May 27, 2007

The Garden of Gethsemane

Mark 14:27–42

Jesus’ pleading with the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane reminds us how important it is to distinguish Christ’s human nature from His divine nature. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark to help us better understand what it means for Jesus to be truly God and truly man.


This morning, we are continuing with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. I will be reading from Mark 14:27–42. This is the Word of the Lord for His people. Please stand for the hearing of the Word of God:

Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written:

‘I will strike the Shepherd,
And the sheep will be scattered.’

“But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”

Peter said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be.”

Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that today, even this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.”

But he spoke more vehemently, “If I have to die with You, I will not deny You!”

And they all said likewise.

Then they came to a place which was named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And He took Peter, James, and John with Him, and He began to be troubled and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch.”

He went a little farther, 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 for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”

Then He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you sleeping? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Again He went away and prayed, and spoke the same words. And when He returned, He found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy; and they did not know what to answer Him.

Then He came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough! The hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand.”

He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father, as we contemplate some of the exceedingly difficult aspects of this record this morning, we pray that the same Spirit You poured out on Pentecost will now give us light and illumination that we may understand these things. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The God-Man’s Knowledge

This morning, I will depart from my normal method of preaching, which is called expository preaching, where I look at the text and try to unpack it for you in a verse-by-verse sequence. That is the style of preaching to which I believe ministers are called, and I pray it would happen in every pulpit in America so that people might be fed on a regular basis by an exposition of the Word of God.

I am going to give an exposition, just not the normal type of exposition and not what we would call a directly exegetical or biblical exposition. What I want to do this morning is to give a theological exposition of matters found in this text.

There are two reasons why I am departing from my normal pattern. The first is that I have often exposited this record of Jesus’ Gethsemane experience, particularly on Maundy Thursday evenings. The second is that there are times when theological exposition is vitally necessary to protect the saints from all sorts of distortions, errors, and even heresies.

The questions I want to address today come out of this record. First, what is going on when Jesus goes into the garden and prays earnestly that the cup would be removed from Him? Questions come out of this text like this: If Jesus is God incarnate, how do we have God pleading with God to change the decree of God?

The second question that comes from this text has to do with Jesus’ announcement to Simon Peter that he will deny Him three times before the rooster crows twice on the following morning. How is Jesus able to predict the future with such accuracy? Not only does He predict the denial of Peter but He also predicts His own resurrection when He says, “After I am raised, I will meet with you all in Galilee.”

In this text, Jesus has insight into the future, and we would expect the God-man to know something about the future. But if we just turn back a page or so in our Bible, do you remember what our Lord said concerning His return at the end of chapter 13? He said in verse 32, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Do you see the difficulty? Jesus says, “Even though I may predict My coming, even though I may predict the destruction of Jerusalem, even though I may predict the destruction of the temple, even though I may predict with uncanny accuracy the denial of Peter and the betrayal of Judas, nevertheless, there are some things I don’t know.” Does that trouble you?

This is the God-man who, out of His own lips and by His own testimony, is placing a limit upon His knowledge. We were taught from the time we were little that God is omniscient. He knows everything—past, present, future, and even all possibilities of future events. So how is it that Jesus can place a limit on His knowledge?

The Communication of Attributes

This text vexed Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most brilliant and astute theologians the world has ever known. Aquinas came to this text where Jesus limits His own knowledge and said of it: “That can’t be. This is the God-man, and the divine nature and human nature are in perfect unity. Jesus had to know the day and the hour. How do we deal with this text?”

This is one of those cases where the great genius of theology took a nap for a few moments. Aquinas explained it this way: “Jesus really did know the day and the hour, but the knowledge was too high, too holy, and too wonderful to communicate to mortal souls such as His disciples. To accommodate Himself to their weakness, He simply told them He didn’t know.”

Thomas’ explanation saves the idea of the omniscience of Jesus, but it raises in its wake an even more serious problem. If Jesus told His disciples He did not know something when in fact He did know something, we call that a falsehood. Even if it was a small falsehood, even if it was a peccadillo, that peccadillo would be just enough to disqualify Jesus from being our Savior. Thomas, you are going to have to do better than that.

