What Gethsemane Says to Us
Mark 11-13 has centered on Jesus’s condemnation of the temple and its leadership. It’s been heavily oriented by teaching and debate and discussion and symbolic action. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, symbolically riding a royal donkey, with an entourage from Galilee proclaiming “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Drawing on the Old Testament imagery of Israel as a fig tree, he curses a fruitless fig tree while symbolically cleansing the temple and condemning those who have turned God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers.
These symbolic actions lead to confrontations with the Jewish leaders, who challenge Jesus’s authority and attempt to drive a wedge between him and his supporters, and expose the absurdity of his belief in the resurrection. Meanwhile, Jesus not-so-subtly condemns their rejection of God, his servants the prophets, and his beloved Son and promises judgment on the Jewish leaders. He warns about the scribes as a group, while building a connection with a scribe who is sincerely seeking. He highlights some promising puzzles in the Old Testament about the Messiah, who is both David’s Son and (somehow) David’s Lord. And then, in Mark 13, in response to his disciples’ praise of the temple, Jesus delivers his final sermon, announcing the impending judgment on Jerusalem and the temple, and encouraging his followers to “stay awake.”
So, again, Mark 11-13 has been filled with symbolic action, confrontation, teaching, and proclamation. But, not a lot has happened. Instead, the tension has been stretched tighter and tighter as Jesus escalates from symbolic action to parables to debate to a direct announcement of coming judgment.
So, we arrive in Jerusalem, and the action freezes, while the tension builds and builds and builds. And then in Mark 14, all of that tension is unleashed, and things begin to happen. Mark 14 is a chapter of action. We’re at the point in the story where all the characters are in place, and then it’s as though someone gives a signal. Actions and reactions leading to more actions and reactions.
So let’s walk through the passage and note the actions and reactions as they unfold.
Chief Priests Plot
I think that the first part of Mark 14 is actually the end of the previous section rather than the beginning of the next. It brings the confrontation with the Jewish leaders and Jesus’s condemnation of the temple to a close two days before Passover (Wednesday of Holy Week). After the previous days debates and confrontations and sermon, the chief priests and scribes are plotting how to kill Jesus. This plotting has been going on since Mark 3 and had picked up again after Jesus’s parable (12:12). The challenge for the Jewish leaders is that many of the crowds love Jesus, so they have to be careful. They can’t just arrest him while he’s teaching in the temple, because it would cause a riot. So they’re plotting, conspiring, planning how to secretly arrest Jesus. This is a part of the tension I mentioned a moment ago.
A Woman Anoints Jesus for Burial
Now we jump to Jesus and the disciples, reclining at table in Bethany at the house of a former leper, when a woman comes in and pours expensive ointment on Jesus’s head. And I would love to reflect on this passage and this woman’s action, and how the death of Jesus relates to helping the poor. But in my preparation I found another aspect of Mark 14 was more needful for us, and so for now I can simply note that one of the key actions in this passage is when this women anoints Jesus for his burial.
Now we jump to Judas. In this gospel he has not gotten much attention. John tells us he was leading the grumbling because he loved to skim a little off the top (John 12:5-6). Perhaps the fact that Jesus was not interested in collecting a lot of money was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Whatever the reason in his own mind, Judas now moves into action. The high priests have been plotting; now Judas gives them a way to get Jesus. Judas knows where Jesus will be, and who will be with him. He makes it possible for the priests to arrest Jesus when there are no crowds around to cause an uproar. And so if Jesus won’t be collecting expensive gifts to “give to the poor,” Judas will find other ways to make money.
The leaders are plotting, the woman is anointing, Judas is betraying, and now, it’s Passover. Jesus sends his disciples into Jerusalem to prepare the feast. And like with the triumphal entry, there is preparation already taking place. For the disciples this must be getting a little eerie: Jesus sends them to prepare something, and they find the preparations already begun, and Jesus is aware of specific details of the preparations.
And the Passover meal is designed to highlight one of the key elements of this story: the betrayal of Jesus by one of his own. Until now, the opposition has been entirely distinct. Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, scribes, Herodians—these are the enemies of Jesus. Their opposition is expected and recognized. But when Jesus shares the meal with his disciples, he wants to show them that the opposition isn’t just outside in the world; it’s in the room. One of the twelve, who have been with him from the beginning, who are now sharing table fellowship with him, will betray Jesus. And so the disciples eat and drink with Jesus, as he gives new meaning to this old meal.
Disciples Will Flee
After dinner, they head to the Mount of Olives, and Jesus again has hard words for them. Not only will one of them betray him, but all of them will flee from him. When the moment of truth comes, they will all fall away. They will scatter to the winds. And, true to form, Peter insists that he will not. And so Jesus singles him out. One will betray, all will flee, and Peter will deny Jesus. Three times.
