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The Grieved and Distressed Savior

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 28, 1999

Matthew 26:36-46

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If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 26 as we continue our exposition of the gospel of Matthew. We’ve been in Matthew 26 for a number of weeks now, and we’ve observed a number of themes repeating themselves in this passage that is a prelude to the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially beginning with the passage describing the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus. So much of Matthew 26 is preparing you with a pre-understanding of what Christ is going to be doing on the cross. And we’re also seeing, and will especially see in the passage today Christ’s pre-experience of the sufferings of the cross as it were bleeding back into Matthew 26 on the night in which He was betrayed.

Let me just outline briefly for you this story so you can follow progression because Matthew has it neatly set forth so that we can feel the force of the story that he tells. In verses 36 through 39 you see Jesus having arrived in Gethsemane. The burden of His mediation, the burden of the fact that He is our mediator, the one who will be the sin bearer is upon Him. And so He asks an inner-circle of friends to watch and pray with Him. This is described in those first few verses of the section. And then when you move to verses 40 through 42 you see Jesus after praying for a while come back to this inner-circle of disciples and He finds them sleeping. And so He goes back and He continues in His prayer. And then in verses 43 and 44 He comes to them again after praying for a while and finds them again sleeping. And He goes back to continue in prayer. And then finally in verses 45 and 46, having wrestled with the will, with submission to the will of the Heavenly Father, He comes back to the disciples once more and finds them still sleeping. He stands guard over them, and then He tells them that the hour has arrived. That’s the four successive stages of this passage here in Matthew 26, verses 36 through 46. So let’s hear then the reading of God’s holy word.

Matthew 26:36-46

Our Lord and our God, we come to some passages and Scripture and we struggle to do them justice. And we pray now as we come to this great and mysterious passage in which you have revealed the glory of Your Son’s humiliation, You would speak to our hearts. If we come this day trusting in Jesus Christ, we ask that You would strengthen us. There can be few who come this day who have not known an incomprehensible suffering in their experience, and the aching cry of Lord, what are You doing. Speak to us now in the quietness of this hour, and O Lord, if anyone comes this day not knowing the Lord Jesus Christ, not knowing Him savingly, not knowing Him in all of His benefits, we pray that the very vision of the glory of our Savior’s suffering withdraws inexorably to Christ. And we ask these things in Jesus’ name.

This is an amazing passage. The early church fathers knew of many in their times who were embarrassed by this passage because it spoke of the grief, the distress, the agony of the Savior. And there were many in their time in the early days of the church who just couldn’t believe that the Lord Jesus could have been filled with grief and distress and agony. They were embarrassed by it. And we need to understand that what Matthew is unfolding before us is a mysterious thing indeed. And we need to ask ourselves, why is Matthew showing us this? Why is Matthew showing us the agony of our Savior? Why is he showing us the prayerlessness and the sleepiness of the disciples. And I believe that we could spend many, many weeks giving an adequate answer to that question.

But let me suggest to you today as we think on these verses together that Matthew is showing us this for at least three reasons. Matthew wants to show us first of all the weakness of the disciples. These disciples had just hours before, minutes before, professed that they would stay with the Lord Jesus Christ to the very end, and if necessary, would die for Him. And Matthew is going to show that not only would they not be prepared to die for Him, but they wouldn’t even be able to stay awake while He prayed. The Lord Jesus is showing us the weakness of the disciples, and he’s showing us the weakness of the disciples because he wants us to be mindful of our own weakness. We can be very blustery in our profession or devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. And He wants us to be in a posture of humble dependence upon Him. So He shows us the weakness of the disciples. But that’s not all. Matthew also shows us this because he wants us to see the strength and resolution of the Savior. This agony is literally incomprehensible to us. There are aspects to it which we will never understand. And yet the Lord shows us that even in the midst of this agony which Christ felt, not because He was confused about the will of God, but because He knew exactly what the will of the Father was. Even in the midst of this agony He remained entirely committed, resolute to bring about our salvation. And Matthew wants us to see that. But Matthew also wants us to see something of the agony and the isolation that Jesus was to face as He rendered satisfaction for our sins. We’re seeing as it were a foretaste of Christ’s cry of abandonment. His cry of dereliction on the cross when we see Him on His face before His heavenly Father in Gethsemane. So let’s look at this great passage together and notice two or three things with me today.

