What Love Looks Like: Reflections from the Garden of Gethsemane

Olive Tree

About a year ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Israel.  Walking the land where the history of the people of God played out provided unique insights and a new and deeper understanding of the Bible.

Instead of reading a story, I could picture it playing out in front of me.  Static interchanges became dynamic monologues with dramatic backdrops.  Brief geographic references became touch-points for visualizing a rich landscape and providing contextual clues to help better understand the story.

Visiting the Garden of Gethsemane, east of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, was one such location.   My time spent wandering through the olive groves there forever changed how I will understand the events that took place the night Jesus was arrested.

Taken from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city of Jerusalem
Taken from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city of Jerusalem

What I never realized before was that the Garden of Gethsemane was one of the best locations from which you could look out over the city of Jerusalem.  Specifically, it overlooked the temple on the east side of the city.  This means that as Jesus is praying, agonizing over his imminent suffering, committing to the Father to carry through the plans to give his life in exchange for rebellious humanity, Jesus is looking out over the city that had rejected him.

How could someone look out over the city that had rejected him, and then still choose to walk back down that hill, through the gate, and willingly offer his life as a sacrifice?

This is a strange kind of love, a love that feels almost foreign in its fierceness.

To help you get the full picture, let me set the scene for you.  You might already be familiar with the story.  Each of the gospel writers describes it with slight variants, but together they clearly communicate that Jesus went to a garden called Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” (Matthew 26:36)

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. (Luke 22:39)

When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley.  On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it. (John 18:1)

What I never realized, until visiting there myself, was just how close Gethsemane is to the city of Jerusalem.  From the west slope of the Mount of Olives where the garden is located, to the east wall of the Old city of Jerusalem, it is less than a quarter of a mile.

If you’re a visual person, you’ll see the Mount of Olives on the far right side of this map, directly across from the east wall of the city where the temple was located.

From the Bibleworks Moody Bible Atlas
From the Bibleworks Moody Bible Atlas

And here’s the view from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city of Jerusalem.  (You’ll see the modern day Dome of the Rock in the place where the temple would have been during Jesus’ day).

Taken from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the East Gate of Jerusalem
Taken from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the East Gate of Jerusalem

This is the view Jesus looked out upon as he prayed in the garden that night.  His vision was filled with the city that had rejected him; the city that would put him to death the next day.  With this picture in mind, read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ time in Gethsemane:

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter.  “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.  So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.  Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.  Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”  (Matthew 26:36-46 NIV)

In Luke’s account, we learn that Jesus prayed so earnestly and in such anguish that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 23:44).


When touring Israel, it’s best to hold expectations loosely.  Some sites will be completely different than what you had expected.  Others you’ll expect to have a certain emotional response, but due to a packed schedule, exhaustion, or a host of other factors that go with international travel, you won’t “feel” what you thought you would feel.

In our two week whirlwind trip that saw over 40 different biblical sites, our time in the Garden of Gethsemane came at the end of the trip.  In contrast to so many other locations that bear the trappings of being overrun by the tourism industry, the garden was simple.  An olive grove on the side of the hill, and no one but our group in sight.

I wandered through the olive grove, reflecting on Jesus’ last night before the crucifixion.  I had expected to be weepy, overcome with the feelings of sorrow and betrayal that transpired in this place. Instead, as I pondered what it must have been like for Jesus to prepare himself for the inevitable, I felt a sense of resolve.

Looking out over the city that had rejected Him, knowing fully that it would cost His very life, Jesus still chose to walk down that hill, across the valley, and re-enter Jerusalem.

I pictured Jesus standing in the garden.  Set jaw.  Lips pressed firmly together.  Eyes intently overlooking the city.  Hands clenched tightly.  Shoulders square.  Spine straight.  Feet firmly planted.  Determination furrowing his brow.

He had a mission to accomplish.  And nothing could stop him from seeing it through.

The soldiers came, one of his closest friends betrayed him with a kiss, and Jesus set his feet towards Jerusalem.  He would give his life even for his enemies, because that’s what love does.

Friends, Jesus chose you.  Jesus chose you even though it cost Him His life. 

Jesus’ love for you is not a fleeting feeling that changes based on circumstances.  Jesus’ love for you is a steady resolve, a determination that leads to self-sacrifices, a choice to love you and keep moving towards you even when you are pushing him away.

I doubt that in that moment in the garden, Jesus had a whole lot of warm fuzzy feelings about what he was about to do.  Rather, he knew what love required.  He chose making a way for relationship with you over personal comfort.  He chose death and suffering because it meant reconciliation.

This love that Jesus shows us in that moment is a strong, fierce love.  It is a love that makes me feel safe, and also scared at the same time.

I feel safe because I know nothing I do will ever change how much Jesus loves me.  If his love led him to walk back into Jerusalem and give his life for his enemies, then surely my moments of sin, selfishness, and stupidity won’t scare him away.  I feel safe because I feel secure in his love, and I trust that he won’t abandon me.

I feel scared because I think we’re called to love how Jesus loved, and that terrifies me.  If his love led him to endure such pain on behalf of the people he loves, what will be asked of me as I try to love people like Jesus loved people?  I feel scared, terrified even, because of what it might cost to love people this way.

