In This Chapter
|Matthew 26:40-45||Mark 14:37-41||Luke 22:43-46|
|Then he returned to the disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Do you not have the strength to watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not enter into temptation; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again for a second time he went away and prayed, saying, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from me unless I drink it, your will be done.” And returning he found them again sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. Leaving them he went away again and prayed a third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Do you intend to sleep on and on, taking your rest? Behold, the hour has come and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.”||Then he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Do you not have the strength to watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not enter into temptation. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak. And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. Returning, he found them again sleeping, for their eyes were heavy, and they did not know how they should answer him. And he came the third time and said to them, “Do you intend to sleep on and on, taking your rest? The account is closed; the hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.”||And an angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him. And being in agony, he prayed more fervently, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground. And when he rose up from prayer he came to the disciples and found them sleeping, exhausted from sheer grief; and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise up and pray so that you will not enter temptation.”|
A Quick Dip1
Strength (Matt/Mark): This Greek word means more than having the ability to do something (here, stay awake and pray). To possess strength means to possess the physical and spiritual power necessary to competently complete a desired task. Jesus asks Peter — the Rock, the one who claimed that he had the courage to follow Jesus to death — “Are you not physically and spiritually strong enough to simply watch with me?” Clearly Peter and the others are unable to access the power they need in the garden.
Strengthening (Luke): This word is derived from the same Greek root as strength. When the angel appears to Jesus, the message it delivers supplies the physical and spiritual power that Jesus needs to accomplish his assignment. In the garden, Jesus regains more than his strength. Prayer empowers Jesus.
Spirit (Matt/Mark): Here spirit is similar to the Hebrew word for heart. The spirit or heart is the place which contains the true essence of a person. It is the inner place where God’s Spirit touches one’s life. Indeed, we often say that God’s Spirit moves or works within a person’s heart.
Flesh (Matt/Mark): Literally, flesh describes the outer physical body; figuratively, it represents human nature and its passions. Here in Matthew and Mark, that which is emotionally and mentally inferior (i.e. anxiety, fear, cowardice) is attributed to the flesh. In these passages, the contrast between flesh and spirit is a contrast between the disciple’s outward physical/mental/emotional state of being and the deeper, internal, heart-felt desires which pulse within the very core of their beings.
Rose up/rise up (Luke): Literally, to rise means to get up, especially after sleep or illness. This same word describes Jesus’ physical resurrection; Jesus rises up from death as one would rise up from sleep. Here, however, rise up is used figuratively to point to a spiritual reawakening or resurrection.
- Why could the disciples not stay awake in Gethsemane?
- What weaknesses keep you from praying to God? What causes you to “give up too easily” when you need to pray?
- What do you suppose would have happened to the disciples if they had prayed instead of slept?
Willingness Versus Weakness
When the disciples enter Gethsemane with Jesus, they are determined to stand firmly by their Master. Though Jesus has predicted betrayal and denial, the disciples do not believe him. They will never abandon their teacher, their friend. Peter has declared that he is ready to go to prison with Jesus, even to die with Jesus (Luke 22:33. The others feel the same way. Looking into the faces of his followers, Jesus understands their willingness — their eagerness to move in the right direction. He can see into their hearts. He knows that these dedicated men truly want to remain loyal to their Master: the spirit indeed is willing. However, Jesus also knows the human limitations of his followers. Human beings, by their very natures, are filled with frailties and weaknesses: fear, anxiety, doubt, cowardice. Regardless of how badly the disciples want to stand by Jesus, on their own they lack the strength they need to accomplish this task. A willing spirit is just not going to be enough: the flesh is weak. So Jesus instructs his disciples to watch and pray. Yet as they kneel down in the darkness of the lonely garden and look upon the tormenting anguish of their Master, their strength dissolves. Jesus’ words of betrayal, denial, suffering, and tortuous death fill their minds and hearts. Anxiety pulses; doubt creeps in. Fear begins to grip their hearts. Focused on their own anguish and grief, weakness overcomes strength, and the disciples succumb to sleep.
