As pastor I’ve seen people face death in a variety of ways. But there is something different about how Jesus confronts death in the olive grove known as the Garden of Gethsemane as Matthew 26:36–46 records it for us.
See Christ beginning the sufferings of his death on the cross. Christ began to suffer the pains of hell. Christ’s sorrow is an overwhelming sorrow. His soul is overwhelmed to the point of death, verse 38. He seeks the watchful support and prayers of the disciples, especially of Peter, James, and John. If you ever question the true humanity of Christ, this scene resolves those doubts. This scene in the garden marks a transition in Christ’s work. Christ begins to be sorrowful and troubled, verse 37. You cannot explain the transition simply in terms of what is going on in Christ’s heart and mind. He know beforehand what lies ahead. The actions of Judas (whose footsteps are approaching), and even of Satan, don’t explain the beginning of this suffering. Rather, the beginning of this intense suffering lies with the Father. Jesus has completed his work of teaching his disciples. They have left the upper room. Now the Father begins to forsake his Son. The agony in the garden will culminate in the cry of Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “In death God is near to his own, so that it becomes for them a passage to eternal life. But that is not how Christ experienced it. He, with his holy nature, lived through it as no sinful person can; he took the cup into his hand and—voluntarily—emptied it to the last drop. By the power of love, he laid down life itself and, fully conscious and with a firm will, entered the valley of the shadow of death. There he was, and felt, forsaken by God, so that in precisely that fashion he might be able to taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9)” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, pages 389–390)
Christ suffered alone. He separated himself from the disciples. He left the body of the disciples at a distance. He took Peter, James and John closer to the place where he would pray, and asked them to watch and pray. He went still farther before he fell to the ground and prayed. He was separated from all men. Jesus was abandoned by men. Sometimes all you can do for someone who is grieving is to be there. But even that did not happen in this case. The disciples fell asleep, and resumed sleeping after being admonished to watch an pray, verses 40,41. Jesus Christ was being separated from the Father. The human isolation was indicative of the isolation Christ was experiencing as the sin-bearer, as the second Adam. The wrath of God against the sins of his people was being poured out on the Christ. That isolation from his Father’s favor, rather than the physical agony of the torture and crucifixion, was the cause of Christ’s suffering.
Trust the Savior who submitted to the Father’s will. Can this cup be taken from Christ? Christ prayed for the removal of this cup, verse 39. He was about to drink the dregs of the wrath of God against sin. The request is understandable. He was enduring more than a man could endure. A believer may be able to face death calmly. He knows that, while death is still the last enemy, it is an enemy whose sting is gone. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Christ was facing death in the ultimate sense. Death involves separation. He was beginning to be separated from his Father. No human being has ever enjoyed perfect fellowship with God. But Christ had—and now that was being given up. There is something in the very depths of Christ’s heart that wants to avoid this cup of suffering. “In the room of the Passover, Christ is He who gives, He who gives Himself to His own. Exalted and absolute, He performs His work for them. But in Gethsemane Christ is the poor and naked one who receives. He is a child; so very helpless that He cries for a few faithful friends, who, be it for but one hour, may watch with Him—” “One would need to have been in hell for some time in order to understand what it is that is tearing Jesus apart in the garden.” (K. Schilder, Christ in His Suffering, pages 290, 296) Imagine the consequences if the cup had been removed! Be cautious about speculation, but Jesus did know that there were alternatives. He could have asked for, and received, the protection of twelve legions of angels, verse 54. He might have stepped back from the path of suffering that lay before him. Ultimately you and I face the question, not if we will die, but how we will die. Christ voluntarily laid down his life. But if he had pushed back this cup of suffering, if he had availed himself of the legions of angels, he would not have carried out his Father’s will. He would not have accomplished what he had come to do—obtain your salvation for the glory of his Father.
The Father’s will be done! To do his Father’s will involves drinking this cup. Therefore Christ will drink this cup of suffering to the very bottom. Christ’s focus is on his Father. He is not thinking first of all of the disciples, or of you and me and the others for whom he was giving his life. Rather, he is simply doing his Father’s will. He learned obedience by his suffering, Hebrews 5:8. No matter what the cost, no matter how great the agony, he will drink that cup. He will voluntarily lay down his life. He will separate himself from all of his Father’s love and support, and experience only his wrath against sin. He will undergo the pains of hell. And, wonder of wonders, the Father’s will is that as he gives his beloved Son to do this, your salvation is the result. Because the Son suffered in your place, you are never abandoned by the Father. Because he submitted to the Father’s will in the ultimate sense, you can pray, “Your will be done.” Don’t look at Christ’s agony in the garden as a paradigm of how you ought to prepare for your death. Rather, see the suffering of the Son of Man as unique. Trust him. What you cannot do—pay the price for your sins—he has done for you.
Look at the Savior suffering in the garden. As you understand why he had to suffer, as you trust in his work in your place, you learn, not just how to die, but how to live, both in this life and in the life to come, to the glory of the Father.