The agony of our substitute in Gethsemane


By Lucien LeSage

In my endeavor to determine a title for this article it seemed “The Agony of our Substitute in Gethsemane” was the most appropriate in my mind. To truly comprehend what our blessed Savior went through in that garden and why he prayed the way he did, I believe we must understand that he was the substitute for his people.


Before going to that scene there in the garden I would like to take the reader to a different scene long before Gethsemane. It was where Moses met the Lord in the form of a burning bush. In that scene we saw that it took place on the “backside of the desert” which would be a very dry place in “the mountain of God.” It was there that Moses beheld a bush that in the midst or middle was a fire that burned and out of which the Lord spoke to him. Moses was astonished that this bush was not consumed. That word for “bush” according to the Hebrew lexicon was a “thorny bush”. Why did the Lord choose from such a bush to speak to his servant Moses? It is interesting that thorns are associated with the curse in Genesis 3:18 which our father Adam brought upon all of his posterity. In Exodus we are told that it was the Angel of the Lord that spoke to Moses, but it was not a created angel but the “I AM“, the very Son of God. As Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). So that thorny bush in dry ground represented our substitute. Did not Isaiah speak of the suffering substitute as a “root out of dry ground” in Isaiah chapter 53 verse 2? That place where Moses met the Lord was holy ground and I think Spurgeon had it right when he said that Gethsemane was also “holy ground“. When I think of that thorny bush I am reminded that our blessed Lord was “made a curse” for his people (Galatians 3:13).


Now dear reader let us put off our worldly shoes and go to that scene in the garden. Just as in a garden the first Adam plunged his posterity into ruin, so to in a garden the second and last Adam would begin the redemption of his posterity from that awful ruin. When Spurgeon wrote of this scene he wanted to be very cautious to harmonize our Savior’s deity with his humanity. If we are not careful we may minimize one or the other. I pray we do not do that in this article.


I call the reader to open their Bible and read the following passages, Matthew 26:36-44; Mark 14:32-41; Luke 22:39-44. For reasons of space we will not quote every one of these passages, but will quote Mark’s gospel and reference the others.


“And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane: and he saith to his disciples, Sit ye here, while I shall pray. And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy; And saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch. And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour? Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak. And again he went away, and prayed, and spake the same words. And when he returned, he found them asleep again, (for their eyes were heavy,) neither wist they what to answer him. And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mark 14:32-41).


In Matthew’s and Mark’s account we see that when he entered the garden on this occasion something began that had not begun on previous trips here. Mark says he “began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy“. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that he began to be “exceedingly sorrowful even unto death.” Then our Savior utters a prayer that at first glance seems to be very perplexing when he said, “Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” And from these accounts it appears that the Lord did this three times and even fell on his face. Then in Luke’s account we see that this agony was so great that his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44).


An explanation of some of these words is in order at this point. The Greek word for “sore amazed” means “to throw into terror or amazement.” Strong’s says, “to astonish utterly, to affright.” The lexicon says concerning the phrase “very heavy” that it is the strongest of the Greek words fordepression. The word “agony” signifies a great struggle. Then the phrase “exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” seems to be a sorrow so great as to cause one’s death. Strong says, “grieved all around”. Spurgeon said it was a sorrow with no way out. There was no escape from this sorrow.


So what would cause our Savior to come to this place of sorrow even unto death? What would cause our Savior to be thrown into terror? What caused our Savior to be in such agony that he sweat a bloody sweat? What caused our Savior to fall on his face and pray “take away this cup from me?” Was this terror a fear of what men could do to him? Was he affright from the thought of simply facing death? Did he not tell his disciples “and fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul?” Did not many of his saints face death with peace and no fear? So why would our blessed Lord be less in faith than they? He would not. So what was this terror all about?


A seeming paradox is the fact that Jesus had told his disciples that “he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matthew 16:21). Then when Peter objected and began to rebuke the Lord for such a thought, Jesus told Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matthew 16:23). In another place concerning the hour of his passion Jesus said, “for this cause came I unto this hour.” Now we are here in the garden and the Lord prays on his face, “Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” Is our blessed Lord having a change of heart? Is he bending under the pressure? Is he saying, “Lord I know I came into the world to die for sinners, but I would like to change my mind?” A thousand times no. Perish such a thought. Our Lord was absolutely impeccable. So why did he pray this way? Let me ask you this. Did our Lord ever do anything that was not perfect and necessary? I think not. I believe he had to pray that prayer. It has been said that he prayed that for our benefit. I believe that is true but in ways we will never fully understand.


