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WHY SO LITTLE PREACHING ON GETHSEMANE TODAY?

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached on Lord’s Day Evening, April 2, 2006
at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles

“Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder” (Matthew 26:36).


I have never heard a sermon on Gethsemane. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons since I started going to a Baptist church 52 years ago. But I have never heard one on Gethsemane. I have heard sermons on Heaven, sermons on Hell, sermons on soul-winning, sermons on the miracles of Christ, expository sermons from the epistles, many sermons from the Book of Revelation, sermons from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, the historical books of the Bible, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the major and minor prophets, sermons on theology, the spiritual gifts, evangelism, church growth, self-help, motivation, Christmas, Easter, Passover, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, even Halloween, and scores of other subjects - but I have never heard anyone preach a sermon on Gethsemane.

That struck me as odd when I thought about it the other night. After all the Bible has quite a bit to say about Gethsemane. It is mentioned in all four of the Gospels. Twenty-one verses are devoted to it in the Gospel of Matthew. Another twenty-one verses tell about it in Mark. Fifteen verses describe it in Luke. And even John, who has the least of all to say, devoted eleven verses to it. So it is certainly not for lack of Biblical material that so few sermons are preached on Gethsemane. Nor is it for lack of preaching material from the past. Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, gave no less than five complete sermons on this subject, and referred to it repeatedly in his other sermons. Spurgeon’s sermons devoted solely to the subject are titled, “Christ in Gethsemane,” “Gethsemane,” “The Garden of the Soul,” “The Agony in the Garden,” and “The Betrayal,” but he spoke of it often, and at length, in a great many sermons. So often did Spurgeon refer to this subject that if all the references, as well as the complete sermons he gave on it, were put together it would make a whole book. Maybe I’ll do that some day. It could be called, “Spurgeon Speaks on Gethsemane.” I think we need a book like that.

But why is there so little preaching today on this subject, which has such a prominent place in the Bible, and to which so many sermons were devoted in the past? Why so few today? I suggest three reasons.

I. First, sermons today tend to be shallow, but Gethsemane is deep.

Today it’s a Bible verse or two, a couple of stories, nothing much to grip the soul, nothing to disturb anyone or upset anyone’s feelings. “The sheep must be fed,” they say, but too often they are fed tasteless pablum. Do you remember what pablum actually tasted like when you were a little kid? Why, it had no taste at all! And so it is with most sermons today - no taste, no depth, nothing to strain the mind - or the heart.

But Gethsemane is deep - and dark. After our Lord had eaten the Passover meal in an upper room with His twelve Disciples, He celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them. Then Judas went out to betray Him, “and it was night” (John 13:30). Jesus took the remaining eleven Disciples out of the room, down the side of the mountain on the east of Jerusalem, across the Brook Cedron, up the side of the Mount of Olives, and into the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. He left eight of the Disciples near the entrance to the Garden, but took Peter, James and John farther in, close to the place where He would pray. He went alone, farther into the darkness of the Garden. He came under great agony as He suffered and wrestled in prayer.

Perhaps that gives us two of the reasons for lack of preaching on Gethsemane - it’s about suffering and prayer. People don’t want to hear about suffering - their own or anyone else’s. And they certainly don’t want to hear about prayer. It is an all-but-forgotten subject. Few people attend prayer meeting - if there is even such a thing - in most of our churches today. If there are a thousand people on Sunday morning, we should be surprised to see more than thirty or forty in prayer meeting. Most churches don’t even have a prayer meeting any more. All they have is perhaps a midweek Bible study, if that.

Suffering? They don’t want to hear about it. Some of the most inspiring things happening in the world today are among suffering Christians in the Third World. You can read about it at www.persecution.com.   But who is interested? Not many. Sermons tend to be shallow today. Gethsemane is dark - and deep. That’s the first reason we hear so little about it. As the Apostle Paul foretold,

“The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (II Timothy 4:3).

I believe we have reached that place in America, and in the Western world.

II. Second, sermons today tend to be motivational,
but Gethsemane is theological.

You might be able to motivate people by a shallow talk on Christ feeding the five thousand or walking on the water - but how do you motivate people with Gethsemane? Most people don’t even want to think about suffering, so you can’t use that. You don’t want them to sleep as the Disciples did, so you can’t use that. The account has nothing in it that can be adapted to a self-help message. So, it is forgotten today.

The message of Gethsemane is not a human message. It doesn’t have a human connection. It is theological, not motivational. It is about God and Christ, not about you and me. Look at Matthew 26:37-38. He

“began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death”
     (Matthew 26:37-38).

