The Lord's Day Morning
September 4, 2011
“While They Were Sleeping”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 22 as we continue our way through this gospel together. We are, this morning, on holy ground as we come upon the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke, simply says, that we are on the Mount of Olives. The other gospels tell us that it's not only on the Mount of Olives but in the Garden. The other gospels give us details that Luke does not give us because he compacts the narrative and focuses us in on specific things, and at the same time, Luke tells us some things here that the other gospel writers do not tell us. Luke alone, for instance, tells us of the angel sent from God to strength the Lord Jesus in the Garden, and in this way, wants to focus us on the titanic heart struggle that is going on in our Savior in that Garden. The other gospels tell us that as Jesus and the disciples got to the Garden, that eight of the disciples stayed out at the entrance and sort of served as centuries to protect Jesus and His inner circle and that His three closest disciples went in with Him and then He drew away just a little bit from them. The other gospels tell us that Jesus prayed three times and interacted with His disciples on those occasions, and Luke focuses in on some specific things, again, compacting that narrative so that we will learn some great lessons from it.
Now I need to say one other thing about this passage. It's also very clear that Luke – and you see this because Luke begins the passage by Jesus exhorting His disciples to do what? Stay awake and pray. And He ends the passage, having noted the disciples had not stayed awake and prayed, with another exhortation to stay awake and pray, and immediately after exhorting them to stay awake and pray, He depicts Jesus doing what? Staying awake and praying. So it's very clear that one of the things that Luke wants us to get out of this passage is a very important principle for the Christian life — to always stay awake and pray. Now in so doing he shows us an example of the Lord Jesus Christ doing that.
It's important for us to remember that in the nineteenth century it was popular, especially amongst liberal theologians, to summarize the Gospel as “Be like Jesus” or “Do what Jesus does.” And that, of course, is not the Gospel. And Bible-believing, evangelical preachers have, for a hundred years, been responding to that particular presentation of the Gospel, “Be like Jesus. Do what Jesus does,” with a response that that's not the Gospel, and if that is the Gospel we're all in trouble because we're not like Jesus and we don't do what Jesus did. And you know what? There are some things that Jesus did that we can't do and couldn't do. But I've noticed in the last ten years, in the midst of that helpful corrective against a gospel which is no Gospel, that many have decided that there is to be no example drawn from what Jesus has done in the Bible. And of course that's unbiblical in and of itself. For instance, the passage that Josh read for us from Hebrews chapter 12 clearly calls upon believers to look at Jesus and draw encouragement from His example.
The same thing is happening in this passage. They key is this — Jesus is never a mere example. There are some things that Jesus does that we cannot do, and praise God that we cannot do them, because the Gospel is not, “Do this and Jesus will save you,” it is “Jesus has done this to save you. Jesus has borne in His own body on the tree the weight and punishment of your sin. You could not have borne that. You could not have done that. He has done it for you.” And the Gospel is not, “You do,” it's, “You have been done for.” At the same time, we in the Christian life are called to do things, and one of the most important things we're called to do is pray. And Jesus so kindly gives us an example of that in this passage, and of course we're to follow that example, of course we're to be encouraged by it. But He is not merely an example to follow. He is a Savior who has, by His blood, taken our punishment on Himself that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. So bear that in mind as we read this passage. The passage is about Jesus and about what He has done that we could not do, but it also has for us in it an exhortation, an exhortation to pray and watch. So bear that in mind as we read God's Word. Let's pray before we read it.
Heavenly Father, as we go into the Garden, into this holy place, we feel like Moses before the burning bush. We hear the angels say, “Take off your shoes, for the place where on you are standing is holy ground.” Lord, speak to us of deep and true and important things here. Make us to stand in hushed silence and stupefaction in the face of the agonies of our Savior, but teach us things even from this that will do us good in the testings and the troubles of this life and will bring you glory. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
If you’d look with me at Luke 22 beginning in verse 39, this is the Word of God:
“And He came out and went, as was His custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed Him. And when He came to the place, He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ And He withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but yours, be done.’ And there appeared to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when He rose from prayer, He came to His disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and He said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Jesus has left the Upper Room in Jerusalem and walked with His disciples about fifteen minutes to the Mount of Olives. He had been doing, we are told in the gospels, He had been doing this each night during the week. You can imagine — Jerusalem is packed, there's no accommodation to be had for lodging within the city within Passover week. He and His disciples had been staying out on the Mount of Olives. The language is used, “They had been lodging on the Mount of Olives.” Now whether that meant that they were sleeping under the stars on the hillside and that was their lodging or whether there was a place with a little bit more comfort, I don't know, but that's where they had been staying. And you need to take this in my friends. Jesus knows that He is going to be betrayed. He's already told His disciples that He is going to be betrayed and He knows where He is going to be betrayed and He knows that His betrayer knows that He's been going back to the Mount of Olives every night that week and where does He go? He goes right back there. There is a world of theology in that. It's not how we react when we're scared. If we're scared we're going to find trouble in one place we avoid that place and we often do not pray. Jesus does not avoid the place but He does pray.
