Mobbed

During my time in seminary in spring 1984, my classmate Max McLean made a dramatic presentation to the entire student body during a time of chapel. His presentation was an imagined drama which went over the decisions which Pontius Pilate faced on the day that Jesus Christ came before him, and he had to make the decision as to whether Jesus would live or die. He was speaking as Pilate as he might have agonized later over the choices that were given to him that morning, the different pressures he was under from different directions. He  kept coming back to the one question: “What would you have done?”

The gospels go over much of the political and judicial process which resulted in the death sentence for Jesus Christ as it happened in Jerusalem about 30 CE. There was more than one hand at work in this situation, though, as the visible political and judicial machinery of the Roman government ground onward to the final result. Surely a serious Christian considering these passages will understand that they showcase the corruption of the political and judicial process in this sinful, fallen world due to the sinful, fallen hearts of the people who are part of the political and judicial process. Many of the parts of the political and legal machinery are familiar to us also from the common political and legal processes of mankind;. We can understand what was going on because we also have some understanding of the way that political and legal proceedings work in this world. 

These passages that deal with the political trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate also show what can happen to the followers of Jesus in this world just as it has also often happened throughout history.  Here we also see the portents of the treatment of the innocent believer in Jesus who has broken no laws but has come under the disapproval of those who are in positions of political and religious authority – and make no mistake, Jesus Christ is still as serious a threat to the powers that be in his followers as he was when he was physically here on earth standing before Pontius Pilate. So throughout so many ages since then so many believers who have undergone persecution and probable martyrdom have found themselves understanding and sympathizing with what happened to Jesus, and they would find in the gospels the same Lord who sympathizes with them because he was there first as the innocent sufferer before the bar of wickedly politicized judicial proceedings.

But there is still another hand at work in these circumstances as well. In our age we may come to these passages where we think we are simply observers through the narration, but at the end find that we are no longer just observers at all, but rather full participants in this situation as it was unfolding. To be certain, these are definitely objective historical events that really happened, but these passages tell us of events also with a real significance beyond the past that continues to draw us in now, to where the audience finds that they are part of the story as well, and that they were there from the very beginning. These passages are like a news article about something which we come to the startled realization that we were there when the event happened, but that we didn’t realize it until long after the event happened. The circumstances now that we will consider together involved a reversal of the death sentence for a stunningly and notoriously guilty party and the just punishment which the guilty man deserved was put upon the innocent person. This was more just than a travesty of human justice. Through our view of the proceedings we can see beyond what was happening and look beyond them to the controversial and totally innocent person at the center of the controversy. It is starling to consider that the person , who had nothing to say in this passage, was actually the one in charge of the proceedings from beginning to end. It is astonishing to see that he was the one who had written the script, how the players on this stage around him were acting out their cruelty of their own hearts with him as their intended victim. None of them were really in control of these proceedings, and the actual result was beyond any of them and not within the control of any of them, but it was all under the control of the one person who was there and silent at this time.

“According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them. But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas. And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:6-15, Dale’s sight translation).

The death sentence on Jesus was the ultimate tradeoff. It was an attempted exchange for temporary political expediency, but the exchange that was actually attempted was not the exchange that was actually achieved. Here, the human political desperation and judicial expediency that sought a tradeoff to and the cruelty of a mob seeking to indulge their own bloodthirsty agenda resulted in the true exchange of lives which brings real life and freedom.

In the corrupt judicial proceedings of this world, there are often people who seek for the release of the guilty parties without regard to their guilt before God and man. The terrible injustice of this world may then result, as it often has throughout human history,  in the exchange of the lives of the unquestionably guilty for the lives of the unquestionably innocent. But what happened then still points to the ultimate human need for real life freedom that ultimately comes from the ultimate need for the exchange of the life of the completely innocent for the lives of the completely guilty.

The drama that happened then, and in which we are still participants, begins in verses 6-8:  “According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them.”

The custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover which the gospel mentioned is not well attested outside the New Testament but not unprecedented throughout the known judicial proceedings of the Roman empire. And the guilty man who was known as Barabbas is unknown beyond what the New Testament says. He was, though, apparently, well known enough that his name needed little further explanation 23-30 years later, when the gospel of Mark was most likely written. He was most definitely an armed robber and a  murderer, and  apparently something of a political revolutionary and radical, a ‘desperate character.’ He may have been part of a criminal gang which gave a revolutionary and political rationale for their crimes.

So here is where the mob starts to become evident. There seem to have been a number of those in the crowd that came to Pilate and they were apparently seeking to have this character released by Pilate as part of the custom. They may have come entirely with that purpose in that mind and they may have already become worked up to seek the release of Barabbas. A few might have mixed in with the crowd that gathered around to see what Pilate would do about Jesus as the Jewish high priests and their underlings dragged Jesus before Pontius Pilate.