I. You will never understand Jesus’ agony until you realize that His distress is not over death but judgment.

First in verses 36 through 39. Here Jesus begins to experience this agony, and the isolation, the aloneness of the cross, and in the context of that agony and that suffering and that experience of isolation, as even His disciples are not faithful enough to stay with Him in prayer. He devotes Himself to the heavenly Father in prayer. He devotes himself to the heavenly Father in prayer. And I want to say to you that you will never understand Jesus’ agony until you realize that His distress is not over His death. His distress is not even over the dreadful persecution and torture that He will endure on the way to His death. Jesus’ agony here in the garden and especially on the cross are not due to His fear of death, but are due to His apprehension of the judgment of God. Waves of distress and grief are now rolling over the Lord Jesus Christ. Why? It is not for fear of death. Let me say it frankly. If Jesus is overwhelmed by the fear of death, then we have to say that many Christians face death more bravely than He did. It is clearly not death which overwhelms His soul. It is His realization that death is the judicial expression of God’s just wrath against sin, and that He is now to be the singular object, the isolated object, the only object of the wrath of God for all the sins of all His people. And the very thought of that overwhelms the soul of the Lord Jesus Christ. He sees God’s judgment, and He knows that He is intended as the object of God’s judgment. He looks into this white, hot volcano of the justice of God, and He realizes that He is the one who will stand in between for His people. And He feels something of the weight of the penalty for that sin. As Hendrickson says, He was becoming overwhelmed with the curse, and this consciousness would not again leave Him until He was able to say, "It is finished."

Now my friends, it is an exceedingly precious thing that your Savior experienced this agony. There can be few, if any, in this room who as an adult have not faced circumstances and trials where you’ve cried out, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Where you have cried out Lord, what are you doing in my life. I’ve tried to be faithful, and I have no idea what’s going on. Why is this that the loved one of my heart is being torn from me. Why is this that I am going through, this particular experience, I don’t see Your hand in it, I can’t make sense of it, I don’t know what’s going on. And it should be exceedingly precious to you that your Savior has experienced an agony far more intense than that because He knew exactly what the will of God was. He looked it in the eye, and He trembled. It’s a precious thing that our Savior has trembled. Calvin has this beautiful comment. He says, "As this seems to be beneath the dignity of Christ’s glory that He was affected with a panic and sorrow.

Many interpreters are vehemently concerned to find a way out. Their efforts are thoughtless and fruitless. For if we are ashamed of His fear and sorrow our redemption will trickle away and be lost. Indeed, I find nothing more wonderful than His piety and majesty. He would have done less for Me, had He not born my affliction. He grieved for me, who on His own account had nothing to grieve over. He laid aside the delights of His eternal godhead to feel the weariness of my infirmity. I boldly speak of this sorrow, because I preach His cross. He did not assume an appearance of incarnation, but a reality. He had to bear grief in order to conquer sadness, and not shut it out. They who do not have the praise or fortitude are drugged by wounds and not hurt." Calvin reminds us that Jesus’ sorrow is a great balm of hope and comfort to all of us when we face the incomprehensible in God’s providence.

But that’s not the only thing we see here in verses 36 through 39. It’s not only this focus on the agony of the Lord Jesus Christ, but in this circumstance, Jesus devotes Himself to prayer. You remember as He enters into the garden, He set some of His disciples as sentinels at the gate, and He bids them to watch with Him while He goes over there and pray awhile. Then He takes those three disciples that are part of His inner-circle and they move further into the garden, and He asked them to remain and keep watch with Him in prayer. And then He goes yet a little further on. And He lifts up His voice to the heavenly Father in prayer. It’s a poignant scene. Jesus and His disciples in the few moments before He’s going to be betrayed, He’s trying to have one last prayer meeting with them. After all they had pledged to be faithful to Him to the end. And yet while He prays for their salvation and for His faithfulness, they sleep. And there are two very precious passages, the first one if you’ll look in verse 36 where He says to those disciples, "Sit here while I go yonder and pray."

