At the end of an unusually exhausting or challenging week I sometimes find myself saying, “This has been the hardest week of my life” or “I’ve never had a week this hard in my life.” This is usually just a sophisticated way of complaining. We want others to know how hard we have worked or want them to feel sorry for how much we have been through. In reality, there was only one person who pressed through a week like no other; and, He made the difficulty of the work that lay before Him known in a multiplicity of ways as He pressed through the last week of His life for our redemption.
Jesus came into this world in order to press through a week like no other for our redemption. The final week of the life of the Lord Jesus leading up to His resurrection, forty days with His disciples and ascension was truly the hardest week of His life. It was not hard simply on account of the emotional and physical pain that He would endure–as intense and awful as those aspects of it were. It was the hardest week of His life because of the inner pain He would endure when His soul travailed under the wrath of God for the salvation of His people. Consider the following:
1. In the Upper Room – The hardest week that any man has ever lived began with Him having to eat a meal with and washing the feet of the very one who would betray Him. The pain included Jesus’ prediction of the betrayal and the acting out, in the institution of the Supper, what would happen to Him on the cross. The combination of being the object of the depravity of man as well as of the wrath of God that He would endure for depraved sinners weighed deeply on the soul of Jesus.
2. In the Garden – This was the place where the greatest part of that burden began to surface in the soul of Jesus. No sooner had He entered the Garden (which was formerly a place of solace) that He told His disciples, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Eric Alexander has noted the progressive nature of the sorrow that Jesus experienced when he wrote:
There was a growing brokenness and burden in Jesus’ demeanor. Matthew and Mark record, “He began to be very heavy,” then they note that Jesus said, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful.” Mark goes on to refine the picture: “He began to be sore amazed”; as the Revised Standard Version reads, “He began to be greatly disturbed and troubled.” James Moffett takes it further, translating it, “He began to be appalled and agitated.” Luke goes on with the picture, explaining that Jesus was “in agony.” This is what was foreseen in Psalm 69, that which we hear so often in the Messiah, but which so seldom strikes home to our hearts.1
We soon discover that it is the sight of the cup that the Father placed before Him that weighed down so greatly upon Jesus. So great was the inner turmoil that He experienced as He peered into the cup that He pled with His Father three times that it might be taken away from Him. Alexander further sought to explain the nature of the cup when he wrote:
The experience of our Lord in Gethsemane was a foretaste of the cross, for the appalling spectacle of the sin of man was set before Him in this cup. The contents of this cup were the ingredients of His suffering and agony on the cross.2
There is some question about the nature of Jesus’ prayer to the Father to remove the cup. Was He asking the Father to remove the cup because of the fear of the agony? The best solution is found in the fact that Jesus had never experienced broken fellowship with His Father. Sinclair Ferguson has suggested that it actually would have been sin for a sinless man–and the sinless Son of God–to desire the be cast off and forsaken by His Father:
What was the nature of Jesus’ temptation in the Garden that made Him say, “Let this cup pass from Me–that’s My desire”? That was a perfectly holy desire. Any other desire would have been an unholy and godless desire. Why? Because a holy man can never have any wish or desire or purpose to experience a sense of divine desolation. It was not within our Lord Jesus’ holy humanity to ever desire to be in a position where He would cry out, “My God, I am forsaken by You. Why?”3
This was the greatest part of the agony Jesus experienced in His suffering. The sin-bearer would be found guilty by means of the imputation of our sin. He would be eternally forsaken of His Father on the cross. That was a deeper pain than all the emotional and physical suffering that He endured combined.
There was also the sense of isolation in the Garden that distressed Jesus’s soul. When Jesus entered the Garden with the disciples, he left the eight and took three with Him to pray. Then, He left the three and went alone by Himself to prayer. In turn, these three fell asleep and failed to come alongside Christ in the hour of the darkness of His righteous soul. The isolation was a picture that Jesus would bear the wrath of God, the guilt of sin and the powers of darkness by Himself on the cross. As the writer of Hebrews says, “When He had, by Himself, purged our sins…” (Heb. 1:4).
3. On the cross – One of the striking things about the sufferings that Jesus endured on the cross is the stark contrast between His reactions to men and His reaction to His Father. The first thing that Jesus prayed when He was nailed to the cross was, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” It was not the wrath of man that weighed down most of all on Jesus’ holy soul. By way of contrast, He cried out the cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?” In that moment in which He hung between heaven and earth under the cursed darkness of the sky, Jesus entered into the darkness of the wrath and curse of God. As the representative sin-bearer, Jesus was treated by His Father as if He were the worst sinner who ever lived. All the sin of all the elect was imputed to Him and “He, who knew no sin, was made sin for us.” He “became a curse for us” so that “we might receive the blessings of Abraham in Him” (Gal. 3:13-14).
While Jesus’ sufferings certainly included the mocking, reproach, rejection and violence of fallen men, the greatest sufferings that He endured were the sufferings of the guilt, shame, corruption and power of sin imputed to Him which led Him under the holy justice and wrath of God. This is what made the last week of Jesus’ life–leading up to His glorious resurrection–a week like no other. It was, in fact, the hardest week that any man has ever endured.
1. An excerpt from Eric Alexander’s lecture, “The Cup of Bitterness and the Cup of Blessing.“
3. Sinclair Ferguson “Why the God-Man?” from the 2011 Ligonier Ministries National Conference (at the 53:33 mark).