The whole size of this crowd that became a mob may have started with a couple of dozen and grown to several hundred in this crowd, may have grown still further as time went on; the gospel writers were not concerned with counting heads in the crowd at this time. And maybe some came not with any animosity toward Jesus but rather simply wanting this Barabbas character released. They may have had some sympathy with his professed radical and revolutionary bent; after all, they were part of a nation that was occupied by the imperial power of Rome and like many at that time they wanted to be free from Rome. But still others may have been paid stooges of the high priest clan; the ‘retired’ high priest Annas, the father in law of the official high priest Caiaphas, was in fact known at that time for hiring and inciting mobs. And some of those there in that group may have even been part of the group that came out with torches and staves, like the crowd of peasants in an old horror movie, to the Garden of Gethsemane during the previous night to arrest Jesus.

So then like now, the desire for political freedom can often result in or be the excuse for deeper crimes in this world of sin.  The human heart, the sin factory that often produces horrible crimes can make desperate characters out of so many, and many others like Barabbas have been produced throughout the ages, and the crowds may call for their release without regard to their crimes. Certainly here we can see the warning not to idolize the radicals and revolutionaries of this world who are often criminals as bad as those they are protesting, such as the current unthinking idolization of Che Guevara and the current unthinking idolatry of political violence by so many. The desperation of the professed radical the actual criminal and the crowds desperate for political freedom simply compounds the real problem. The problem for each of them was not Rome but their own heart. Even John Lennon saw through this, where he advised the would be revolutionary of his time: “You better free your mind instead . . .”And here we come ourselves the place where we realize that we are the desperate characters ourselves, and we understand the failure of our best intentions to achieve the freedom that we crave. The freedom that we crave is really not a political freedom but from the power of sin and death, and that is the freedom that can come only from the Son of God. “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. . . . If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free . .  (John 8:31-32, 34, 36).

The necessary tradeoff requires that one would be unquestionably guilty and another would  be unquestionably innocent. But the tradeoff that was attempted then on this basis wasn’t the one which actually happened. The desperation for one tradeoff based on political and judicial expediency ironically, then, results in another which actually is the intent of God in these circumstances. What happens in this situation is the real plan of the one who is really in charge and pulling the strings in these situations.

In verses 9-11 we can see how Pilate desperately and clumsily tries to do the right things in that situation: “But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas.” He obviously knows the injustice of the charges against Jesus. He knows that the previous trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, as well as the crowds, were being stirred up to demand the death of an innocent man. Here on the platform in the city of Jerusalem was a minor Roman official and politician who was trying clumsily to appease the popular demand and let Jesus off at the same time. He was trying to direct them from the guilty party – Barabbas — release the innocent Jesus. He was faced with a crowd that came with some desire that they dare not express to his face for their political liberty from Rome and who wanted a criminal who had some popular sympathy released instead of Jesus. The crowd kept up their demands for the release of Barabbas when Pilate tried to suggest to them that the Jesus who should be released was the other innocent Jesus.

Pilate’s clumsy attempt at a tradeoff then started to backfire in the face of the crowd that wouldn’t accept his attempt to redirect them from Barabbas to Jesus. At this point the crowds were also being instigated to seek the release of Barabbas by the ruling priests. This would be Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies  — and here they were themselves stirring up the mob as Annas  himself was notorious for doing. They were desperate themselves as now they saw the danger that Jesus could get off at this point. What actually happened here may not have been anything more than them stepping forward from the sidelines at this point to call for the release of Barabbas – just stepping forward so they could be recognized, turning to the crowd and leading them in calling for Barabbas. This would not  have been out of any desire for Barabbas to be free, but from their desire for Jesus to be executed and for making certain that their murderous intent was fulfilled so they could be rid of Jesus and the threat he was to their status quo. Even here, though, no one there got what he or she wanted except Jesus. And note also how often this same kind of scene was repeated throughout the book of Acts whenever the pride, position, privileges and profits were threatened by the gospel and the freedom which Jesus brings – the incited mob, the fury of the religious and political leaders, and the calm of the innocent who were being called upon to suffer.

So despite the best intentions and attempts of many people to do the right thing, those cannot achieve what only God can provide. All the attempts to pull strings and maneuver behind the scenes only play into the plans which God already has made. Our own plans and tradeoffs within the sinful machinery of this world will ultimately backfire, and only God gets what he wants in these situations. It’s so  common throughout the ages, that the murderous hostility of the world towards the people of God only goes to fulfill the actual will and purposes of God in that situation. Even in the hour of his death, as he was being burned at the stake in Oxford, England,  the reforming bishop Hugh Latimer died with this assurance as he said to his compatriot Nicholas Ridley, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out . . .”

In this world, good intentions, a desperate attempt to try to do the right thing, often does not achieve what we’re aiming for. We still live in and need to deal with the machinery of this fallen world that can crush our best intentions and most desperate efforts. What we often fail to do and need to do is to see beyond the outward circumstances of the machinery to the ultimate purposes of God in that situation. We need to see what God is providing in that situation, and to know, understand and pursue his will in his power before the political and judicial machinery of this world. 