In contrast, we see Jesus kneeling just a stone’s throw away. Jesus understands the weakness of the flesh; he feels the same weakness within his own body. He feels the same grief, the same anxiety, the same fear. It falls from him like great drops of blood upon the ground. Yes, Jesus understands the limitations of human strength. That is why again and again he goes to rouse his sleeping pupils and instructs them to pay attention. Jesus wants the disciples — he wants you and me — to learn how to access the strength we need to carry out God’s plan. How does Jesus do this? How does his prayer differ from the attempted prayers of the disciples? Let’s look and see.
Strength Versus Sleep
Our last question is difficult to answer because the Gospels do not record any of the disciples’ words of prayer. Yet Luke provides us with an important clue. When Jesus returned to the disciples, Luke says that he found them, “sleeping, exhausted from sheer grief.” The disciples were exhausted, worn out by their own fear and anguish. It is clear that when the disciples knelt down to pray, they were focused on their anxieties. And since they were focused entirely on their own feelings and concerns, it is possible that they did not pray at all. Indeed, it appears that instead of praying to God, the disciples were worrying to God. And the difference between praying and worrying is the difference between strength and sleep. Just look at Jesus.
We have Jesus’ words. Jesus begins his prayer as the disciples probably began theirs. He, too, pours out his grief and fear, his worries and his wants, “My soul is very sorrowful…if only…let this cup pass…” But then Jesus does what the disciples failed to do. As we saw in the last chapter, Jesus’ prayer does not end here. Instead, Jesus shifts his focus from his worries to God’s plan: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” It is this shift, this change in focus from his own emotional turmoil to God’s grand design that leads Jesus away from worrying and into real prayer. Jesus teaches us right here in the garden that if we will turn our focus, then we can turn our hearts and minds — in the same manner that we can turn a radio dial — away from the pure static of worrying and tune into the clear channel of prayer which connects us with God’s Spirit of strength.
Yes, in the garden, we watch the disciples kneel down and begin to worry. Lost in a sea of static, they are overcome by waves of weakness and they fall asleep. In contrast, we watch Jesus kneel down and begin to pray. What, then, happens to Jesus? Well, he certainly doesn’t fall asleep. As Jesus prays the same words over and over, an angel arrives with a message of strength and encouragement. Even though his sweat falls like great drops of blood, Jesus is not overcome. Furthermore, when the hour has ended, we watch Jesus rise up — resurrected — with renewed life in his spirit. Through prayer, Jesus finds the strength he needs. When Judas arrives with the rabble, Jesus is ready.
The difference in the garden between the sleeping disciples and the spiritually resurrected Jesus lies in what happened when they each knelt down to pray. When Jesus turned his focus away from his own grief and asked for God’s will to be done, he opened his mind, his heart, and his spirit to receive God’s instructions, God’s insights, God’s comfort, and God’s strength. When we kneel down to pray for ourselves, the best thing we can do is to turn our focus away from our own concerns and tune into God’s will.
A Personal Lesson
I wish I had studied this prayer years ago. I remember so clearly a dark time in my marriage when my husband and I experienced a painful period of conflict that almost led to our separation. During that difficult time, I turned to God in “prayer.” I “prayed” every day. For over a year, I poured out my fear, my grief, my pain, and my distress. However, the conflict only escalated and left me feeling like I was trapped in a huge downward spiral spinning completely out of control. I did not know what to do, so I “prayed” even harder — worrying, fretting, and grieving — until I became completely exhausted. And still the spiraling continued.
Looking back, I can see now that I was not really praying at all. I was completely focused on my own emotional turmoil, drowning in a sea of static, unable to tune into God’s voice because I clung so tightly to my own wants and desires, my own worries and pain. I did not know how to turn the dial. I did not know how to tune in. I desperately needed Jesus’ last lesson. Finally one night, like an alcoholic, I reached rock bottom. I thought I had tried everything, but there was one thing I had not done. Led by God’s grace, I fell to my knees. From the depth of my soul I prayed, “Oh God, I don’t know what to do. Please, just tell me what you want me to do.” And all at once — at that moment and with those words — the spiraling stopped. The dial was turned. The static cleared. I could hear God’s voice at last. God gave me instructions. God gave me comfort. God gave me hope. God gave me strength. Thankfully, I discovered that God’s plan for my marriage was not strife and separation, but healing and wholeness.