Now I would like to enter into why I titled this “The agony of our substitute in Gethsemane.” It is the word “substitute” that I am interested in. The definition of the word according to the dictionary means for a person or thing to take the place of another. In substitution there is no joint work or cooperation of effort. Here at Gethsemane it appears to be the point in time that the sins of God’s elect were laid on our Savior and he would take their place. To quote Paul, “For he hath made him to be sin for us.” It was after this by the permissible providence of God that he was brought before the religious court of the Sanhedrin and then before the civil court of Pilate and all the time never opening his mouth to defend himself. Why? Because the Father had made the Son to be sin for his people. What went on in Gethsemane was our Savior experiencing emotions and fears that God’s elect should have experienced in judgment but will never experience because he took their place.  Let us look at a few scriptures to prove our point.


Paul speaks of “the terror of the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 5:11. The Psalmist said, “How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors” (Psalms 73:19). So the sinners who are not ever saved will be consumed with terrors in a moment. This is their “end” according to verse 17 of that Psalm. They will be thrown into terror and this is just and exactly what they deserve. This is also what God’s elect deserve as well, for they were dead in their sins and were no different. But the Lord has saved them from this sudden terror and hath endured it for them and was not consumed by the fire of God’s wrath. He endured the terror in my place. Also, the sinner will and should crumble under the terror of his wrath for the Psalmist says again, “Thou, even thou, art to be feared: and who may stand in thy sight when once thou art angry?” (Psalm 76:7). Our Lord fell on his face for his people. And again, “Who knoweth the power of thine anger? Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath” (Psalm 90:11). Now listen to Isaiah speak of the sudden surprise and fear of the hypocrites in Isaiah 33:14. “The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” This is what we are due. But remember our Lord was thrown into sudden terror as a substitute for his people. He had to experience that because we who are saved and all those who will ever be saved should have to experience that sudden horror. It was not that our Savior lacked knowledge but the surprise was something that he experienced or learned (Heb 5:8) as our substitute. Imagine yourself lost and being brought before the judge of all the earth and standing there on the precipice of eternal damnation. The sudden horror! Picture and feel the unimaginable depression of your soul. It’s forever! You would be crying out that God would take that cup from you, but you would not be able to say “nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt,” but our Lord could and did do that for us as our substitute if we are his. He felt the horror and unimaginable depression in the place of his people. The prophet Nahum said, “Who can stand before his indignation? And who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him” (Nahum 1:6). Our blessed Savior knew of this when he said, “fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” and he said again, speaking of the serious nature of this judgment, “and if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Those that die without Christ will be in a never ending and horrible struggle. They will be in an eternal state of depression with no escape. They will be surprised and overwhelmed with horror on their death bed. Our Lord endured all of this in the place of his people. Those who would make light of eternal damnation and “everlasting burnings” need to ponder these scriptures.


I have quoted these scriptures to show the utter and sudden horror of the impending judgment when it begins to fall on sinners who know not the Lord Jesus Christ. Gill sights instances when men were judged guilty and sentenced to death or while being led to their execution that they broke out in a “bloody sweat” from fear. Can you imagine eternal damnation and what that would do to the soul of a human being. Dear reader, this was our due. We who are saved deserved it but our Lord sweat a bloody sweat in our place. This bloody sweat was not a physical weakness as some sickness or disease in his body. Oh no, our Lord entered into this torment in perfect physical health. Our Lord was suffering in his very soul emotionally what we who are God’s elect should have suffered. He is substituting! His sorrow and agony had weakened his flesh to the point that an angel came and strenghtened him (Luke 22:43). After all he was truly a man. Oh, he would suffer unimaginably in his body shortly but it began in the midst of his soul; in the midst of the bush. Isaiah said, “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his SOUL an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” (Isa 53:10). It was more than just the body of the Lord Jesus that was offered. It was his whole human nature that was offered for sin. What ended at the cross began here in Gethsemane. Only the God-man could endure such wrath, terror, agony and depression and yet not be consumed by it. He was able to drink that awful cup for his people and as Spurgeon said, “he drank it dry.” If you belong to him then there is nothing left in that cup of indignation for you dearly beloved, because your Lord drank every drop in your place. That cup is not even wet with the dew of wrath but is as dry as the airy desert. He drank it all as our substitute. He was exceedingly sorrowful and was agonized for our sins as our substitute. Spurgeon said, “It was a struggle on a Titanic scale.” We could never be sorry for our sins as perfectly as he was sorry. We had a godly sorrow in Holy Spirit conviction but his was a perfect sorrow for sin.He suffered a horror that only those faced with eternal damnation would even come close to experiencing.


In closing let us point out that this is not a maybe-so salvation. It was one that was secured by our suffering substitute. He drank that cup dry my dear reader. If he drank it dry, then it’s dry for all the ones he drank it for. If you are a called child of God then there is nothing in that cup of indignation left for you.


I think in Holy Spirit conviction we get just a dim glimpse of what our Lord went through in that garden, but we will never know the entire sorrow that he felt. We will never fully understand his passion. This article has been just a feeble attempt to understand it and hopefully praise our Savior for what he endured on our behalf. Who can possible know the griefs that he bore as our substitute.


It has been said,

“Tis to God, and God alone,

That his griefs are fully known.”