The tradeoff that looked expedient then had been ultimately in the plan of God from all eternity. In that situation God himself was orchestrating the events which ended up meeting the most desperate need of this world. The desperation of this world demanded the exchange of the death of Jesus for the guilty parties of this world. What was demanded in that situation turns out to have been the cry of the real need of this world, of the people everywhere, in every time. The desperation of this world called for the death of Jesus. The cry then the exhibition of a deeper need than anyone in the mob then and there realized. What was then shouted as a murderous demand echoed in the purpose and foreknowledge of God as the answer of God to the most desperate need of this world.

In verses 12-13, then, Pilate then put the question to the crowds as to what he was to do with Jesus: “And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ .” Here we see the Pontius Pilate known to history. At the end he is just an average politician shirking his responsibility to uphold civil justice. There was no reason for Pilate to put the question to the crowd at all about what he was to do with Jesus. He was the governor that the Roman emperor Tiberius had appointed, and his was the authority alone on what to do with Jesus. But apparently the crowd had become more unruly, and perhaps Pilate feared a riot. So when he put the question to the crowd the ginned up mob called back for Jesus to be crucified instead of Barabbas.

Under the Old Testament Law stoning was the normal way of execution for the purported crime of blasphemy. Twice during the ministry of Jesus his Jewish audiences had already tried to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31) – and it would actually as in the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. The fulfillment of the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Psalm 22, though, indicated crucifixion and not stoning. So in the call for crucifixion the mob was unwittingly making themselves part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy from the Old Testament. That’s what they were actually doing, though they had no idea or intention that they were doing it. But even more see the monstrous cruelty of that crowd that was willing to trade the life of Jesus for Barabbas. See their  complete indifference to the crimes of Barabbas and their disrespect for the innocence and life of Jesus. See even more their utter disobedience to the OT commands not to follow others in doing wrong (Exodus 23:2, Proverbs 1:10-11, 15).  So they were calling for the legal penalty for murder and sedition for Barabbas under the law of the time to be applied to Jesus instead. At this moment became the de facto place where mob rule occurred in the legal and judicial proceeding around the trial and execution of Jesus. So despite having a hostile governor in Pilate who wasn’t inclined to give in to what they wanted, the mob ruled and their demand for crucifixion becomes explicit and ultimately successful. And though it hadn’t been explicitly part of the earlier conversation, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders knew that was the penalty the religious leaders were seeking when they turned Jesus over to him to suffer the penalty prescribed by Roman justice.

Here the power of sin to inflame the hearts of people in this world is spectacularly visible. Sinful hearts influencing the sinful hearts of others into cruelty and murderous hatred is shown starkly in the proceedings concerning the execution of Jesus.This shows  the reality is that the crowd often not a restraint to criminal behavior but a goad to criminal behavior. It’s so much easier so often in a mob for otherwise reasonable people to become dismissive of the legal rights and lives of innocent people. This shows that others cannot be our salvation but they do often just lead us deeper into sinful and criminal behavior. But behind the desperate cruelty of the crowds is the cry of the desperate need of this world for a Savior. The shout of the crowd was ironically the cry of this world and the cry of desperate spiritual and eternal need.  Their real need was not political freedom but the freedom which Jesus really brings through the gospel. This was something that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself realized. He became good friends with Billy Graham in the years before his tragic assassination and often attended conferences with the Billy Graham team. But when Billy Graham offered to come join him in the streets, Dr. King encouraged him to continue preaching the gospel to integrated audiences and to support his goals by example and not to join him in the streets: “You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than if you marched in the streets.”

Political and legal authority and power cannot provide for the desperate need of this world, then. The political and legal institutions ultimately come down to the people who are in charge. And they are as sinful and fallible as anyone else and they cannot save us any more than they can save themselves. 

Pontius Pilate admits defeat and gives in to the demands of the mob like the gospel says in verses 14-15: “And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” So Pilate eventually gives in to the will of the crowd. He did make several legitimate attempts to release Jesus, or at least punish him with something less than the death penalty. Even with all the shouting, the crowds never gave him any explicit, legitimate reason for the capital punishment of Jesus any more than the Jewish religious authorities did. There was nothing he could write to the emperor as to why this prisoner would have been executed. According to the other gospels, Pilate did some more waffling back and forth, and part of this drama was the famous symbolic washing of the hands from the gospel of Matthew. But finally he was just and simply a public official swayed by the demands of the mob. He turned Jesus over to the beating, the severe flogging that would happen as the preparation for the crucifixion. He turned out at the end to be simply the minor public official and politician who disliked his position and the place where he was assigned, as well as the people he had to deal with. And so he did what the average person and the average politician would have done in his place. He gave up and simply went along with the demands of the mob.

Make no mistake, here is a great warning here against any idolatry or hope and faith in any political figure in this world! Pilate at least tried to do the right thing, and that’s much more than could be said of many current political figures in many, many decisions and situations. Ultimately, though, our politicians themselves are part of the sinful and fallen political and legal machinery of this world as much as anyone else. They cannot save themselves from the desperation of this fallen world. They themselves are just as much in need of the same tradeoff of the innocent for the guilty. They themselves need the only escape and freedom that they can find for themselves is the same exchange that each of us needs to save us from the sin of our lives and this world.  

