Luke 22: 43-46 “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’”
Our Lord prays three times for his Father to give him a different cup. He lies on the ground overwhelmed with sorrow, deeply distressed and troubled, pleading that God’s will may be different from what he fears it will be, and yet Christ is praying in utter submission, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
1. THAT JESUS’ PRAYERS WERE ANSWERED WAS CONFIRMED BY AN ANGEL.
When Paul prays three times that the thorn in the flesh should be removed the answer he is given is, “My grace is sufficient for you.” We have no record here of God responding with any words to his Son, but he answers him by sending to the Garden an angel from heaven who strengthens him (v. 43). This angel had known his Lord from the moment of its creation. It had bowed in his presence before the heavens and earth were made, adoring and praising the Son of God as its joy and delight. It had never seen its Lord in this state before, smitten, bloodied, a worm and not a man, lying in the grossest humiliation on the floor of a garden. God allowed an angel to witness the abject misery of his own Son and this angel’s Lord at this time, when Jesus was being rejected by God. It was during his praying that the angel approaches him. It comes without much ado. It is not – as was the one coming to the shepherds abiding in the fields – suddenly surrounded by a multitude of the heavenly host praising God. Here it remains alone and doesn’t change the night of Gethsemane into day, but it does come, as they came, from heaven to earth.
You contemplate that angel. It was Rabbi Duncan who expressed the hope that if he arrived in heaven, “First I shall look for the face of my Lord, then I shall inquire for the angel that came to help my Lord in the hour of his agony in Gethsemane.” You ponder that angel standing at God’s right hand – the holy angels bright who wait at God’s right hand, and through the realms of light fly at their Lord’s command. On this particular day when all the angels of God appeared before him awaiting their orders this one angel was summoned to approach God and he was given the most astonishing instruction, “Go to my Son. Yes, go to your Lord. You will find him broken and bathed in a bloody sweat lying in the Garden of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem. Comfort him! Go and comfort your Lord! Go and encourage your Maker! Go and speak words of strength and consolation into the heart of my only begotten Son.” That is what this angel proceeded to do. There was never a mission more amazing than that – an angel sent to comfort God the Son.
How did it do it? We are not told. Perhaps with two of its wings it covered its face, and with two of its wings it covered its feet, and with two of its wings it flew, and as it did it called to Christ, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory,” and at the sound of its voice Gethsemane shook. We do not know. Did it simply adore Jesus of Nazareth, arraigning before him the great reality of his own divinity and invincibility? “You are worthy O my Lord and God to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being”? We don’t know. Did it come and speak the same words that were spoken at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, and say, “Your Father sent me to tell you that you are his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased.”
Whatever way it comforted his Master surely there was never a creature given such honour as that angel. One angel, just one, but how important for Christ. A ray of light entering a dark place is so conspicuous. What was that angel? It was a gift from the Father to his own boy, a greeting from home, a hand stretched out to lift the Son up. “We haven’t forgotten you in heaven,’ it said. “You are not like a waster lying in the gutter whom civilised people step over. Heaven is concerned about you.” That is the message that came to him. There is the cry of Job, “O earth, do not cover my blood; may my cry never be laid to rest!”(Job 16:18). Job was sitting on a dung hill rejected by his own wife, and misunderstood and criticised by his friends, feeling very alone; “O earth, do not cover my blood; may my cry never be laid to rest!” He didn’t want to be ignored in this vast universe. God must surely hear his prayer. God must see his blood. “Earth! Don’t absorb my blood so that there is no mark, no stain that I sweated here.” Job wanted God to hear him in his wretched loneliness. No man could understand him, but God must understand!
The angel is telling Jesus, “Abba Father has heard your prayer. God has seen the blood. It is not covered over. It speaks to God of your agony. The one you call, ‘Abba, Father,’ has heard the prayer for another cup.” The disciples are sleeping; they haven’t heard all his praying – so what? The Father has heard him. Look, here is an angel! A messenger from heaven. “What you said to God has moved him, and here is the reply . . .” – divine comfort and assurance of heavenly love! By this angel contact has been reestablished with his Father’s house. How humbling for an angel to find Christ weltering in his own blood – like a new born child. But it meant heaven was extending fellowship with Jesus again.
The disciples slept, failing to watch and withholding the fellowship of love that Christ asked for, but the angel gave what men refused. They should have watched with him. That would have been such a strength to him to know the solidarity of their support, but they had nothing to give him. The flesh was very weak; there was no energy flowing out to Jesus. Then God will always find some way to lift us up when our best friend lets us down. We shall be more than conquerors through him who has loved us. We shall know the sufficiency of his grace. God will cause some spirit to come to us – the spirit of patience, the spirit of composure, the spirit of trust, the spirit of energy and renewal. God will not allow our cryings and tears to be ignored. Our own blood will not fall to the ground and disappear.