Leaders plot. A woman anoints. Judas betrays. The disciples eat and drink (and will flee). And Peter will deny. This brings us to Gethsemane, to the garden near the Mount of Olives. This scene echoes the transfiguration of Jesus in Mark 9. In that passage, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain, where his glory was revealed and God proclaimed him to be his beloved son. In this passage, Jesus again takes Peter, James, and John to a mountain, but instead of a voice from heaven, the only sounds are the groans of Jesus and the snores of his disciples. Jesus prays, and asks the disciples to sit up with him, to “stay awake.” And three times they fall asleep. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
And when Jesus wakes them for the third time, he says, “The hour is here. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” And I think we’re meant to hear the echo of Mark 2 in this passage. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” The one who came to call sinners is now betrayed into their hands.
And so Judas comes (“one of the twelve”), with a crowd carrying clubs and swords. And he betrays Jesus with a kiss. And here we see the ugliness of sin. We see the way that deep sin and evil and selfishness can hide behind a smiling facade. Judas betrays Jesus, not with an angry accusation or a public condemnation, but with a kiss. In the midst of the betrayal, Jesus draws attention to an important fact: they’ve had the opportunity to arrest him for days. He’s been in the temple. He’s been teaching. But now they come with swords and clubs, in the middle of the night, to arrest him in secret? Jesus is drawing attention to their plotting, their cowardice, their fear of the crowds.
Disciples Flee, Priests Accuse
And then the disciples flee, just as Jesus said, along with an unnamed young man that many take to be Mark himself. Jesus is then taken before the council, where plots become accusations. Accuser after accuser rises to condemn Jesus, but the witnesses don’t agree. Their testimony contradicts itself. Their accusations center around Jesus’s supposed hostility to the temple, but they can’t get it right. Even after all of their plotting, they might not be able to get him. Their plot is falling apart.
And then something remarkable happens. Jesus has been silent in the midst of these accusations, watching his accusers tie themselves in knots and exposing their lies. And then the high priest questions him. “Answer the charges.” Silence. And then, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus looks up, and says, “I am,” and he identifies himself with the Son of Man in Daniel and enrages the Jewish leaders who call for his execution for blasphemy.
Peter Denies and Weeps
And as Jesus is led away with blows, the final scene of the chapter. Peter, witnessing the trial, is accused of being a collaborator. And, just as Jesus said, he denies his Lord. First, he tries to pretend like he doesn’t understand. But as they persist in their accusations, Peter, in fear, becomes more blatant. “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And then the rooster crows. And he remembers the night before. And Peter falls down and weeps.
So that’s the action of Mark 14. The chief priests plotting and accusing. A woman anointing Jesus for burial. Judas betraying him behind a false face. The disciples eating with Jesus, drinking with Jesus, and then sleeping and fleeing in fear. And Peter denying Jesus and weeping in the courtyard.
So what do we do with all of this action? I want to draw out two major elements for your encouragement. Let’s begin in dark Gethsemane.
Remember what Mark has shown us about Jesus. Throughout this book, we’ve seen Jesus’s sovereignty and authority. He has power over demons, power over nature, power over sickness and disease, even power over death. Again and again we’ve seen the power of Jesus’s words. “Come out of him!” “Peace, be still.” “I will. Be clean.” “Little girl, get up.”
And as we’ve preached these passages about the power of Jesus, we pastors have encouraged you to believe in Jesus and to pray and act accordingly. Like, when Pastor Jonathan was preaching on the calming of the storm.
“We come to Jesus asking, “Do you even care?” And the answer is Yes. He does care. He cares for you. And even when it seems like he doesn’t, when it seems like he’s nowhere in sight, or that he’s off doing other things, the story reminds us that he cares. He meets his people in their need. He shows up for them in power. In answer to the disciples’ question, Jesus says to them, and to us, “I am here, and I care.”
So when you come to Jesus, don’t simply pray, “Jesus, grab a bucket.” Don’t mumble your prayers. Ask big, bold things of God not just for others, but for yourself. Jesus can do more than grab a bucket. Ask him to do more. In humble faith, you can ask him to stop the storm.
Or we could jump to a few weeks ago, when Jesus teaches us directly on prayer and encourages us to ask for big things. “Say to the mountain, ‘Be thrown into the sea,’ and it will be done.” “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Pray big prayers because Jesus is real and Jesus is sovereign and Jesus is powerful. Go to him like Bartimaeus, “I want to receive my sight.” Go to him like the leper, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Go to him like the father of the boy with the unclean spirit, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Even if you can’t speak, go to him like the deaf and mute man and hear him say, “Be opened.” If you can’t walk, get your friends to carry you and lower you through the ceiling. Get to him and ask him for impossible things!
And those are the right lessons to be drawn from those passages. But every time we’ve seen the power of Jesus and encouraged big prayers, I imagine that some of you have had an immediate check in the back of your mind. The unavoidable question in the face of those promises and examples: “What about unanswered prayers? What about when we pray and beg in faith and it’s not done for us, and what we ask for is not ours, and the storm doesn’t stop?”