Ultimately, though, all this came about with the wisdom and power of God in our world, that he was able to use these circumstances to bring about the tradeoff that we so desperately needed. There are no miracles in these passages. Rather he allowed the tendencies of human nature and the political, religious and legal machinery of this fallen world to grind to their conclusion, come up with the result that they would end up with. The authors of the final result on the scene already directing the end result. God the Father who was sending his Son to be the Savior of the world was there directing the circumstances. The Son stood there as the wickedness of this world brought him to the place where he could be the innocent suffering for the guilty of all times and places. The Holy Spirit had inspired and provided the scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testament so that we could recognize and understand what was really happening here. The God of the Bible was ultimately the one who was writing the script and pulling the strings despite all the people on the scene who thought that they were directing the circumstances. The God  of the Bible was there and he was providing for the Son of God to be offered as the one who takes away the sin of the world. He had already given the world the answer to its most desperate need for freedom and salvation.

AT THE END, WE FIND OURSELVES IN THE PLACE OF BARABBAS, THE CROWDS, AND PONTIUS PILATE. THE SAME JESUS WHO STOOD THERE WAITING FOR THE DECISION OF THE ROMAN GOVERNOR AND THE CROWDS, WHOSE LIFE WAS TRADED FOR A GUILTY MAN, IS THE SAME JESUS WHO LOOKS FOR THE DECISION FROM YOU HERE AND NOW. YOU NOW, WHEREVER YOU ARE, FIND YOURSELF IN THE SAME POSITION HAVING TO MAKE A DECISION ABOUT THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD. THE BIG DECISION AND THE BIGGEST DECISION IS WHAT YOU WILL DO WITH HIS CLAIMS ABOUT HIMSELF AND WHAT HE DID FOR YOU. THE FALSE SAVIORS OF THIS WORLD SHOW THAT THEY CANNOT SAVE US FROM THE REAL NEEDS FOR FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT WE ALL HAVE. THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MACHINERY OF THIS WORLD WILL NEVER BRING US THE REAL FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT CAN COME ONLY FROM JESUS. THE CRUSH OF THE CROWD AND THE DESPERATION OF THE MOB CAN NEVER TAKE US TO THE PLACE OF TRUE FREEDOM AND SALVATION WHICH ONLY IS IN JESUS.

Consider then who you are following: the crowd or the Lord? Have you ever really understood that the crowd cannot save you when you come before God to face him and his justice alone? In that time, if you’re a believer in Jesus, it’s not about being a follower of other people, even other believers, but following Jesus alone. So who are you following?

Consider also: the Lord who stood before the crowd knows what cruelty and betrayal is. And know this as well: the crowd will betray you if you choose to follow Jesus. In those times you will need to come to him for strength, comfort, guidance and direction. This has been the common experience of believers in Jesus Christ in all ages, and not one of us is exempt from this reality.

Consider the tradeoff which happened then. Consider what Jesus did for you. He stood there and took the penalty which the justice of God demanded for our sins. Have you ever really understood that? Have you received the salvation that Jesus came to bring?

Advertisements

Overwhelmed

Jim Cymbala, the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle – a multiracial church in New York City that now numbers over 16,000 in members – went through a very difficult couple of years with his daughter Chrissy. She had been the model child, but then when she was sixteen years old she began to stray away.  He had tried to control her with all that he could say and do, with what would seem to have been well intentioned attempts to keep her on the straight-and-narrow, but he just kept on driving her further away, until finally she did not come home one night. And then God told him that he would only be allowed to speak to him about her.

But then, after some months, a note was passed to him in one of the prayer meetings of the church: “Pastor Cymbala, I feel impressed that we should stop the meeting and all pray for your daughter.”

That prayer meeting became an intense spiritual battle for the soul of his daughter. Nothing happened right then in the meeting other then intense prayer. But 36 hours later she came back, and she gave this confession: “Daddy, I’ve sinned against God. I’ve sinned against myself. I’ve sinned against you and Mommy, please forgive me.”

Even more, she wanted to know: “Daddy, who was praying for me? On Tuesday night, who was praying? In the middle of the night, God woke me up and showed me I was heading toward this abyss. There was no bottom to it – I was scared to death. I realized how hard I’ve been, how rebellious and w wrong. But at the same time, it was like God wrapped his arms around me and held me tight. He kept me from sliding any farther and he said, ‘I still love you.’”

Overwhelmed – and finally driven to pray, and pray to God only, trust in God the Father only – this describes many of the situations which may come upon God’s people in this world, such as happened to Jim and Carol Cymbala. These situations are the Gethsemanes that come upon God’s people throughout the ages. And wherever there is a place of Gethsemane for them, they – we – were long ago preceded into those situations by the one true Gethsemane in which Jesus prayed so long ago by himself as he went alone, to that place of prayer, to trust in God the Father only in that time.

