John 19 is a very familiar chapter to many of us. We have read it dozens (or maybe, in some cases, hundreds) of times, and have often absorbed its historical narrative on that remarkable day when the Lord of Life and Glory hung in shame on a cross, suffering and dying as he bore our sins. Familiarity, though, while a good thing in one sense, can often cause us to overlook details in the text as we quickly skim over words that we can almost repeat by heart. It is sometimes a good thing when reading familiar passages to slow down and look for individual clauses that perhaps you haven’t really noticed before – and then meditate on these phrases and enjoy the significant additional beauties that some of these small details can bring out about our Saviour and his wonderful work on the cross.
Some time ago, I was struck like this by the little expression in John 19:41 which says – “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden”. It’s a bit of a strange thing – an ironic juxtaposition of the cruelty, noise, commotion, blood, violence and hatred of a crucifixion scene over against the tranquility, beauty, peace and fruitfulness of a garden. It seems unusual to have an occasion of such indescribable horror and a scene of sublime beauty and serenity so closely linked in the same place. And yet that’s what the verse says – “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden” .
I enjoyed in my own meditation thinking on a number of things we know about a garden, and how the cross work of our Lord Jesus Christ shows us these things in their fullness. I’ve outlined a number of these considerations below.
One thing that is unmistakable when we see a well-tended garden is that someone planned this – it didn’t just happen! I remember a number of years ago hiking in the hills of Tobago with some of the believers from the Glen Rd assembly in Scarborough, the capital city. As we walked through the hills you saw the beauties of the tropical landscape – thick lush underbrush, large canopies of tropical trees, and wide expanses of unspoiled natural growth. But as our hike progressed and we neared our intended destination we began to see the gardens – beautiful, orderly, terraced gardens cut into those tropical hills. It was obvious as you looked at the meticulously cut and maintained terraces and the plants at various stages of growth – that this didn’t just happen randomly. Someone planned it – someone designed it – someone moved with purpose and determination to put it all into place.
If that is true in the natural realm – we see a beautiful garden (whether a flower garden or a fruit or vegetable garden) and right away we realize the deliberate design that went into it – how much more significant to remember that “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden”. Not just the literal meaning of these words (there was a literal garden nearby Golgotha) but symbolically, if a garden reminds us of deliberate design, then how much more do we see the hand of a deliberate designer when we consider the place where he was crucified. To a casual onlooker that day it may have seemed like a scene of utter chaos – cruel sinners got their hands on God’s son and energized by all the powers of darkness they vented the fury and hatred and sin and rebellion of the human heart against that tender-hearted man. As soldiers swung the hammer and hurled their insults and raised a hyssop branch and ultimately plunged a spear it may have seemed to some that men were simply having their way. As priests mocked and people scorned and friends fled and enemies blasphemed it may have seemed to many that God was absent. But we know so much better. Acts 4 puts it all so clearly as it describes “the kings of the earth” standing up and “the rulers gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ” but then goes on to state that “both Herod and Pontius Pilate with the Gentiles and the people of Israel were gathered together to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done”. Peter states it again clearly in his sermon to the Jewish leaders in Acts 2:23 – he describes them taking Christ and “by wicked hands, crucifying and slaying” him – but he prefaces that charge by stating “Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God – ye have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain”. Nothing happened by chance at Calvary – Golgotha was absolutely not a scene of chaos. Just as surely as an earthly garden is evidence of deliberate design and planning, so too when we consider that “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden” let us remember that the cross-work of our Saviour was carefully planned and pre-determined by our God long before worlds were even formed!
Labour, Toil and Work
I am no gardener – but I have seen enough gardens and witnessed the efforts of enough gardeners to know this – a garden always involves work. Hard work – diligent toil – devoted, determined, disciplined focused effort. Someone has to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, remove the weeds, water and feed the seedlings, nurture and tend the plants – all of it represents constant, consistent, committed work. Just as surely as a garden doesn’t just “happen” without deliberate design – so too a garden inevitably represents work and toil and labour. Reverently let us always remember that the cross experience of Christ represented the culmination of the greatest work that any human being has ever undertaken. The Lord spoke of it to his Father in John 17, referring to it as “the work thou gavest me to do”. He was consistently committed, he toiled tirelessly, he was determined and devoted and disciplined, and Calvary represented, in a very real way, the place where his greatest work was going to be done. And one of the most wonderful things to remember about his work at the cross is that it was finished!! Any garden is a place of work – in the place where he was crucified there was a garden – and this should remind us of the incomparable, incomprehensible, inexhaustible work the Saviour accomplished there that day.
Hope of a Future Harvest
But thirdly, a garden is a place where all of the design and the work and the toil and the labour is undertaken with a very specific goal – the hopes of a future bountiful harvest. Every farmer knows the annual ritual – you plant, you tend, you nurture, you cultivate, you labour and you toil – but eventually the day comes when you reap the harvest and receive the reward of all your labour. How touching to think that “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden”. The Lord himself said during his life that “except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone, but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). And there at the cross, he became that corn of wheat – he suffered and he bled and he ultimately died – but all of that was with a view to a bountiful harvest that he knew would result. That harvest began just 3 days later – when in might and triumph and power and glory, with immeasurable joy and unstoppable authority, He conquered death and arose in glorious life. The bountiful harvest had begun! The garden was bearing fruit! 1 Corinthians 15 refers to Christ as “the firstfruits” – and promises a wonderful future bounty and a tremendous harvest. Verse 23 of that chapter describes “Christ the firstfruits, then afterwards those who are Christ’s at his coming”. What a perspective to have on our world – in one sense, in terms of the wickedness of unregenerate man, the world is like a field that is ripening for the judgement of God. But in another sense, for those who are Christ’s, the Church is like a promising harvest field, filled with His fruit, and He is about to come and reap the bountiful harvest – not of what we have done – but the bountiful harvest of what He has done! The seed that fell into the ground and died at Golgotha’s cross with all of its suffering and shame, will one day yield an immeasurable harvest which will be to the praise and honour and glory of our God forever!l What an incredible honour to be part of that harvest that will bring honour and glory to Him.
So as you go about the activities of your busy life today – take a moment to reflect again on the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ – remember these simple words John wrote – “now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden” – and ponder in a fresh way the deliberate design and purpose of our God, the tireless toil and finished work of our Saviour and the bountiful harvest day that is about to dawn. And as each of us considers these things may our hearts be stirred to love him more, serve him faithfully, and look expectantly for him to come and reap that which is rightfully his! This could be the last weekly devotional ever sent out to the Langstaff assembly – if He comes before next Lord’s Day to gather up his own, then by next Monday we will be in his presence – to be with him and be like him forever!