We turn once more to follow the steps of Christ, now among the last He trod upon earth. The ‘hymn,’ with which the Paschal Supper ended, had been sung. Probably we are to understand this of the second portion of the Hallel, sung some time after the third Cup, or else of Psalm 136, which, in the present Ritual, stands near the end of the service. The last Discourses had been spoken, the last Prayer, that of Consecration, had been offered, and Jesus prepared to go forth out of the City, to the Mount of Olives. The streets could scarcely be said to be deserted, for, from many a house shone the festive lamp, and many a company may still have been gathered; and everywhere was the bustle of preparation for going up to the Temple, the gates of which were thrown open at midnight.
Passing out by the gate north of the Temple, we descend into a lonely part of the valley of black Kidron, at that season swelled into a winter torrent. Crossing it, we turn somewhat to the left, where the road leads towards Olivet. Not many steps farther (beyond, and on the other side of the present Church of the Sepulchre of the Virgin) we turn aside from the road to the right, and reach what tradition has since earliest times – and probably correctly – pointed out as ‘Gethsemane,’ the ‘Oil-press.’ It was a small property enclosed, ‘a garden’ in the Eastern sense, where probably, amidst a variety of fruit trees and flowering shrubs, was a lowly, quiet summer-retreat, connected with, or near by, the ‘Olive-press.’ The present Gethsemane is only some seventy steps square, and though its old gnarled olives cannot be those (if such there were) of the time of Jesus, since all trees in that valley – those also which stretched their shadows over Jesus – were hewn down in the Roman siege, they may have sprung from the old roots, or from the odd kernels. But we love to think of this ‘Garden’ as the place where Jesus ‘often’ – not merely on this occasion, but perhaps on previous visits to Jerusalem – gathered with His disciples. It was a quiet resting-place, for retirement, prayer, perhaps sleep, and a trysting-place also where not only the Twelve, but others also, may have been wont to meet the Master. And as such it was known to Judas, and thither he led the armed band, when they found the Upper Chamber no longer occupied by Jesus and His disciples. Whether it had been intended that He should spend part of the night there, before returning to the Temple, and whose that enclosed garden was – the other Eden, in which the Second Adam, the Lord from heaven, bore the penalty of the first, and in obeying gained life – we know not, and perhaps ought not to inquire. It may have belonged to Mark’s father. But if otherwise, Jesus had loving disciples even in Jerusalem, and, we rejoice to think, not only a home at Bethany, and an Upper Chamber furnished in the City, but a quiet retreat and trysting-place for His own under the bosom of Olivet, in the shadow of the garden of ‘the Oil-press.’
The sickly light of the moon was falling full on them as they were crossing Kidron. It was here, we imagine, after they had left the City behind them, that the Lord addressed Himself first to the disciples generally. We can scarcely call it either prediction or warning. Rather, as we think of that last Supper, of Christ passing through the streets of the City for the last time into that Garden, and especially of what was now immediately before Him, does what He spake seem natural, even necessary. To them – yes, to them all – He would that night be even a stumbling-block. And so had it been foretold of old, 2 that the Shepherd would be smitten, and the sheep scattered. Did this prophecy of His suffering, in its grand outlines, fill the mind of the Saviour as He went forth on His Passion? Such Old Testament thoughts were at any rate present with Him, when, not unconsciously nor of necessity, but as the Lamb of God, He went to the slaughter. A peculiar significance also attaches to His prediction that, after He was risen, He would go before them into Galilee. 3 For, with their scattering upon His Death, it seems to us, the Apostolic circle or College, as such, was for a time broken up. They continued, indeed, to meet together as individual disciples, but the Apostolic bond was temporarily dissolved. This explains many things: the absence of Thomas on the first, and his peculiar position on the second Sunday; the uncertainty of the disciples, as evidenced by the words of those on the way to Emmaus; as well as the seemingly strange movements of the Apostles – all which are quite changed when the Apostolic bond is restored. Similarly, we mark, that only seven of them seem to have been together by the Lake of Galilee, 4 and that only afterwards the Eleven met Him on the mountain to which He had directed them. 5 It was here that the Apostolic circle or College was once more re-formed, and the Apostolic commission renewed, 6 and thence they returned to Jerusalem, once more sent forth from Galilee, to wait the final events of His Ascension, and the Coming of the Holy Ghost.
