Matthew 26:38: “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’”
“With the exception of our Lord’s actual crucifixion, [Gethsemane] is perhaps the most awful and solemnizing scene which the Scriptures contain,” writes Hugh Martin, a 19th century Scottish pastor in his excellent book The Shadow of Calvary. Anyone who reads through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life cannot help but be amazed at how time and time, whether in dealing with the Pharisees, his disciples, or the needy crowds, Jesus is so obviously in control of the situation. He knows the right words to say to pierce the heart of a sinful woman at the well (John 4) and to disarm and turn the tables on the traps of his opponents (Mark 12).
And yet here in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus seems utterly undone. He asks for his disciples’ support in prayer with the terrifying words, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” Then he falls to the ground, wrestling with God in prayer and even sweating drops of blood. What could cause the very Son of God such agony, such grief, such fear? Only one thing: his pending death as sin-bearer. In Martin’s words, “The sorrows of the garden arose from the prospect and foresight of the sorrows of the cross.”
Is it possible for us to begin to fathom the grief and agony Jesus endured for us? How can we begin to measure the sufferings that would cause our Lord sorrows unto death? What did it cost him to become our sacrifice? In his chapter on the agonies of Gethsemane, Hugh Martin gives us one answer: we can begin to grasp the sorrows Jesus endured when he took our sins by looking at the joy we experience in receiving his righteousness.
“For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21. This is imputation: God places our sins on Jesus so that he might place Jesus’ righteousness on us. To be the recipient of such a glorious exchange is the greatest source of joy sinners can know. “How happy is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin!” (Romans 4:8) But if to receive imputed righteousness brings us such joy, what depth of sorrows must it have cost our sinless Savior to become sin for us? “Sin imputed to a holy one must produce effects directly the reverse of righteousness imputed to a sinner.”
We must go a step further. The gospel has brought joy not just to one person, but to millions. Jesus as our Head suffered not just for one of us, but for all of us. “Who shall measure the sum of the joy wherewith these millions of once apostate but justified transgressors, saved and sanctified for ever, shall joy in the God of their salvation?…It was that mighty aggregate of joy to which Jesus gave being by his sorrow. It is with that mighty aggregate of joy…that the sorrow of Jesus must be contrasted!”
Let us remember today what it cost our Savior, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, to bear our sins in his body on the tree. There is no high peak of joy we experience for which Jesus did not sink to the corresponding abyss of sorrow – for us.
But Good Friday gives way to Easter. The cross leads to the crown, and the Son of God did not suffer in vain. If Jesus has born our griefs and drained the cup of sorrow in full, what mountain tops of joy must await us when we gather around our risen Lord and Savior with people from every tribe, tongue, and nation!
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).