I heard a sermon not too long ago, one that stands in fine tradition alongside many similar sermons, in which the pastor went to considerable length to describe the agony of Jesus’ experience on the cross. There were details concerning all the inhumanities the Lord suffered as he hung there, his body slowly failing.
Had that been where he stopped, it would have been a fine sermon. There is no question of the grotesque brutality of what Jesus or anyone else who suffered crucifixion went through. But the pastor went on. He wanted to really drive home how our Lord had anguished, so he reached a little further into scripture and in the process turned Jesus into a wimp.
To further his point, this pastor jumped back before the crucifixion to Gethsemane; to the scene where Jesus prays in the garden, his disciples quietly snoring behind him, as he begs God to take the cup, his blood-sweat dripping to the ground. Ok, where does he call Jesus a wimp? I took pause when he began to describe the situation in the garden. He said that the blood in Jesus’ sweat in the garden demonstrates his fear at the pain he was going to face on the cross, and he went on to elaborate. In short, Jesus was afraid because the cross was going to hurt … a lot.
At that point, my mind started operating overtime. “Hold on. Did you just say Jesus was scared? That he feared the pain? Can that even happen? Jesus is God, right? The Bible repeats again and again, ‘Fear not, God is with you.’ And Jesus was praying right then wasn’t he? God is perfect love, and perfect love casts out fear, and Jesus is God, and with God in trinity, and fear is about being uncertain, and God knows everything, and…” This could go on all day. The point is that the thought that Jesus might be afraid made me start to question, really… how?
So I took a closer look at the text, and it seems pretty clear. If Jesus is not afraid, he’s at least stressed out of his gourd! The man was sweating blood! Sweat alone would have been remarkable; the hill country of Israel is not known for warm spring midnights.
But sweating blood. Does that even happen?
Believe it or not, it does. Doctors call it Hematidrosis. It’s really quite rare, so rare that doctors are not entirely sure how it works, but people who have the condition are generally experiencing extreme stress while trying to do things that require thought, like trying to survive or something. Which means it may not be as rare as we think, but most of the people who experience this condition probably don’t overcome whatever it is they are stressed about to tell us about it. Anyway, they are controlling their fear with their reason.
While most of us might not be struggling for our lives, we all understand what it means to control our emotions in this way. We call it bottling them up. We create a disconnect between our emotions and logic which eventually causes our bodies to rebel. Sometimes it’s a nervous stomach. Sometimes it’s high blood pressure, which when chronic becomes heart disease. And sometimes, it’s sweating blood.
Any counselor will tell you bottling up your stress is unhealthy. But I don’t think Jesus had much choice here; I mean, weight of the world and all. But it is telling that the one who lets us know that this was happening is Luke, the doctor. He was probably drawing his information from similar sources as the other gospel writers, eyewitness accounts and the like, but he understood that this detail, overlooked by others, would help drive home just how stressed out Jesus was; help show us a little more of his humanity. Which means that there is benefit to us in analyzing Jesus’ stress and fear.
So let’s look at that stress itself. In the midst of his prayer, Jesus says, “Take this cup from me,” and “not my will but thine.” My rough paraphrase here, “God, I don’t want to do this, but I will do what you want me to.” He is praying and asking for his coming trial to go away, even knowing that it won’t.
Can he get more human? We’ve all experienced the night before the trial, whatever it may be, a big exam or work presentation, a big move or performance. We want the result, but don’t want the process. This is why Jesus was so concerned when the disciples he brought out to the garden with him in the middle of the night were falling asleep? He wanted company to help him through the ordeal of anticipation.
Which looks a lot like worry, something Jesus outright forbade at several other points. But if ever there was a place for worry, this is it, right? I mean, he knows that in the coming 48 hours he will be arrested, tried, mocked incessantly, beaten, tortured, and then die!
But is the looming threat of death really what is causing Jesus to do something that is at least borderline what he told us not to do? Do I actually agree with this pastor and am I writing this post for no reason?
Not at all. Luke put this here to help clarify that Jesus is afraid, but he is demonstrating sanctified fear to us. In his humanity Jesus should have felt fear, but that in no way diminishes his divinity. Elsewhere we see him angry and sad; fear is no less appropriate an emotion for someone who is wholly human to feel.
