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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Donkeys + Palm Branches: What’s the deal with Palm Sunday?

Birthdays and bridal showers.  Work schedule and working out.  Fundraisers and friends.  Trips and to-do lists.

I just turned 32, and when people ask me if I feel any different, I respond, “I feel tired.  I think feeling 32 feels like being tired.”

In the midst of this, because I work at a church and Easter is kind of a big deal for us, I’ve spent countless hours thinking about the significance of Easter and the events leading up to it.

In doing so, I realized I’ve never given much thought to Palm Sunday.  At best, it served as a week’s notice that Easter would be here soon, cueing a rush to get those Easter eggs dyed and stock up on my annual Cadbury fix, because the real show would be coming soon.  It was the advance warning:  If you are singing hosanna and there’s talk of palm branches, make sure you’ve got your Easter plans locked in because you’ve only got a week left.

Poor Palm Sunday.  You’re the opening act.  No one actually buys tickets to see you.

And yet this year, perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m excited to celebrate Palm Sunday.  Why?

Palm Sunday is one big party about how life is better when Jesus is in charge.

Here’s a  little more of what I’ve learned about Palm Sunday, and why you might want to be excited about what it points too as well!

PASSOVER

The original Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem the Sunday before his eventual crucifixion, was taking place at the end of Passover.  Passover week commemorated God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of the clutches of the Egyptians. It was a joyous celebration, a time when people from all over Israel would converge in Jerusalem to remember and celebrate what God had done.  Under the current Roman occupation, hopes for a future deliverance would be running high.

Psalm 118 was on the lips of everyone at the time.  It was a song that looked forward to the Messiah, the descendant of David who would reclaim the throne and restore Israel.  All week, people were shouting:

LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you.

The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.

(Psalm 118:25-27, NIV)

HOSANNA

One of the Hebrew words from Psalm 118:25 looks like this:

הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה

 If you squint just right, or if you know your Hebrew alphabet, this spells hosanna

It’s from the Hebrew verb, yasha, to save, deliver, give victory, or help.  In other words, “Lord, save us!”

Expectantly hoping for the Messiah, the one who would deliver them, the Israelites looked forward to the day when God’s rightful king would once more ascend the throne.  He would lead his people to victory, and he would also lead them back to true worship of Yahweh.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNT), on the origin of the word “hosanna,” elaborates on the significant role of Psalm 118:

“The Psalm is suited for a description of the Davidic king, in his role as the Melchizedek priest, leading his people in procession to Yahweh’s house.  In this context the cry, ‘O, Save’ would indicate an imploring cry to Yahweh to bring to reality that which the liturgy has depicted.  Judaism later followed out this thought by making the great cry focus on the expectation of the messianic king.”

DONKEYS AND PALM BRANCHES

Psalm 118:27 describes how the Messiah’s procession would be celebrated with boughs (palm branches) in hand.

In addition to the messianic hopes of Psalm 118, another key passage the Israelites would have fresh in their minds as they look for their deliverer is Zechariah 9:9 (NIV):

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The NIDNT continues to expound on the significance of “hosanna” as its use continued in 1st century Judaism:

“By NT times, Hosanna had become a full ‘cultic cry’…. The sight of Jesus fulfilling the kingly prophecy of Zech. 9:9, coupled with the strewing and waving of branches reminiscent of the ceremonial fronds which had come to characterize the Feast of Tabernacles, prompted the shout appropriate to that occasion and, all unwittingly, they greeted the true David with the Davidic welcome.”

Passover, hosanna, donkeys and palm branches

Seriously, who comes up with this stuff?  Now that you have some historical context, read the account from Matthew about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem:

Matthew 21:1-9 (NIV)

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

 WHY PALM SUNDAY MATTERS TODAY

The people of Israel are beat up, broken, oppressed, marginalized, and longing for the days when God’s favor was with them.  They are holding out hope for this promised Messiah figure, the one who would once again establish God’s rule and reign.

 They know that life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.

 When God’s anointed is on the throne, all is as it should be.

That’s what people are hoping for that first Palm Sunday. And maybe that’s a little bit of what you and I need today.


Even at its best, this life on earth carries with it a level of brutality and brokenness.  I would say there are a lot of good things in my life right now.  But even with all those good things, I’m so aware of my own sin and brokenness, and the profound brutality and brokenness of the world around me.

Even at its best, this life is far from perfect.  And this world will never BE perfect until Jesus comes again and once more humanity is living fully under the rule and reign of the rightful King.

Palm Sunday is about the hope that God will make, and indeed is making, all things right.

Life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.

Humankind was made to live in a proper relationship with our Creator—a relationship where His divine design for life and human flourishing is realized.  Humanity is at its best when it is submitted to the way God designed life to be lived, reconciled to God as well as to each other.

The first Palm Sunday inaugurated a beautiful opening act, setting the stage for Jesus to conquer the power of sin and death through his death and resurrection.  The rightful king reclaimed his people, his territory.  Since that first triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the story of God taking back the hearts of his people from the clutches of the enemy continues to unfold.  The rule and reign of Christ was undeniably established that week, but it is not yet fully here.

This Jesus life is here, now, in glimpses.  Sin no longer has mastery over us.  Death no longer has the final say.  Hope, joy, love, and peace are abundantly available as we walk through life with God.

There are moments, glimpses, when we see just how breathtakingly beautiful life with God was meant to be.  But then we come crashing back to this earth, and the brutal reality of living in a broken world hits us anew.

Life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.  As we encounter the places in this world where the ways of God are not recognized or lived out, it serves as a brutal reminder of just how broken this world still is.

Can you imagine what it will be like when there’s no more glimpses, and we are blinded by the beauty that is fully revealed?

Can you imagine what it’s like when, for the first time since the garden, humanity is living fully under the rule and reign of God and sin and brokenness are nowhere to be found?

Palm Sunday is a foreshadowing of what the real triumphal entry will be like.  Jesus came once to Jerusalem and initiated a new way for God’s people to be reconciled, a new way to live, a new way for the kingdom of God to start pushing back the darkness in this world.

But another Palm Sunday is coming, and on that day all the wrongs of this world will finally be made right.

The rightful king will be on the throne, and all will be as it should be.

The King of Kings will be the ONLY King, and the ways of God will rule once more on earth.


For the first time in my life this week, I genuinely prayed for Jesus to come back.

I love my life, and yes, there are definitely still a lot of things I’m hoping to experience and see before my time here on earth is done.  But honestly, I’m also ready to be done with the brokenness.  I’m ready to be done with sin.  I’m ready to not have my heart broken as I hear about the brutal and harsh realities taking place around the world.

God, save us.

Hosanna, God save us!

This world will never fully be right until YOU are once again fully in charge. 


That, dear friends, is a little bit more of what I think Palm Sunday is supposed to be about.  I hope you’ll join with me in celebrating this Sunday.  Let’s celebrate that Jesus is the rightful king, and rejoice in the victory He has already accomplished over sin and death.  But let’s also look forward to the day when the final Palm Sunday arrives!