Anthony Gelston on the nature of Jesus’ suffering in the Garden
of Gethsemane and the two aspects of his victorious struggle
O generous love!
that he, who smote
In Man for man the foe,
The double agony in Man
For man should undergo.
The term ‘agony’ is commonly used with reference to Jesus’ vigil of prayer in Gethsemane between the Last Supper and his arrest. It is usually thought to refer to the mental anguish he suffered as he struggled to accept the Father’s will in preference to his own, although the longer text of Luke 22.43– 44 certainly implies that the anguish had a physical aspect in the sweat like great drops of blood.
It is worth remembering that the English word ‘agony’ can also mean a ‘struggle’ or ‘contest’, just as the Greek agon was often used of a contest in the games, a meaning which clearly survives in the word ‘antagonist’, denoting an opponent or adversary.
This semantic range of the word ‘agony’ helps us to understand the meaning of the verse in Cardinal Newman’s hymn, ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’: The double agony is spelt out in the phrase ‘in Man for man’, where the use of the capital makes it plain that the
first ‘Man’ denotes the perfect humanity of Jesus himself, while the second ‘man’ denotes the corporate entity of the human race.
The ‘foe’ picks up the reference in an earlier verse of the hymn to the ‘flesh and blood’ of the second Adam striving afresh against the foe, by whom the original Adam had been vanquished, and this time prevailing over him.
Part of the agony in Gethsemane consisted in the uncertainty of Jesus in his human nature about what the Father’s will actually was. His request for the removal of the cup of suffering was qualified by the phrase ‘if you are willing’, but this indicates that he could only offer the prayer that he did in a state of not knowing at that point what was the Father’s will.
This surely was part of the reality of the incarnation, in which he had to accept the normal limitations of human knowledge, and the uncertainties to which they give rise.The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews goes so far as to say that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered [5.8], and the previous verse makes it clear that he had the vigil in Gethsemane in mind. Jesus’ victory in this contest consisted in his absolute resolution that it was not his will but the Father’s, whatever that might be, that was to be done.
This is surely at least part of what the writer to the Hebrews meant, when he went on to say that, having been made perfect, Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him [5.9].
Atonement for sin
The ‘double agony’, then, denotes in the first place the personal victorious struggle of Jesus in his perfect humanity against the primordial foe, the devil. In the second place it denotes the vicarious aspect of that struggle, undergone in his representative capacity as he conquered the devil on behalf of the
whole human race.
Matthew 8.17 cites Isaiah 53.4 as fulfilled in the healing ministry of Jesus, but it is surely also applicable to the vigil in Gethsemane and the crucifixion which ensued.
For there, in his representative capacity as the second Adam, he took upon himself the whole burden of human sin and infirmity, and offered himself in sacrifice to atone for that sin.
Dr Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in
Theology at the University of Durham