It was very significant that at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as he was calling disciples around him he talked to them at that time about the ministry of angels which they would witness. I am referring to John chapter one and the verse with which that chapter ends. He has already called Simon Peter and Andrew, and then the next day he calls Philip and Nathanael. Early days; days of uncertainty; should they give up everything to follow a traveling preacher? Will this whole Galilean enterprise fizzle out? Jesus is addressing that when he says to Nathanael, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn. 1:51). He is saying this to them, “Providence is going to assist me every step of the way. The angels will be busy as God’s messengers. They will accompany me moment by moment. They will keep my feet from all offense.” Jesus was absolutely confident that he would never lack in assistance from his Father and he told this to his disciples.
So it is here in the Garden. Friends let him down, but he is not alone; the angel comes to his side and strengthens him. This is not the darkest moment after all. It’s going to get worse on the cross. Let’s say that to ourselves when we are getting self-pitying. “Things are bad, and they are probably going to get worse. But they are all going to work together for our good.” Simon Peter is sleeping, but that is not the darkest moment. Soon he will be swearing and denying that he ever knew Christ. Here in the Garden there is an actual angel giving Jesus new strength. When Jesus meets the Sanhedrin court there will be no angel to comfort him. When he becomes the plaything of the soldiers there will be no angel present. When he appears before Pilate or Herod there will be no angel. On Golgotha he will be alone; every angel will be withdrawn. All will be summoned to heaven. This angel would be itching to zoom down and comfort his Lord again as he hangs on the cross, but God keeps him reined back into heaven. Christ is on his own for hours. His isolation is complete there, but here in Gethsemane the angel worships and adores him. A divine light plays on the darkness. God is comforting his dear Son before the final battle.
You point out, “Yes but the angel stayed for only a moment.” Would Jesus despise a moment of joy, the strengthening of faith for a moment? In the darkness of Gethsemane is he complaining that it was only one angel, and that it didn’t stay very long? Who despises a day of small things? Who despises one’s heart being flooded with assurance even for a moment? A single smile from Jesus given will lift a drooping soul to heaven. Jesus saw the angel and leaped for joy in God in the Garden. Paul says that there were times when he had a thought of the church in Thessalonica and then he rejoiced when he considered their work of faith and labour of love and patience of hope.
But the angel couldn’t stay a moment longer because if he doesn’t return to heaven Jesus won’t go to the cross alone, and our Saviour has to drink the cup alone. There are no angels in hell to comfort sinners. There can be no comforts for Jesus as he stands in the naked flame of God’s magnificent rectitude on Golgotha. All by himself he has to be the Lamb who bears our condemnation. He receives all we deserve. We have forfeited the right to angelic comforters, and so Jesus climbs the hill of Calvary alone. The angel strengthens him and then leaves him to utter loneliness.
2. JESUS WAS EVIDENTLY CHANGED BY AN ANGEL’S COMFORT.
Mark tells us that Jesus immediately took control of the situation and spoke with authority to the three men, rousing them, “Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!’” (Mk.14:.41&42). The struggle is behind him. He has emerged from the conflict between his will and his Father’s will. I would say with all reverence that for a moment he was faltering, not sinfully, but humanly. He has seen the reality of what was in the cup. He confesses, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death,” but not after the angel has strengthened him. Here is the man Christ Jesus, drawing himself up to his full height and stepping forth in the splendid energy of the angel’s ministry. All these resources have been made over to him from his Father in response to his prayers. “Rise!” Jesus commands the disciples. “Let us go!” he issues the order. “Here comes my betrayer,” he says, and from that moment onward we have again the masterful Christ, the one who is in control when Judas approaches and kisses him. Here is the one who says, “I am,” in answering the soldiers’ query so that they all fall to the ground like wheat buffeted by a blast of wind at the sound of his words. The one who rebukes Peter for taking out his sword, the one who stands before the Sanhedrin, and Pilate, and Herod, who silences the professional wailing women, who prays for those persecuting him, who addresses his mother and the dying thief. The majesty of God incarnate hangs on the cross, and he is always fully composed.
