Because of our sinful human nature, we often find it difficult to understand what the Godhead has experienced to make possible our salvation. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit may guide us to comprehend the breadth, the length, the depth and the height of the love of God which passes knowledge, enabling us to taste the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18).
Let us begin by refreshing our minds with a familiar text found in Matthew 16:24: “… Jesus said unto His disciples, If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” May these words of Christ lead us into a deeper meaning of what is expected of each of us.
I invite you to come with me and join our Lord with His disciples as they walked through the streets of old Jerusalem on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus has just instituted the Lord’s Supper in the upper room and as we join with them, we notice that Christ is continuing to teach these profound truths. He explains that the blood that He is about to shed for everyone is to be remembered by the juice of the vine, and the bread is to represent His broken body.
As we near the eastern gate of the city He sums these eternal truths with the words, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). With His disciples our hearts thrill within us to hear these living words from the lips of the Master. Shining above us is the Passover moon in all its fullness. The sky is cloudless and around us in every nook and cranny are the pilgrim’s tents, now hushed in silence as we pass through Jerusalem’s gate. We and the disciples soon discover that prophetic time is running out, for something tremendous is about to happen.
Arriving at the entrance to the garden, Christ suddenly becomes strangely silent. He has been here many times to pray, sometimes all night long, but this time we notice something is different. Jesus is beginning to experience an unheard-of agony. Why? What has happened? Up to this moment He has continually walked with God His Father. He could always say, “He that sent Me is with Me: the Father hath not left Me alone” (John 8:29). But now something strange is taking place. God His Father is beginning to separate Himself from His son. Christ is being numbered with the transgressors. He is to bear the guilt of all humanity. Jesus, Who had never sinned, is to bear the guilt of all. He is to bear the weight of the sins of all the world.
As these sins are being placed upon Jesus, He finds Himself being shut out from the presence of His Father. As a man, He is now beginning to experience the dreadfulness of sin. He now sees and feels that these sins that He is now bearing are so great that they are completely separating Him from His Father. Furthermore, as He feels the wrath of God against these sins, His human nature is forced to cry out aloud, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38).
The disciples are amazed to hear such words from the Master. They look at Him and behold a marked change. His face has always been filled with joy, but now it is filled with sadness. The teaching Christ has suddenly become the silent Christ. We notice that each step He takes has become difficult. His body sways as if to fall and He groans aloud because of the sins of the world which are being thrust upon Him. Twice His disciples reach out to support Him or He would have fallen to the ground.
Finally, we reach the inner garden. Here Jesus stops to choose three of His closest disciples, Peter, James and John. He especially chooses these because they had witnessed His transfiguration. As a man now in such a terrifying position, Jesus longs for friendship and for help. These disciples had seen the glory that He had shared with His Father. They had heard the Father’s voice when He said, “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5, last part). Now He longs for His close friends to repeat these words, revealing again the Father’s love for Him. He longs for their companionship in prayer. He pleads, Spend a night with Me in prayer. “Tarry ye here; watch with Me” (Matthew 26:38).
Now the struggle begins in earnest as Satan tries to overwhelm Him. He feels so alone, for God has completely separated Himself from His Son because of the sins Christ now bears. Jesus is faced with a horrible situation. He is surrounded by legions of evil angels. You and I would be frightened if we were suddenly confronted with one of the devil’s angels, but Christ is overwhelmed. Thousands of demons are causing Jesus to experience the very same condition that the lost will face when they come up in the second resurrection and find that they are completely in the power of the devil and His angels.
As a man, it is more than Christ can handle. He falls prostrate to the ground as He realizes that the separation from His Father is like a mighty gulf, broad and deep. It terrifies Him. His body actually shakes with fear. Although Jesus has never sinned, He is now in a different position than during His entire life, for Satan is thrusting every sin of the world upon Him. Prophecy describes His suffering in these words: “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd” (Zechariah 13:7).
My brother and sister, our minds cannot begin to comprehend a fraction of the suffering of Jesus Christ. If in any way you should possibly doubt this, may I remind you that in heaven to come, we shall never exhaust the study of what Christ experienced in Gethsemane so that you and I might live. Christ has now become the surety for sinful man. This means He has become our Substitute. In other words, all penalty which we should suffer for our sins He must now suffer.
Up to this moment He has always been an intercessor for others, pleading in their behalf, giving them courage and strength, a living example of the love of God, but now He Himself longs for an intercessor. The condition He now faces is like a man having a terrible dream who, when he awakes, discovers that it is not a dream at all; it is for real. It is like watching a loved one waiting to die on their deathbed. The anticipation of such an event is heartrending, but when death actually occurs, the final separation is overwhelming. Christ feels He cannot endure such separation from His Father.
He now remembers that some three years before, while in the wilderness, he had met Satan face to face. Although He was weak and emaciated from 40 days of fasting and was about to die, He had no fear, for God His Father was with Him. Then, with God’s power, He had conquered the devil, but now He is alone. God has completely separated Himself from Him. He now understands fully that sin and God cannot exist together. Oh, friend, would to God that we would realize this tremendous fact. Jesus now realizes that if He fails in this encounter with Satan, all will be lost. Every believing saint since Creation will be without hope and He Himself will be lost forever — if He should lose this battle. Never again would He be able to say that He was able to save to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25), and more important, He Himself would be eternally separated from the Father.