And so they go to the Garden and Jesus enlists in a great contest, a contest of heart, which He plays out in prayer with His Heavenly Father. Luke tells us some rather striking things. For one thing, Luke tells us that He knelt and prayed. Now that does not surprise us because Christians have been kneeling for prayer for two thousand years now, but that was not the common posture of prayer for Jewish people in Jesus’ day. The common posture of prayer for Jewish people in Jesus’ day was standing with your eyes lifted up to heaven and your arms outstretched. Have you ever wondered why preachers stand up and do that at certain times of the service? That's just the common posture of prayer. You can find Moses doing it; you can find the prophets doing it. It's a common posture of prayer. In fact, there are some parts of the world today where that's still the common posture of prayer. Do you know how you would get a congregation of Presbyterians to stand in Scotland, even to this day? All you have to do is say three words, “Let us pray,” and immediately those Presbyterians will be off their feet and they’ll be standing as you pray. And that's all you have to do in a worship service in Scotland to get them to stand up. “Let us pray,” and up they go! And so when Luke tells you that Jesus is kneeling in prayer he's telling you something unusual. This is an unusually strenuous prayer and exercise that Jesus is undertaking.
THE EXHORTATION JESUS
And I want us to see several things from this passage today because it is a passage that reminds us how utterly dependent we are on Jesus and on what He has done for us and on what He does for us. But I want to begin with an exhortation that He Himself gives twice in this passage and many other times to His disciples and you’ll see that in verse 41. In verse 41, at the end of verse 40 and in verse 41, He exhorts His disciples to, “pray that they may not enter into temptation,” and then He proceeds to pray. And we see from this that Jesus is showing us here what we are to do in times of trouble and testing. Now let me say why I say that's so very clear that Luke wants us to get. Jesus, first of all, in verse 40 tells the disciples that He wants them to, “pray that they may not enter into temptation,” and He means by that especially the testing that they are about endure. Isn't it interesting that Jesus Himself is carrying the cares of the world on His shoulders and He's still thinking about His disciples’ wellbeing? He knows that in the testing and the trouble and the trial that He is going to undertake in the next few days, in the new few hours, that they too are going to undergo a testing and a trial, and He knows that when the Sanhedrin's main opponent is out of the way, Him, Jesus, they’re still going to be coming after His disciples. And He wants them to be prepared for the tests, the trouble, the trial that they’re going to go through, and so He exhorts them to pray.
And then He Himself gives them an example of it, that as He faces His great test, He prays. And then when they fail to do it, He exhorts them again at the end of the passage. It's clear that one thing that Luke wants us to get out of this whole scene is how we as believers are to respond in time of trouble. And of course there's nothing original to that thought to this passage. In both the Old Testament and the New, there is a regular pattern of believers going to the Lord in prayer in times of trouble. So for instance, in Psalm 50 verse 15, the Lord tells us, “Call upon Me in time of trouble and I will deliver you.” In Isaiah 48:13, “I am oppressed, O Lord; undertake for me.” In James 5:13, James says, “Is any of you afflicted? Let him pray.” This pattern holds for the people of God. In times of trouble, let us pray. And yet so often when we are in deep trouble there are things that prevent us from going to God in prayer.
I want to say to you that one of the few urgings that you should never ever resist in life is the urge to pray. There are many urges that need to be resisted but not that one. You may be sure that when you are prompted to pray it is either of the Holy Spirit's doing that you have been prompted to pray or that He is pleased with it that you have been prompted to pray. And you ought never ever resist that urging, never ever resist that prompting. But when you are discouraged from praying by arguments in your head and your heart as to why you ought not to pray, you may also assume that that discouragement comes from the evil one who does not want you to pray in time of trouble. And here is Jesus saying to His disciples, “In the face of your testing, in the face of the trial to come, in the face of your trouble, in the face of the temptation, pray! That's how you are ready to meet it.” And so we learn from this passage that in times of trouble the Lord would have us pray and He shows it from His own example.
