Did the Atonement really take place in the Garden of Gethsemane – as it’s taught in Mormonism?
In Matthew chapter 26, as the Jewish religious leaders are plotting Jesus’s death and bargaining with Judas Iscariot, our Lord institutes the memorial of communion with the remaining eleven apostles in the upper room. Verse 26 “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.” And He breaks the unleavened bread to symbolize the torture His flesh was about to endure. Verse 27-28 “And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament (meaning the new covenant of grace, not the law), which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Then the Lord says something interesting, Verse 29 “But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” The blood of the New Covenant is not an animal’s blood, but Christ’s own blood. This is the last time the Master will partake of these elements with His disciples during His mortal life. And, only when His Father’s kingdom is established in heaven will we partake of the wine again. This Passover marked the end of an old era – where sacrifice looked forward to the Atonement. And the beginning of a new era -when communion was to be in remembrance of the Atonement. Jesus transforms the last Passover into the first observance of the Lord’s Supper. Verse 30 “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” Which was a short walk outside the east city wall of Jerusalem.
Verses 33-35 “Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended (meaning they will all desert Him) because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee. Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended. Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night before the cock crow (in the early morning), thou shalt deny me trice (three times). Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said ALL the disciples.” Even though Peter and the other disciples were sincere – without the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit – they would demonstrate the weakness of the flesh. They were only a few hours away from fulfilling this prophecy.
Verse 36-37 “Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee (James and John), and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.” Sorrowful and heavy over what? What their Master was about to endure. This was the place and time Satan was going to return to try and get Jesus to refuse to drink from the cup – to not submit to the Father’s will – and to live according to His own mortal desires. But I want to be clear – this is NOT the place where He would atone for the sins of the world. He was there preparing Himself for the task at hand. Gethsemane means “oil press.” The Jews put olives into bags made of mesh fabric and placed them in a press to squeeze olive oil out of them. The pure olive oil was used for healing and giving light in lanterns. Symbolically, the Savior is going into the “oil press” to submit to the pressure that was being brought upon Him as He faced the awful work of suffering torture and death for our sins. Verse 38 “Then saith he unto them (Peter, James and John), My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.” Jesus was facing great emotional turmoil, anxiety, depression – and all the tools Satan can and will use to get Him and us – to fret, worry, feel anxiety and misery. This was not the greatest physical challenge for Jesus, but it certainly affected Him physically. Satan was on His back, pressing down, whispering that the task at hand was far too heavy, far too difficult, and not really necessary. Jesus was reliving Satan’s temptation in the desert. In either circumstance He could have solved the problem through unrighteous action. But He overcame the temptation and submitted to the Father. He pleads with the three disciples to be there for Him. Verse 39 “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.” We cannot imagine what He knew was laying ahead for Him. In the Old Testament, a cup often symbolizes divine wrath against sin. The next day, Christ will bear the sins of mankind, and the fullness of divine wrath will fall on Him as He drinks the cup. He asked, Father God, if there is any other way to redeem fallen man, let it be done. But there wasn’t. If He was willing to submit His own will to the will of the Father – it was the only means to save the world. Verse 40 “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and said unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” These men weren’t indifferent to the Lord’s plight – they were being overcome by the emotion of what they had been told – finally gave way to their fatigue and sorrow. Judas had left the ranks – things were falling apart – and Jesus is saying it was all going to end here. Jesus says to them, Verse 41 “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I’m sure Jesus was experiencing that weakness in His flesh -to avoid going through what He knew was ahead for Him. Verse 42 “He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if THIS CUP may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.”
At this point, we need to turn to Luke’s account in Chapter 22 and read Verse 43 “And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.” Now, in an April 1985 General Conference talk, LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie suggested that this angel might be Michael – who is Adam. But we know that McConkie has since been pretty much thrown under the bus by the Church for a lot of controversial statements he made. I’m wondering if this heavenly angel might have been the presence of the Holy Spirit. This was the trial of the garden – Jesus overcoming the temptation to let this cup pass. Jesus is praying to have the human strength to endure the brutal beatings and torture of the cross. It was at this time, an angel was sent to support and strengthen Him.
Back to Luke Verse 44 “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.” I believe this could have been a reality. Just as Gethsemane means olive press – this was a physiological response to the pressure put upon Him. We’ve all heard the phrase “sweating bullets” when we are under stress. This idea of sweating blood just takes it to the next level. In LDS scripture, Mosiah 3:7 and Doctrine and Covenants 19:18 it says, He bled from “every pore.”
Okay, let’s return to Matthew 26 Verse 43- 45 “And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy. And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” When it seems they have had enough, Jesus says in Verse 46 “Rise, let us be going: behold, he (Judas) is at hand that doth betray me.” He is now prepared to drink the bitter cup. He didn’t drink of it in the Garden. There He was only tempted not to accept the Father’s will. Now that He has accepted the work to carry out the Father’s plan, He will begin His atoning sacrifice.
