Obedient Unto Death


I. The Setting

Gethsemane, a garden with different kinds of vegetation, but dominated by olive trees was a place often visited by Jesus with his disciples (John 18:1, 2). Evidently a press had been set up in the garden for extracting oil from the olives for the name means “olive press.” It is quite symbolic that Jesus, the perfectly tested fruit of Israel, the olive tree of God (Romans 11:24), had his very blood pressed from him (Luke 24:44) by the contemplations in that garden.


II. The Lesson for Disciples

A. All the disciples went with him to the garden, but only Peter, James, and John went in further to the place where Jesus would pray. They also were with him at the raising of Jairus’s daughter and on the mount of transfiguration.

B. Jesus asked them to “watch” (38, 40, 41)) with him. Moving on a small distance from them Jesus began to pray. His knowledge of the importance of the moment went far beyond theirs, although they too felt deep sorrow (Luke 22:45). Although their trial was not nearly to the degree or of the same quality as his, they would soon be tested also. Their courage would fail in the face of danger and their perception of the mission of their Lord would leave them confused.

C. There is never a time when we do not need to watch. Those lurking, leering enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil—congregate with all their corrupt companions, like the crowd in verse 47, to arrest and kill us. Always the world, disconnected from a God-centered view of reality, wants us to fail. Satan, opposed to the glory of God and the well-being of his image-bearers, seeks whom he may devour. The flesh expresses its residual remaining powers against the purpose of God for our holiness. Though Peter fluctuated from zeal to cowardice (51, 74), Jesus had prayed that his faith would not fail (Luke 22:32; John 17:15). So he has prayed for believers today (John 17:24). The enemies would overwhelm us, so we are called on to watch while we trust in the efficacy of our Lord’s intercession (1 Thessalonians 5:22-24).

D. Peter did not grasp how severely he would be tested and he underestimated the power of the flesh in two ways. One, his intrinsic weakness of body would betray him in the moment when his mental perceptions should have kept him awake to pray (Mark 14:40). Two, he did not grasp the depth of selfishness that would erupt at the most critical moment of Jesus’ trial as an instinct of self-preservation at all costs (26:69-75).

E. These weaknesses also dog our steps and so the admonitions of Peter should always be present in our minds. “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. . . . Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war against your soul . . . Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 1:13; 2:11;5:6-9).


III. The Final Test for Jesus

To this point, Jesus had honored the moral law and revealed its internal demands (Matthew 5-7), conformed to the ceremonial law (Matthew 8:4; 12:9-14; 26:17-19), loved his Father with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength (Hebrews 10:5-7) and conformed to the future ordinance of initiation into the redeemed community as an identification with his people (Matthew 3:15). He had become the only “doer of the Law (Romans 2:12; James 1:22) and thus the only human ever with a warrant to eternal life by personal righteousness. Only one thing remained.

A. This event presents us with one of the most unvarnished visions of the real humanity of Jesus in the entire Scripture. The mystery of the incarnation (Luke 1:35) sets before us a single person, a man who is eternal and temporal, infinite and finite, created and uncreated, intrinsically righteous and increasing in righteousness, the sovereign lawgiver and the one who must fulfill all its demands. In these moments we see the final testing of his humanity for the perfection of righteousness.

B. His whole human life had been moving toward this final test.

  1. Luke 2:40 referred to his awareness of the Father as he lived as the son of Mary. “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.”
  2. After the journey to Jerusalem when he was twelve, and his wisdom was manifest in his answers in the temple (Luke 2:47), he returned to Nazareth and “was submissive to them” and “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
  3. At the beginning of his ministry, in the most vulnerable of conditions, Satan brought temptations to him with the subtle deceit that he could accomplish the purpose of his incarnation without the death of the cross (Matthew 4:1-11).
  4. His contest with Satan continued throughout the three years’ ministry and at times he illustrated it with parables and analogies (Matthew 12:22-29; 13:36-43).
  5. He manifested an absolute understanding of the relation of sin to temptation and the utterly devastating nature of succumbing to temptation (Matthew 18:7-9).
  6. The horror of the cross would become the occasion for another temptation to avoid it (Matthew 16:22, 23).
  7. At every point of obedience to the Law (Matthew 5:17-20) and the revealed will of the Father, Jesus moved toward an established perfected human righteousness which would be the foundation of imputed righteousness for those who trust him.

