Studies in his Life and Writings
By W. H. Griffith Thomas
In an Italian. picture gallery there is a striking picture of an angel near the Cross from which our Lord's body has just been taken down. The angel is holding in his hands a crown of thorns. He feels it, notes its protruding sharp points, and shows on his face his surprise and astonishment. To his pure nature that suffering was a mystery. It must have been something like this in the case of Christ's disciples. When the Cross was first mentioned, Peter turned from it with shrinking, and even rebuked his Master, saying, "Be it far from thee. Lord; this shall not be unto thee" (Matt. 16:22). And as the time drew nearer with revelation after revelation of the approaching death, there must have been a greater perplexity, until at length, on the eve of the crucifixion, matters were hastening to a crisis. We do not for a moment suppose that the disciples had any real conception of what it all meant until after the illumination of Pentecost, but it is not too much to think of them as perplexed by these statements and actions of their Lord, coming after all the marvelous words and equally marvelous works of his Galilean ministry. We must now endeavor to put ourselves in the place of the twelve apostles, and in particular of the Apostle John, as they were associated with the suffering of Christ.
I. In the Garden
As we endeavor once again to ponder the story of Gethsemane, we must remember that we are indeed on holy ground, and yet it is not too sacred for our meditation, because it is one of the things "written for our learning." Dr. Matheson has said that "it will not do to throw a veil of mystery over this prayer. Christ has asked us to watch with him. But watching implies sympathy, and sympathy implies an understanding of his sorrow." Taking with him Peter, James, and John, our Lord entered the familiar garden after the wonderful conversations in the upper room (John 13-16). What may we say of Gethsemane as we try to look at it from the standpoint of the disciples?
1. The Master's Weight of Sorrow. — In some way or other the Lord was already entering upon his unique work of redemption. Nothing else can account for the circumstances in the garden. As he prayed earnestly, he asked that "this cup" might pass from him. Various meanings have been given to "this cup." Some think it means our Lord's suffering in the garden, from which he prayed to be delivered. Others consider that he meant his death on the cross, from which he prayed to be saved. Yet again, others explain it to mean his death then and there in the garden from which he prayed to be saved, in order that he might reach the Cross. The last of these views, although not the usual one, may possibly be correct, since it is closely in accord with other Scriptures, gives a quite reasonable interpretation of the prayer, and appears most consistent with the character of him who came to this earth to die. Some great scholars do not hesitate to translate our Lord's prayer as ''since it is possible, let this cup pass from me," urging that such is the meaning of the original Greek, and also that there is an emphasis on ''this cup," to distinguish it from another "cup" to be given him by his Heavenly Father. The latter he is ready and even eager to drink; the former he desires to pass from him. If this be so, may we not think of Gethsemane as the last conflict of Satan? The great enemy of Christ knew well that the death on the Cross would be the end of his power, and he resolved, if at all possible, to prevent it. He had tried through Herod in Christ's infancy to destroy it, and again and again, from the wilderness onwards, he had endeavored to divert him from the Cross. Having hitherto failed in every attempt, he now makes the last assault upon the suffering Redeemer. Dr. Maclaren points out how nearly fatal Christ's agony in the garden was, and another writer remarks that the words "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death" indicate that it was a veritable death struggle. It hardly seems possible, in view of all that had happened before, to think of our Lord shrinking from the Cross. On the contrary, he steadfastly set his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). It seems to some, therefore, that the weight of sorrow was not fear of impending death on the Cross, but that his physical strength would not be sufficient to endure the agony, so that he might reach the Cross. According to this interpretation, which is favored by a few writers, the cup from which he prayed to be delivered was premature death then and there in the garden. There are few more beautiful things in Scripture than the indications of the mutual love of our Lord and his Father, a love which was constantly and closely associated with the Cross (John 10:17), and we are told that he endured the Cross and despised the shame because of "the joy that was set before him" (Heb. 12:2). If this is the true meaning of Gethsemane, then we know that our Lord's prayer was answered. Not long before he had said, "Father, I know that thou hearest me always," and the perfect calm with which Christ came forth from the garden to meet the armed soldiers clearly showed that, as the Epistle to the Hebrews said, "He was heard by reason of his filial submission" (Heb. 5:7, Greek).
