The Week of the Atoning Sacrifice
Fifth Day, continued
High Priestly Prayer
Agony in Gethsemane
(25-1) John 17:1. The Significance of the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus
With a perfect understanding of his mission and that the time of his atonement was “at hand,” Jesus concluded the teaching portion of his ministry with a prayer—a prayer which has sometimes been referred to as the high-priestly or great intercessory prayer. (See John 17.) These designations are not inappropriate, for, as we shall see, Jesus, our Great High Priest, first offered himself as an offering; then, as Mediator, he interceded on behalf of worthy members of his kingdom. The pattern for this had been established in ancient Israel.
Once each year, the presiding high priest in ancient Israel entered into the holy of holies, the most sacred place within the tabernacle. There he would perform certain rites in connection with the Day of Atonement, a day set aside for national humiliation and contrition. Having bathed himself and dressed in white linen, he would present before the Lord a young bullock and two young goats as sin offerings, and a ram as a burnt offering in behalf of his sins and those of the people. The high priest’s role was that of a mediator, or one who interceded with the Lord in behalf of the people. His role, of course, was but a type of the great mediating role of the Savior in our behalf. Thus, when Jesus pleaded to the Father for all those who believed on him, he did so as our Intercessor, or Great High Priest.
The prayer he offered on this occasion had three distinct parts:
In the first part (see John 17:1–3), Jesus offered himself as the great sacrifice. His hour had come.
The next part of the prayer (see John 17:4–19) was a reverent report to the Father of his mortal mission.
In the last part (see John 17:20–26) of his prayer, Jesus interceded not only for the eleven apostles present, but for all who shall believe on Jesus “through their word,” in order that all would come to a perfect unity, which unity invested Christ in them as Christ is in the Father. Thus all would be perfect in unity, and the world would believe that the Father had sent his Son.
(25-2) John 17:3. How Can a Man Know God and Jesus?
“To know God in that full sense which will enable us to gain eternal salvation means that we must know what he knows, enjoy what he enjoys, experience what he experiences. In New Testament language, we must ‘be like him.’ (1 John 3:2.)
“But before we can become like him, we must obey those laws that will enable us to acquire the character, perfections, and attributes that he possesses.
“And before we can obey these laws, we must learn what they are; we must learn of Christ and his gospel. We must learn ‘that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.’ (Mosiah 3:18.) We must learn that baptism under the hands of a legal administrator is essential to salvation and that after baptism we must keep the commandments and ‘press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men.’ (2 Ne. 31:20.)” (Bruce R. McConkie in CR, Apr. 1966, p. 79.)
(25-3) Matthew 26:36. “Then Cometh Jesus … unto a Place Called Gethsemane”
“Gethsemane.—The name means ‘oil-press’ and probably has reference to a mill maintained at the place for the extraction of oil from the olives there cultivated. John refers to the spot as a garden, from which designation we may regard it as an enclosed space of private ownership. That it was a place frequented by Jesus when He sought retirement for prayer, or opportunity for confidential converse with the disciples, is indicated by the same writer (John 18:1, 2).” (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 620.)
(25-4) Matthew 26:39. “If It Be Possible, Let This Cup Pass from Me”
“God is unchangeable, so are also his laws, in all their forms, and in all their applications, and being Himself the essence of Law, the giver of law, the sustainer of law, all of those laws are eternal in all their operations. …
“Hence, the law of atonement had to be met as well as all other laws, for God could not be God without fulfilling it.
“Jesus said, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass.’ But it was not possible; for to have done so would have been a violation of the law, and he had to take it. The atonement must be made, a God must be sacrificed. No power can resist a law of God. It is omnipresent, omnipotent, exists everywhere, in all things. …” (Taylor, The Mediation and Atonement, pp. 168–69.)
(25-5) What Took Place in Gethsemane?
“Where and under what circumstances was the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God made? Was it on the Cross of Calvary or in the Garden of Gethsemane? It is to the Cross of Christ that most Christians look when centering their attention upon the infinite and eternal atonement. And certainly the sacrifice of our Lord was completed when he was lifted up by men; also, that part of his life and suffering is more dramatic and, perhaps, more soul stirring. But in reality the pain and suffering, the triumph and grandeur, of the atonement took place primarily in Gethsemane.
“It was there Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world on conditions of repentance. It was there he suffered beyond human power to endure. It was there he sweat great drops of blood from every pore. It was there his anguish was so great he fain would have let the bitter cup pass. It was there he made the final choice to follow the will of the Father. It was there that an angel from heaven came to strengthen him in his greatest trial. Many have been crucified and the torment and pain is extreme. But only one, and he the Man who had God as his Father, has bowed beneath the burden of grief and sorrow that lay upon him in that awful night, that night in which he descended below all things as he prepared himself to rise above them all.” (McConkie, DNTC, 1:774–75.)