But in that night they understood none of these things. While all were staggering under the blow of their predicted scattering, the Lord seems to have turned to Peter individually. What he said, and how He put it, equally demand our attention: ‘Simon, Simon’ 7 – using His old name when referring to the old man in him – ‘Satan has obtained [out-asked] you, for the purpose of sifting like as wheat. But I have made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not.’ The words admit us into two mysteries of heaven. This night seems to have been ‘the power of darkness,’ when, left of God, Christ had to meet by himself the whole assault of hell, and to conquer in His own strength as Man’s Substitute and Representative. It is a great mystery: but quite consistent with itself. We do not, as others, here see any analogy to the permission given to Satan in the opening chapter of the Book of Job, always supposing that this embodies a real, not an allegorical story. But in that night the fierce wind of hell was allowed to sweep unbroken over the Saviour, and even to expend its fury upon those that stood behind in His Shelter. Satan had ‘out-asked,’ obtained it – yet not to destroy, nor to cast down, but ‘to sift,’ like as wheat 8 is shaken in a sieve to cast out of it what is not grain. Hitherto, and no farther, had Satan obtained it. In that night of Christ’s Agony and loneliness, of the utmost conflict between Christ and Satan, this seems almost a necessary element.
This, then, was the first mystery that had passed. And this sifting would affect Peter more than the others. Judas, who loved not Jesus at all, has already fallen; Peter, who loved Him – perhaps not most intensely, but, if the expression be allowed, most extensively – stood next to Judas in danger. In truth, though most widely apart in their direction, the springs of their inner life rose in close proximity. There was the same readiness to kindle into enthusiasm, the same desire to have public opinion with him, the same shrinking from the Cross, the same moral inability or unwillingness to stand alone, in the one as in the other. Peter had abundant courage to sally out, but not to stand out. Viewed in its primal elements (not in its development), Peter’s character was, among the disciples, the likest to that of Judas. If this shows what Judas might have become, it also explains how Peter was most in danger that night; and, indeed, the husks of him were cast out of the sieve in his denial of the Christ. But what distinguished Peter from Judas was his ‘faith’ of spirit, soul, and heart – of spirit, when he apprehended the spiritual element in Christ; 9 of soul, when he confessed Him as the Christ; 10 and of heart, when he could ask Him to sound the depths of his inner being, to find there real, personal love to Jesus.
The second mystery of that night was Christ’s supplication for Peter. We dare not say, as the High-Priest – and we know not when and where it was offered. But the expression is very strong, as of one who has need of a thing. 12 And that for which He made such supplication was, that Peter’s faith should not fail. This, and not that something new might be given him, or the trial removed from Peter. We mark, how Divine grace presupposes, not supersedes, human liberty. And this also explains why Jesus had so prayed for Peter, not for Judas. In the former case there was faith, which only required to be strengthened against failure – an eventuality which, without the intercession of Christ, was possible. To these words of His, Christ added this significant commission: ‘And thou, when thou hast turned again, confirm thy brethren.’ 13 And how fully he did this, both in the Apostolic circle and in the Church, history has chronicled. Thus, although such may come in the regular moral order of things, Satan has not even power to ‘sift’ without leave of God; and thus does the Father watch in such terrible sifting over them for whom Christ has prayed. This is the first fulfilment of Christ’s Prayer, that the Father would ‘keep them from the Evil One.’ 14 Not by any process from without, but by the preservation of their faith. And thus also may we learn, to our great and unspeakable comfort, that not every sin – not even conscious and wilful sin – implies the failure of our faith, very closely though it lead to it; still less, our final rejection. On the contrary, as the fall of Simon was the outcome of the natural elements in him, so would it lead to their being brought to light and removed, thus fitting him the better for confirming his brethren. And so would light come out of darkness. From our human standpoint we might call such teaching needful: in the Divine arrangement it is only the Divine sequent upon the human antecedent.