But how can fear be sinless? Jesus does command us not to worry. The Bible repeatedly admonishes us to “cast out fear.” Isn’t “fear not” the most oft repeated command?
Fear, devoid of its more extreme reactions, is simply the anticipation of discomfort. Webster’s says, “reason for alarm.” One is aware that a coming situation involves risk and/or the likelihood of being out of sorts, perhaps severely. This could be physical discomfort. It could be mental challenge. It could be emotionally taxing. It could be all three. Whatever the uncomfortable situation, the knowledge that it is coming is fear.
And we know Jesus is knowledgeable. He knew perfectly well what he was getting into, which would certainly be physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging, but was that cause for the physical reaction to stress that we see in the garden? When we know for sure that pain is coming, do we react this way? There are a number of instances in which have been aware of coming pain and suffering, getting a tooth out at the dentist, conditioning in August for the high school soccer team, watching the clock slowly tick by as I held my first newborn while my wife was still in surgery. But as fearful and anxious as I might have been in any of those situations, I have never once been so stressed as to sweat blood. Furthermore, I have known myriads of people in far more stressful situations who did not sweat blood.
Now you might say, “Ah, but you were not facing death.” Though I cannot be said to have known that (conditioning for soccer in August feels pretty close to death) it is true that at best I can only argue that the possibility of death existed, whereas for Jesus the outcome was certain.
But Jesus was not the only person on Golgotha that day, and he is not the only person who ever knowingly was coerced into his own death. And as far as I am aware, he is the only person on record to have ever been stressed to the point of sweating blood in such proximity to his impending death. This brings us to the crux of our problem and where the pastor erred. If, as he said, Jesus’ emotions indicated that he was really scared of his coming death, one of two conclusions must be drawn: Jesus knew that death is far more terrifying than anyone had ever suspected – or – Jesus was not as tough as literally anybody else who has ever faced an unfair death.
The thought that death might legitimately be so terrifying as to cause the Lord of creation to freak out is, considering death’s inevitability, a horrifying thought, but it is also one that does not hold up to the evidence from Jesus himself. Just off the top of my head, 1. He describes death at numerous points as sleeping. 2. If death was so frightening, why would he have brought anyone back? He would have told Mary and Martha, “I miss him too, but trust me, you don’t want to put him through this twice. It’s not fun.” So this thought does not hold up to the evidence.
Which leaves the idea that Jesus is just a big wimp.
Which means that Jesus could not have been scared of death itself.
So, if we have established that Jesus was afraid, even holy fear, what was he afraid of?
Let’s look again at his words in the garden. I said earlier that he told us. “Take this cup from me.” Many have described that cup as God’s Wrath, based on the prophets. We can accept that. Since this “cup” is what he speaks out on during his moment of anguish, begging God to take it away, and ultimately resigning himself to it, it is pretty clear that he fears, “the wrath of God.” But what is it?
The Bible often describes the wrath of God in very picturesque terms, trampled grapes, fire and darkness, destruction and chaos. Wrath itself is the proper response to a wrong done, and in light of sin, it is fitting that we (humanity) should be subject to his wrath. Further, knowing what we do of soteriology, it is clear that Jesus would face that wrath, but what is God’s wrath that Jesus might fear it?
It is possible to argue that Jesus’ death itself was the culmination of God’s wrath, but unless you are a hyper determinist, it was mankind that put him on the cross, not God. And while the torn veil, walking dead, earthquakes, and the like, seem in line with the picturesque imagery of scripture on the subject of God’s wrath, these were apparently physical results of his death itself, not elements of a punishment directed at Jesus, who by then was already dead anyway.
So maybe that was it, afterwards, in his “descent to Hell?” Even assuming a more popular understanding of Hell, which I don’t accept, would a couple nights getting poked and stabbed by demons really be fitting punishment for the aggregate sins of billions of people? I’m pretty sure I deserve more than that, not to mention a Hitler, Stalin, or Genghis Khan.
To be serious, I don’t think any genuine theologians would accept such a hell or that the wrath of God should be manifest in such a way, as if the Father were some petulant toddler who had to break things to be satisfied.