It is now that the demons press the battle. Legions of these spirits surround Him and with all the satanic power that the devil and his angels can invent, they scream at Him saying, “What is to be gained by this sacrifice? Don’t You realize that the sins that You now carry are so great that God will never accept You again? And just look at the ingratitude of the people You love. They have rejected You. They are even now seeking to destroy You. Within an hour all will forsake You.” These intimate facts pierced His soul like a sword while the devil continued to press the point: “Look, those Whom You have created with Your own hands are demanding Your blood. The weight of the sins You now carry is crushing Your heart, causing this terrible pain.” As Christ hears these demon words He clings to the cold ground as if it will help Him. Alone, the chilling dew falls upon His prostrate form and from His lips comes the cry, “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).
Christ in His humanity longs for sympathy. In this supreme moment he gropes for comfort. If only His disciples are praying for Him as the malignancy of sin is crushing out His very life. Terrible is the temptation to let the sinner bear his own sins. Where can He go for help? What can He do? He remembers these disciples and perhaps they can help Him. He arises painfully and staggers a few feet only to find them all asleep. Listen as He calls to Peter: “What! Could you not watch with Me for one hour” (verse 40 NKJV)?
At this point permit me to pause for a few moments in this description of Christ’s agony, for I must ask you a question: Have you by any chance imagined what our coming to Gethsemane experience will be like? Could it be that some of us are asleep today when the most evil of all storms is to burst upon us? Let me read from Inspiration, Testimonies, vol. 2, 205: “By these sleeping disciples is represented a sleeping church, when the day of God’s visitation is nigh. It is a time of clouds and thick darkness, when to be found asleep is most perilous.” But praise God, we are told in Early Writings, pages 269, 270, that not all will be sleeping: “I saw some, with strong faith and agonizing cries, pleading with God. …
“As the praying ones continued their earnest cries, at times a ray of light from Jesus came to them, to encourage their hearts and light up their countenances. Some, I saw, did not participate in this work of agonizing and pleading. They seemed indifferent and careless. They were not resisting the darkness around them, and it shut them in like a thick cloud.” Could it be that you and I are failing to take advantage of this little time of peace that God is giving us to prepare? Or are we like the disciples of old?
Now let me take you back again to the moment when Jesus called to Peter and awakened him with the words, “Sleepest thou? Couldest thou now not watch with Me one hour?” At these words all of the disciples were awakened and could hardly recognize the face of Jesus because it had become so utterly changed by His anguish. Yet in such agony Jesus tries to excuse them. “The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38, last part).
Amazingly this is only the beginning of this dreadful ordeal. Inspiration now states that Christ is seized with a superhuman agony. Fainting and exhausted, He staggers back to His spot of prayer, only to discover that His suffering has intensified and there is no one to help Him. Alone “His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). No other man in the entire world has ever experienced such unrestrained agony. What a change! Just a few days before He had cleansed the temple, unafraid of the soldier’s swords and of the stubborn will of the church rulers who were filled with malice and hatred, planning to kill Him. Yet He was unafraid. Why? Because His Father was with Him. But now He is like a battered reed bent in an angry storm. He is now in the hour of the power of darkness. And for the second time He cries aloud, “O My Father, if this cup may not pass away from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Once again, as a human, He turns to His disciples for help, only to find them sleeping. They have permitted Satan to stupefy them with his devilish power, putting them to sleep.
Christ now awakens them, trusting that they will help Him, but instead, the disciples are terrified. Never have they beheld such a face! Never have they seen anyone so marked with blood and agony! Rather than helping Jesus, the disciples themselves are filled with fear. Prophecy has stated, “His visage was so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men” (Isaiah 52:14). Sad to say, for the second time His disciples had failed Him.
Once again He staggers back to His retreat and falls prostrate to the cold ground. The awful moment has now finally come. He is overcome by Satan’s darkness. Yet in this awful moment His love for His disciples is so strong that He prays not for Himself but that their faith fail not. What a Savior! Christ now faces the final test. It is not too late; He can go back to heaven into His Father’s open arms and feel the peace, the comfort, and the love that He longs for. He can let the transgressor perish. Why should He suffer? For the third time Jesus cries aloud, “O My Father, if this cup may not pass from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done” (Matthew 26:44).
Christ now understands the full depth of sin. He sees the transgressor before the law as helpless and perishing. For the first time, as a man, he fully senses the power of sin. The woes of a doomed world arouse His love for the lost. Alone He makes the final decision. He will save man at any cost to Himself. He will accept the baptismal blood. He will make possible eternal life to all who will take up their cross and follow Him. He will die even to save just one soul. Such is His love for the individual. He will become the Lamb of God and take away the sins of the world. Immediately, He experiences death for you and for me and falls dying to the ground. Where are His disciples in this final moment to encourage and strengthen Him, to bathe that blood-stained brow that is marred more than any man has ever experienced? (See The Desire of Ages, 693.) But this is not all. He must be tested beyond death. This might be incomprehensible for you and for me to understand, but the devil must never be able to claim that if he could have tempted Jesus just a few minutes longer the Savior would have given up.