So, let’s pause here and talk about when and where the Atonement took place. Up to this point in the narrative, it hasn’t yet, began. The LDS Church would strongly disagree. In a recent General Conference address, titled “The Correct Name of the Church” President Russell M. Nelson said, “In the Garden of Gethsemane, our Savior took upon Himself every pain, every sin, and all of the anguish and suffering ever experienced by me by everyone who has ever lived or will ever live. Under the weight of that excruciating burden, He bled from every pore. All of this suffering was intensified as He was cruelly crucified on Calvary’s cross.” First, of all neither in the Bible nor in any Mormon Scripture does it state that the atonement occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane. Second, of all the Apostle Peter taught in 1 Peter 2:24 “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body (where in the Garden?) on the tree (the cross), that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye are healed.” So, who are we to believe – Russell Nelson? Or Peter? I’ll go with Peter.
We need to remember, that in Old Testament times, redemption was demonstrated through the ceremonial sacrifice of an animal. God made it clear that forgiveness would be provided only through the DEATH of an innocent substitute that represented the payment for the penalty of sin. Never did an animal sit somewhere alone in a pasture or a garden and suffer as a substitute sacrifice for sin. That animal had to die. The Latter-day Saints’ focus on the Garden of Gethsemane has absolutely no biblical connection to the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, which was a picture of the shedding of the Lord’s blood that occurred where? On the cross. Now, what about the New Testament’s statement that Jesus suffered great agony in the garden? The fact is, that the garden was where Jesus experienced great agony in His humanity over the impending pain and suffering that would culminate with His death on the cross. His will was to do the Father’s will, but His flesh was shrinking at the thought of being beaten and crucified. I can’t imagine how scared any of us would be if we were put in the same situation. Now the Latter-day Saint would argue, “but it says here in Luke 22:44 that ‘his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground.’ Isn’t that considered shedding blood?” This is my reply to that – The fact that only Dr. Luke, the physician, records that statement makes it more likely that he was using a figure of speech. The way it is written suggests that His sweat was so profuse that the drops of sweat were heavy like what great drops of blood would look like. We just read in Matthew that Jesus prayed if it be possible, “this cup” – meaning His taking on our sin – would pass from Him. But that God’s will be done. Besides, if Jesus had actually bled from every pore – His clothes would have been blood-soaked and matted to Him – easily identified by the arresting soldiers and officers.
At this point in the story, we go to the Gospel of John chapter 18. Verse 3 “Judas then, having received a band of men (soldiers) and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons.” This was a cohort of about 600 Roman soldiers along with the temple police armed and prepared for resistance. Judas had seen the miracles of Jesus and probably warned these soldiers about the power He had. Verse 4 “Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye?” Jesus was in total control of this situation. He is orchestrating the events. Verse 5 “They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them (the soldiers).” It is interesting to see the immediate reaction when the Master announces to them that He is the one they are looking for. Verse 6 “As soon then as he (Christ) had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.” Jesus says, I AM – HE – using the divine name of God – I Am – Yahweh. And they all fall backwards like dominos. This one man intimidates the entire army. Who’s in control here? Jesus is in total control. Then Jesus commands the soldiers to let the disciples go free – they are innocent. Next, we see Peter’s concern for the Jesus’ safety. Verse 10 “The Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus (a relative of the high priest).” That must have been quite a dramatic scene. Verse 11 “Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: THE CUP which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” Should I not go ahead with the Atonement? Once again, the Savior is stating that He has not YET drank the cup! He hasn’t yet suffered for the sins of the world – not in Gethsemane nor at the time of His arrest. Luke reports in 22:51, that Jesus healed the servant’s ear at that point. One would think that seeing such a miracle would have encouraged the soldiers to leave Him alone. But we read in Verse 12 “Then the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus, and bound him.” Jesus allows them to take Him. He is willing to surrender His life – and asks us to surrender our life to Him.
The rest of John chapter 18 covers the six illegal trials that Jesus had to endure along with the beatings, and torcher. It also covers Peter’s denial of Christ. I encourage you to read these passages. But I want to end by referring once again President Nelson’s conference address in which he said it was “In the Garden of Gethsemane” where Jesus suffered for the sins of the world. How can President Nelson or any one for that matter, read these verses in the Bible and reach that kind of conclusion? Remarks like his cause people to miss the significance of the Cross – to see ANOTHER Jesus – to discount the meaning of Jesus’ suffering – and revise the truth of His atoning work. Think of it like this – If Satan can get people to take their eyes off the truth of the gospel and redirect them to something that is a lie – he has won a victory. There is an abundant number of references to the Cross – where Christ suffered and died to pay the debt for our sins. Next time we will cover Christ’s atonement on the Cross, where He drank the “bitter cup.”