As a young man, Dostoevsky, the Russian writer, was imprisoned. The day came when he was taken along with others to be executed. After listening to the crimes they were accused of, they were lined up to be shot. At that moment, a man came with the message that the executions were stayed. The prisoners were, instead, sent to Siberia. But that moment when he thought he would be executed was forever etched in his memory. The horror of it made him shudder any time he thought of it.
It is not necessarily a nice feeling to be facing imminent death. Our Lord Jesus knew that His time on earth was coming to a fast end when he had taken the last supper with the disciples. Judas had already gone out on his black mission of betrayal. Jesus took the remaining disciples with Him to the Garden of Gethsemane. He took Peter, James, and John with Him a little further. He told them that he was feeling extremely sorrowful. Then He went a little further, alone. There He prayed.
Heinrich Hoffman’s well-known painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane portrays the Lord kneeling at a large rock with, hands folded, almost placidly looking into the heavens. The Biblical text shows a scene that is hauntingly different. “And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:9). It could be that Hoffman’s painting caught some moment of Christ’s prayer to the Father, but it was not how the prayer began. Jesus fell to the ground on His face. The cup He was to drink was going to be bitter. Looking forward to it was dreadful. If it were possible, Jesus would rather not drink it.
Mark’s gospel gives us another aspect of that request. “And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mk.14:35). The time ahead was anything but inviting. If it were possible, Jesus would rather not go through that hour of trial.
“If it be possible, let this cup pass from me…If it be possible, let this hour pass from me.” These were not placid requests of a serenity prayer. They were the outpourings of a heart that was heavy and a mind that was troubled. Jesus in His humanity was suffering. “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” (Lk. 22:44).
Perhaps Hoffman’s painting catches the very end of Jesus’ prayer. He has finished His agonizing. He has gotten from His face to His knees. He straightens His clothes, wipes His face, folds His hands in a final moment of resignation, and turns His eyes heavenward. “Not my will, but thine be done.” Then He goes to meet the disciples and the guards He knows are coming for Him.
I am struck by Jesus’ words, “If it be possible.” We may use them in our hours of trial. “Lord, if it be possible don’t let this unbearable situation continue. If it be possible don’t let me face this trial. It’s too heavy of a burden to bear. If it be possible shorten this hour of testing. If it be possible, change the way things are. If it be possible don’t let this feeling of dread go on. If it be possible, give me some relief. If it be possible…”
Dostoyevsky survived his ordeal with his stayed execution. Others did not. Some died. Some lost their health or their minds. Dostoyevsky went to a Siberian prison. But somehow a woman snuck a small New Testament into his hands. He read it over and over during his prison term. He was particularly affected by the story of the prodigal son. He went to other prisoners and encouraged them with the words of that story and other treasures from the scriptures.
If it be possible… But in the case of Jesus, it was not possible to bring salvation and also keep from suffering. It was the only way. Jesus knew that before He prayed. He had faced the question before. “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour” (John 12:27). Going through His hour of great trial was necessary. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die” (John 12:32, 33). To bring salvation to man, Jesus knew He had to go through Gethsemane and to the cross. There was no other possibility.
Let’s go back to that scene in the garden. Jesus on His face, praying, “If it be possible…” Something happened that we must not neglect. It was a divine messenger, sent to Jesus in His humanity. “And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him” (Lk. 22:43). No one but the sinless Son of God knows the weight of the sin of the world crushing on His pure soul. No one knows the feeling of Him who was spotless anticipating becoming a curse before the whole world. But in His extremity, God sent strength. Divine strength.
For us that brings hope. We are not forgotten in our trials. And we have the angels. “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” (Heb. 1:14). If God the Father sent an angel to His Son in that great trial, will He not also remember us? If it is not possible for the cup of suffering to pass from us, will not He who loved us send us strength? If we must endure the seemingly endless hours of burden bearing will He not come along side of us and help us with our loads?
For Dostoyevsky it was the woman who handed him a New Testament. For the prisoners in that vermin infested jail in Siberia, it was a converted Dostoyevsky who proved to be their angel of encouragement. Look for the angels in your time of need. They may come in disguise. They may not look angelic. But they will be there, strengthening you. And then, there is Jesus, who will never leave us nor forsake us.
Just when I need Him, Jesus is near,
Just when I falter, just when I fear;
Ready to help me, ready to cheer,
Just when I need Him most.
Just when I need Him, Jesus is strong,
Bearing my burdens all the day long;
For all my sorrow giving a song,
Just when I need Him most.
-William C. Poole