(25-6) To What Extent Was the Atonement Completed in the Garden of Gethsemane?
“It seems, that in addition to the fearful suffering incident to crucifixion, the agony of Gethsemane had recurred, intensified beyond human power to endure. In that bitterest hour the dying Christ was alone, alone in most terrible reality. That the supreme sacrifice of the Son might be consummated in all its fulness, the Father seems to have withdrawn the support of His immediate Presence, leaving to the Savior of men the glory of complete victory over the forces of sin and death.” (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 661.)
“Sweet and welcome as would have been the relief of death in any of the earlier stages of His suffering from Gethsemane to the cross, He lived until all things were accomplished as had been appointed.” (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 662.)
(25-7) Luke 22:44. “And Being in an Agony, He Prayed More Earnestly”
“How perfect the example is! Though he were the Son of God, yet even he, having been strengthened by an angelic ministrant, prays with increased faith; even he grows in grace and ascends to higher heights of spiritual unity with the Father. How well Paul wrote of this hour: ‘In the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.’ (Heb. 5:7–9.)” (McConkie, DNTC, 1:776.)
But what was it that caused the Savior’s intense agony?
“Jesus had to take away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. … And as He in His own person bore the sins of all, and atoned for them by the sacrifice of Himself, so there came upon Him the weight and agony of ages and generations, the indescribable agony consequent upon this great sacrificial atonement wherein He bore the sins of the world, and suffered in His own person the consequences of an eternal law of God broken by men. Hence His profound grief, His indescribable anguish, His overpowering torture, all experienced in the submission to the eternal fiat of Jehovah and the requirements of an inexorable law.
“The suffering of the Son of God was not simply the suffering of personal death; for in assuming the position that He did in making an atonement for the sins of the world He bore the weight, the responsibility, and the burden of the sins of all men, which, to us, is incomprehensible. …
“Groaning beneath this concentrated load, this intense, incomprehensible pressure, this terrible exaction of Divine Justice, from which feeble humanity shrank, and through the agony thus experienced sweating great drops of blood, He was led to exclaim, ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’ He had wrestled with the superincumbent load in the wilderness, He had struggled against the powers of darkness that had been let loose upon him there; placed below all things, His mind surcharged with agony and pain, lonely and apparently helpless and forsaken, in his agony the blood oozed from His pores.” (Taylor, The Mediation and Atonement, pp. 149–50.)
(25-8) Luke 22:44. “And His Sweat Was as It Were Great Drops of Blood Falling Down to the Ground”
“Christ’s agony in the garden is unfathomable by the finite mind, both as to intensity and cause. The thought that He suffered through fear of death is untenable. Death to Him was preliminary to resurrection and triumphal return to the Father from whom He had come, and to a state of glory even beyond what He had before possessed; and, moreover, it is within His power to lay down His life voluntarily. He struggled and groaned under a burden such as no other being who has lived on earth might even conceive as possible. It was not physical pain, nor mental anguish alone, that caused Him to suffer such torture as to produce an extrusion of blood from every pore; but a spiritual agony of soul such as only God was capable of experiencing. No other man, however great his powers of physical or mental endurance, could have suffered so; for his human organism would have succumbed, and syncope would have produced unconsciousness and welcome oblivion. In that hour of anguish Christ met and overcame all the horrors that Satan, ‘the prince of this world’ could inflict. The frightful struggle incident to the temptations immediately following the Lord’s baptism was surpassed and overshadowed by this supreme contest with the powers of evil.
“In some manner, actual and terribly real though to man incomprehensible, the Savior took upon Himself the burden of the sins of mankind from Adam to the end of the world.” (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 613.)
Points to Ponder
The Significance of Gethsemane
Descending the eastern slope of Olivet almost to the base of the ravine lies a garden, or small olive orchard, called Gethsemane. The designation means “oil press,” so called perhaps because the olive grove contained a press to crush the olives from the orchard. It is removed about a half mile from the city walls and was a place of frequent seclusion for Jesus and his disciples.
As the procession came to the Garden, Jesus said to eight of the eleven, “Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.” (Matthew 26:36.) Then taking Peter, James, and John—those who had been with him on the Mount of Transfiguration—he entered into the interior of the Garden. His time had come. His instructions to the three were brief and foreboding: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.” (Matthew 26:38.) “Pray that ye enter not into temptation.” (Luke 22:40.) Then Jesus proceeded about a “stone’s throw” farther (about 100 feet), and “fell on his face, and prayed.” (Matthew 26:39.) In prostrate supplication our Lord pleaded: “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:36.)