In the wake of Thomas’ accommodation theory, which I have just explained to you, the Roman Catholic Church developed a concept that will sound a little bit abstract to you, but I will do my best to explain it. They called it the communication of attributes, the communicatio idiomatum. That is, in the incarnation, divine attributes were communicated to the human nature.

That communication is what makes it possible for the body of Jesus to be, as we mentioned last week, in Pittsburgh, Paris, Seattle, and Orlando all at the same time, a feat that human beings cannot accomplish because our humanity, by virtue of the limitations of creaturehood, is always limited by space and time.

I cannot be here and in Pittsburgh at the same time, can I? I know that was the case a couple of years ago during the Super Bowl that I was not able to be preaching Sunday night and watching the Super Bowl at the same time. I had a spy there of course, one from our congregation with a cell phone, who called me at eight o’clock to tell me how things were going. But I was limited by my humanity to being here, and so are you.

Two Natures

In the fifth century, in AD 451, the church called a great ecumenical council at Chalcedon, one of the most important ecumenical councils of all time. That council was called to combat several heresies, and the most significant heresy facing the church in the fifth century was called the Monophysite heresy.

There we go again with those terrible theological terms, Monophysite. We will learn today what that word means. It has a prefix and a root. The prefix mono means one. The root word physis is the word that we get for the English word physics, which is the study of nature. So, mono-physis simply means one nature.

The Monophysites claimed that Jesus did not have two natures—a divine nature and a human nature—but rather He had only one nature. That one nature was neither completely divine nor completely human. It was a single nature that involved a deified human nature or a humanized divine nature. The Monophysites said, “Jesus is one person with one nature—a divinely human nature, or a humanly divine nature, however you want to slice it.”

The Monophysite heresy was serious for two reasons. On the one hand, it denied the full deity of Christ. On the other hand, it denied the real humanity of Jesus. Against that, the church in AD 451 declared that Christ was “vere homo, vere Deus,” “truly man and truly God,” two natures in one person.

The difficulty lies in this: How do we understand the union of a human nature with a divine nature? Going back to the Scriptures, the Bible says that in the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity, the Logos, took upon Himself a human nature. When the Word, Jesus, took upon Himself flesh and a human nature, He did not deify that human nature. That human nature remained human.

Without Mixture, Confusion, Division, or Separation

Let us think about Christ’s natures, come back to the garden of Gethsemane, and ask this: When Jesus was pleading with the Father, was it the divine nature, the eternal Logos pleading with the Father to change His mind? We know that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all full persons of the Trinity—were in total agreement from all eternity on how our redemption was going to be accomplished.

Let us make it simpler. When Jesus, in His agony, began to sweat, were those beads of perspiration divine sweat? Think about it. Was the perspiration that rolled down His forehead divine, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient perspiration? Or did that perspiration manifest the human nature of Jesus? When Jesus gets hungry, does God get hungry? Of course not. When Jesus must take a nap, does God go to sleep? Of course not. Those are manifestations not of the divine nature but of the human nature.

At the Council of Chalcedon, in dealing with the mystery of the incarnation and affirming the two natures of Jesus, the church said that the two natures, divine and human, are perfectly united in such a way that they are not confused, mixed, divided, or separated. Let me say it again: the two natures are without mixture, confusion, division, or separation. So, you cannot mix them together like the Monophysites did, where you deify the flesh or humanize the spirit. Yet at the same time, you must not ever separate them. They are always and everywhere remaining united.

Those four negatives of Chalcedon are further qualified by this phrase: “Each nature retaining its own attributes.” In the incarnation, God does not surrender any of His attributes. The divine nature is still eternal. It is still infinite. It is still omniscient. It is still omnipresent. It is still omnipotent. It is all those things that belong to deity. God did not stop being God when He took upon Himself a human nature in the person of Jesus.

At the same time, the human nature retained its own attributes, its being finite, contained, not able to be at more than one place at the same time, limited in knowledge, and limited in power. All those things that are attributes of humanity remained attributes of Jesus’ humanity. This is crucial to understand.

Human and Divine Distinguished

Recently, when I mentioned Jesus’ instituting the Lord’s Supper and saying, “This is My body,” I talked about the great controversy that erupted in the sixteenth century as to whether the human nature, the physical nature of Jesus, could be present at more than one place.

