The number of times a word occurs in the Scriptures is always significant because number itself is significant and filled with meaning in the Bible. Some words occur but once, others twice and so on. The word sweat occurs just three times and one of the concepts involved in the number three is the idea of completeness. In nature there are three dimensions, and also three periods of time: past present and future. In the Godhead there is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Man is complete in spirit, soul and body. Hence in the three occurrences of the word sweat we should find a teaching that is complete.
The Garden of Eden
To see the first occurrence of the word sweat we must journey back to a garden, the very first garden: Eden. The name Eden means pleasure. This garden was the only perfect garden that has ever existed on earth—it was free of all weeds—for God Himself had planted the garden. We read “And Jehovah Elohim planted a garden in Eden eastward, and there put Man whom he had formed” (Gen. 2: 8). In keeping with the name of Eden, God “made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food” (v9). We are further told that God “took Man, and put him into the garden of Eden, to till it and to guard it” (v15). Man was to till the ground of the garden but there is no suggestion that his labour was to be physically excessive so that he would sweat. On the one hand he was not to be idle, but on the other his work was not to be hard—it was pleasant labour. In that idyllic scene sweat was absent.
However, Adam failed to “guard” the garden and the Enemy entered in, by way of the woman, firstly questioning and then denying outright the word of God (see Gen. 3: 1–5). Man believed the serpent rather than God. Thus, as the apostle puts it, “by one man sin entered into the world” (Rom. 5: 12). With sin, everything changed. Adam was told “cursed be the ground on thy account; with toil shalt thou eat [of] it all the days of thy life; and thorns and thistles shall it yield thee” (Gen. 3:17–18). The ground was cursed on account of man and man was to be made to feel the effect of his sin in his battle against thorns and thistles in order to “eat bread” (v19).
It is in God’s judgment upon man’s sin that we read “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, until thou return to the ground: for out of it wast thou taken. For dust thou art; and unto dust shalt thou return” (v19). This is the first occurrence of the word sweat and as ever in the Scriptures it sets the scene for the subsequent occasions. In the years that followed, when Adam laboured with the earth and sweat appeared on his brow he would be reminded of God’s judgment on sin. Thus sweat is indicative of God’s judgment on sin.
The Garden of Gethsemane
I want to take you now to a different garden (see John 18: 1). Eden means pleasure but this garden is called Gethsemane (see Matt. 26: 36; Mark 14: 32) which means oil press. Gethsemane was at the foot of the Mount of Olives (see Luke 22: 39). All of this is suggestive for while the first garden was a scene of delight and pleasure, Gethsemane, as its name implies, was a scene of intense agony under great pressure. Not only is the garden different but, more importantly, the man in the garden is different. While “the first man” was “out of [the] earth, made of dust” the “second man” was “out of heaven” (1 Cor. 15: 47). Again, while the “first man Adam became a living soul; the last Adam” is “a quickening spirit” (1 Cor. 15: 45). This is the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in relation to this Man in this garden that we have the word sweat again occurring.
All four Gospel writers describe something of the events in Gethsemane, but each account is different, just as each Gospel is different. In his Gospel, Luke peculiarly presents the Lord Jesus as the dependent Man and hence the Lord is recorded in prayer by Luke more that any other writer. Although on earth the Lord was never a priest (for He was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi) yet priestly features are seen in Him time and again. If you compare Luke’s account of this garden scene with that of his fellow evangelists, you will see that Luke presents the Lord as alone. Yes, the eleven are there but there is no mention of the privileged place of nearness that Peter, James and John have in the accounts of Matthew and Mark. In Luke He is separated from them all by “a stone’s throw” (Luke 22: 41). Now there are two verses in Luke’s account that contain language that have given some to doubt their authenticity. This may well be the reason why verses 43 and 44 are absent from some of the most ancient Greek manuscripts, even though the weight of evidence is for their inclusion. It is in these verses that the word sweat occurs. Although, as mentioned already, the Lord is recorded in prayer by Luke more than any other evangelist, we do not know what the Lord prayed on any one of those occasions except the occasion before us. Here His prayer is “Father, if thou wilt remove this cup from me:—but then, not my will, but thine be done” (v42). What was this cup? It speaks of what was before the Lord in the awful anticipation of the cross. Not the suffering that He would have to endure at the hands of men—terrible though that would be—but what He would experience as the sin bearer at the hands of a holy God, when the three hours of darkness would descend and He would be absolutely alone as man. Alone, when that most momentous of all questions would be asked: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27: 46). It was in Gethsemane that the Lord went through in His soul anticipatively all that He would endure in actuality on the cross when he was “made sin” (2 Cor. 5: 21).