In the years that followed that moment of grace in my life, I could never really explain what had happened that dark night. I knew that the static had been dispelled, but I did not know how. Not until I studied this prayer did I realize what I had done. I had wasted a year worrying to God: worrying with an open mouth, a closed heart, and closed ears. My “prayers” had sounded something like this: “Oh God, my heart is breaking…I am in so much pain…What is going to happen to us…What will I do if we separate… What will I tell the children…We’ll never survive financially…I wish things could change…I’m so tired…I can’t handle this…I wish…”
Looking back, I can still feel those piercing anxieties and that contrasting sense of relief I experienced at that moment when I turned my focus and started to really pray. Why did it happen at that particular moment? Maybe my worries just ran out, maybe I was so exhausted my tongue finally ceased to wag, maybe there was nowhere else to go but up. But I did look up. When I prayed, “God, show me what you want me to do,” I took my eyes off of my grief and began to look for God’s plan. When I finally shut my mouth, I was able to open my ears to God’s voice and my heart to God’s Spirit. The channel suddenly became so clear.
If only I had understood Jesus’ lesson from the garden earlier! If I had, then when the conflict first began, I would have known what to do. I would have known that I needed to stop worrying to God and start praying to God; I would have been able to move so much more quickly from sleep to strength. This is why I am so thankful for this lesson today. Now, when faced with a similar situation, Jesus has taught me how to pray: “Master, show me what you want me to do, and please give me the strength to do it. Your will, not mine, be done.”
Going back to Gethsemane, I have often wondered what would have happened to the disciples if they had shifted their focus and prayed instead of slept. How would their story have changed? The soldiers still would have come; Jesus still would have been arrested. However, if the disciples had prayed as Jesus had, perhaps they would have found the strength to follow Jesus into that courtroom. Of course, Jesus might have sent them away for their own safety, but instead of hiding in fear, perhaps they would have waited with expectation. They still would have experienced the agony and grief they felt over Jesus’ terrible death, but perhaps an angel would have been sent to comfort them. What is more, on Sunday morning — instead of sending some women to the tomb with spices and burial cloths — perhaps they would have all gone to the tomb, not with linens, but with a new robe for their Master. However, because they chose to worry rather than to pray, the disciples had no strength with which to face the soldiers or the events to come. Even Peter, the Rock, became nothing more than shifting sand. Jesus had foreseen it: the disciples fell asleep and fell away. In Gethsemane, the disciples failed their test. They failed their Master.
Fortunately, the disciples’ failure in the garden was only temporary. Perhaps their failure even underscored the importance of the lesson Jesus taught there. After all, the lesson was not lost. We just read it. The disciples must have stayed awake long enough to overhear Jesus’ prayer. Someone saw the angel. And of course they witnessed the renewed strength with which Jesus met not only the soldiers but his horrible death. No, the lesson was not lost on the sleeping disciples.
How do we know this? Because of what happened to them later — much later. After the resurrection and Jesus’ ascension, after Pentecost and those early days, the disciples faced other tests, other temptations. As God’s plan for their lives unfolded, as they carried the good news throughout the world, each of them was tested. Whether it was in a prison cell, on public trial, awaiting persecution or even death, each disciple must have remembered the last lesson. In all of those dark, desperate times, I imagine the disciples recalling their Master’s prayer and their Master’s strength. And when they had to choose again, this time they chose to pray as Jesus had, falling at their Father’s feet, focusing on their Father’s plan, and asking that his will be done. In the end, each of them found the strength they needed to rise up and stand firm, to remain loyal to the Master who had loved them and taught them so well.
Perhaps, like me, you too have failed in the past and have chosen at times to sleep rather than to pray. Like the disciples, our failure does not need to remain permanent. We can learn the lesson Jesus taught in the garden. The next time we are tempted, we are invited to follow the example of our beloved Master. Jesus invites us to go to our solitary place and pray, to turn the dial, to tune in, to move into the arms of the one who will give us the strength we need to stand firm and to follow his will for our lives. “Your will, not mine, be done.” When we open our hearts to God’s will, we allow our Daddy to breathe renewed life and strength into our spirits. We allow our Master’s power to overcome our weakness. We allow the angel of encouragement to wipe our brows and touch our souls. If we will pray this prayer, then we will allow our spirits to be raised up — resurrected — and we will find ourselves ready to face whatever task our Daddy has set before us to do.
Chapter 8 Footnotes
1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.