have no standard of comparison; we have no line long enough to let us down into the depths of that unexplored mystery; but we may thankfully accept it as a fact stated on the page of Scripture perpetually, that he did that which put away the curse, atoned for human guilt, and was more than equivalent to all those sufferings which a race of sinful men must otherwise have borne. The mystery defies our language, but it is apprehended by faith; and as she stands upon her highest pinnacles, love discerns the meaning of the death of Christ by a spiritual instinct, though as yet she has not perfectly learned the language in which to express her conceptions of the mysteries that circle around the cross. It may be that in thousands of unselfish actions, she is acquiring the terms in which some day she will be able to understand and explain all.
But all that we need insist on here, and now, is that the sufferings of the Garden are not to be included in the act of Substitution, though, as we shall see, they were closely associated with it. Gethsemane was not the altar, but the way to it.
Our Lord's suffering in Gethsemane could hardly arise from the fear of his approaching physical sufferings. Such a supposition seems wholly inconsistent with the heroic fortitude, the majestic silence, the calm ascendency over suffering with which he bore himself till he breathed out his spirit, and which drew from a hardened and worldly Roman expressions of respect.
Besides, if the mere prospect of scourging and crucifixion drew from our Lord these strong crying and tears and bloody sweat, he surely would stand on a lower level than that to which multitudes of his followers attained through faith in him. Old men like Polycarp, tender maidens like Blandina, timid boys like Attalus, have contemplated beforehand with unruffled composure, and have endured with unshrinking fortitude, deaths far more awful, more prolonged, more agonizing. Degraded criminals have climbed the scaffold without a tremor or a sob; and surely the most exalted faith ought to bear itself as bravely as the most brutal indifference in the presence of the solemnities of death and eternity. It has been truly said that there is no passion in the mind of man, however weak, which cannot master the fear of death; and it is therefore impossible to suppose that the fear of physical suffering and disgrace could have so shaken our Saviour's spirit.
But he anticipated the sufferings that he was to endure as the propitiation for sin. He knew that he was about to be brought into the closest association with the sin which was devastating human happiness and grieving the divine nature. He knew, since he had so identified himself with our fallen race, that, in a very deep and wonderful way, he was to be made sin and to bear our curse and shame, cast out by man, and apparently forsaken by God. He knew, as we shall never know, the exceeding sinfulness and horror of sin; and what it was to be the meeting-place where the iniquities of our race should converge, to become the scapegoat charged with guilt not his own, to bear away the sins of the world. All this was beyond measure terrible to one so holy and sensitive as he.
He had long foreseen it. He was the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. Each time a lamb was slain by a conscience-stricken sinner, or a scapegoat let go into the wilderness, or a pigeon dipped into the flowing water encrimsoned by the blood of its mate, he had been reminded of what was to be. He knew before his incarnation where in the forest the seedling was growing to a sapling from the wood of which his cross would be made. He even nourished it with his rain and sun. Often during his public ministry he was evidently looking beyond the events that were transpiring around him to that supreme event, which he called his "hour." And as it came nearer, his human soul was overwhelmed at the prospect of having to sustain the weight of a world's sin. His human nature did not shrink from death as death; but from the death which he was to die as the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world.
Six months before his death he had set his face to go to Jerusalem, with such a look of anguish upon it as to fill the hearts of his disciples with consternation. When the questions of the Greeks reminded him that he must shortly fall into the ground and die, his soul became so troubled that he cried, "Father, save me from this hour !" And now, with strong cryings and tears, he made supplication to his Father, as king that, if it were possible, the cup might pass from him. In this his human soul spoke. As to his divinely wrought purpose of redemption, there was no vacillation or hesitation. But, as man, he asked whether there might not be another way of accomplishing the redemption on which he had set his heart.
But there was no other way. The Father's will, which he had come down from heaven to do, pointed along the rugged, flinty road that climbed Calvary, and passed over it, and down to the grave. And at once he accepted his destiny, and with the words "If this cup may not pass from me except I drink it, thy will be done," he stepped forth on the flints that were to cut those blessed feet, drawing from them streams of blood.
HIS STRONG CRYING AND TEARS. Our Lord betook himself to that resource which is within the reach of all, and which is peculiarly precious to those who are suffering and tempted, he prayed. His heart was overwhelmed within him; and he poured out all his anguish into his Father's ears, with strong cryings and tears. Let us note the characteristics of that prayer, that we too may be able to pass through our dark hours, when they come.
It was secret prayer. Leaving the majority of his disciples at the Garden gate, he took with him the three who had stood beside Jairus's dead child, and had beheld the radiance that steeped him in his transfiguration. They alone might see him tread the winepress: but even they were left at a stone's cast, whilst he went forward alone into the deeper shadow. We are told that they became overpowered with sleep; so that no mortal ear heard the whole burden of that marvelous prayer, some fitful snatches of which are reserved in the Gospels.
It was humble prayer. The evangelist Luke says that he knelt. Another says that he fell on his face. Being formed in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross. And it may be that even then he began to recite that marvelous Psalm, which was so much on his lips during those last hours, saying, "I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men and despised of the people."