We can understand the vehement earnestness and sincerity with which Peter protested against of any failure on his part. We mostly deem those sins farthest which are nearest to us; else, much of the power of their temptation would be gone, and temptation changed into conflict. The things which we least anticipate are our falls. In all honesty – and not necessarily with self elevation over the others – he said, that even if all should be offended in Christ, he never could be, but was ready to go with Him into prison and death. And when, to enforce the warning, Christ predicted that before the repeated crowing of the cock 15 ushered in the morning, 16 Peter would thrice deny that he knew Him, Peter not only persisted in his asseverations, but was joined in them by the rest. Yet – and this seems the meaning and object of the words of Christ which follow – they were not aware terribly changed the former relations had become, and what they would have to suffer in consequence. 17 When formerly He had sent forth, both without provision and defence, had they lacked anything? No! But now no helping hand would be extended to them; nay, what seemingly they would need even more than anything else would be ‘a sword’ – defence against attacks, for at the close of His history He was reckoned with transgressors. 18 The Master a crucified Malefactor – what could His followers expect? But once more they understood Him in a grossly realistic manner. These Galileans, after the custom of their countrymen, 19 had provided themselves with short swords, which they concealed under their upper garment. It was natural for men of their disposition, so imperfectly understanding their Master’s teaching, to have taken what might seem to them only a needful precaution in coming to Jerusalem. At least two of them – among them Peter – now produced swords. 20 But this was not the time of reason with them, and our Lord simply put it aside. Events would only too soon teach them.
They had now reached the entrance of Gethsemane. It may have been that it led through the building with the ‘oil-press,’ and that the eight Apostles, who were not to come nearer to the ‘Bush burning, but not consumed,’ were left there. Or they may have been taken within the entrance of the Garden, and left there, while, pointing forward with a gesture of the Hand, He went ‘yonder’ and prayed 21 According to St. Luke, He added the parting warning to pray that they might not enter into temptation.
Eight did He leave there. The other three – Peter, James and John – companions before of His glory, both when He raised the daughter of Jairus 22 and on the Mount of Transfiguration 23 – He took with Him farther. If in that last contest His Human Soul craved for the presence of those who stood nearest Him and loved Him best, or if He would have them baptized with His Baptism, and drink of His Cup, these were the three of all others to be chosen. And now of a sudden the cold flood broke over Him. Within these few moments He had passed from the calm of assured victory into the anguish of the contest. Increasingly, with every step forward, He became ‘sorrowful,’ full of sorrow, ‘sore amazed,’ and ‘desolate.’ 24 He told them of the deep sorrow of His Soul even unto death, and bade them tarry there to watch with Him. Himself went forward to enter the contest with prayer. Only the first attitude of the wrestling Saviour saw they, only the first words in that Hour of Agony did they hear. For, as in our present state not uncommonly in the deepest emotions of the soul, and as had been the case on the Mount of Transfiguration, irresistible sleep crept over their frame. But what, we may reverently ask, was the cause of this sorrow unto death of the Lord Jesus Christ? Not fear, either of bodily or mental suffering: but Death. Man’s nature, created of God immortal, shrinks (by the law of its nature) from the dissolution of the bond that binds body to soul. Yet to fallen man Death is not by any means fully Death, for he is born with the taste of it in his soul. Not so Christ. It was the Unfallen Man dying; it was He, Who had no experience of it, tasting Death, and that not for Himself but for every man, emptying the cup to its bitter dregs. It was the Christ undergoing Death by man and for man; the Incarnate God, the God-Man, submitting Himself vicariously to the deepest humiliation, and paying the utmost penalty: Death – all Death. No one as He could know what Death was (not dying, which men dread, but Christ dreaded not); no one could taste its bitterness as He. His going into Death was His final conflict with Satan for man, and on his behalf. By submitting to it He took away the power of Death; He disarmed Death by burying his shaft in His own Heart. And beyond this lies the deep, unutterable mystery of Christ bearing the penalty due to our sin, bearing our death, bearing the penalty of the broken Law, the accumulated guilt of humanity, and the holy wrath of the Righteous Judge upon them. And in view of this mystery the heaviness of sleep seems to steal over our apprehension.