C. These moments in Gethsemane present his final submission to the culminating act of righteousness on the cross. Here the final battle was fought. Note the expressions of human feeling – “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (38). The troubling had begun before the Passover and the institution of the Lord’s Supper (John 12:27). The approaching “hour” increased his human perception of the true terror that came toward him with a rapid pace. As his perceptions of the extremity of suffering to which his body would be subject and the unsoftened manifestation of just vengeance for sin his soul would endure, the turning of the loving countenance of the Father from him so that he felt this forsakenness from all mercies in the very depths of his most perceptive human sensibilities—I say—as this reality began to dawn more forcefully on his consciousness he felt the reality “even unto death.”

D. On three separate occasions he went alone for prayer. His disciples did not watch with him, but gave in to heavy eyelids and slept.

  1. According to Matthew Jesus began,” My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (39). That is, if the purpose of redemption could be accomplished, if the Father’s justice could be upheld and sinners still be redeemed without the cross, if that is possible, then my death is not necessary and this cup can pass.
  2. The Father would have answered that prayer by rescuing his Son from death, had it been possible, but it was not. Given that reality, the Son presents himself to the Father for the task.
  3. The second time, the prayer was changed slightly, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (42). In substance the prayer is the same, but it represents a more clear perception in this greatest moment of distress that in him alone and in his death alone can the Father’s will of redemption be culminated. By his death alone will he open the gates to eternal life.
  4. A third prayer (44) revealed the same unbroken commitment to the Father’s will.
  5. Upon completion of the third time, he woke his disciples again with the news that “the hour is at hand.” This hour had been looming before him since birth and more profoundly as a matter of sensibility since his disciples gave the great confession of his Lordship (Matthew 16:21;17:22, 23; 20:17-19). See his specific awareness of the rapidly approaching “hour” in John 12:27 and 13:1 and the remoteness of his “hour” in John 7:30 and 8:20.

E. This was a demand made of Jesus that was not strictly a moral requirement on his life.

  1. It is not a moral necessity for his legal righteousness that he die the just for the unjust. From the strict standpoint of legal culpability, one dies for his own sins, not the sins of another (Ezekiel 18:1-9) .
  2. It is a moral necessity, indeed, for the redemption of sinners that a qualified representative die; that, however, is a matter of grace.
  • The requirement for Jesus himself was purely a positive command, a requirement of the covenant of redemption, but not intrinsically necessary for personal righteousness according to the law.
  • It was necessary, therefore, for the covenantal promise of God to be fulfilled. Divine faithfulness was a necessity, for God’s word cannot be broken. In Ezekiel 16 the promise (as well as other places) “And I will establish My covenant with you. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your shame, when I provide you an atonement for all you have done,” says the Lord.’”
  • The promise must be kept in a way consistent with the immutable holiness, righteousness, and justice of God, and so must meet all the demands of the Law both for curse of disobedience and life in light of perfect obedience (Romans 3:21-26).
  • God had promised, and, thus, for the Son of Man, the provisions of the covenant (note he referred to the “blood of the covenant” in the institution of the Lord’s Supper – 26:28) must be fulfilled. This positive command was the final test of his perfect obedience. Given his submission on this occasion his obedience was perfected.

F. Immediately after this he would be arrested; he would not accept deliverance from earthly or heavenly sources (52, 53).

  1. It was at this point that the phrase Paul used leaps to life—“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
  2. To this the writer of Hebrews referred when he wrote: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9).
  3. Only by this human struggle in such deep sorrow that issued in obedience can we read and affirm with confidence the words: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. . . . For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 4:15; 7:26-28).
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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