Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gethsemane: Christian Doubt and Indifference

Are we in the Church doing any better than the classical and modern critics of Jesus in Gethsemane?

Not so much. In many quarters of Christendom in North America, there is significant doubt and indifference. The doubt has a good aspect, but the indifference is no better than the criticisms.

Christian Doubt

Some ordinary Christians wonder about the charges unbelieving critics make, but privately, for fear of sounding impious or unbelieving.

These are great Christians. These have seen the extremity of Jesus' condition and behavior in Gethsemane. These face reality. These have observed the text of Scripture and have let the text say what it says.

The problem is not with them, but with the state of Christendom around them. The state around them discourages them from asking aloud what they wonder privately. We are giving them little help.

Preaching the Christ, or the Christian?

In many quarters within North American Christendom, preaching is more on the Christian than on the Christ.

Sin and salvation, life and death, Christ and him crucified have gone into the background. The message of the Gospel and the forgiveness of sin have become assumptions, and preaching has moved on.

Preaching has moved on to using the Bible as a resource for self-improvement, for "being the best you you can be," for "living your best life now." It's about practical application, self-esteem, respectability, and success. It's about moralism and how God helps those who help themselves. It makes much of applied Christianity without being too concerned about having a Christianity to apply. The psychological passes as spiritual. It's about the Christian in a state of glory, having left Jesus in his state of humiliation behind. It's about what's going on with me, rather than what went on with him.

Christian Indifference

Under such preaching, sure, one must get his or her ticket to heaven at the outset of one's "Christian journey." Not long afterwards, that preaching turns the ticket into a worn, hip pocket possession or something at the bottom of my other purse that I left at home. The now and the here of this preaching focuses the 164 steps to sanctification that you and I must take.

Such preaching does not spark questions about the seemingly pitiful and cowardly way Jesus carried on in Gethsemane. The hearers of such preaching are given no reason to wonder, because they have what they want, a ticket to heaven. As long as the ticket is good, they don’t need to know more about Jesus' suffering. They’ve heard some fuzzy concept about him paying for their sins on the cross, some kind of an accounting transaction, and knowing that is enough. A mythical, essentially Pagan Jesus is good enough for them. The preaching of self-help rather a Savior just makes good, common sense.

Those are harsh statements, I know, but bear in mind, I am blaming this on the preaching, on the leaders, in some quarters. It's not everywhere, though it is prevalent. There is still a lot of cross focused, Christ centered preaching, and Christians who know that "prayer is for the helpless."[1]

Understatement and Shock

The fact is, Jesus was in a bad way. In Gethsemane, the undivided Jesus, the fully divine and fully human Christ suffered, and the cruel criticisms, both classic and modern, do not exaggerate it. They actually understate it.

We ought to be shocked by what happened to Jesus in that garden. He was shocked, completely dazed.

Stop and tell yourself again, what did happen to him there? Was what you just told yourself shocking? Have you ever told anyone that Gethsemane shocks you? That’s a gauge. You can measure shock with it. Shock is something we usually tell. If we have not told about shock, odds are high that we did not experience shock.

Real Questions, Adequate Answers

Jesus’ suffering in Gethsemane is shocking, and more. I don’t know what to call it. But it’s bad enough that it demands an explanation. A question hangs over Jesus’ pathos: what accounts for it? It demands not just some explanation, not just some rationale, not just some pat answer passable in Sunday School. It demands an adequate explanation.

His suffering was singular, unique, like no other because what was happening to him was singular, unique, like nothing that ever happened to anyone else. It never happened to Socrates, Stephen, or the Christian martyrs. They never faced anything like it. As John R.W. Stott says, “So was Socrates braver than Jesus? Or were their cups filled with different poisons?”[2]

Jesus’ suffering was something that, had it happened to the others, would have killed them before the first stone was thrown, before the first sip of hemlock. It very nearly did that to Jesus. It very nearly killed him before He made it to the cross, before He was arrested, before He finished praying. Without the touch of the angel, it would have killed him in the garden.

Meet Jesus, and Yourself

What Jesus saw, the assaulting, menacing horror that made him "sore amazed," was intimately identified with you and me. Jesus' identification with you and me was killing him then and there. He was dying in that garden.

Get ready to meet yourself in Gethsemane, if you’re done with myth, if you meet the historical, incarnate Jesus there.


1.  Ole Halleby, Prayer, p. 21 (AugsburgFortress, 1994)
2.  John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 74 (InterVarsity Press, 1986).


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