My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. —Matthew 26:38
Meditating on the sufferings of Christ has humbling and purifying effects on believers. Throughout the gospels, we behold the physical sufferings of Christ as we read of His being apprehended, beaten, spit upon, scourged, and at last crucified. But while these sufferings were painful in the extreme, they were not the only sufferings Christ endured. Just as truly as Christ was a man and possessed a true body and a reasonable soul, so His sufferings were experienced not only in body but also in soul. His spiritual sufferings came into sharp focus in the garden of Gethsemane and reached their culmination in His cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
In Luke 22:44 we see Christ’s spiritual sufferings in the garden of Gethsemane and the effect they had on His body: “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.” The spiritual agony was so intense that He felt compelled to pray, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39).
In his sermon on Luke 22:44 Jonathan Edwards explains this aspect of Christ’s spiritual suffering:
Christ was going to be cast into a dreadful furnace of wrath, and it was not proper that he should plunge himself into it blindfold[ed], as not knowing how dreadful the furnace was. Therefore that he might not do so, God first brought him and set him at the mouth of the furnace, that he might look in, and stand and view its fierce and racing flames, and might see where he was going, and might voluntarily enter into it and bear it for sinners, as knowing what it was. This view Christ had in his agony. Then God brought the cup that he was to drink, and set it down before him, that he might have a full view of it, and see what it was before he took it and drank it.
If you’ve ever had to take medicine that was bitter tasting, you know the worst thing you can do is to draw out the process—stare at the bottle of medicine, slowly pour the stuff into a measuring cup, and then sip it carefully—all the while thinking about its awful taste. The best thing to do is to get it down as quickly as possible with as little thought as possible. That is exactly what Christ was not allowed to do. He must, as part of the process of atoning for sins, contemplate that cup. He must know full well what He was about to embark on and what He must bear.
Christ’s spiritual sufferings, then, teach us that the way of the cross was hard. It was hard because believers’ sins would be imputed to Christ, and, while this transaction would not alter Christ’s character so as to make Him morally sinful, He would still be very much aware of the guilt, defilement, and filth of sin. Things that were foreign and repugnant to Him, would be charged to Him.
Believers love to think on the text of Isaiah 61:10 with regard to their justification: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.”
In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ had to contemplate putting on very different garments. He was to be dressed not with ornaments as a bridegroom or with jewels as a bride. He was to be covered instead with the garments of those for whom He was to die, the filthy rags of their “righteousnesses” (Isaiah 64:6). Can you picture yourself taking a tattered, torn, and filthy robe that has been lying in sewage and dressing yourself in it? Yet it was even more horrific for the Lord Jesus to take our sins as His own, when His Father “made him to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Small wonder that He said to His disciples that His soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death!
But as awful as these things would have been to the soul of Christ, the thing He most dreaded was the pain of being forsaken by His Father. All the while He suffered through the cruel physical tortures of men He never uttered a word of complaint. But when it came to that crowning penal affliction of being forsaken by His Father, it brought forth the cry that will never be fully comprehended: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
Christ’s spiritual sufferings, then, teach us that the way of the cross was hard but that the love of Christ was strong. We also learn that a great price had to be paid for sinners to be saved. If the thought of sin’s being imputed to Him and of His Father’s forsaking Him led to such oppression of spirit that Christ sweat great drops of blood, how fervently we should dread sin and strive against it. And how grateful we should be knowing that Christ endured being forsaken of His Father in order that believing sinners may enjoy fellowship with God.
Rev. Geoff Banister is the minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, Indiana.