What is it about the events in the garden of Gethsemane the night before Jesus’ crucifixion that challenged the disciples’ faith? Did the disciples discover something that dark night that offended their deeply held beliefs? When Jesus was arrested, their expectations about Him were violated. Instead of forcefully defeating His enemies, Jesus became vulnerable and defeatable, which seemed to shatter their faith, so much so that in Mark 14:50, “they all left Him and fled.”
The events at Gethsemane left the disciples with dashed hopes. They had believed Jesus was untouchable. I imagine that had Jesus fought and remained undefeated, the disciples would have stayed, defending Him to the death, as Peter had boldly declared he would. These events make me wonder if I too would be scandalized or offended by Jesus based on my assumptions about God.
It was no accident that Jesus came to Gethsemane, an olive grove on the Mount of Olives whose name means “oil press.” It’s there that Jesus suffered immense pressure and intense agony. He fervently prayed and trembled, anticipating the horror of being crushed by the sheer pressure of evil. The disciples saw Jesus fall face down onto the ground (Matthew 26:39), His posture different from any they had seen before. He lay prostrate, clinging to the earth for support, as if to prevent Himself from being drawn further from His beloved Abba (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:35). In this prophetic gesture, we see Jesus holding on to the inhabitants of the earth. Jesus symbolically held this cold, hard world in His grasp.
In this moment of extreme distress, Jesus cried out, “Abba! Father!”(Mark 14:36). To understand the profound meaning of these words, I recommend reading the Sigve Tonstad article “The Revisionary Potential of ‘Abba! Father!’ in the Letters of Paul” (Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2007, pp. 5–18.). Besides agony, Jesus was experiencing intimacy, relationship, and understanding—insights into what was going on in Gethsemane that the disciples could not then understand. His wrenching cry to the Father was intimately personal, the relational context staggering. This intimacy intensified, escalating to Jesus’ final lament on the cross, spoken within the context of relationship: “My God, my God why…?” Jesus calling upon God with such intimacy is what makes the experience so amazing. Jesus evoked fellowship and deep intimacy with a trustworthy God despite His intense mental agony.
God is relational by nature, and Jesus wanted the Father to be with Him in this decision. Jesus chose to take the symbolic cup of judgment so that others might not drink it. The disciples had fallen asleep, but the angels witnessed Jesus accepting man’s fate to achieve redemption. Through His wonderful choice, Jesus let go of His life to save yours and mine. Jesus chose to love us all the way, identifying with us no matter the cost and bearing the full weight of our sin-filled loneliness. In turn, we see the Father suffering the death of His beloved Son. It’s hard to contemplate, let alone understand, the depths of that anguishing heart! We must not forget that the Father experienced what it’s like to lose a beloved Son in the abyss of sin and death. This is what God’s love for humanity looks like.
Unlike the disciples who fell asleep, the universe has been watching every moment and is amazed at such divine love! How can one embody such love and be so willing to hurt and sacrifice so much? The angels witnessed the mysterious agony of Jesus, the most extraordinary self-giving decision for love the universe has ever seen! They heard the Father’s command to strengthen Him to endure until He had drained the sinners’ woeful cup (Luke 22:41–44). The universe saw Jesus place the highest estimation on our worth and value. The angels also saw Him reject the possibility of overcoming the powers of evil through force.
God entered our alienated and broken humanity, suffering our fate to set us free to experience love and lives of intimate communion with Him. This is what divine love looks like within the sphere of God’s Oneness. God refuses to leave us in the clutches of evil and the brokenness of sin. He enters into our sinful condition, suffering to rescue and renew us from its power and bondage. This wondrously beautiful, unrelenting, and unexpected costly love is of an entirely different order! This is God giving up Himself for the unjust. It is God’s redeeming and self-giving love that rescues and transforms!
So, I ask myself whether Jesus came to Gethsemane to satisfy some divine justice or to show us how to be ransomed from the grip of this evil age—answering questions about God’s trustworthiness to assure us that all is well between us and God and that we are forgiven.
If we view the events at Gethsemane as part of the cross, we see that they entailed intimacy and clarity of purpose. It was not the Father who dealt harshly with Jesus; He was handed over to the powers of darkness from which we are incapable of escaping. God did not harm His Servant; the affliction we applied crushed Him (Isaiah 53:4). The Father is clearly not out to get the sinner, for He loves sinners and actively saves them. In Gethsemane, Jesus fell to the ground dying, great drops of blood pouring down His face, though no one had yet laid a hand on Him (Matthew 14:34, 35; Luke 22:44). The costliness of God’s love is incredible. He gives Himself to the fatal consequences of our turning away from Him, while entering into solitary communion with us. This anguish and sorrow culminates with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—the same words associated with a rebellious generation’s separation from God. We see the heart of God recoiling at the need to deal with our rebellion (Hosea 11). We see the death of God’s firstborn Son to bring redemption, but instead of crushing Jesus, we see the Father sending an angel to strengthen Him to endure the experience (Matthew 27:50). The imagery confirms God’s justice, portraying it as a victory over evil, a ransom and redemption, a liberation and reconciliation, and our adoption into God’s family through which we too can cry out “Abba! Father!”
The disciples were offended and scandalized by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. They lost motivation to follow Jesus and fled. As foretold, Peter also openly denied Him, but I like to imagine Peter rushing back to Gethsemane with blinding tears, collapsing in the olive grove in repentance and prayer. Gethsemane is not only the place where Jesus fulfilled the prophecies but a model for the transformation we can experience. Its story calls us to ensure our vision of God is clear by adopting Jesus’ view of the Father. We may have once belonged to the hostile “rulers of this world,” but since Jesus has triumphed over the powers of sin and evil by His amazing love, we now belong to a gracious Father who abounds in intimate love. The apostle Paul places us in Gethsemane so that we too can cry out with Jesus, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). With this new ownership and extraordinary view of love, we can embrace a trustworthy God and once again become powerful believers.
Craig Ashton Jr.