No, the way that most would sum up the wrath of God is to be dismissed from God’s presence, “the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power.” Like the goats in one of Jesus’ stories, or the virgins in another.
So if the cup Jesus seeks to avoid is God’s wrath, and God’s wrath is to be cut off from God, could we rightly say that the thing Jesus most feared, the source of his holy anxiety, was the certain knowledge that he would be cut off from God? Ok, but how could part of the Trinity be separated from the other parts? Is that what the Bible is saying?
It looks that way. “Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabachtani?” These are the words Jesus called out on the cross, in his moment of agony. There were seven crucifixion statements, and this one is the only one repeated in two gospels. Furthermore, they gave it to us in Aramaic, meaning that, like letting us know God is abba, this was a truly important component to understanding him.
Then they translated it for us, meaning that they really want us to get this. And hence, we translate it into English most commonly as, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” which is unfortunate.
You see, for most native English speakers, we get that being “forsaken” is bad. We name books and video games Forsaken, because it is dark and sinister. But then ask people what it means, and they’ll probably say something like, “Why do you curse me?” or “punish me?” Or if they are English majors, they might say “abandon” but, even if they know that fairly close synonym, they would still understand this to mean, like the pastor’s error in the garden, that Jesus’ pain is severe.
The problem is forsake is not a common word but rather a specialized word, even back when it was more commonly used a few centuries ago. Now it is pretty much just a Bible word. The Aramaic verb Sabach here is actually quite common and fairly simple. So what does it mean?
Most common words tend to pick up a lot of nuance; but usually a base meaning actually covers most instances of the term. When translating, it is always worthwhile to consider that most basic meaning.
Which in this case is, “to leave.” In Aramaic, when somebody leaves work for the day, they sabach. When a wife left her husband, she sabach-ed. If I got tired of a get together with friends, I might say, “I am sabach-ing now.”
When was the last time one of us forsook a boring party?
In light of that, how should we translate Jesus’ statement in the most basic and understandable way? “My God, My God, why did you leave me?”
My sons have security blankets. I could spend a post talking about why, but suffice it to say that it is difficult for them to sleep without one. The absence of the blanket inspires fear.
It is way too simplistic to think of God as Jesus’ security blanket, but there is little else in our experience, other than things essential to our existence, that we could actually do without and approach the most basic emotion Jesus was feeling here. Without their blankets, my children might be sad, angry, scared, and anxious, and while they would not be the only ones to get a sleepless night, they would survive. In some ways, it would be more apt to compare the absence of God in Jesus’ life to the absence of oxygen in ours.
Jesus, the man, for the whole of his life, had never known anything but the presence of God. From his mother’s womb to the nails entering his wrists, He had always had the company of the rest of the Trinity. Indeed, from before time began, Jesus, the Word of God had existed as a part of that Divine Economy. And yet here we have the God/man on the cross experiencing something that neither aspect of his being had ever experienced.
The wrath of God had to be satisfied. Man, and indeed all fallen creation had to be fully separated from the life sustaining existence that is God the Father. And it is here, in the absence of the orderly sustenance of God, that the gloomier pictures of his wrath start to take shape. If there were a way for humanity to somehow persist without his guiding hand, somehow “be” outside of “Being” would it be in any manner except chaos and destruction? One might say that the only thing that could survive the absence of God would be God Himself.
In light of the emotional toll as well as these metaphysical realities of Trinitarian separation that we can only barely conceive of, Jesus’ fear in the garden begins to make perfect sense. Jesus is facing not simply the absence of a presence that it is basically inconceivable that he should be without, but also very plausibly the prospect of sustaining by himself, for at least some period, the whole of creation (and all this while dead). He is about to be alone in a way that none of us has ever felt, because we simply cannot feel it, and this will all be preceded by what all of us would easily recognize as a no good, very bad day. Is it any wonder the earth shook and the dead took to the streets?
Jesus is no wimp. He suffered something that literally no one else who has ever lived or will ever live could suffer, something which somehow impacted and continues to impact forever a being that cannot be impacted, because there is in our world a point in time where the timeless one experienced separation from Himself. That was the cost of our redemption. That is the length he would go to in order to be with us. Think about that the next time a pastor passionately describes Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane.