As Easter Sunday draws near, let’s hit the pause button for just a little while and reflect on Jesus – Who he was, what he has done and how greatly he loves us in doing so. I pray these thoughts will bring you a few steps closer to the cross.
“But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT).
You cross all the T’s, dot the I’s, groom it and fine tune it, then sit back in dismay trying to figure what went wrong when everything went wrong. It’s like you’re dirt on the floor and someone just turned on the vacuum. Soon you’ll be sucked up and thrown out with the rest of the garbage; picked up by someone who doesn’t know you or care, thrown in the rear end of a big trash truck, crushed yet again, then hauled off to a sanitary landfill (the dump) becoming a memory – maybe.
Have you ever wondered how Jesus may have felt hanging on the cross? Not just physically, but emotionally? Has the thought ever crossed your mind after reading Matthew 27:46 or Mark 15:34 that just maybe Jesus was as much human as he was divine? That he experienced moments of despair as we do? Come with me for a moment back to a garden spot overlooking the walls of Jerusalem. It’s a solitary place on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives away from the noise of merchants selling their wares in the busy city streets below. The sun is setting, darkness creeps slowly across a crisp evening sky – this is the place where the Lord’s passion begins. Matthew tells the garden story like this:
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:36-39 ESV).
In these few verses, we are allowed a peek on the inside, a glimpse into the mental anguish of a man coming face to face with humankind’s worst nightmare – death by crucifixion. Linda Alchin writes,
“The punishment of Roman crucifixion was chiefly inflicted on slaves and the worst kind of criminals. Crucifixion was considered a most shameful and disgraceful way to die . . . Death by Roman crucifixion was a result of the whole body weight being supported by the stretched arms. When nailed to the cross there was a massive strain put on the wrists, arms and shoulders often resulting in a dislocation of the shoulder and elbow joints. The rib cage was constrained in a fixed position, which made it extremely difficult to exhale, and impossible to take a full breath. The victim would continually try to draw himself up by his feet to allow for inflation of the lungs enduring terrible pain in his feet and legs. The pain in the feet and legs became unbearable and the victim was forced to trade breathing for pain. The length of time required to die from crucifixion could range from hours to a number of days.”
Clearly, our ability to fully comprehend this moment in Jesus’ life is beyond comprehension. Even if you could put your feet into his shoes, without having foreknowledge (an awareness of something before it happens or exists), understanding these hours in Gethsemane is impossible. A criminal doesn’t know he is going be placed under arrest until he is. A person on trial for a crime doesn’t know what the outcome will be when the judge first takes the bench. Furthermore, he has a defense and holds out hope for a favorable outcome. An acquittal perhaps, a last minute plea bargain and a lesser sentence maybe, and of course, there are appeals.
For Jesus, there would be no defense, no plea bargains, no commuting of the sentence, and there would be no appeals; nothing to give so much as the thinnest layer of hope. He knew the scripture; he knew what was written of him, how the story would unfold and how this tragic chapter would end. It is this knowledge (foreknowledge) and the nearness of it being a reality that comes crashing down as he steps into the garden – it’s going to be a long night.
Along with Peter, James and John, Jesus walks amongst the olive trees. This time of year, though, they are barren of fruit as was our Lord’s soul at the moment, the grim reaper was at the door. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death”, he tells them. The Greek word used here is, “perilypos”, the strongest possible word for sadness.
Walking along a little further, the crushing weight of the hour drives Jesus not only to his knees but to the ground; face in the dirt our Lord pleads, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” It was a bitter cup brimming over with the wrath of God against sin. Not once, but twice (v.42), Jesus asks the Father to take the cup away, wouldn’t you? If you could look and see its contents as Jesus did, I am quite certain your legs would tremble and your knees would knock (if you didn’t just pass out on the floor and have a coronary).
Take a moment to read and consider Revelation 14:10, how it might relate. Should you by chance see in that verse what I see, you’d be scared, promise. Your pulse would quicken, your heart would race, and a sense of panic would challenge your ability to breathe; should we think Jesus any different? Yes, he trusted his father implicitly; but if what I understand Hebrews 4:15 (read it) to say is correct, then Jesus faced and dealt with the very same issues and emotions we do, including anxiety. As always, though, Jesus done what we at times don’t do when the moment turns desperate, he maintained trust, he refused to give into the pressure and allow fear to override faith.
Although asked to stay awake and watch with him, the disciples slept, oblivious to what lurked about them in the darkness and the depth of grief Jesus was stricken with. The sound of approaching footsteps drawing closer was heard only by our Lord; “Sleep on dear boys, it is time”.
Judas Iscariot makes his way up the slope and with a betraying kiss, he identifies Jesus to the temple guard who after a brief skirmish with the small band of his followers awakened by the noise place him under arrest and lead him away to be falsely accused, tried in a kangaroo court, brought before Pilate, condemned and crucified; and when the story is fully developed we see seven forms of the emotional suffering Jesus endured, mental issues common to all men although far less intense, I would suspect. They are stress, betrayal, abandonment, rejection, humiliation, persecution, and injustice; but there is an eighth. An eighth? Had he not gone through enough, you might ask?
When Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” he experienced an emotion we can’t grasp, a feeling beyond our ability to even fathom: Separation from God. Jesus walked daily with the Father staying in constant communion; between them, there was perfect harmony, unity, and oneness. Jesus looked to the father, depended on the father, and the father was always there, the line always open. Theirs was a moment by moment, breath by breath relationship; the source of Jesus’ existence. All at once there is a disconnect; the heavens are silent, the portal between the father and son is closed.
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”
Was abandonment Jesus’ charge against God in those words from the cross? Had he truly been forsaken? No, I don’t at all think so. God doesn’t abandon his children and he never forsakes us, “for he has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 ESV). Was it not having his presence, the source of his encouragement, the source of his strength and life? Might that be the reason? Yes, this I believe to have been what compelled those words. If only for a few moments time, the loss of communion with God elicited the most mournful cry of them all; “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
My heartfelt prayer today is that all who believe will have a greater awareness of how vital fellowship with God is to our relationship with him. Clearly, it’s loss, even for but a second’s was the one weight Jesus (the man) just couldn’t bear.
Annie S. Clark captures the depth of our need for God’s ongoing presence when she penned these lyrics:
I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine can peace afford.
I need Thee every hour, stay Thou nearby;
Temptations lose their pow’r when Thou art nigh.
I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain;
Come quickly and abide, or life is vain.
I need Thee every hour; teach me Thy will;
And Thy rich promises in me fulfill.
I need Thee every hour, most Holy One;
Oh, make me Thine indeed, Thou blessed Son.
I need Thee, oh, I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
Oh, bless me now, my Savior,
I come to Thee.