Every war has decisive battles. In 1781 Washington and Lafayette cornered General Cornwallace at the Battle of Yorktown. In 1815 Napoleon was on the verge of conquering Europe until he met Lord Wellington and General Blücher at the Battle of Waterloo. In 1863 the US Civil War was probably decided at Vicksburg when Grant and Pendleton cut the Confederate army in half. US troops took Europe back from Hitler in the ferocious Battle of Normandy in 1944.
The war for our souls was won on Calvary, but it was preceded by a very important battle in the garden of Gethsemane. Moments before, they had been enjoying the Passover feast together in the upper room which ended by “singing psalms.” The mood quickly changed when Jesus called out not only His betrayer, but also all of the disciples for eventually deserting Him in the heat of battle.
As pastors and leaders, it is easy to see ourselves in this familiar battle. I would personally rather see myself as warrior than wimp, but an honest part in my soul identifies with wanting to run away from the battle sometimes. The disciples were imperfect, yet an important part of the Easter story, as you are. I want to encourage you to walk through the garden for a few minutes to personally remember one of the greatest battles in history and how it changed your life.
The mood got darker as Jesus, Peter, James, and John went to an ordinary olive garden to pray. Gethsemane means “oil press,” which was located at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The walk from Jerusalem is short, but steep. That garden was a normal meeting place for the disciples (John 18:2), but that night was anything but normal. As olive oil was commonly separated from the pulp and water by the crushing pressure of the oil press, Jesus was experiencing the pressure of spiritual darkness.
“He began to be deeply distressed and horrified. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is swallowed up in sorrow – to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake’ ” (Mark 14:33b-34).
I had the opportunity to visit this historic battleground a few years ago and share a very special communion with my wife and several pastor friends. I sensed I was praying on sacred soil that day. I am taking that virtual tour this morning from a hotel room in the US. This too is holy ground.
The Battle’s Price
Luke added his trademark detail to this story: “His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44). I assume they were literal blood drops, as the medical term Dr. Luke used indicates, but will not pretend to know how to pray “to the point of death.”
Jesus experienced physical pain in this battle, which would intensify in subsequent battles a few hours later in courtrooms and on Calvary. The “cup” that Jesus asked the Father three times to take from Him included three beatings, painful thorns, nails, and suffocation.
“He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds” (Isa. 53:5).
Jesus also experienced spiritual pain in the Battle of Gethsemane. Most scholars I have read believe that the weight of our sin is what Jesus dreaded the most about the cross. Nobody understood Isaiah 53 like He did.
“He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
There is only one good reason Jesus did not call down 72,000 angels to deliver Him from this horrendous battle. He would rather deliver us than be delivered. Jesus was a Messiah on a mission.
Jesus experienced emotional pain when His closest comrades fell asleep three times in a row that night. The closer to the cross He got, the lonelier He became. When His friends weren’t sleeping or deserting Him, they were denying and betraying Him. By the end of “Good Friday” Jesus would be rejected by the Romans, the Jews, the disciples, and God Himself.
“He was despised and rejected by men…and the LORD has punished Him for the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:3,6b).
The Battle’s Purpose
Not all wars and battles are noble. Some fight for land, some for revenge, others for power. Jesus’ motives for this noble fight are plainly stated by the one who slept and deserted Him in that garden, only to deny Him in the courtyard.
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins we might live for righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24).
Love compelled Jesus to fight for our souls at the Battles of Gethsemane and Calvary. You and I are on that same mission as pastors, but let’s not also forget that we are the subjects of His mission. Walk slowly through the garden as a Christian before you walk through it as a pastor. Join me in embracing the passion and love of Jesus afresh before we share it on Palm Sunday or Easter.