2. The Masters Need of Sympathy.— The fact that he took these three disciples apart from the others shows his need of sympath3\ He was perfectly human as well as perfectly divine, and just before, when in the upper room, he had expressed his appreciation of the way in which they had been with him, "Ye are they that have continued with me in my temptations" (Luke 22:28). As Maclaren says in his perfect outline of this passage, we have here (a) the tempted Christ; (b) the lonely Christ; (c) the grateful Christ.
3. The Masters Purpose of Training. — We may feel pretty sure that these three disciples were taken by Christ apart from the rest, not only on his account, but also on theirs. It would be a fine opportunity for training them for future life and service. Two of the three had expressed their ability and readiness to drink of their Master's cup, and to be baptized with his baptism (Matt. 20:22), and this provided an occasion for entering, as never before, into his sorrow and suffering.
4. The Master's Disappointment at Failure. — But all his efforts proved fruitless, for when he returned from his lonely prayer, he found the three men asleep, and naturally expressed surprise that they could not watch with him even one hour (Matt. 26:40). When he returned from the second prayer again he found them asleep, and left them in order that he might pray once again to his Father. The opportunity of rendering him help by showing him sympathy was now past, and so far as he was concerned they might sleep on and take their rest; but the betrayer was at hand, and it was essential for them to be aroused and face what lay before them. We are told that these disciples did not know "what to answer him" (Mark 14:40), as he lovingly rebuked them for not watching with him, though we are also told that sorrow was the cause of their sleep (Luke 22:45). The Master's words were doubtless heeded by them later on when they understood their meaning, "Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). He knew exactly and entirely their desire to serve him, and at the same time the limitations of their power. The physical had for a time overcome the spiritual, and for this reason it was essential for them to "watch and pray." These two counsels, "watch and pray," are often associated. We are never told in the New Testament anything about the object of watching. It is pretty certain that we are not to watch Satan, who is too elusive for us. Nor can we watch our circumstances, because they are so variable and complicated. Then, again, it is quite impossible to watch our sins, because we have no conception of their number, character, and power in the sight of God. Once more, we cannot for a moment conceive of watching ourselves, because self is utterly beyond our powers of understanding and control. It is, therefore, probable that the absence of any object of watching is intended to suggest our watching Christ, "looking off unto Jesus," for In occupation with him we are sure of being guarded against Satan, circumstances, sin, and self. Then together with watching comes prayer, so that as we are told of the danger, we are enabled to meet it by the strength that comes through prayer.
II. The Trial
Gethsemane was soon followed by the betrayal and seizure, and although Simon Peter endeavored to defend his Master, the Lord Jesus would not do anything to prevent capture. And so he was led into the High Priest's house to be examined and tried. At this point we have another picture of the Apostle John which calls for special attention (John 18:15-17). As John was known to the High Priest, he entered in with Jesus Christ into the High Priest's court without any hesitation or difficulty. But Peter remained outside until John spoke to the maid who kept the door and brought in Peter. There seems to be a special point bearing on the Apostle John in the words addressed to Peter by the maid, "Art thou also one of this man's disciples?" The force of "also" is significant, for, of course, it means "in addition to the other disciple." There was no need to inquire about John, who had boldly entered into the court with his Master. He was well known, and it was not necessary to ask him or about him in regard to discipleship. All this implies and clearly teaches the importance of a bold confession of Christ. If only Peter had been courageous enough to take his stand with his fellow disciple, things might have happened differently. John seems to have had no difficulty, for even though we may rightly make allowance for his being known to the High Priest, we also observe that apparently he made no secret of his association with Christ. Confession of our Lord is at once the simplest, the safest, and the most satisfying attitude for a disciple to take, and those who for any reason fail to acknowledge him will never find their life safe nor their experience satisfactory. Great stress is laid in the Gospels on the confession of Christ and the absolute necessity of not being ashamed of him (Matt. 10:32; Luke 12:8). We know how the Jews were afraid to confess him (John 9:22; 12:42), and the effect of fear and shame is always the same in its moral and spiritual weakness and disaster. John did not hesitate to let it be known that he was "one of this man's disciples," and thereby he was saved untold trouble. Whether, therefore, for our own satisfaction, or as a means of blessing to others, the Word is clear and unmistakable, ''Confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus" (Rom. 10:9). When this is our attitude, we know something of what Paul meant when he said. "I am not ashamed" (Rom. 1:16; 2 Tim. 1:12). There is scarcely anything more beautiful than the assurance that, if we are not ashamed of Christ, he will not be ashamed of us (Mark 8:38). It was because men of old were full of courageous faith that we read, "God is not ashamed to be called their God" (Heb. 11:16).