Now the commentators tell us that that passage is a direct parallel to Genesis, chapter 22, verse 5. Do you remember when two thousand years before, on the hill just across from the Mount of Olives, Abraham had arrived at its foot and told his servants, "Stay here for awhile, and I and the lad will go yonder and worship God." Jesus is saying to His disciples stay here for a little while, while I go yonder to pray for you and for me and for the will of God. Then as he moves further into the garden, He tells those inner-circle of disciples, remain here and keep watch with Me. And yet none of them would be able to stay awake in the Lord’s intercession. And then He prays this mind-boggling prayer. You can really get yourself into trouble in this passage. He prays this mind-boggling prayer that the Father would spare Him the cup. Not the cup of death, but the cup of wrath and judgment. Death is but the external, physical expression of the wrath of God against sin manifested in our physical, human experience. And He realizes that He is going to be the recipient of this cup, and we could read about the cup in the Psalms. And we could read about the cup in Isaiah, and we could read about the cup in the prophets. Jesus knows He is to receive the cup of the judgment of God, and He knows what that involves, and He trembles. He asks the Father if He could remove this cup from Him. How this prayer relates to Jesus’ foreknowledge, His divinity, and to the unwavering decree of God, I have no idea. But I do know this. The Lord Jesus at the end of that prayer, prayed nevertheless, "Not My will, but Thy will be done." He submits Himself to the will of the heavenly Father in prayer, and so gives us an example.

You see, everyone of us needs to understand the nature of Jesus’ agony if we’re going to appreciate what He’s doing for us here and what He’s doing on the cross. For His agony is not over death. His agony is over the realization that He will experience the judgment of God. We die confidently because we have comfort that Jesus did not have to, and we have an upholding which He had to forego as He faced our sins in isolation. We die confidently because He always stands in between. When we die as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no fearful anticipation of the righteous judgments of God against us because Jesus has drunk that judgment to the dregs. There’s nothing left. Our sins haven’t been cancelled. They’ve been liquidated. He’s borne in his own body in the tree, the due penalty of our sins, and so the sting of death is not there for us. Why? Because the sting of death has been plunged into His heart. We have that comfort that He did not have because His job was to bear the penalty of our sin. And of course we have His strength. He upholds and He strengthens us by His free spirit which He gave when He ascended on high and led captivity captive and gave gifts for men. He poured out from the throne of grace His Holy Spirit to strengthen us for every trial. But in this trial He would stand alone, isolated from his disciples, isolated from help, and now the object of His Father’s wrath. We’ll never understand Jesus’ agony until you understand that the distress He was under was the distress of the realization of the judgment of God. You’ll never be able to take comfort in the things that you don’t understand, in the midst of the things that you don’t understand in this life, until you realize Jesus’ experience and agony, then you will never be able to comprehend. And that He is touched with the feeling of your infirmities because He’s experienced them more intensely than you ever will. Thank God.

II. You will never understand Jesus’ agony until you understand His aloneness.

And then there are verses 40 through 44. Jesus continues to bend His will. We use those words reverently. He bends His will to the Father’s will in prayer while His professedly steadfast disciples sleep. And again as we look at verses 40 through 44, we see that you’ll never understand Jesus’ agony until you understand his aloneness. This is the poignant thing about these successive scenes that Matthew unfolds.

The weakness of the disciples is highlighted. They had pledged to be faithful to Him again. And Matthew is highlighting the failure of the disciples to follow through on their own brave words. It’s not surprising that these men would be sleeping. They had been through a torturous week, and Jesus had laid teachings on them that burdened their hearts as well as encouraged them. And they were exhausted. When Jesus says the Spirit is willing and the flesh is weak, He’s not speaking so much of the sinful flesh, as he is the frailty of the flesh. He knows that their human resources are limited in the context of their tired bodies and the fact that they are emotionally wrung out. It’s not surprising that they would sleep in the quietness of this hour. But in this circumstance Jesus is seeking His disciples to pray with Him.

This is the hour of His need and everything that He’s doing, He’s doing for them. And He needs them just to stay awake. All He asks is that they would remain with Him and keep watch in prayer with Him. And yet when He comes, and He finds them not once, not twice, but three times sleeping, there is no sharp rebuke. There is no harsh word of condemnation. There are only these loving, pleading words of warning for their own good. Watch with me in prayer. Are you still sleeping? Do you not know that the hour of temptation is upon us. Watch in prayer, be prepared. And the loneliness of Christ praying in the garden for the sins of the world as His disciples sleep is meant to remind us of the isolation, the aloneness of our Savior.