I remember specifically at the time I was on this trip, I had one friend who was particularly hard for me to love.  I wanted to be done, and I was tired of being hurt.  The more I moved toward this person and tried to help, the more vehemently I was pushed away.

And yet as I sat in that garden, contemplating what Jesus had done, I realized that love doesn’t care about the cost.  Love is a choice to put someone else’s good before your own.  Love is a resolve to pursue what’s best for another person, even if it demands sacrifice.

Love is not a feeling; love is a choice.

There will always be people I don’t want to love.  There will always be things I don’t want to do.  There will always be pains I would rather avoid and sacrifices I would rather not make.

But this is not the way of Jesus.

Jesus didn’t die for me so that I could spend the rest of my life avoiding hard and painful things.  Jesus didn’t walk down that hill, back into Jerusalem, and hang on a cross so that I could hide in safety and waste my life.

We inhabit a very dark, very hurting world.  People are hurting.  Everywhere.  Not just in other countries, but in your family, in your workplace, in your neighborhood, and in your social circles.

Jesus gave his life so that humanity could once again find hope and healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to God.

Jesus gave his life so that we could live for him.  So that we could take this new life we’ve found in him, and share it with others.  So that we could love the people around us that are hurting.  Even if it hurts, even if it takes a sacrifice, we’re called to love those around us.

Jesus died for you so that you could live for him.  

Who in your life is God asking you to love today?  

Who in your life have you avoided reaching out to because you know it might be hard?  

How can you take comfort from the example of Jesus and trust Him to provide what you need as you go out to love this world that Jesus died for?

Sitting in the grove of olive trees on the Mount of Olives, with a view of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in the background.
Sitting in the grove of olive trees on the Mount of Olives, with a view of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in the background.
The grove of Olive trees on the Mount of Olives.
The grove of Olive trees on the Mount of Olives.
Taken from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the East Gate of Jerusalem
Taken from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the East Gate of Jerusalem
Jerusalem's East Gate
Jerusalem’s East Gate
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in the midst of chaos

The good thing about jet lag was I woke up plenty early to see the sunrise.

It was the third morning of our trip to Israel and our last morning staying by the Dead Sea.  Not wanting to miss this last opportunity, my roommate and I slipped out of our hotel room and slowly strolled down the street and across the sand.  Two other friends had also woken up early and were already sitting on the beach.

None of us morning people, and all before our morning coffee, not many words were spoken and we all sat in silence reflecting as we watched the sun rise over the Dead Sea.

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As I sat, I read part of Psalm 89:

I will sing of the lovingkindness of the LORD forever;

To all generations I will make known your faithfulness with my mouth.

The heavens will praise your wonders, O LORD;

Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the holy ones

As I read and prayed in the serenity of a sunrise, reflecting on God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness that I have seen in my own life, and as more vacationers slipped into the water for a relaxing morning swim in the Dead Sea, my mind wandered to the land around me.

One of the most  common questions I received about my trip was about the safety of going to Israel.  Before I left, people asked if I was worried, or if I would be safe.  Since returning, people have asked if I felt safe while I was there.  I understand (and appreciate) the concern people had over visiting Israel!  

Even as I sat on the shore of the Dead Sea, water quietly rippling up onto the sand, and spa-goers peacefully floating and soaking in the minerals in the water, I looked across the water to the mountains that marked the country of Jordan.  Jordan has become home to millions of Palestinian and now Syrian refugees as they flee the civil unrest going on in Syria.  Traveling north less than 100 miles along the Dead Sea is the West Bank, one of the Palestinian controlled areas of Israel.

And yet the sun kept rising steadily.  Water kept rippling quietly on the shore.  Spa-goers kept floating peacefully.

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In a country that has been torn apart by war, surrounded by political instability, I sat on the shore watching the sunrise and soaking in the peacefulness of the moment.

In this world of ours, we see see truly incredible beauty, peace, and goodness existing right alongside unspeakable evil, sin, and brokenness.

There is terrible woundedness, and yet glorious redemption.

To live in a fallen world is to live in this tension of brokenness and redemption.  Evil and love.  Conflict and peace.

This is true for the world, and it’s also true for the human heart.  What exists as a macrocosm for humanity as a whole exists as a microcosm in our individual lives.  

We’re broken but we’re redeemed.  We sinful but we’re forgiven.  We’re proud and selfish but we’re capable of great love and mercy.

In your life, you might have a day, a week, or a month where it feels like everything is falling apart.  And yet in the midst of the chaos of your life, there are also moments of peace, beauty, and goodness. 

You are never all broken.  Your life is never all bad.

Even in the midst of conflict, evil, sin, and brokenness, beauty is breaking through.

Beauty will always break through.

Peace can always be found.

Hope is always available.

And so as people who have found hope, peace, forgiveness, and love in Jesus Christ, we need to proclaim this to the world.

Creation continues to proclaim the goodness of God.  Sunrises and sunsets.  Water washing on the shore.  Nature continues doing what it was made to do, and in doing so reminds us of the One who created all things.

How much more so do the people of God need to continue to proclaim to a world that suffers deeply that we have found hope.  That we have found peace.  That no matter how bleak the situation seems, there is still a God who deeply loves them and offers them a second chance.

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