For a moment, let us turn from this tremendous decision to save us and go up to heaven and see what is happening there. Inspiration states that God has suffered with His Son. This means that every pain and every anguish, every piercing depth of agony – all has been also suffered by the Father. As the angels surround the throne, they behold the agony of God the Father. There is silence in heaven. Not a harp is touched. In amazement the angels watch as the Father separates Himself from His Son, permitting Christ to become the sin bearer. The angels are filled with wonder. They now see that, bearing our sins, Jesus has become offensive to God. No wonder the Scripture says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16).
Now let me take you back to the garden. Thousands of demons have converged upon Christ as He falls to the ground. But watch. God in heaven now commands the angel Gabriel, who was given the place that Lucifer had occupied before his banishment from heaven, to immediately go to Jesus and give Him added strength so that He does not die for He must be tempted beyond death. This angel comes not to take away the cup of death but to strengthen Him that He may drink it. Watch as Gabriel brings assurance to Jesus of His Father’s love and tells Him, “God, Your Father is more powerful than Satan and because of the decision that You have made to die as the Lamb of God, You have gained the victory over Satan. The kingdoms of this world will eventually be given to the saints. The redeemed will shine in the universe as the stars of heaven.” Praise God! Christ believes the angel. He believes by faith that God still loves Him. Instantly He becomes calm and serene as a God-like peace captures His blood-stained face. Christ has now tasted death for every sinner. Jesus has gained the victory by faith. The angel lifts Christ’s head to his bosom and points Him to the open heavens. Jesus hears that sweet music of heaven and knows that His Father loves Him. Hope and comfort once more fill His heart. By faith He knows that His Father loves Him.
Beloved, are we ready for our Gethsemane to come? Do we really understand what the words, “Take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23 NKJV) mean. Believe me, each of us who by God’s grace is determined to gain victory over sin will soon personally experience our own Gethsemane. We too shall soon live without an intercessor. Our past sins will overwhelm us. We shall feel forsaken of God and surrounded by devils. We will personally experience what it means to be alone. Our friends will forsake us and flee from us like the disciples fled from Christ. Religious forces will unite against us as the arm of the state joins in a confederacy with the church to do away with us. We will be betrayed by loved ones just as Judas betrayed His Lord with a kiss. Some of us will be in prison bound as Christ was, falsely accused, abused, and adjured before God to admit that we are His commandment keepers, knowing full well that in standing up for Jesus this will be our death warrant. Many will hear the verdict, Execute! Inspiration has stated, “Those who apostatize in time of trial will, to secure their own safety, bear false witness, and betray their brethren. Christ has warned us of this, that we may not be surprised at the unnatural, cruel course of those who reject the light.” The Desire of Ages, 630. “Those who are true to God will be menaced, denounced, proscribed. They will be ‘betrayed by parents, and brethren, and kinfolks, and friends,’ even unto death” (Luke 21:16). Prophets and Kings, 588.
“Some who profess righteousness will, like Judas, betray their Lord into the hands of His bitterest enemies.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 690. “As trials thicken around us, both separation and unity will be seen in our ranks. Some who are now ready to take up weapons of warfare will in times of real peril make it manifest that they have not built upon the solid rock; they will yield to temptation. Those who have had great light and precious privileges, but have not improved them, will, under one pretext or another, go out from us. Not having received the love of the truth, they will be taken in the delusions of the enemy; they will give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils, and will depart from the faith.” Testimonies, vol. 6, 400, 401.
Now beloved, if you think that I have over-emphasized what our coming Gethsemane will mean to us, then listen to this: “The ‘time of trouble, such as never was,’ (Daniel 12:1) is soon to open upon us; and we shall need an experience which we do not now possess, and which many are too indolent to obtain. It is often the case that trouble is greater in anticipation than in reality; but this is not true of the crisis before us. The most vivid presentation cannot reach the magnitude of the ordeal. In that time of trial, every soul must stand for himself before God.” The Great Controversy, 622.
Unlike what occurred with Christ, Who, in the garden made the final decision to die on Calvary’s cross to save you and me, we, who have also made the decision to die rather than sin, will be saved by divine intervention. Praise the Lord! The living saints will be translated without death. God has promised in Revelation 15:2, 3: “I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints.”
Beloved, by God’s grace I plan to sing that song of Moses and of the Lamb on the sea of glass, a song which the angels can never sing. What about you? Would you determine now before God to join me that together we can sing this song of victory over sin?
May this be our prayer: Dear God, we are determined by Thy mighty power to overcome every sin now so that we may so live ready for Jesus to come and stand with Him on that sea of glass and sing the song of victory.
For more than fifty years, Lawrence Nelson served the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a church pastor, evangelist, and then in Conference, Union, and General Conference leadership. When God laid upon him the responsibility to “tell it like it is” to alert the people how the church was leading them into the worldwide ecumenical movement, he was forbidden to preach in any church within the Oregon Conference. Elder Nelson passed to his rest on April 18, 2012.