But when the Lord returned to the three disciples, He found them sleeping. That discovery, though not unexpected, must have added greatly to His grief and distress. No one can disappoint and hurt us so deeply as those we love. Jesus was not surprised, because in His omniscience He was perfectly aware of their weakness and had predicted that it would, that very night, be manifested even in desertion (see v. 31). But that knowledge did not alleviate the pain caused by their not being sensitive enough or caring enough to watch and pray with Him in the last hours of His life.
Just as these same three disciples had slept when Jesus was transfigured (Luke 9:28, 32), they were sleeping at the moment of the greatest spiritual conflict in the history of the world. They were oblivious to the agony and need of their Lord. Despite His warnings of their abandonment and of Peter’s denial, they felt no need to be alert, much less to seek God’s strength and protection. (How we can thank the Lord for the gift of the Holy Spirit, who continually prays for us! See Rom. 8:26–27.)
It was probably after midnight, and the need for sleep at that hour was natural. Jesus and the disciples had had a long and eventful day, and they had just finished a large meal and walked perhaps a mile or so from the upper room to the Mount of Olives. But even the disciples’ limited and confused perception of His imminent ordeal and of their desertion of Him that He had predicted should have motivated and energized them enough to stay awake with Him at this obviously grave time.
In fairness, it should be noted that sleep is often a means of escape, and the disciples may have slept more out of frustration, confusion, and depression than apathy They could not bring themselves to face the truth that their dear friend and Lord, the promised Messiah of Israel, not only would suffer mockery and pain at the hands of wicked men but would even be put to death by them. As a physician, Luke perhaps was especially diagnostic in viewing their emotional state, and he reports that, as we might expect, they were “sleeping from sorrow” (22:45).
But even that reason did not excuse their lack of vigilance. They did not fully believe Jesus’ predictions of His death and of their desertion primarily because they did not want to believe them. Had they accepted Jesus’ word at face value, their minds and emotions would have been far too exercised to allow sleep.
The startling events and controversies of the last few days-the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ repeated predictions of His suffering and death, the prediction of their fleeing in the time of trial, and the obvious anguish He now experienced-should have provided more than sufficient motivation and energy to keep them awake. But it did not. Had they sought the Father’s help in prayer as Jesus did and as He exhorted them to do, they not only would have stayed awake but would have been given the spiritual strength and courage they so desperately needed.
The disciples’ predicted desertion of Jesus began here, as they left Him alone in His great time of need. His heart must have broken when He said to Peter, but also for the benefit of James and John, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour?”
Considering the circumstances, the rebuke was especially mild. It was not Jesus’ purpose to shame the disciples but to strengthen them and teach them their need for divine help.
MacArthur New Testament Commentary