It is a great message to ourselves, that there is a composure which the world does not know which is born in fellowship with God, that comes to us from a loving Father. Have there not been times when we have gone in a crisis to God and we have come from the Lord renewed and ready for the new beginning? We have left behind the body of the one we loved best in that grave and we have stepped forth conscious of the love of God supporting us, the promises of God upholding us. It is moving to read the last hours of Rawlins White, a well-known and liked fisherman in Cardiff in the sixteenth century who had come to trust in Jesus Christ as his Saviour. He was illiterate, but his son could read and so he read the Bible often to his Dad who stored its truths in his heart. The truth was precious him and he spoke to anyone who would listen to him about Christ’s free salvation which is offered to all who repent. Many people in Cardiff believed, and so when Mary came to the throne and the persecution began he was soon arrested. They put him in a dark and stinking dungeon – a man whose life had been out on the Bristol Channel – and finally on March 30th 1555, he was burnt at the stake wearing an old russet coat and a pair of leather leggings – the clothes he wore on his little boat. There is a large well preserved commemorative plaque to Rawlins White in Cardiff and I will tell you where it is that you may go and see it and in your heart pray. It is inside the courtyard in Howells Department Store in St. Mary’s Street. That part of the shop was once a fine Baptist Church where I occasionally worshipped, but it was sold to Howells and they kept some of the building and they have preserved the plaque to Rawlins White.
As Rawlins walked to the stake he was surrounded by many soldiers. “What does all this mean?” he said. “I’m not going to run away.” Then he saw his wife and children in tears and he broke down. Then he composed himself; “Old flesh,” he addressed himself, “would you prevail against me?” and he smote his chest. Then he exhorted the people to love and serve the Lord, and when he had finished they burnt him to death. His last words were, “Lord, receive my soul.” How do you explain a simple man like that dying with such composure?
“Ask the Saviour to help you,
Comfort, strengthen and keep you,
He is willing to aid you,
He will carry you through.”
God sent his angels to support and keep the fisherman. That was true for all the martyrs. No man dies to himself; whether living or dying we are the Lord’s.
3. THE FAILURE OF THE DISCIPLES.
We are told that, “When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’” (vv.45&46). There was such patent and spectacular failure in the three leading men, Peter, James and John. They were taken to the garden by a special request of their Lord for their help, to be with him in his agony, to comfort him and watch with him. At every single level there was monumental failure. Let me say on their behalf that they were young Christians. They still didn’t fully know who Christ was or why he had to die on the cross. Their grief at the thought of losing him, and losing him in this way, took all their energy away. Let me point out the obvious that this occurred before Pentecost. I think of Chuck Colson’s conversion, his fall and imprisonment and release, and his first serious thoughts about God after a man had read to him from C.S.Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Colson drove away from that home but stayed sitting in his car outside his own house thinking of everything. Then he said, “I prayed my first real prayer, ‘God, I don’t know how to find you, but I’m going to try. I’m not much, the way I am now, but somehow I want to give myself to you.’ I didn’t know how to say more, so I repeated over and over the words, ‘Take me.’ I had not ‘accepted’ Christ; I still didn’t know who he was. My mind told me it was important to find that out first, to be sure that I knew what I was doing, that I meant it and would stay with it. Only that night something inside me was urging me to surrender, to what or whom I didn’t know. I stayed there in the car, wet-eyed, praying, thinking, for perhaps half an hour, perhaps longer, alone in the quiet of the dark night. Yet for the first time in my life I was not alone at all.” Out of the failure of Chuck Colson’s life he said to a Lord he barely knew, ‘Take me.’
Can we analyse the failure of the disciples for a moment?
i] They failed despite their privileges. They had personally known Jesus of Nazareth for close on three years. They had seen him raise the dead, and command the winds and waves to obey him. They had heard the Sermon on the Mount. They had been on the Mount of Transfiguration where they’d heard the voice of God and seen Moses and Elijah. They had just sat in the Upper Room and heard Christ’s discourse and prayer and taken part in the Lord’s Supper. There was no one in the history of the world who had had the privileges which these men had enjoyed. They had themselves been given a special anointing and authority to preach the word and heal the sick and cast out demons, and this task they had performed with great joy.
You know, sometimes we are so naive. We can measure preachers and pastors in terms of the behaviour of their people, and we think that wherever there is good preaching then it is going to be indicated in the impeccable lifestyle of those who’ve sat under that ministry. These three men had been all this time with Christ. Was it through lack of teaching that they failed? Was it lack of example? Was it lack of pastoral care? It doesn’t matter what privileges we have had, because privileges alone won’t keep us. The church at Galatia had Paul for its pastor. So did the church at Corinth, and also Apollos, and Cephas – what a pastoral trio! Yet what problems beset this church! The church in Ephesus had Paul and then Timothy. What tremendous privileges, but none of those things kept them. These disciples were still living in the glow of the Upper Room experiences but they failed miserably. There is no way that privilege alone is going to keep us.
ii] They failed despite their office and position. These men had been called to be apostles of Jesus and these three were amongst the most eminent of the apostles – it would not be long before James sealed his apostleship in his martyrdom. There are many ways in which this can be turned, for example, the church expects too much from its leaders. It expects eminent perfection in holiness and what it gets is a sinner, a limping man, an inconsistent man who sleeps when he should be watching, a man who lets you down and is not there when you need him. Every church must know that those who lead it are human beings, vulnerable, falling, stumbling and sometimes overwhelmed men, disappointing men, and every leader must know the same truth about himself, that he is a limping man, and a failing man, emotional and weak. If he pretends otherwise his whole personality will break under that carapace of dissimulation. Let not a church leader presume too much upon his status. The congregation must reckon with the creatureliness of is leaders, and its leaders must reckon with their own humanness. The office alone will not keep them.
iii] They failed despite the warnings they had had. Our Lord had been most emphatic. As he had led the Passover Meal he had told them all, “One of you is going to betray me.” He had told Peter that he was about to deny him. He had warned all of them that Satan had them and was about to sift them as wheat. He had made the peril spectacularly clear, but they paid no attention at all. They felt he was worrying about them unnecessarily. They patronized Jesus. They were self-confident and complacent. They told him smiling at his concerns that it was all OK. They were in control of the situation and ready for whatever the future would bring, and they would never forsake him. Peter was the most emphatic of all. This is what he said, “I will lay down my life for your sake” (Jn. 13:37). The Saviour looked at him and this is what he said to Peter, “Will you lay down your life for my sake?” (Jn. 13:38). A life was indeed going to be laid down for others, but it wouldn’t be Peter’s.
Yet, moments after the warning the ones who’d said they would never, never, never, never let him down, did let him down. The Lord said, “Simon, couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? You said to me, ‘Never’, ‘never’. Couldn’t you keep watch for sixty minutes?” Sometimes people hear of the lapses of Christians and they say, “If only they had had a better pastor . . . If only someone had spoken to them . . . If only someone had warned them . . .” Well, maybe, but someone had warned these people. They had been the recipients of the most thorough pastoral care, and still they failed.
iv] They failed when they were most needed, because they were needed. Christ didn’t take them into the Garden for tokenism. He didn’t cry “I thirst” on the cross simply to remind them of his humanity. He didn’t take them into the Garden simply that they would report all they heard and saw. There were several factors here, the gregariousness of Christ; his humanness; his need for fellowship. He wanted the company of Christians on that cold and lonely night. He really wanted to glance across the Garden and see them, and hear the murmur of their familiar voices in the background. He wanted them to pray for him, one by one, as they interceded around in turn bringing him to God. He needed that. Again he certainly needed them to watch out, to keep awake and stand on guard because there were armed men creeping up through the olive trees to get him, while he had an audience with God, and matters of immense eternal issue to deal with in his Father’s presence. He needed to give his whole attention to God. He didn’t want to be distracted by the sound of a broken twig, and quiet voicces in the darkness, wondering whether they’d arrived when he still had some dealings with God about the most important theme a human mind has ever had to deal with. “Come with me! Pray! Watch! Please!” he said, and they did but not for long; they went off to sleep. Maybe when the Lord needs us most, and when the church needs us most, and when the cause of Christ needs us most, maybe that will be the time we fail. We take the easy choice. We watch TV rather than go to the Prayer Meeting.
I’ll go on to make this point, that it wasn’t their final failure, not by any means. You might have thought that when they were startled out of their slumber by the shame of his voice waking them up, and they saw the torches, and heard the sounds of soldiers and saw the light glittering off the swords, that then they would have been overwhelmed with guilt. You could think that then their consciences would have been so pricked by their failure to help their dear Saviour when he needed them most, that they would have beaten their breasts and said, “We let him down. What wicked men we are. Think of all he’s done for us and we couldn’t even keep watch for an hour.” You might have thought that the moral precipitant would have engendered in them a determination that from that moment on they would be watchful, and prayerful, and careful, that after this fall for the rest of their lives they would be vital, sinless men.
No, it was not to be. Those who failed in the Garden of Gethsemane by sleeping failed when the soldiers arrested him. Mark is the evangelist who tells us, “Then everyone deserted him and fled” (Mk.14.50). Then Peter failed him in the courtyard denying him, lacing his speech with expletives. You would have thought that from that moment on, and after the baptism of the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter would have been a new man, a man of eminent perfection, having learned that terrible lesson of his proneness to let down the Saviour, but no. You find in Galatians chapter two the apostle Paul telling us that in Antioch many years later Peter could still be intimidated by men, and still take the easy option. He was pressurized by Jewish Christians to start keeping the Old Testament ceremonial dietary laws again, refusing to eat alongside his Gentile brothers who wouldn’t keep them, and so the church, through his mighty influence, was split in two. Paul had to withstand him to his face and rebuke him because the fear of man had snared Peter and made him a hypocrite. Peter was denying the gospel that a man is saved by trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. He was saying yes, trust, but there is a plus, we have to keep these dietary laws. Then Christ has died in vain, because if we are under some obligation to make some contribution to our redemption by strictly keeping certain ordinances then we are lost men because we will never do anything perfectly. I have never even eaten a meal without sinning.
You see what happens in the spiritual life? The short sharp shock doesn’t always work. Blaming and shaming Christians doesn’t always work. The ecclesiastical rebuke doesn’t work. The apostles failed, and they failed again, and they failed again. You can imagine them making great resolutions, “This will never happen on another occasion. It is simply never going to happen again.” But it wasn’t like that. It never is like that.
v] Though they failed Christ he took them back. He did take them all back, and that is the most glorious fact of all, that despite all their failures the Lord still took them back. “Simon, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, I do.” What a remarkable response. You would expect something like this, “I don’t know. I’ve slept when I should have watched; I’ve run away when I should have been there with you. I denied you three times, once with cursing, when I should have confessed you before the world – and it was only a teenager who asked me if I were a Christian. Now you’re asking me if I love you. Good question. Do I love you when I’m behaving in these ways?” We’d answer something like that. I would answer like that, but Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” and he repeats it, hurt because Jesus asks him the question a third time. He loves Jesus. Peter’s assurance has survived his falls. But so has his sinning, because Jesus goes on to prophesy a distressing death for Peter. He talks to him of a time when his hands will be stretched out and he will be led where he would not want to go (Jn. 21:18). Jesus was talking of the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God, and Peter immediately pipes up with this question, “What about him?” pointing to John. “Tell me about him too. How is he going to die?” And Christ quashes that impudent curiosity. “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow me” (Jn. 21:22).
Peter is a disciple who could be arrogant, talkative, self-centred, stubborn, weak, headstrong, cowardly and inquisitive. Not a pretty picture! It is an astonishing portrayal of one of Christ’s closest friends. How shall I turn this? Shall I say, “Don’t let your sin take your assurance from you.” I have to be careful haven’t I? Please God that I don’t go too far. I don’t want to condone inconsistency or failure, but in the last analysis we are all sinners ministering to sinners, ungodly pastors tending ungodly sheep, accepting that we are the ungodly who believe in Jesus, the ungodly whom God justifies. At the end of any day there isn’t one person here who doesn’t need to say, “Forgive me for all my ungodliness today, O Lord.” I am trying to say, “Don’t be too hard on yourself.Don’t be mercilessly self-critical. Don’t find it difficult to believe that God forgives all our sins for Jesus’ sake.”
If you are asking the questions, “How can such a failure as me be a true Christian? If I am really born again why do I give way to this particular temptation?” then look at Peter because he brings us back to the cross. He was a flawed man, but he was a believer in Jesus Christ, and his only hope was God’s extraordinary grace. I say, face up to your despair confident that you have a Redeemer whose blood keeps on cleansing us. If the Lord chose and honoured and used Peter with all his faults who are we to write off strugglers like ourselves? A decade ago there was a fashion among U.S. Christian students for wearing a wristband with the letters BPWMPGIFWMY written on it. The full message was, ‘Be patient with me, please; God isn’t finished with me yet.’ We may not wear that bracelet but we should never forget the plea. It is thoroughly biblical.
Each of us may be able to think of sins which we believe we would never ever commit. May it be so! But let us learn from Peter. Let us tremble, and watch, and pray. May the memory of our present confidence never come back to haunt us. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall’ (I Cor. 10:12). There are lessons, great pastoral lessons, that Peter learned in Gethsemane, and when he was running away through the olive trees, and in the courtyard by the fire, and at Antioch that he couldn’t have learned anywhere else. Pastors have neither right nor reason to be arrogant but only to be compassionate, and that again is one of the reasons why the Lord took Peter, James and John with him to the Garden and taught them there such lessons that would never be eradicated from their minds. When John Mark came to write this gospel Peter must have said to him, “And make sure you write down that I slept in the Garden, and then ran away, and then that I called down curses on myself when that girl asked me if I followed Jesus.” And that humility is the reason we today know all this happened and find the falls of the disciples all so strangely comforting.
26th August 2012 GEOFF THOMAS