Let us now focus in on these two unique verses: “And an angel appeared to him from heaven strengthening him. And being in conflict he prayed more intently. And his sweat became as great drops of blood, falling down upon the earth” (Luke 22: 43, 44). Not only is this the only occurrence of the word sweat (hidros) in the NT but the accompanying words conflict (agonia), great drops (thromboi), and more intently (ektenesteron) are also found nowhere else in the NT. What was this conflict? Luke prepares us for this when, alone among the evangelists he writes, “And the devil, having completed every temptation, departed from him for a time” (Luke 4: 13, my emphasis). In the wilderness Satan was defeated by the Word of God, when he returns in the garden he is defeated in the conflict of prayer. Satan brought all that he could muster to intensify the pressure of the cross if in anyway he could get the Lord to deviate from the pathway of God’s will. But the response of the Lord, as ever, was “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22: 42). This was the conflict in the garden.
The pressure was so great that “an angel appeared to him from heaven strengthening him” (Luke 22: 43). Why is this said? To show that the Lord was weak? No, never! But to show us the magnitude of all that was before His holy mind—to give us some indication of immensity of the pressure upon him as man. Ponder the scene with great care. Do not pass over it lightly. If this was what the anticipation of being the sin bearer involved, what would the terrible event itself entail when no eye was to penetrate the darkness of those three hours of suffering? We next read that “being in conflict he prayed more intently” (v44). More intently? Is this to show that there was some deficiency in that prayer of conflict previously? Not so! Those words are not meant to indicate that there was a lack of intensity previously, but to emphasise to our souls the increasing pressure of the conflict, with Satan marshalling all in his power to defeat the divine will. Satan would do anything to turn the Lord aside from the path of obedience. Whatever pressure the Enemy would bring to bear, the Lord would meet it. The Holy Spirit, using Luke’s pen, draws the veil aside so that we might have some tiny appreciation of the ferocity of the battle that was then fought in prayer. In Eden the first man exercised his own will and fell; in Gethsemane the Second Man bowed to the Father’s will and triumphed. This brings us to the word sweat. The Lord’s sweat we are told “became as great drops of blood”. I understand this extreme physical condition is not unknown even among men. There are records of men sweating in this way under extreme agony or fear. The single Greek word for great drops is the word from which we derive our English word thrombosis. Such sweat the Lord perspired. The teaching here of the word sweat must be now clear. It speaks with an unmistakable voice in the most lucid way of the enormity of the judgment of God on sin that the Lord would bear in his body on the tree, when Gethsemane would give place to Golgotha. My reader should now see how what took place in Gethsemane answers to what took place in Eden.
The Third Occasion
The events of Eden and Gethsemane have a corollary: the third occasion of the word sweat in the Scriptures. This is in the prophet Ezekiel. I have not dealt with these occurrences in their historical order but in their moral order so that while historically the example in Ezekiel is second, morally it is last. Perhaps Ezekiel is the most unread book in the Bible and consequently the least understood. Unless we read the Scriptures, we will never understand them.
Now I must tell you first a little about Ezekiel. His prophecy begins with the words “the word of Jehovah came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest” (Ez. 1: 3). He is thus marked out as distinct, being the only one of the prophets that was also a priest. Now the difference between the priest and the prophet is this: the priest is one that goes in to God; the prophet is one that comes out from God. The prophet’s service is manward but the priest’s service is Godward. Hence how fitting it is that Ezekiel is the one, who in the latter part of his prophecy (from chapter 40 onwards), gives us the detail of the future city of Jerusalem on earth, the temple offerings and the priesthood—for while there are similarities with the service of God in Israel in the past, there are also details that clearly indicate that what Ezekiel describes still belongs to the future.
