Jesus praying to God the Father in Gethsemane, Heinrich Hofmann, 1890.

Jesus praying to God the Father in Gethsemane, Heinrich Hofmann, 1890. (Wikipedia)

I remember when I was about fifteen or so that the small Anglican Church I went to held an art show and sale that featured local artists.  There was one picture there that I still remember some thirty-five years later.  It was by a woman, as I recall, though I do not know her name.  In fairly monochromatic greens and browns it shows a misty forest scene, tall trees surrounding a small clearing; and there, in the middle, a small, solitary figure in white huddled.  It was called, simply, Gethsemane.

While the painting was not ‘accurate’—the trees in Gethsemane would have been much shorter and probably olives rather than the pines she used—it nonetheless captured very vividly the utter aloneness of Jesus at that moment.  It was a powerful picture and I wished I could afford it then, and even now regret that I had only the one chance to see it.

The memory of that picture came back to me as I was meditating on this scene in Gethsemane and realizing how Jesus was, indeed, alone, that he had, in a way, divested himself of the crowds, of the disciples, and even of the ‘inner three’.  It seems so clear in the gospels that he did this, but also that the process started not with Peter’s Confession but with the feeding of the five thousand.


The feeding of the five thousand marks, from a human point of view, the high point of Jesus’ ministry.  It was, as far as we know, the largest crowd that he ever drew, and is one of the few events (before the passion) that is mentioned by all four evangelists.  But something changed that day, for after the miraculous feeding one would expect the crowd to grow and yet the next time there were only four thousand.  It wasn’t because of what he taught them, for none of the accounts tell us what that was except that it was about the kingdom of God—in other words, what he had been teaching from the start. Nor is there anything about the feeding itself that would lead to the crowds diminishing, quite the opposite would seem more logical.

The clue, I think, is in what happens right after the miraculous feeding as recounted by John.  He alone tells us that Jesus recognised that the crowd was beginning to see him as “the Prophet” (the one prophesied by Moses who would come later and be like him) and wanting to make him king.  Or, to put it another way, they saw him as the Messiah.  Now, he was, indeed, the Messiah, but he wasn’t the kind of Messiah that the crowd was thinking of.  This crowd was ready to become the core of his army and to go to war with the Romans and the Judean authorities.  But this was a route that Jesus had already rejected long before.


Armed uprisings were not unknown among the Judeans.  In about 6 A.D., around the time of Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah when he was twelve, Judas of Galilee led one such unsuccessful revolt.  I wonder what the impact of that disaster made on the young Jesus.  Perhaps the Father used it to impress on his soul the error of that route: Some sixty years later the Zealots would lead the Judeans into the disastrous war with Rome that would lead to the end of the Judean state for almost two millennia and the destruction of the temple.

Then, after his baptism by John, during his time in the wilderness, did Jesus again reject the way of the sword?  Is that, perhaps, the meaning of the third temptation?  Was Satan’s offer of all the kingdoms of the world to be accomplished by military might?  I suspect that such a thing is probable, for clearly everyone else is expecting a military messiah—even John the Baptiser.  When, later, John is in prison he begins to doubt his identification of Jesus as ‘the coming one’ because Jesus wasn’t bringing God’s wrathful judgement in as John had predicted.  Jesus gently shows John’s disciples that he is, in fact, fulfilling messianic prophecies, even if they weren’t the ones John had anticipated.

So finally, after the crowd has tried to impose their view of the messiah on him, Jesus rejects them and then their ardour for him begins to diminish.  Then (Luke has it right afterwards) Jesus questions his disciples about the crowd’s view of who he was.  The disciples’ answers betray this shift in the crowds thinking, for they don’t say ‘the messiah’ but that the crowd has now relegated him to being a prophet.  However, Peter, answering for the disciples, does proclaim Jesus as the messiah and Jesus commends him because “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you”.

Jesus must have recognised in Peter’s answer the beginning of a shift in what Peter understood by the term ‘messiah’, for otherwise his response to Peter is incorrect, for flesh and blood, in the person of his brother, Andrew, had revealed it to him.  Peter had, in fact, first met Jesus when Andrew had fetched him saying “We have found the Messiah!”.  But back then they were listening to John and expecting the kind of military messiah that everyone else was looking for.  Now Peter has, at the least, let go of some of those ideas even if, as his attempt to deny Jesus’ coming suffering shows, he didn’t understand what this new kind of messiahship involved.


After that Jesus begins to whittle down those following him.  He offends some with hard sayings and they leave; Others are offended when he decides to go back to Jerusalem.  Eventually so many have gone that he even asks his disciples if they are leaving too.

It is true that a crowd does reappear as he nears Jerusalem on Palm Sunday but, while it may have been a vocal crowd, we are not told how large it was (and it was probably only one of many such processions of pilgrims entering the city for the great Passover celebrations).  And, of course, by the end of the week the crowd (at least the friendly crowd) had disappeared again.  So now he was down a very small group: The twelve, the women who accompanied him, and maybe a few more disciples.


Thursday evening at the Last Supper it is just him and the twelve, until he loses even one of them.  The eleven accompany him out to the Mount of Olives where he leaves eight more of them behind.  Now he has only three with him: The two ‘Sons of Thunder’ who had declared that they could, indeed, drink of his cup and share in his baptism, and Peter who would follow him even to death.

But it wasn’t true, and he had to leave even them behind to fall asleep as he prayed and agonised into the night.  There, alone, he accepted for the last time the only alternative to the sword.  It was there, in a way, that he won our salvation for when he rises and sees Judas approaching he has put aside his natural fears and stands instead calm and collected.  The trial, the scourging, the cross, and the grave are still ahead but they are just details: Jesus has already defeated Satan there in Gethsemane, even if Satan didn’t know it yet.


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One Response to “Gethsemane”

  1. 120601 – George Hach’s Inner Discipline’s Journal–Friday | George Hach's Blog Says:

    […] Gethsemane ( […]

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