Alone, as in His first conflict with the Evil One in the Temptation in the wilderness, must the Saviour enter on the last contest. With what agony of soul He took upon Him now and there the sins of the world, and in taking expiated them, we may learn from this account of what passed, when, ‘with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death,’ He ‘offered up prayers and supplications.’ And – we anticipate it already – with these results: that He was heard; that He learned obedience by the things which He suffered; that He was made perfect; and that He became: to us the Author of Eternal Salvation, and before God, a High-Priest after the order of Melchizedek. Alone – and yet even this being ‘parted from them’, implied sorrow. And now, ‘on His knees,’ prostrate on the ground, prostrate on His Face, began His Agony. His very address bears witness to it. It is the only time, so far as recorded in the Gospels, when He addressed God with the personal pronoun: ‘My Father.’ The object of the prayer was, that, ‘if it were possible, the hour might pass away from Him.’ The subject of the prayer (as recorded by the three Gospels) was, that the Cup itself might pass away, yet always with the limitation, that not His Will but the Father’s might be done. The petition of Christ, therefore, was subject not only to the Will of the Father, but to His own Will that the Father’s Will might be done. We are here in full view of the deepest mystery of our faith: the two Natures in One Person. Both Natures spake here, and the ‘if it be possible’ of St. Matthew and St. Mark is in St. Luke ‘if Thou be willing.’ In any case, the ‘possibility’ is not physical – for with God all things are possible – but moral: that of inward fitness. Was there, then, any thought or view of ‘a possibility,’ that Christ’s work could be accomplished without that hour and Cup? Or did it only mark the utmost limit of His endurance and submission? We dare not answer; we only reverently follow what is recorded.
It was in this extreme Agony of Soul almost unto death, that the Angel appeared (as in the Temptation in the wilderness) to ‘strengthen’ and support His Body and Soul. And so the conflict went on, with increasing earnestness of prayer, all that terrible hour. For, the appearance of the Angel must have intimated to Him, that the Cup could not pass away. And at the close of that hour – as we infer from the fact that the disciples must still have seen on His Brow the marks of the Bloody Sweat – His Sweat, mingled with Blood, fell in great drops on the ground. And when the Saviour with this mark of His Agony on His Brow returned to the three, He found that deep sleep held them. While He lay in prayer, they lay in sleep; and yet where soul-agony leads not to the one, it often induces the other. His words, primarily addressed to ‘Simon,’ roused them, yet not sufficiently to fully carry to their hearts either the loving reproach, the admonition to ‘Watch and pray’ in view of the coming temptation, or the most seasonable warning about the weakness of the flesh, even where the spirit was willing, ready and ardent.
The conflict had been virtually, though not finally, decided, when the Saviour went back to the three sleeping disciples. He now returned to complete it, though both the attitude in which He prayed (no longer prostrate) and the wording of His Prayer – only slightly altered as it was – indicate how near it was to perfect victory. And once more, on His return to them, He found that sleep had weighted their eyes, and they scarce knew what answer to make to Him. Yet a third time He left them to pray as before. And now He returned victorious. After three assaults had the Tempter left Him in the wilderness; after the threefold conflict in the Garden he was vanquished. Christ came forth triumphant. No longer did He bid His disciples watch. They might, nay they should, sleep and take rest, ere the near terrible events of His Betrayal – for, the hour had come when the Son of Man was to be betrayed into the hands of sinners.