Now just as there are similarities between the future service of Israel to God as detailed by Ezekiel and the past service to God in Israel as set out in Exodus and Leviticus, so it is important to realise that there are also similarities and differences between what pertained in Israel and what is true now for the Christian. In Israel not all were priests—only those of the household of Aaron. This difference is wrongly revived in the clerical system that prevails in much of Christendom today. God’s original thought for Israel according to Ex. 19: 6 was to have a nation of priests and Peter applies this Scripture to show that in Christianity every believer is meant to be a priest (see 1 Pet. 2: 9). In Israel there were “garments of service” for the priests (Ex. 31: 10; 35: 19; 39: 41), clothes that they only wore when they went in to God. At other times they wore “other garments” (Lev. 6: 11; Ez. 44: 19). In Christianity our “garments” are to be worn continually, not just when we go into the presence of God. There is that which we have to “put off” and that which we have to “put on” (Eph. 4: 22, 25; 6: 11, 14; Col. 3: 8, 9, 12). All this may be encompassed in Rom. 13: 14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ”. Indeed Christianity begins outwardly with baptism when we “put on Christ” (Gal. 3: 27).
Now garments are not exactly the man himself, but what is physically closest to him, so much so that a man like Elijah is outwardly identified by what he wears (see 2 Kings 1: 8). It is what I am as seen by others, and may even go so far as to represent what I am linked to outwardly (see Jude 23). We are now in a position to look at chapter 44 of Ezekiel in which the word sweat occurs.
In this chapter are reminded that the service of priests is to minister to Jehovah: “to present unto me the fat and the blood” (Ez. 44: 15) and the Scripture demands that “they shall not gird on anything that causeth sweat” (v18). What is the present application for us? This is the third time that we have the word sweat. In Genesis it was indicative of God’s judgment on man’s sin. In Luke it showed what it cost the Lord Jesus to bear that judgment. In Ezekiel it shows how man is to be before God in priestly service—the necessary conditions seen in what he wears. We will examine the detail in a moment but we can say immediately that God will not have worshippers in His presence bearing anything for which Christ had to suffer and die—in the words of Ezekiel: “anything that causeth sweat”. If I enter into the Divine presence bearing the excellency and value of the work of Christ (“the fat and the blood”) then I must not gird myself with what causes sweat. I think that this is clear in general terms, but let us delve a little more into the detail.
The teaching is not in regard to what is offered but how it is offered. There is no defect in what is offered—it is Christ and the preciousness of His sacrificial work. It is not like Cain’s offering of a cursed ground. While much of what is offered to God in Christendom may be of the same nature as that which Cain offered, being in essence the fruit of man’s labours, that is not before us here. The offering is characteristically Abel’s and acceptable to God (see Gen. 4: 4). The teaching focuses on the garments and the word is “they shall not gird on anything that causeth sweat” (Ez. 44: 18).
Peter says “and all of you bind on humility towards one another; for God sets himself against [the] proud, but to [the] humble gives grace” (1 Pet. 5: 5). The word for bind in this verse is used for the putting on of a garment. All sin falls into one of three categories: “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2: 16). All three facets were present when man first sinned: “And the woman saw that the tree was good for food (the lust of the flesh), and that it was a pleasure for the eyes (the lust of the eyes), and the tree was to be desired to give intelligence (the pride of life)” (Gen. 3: 6). The Lord was tempted on all three accounts in the wilderness (see Luke 4: 1–13) and in that moral order. In the context of Ezekiel I believe it is the facet of pride that is before us. A well–known example of this is the Pharisee of Luke 18: “I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax–gatherer” (v11). What he said may have been true, there is nothing to suggest otherwise, but it was all about himself. He had on a garment of pride. Pride is the most subtle of all the facets of sin. It may mark a man in worship, though not always in the brazen way of the Pharisee. An older brother with a wide grasp of Scripture may vaunt that knowledge when he addresses God publicly in prayer. This is wearing a garment that causes sweat, and binding on that for which Christ had to suffer and die. Again, a man’s speech may be naturally marked by a good deal of eloquence and culture. This again can generate pride before his fellow saints in addressing God. The reverse to all this can hold just as true. A man may even be proud of his ignorance and his coarseness. Pride may intrude in the most unusual of ways, but if it is pride then it is that which causes sweat.
God uses this single word sweat in the Scriptures to indicate His judgment on sin. This is clear from its first use in the Bible in Genesis. Its meaning is underlined when the Spirit of God employs the word in the description of the Lord’s agony in Gethsemane in His anticipation of the bearing of that judgment. Finally, the application of its use in Ezekiel completes the teaching by demanding that we take nothing into God’s presence for which Christ had to die. This then is the teaching of the word sweat.