“Very heavy” - Spurgeon said, “Christ’s soul was sick and fainted…overwhelmed with grief.” Then turn to Mark 14:33. Here we read that He

“began to be sore amazed” (Mark 14:33).

“Sore amazed” means, said Spurgeon, “that he was astonished and surprised [and] his amazement went to an extremity of horror, such as men fall into when their hair stands on end and their flesh trembles."

Then read Mark 14:34.

“My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death” (Mark 14:34).

He was deeply grieved - to the point of death. Spurgeon said, “His pangs and anguish…only paused on the verge of death.”

Now turn to Luke 22:44. Let us stand and read that verse aloud.

“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

You may be seated. Spurgeon said, “This expression of the Holy Scripture sets forth, not a mere likeness to a thing, but the very thing itself. We believe, then, that Christ did really sweat blood…If you will notice, he not only sweat blood, but it was in great drops; the blood coagulated, and formed large masses. I cannot better express what is meant than by the word ‘gouts’ - big, heavy drops…when it is said ‘falling to the ground’ - it shows their copiousness, so that they not only stood upon the surface and were sucked up by his garments till he became like the red heifer which was slaughtered on that very spot, but the drops fell to the ground. Here he stands unrivaled. He was a man in good health, only about thirty years of age…but the mental pressure…so forced his frame to an unnatural excitement, that his pores sent forth great drops of blood which fell to the ground” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, number 493).

Now we should remember that all this happened to Christ before He was arrested. No human hand had been laid upon Him. We cannot, therefore, look to a physical reason for His agony in Gethsemane. Nor was it a conflict with Satan. Interestingly, Satan is not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Gethsemane. No, the agony, the bloody sweat, and the near death experience do not appear to be Satanic assaults.

I think that one of the reasons we hear so little preaching on Gethsemane is that Christ’s experience cannot be fully understood by the human mind. As the Puritan hymn writer Joseph Hart put it,

Much we talk of Jesus’ blood,
But, how little’s understood!
Of His sufferings so intense,
Angels have no perfect sense.
   (“Thine Unknown Sufferings” by Joseph Hart, 1712-1768).

We hear little of Gethsemane in our pulpits because so little attention is paid to His sufferings today. We don’t take time to ask ourselves why Christ went through such a horrible experience, without apparently being touched by Satan, and before He was arrested and tortured by human hands. Only the Bible can answer to us why the Son of man went through this suffering, so intense, so little understood, so incomprehensible to human reason.

III. Third, sermons today tend to focus on man’s work,
but Gethsemane focuses on Christ’s work.

I think one of the reasons we hear so few sermons on Gethsemane (or even on the crucifixion itself) is because preaching has been so deeply affected by “decisionism.” The old preachers focused on Christ’s work to save us. But, beginning with Finney, the focus turned from the work of Christ to the work of man. Now, instead of talking about what Jesus does to save us, we talk about what we need to do to “be saved.” So, the whole focus of preaching has changed - from what Christ did to save us, to what we need to do to save ourselves!

Since most sermons today speak of man’s work, rather than Christ’s work, little thought is given to the great doctrines of the atonement. And with so little thought about the atonement, Christ’s sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane become little more than an interesting story. Why bother with preaching a whole sermon on it? It’s just a part of the narrative of Christ’s life. That’s the thought of many.

But tonight I am telling you that the suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane lies at the very heart of the Christian message. Without some understanding of Gethsemane you cannot comprehend the gospel. The crucifixion and resurrection lack vital life and purpose unless one grasps the core meaning of Christ’s agony and bloody sweat in the Garden.

I think it was no mere accident that man’s ruin began in a garden - and that the beginning of man’s salvation began in another garden. Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane is the answer to Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden. And in that statement lies the central message of Gethsemane.

Why did Christ suffer such horrors in that garden? They were not inflicted by Satan. They were not inflicted by the Roman soldiers or the Jewish priests. Why, then, did He suffer so? Let Spurgeon give the answer. Spurgeon said,

I do not think that this great conflict [in Gethsemane] arose through our dear Master’s fear of death, nor yet through his fear of the physical pain and all the ignominy and shame that he was soon to endure. But, surely, the agony in Gethsemane was part of the great burden that was already resting upon him as his people’s Substitute; it was this that pressed his spirit down even unto the dust of death. He was to bear the full weight of it upon the cross, but I feel persuaded that the passion began in Gethsemane. You know that Peter writes, “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree,” but…he came up to the tree bearing that awful load, and still continued to bear it on the tree. You remember that Peter also writes, in the same verse, “by whose stripes ye were healed.” Those stripes did not fall upon Jesus when he was upon the cross, it was in Pilate’s judgment-hall that he was so cruelly scourged. I believe that he was bearing our sins…that the weight of them began to crush him with sevenfold force when he came to the olive-press [of Gethsemane], and that the entire mass rested upon him with infinite intensity when he was nailed to the cross, and so forced from him the agonizing cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (C. H. Spurgeon, “Christ in Gethsemane,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Pilgrim Publications, 1979 reprint, volume 56, p. 145).