THE EXAMPLE OF JESUS
And not only does He exhort us to pray here, He even tells us how we ought to pray. Jesus shows us how to pray, what to pray, in times of trouble in this passage. Look again with me to verse 32. Notice that Jesus prays, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me.” Now I want to pause right there and say Jesus had been appointed before the foundation of the world to drink that cup. He knew what the Father's will for Him to do was, and yet He prays to the Father, “If it is possible, remove this cup from Me.” I want to say to you my friends, there is no hopeless petition that you cannot bring to your Heavenly Father. If God will hear that petition from His Son, there is no petition, however hopeless you may think it is, that you cannot bring before your Heavenly Father.
But then, look at the next part of the prayer, “Nevertheless, not My will but Your will be done.” Every prayer that the believer offers in time of trouble or at any other time is to be in the spirit of the desire that God's will would be done. Jesus has modeled for us how to pray. Of course, He taught the disciples this months and months before when they said, “Lord, we're so struck by the way You pray. You talk to God like You know Him. Your prayers are filled with Scripture. Tell us how we pray. Please, teach us.” And Jesus, you remember, as a part of that prayer said, “Pray, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’” And here, Jesus practices what He had preached. And He teaches us that we are always to pray, “Your will be done.”
You know one of the things that may surprise you is that, very often in the course of a quarter century of ministry, Brister Ware has been praying with people in situations of trouble where there is someone who is sick, there is someone who is dying, there is someone in a very difficult position, and he has had people say, “I want you to pray that my husband will be healed.” “I want you to pray that my wife will be healed.” “I want you to pray that this will be changed or that will be done.” And they will also say to him, “And do not pray, ‘Your will be done.’” He's literally been told, “Do not pray…” because it's basically the charge is, “That's your escape hatch. If you pray that, you don't have enough faith. I want to pray that God would do this. We’re not going to pray any of this, “Your will be done” stuff. Now let me just say publically, Brister will always pray, “Your will be done” because his Savior told him to do that. Okay? I just want you to know that. It's never inappropriate for a believer to pray, “Your will be done,” and there is no force in this universe who can tell a believer that he or she can't pray, “Your will be done.” That's what our Savior taught! That's what our Savior did! The key to understanding this whole passage, is what's going on in the Garden, is Jesus’ struggle to yield a willing sacrifice to God. He was called to do God's will and the very thought of what was going to be cost to Him to do that terrified Him, but He wanted His sacrifice to be willing. And so the very crux of this passage is the prayer, “Your will be done.”
You know it is possible that there are unbelievers in our midst who think of believers as simpletons who never ever struggle with doubt because we pray in times of trouble and we look to God for help in times of trouble and you think that we really don't know anything about doubt. You’re the one in your unbelief that understands the struggles of doubt. But I want to say to you, believers know struggles with doubt so deep and dark that you couldn't even comprehend them, but we also know peace and assurance that is more complex and more certain than you could possibly grasp, and it has to do precisely with this petition that Jesus is lifting up, “Your will be done.” So Jesus shows us how to pray in times of trouble.
THE AGONY OF JESUS
But then, if you’ll look especially at verses 42 and 44, we come to the crux of this whole passage. Jesus, in praying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me,” and then if you’ll look at verse 44, “And being in agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” Jesus takes us here into the inner sanctum of His own agony. And by the way, this is the only place in the New Testament of which we find spoken the agony of Jesus. This is it. He takes us into the inner sanctum of that agony and He shows us what causes that agony. And it is not merely the excruciating physical suffering that He is going to face the next day. And how do we know that? We know that because of the language that He uses. He says, “Father, take this cup from Me.”
Now the idea of a cup has definite content associated with it repeatedly in the Old Testament. Let me just give you three examples. In Psalm 11 verse 6, the psalmist speaks of the fire and the sulfur and the scorching wind that is poured out of the cup of the Lord's judgment. In Ezekiel 23:33, Ezekiel tells us of the horror and the desolation that is stored up in the cup of God's judgment. In Isaiah 51:17, Isaiah speaks of the cup of God's wrath which He will pour out to the dregs. And Jesus, here, understands that cup and its contents like no human being and no angel, elect or fallen, understands. He understands the contents of that cup and He understands that He is about to drink it. And it leads Him, Luke tells us, to agony, sheer agony; an agony that you cannot understand.
I want to pause right now and I want to say that because you’re so kind to open your hearts and lives to me that some of you have found yourselves in situations in life that are filled with agony. And that's real. And you feel alone in those things and there is a real aloneness about many of those things – that you’re alone in the world going through those places. Well I want you to understand that Jesus is here in an agony that none of us in this room understand, and He is alone in a way that none of us can understand. He's even alone in the sense that His inner circle of disciples — Peter, James, and John, who've been taken in to stay with Him to pray — are asleep. And while they were sleeping, He is experiencing this excruciating agony of soul as He contemplates bearing the wrath of God and drinking to the dregs the cup of the wrath of God. So don't ever think your Savior doesn't understand your agony and your aloneness in it. No, it's actually the other way around. You don't understand His agony and His aloneness in it. And this is one reason why Luke is showing us the Garden of Gethsemane.