A very brief period of rest this, 38 soon broken by the call of Jesus to rise and go to where the other eight had been left, at the entrance of the Garden – to go forward and meet the band which was coming under the guidance of the Betrayer. And while He was speaking, the heavy tramp of many men and the light of lanterns and torches indicated the approach of Judas and his band. During the hours that had passed all had been prepared. When, according to arrangement, he appeared at the High-Priestly Palace, or more probably at that of Annas, who seems to have had the direction of affairs, the Jewish leaders first communicated with the Roman garrison. By their own admission they possessed no longer (for forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem) the power of pronouncing capital sentence. 39 It is difficult to understand how, in view of this fact (so fully confirmed in the New Testament), it could have been imagined (as so generally) that the Sanhedrin had, in regular session, sought formally to pronounce on Jesus what, admittedly, they had not the power to execute. Nor, indeed, did they, when appealing to Pilate, plead that they had pronounced sentence of death, but only that they had a law by which Jesus should die. 40 It was otherwise as regarded civil causes, or even minor offences. The Sanhedrin, not possessing the power of the sword, had, of course, neither soldiery, nor regularly armed band at command. The ‘Temple-guard’ under their officers served merely for purposes of police, and, indeed, were neither regularly armed nor trained. 41 Nor would the Romans have tolerated a regular armed Jewish force in Jerusalem.
We can now understand the progress of events. In the fortress of Antonia, close to the Temple and connected with it by two stairs, 42 lay the Roman garrison. But during the Feast the Temple itself was guarded by an armed Cohort, consisting of from 400 to 600 men, so as to prevent or quell any tumult among the numerous pilgrims. 44 It would be to the captain of this ‘Cohort’ that the Chief Priests and leaders of the Pharisees would, in the first place, apply for an armed guard to effect the arrest of Jesus, on the ground that it might lead to some popular tumult. This, without necessarily having to state the charge that was to be brought against Him, which might have led to other complications. Although St. John speaks of ‘the band’ by a word which always designates a ‘Cohort’ – in this case ‘the Cohort,’ the definite article marking it as that of the Temple – yet there is no reason for believing that the whole Cohort was sent. Still, its commander would scarcely have sent a strong detachment out of the Temple, and on what might lead to a riot, without having first referred to the Procurator, Pontius Pilate. And if further evidence were required, it would be in the fact that the band was led not by a Centurion, but by a Chiliarch, 45 which, as there were no intermediate grades in the Roman army, must represent one of the six tribunes attached to each legion. This also explains not only the apparent preparedness of Pilate to sit in judgment early next morning, but also how Pilate’s wife may have been disposed for those dreams about Jesus which so affrighted her.
This Roman detachment, armed with swords and ‘staves’ – with the latter of which Pilate on other occasions also directed his soldiers to attack them who raised a tumult – was accompanied by servants from the High-Priest’s Palace, and other Jewish officers, to direct the arrest of Jesus. They bore torches and lamps placed on the top of poles, so as to prevent any possible concealment.
Whether or not this was the ‘great multitude’ mentioned by St. Matthew and St. Mark, or the band was swelled by volunteers or curious onlookers, is a matter of no importance. Having received this band, Judas proceeded on his errand. As we believe, their first move was to the house where the Supper had been celebrated. Learning that Jesus had left it with His disciples, perhaps two or three hours before, Judas next directed the band to the spot he knew so well: to Gethsemane. A signal by which to recognise Jesus seemed almost necessary with so large a band, and where escape or resistance might be apprehended. It was – terrible to say – none other than a kiss. As soon as he had so marked Him, the guard were to seize, and lead Him safely away.