The garden of Gethsemane was where Jesus went to pray after he had finished his final instructions to his disciples, the last Supper. And it would be the place where he met the betrayer and the place where he would be arrested and taken into custody for civil and political crimes which he did not commit. It was, moreover,  the place where the series of events would be set into motion that would culminate in his crucifixion, burial and resurrection. That night and then on that day to follow, the weight of the world was on his shoulders. That night the one who made and held together the world found out what it was to be overwhelmed.

Gethsemane was the place where the Lord spent his darkest night, where the weight of the world was on his shoulders. It was the place which marked the beginning of the suffering of the Messiah, the time that he face what it would mean to bear the sins of the world in the next few hours. And as well it was the beginning of the battle and the ultimate victory that the Son of God would achieve over the forces of sin and death on the cross. His experience of unprecedented agony there is a guide to us of something of the price of our redemption, in what Jesus faced during the next sixteen or so hours. And, moreover, the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane guides us to what we are to do when we face our own Gethsemanes, when we face the greatest challenges that we face in following the will of God in our own lives, and we find ourselves in the times when we ourselves are overwhelmed, not because of anything that we have done wrong but because we face the will of God in a world of sin.

“And they come to a place which had the name Gethsemane, and he [Jesus] says to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I am praying.’ And he takes Peter and James and John with him, and he began to be overwhelmed and in deep distress, and he says to them, ‘My soul is extremely pained, to the point of death; stay here and keep watch.’ And he went on a little further and he fell on the ground, and he was praying that it is were possible the hour would pass from him. And he was saying, ‘Abba, Father! All things are possible with you. Take this cup from me – but not what I decide but what you decide.’ And he comes and finds them sleeping, and he says to Peter, ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you (meaning all the disciples) keep awake for one hour? (Again addressed to all the disciples)Wake up and pray that you don’t come into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ And again, he went away and prayed as he said the same thing. And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him. And he comes back the third time, and and he tells them, ‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest? It’s over! Look! The Son of Man has been betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s go! Look! The one who has sold me out has just arrived!’” (Mark 14:32-42, Dale’s sight translation)

The will of God often places his people in situations which overwhelm them. But Jesus was there first. For him, the night in Gethsemane was a night of sorrow and distress. There was not only physical darkness around them, but also on that night mental and emotional darkness started to close in on him as well. Here we see Jesus, as the “ . . .  man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . .” on the night where he would enter into being, ‘’ . . . despised and rejected by men . . .” (Isaiah 53:3).  And on that night, Jesus was overwhelmed. And because he was overwhelmed then, he went before us to show us what to do when we are overwhelmed.

The night of Gethsemane overwhelmed Jesus with a holy dread of what was to come upon him. His experience was a holy revulsion at the coming ordeal of the cross when he would bear the sin of the world. Someone once described this experience as the ‘presentation of the bill of salvation.’  This is how the gospel of Mark describes it in verses 32-24, in its strong, colloquial, blue collar, everyman style of Greek: “And they come to a place which had the name Gethsemane, and he [Jesus] says to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I am praying.’ And he takes Peter and James and John with him, and he began to be overwhelmed and in deep distress, and he says to them, ‘My soul is extremely pained, to the point of death; stay here and keep watch.’”

The garden of Gethsemane is still there on the side of Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. In that time it was a private garden, and the owner probably permitted Jesus and the disciples to gather there when they were in Jerusalem. Only the gospel of Mark gives the name of the garden. But that was where Jesus came to pray on that night. He separated the disciples into two groups. The group that was closer to him physically were the group of the e inner three witnesses, Peter, James and John. They were earlier the witnesses to the Transfiguration, the Olivet Discourse, and the raising of Jairus’s daughter. And here they heard a little more from him, as he described his overwhelming emotional state to the disciples there.

On that night he was not a teacher discouraged over ignorance of the world, since the problem he came to solve was not good natured ignorance of a lot of well meaning but misguided people. He knew better; on that night he was seeing clearly the defiance and depravity of the sin of the world that he would bear in his suffering. He was not seeing the sins of the series of the any supposed past lives of the people but the sins of humanity, of each individual over the course of a single lifetime but over the course of all time since the sin of Adam.  And he was experiencing the start of the full mental and emotional anguish that would be part of his sufferings. This overpowering mental and emotional distress that was apparently a new experience for his human nature, and indeed, it was a unique experience among all humanity. It was the utterly pure sadness on the one hand, with none of the things that accompany human sadness and make it destructive, the sight of sin and judgment. As the holy Son of God, he was seeing the moral insanity, utter darkness and depravity of sin, as well as the intensity of the wrath of God against sin. His reaction was the perfect reaction of sinless human nature against the horror of the sin of the world. And so that night was the Lord’s darkest night. He was overwhelmed with the weight of the world that was set before him, and that would be on his shoulders as he went to the cross. So this is how Charles Spurgeon described it: “Our blessed Lord saw sin in all its blackness. He had a most distinct perception of its treasonable assault upon his God, its murderous hatred toward himself, and its destructive influence upon mankind. Well might horror take hold of him, for a sight of sin must be far more hideous than a sight of hell, which is but its offspring.”