We pause and leave this scene for just a moment. To understand the soul-cry of our Lord and God who pleaded to his Father to take away his “cup” (or lot which had befallen him), you need to have in mind some idea of the weight that was upon him. The Redeemer himself has provided a vivid description for us in a latter-day revelation to Joseph Smith. Underline the passage in the manner illustrated and cross-reference this with your New Testament text.
20. Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit. (D&C 19:20.)
The revelation was given to Martin Harris, who had been responsible for the loss of 116 pages of the manuscript of the translation of the Nephite record. It had been only through sore repentance that he had become one of the three witnesses. On this occasion, the Lord commanded Martin to repent of subsequent transgressions lest he suffer the same punishment as endured by the Savior in Gethsemane, “which in the smallest, … in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.”
Joseph Smith’s mother provides an account of the anguish faced by Martin when the Spirit was withdrawn.
“When Joseph had taken a little nourishment, … he requested us to send immediately for Mr. Harris. This we did without delay. … we commenced preparing breakfast for the family; and we supposed that Mr. Harris would be there, as soon as it was ready, to eat with us, for he generally came in such haste when he was sent for. At eight o’clock we set the victuals on the table, as we were expecting him every moment. We waited till nine, and he came not—till ten, and he was not there—till eleven, still he did not make his appearance. But at half past twelve we saw him walking with a slow and measured tred towards the house, his eyes fixed thoughtfully upon the ground. On coming to the gate, he stopped, instead of passing through, and got upon the fence, and sat there some time with his hat drawn over his eyes. At length he entered the house. Soon after which we sat down to the table, Mr. Harris with the rest. He took up his knife and fork as if he were going to use them, but immediately dropped them. Hyrum, observing this, said ‘Martin, why do you not eat; are you sick?” Upon which Mr. Harris pressed his hands upon his temples, and cried out in a tone of deep anguish, ‘Oh, I have lost my soul! I have lost my soul!’
“Joseph who had not expressed his fears till now, sprang from the table, exclaiming, ‘Martin, have you lost that manuscript? Have you broken your oath, and brought down condemnation upon my head as well as your own?’
“‘Yes; it is gone,’ replied Martin, ‘and I know not where.’
“‘Oh, my God!’ said Joseph, clinching his hands. ‘All is lost! all is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned—it is I who tempted the wrath of God. I should have been satisfied with the first answer which I received from the Lord; for he told me that it was not safe to let the writing go out of my possession.’ He wept and groaned, and walked the floor continually.
“At length he told Martin to go back and search again.
“‘No’; said Martin, ‘it is all in vain; for I have ripped open beds and pillows; and I know it is not there.’
“‘Then must I,’ said Joseph, ‘return with such a tale as this? I dare not do it. And how shall I appear before the Lord? Of what rebuke am I not worthy from the angel of the Most High?’
“I besought him not to mourn so, for perhaps the Lord would forgive him, after a short season of humiliation and repentance. But what could I do to comfort him, when he saw all the family in the same situation of mind as himself; for sobs and groans, and the most bitter lamentations filled the house. However, Joseph was more distressed than the rest, as he better understood the consequences of disobedience. And he continued pacing back and forth, meantime weeping and grieving, until about sunset, when, by persuasion, he took a little nourishment. …
“I well remember that day of darkness, both within and without. To us, at least, the heavens seemed clothed with blackness, and the earth shrouded with gloom. I have often said within myself, that if a continual punishment, as severe as that which we experienced on that occasion, were to be inflicted upon the most wicked characters who ever stood upon the footstool of the Almighty—if even their punishment were no greater than that, I should feel to pity their condition.” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, pp. 127–32. Emphasis added.)
Such is a picture of a mortal man who had experienced “in the least degree” the withdrawal of the Lord’s Spirit. Most, if not all, have suffered this feeling to some degree. You may identify yourself to one of these situations:
A friend gave offense. Words were exchanged. You were hurt. Bitter feelings and alienation resulted. You didn’t sleep, and the incident remained on your mind continually.
You had prided yourself on your knowledge of the gospel. Another took exception to your point of view. A heated discussion ensued. You backed up your position with authority and bore testimony. The Spirit of the Lord, however, did not accompany your words, and you felt alone.
You had worked a number of hours on an important project. Somehow—you don’t know how it happened—ink was spilled on it, necessitating that the work be done again. You were angry, flew into a tantrum, and emphasized your rage with profanity. After the anger had subsided, you felt terrible inside. You knew that the Lord had been offended.
