Wednesday, November 15, 2023

When Nobody was Standing Around

Orthodox Christian faith declares our Lord was fully man and fully God. We can say we believe that, but getting our heads around it is another story. Speculating about the finer details of how his two natures operated together in specific moments of the Savior’s earthly experience can take us into perilous theological territory if we are inattentive to all that the scriptures say about him.

The apostle John writes that Jesus “knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man”.

The Knowledge of Christ

Our Lord understood every thought, word and deed of which human beings are capable. Yet it is not merely that Jesus possessed astute general knowledge of human nature, or that he correctly calculated what his disciples were most likely to do in any particular set of circumstances. He could tell Peter with absolute certainty that “This night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He called the timing within a matter of a few scant hours, and he called the number of denials with exacting precision. That is a lot more than just a good judge of character. The Lord Jesus demonstrated utter certainty about future performance, not just a keen understanding of probability. Peter’s last recorded exchange with the Lord reinforces this: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

But Jesus knew a great many other things too, like what kind of tree a man was sitting under without seeing him, or where one might cast a line to find a single fish with a shekel in its mouth, or where schools of fish were swimming in Lake Gennesaret at any given moment. We can be confident of only a single exception to this, and only because he himself declared it.

“If You Are Willing …”

So then, what do we do with the plain teaching of the gospels that in the Garden of Gethsemane, he withdrew from his disciples about a stone’s throw, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

How could he possibly be in any doubt about the will of the Father in this critical matter? He had been telling his disciples repeatedly, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Not “may” or even “will”, but “must”. The word means “it is necessary”. There was no option, and he knew it. That fact that our Lord prophesied his own death is recorded at least three times in each of Matthew and Mark, and five times in Luke. Then how about this one: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him.” The whole story had been written for centuries, and Jesus testified that the scripture cannot be broken.

Remove the cup? Impossible! He himself had volunteered for the mission. It was the whole point of being born into the world.

A Difficult Question

I have struggled with this question repeatedly, and evidently I’m not the only one. Was he speaking rhetorically or emotionally? Was he genuinely hoping to avoid crucifixion? Did he imagine the Father, with whom there is no “shadow of turning”, could possibly change his mind? Did his human nature express itself independently of his divine nature, as some suggest? Surely not, not, not and not.

One other possibility suggests itself. Yesterday’s post reminded us that sometimes Jesus said things he didn’t need to say. Sometimes he asked questions to which he already knew the answer, or asked to be given things he didn’t require. I cited seven examples of this phenomenon. But he did these things, John tells us, “on account of the people standing around”. Had he not done so, many a teaching moment would have been lost forever and many of the things he said would have remained utterly inexplicable to even the most devout and learned theologians.

Now, in the Garden of Gethsemane, nobody was “standing around”. If anything, most of the disciples were passed out, overcome with sorrow. But somebody was paying close attention, or we would not have the Lord’s words recorded, and these have been passed down through the centuries to us because of that person’s commitment to sharing these precious moments with the Savior.

Not My Will, But Yours

The moral will of God (“Thou shalt”) is documented extensively in our Bibles. Christians are in little doubt about it. Our problem is not in discerning it, but in doing it. The administrative or circumstantial will of God (“They attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them”) is another matter entirely. We know a little about God’s sovereign movements throughout history from Bible prophecy, fulfilled and promised, but only a little. We are creatures, and limited in comprehension in ways the Lord Jesus never was. We eagerly pray “Thy kingdom come”, but fathom little about the hows and whens. Devout Jews knew God would provide a Lamb, but even those closest to the Lord Jesus could not comprehend precisely how the scripture would be fulfilled. Jesus, on the other hand, was in on the plan from the very beginning.

In Gethsemane, Jesus knew all things, of course he did. He knew the Father’s will. He knew the necessity of the cross, and he was determined to do that will no matter the cost. But let me just suggest that even in the most excruciating moments of his human experience, our Lord remained fully aware that we, his disciples, would not easily or naturally come to the Father in prayer concerning his circumstantial will or its outworking in the world in each of our lives with the same confidence and faith he did. We could never know the things he knew or trust the way he trusted. But we could be taught by his example: “Not my will, but yours, be done.” Even in the worst moments of his human experience, I believe our Savior was thinking of us and our needs, and modeling a principle of daily dependence and trust we greatly need to understand.

Apart from the Gethsemane account in the gospels, we would not know this. It could not be expressed more poignantly or eloquently, and no extremity we face could ever test us to that point.

Photo of Sleeping Disciples courtesy Mattana, CC BY-SA 4.0

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