I mentioned that for the human nature of Jesus to be present at more than one place would be a violation of the Council of Chalcedon. The only way that could happen is if a divine attribute were communicated to the human nature of Jesus, which is exactly what Rome taught, and sadly Martin Luther taught as well. I said, “No, Jesus’ humanity is limited and can only be in one place at the same time.”

Somebody well-meaning at the end of the service said, “But aren’t you separating the two natures?” I hope not, because if we separate the two natures, then we fall off the horse in the other direction and deny the perfect unity of the two natures. Remember, the two natures are without mixture, confusion, division, or separation. I said, “No, we’re distinguishing them.” It is one thing to distinguish between two natures. It is another thing to rend them apart.

This very moment, Jesus is in heaven, touching His human nature. But He is perfectly united to the divine nature, even now. The divine nature can be here and in Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Paris at all times. Wherever the divine nature is, the person is, even though the physical body is in heaven.

The Communication of Information

Thomas Aquinas suggested that Jesus really did know the day and hour of His return because of the communication of attributes. Here is where it gets a little difficult, and you will have to put on your thinking caps. It is one thing for the divine nature to communicate information to the human nature, which indeed took place in the incarnation. Things only God could know were communicated to the human nature so Jesus could make perfect predictions about the future.

But the communication of knowledge from God to man in a supernatural way happened multitudes of times in the Old Testament in the case of the prophets, who were given information they could not possibly have learned through their own human research. In like manner, the Apostles in the New Testament, chiefly the Apostle Paul as an agent of revelation, communicate to us things they could not possibly know on their own but that God communicated to them.

That there is the communication of knowledge between the divine nature and the human nature is no difficult thing to imagine. But it is one thing to say that the divine nature communicates information. It is something else to say the divine nature communicates a divine attribute.

Do you see the difference? If the reason Jesus knows tomorrow is because the attribute of omniscience is communicated to His human nature, then we would expect Him, touching His human nature, to know everything. But He Himself indicated there were limits, Thomas Aquinas notwithstanding. If we understand that the divine nature communicates information without communicating omniscience, we do not stumble over these passages.

If we understand that we distinguish between the human and the divine nature, it is obviously the human nature going through this agony at Gethsemane. It is the human Jesus praying to the divine for relief from this agony, yet at the same time He is indicating His perfect commitment to obeying the Father’s will.

The Unbroken Union of God

The two natures without mixture, confusion, separation, or division remain intact, but there are certain things that manifest the divine nature and other things that manifest the human nature. Hunger, tiredness, sweat, a body, legs, arms, and eyes—we know that those things belong to the human nature of Jesus, not to the divine nature.

I take the time to go over this because it is said that every ancient heresy the church combated in the first eight hundred years is repeated in every generation. If you watch Christian television for one day, you will hear every single heresy from the ancient world restated in our time. We must be careful in every generation, lest we fall into these heretical ideas that distort these matters.

Having said that, we do not know all there is to know about the mystery of the incarnation. Notice that what happened at the Council of Chalcedon was the drawing of boundaries. They set the limit of our speculation. They said: “If you go over this boundary, you’re going to end in the Monophysite heresy. If you go over this boundary, you’re going to end up separating the two natures as Nestorius has done.”

To help us carefully stay within the boundaries of legitimate reflection, the Council of Chalcedon said: “We don’t really know how the divine nature and the human nature are co-joined, but we know what it is not. It’s not by confusion. It’s not by mixture. It’s not by separation. It’s not by division. We know that however else the divine nature and the human nature are united, in that perfect union each nature retains its own attributes. The divine nature does not stop being divine. The human nature does not stop being human.”

This is why I sometimes get upset when we sing hymns about God dying on the cross. The God-man died on the cross, but the divine nature did not die on the cross. If God actually died on the cross, what would that mean? Not only would Jesus die, but the Holy Spirit would die, the Father would die, the cross would perish, Jerusalem would fall into oblivion, and the whole universe would cease because its moment-to-moment existence depends on the upholding hand of God.

If God perishes, everything perishes. The God-man died as the new Adam in His human nature on the cross for us. Even when He was a corpse in the tomb, He remained united to the divine nature. His human spirit was given to the Father in His last breath. The union of the divine and human was not broken. It was not separated. We do not separate the two natures, but we must distinguish them to avoid every conceivable heresy.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.