And so, the promise of the scriptures is not that we would never be overwhelmed ourselves. But note that what Jesus faced here has always been an encouragement to believers in all ages, that he has not undergone anything that we have not undergone before. Being overwhelmed by what happens in a fallen world is not an indication of weakness, but quite the contrary. And yet his reaction of horror at the weight of the sin of this world found far too little in those who claim to be his followers – but more on that later. And being overwhelmed far more often than not a large part of the experience of those who are actually following Christ and who are suffering for Christ in this world, and who may be bearing the suffering of others in this world for the sake of Christ. Just as there was no blame to the sinless Son of God, so also there should be no blame either to believers who are also experiencing being overwhelmed in this world as the weight of this world comes upon our shoulders. And as we follow Jesus in this world, we may well come to see more of what it means to bear more than just the weight of a single prodigal son or daughter, but the weight of a prodigal world.

Being overwhelmed, then, drove Jesus to pray. His perfect example thus provides clear guidance for his people in all ages on what to do when they are overwhelmed as well. There is no better alternative to anyone who has called him Lord and who is standing for Jesus in this world. The experience of being overwhelmed drove him to the one who could strengthen him to bear the weight of the world upon his shoulders. And make no mistake about it, our own eternal destinies, the eternal destinies of everyone around us and who has ever lived, and the fate of the entire universe depended on what would happen in these hours when Jesus was overwhelmed.

In verses 35-36 we understand how the sorrow drove Jesus to pray: “And he went on a little further and he fell on the ground, and he was praying that it is were possible the hour would pass from him. And he was saying, ‘Abba, Father! All things are possible with you. Take this cup from me – but not what I decide but what you decide.’”

This was one of the occasions where his word in prayer to the Father were overheard and recorded. The actual Aramaic word for Father included with the words that he was using, these simple yet deep and profound words. The time had arrived, but now he was asking that it would pass away. The cup was being offered, but he was asking that it be taken from him. The cup was his description of his suffering and death. It was the based on the Old Testament metaphor of a cup that held the wrath of God that was the judgment of God against sin. But there was to be no ransom for the sins of the world except through his drinking the cup in that hour. There would not be any ransom through passing through millions of reincarnations from anyone’s past lives. The redemption of the world, the atonement for the sins of humanity, each one over the course of a single lifetime could only come in one cup of the wrath of God that would be accepted in that hour. The price for salvation of the world  would be paid through the wrath of God freely accepted by the Son of God drinking the cup, and on that night he freely accepted the bill for the salvation of the world.  He accepted the culmination of his mission, in his own words, “ . . .  to give his life as a ransom for many . . .” (Mark 10:45) so that he would become, “ . . . the propitiation for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world . . .” (I John 2:2).

I don’t think that we can see Jesus here in any way to be shrinking from the physical suffering of the cross. He was a man of such physical bravery that he could walk right through a crowd which was intent on throwing him off a cliff. Rather, this was the realization of all that that the cross would mean to him of separation from God during that time through his suffering in his human nature, to the point where he would utter the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

So Jesus asked for the cup and the hour to pass from him. He was acting and speaking within the limits of his human knowledge but at the same time he was submitting to the will of God with his unfallen human will also. His brief prayer as recorded was probably a summary of a more protracted struggle of continued, heartfelt prayer that he had before God the Father. And yet he followed with a perfect faith before God the Father and a perfect perception of the Father in this time of crisis. And so he then continued on in prayer with the full submission to the will of the Father.

Again, Jesus guides us what to do when we are overwhelmed. What he was experiencing then may have been and may have often been what believers have been doing the nights in prisons before their executions for following Jesus throughout the ages, and that which is still something that believers are called to do. But even more, if there are no experiences of being overwhelmed and driven to prayer among us there will be no growth and expansion of his kingdom on this world. The further call then is to the place of prayer and submission wherever we may be. This includes the need for prayer beyond the prodigals in our families to the prodigals outside our families — something that seems to happen far too little among us any more.

I would put it that these are the Gethsemanes that believers around us are entering far too little any more – the Gethsemanes of intercession for the world around us rather more than just a continued and perhaps even obsessive supplication for a loved one who may be rebellious and straying – and often enough, this rebellion is the rejection of the overcontrol of obsessive parents who use Christianity to try to control their children. This intercession, where we can pour out our heart for those who are around us who are lost who may not be a part of our family is where our heart reflects more and more the heart of God for the world. And often, isn’t one of the underlying motives about the prodigal often include our family and our reputation?

So where we make the Gethsemane of our lives to be about the prodigal world rather than the prodigal child we declare before God, the world and the prodigal child that our love for God and the prodigal world is more than about our family and our reputation. We send a message to prodigal that it really isn’t about them, they don’t get control with their rebellion, and that it’s up to them to stand before God as a responsible adult who has reached the age of accountability before God. An intercessory and surrendering prayer will often be a part of this, where we seek God and entrust them to God and stop trying to overwhelm them with our obsessive and often deceitful and selfish attempts to control. And when we do so, we will find tremendous opportunities for ministry.

I can’t recall where, but I do remember a story of two Christian parents whose child started ‘hanging with the wrong crowd.’ They were upset and discouraged, but then they saw this as an opportunity to minister to the adolescents from the wrong crowd; after all, the circumstances were bringing them right into their own home. They ended up winning several of their child’s friends ‘from the wrong crowd’ to Christ as they prayed for them, invited them to dinner and to evenings with the family. And lo and behold, their child came back to Christ when that child saw that those whom that child thought had the answers wanted what that child had had all along. So I would leave you with these words from a song from Billy Joel. I don’t like most of what the song  says, but these words should be extremely disturbing to the church and should awaken the church to its responsibility toward the lost and winnable individuals from ‘the wrong crowd’: “You say your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation / She never cared for me / But did she ever say a prayer for me?”

Unfortunately, though, not everyone will respond to the experience of being overwhelmed by prayer. These are the disciples of Jesus who are not careful to respond to the hour of trial and temptation without placing themselves squarely in the will of God and receive the power of God through prayer. They will then still face defeat in this world, because they are living with less than God is ready and willing to give them in their situation.

So here’s what we see in verses 37-40: “And he comes and finds them sleeping, and he says to Peter, ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you (meaning all the disciples) keep awake for one hour? (Again addressed to all the disciples)Wake up and pray that you don’t come into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ And again, he went away and prayed as he said the same thing. And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him.” The Lord continued in prayer even though he could not rouse the disciples to continue with him. They also were overwhelmed. Their distress seems to have come from their anticipation of the departure of Jesus. That would be the loss that they did not understand and still could not grasp. They had heard ominous warnings over the course of the ministry of Jesus which they could not square with their understanding of how the Messiah would act, and that evening they heard the predictions of betrayal and the predictions of their abandoning him in the hour of crisis. And when that time of crisis came they could not even keep their eyes open despite all Jesus tried to do to arouse them.  

The disciples were overwhelmed beyond their spiritual ability and beyond their own strength and understanding even to pray in that time – but that made it more necessary to pray. They were unable to get what was going on with Jesus and that situation, and they surrendered to the weakness of their human nature in that time. Even so, the situation was far more overwhelming to Jesus himself, and the situation did not stop Jesus from continuing in prayer. And note that Jesus was not asking them to pray for him. Rather, he was seeking to have them do what praying that they could in that time to be able to stand on their own when he was led away in chains. While it is true that here we see Jesus seeking to rouse his closest friends to stand with him, I think that we can also see him as a king seeking to rouse his troops to seek the strength stand their ground in the conflict that he knew they would face. And three times Jesus rebuked them, and both the second and final rebuke very ironic and show his extreme disappointment. But eventually the lesson did come home to them, much later and here is the lesson that was recorded by Peter: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring ion looking for someone to devour.” (I Peter 5:8 ).

Likewise, being overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion, to being unable even to pray has often been the experience of believers throughout this world and often in the face of all the weight of the world seemingly coming against them. Yet they may still not seek God in prayer, so that they are still unable to face the weight of the world coming down around them with the strength that God is ready and willing to give if they simply come to him in prayer. These believers  may then be those who fail others in the time of trial, when they themselves cannot really get what is going on with the situation that is overwhelming them and overwhelming others. So they have become lost in the overwhelming experience and  do not get to the place where they can find the way out, even if they are trying with all their own might to be tough and self-reliant in the face of all this world brings against them. And once again the London preacher Charles Spurgeon has a pungent word to speak to this situation: “Temptation lets us known how weak we are, and drives us to our knees. It tests our faith and tries our love, and lets us see whether our graces are genuine or not.”

Being overwhelmed, then,  is not a mark of something wrong with us, but of the world that we live in. Nowadays many of us may experience too much of the wrong kind of being overwhelmed from the times that we may be of trying to play God ourselves and in the lives of others in this world. The lesson of Gethsemane, of the horror of the sin of the world, is too little realized among us nowadays. Our own lack of a clear understanding of the horror of the sin of this world leaves us too often too ready to take the side of the sinner against the holy, perfect God who says that sin must be atoned for and points to the cross as the remedy. And too often our concerns center more in the wayward family member than the wayward world around us. And thus there remains too little regard for the seriousness of sin, too little appreciation for the love of God who gave his Son, and too little awe at the utter submission of the Son of God to the will of the God the Father.

Being overwhelmed is the place where we may find ourselves in this world. But it does not have to be a long term or permanent state of our lives. It can be the place which leads to the beginning of a victory that glorifies God to all eternity. Through persistence in prayer the overwhelming situation concludes in victory. For Jesus, the night in Gethsemane ended in victory. The battle which he began there as a part of his war against the forces of darkness continued to its ultimate culmination. He was victorious then and there in Gethsemane so that he could continue in victory to the end on the cross.  The conflict within gave way to his standing up to the beginning of his suffering with the betrayal. So being overwhelmed gave way to standing up and standing firm in the face of what would happen to him over the rest of the night and the next day to the final victory on the cross.

The crushing weight which overwhelmed Jesus became bearable to the point of facing the road to the cross. This was the starting point of the final series of events for which he came began with the acceptance of the cup from God the Father and the victory for which he came.

Here is what verses 41-42 say: “And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him. And he comes back the third time, and and he tells them, ‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest? It’s over! Look! The Son of Man has been betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s go! Look! The one who has sold me out has just arrived!’”  These were the last words of Jesus before the betrayal and arrest. That was then not something that he faced unwillingly but with the full submission of his will. He knew that the time had come, and he went forth to meet the betrayer, the betrayal and the arrest by an armed mob of hired political flunkeys.

There is some dispute over the meaning of v. 41: “‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest?” This was most likely an ironic question that was probably put quite gently to the disciples. After this question he announces the next event in the series of events that would happened over the rest of the night and the next day: his betrayal into the hands of sinners. The words of Jesus recall his own predictions of his death and resurrection which he gave to the disciples earlier during his ministry, which are recorded in Mark 8:31, 9:31,10:33-32.  He was now fully willing to get up  and to  enter into the events that would happen. He had now entered into the full acceptance of the cup of the judgment of God upon himself for the sin of the world and all that would mean to him. The time of prayer has made the change in him now to face his mission clearly, as he rises up from this time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. He rises from the place of prayer to the path of submission and obedience to the will of the Father to the uttermost. And, just as well, the failure of the apostles then may have been a later victory themselves once the lesson of Gethsemane came through to them years later when they faced their own suffering and martyrdoms.

Being overwhelmed, then, does not have to end that way. That experience does not have to be the permanent experience of the believer. Though we are living in a world which may often beat us down and always, seeks to beat us down does not mean that that being overwhelmed has to be the last word on us and our experience. The path to victory after being overwhelmed comes in getting up and going forward after spending as much time on the knees before God as it takes. So most certainly today there is far too little realization that the victory is won first in the place of prayer. There is the place where we come into the embrace of the will of God there and receive his power, then to the path of submission and obedience.

THE NIGHT OF DISTRESS AND SORROW IN THE GARDEN LED TO THE PATH TO THE CROSS, AND THEN THE CROSS BECAME THE VICTORY FOR ALL WHO HAVE COME TO JESUS IN FAITH FOR THEIR ETERNAL SALVATION. THE CUP OF THE WRATH OF GOD ON THE CROSS FOR US MEANT THE REMOVAL OF THE PENALTY AND PUNISHMENT OF SIN FOR EACH ONE OF US SO THE VICTORY IN THE GARDEN WAS THE PREPARATION FOR THE VICTORY OF THE CROSS AND THE EMPTY TOMB, AND THE VICTORY WAS NOT FOR HIM PERSONALLY, BUT THE VICTORY OF SALVATION FOR HIS PEOPLE, THE VICTORY TO THE GLORY OF GOD TO ALL ETERNITY, FOR ALL THE UNIVERSE. HE HAS ALREADY TAKEN CARE OF THE MOST OVERWHELMING SITUATION FOR US ON THE CROSS – THE SIN OF A LOST AND DYING WORLD. AND HIS VICTORY IS THE REASON WHY THE SITUATIONS WHICH OVERWHELM US NOW DO NOT HAVE TO KEEP US DOWN, BUT CAN LIKEWISE BECOME VICTORIES WHICH GLORIFY GOD TO ALL ETERNITY.

The gospel of salvation is therefore the invitation to participate in the victory of Jesus Christ. The whole point of his death and resurrection to provide the salvation which is received by repentance and faith in him alone. The whole reason why he suffered and died is so that you might come to the place where you  receive his death as the price for your salvation, for the forgiveness of your sins. This calls for the conscious decision from you, for the conscious reception by faith, the saving faith which is the basis of entering and standing in the salvation which Jesus has brought, since without him our sin is overwhelming to us from now to all eternity.

Dark hours and overwhelming situations still come upon us in this world. Some will come unexpectedly, and some will come simply by taking the next step in following the will of God in this world. But his victory makes possible our victories in our darkest and most overwhelming hours. He has shown us the place to find the victory if we find ourselves in our darkest nights, so for us the place to be in the hardest times and in the times of greatest temptation is in the place of prayer. There we can find his power to help us and his presence to guide and strengthen us. There is no need to be thrown into dependence on our own strength and wisdom, but in the place of our own Gethsemane we can receive his strength and wisdom for the next steps on the path of the will of God. And his victory also makes it certain that the earthly troubles will finally end and that finally there will be nothing but eternal, infinite love and joy in the presence of God. And often enough, the overwhelming situation may also have nothing to do with our own sin, but with the sins and follies of others around us. So there remains among us to the end of the world the need to go into the place of persistent prayer, to a Gethsemane of intercession for this world, for not only for the wayward family members but for the people of the prodigal, wayward world around us.