Now, with that in mind, let’s go to dark Gethsemane. Jesus is greatly distressed, greatly troubled, and full of sorrow.
And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (14:35-36)
Here is why this matters to you. This is the most faithful human being who ever lived. Beloved son of a happy father. And he’s coming to God, believing. “All things are possible for you.” And he is praying a big, bold prayer to a sovereign God. “If it’s possible, let the hour pass. Remove this cup from me.” And God doesn’t take the cup away. He doesn’t let the hour pass. The man came to Jesus and said, “If you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I will.” And then Jesus came to his Father and said, “If you will, let it pass.” And his Father said, “I won’t.”
It is so crucial for us to see the whole witness of Mark’s gospel. The entire book tells us to pray big prayers, even for ourselves, for our deep desires and longings, in our great distress and anguish and fear. And sometimes, the storm stops. And sometimes, the cross comes. That’s the first thing I want you to see in all of this action. Mark’s gospel compels us to pray big prayers in faith. And it also shows us a big, faithful prayer that went unanswered.
But it shows us more. It shows us Jesus. Remember the specificity and detail that we’ve seen in Mark 14. The preparations for Passover: everything is already ready. Jesus telling his disciples, “One of you will betray me. All of you will fall away. Peter, you will deny me three times before the rooster crows twice” (14:26-31) “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (14:21). “The hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed” (14:41). “I was with you in the temple and you didn’t seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (14:49).
In the midst of all of this action, as the tension in the story is uncorked and we see plots turn to betrayal turn to accusations, and as the disciples are confused and sad and then sleepy and fearful, in the midst of all of this action, Jesus stands in the center like a conductor in the midst of an orchestra. All of this is planned. Nothing is surprising. Every detail has been destined.
So much so that, even when the case against Jesus is falling apart because the witnesses can’t agree, Jesus breaks his silence and gives them all the ammunition they need to execute him. Not even their ineptitude at railroading an innocent man will keep him from his mission.
And his mission includes a full identification with us in our suffering and our sorrows. Not just the physical pain that he’s about to endure on the cross, but the mental and emotional agony of feared and anticipated pain and loss. There is a particular kind of mental and emotional pain and turmoil that comes from anticipating that evil will befall us. And in that emotional pain and fear we cry out to God for help. Take the cup. Let the hour pass. And sometimes, like with the little girl who died, God answers in exactly the way we want. “Little girl, get up.” And sometimes, we pray anguished prayers over and over and over, and the evil still comes.
It’s one thing to actually submit to an affliction when it comes. But this prayer shows that the anguish that precedes the affliction is also God’s will for us and, therefore, Jesus joins us in it. Now there is a great mystery here. How does Christ, according to his human nature experience this emotional agony and pain, while according to his divine nature, he is completely sovereign and even incapable of such suffering? But the mystery of how it works can’t keep us from seeing Jesus’s anguish and mental agony on his way to the cross, and what it means for us.
Have you ever turned to your friends for help in your need and found that they are asleep or busy or otherwise preoccupied? Jesus too.
Has the institutional church and the leaders of God’s people ever turned their back on you? Jesus too.
Have the governing authorities, whether through neglect or worse motives, been unable or unwilling to help you? Jesus too.
And have you, in desperation, turned to God himself for help, asking him to take the cup from you, and had your request denied? Jesus too.
This is a fundamental part of the human experience. To be human is to have moments, sometimes long moments, when every rope breaks as you seize it and every door slams shut when you reach it, and you find yourself in the darkness in great distress, and you ask for relief, and God says no. That’s fundamental to the human experience. And Jesus is fully human.
Some of you are in the midst of your own Gethsemanes. You’re greatly distressed, greatly troubled, and full of sorrow. And you’re pleading and begging God for relief, and the only thing louder than your sobs and moans is the deafening silence of God’s “I won’t.” And as a result, you feel yourself to be utterly and completely abandoned and alone. But the message of this passage is: you are not alone. To go to the darkened garden and to see the anguish and sorrow and distress of Jesus while he perfectly conducts the orchestra of his death is to realize that, for the Christian, you can never be utterly alone in the darkness of Gethsemane. Whatever road you’re on, it is not an untrodden path. There is one who has gone before you, and he is there with you still.
And so we find ourselves at the Table. And we must learn to bring Gethsemane to the Table. At this table, we see that Jesus endured his freely chosen anguish and sorrow so that we could face our unchosen anguish and sorrow with him.
Jesus said, “Father, if you will, let it pass,” and God said, “I won’t.” But his “I won’t” was not the final word. Jesus was anointed for burial. He had come to give his life as a ransom for many, to be crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. And because of that redemptive plan, God says, “I won’t.”
Which means, we must learn to hear what Gethsemane says to us:
“I won’t spare you pain, but I will redeem your pain.”
“I won’t spare you tears, but one day I will dry them.”
“I won’t spare you death, but I will raise you from the dead.”
Come, and welcome to Jesus.