Have similar experiences caused anguish to your soul? President Joseph Fielding Smith typified such suffering in this manner:
“I have known of men and have had men come to me—big, strong, husky fellows—trembling with mental torment because of their sins, wondering if there was any way possible for them to get relief. They have come in the anguish of their souls.” (“For Ye Are Bought with a Price,” Speeches of the Year, 1957, p. 5.)
If you can recall in your own life at least one occasion where you have acutely felt the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord from you and the suffering you experienced at that time, you can then begin to glimpse the significance of what the Savior experienced. With reverence, let us now return to the scene in Gethsemane.
Prostrate on the ground was God’s own Son—no mere mortal. In great agony, he called to his Father. His prayer was heard, for “there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:43, 44. Emphasis added.)
The agony persisted into the night. The three apostles who witnessed his excruciating suffering finally gave way to their fatigue and sorrow. Jesus returned to them and asked, “What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.” (Matthew 26:40, 41.) The apostles answered him and said, “The Spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:43, Inspired Version.) Returning again to his lonely agony, he pleaded again: “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me except I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matthew 26:42.) A second time he returned for respite and, perhaps, solace and found them asleep, “for their eyes were heavy”; and they did not know what answer to give to him. (Mark 14:40.) A third time he prayed, “saying the same words.” (Matthew 26:44.) Then returning again to the three, he said: “Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.” (Matthew 26:45–46.)
Jesus, with the three who had gone with him into the Garden, rejoined the other apostles, where they patiently awaited his betrayer. Our mind now attempts to comprehend that which seems incomprehensible: How can a God suffer such unfathomable agony? What caused it? What was its significance? As we fit together what the Lord himself has revealed concerning his infinite sacrifice, we begin to glimpse its significance to us.
We have learned by our experience the personal misery caused by the withdrawal of the Spirit. King Benjamin spoke of it vividly in these terms:
Read Mosiah 2:38 and 3:25–27.
President Joseph Fielding Smith summarized it in this way:
“There isn’t one of us I take it that hasn’t done something wrong and then been sorry and wished we hadn’t. Then our consciences strike us and we have been very, very miserable.
Have you gone through that experience? I have. … But here we have the Son of God carrying the burden of my transgressions and your transgressions and the transgressions of every soul that receives the gospel of Jesus Christ. … he carried the burden—our burden. I added something to it; so did you. So did everybody else. He took it upon himself to pay the price that I might escape—that you might escape—the punishment on the conditions that we will receive his gospel and be true and faithful in it.” (“Fall, Atonement, Resurrection, Sacrament,” Address delivered at the Salt Lake Institute of Religion [U. of U.], 14 Jan. 1961, p. 8.)
To better appreciate the unfathomable agony of our Lord, carefully review these passages of scripture. The first passage is his own testimony concerning his suffering.
No mortal could have endured such pain, but Jesus was no mere mortal. His capacity to endure consisted of all the mental, physical, and spiritual endowments of his parentage: one parent being an infinite and eternal being—God the Father; the other being mortal and subject to infirmity—Mary. His capability to bear the excruciating pain, “more than man can suffer,” was possible because he was the only Being born into the world who was infinite and eternal, but who also had the power to lay down his life if he willed to do so.
Read 2 Nephi 9:7; Alma 34:10–14; and John 10:17, 18. This “spiritual agony of soul,” wrote Elder James E. Talmage, was such “as only a God was capable of experiencing. No other man, however great his powers of physical or mental endurance, could have suffered so; for his human organism would have succumbed.” (Jesus the Christ, p. 613.)
In comforting the Prophet in Liberty Jail, our Lord reminded Joseph Smith that “the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee. …
“[But] The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7, 8.)
As you ponder what you have had to endure, and contemplate the times when “in the least degree” you suffered the pangs of spiritual loss, remember and reverence Him whom you have covenanted to remember always.
One last thought. The mortal history of mankind began with the exile of Adam and Eve from a garden, which exile signified man’s separation from God. The apex of mankind’s mortal history also occurred in a garden. The happening of that night some two thousand years ago provided every descendant of Adam with opportunity to come back into the presence of his Eternal Father on conditions of personal repentance. Thus the arm of mercy was extended, the wandering exiles bidden home, and the breach of Eden healed. This is the significance of Gethsemane. As you contemplate what Jesus has done, how does it cause you to feel? Do you feel, as the hymn suggests, “I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me”? As you think of your sins, do you now see that you do have someone to turn to for forgiveness and peace? Do you think the sacrament covenant will now take on greater meaning as you promise to “always remember him and keep his commandments”?