But do you understand that the great struggle that is going on here is that the sacrifice of atonement that is going to be offered tomorrow has to be a willing sacrifice. And the Savior is fighting in His heart, not only to say, “Father, I do what You have sent Me to do,” but “Father, I yield My will to Your will, so that what I do, I do because I want to do Your will.” And is that not the great battle with sin that we all face? In sin, we are tempted to think that the thing that will give us satisfaction is the thing that God has told us not to do. And Satan tells us the only way to get your satisfaction is to do your will, not His. And the great battle of sin is to realize, “No, no, no, no, it's what God has told me that seems so hard to do – Lord, I can't forgive her; Lord, I can't love him; Lord, I can't go on in this circumstance, even though You tell me to, even though You tell me to, even though You tell me to.” The great battle is what? To say, “Lord, it's Your will. I know it's Your will, but it's my will too! I want to do what You tell me to do!” And this is the battle that Jesus is fighting in the Garden — to give Himself willingly into the Lord's will which will involve His crushing, and He knows it, and He knows it better than any of us in this room will ever know it, even after a billion years in glory. He knows what this will cost Him and He wants to want to do it for you. And while He's doing it, there was not a single solitary soul in the world praying with Him and for Him.
You know there's a passage at the end of 2 Timothy in chapter 4 where Paul mentions that when he finally got before the Roman proconsul to be judged that no one stood with him. And I was preaching on that passage a couple of years ago and Sinclair Ferguson just asked me what I was preaching on, on a particular occasion. I told him it was that passage and he said to me — took the words right out of my mouth before I could say them myself — he said, “You know, that's one of the saddest passages in all of the Scripture. Paul should not have been alone in that moment.” And then he said, “But you know, in that he was just like his Savior.” And he was. The Savior was doing this for you. He was fighting this battle of heart to offer a willing sacrifice, and no one was praying with Him.
THE TENDERNESS OF JESUS
And then there's one last thing and you see it in verses 45 and 46. When Jesus gets up from this great battle and the battle is won, He walks back out to His disciples and He finds them sleeping. Now Luke is actually very kind to them. Luke tells us they were “sleeping for sorrow.” I understand that. Have you ever been so tired, so overborne, so burdened, that the only escape that you've had from the weariness of soul was sleep? That's where the disciples were. And Luke tells us they were “sleeping for sorrow.” And the Lord Jesus does not come with some ripping rebuke, He says, “Brothers, get up, wake up, rise and pray!” And once again for the second time He says, “because of the temptation that you’re about to face.” You know, there's no, “Couldn't you have just hung with Me in prayer?! I'm trying to save your souls here! Couldn't you just hang with Me with a few petitions?!” It's, “Brothers, I'm concerned about the testing that you’re going to face. Wake up; pray!”
And you know what Luke is displaying for us in technicolor? He's displaying the weakness of the disciples and our weakness, and the tenderness of the Savior and the fact that even when He gives the exhortation, “Stay awake and pray,” and by the way, by the way — do you remember what He told the disciples in Luke 21:36? Take a look at it. It's at the end of His preparation of them for the trials that they are going to face in the end. And here's His practical conclusion — Luke 21:36. “So, stay awake at all times and pray.” And here we are in the Garden and what are they doing? They are sleeping and they are not praying. But Jesus is not sleeping and He is praying.
Dear Christian friend, who trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ, who rests on Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel, even when you fail to heed the Lord's exhortation to stay awake and pray, He does not fail you. He stays awake and prays when you do not, and that makes for you an eternal difference. “He who watches over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.” And your Savior ever watches over you, and that is why nothing can pluck you from His hand, and that is why the Gospel is not about your doing, it is that you have been done for by Jesus.
Our Lord, we need to dwell in Gethsemane for a while and marvel that the loving Father did not place His Son in Eden, but in the agony of this place that we might enter into a Garden better than Eden with Him for eternity. O Lord, let us revel in how great He is – He is inestimately great. And how loving He is – He is incalculably loving. And how constant He is for us in the Gospel – let us look to Him, the author and finisher of our faith, and run the race with endurance. We pray it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you take your bulletin and turn with me to the worship guide? We’ll sing, “Go to Dark Gethsemane” and then we’ll wait for the segue and sing, “Much We Talk of Jesus’ Blood.”
Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, receive this blessing from God that you have through the loving and sweating and groaning and dying of your Savior. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Amen.