Dr. Gill also, in his monumental and very helpful commentary, says plainly that Christ’s agony in the Garden was due to the weight of human sin placed on Him there. Commenting on the words in Matthew where Christ “began to be sorrowful and very heavy” (Matthew 26:37), Dr. Gill said,

His sorrows now began, for they did not end here, but on the cross; not that this was but a bare beginning of his sorrows, or that these were light in comparison of future ones; for they were very heavy, and indeed seem to be the heaviest of all… “and to be very heavy”; with the weight of the sins of his people (John Gill, D.D., An Exposition of the New Testament, The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1989 reprint, volume 1, p. 334).

Again, writing on Luke 22:44, concerning Christ’s Bloody sweat, Dr. Gill said,

It was not mere fear of death, and troubled mind, concerning that, which thus wrought on our Lord, but the sense he had of the sins of his people, which were imputed to him, and the curse of the righteous law of God, which he endured, and especially the wrath of God, which was let into his soul (John Gill, D.D., ibid., pp. 711-712).

These old Baptist preachers, Spurgeon and Dr. Gill, give us a far clearer picture of what happened in Gethsemane than most modern writers, who shrink back, and hesitate to tell us that our sins were placed on Jesus in the Garden, and that He became our sin bearer there, carrying our sins in His own body, the next day, to the Cross. I stand with Spurgeon and Gill. That is what happened to the Saviour in His dark hour of agony in Gethsemane. Indeed, what else but bearing our sins could have driven Jesus to such despair, and horror, to the point of sweating blood? Here, then, in the Garden of Gethsemane,

“The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

In the next few hours He would bear those sins from Gethsemane to the Cross.

“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows”
     (Isaiah 53:4),

from Gethsemane, through Pilate’s scourging, and then to the crucifixion itself.

No one ever expressed the “Unknown Sufferings” of Christ in Gethsemane more eloquently than that Blood-bought sinner turned hymn-writer, Joseph Hart (1712-1768).

Much we talk of Jesus’ blood,
But, how little’s understood!
Of his sufferings so intense,
Angels have no perfect sense.

Who can rightly comprehend
Their beginning or their end?
‘Tis to God and God alone
That their weight is fully known.

See the suffering Son of God,
Panting, groaning, sweating blood!
Boundless depths of love divine!
Jesus, what a love was thine!
   (“Thine Unknown Sufferings” by Joseph Hart, 1712-1768).

Now, my dear friend, do you see how far Gethsemane has removed us from the shallow thought that you might contribute something, or make some “decision,” that would help you get right with God? You have no contribution to make. Your “decisions” and “dedications” are nothing but cheap and worthless human works. Forget these modern man-made forms, and throw yourself on Jesus. He has done all the suffering needed to atone for your soul. He has paid the full price for your sin. Come to Him and all your filth is instantly removed by the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Come to Him tonight in simple faith and all will be well between you and God, for Jesus hath paid the full price for your salvation from sin. Will you come to Him tonight? I ask you to do so before we leave this building. Come to Jesus, “The Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”

(END OF SERMON)
You can read Dr. Hymers' sermons each week on the Internet
at www.realconversion.com. Click on "Sermon Manuscripts."


Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Matthew 26:36-39.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“Thine Unknown Sufferings” (by Joseph Hart, 1712-1768).


THE OUTLINE OF

WHY SO LITTLE PREACHING ON GETHSEMANE TODAY?

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.


“Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder” (Matthew 26:36).

I.   Sermons today tend to be shallow, but Gethsemane is deep,
John 13:30; II Timothy 4:3.

II.  Sermons today tend to be motivational, but Gethsemane is
theological, Matthew 26:37-38; Mark 14:33-34; Luke 22:44.

III. Sermons today tend to focus on man’s work, but Gethsemane 
focuses on Christ’s work, Matthew 26:37; Isaiah 53:6; 
John 1:29.