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.