III. The Cross
After the trial before the ecclesiastical and secular authorities, it was not long before the actual crucifixion took place, and once again we have a picture of the Apostle John (John 19:26, 27). There was a special work to be done. Mary, the mother of our Lord, was standing near the Cross, and, desiring to provide for her after his death, Jesus said to his mother, "Woman, behold thy son," as he handed her over to the care of the disciple whom he loved. Then to the disciple he said, "Behold thy mother." From that moment John took charge of Mary. We are inclined to wonder why she was not placed in the care of those who were (almost certainly) her own sons. This was doubtless because of their attitude to Jesus Christ, for at that time his brethren did not believe on him (John 7:5). Spiritual fitness called for the influence of the Apostle John, for the truest bond between men is sympathy with Christ. We are accustomed to say that "blood is thicker than water," but we may add to this that "spirit is thicker than blood." Our relation to Christ is the strongest element in life, and love to him is the determining factor which brings into play the truest human sympathies. Then, too, we may well imagine that this special work would give John something to do in his grief. Service at such a time is the best anodyne.
The incident is also important as a reminder of the nature of true friendship. A thoughtful essay by Dr. H. Clay Trumbull is entitled "Love Grows Through Serving," and there can be no doubt that true friendship consists in being rather than in having a friend; in loving, not in being loved. Thus, the opportunity provided to John to manifest his interest and love on behalf of his dead Master would be of great value to the development of his character. Friendship of the right sort means a constant outlay of love and a ceaseless expenditure of self-sacrificing effort,
IV. The Death
The end was now at hand, and when everything had been finished and fulfilled, our Lord ''bowed his head and gave up his spirit" (John 19:30). But once again the Apostle John appears, and in connection with a matter of great importance. In order that the bodies should not remain on the Cross over the Sabbath Day, the request was made that the legs of all these three men might be broken, and that they might be taken away. It was soon seen that Jesus was dead already, and so his legs were not broken, though one of the soldiers pierced his side, "and straightway there came out blood and water." According to Dr. Stroud's interesting medical theory, our Lord died (literally) of a broken heart. It is at this point that the Apostle John is important, for we have the record in these words: "He that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye also may believe" (John 19:35). Thus, he bore testimony to the reality and certainty of Christ's death, and this for the purpose of behef by others. Christianity is a fact, and is based on testimony. The disciples were told that they should bear witness, because they had been with our Lord from the beginning (John 15:27), and the tourth Gospel closes with another assurance to the same effect, "This is the disciple that beareth witness of these things, and wrote of these things, and we know that his witness is true" (John 21:24). The word "witness" is one of the characteristic features of this Gospel, and there are no fewer than seven forms of evidence included. There was the witness of John the Baptist (John 5:33); the witness of Scripture (John 5:39); the witness of the Father (John 5:37); the witness of Christ himself (John 8:14); the witness of Christ's works (John 5:36); the witness of the Holy Spirit (John 15:26); and the witness of the disciples (John 15:27). Thus, the Gospel of the person and work of Christ comes to us on the basis of assured testimony, and bids us believe and live (1 John 5:7-11).
As we contemplate these various incidents connected with our Lord's death, we see that everything centers in the Cross. We are told of the crucifixion that Jesus was "in the midst" (John 19:18). So must it ever be. As Denney well said, in the New Testament the center of gravity is not Bethlehem, but Calvary. Christ was "in the midst" when he was first seen (Luke 2:46). Indeed, ages before he came it was prophesied that the Prince should be "in the midst" (Ezek. 46:10). After the resurrection our Lord came and stood "in the midst" (John 20:19, 26), and one of the pictures of the future is the Lamb "in the midst" of the throne (Rev. 7:17). And yet all this centrality of Christ and his Cross was only made real when illuminated by the Day of Pentecost. So is it always. Even the Cross and Resurrection, with all their glory, are only made vital to the soul by the Holy Spirit of God.