It was filial prayer. Matthew describes our Lord as saying, " my Father"; and Mark tells us that he used the endearing term which was often spoken by the prattling lips of little Jewish children, Abba. For the most part, he probably spoke Greek; but Aramaic was the language of his childhood, the language of the dear home in Nazareth. In the hour of mortal agony, the mind ever reverts to the associations of its first awakening. The Saviour, therefore, appearing to feel that the more stately Greek did not sufficiently express the deep yearnings of his heart, substituted for it the more tender language of earlier years. Not "Father" only, but "Abba, Father!"
It was earnest prayer. "He prayed more earnestly," and one proof of this appears in his repetition of the same words. It was as if his nature were too oppressed to be able to express itself in a variety of phrase; such as might indicate a certain leisure and liberty of thought. One strong current of anguish running at its highest could only strike one monotone of grief, like the note of the storm or the flood. Back, and back again, came the words, cup . .pass . . . will . . . Father. And the sweat of blood, pressed from his forehead, as the red juice of the grape beneath the heavy foot of the peasant, witnessed to the intensity of his soul.
It was submissive prayer. Matthew and Mark quote this sentence, "Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt." Luke quotes this, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done."
Jesus was the Father's Fellow's co-equal in his divine nature; but for the purpose of redemption it was needful that he should temporarily divest himself of the use of the attributes of his deity, and live a truly human life. As man, he carefully marked each symptom of his Father's will, from the day when it prompted him to linger behind his parents in the temple; and he always instantly fulfilled his behests. "I came down from heaven," he said, "not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. "This was the yoke he bore, and in taking it, he found rest unto his soul. Whatever was the danger or difficulty into which such obedience might carry him, he ever followed the beacon-cloud of the divine will; sure that the manna of daily strength would fall, and that the deep sweet waters of peace would follow where it led the way. That way now seemed to lead through the heart of a fiery furnace. There was no alternative than to follow; and he elected to do so, nay, was glad, even then, with a joy that the cold waters of death could not extinguish. At the same time, he learnt what obedience meant, and gave an example of it, that shone out with unequaled majesty, purity, and beauty, unparalleled in the annals of the universe. As man, our Lord then learnt how much was meant by that word obedience. "He learned obedience." And now he asks that we should obey him, as he obeyed God. "Unto them that obey him."
Sometimes the path of the Christian's obedience becomes very difficult. It climbs upward; the gradient is continually steeper; the foothold ever more difficult; and, as the evening comes, the nimble climber of the morning creeps slowly forward on hands and knees. The day is never greater than the strength; but as the strength grows by use, the demands upon it are greater, and the hours longer. At last a moment may come, when we are called for God's sake to leave some dear circle; to risk the loss of name and fame; to relinquish the cherished ambition of a life; to incur obloquy, suffering, and death; to drink the bitter cup; to enter the brooding cloud; to climb the smoking mount. Ah! then we too learn what obedience means; and have no resource but in strong cryings and tears.
In such hours pour out thy heart in audible cnes. Plentifully mingle the name "Father" with thine entreatles. Fear not to repeat the same words. Look not to man, he cannot understand thee; but to him who is nearer to thee than thy dearest. So shalt thou get calmer and quieter, until thou rest in his will; as a child, worn out by a tempest of passion, sobs itself to sleep on its mother's breast.
THE ANSWER. "He was heard for his godly fear." His holy reverence and devotion to his Father's will made it impossible that his prayers should be unanswered; although, as it so often happens, the answer came in another way than his fears had suggested. The cup was not taken away, but the answer came. It came in the mission of the angel that stood beside him. It came in the calm serenity with which he met the brutal crowd, that soon filled that quiet Garden with their coarse voices and trampling feet. It came in his triumph over death and the grave. It came in his being perfected as mediator, to become unto all them that obey him the Author of eternal salvation, and the High-Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
Prayers prompted by love and in harmony with godly fear are never lost. We may ask for things which it would be unwise and unkind of God to grant; but in that case, his goodness shows itself rather in the refusal than the assent. And yet the prayer is heard and answered. Strength is instilled into the fainting heart. The faithful and merciful High-Priest does for us what the angel essayed to do for him; but how much better, since he has learnt so much of the art of comfort in the school of suffering! And out of it the way finally emerges into life, though we have left the right hand and foot in the grave behind us. We also discover that we have learnt the art of becoming channels of eternal salvation to those around us. Ever since Jesus suffered there, Gethsemane has been threaded by the King's highway that passes through it to the New Jerusalem. And in its precincts God has kept many of his children, to learn obedience by the things that they suffer, and to learn the divine art of comforting others as they themselves have been comforted by God.
There are comparatively few, to whom Jesus does not say, at some time in their lives, "Come and watch with me." He takes us with him into the darksome shadows of the winepress, though there are recesses of shade, at a stone's cast, where he must go alone. Let us not misuse the precious hours in the heavy slumbers of insensibility. There are lessons to be learnt there which can be acquired nowhere else; but if we heed not his summons to watch with him, it may be that he will close the precious opportunity by bidding us sleep on and take our rest; because the allotted term has passed, and the hour of a new epoch has struck. If we fail to use for prayer and preparation the sacred hour, that comes laden with opportunities for either; if we sleep instead of watching with our Lord: what hope have we of being able to play a noble part when the flashing lights and the trampling feet announce the traitor's advent? Squander the moments of preparation, and you may have to rue their loss through all the coming years!
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