The Garden of Gethsemane was the scene of one of the most magnificent, yet mysterious moments in the passion of the Christ. Passion comes from the Greek word paschein meaning suffering— i.e. the suffering of Christ. Most of that suffering occurred during the last eighteen hours of his life.
Gethsemane was located in an olive grove just across the Kidron Valley on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Gethsemane means “olive press.” This olive press located among the olive trees across from the Temple and the Golden Gate was the place Jesus chose to spend each night during the final week of his life according to Luke 21:37. This was a safe, quiet place out of the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, but within minutes of the Temple. Here he would rest, talk with his disciples, and pray.
This was the place Jesus chose to go on the night before he would be crucified. This was also the location of a cosmic battle few of us understand. Here Jesus won the battle in prayer that would be played out a few hours later as he was scourged and crucified. Great battles and contests are often won in the mind before they are experienced on the field. There on a stone in an olive grove Jesus went to war in prayer to prepare his mind and soul for what lay ahead.
Most of what took place is a mystery to us. We can’t fathom his grief, his pain, or the extreme pressure that was unleashed on the mind Jesus by the forces of darkness as he prayed. This was the most extreme form of spiritual warfare ever fought. The enemy of our soul always attacks the mind. One of the basic axioms of warfare is: Control your opponent’s mind and you control your opponent. That was, is, and will always be the devil’s modus operandi in every testing and temptation. It works most of the time, so why change?
Jesus responded to this attack in prayer. He did not argue or even mention the enemy. He endured the crushing weight of the accusations, the condemnations, the taunts, and the haunting questions. He fought through the images, the sounds, the smells, and the feelings his impending date with crucifixion would bring as the forces of evil launched an all-out assault on his mind. Jesus told Peter, James, and John that “his soul is deeply grieved to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). Luke tells us Jesus was in so much agony that the capillaries in the sweat glands of this forehead burst and “his sweat became like drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44).
For many the picture is of Jesus kneeling in the moonlight with his hands clenched under his chin praying, but that is an inaccurate image that Scripture does not paint. Prayer was most often done from a standing position, but a careful reading of the Gospel texts imply that during this ordeal Jesus fell down numerous times and then after regaining his feet he would fall again under the pressure of the battle. What Luke describes with the word “agony” is a hand-to-hand wrestling match with an unseen foe whose only goal was to force or convince Jesus to stop short—to quit without accomplishing the Father’s will.
As Jesus prays, “Father, if Thou are willing, remove this cup from Me, yet not My will but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42), we are not witnessing a struggle between a reluctant will and an obedient will. Rather what we witness is Jesus declaring that the cup from which he is to drink is so revolting—so horrible, yet only because he knows it is the Father’s will he is therefore willing to drink it. Jesus is not asking God to change his will. No! He is asserting that because this is the Father’s will he wants it to be fully done!
Gethsemane is a watershed event. Yet for most of us the only sermons we’ve ever heard centered on a weak group of disciples who went to sleep and failed to pray. We’ve majored on the three times Jesus confronted his sleeping companions. We used it to bring guilt and condemnation on those who don’t pray long or hard enough. Gethsemane is not about apathetic, weak, or prayerless disciples. Gethsemane is about the agony of a Savior as he wars in the heavenlies to destroy the works of the devil and redeem humanity from their sin.
Be careful not to miss the short phrase found at the beginning of Luke 22:45—“And when He (Jesus) rose from prayer. . . .” Those six words alert us to a defining moment in the battle. When the struggle is over—when the hand-to-hand combat is finished, the victor is the only one who rises to his feet. Jesus has stopped praying—prayer time is finished. Why? Because his prayer has been answered—he has won the victory, so he stands up. The vanquished cannot regain his feet because his head has been crushed. The standing position is considered a sign of strength and Jesus is the last one standing!
Gethsemane is not about the failure of the disciples—none of them could secure our salvation anyway. No the focus of Gethsemane is about a powerful Savior who stands victorious!