All Nations: Gethsemane and the Church

by Robert Moses, guest contributor to Bible Land Explorer

We walk down a busy street in Jerusalem. Tucked away on the left is a garden of olive trees at the foot of the Mt of Olives. The busyness of the intersection belies the sacredness of the space. This is the Garden of Gethsemane (Heb "olive oil press"), the place where Jesus agonized over his approaching suffering.

Olive trees in the garden. Image by Robert Moses.

Adjacent to the garden is a church built on the rock where Jesus is believed to have prayed. It is the Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony. It faces the Old City of Jerusalem. Inside, we find a solemn worship service. Antonio Barluzzi, the Italian architect who designed the basilica, engineered the interior of the building to reflect a particular mood: there is little natural light and the stars in the ceiling suggest a night sky. This mood makes sense: the structure commemorates Jesus's confrontation with suffering. Here, we discover his humanity and weakness as he prayed for an alternative route for his mission.

The mood inside the Basilica is somber. Image by Robert Moses.

I have been thinking about many things since my trip to Israel-Palestine. One question is "What is the relationship between Gethsemane and All Nations?" Of course, the name of the church building reflects the fact that the building was constructed using funds donated by different nations. But is there a theological connection between Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations? Perhaps it might be helpful to begin at the place in Scripture that the name of the church echoes.

The physical context of the Church of All Nations (capped with several grey domes in center-right). The structure sits at the base of the Mt of Olives (right) facing the Kidron Valley (center) and the Old City of Jerusalem (off screen, left). Image by Mark Ziese.

In Matthew 28:19, the risen Jesus commissions his disciples.

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (NRSV).

There is a very interesting wordplay in this passage. The Greek word translated as "nations" is the word ethne. In the New Testament, the word is often translated as "Gentiles," which suggests "Non-Jews." This observation is significant because earlier in Matthew's Gospel Jesus had charged his disciples.

"Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 10:5-6).

In other words, in the first commission, Jesus sent his disciples to Jews only. This was not a mission to non-Jews: Samaritans, Gentiles, or any other nation. 

A carved medallion on a stone in the courtyard of the Church of All Nations. All Christians are welcome to this place which is held in trust by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Image by Mark Ziese.

But by the end of Matthew's Gospel, the same Jesus now commissions his disciples to go and preach to all nations. Why this change? What caused this shift?

Matthew would likely say that the death of Jesus has ushered in a New Age. This New Age is signified by a New Creation and a New People. Notice that Matthew's Gospel is the only Gospel that includes signs accompanying Jesus's death that go beyond the temple curtain being torn in two;

"At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection, they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Matt 27:51-53).

The entrance to the Church of All Nations. Note the olive tree through the archway. Image by Robert Moses.

New Testament scholar Donald Senior has argued convincingly that these signs signify that God's New Age has begun. God is doing a new thing. God's new creation is shown through nature responding to Jesus's death: the earth quakes, the rocks are split, etc. But the New Age is also marked by God's creation of a New People. And we notice this through two things: first, saints are raised from the dead and they enter the Holy City. The fact that these resurrected saints go into Jerusalem (the Holy City) may suggest to us that these saints are Jews. It does not stop there, since Gentiles also respond to Jesus's death in the next verse:

"Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, 'Truly this man was God's son'"(Matt 27:54)!

In this profound scene, we see the creation of a new people comprised of both Jews (the saints who enter Jerusalem) and Gentiles (the Roman soldiers) in God's New Age. Thus, at the end of Matthew's Gospel, the same Jesus who had forbade his disciples from preaching to non-Jews now sends them to preach the gospel to all nations, a testament to the fact that we are now living in a New Age in which God has reconstituted his people to include both Jews and Gentiles.

All this may not have been possible had Jesus evaded the cup at Gethsemane.

We might say that at stake in this prayer was the creation/non-creation of a "church of all nations." There is no death without perseverance at Gethsemane and there is no "church of all nations" without death.

The façade of the Church of All Nations. Image by Robert Moses.

May God's church of every nation and every tribe (Rev 7:9) never forget Gethsemane; for it was here that Jesus resolved to drink the cup. It was here that Jesus allowed the will of God to override his own feelings regarding the torture of crucifixion. The fruit of this was the creation of a church of all nations. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ! 

Dr. Robert Moses serves as an Assistant Professor of Religion at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina. He holds degrees from Howard University and Duke University and has written professionally on the concept of power in the Pauline letters. Robert was a member of our January 2017 Fam Trip to Israel-Palestine. To learn more about his work and ministry follow the link here.