As the darkness of God’s judgment begins to surround Him, Jesus lifts up a petition by Himself. You see that petition in verse 44 and in verse 42. Your will be done. He had taught the disciples to pray to their heavenly Father back in Matthew, chapter 6, verse 10. The second half of the verse, "Your will be done." And here Jesus is praying that prayer Himself. You know Jesus never tells you to pray a prayer that He’s not willing to pray Himself. And here in the face of the greatest injustice in the history of the world, the wrath of God striking out against the sinless Lamb. Here in the midst of the experience of this sinless man, bearing the load of sin, here in the face of the terror of the righteous Judge crossing His heart. Jesus prays a prayer of submission. Your will be done.

My friends, there is not a one of us who has ever been in a more consternating situation than the Lord Jesus Christ. And so when He says to us you pray, "Father, Your will be done," He is not speaking as a dry-land sailor. He’s done more than He’ll ever ask you to do, and so your prayer for the submission to the will of God is at the very heart of your calling as a disciple. Jesus must face the wrath alone, and even here in the isolation that wrath is beginning.

III. You will never understand the commitment of Jesus’ love unless you realize that He embraced His betrayal.

And if you’ll look at verses 45 and 46 you’ll see the strength and resolution of our Savior, even in this difficult circumstance. Jesus awakens the disciples to go and meet and face His betrayer, and again you’ll never understand the commitment, the expense of the commitment of Jesus’ love, unless you realize that He embraced His betrayal. Jesus, in verse 45, comes to the disciples. He finds them sleeping, and it’s difficult to know exactly how to translate what He says here. It could be translated as a question, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?" It could be translated as a comment, "Friends, sleep now, take your rest." I don’t know which is the best way to translate it. I just know this. Either Jesus is gently asking them this question, or He is tenderly as a shepherd giving them leave to sleep while He watches over them. Either way you have this picture of the Savior who knows He’s going to be betrayed, in the hour of His need having prayed alone, now He stands alone awake watching over His sleeping sheep. And then finally waking them up when the hour of action has come. It’s a beautiful picture of the shepherding of the Lord Jesus Christ as He cares for us while we sleep.

And then He says to them something interesting. He announces that the time of His betrayal has arrived. He has accepted the cup of the heavenly Father. And what He is about to do shows the completeness of His embrace of that cup. He wakes His disciples up, and He tells them arise, let us go. Now He’s not saying to them, let us flee quickly before we are caught. He is commanding them as the captain of their salvation to arise. They will now meet the one who is betraying Him. He is going to march them right in the direction of his persecutors, right in the direction of those who will mock Him, and scourge Him, who will torture Him, who will kill Him, who will put Him on the tree. The strength and the resolution of the Lord Jesus Christ is glorious in this passage, and you will never understand the extent of the commitment of His love until you understand that this is a practical expression - going right to Judas is a practical expression of the fact that He has willingly embraced the penalty for your sin.

There are so many applications of this truth today that we cannot do justice. But let me just leave you with one picture. There may be some who feel like they’re in the midst of the fight, and they’re being confounded by the inscrutable providence of God. They don’t know what’s going on in their lives. You think you’re in the midst of a dire fight. You remember this picture of Jesus alone praying while the disciples sleep. It’s a picture of the sovereignty of grace in your salvation isn’t it? You think you’re fighting such a well-fought fight, when in fact you are asleep and the captain of your salvation is praying for you alone.

And then there may be some today who think they can earn their own merit. They can earn their own relationship with the heavenly Father. There’s that same picture waiting for you. The Captain of our salvation awake wrestling for the salvation of the sins of the world in the garden while the disciples sleep. These were the most faithful and true of all Jesus’ disciples in His earthly ministry, and they slept. Now you say you would have done better, and you say you would earn favor in the presence of God. You say you’ll stand before the righteous wrath of God in your own righteousness. Oh no.

You see, this picture of Jesus in the garden alone is a picture of the isolation of Christ on the cross. There’s only one thing and there’s only one man who brings us into the presence of God and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ. Our works are as sleep. His deeds alone in isolation, that unique work that He has done, that is what stands us before God. Let’s never forget it. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, deal with our hearts we pray, by Your word, and show us the wonder of Your love, in Jesus Christ we ask it, Amen.

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