Combining the notices in the four Gospels, we thus picture to ourselves the succession of events. As the band reached the Garden, Judas went somewhat in advance of them, and reached Jesus just as He had roused the three and was preparing to go and meet His captors. He saluted Him, ‘Hail, Rabbi,’ so as to be heard by the rest, and not only kissed but covered Him with kisses, kissed Him repeatedly, loudly, effusively. The Saviour submitted to the indignity, not stopping, but only saying as He passed on: ‘Friend, that for which thou art here;’ 49 50 and then, perhaps in answer to his questioning gesture: ‘Judas, with a kiss deliverest thou up the Son of Man?’ 51 If Judas had wished, by thus going in advance of the band and saluting the Master with a kiss, even now to act the hypocrite and deceive Jesus and the disciples, as if he had not come with the armed men, perhaps only to warn Him of their approach, what the Lord said must have reached his inmost being. Indeed, it was the first mortal shaft in the soul of Judas. The only time we again see him, till he goes on what ends in his self-destruction, is as he stands, as it were sheltering himself, with the armed men.
It is at this point, as we suppose, that the notices from St. John’s Gospel come in. Leaving the traitor, and ignoring the signal which he had given them, Jesus advanced to the band, and asked them: ‘Whom seek ye?’ To the brief spoken, perhaps somewhat contemptuous, ‘Jesus the Nazarene,’ He replied with infinite calmness and majesty: ‘I am He.’ The immediate effect of these words was, we shall not say magical, but Divine. They had no doubt been prepared for quite other: either compromise, fear, or resistance. But the appearance and majesty of that calm Christ – heaven in His look and peace on His lips – was too overpowering in its effects on that untutored heathen soldiery, who perhaps cherished in their hearts secret misgivings of the work they had in hand. The foremost of them went backward, and they fell to the ground. But Christ’s hour had come. And once more He now asked them the same question as before, and, on repeating their former answer, He said: ‘I told you that I am He; if therefore ye seek Me, let these go their way,’ – the Evangelist seeing in this watchful care over His own the initial fulfilment of the words which the Lord had previously spoken concerning their safe preservation, not only in the sense of their outward preservation, but in that of their being guarded from such temptations as, in their then state, they could not have endured.
The words of Christ about those that were with Him seem to have recalled the leaders of the guard to full consciousness – perhaps awakened in them fears of a possible rising at the incitement of His adherents. Accordingly, it is here that we insert the notice of St. Matthew, and of St. Mark, that they laid hands on Jesus and took Him. Then it was that Peter, seeing what was coming, drew the sword which he carried, and putting the question to Jesus, but without awaiting His answer, struck at Malchus, the servant of the High-Priest – perhaps the Jewish leader of the band – cutting off his ear. But Jesus immediately restrained all such violence, and rebuked all self-vindication by outward violence (the taking of the sword that had not been received) – nay, with it all merely outward zeal, pointing to the fact how easily He might, as against this ‘cohort,’ have commanded Angelic legions. He had in wrestling Agony received from His Father that Cup to drink, and the Scriptures must in that wise be fulfilled. And so saying, He touched the ear of Malchus, and healed him.
But this faint appearance of resistance was enough for the guard. Their leaders now bound Jesus. It was to this last, most underserved and uncalled-for indignity that Jesus replied by asking them, why they had come against Him as against a robber – one of those wild, murderous Sicarii. Had He not been all that week daily in the Temple, teaching? Why not then seize
Him? But this ‘hour’ of theirs that had come, and ‘the power of darkness’ – this also had been foretold in Scripture!
And as the ranks of the armed men now closed around the bound Christ, none dared to stay with Him, lest they also should be bound as resisting authority. So they all forsook Him and fled. But there was one there who joined not in the flight, but remained, a deeply interested onlooker. When the soldiers had come to seek Jesus in the Upper Chamber of his home, Mark, roused from sleep, had hastily cast about him the loose linen garment or wrapper 66 that lay by his bedside, and followed the armed band to see what would come of it. He now lingered in the rear, and followed as they led away Jesus, never imagining that they would attempt to lay hold on him, since he had not been with the disciples nor yet in the Garden. But they, 67 perhaps the Jewish servants of the High-Priest, had noticed him. They attempted to lay hold on him, when, disengaging himself from their grasp, he left his upper garment in their hands, and fled.
So ended the first scene in the terrible drama of that night.