“He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ ”
The need for spiritual vigilance by Christians is constant, but it can’t be achieved in the power of the flesh.
Jesus must have been terribly disappointed in the Garden of Gethsemane when He found the three disciples sleeping. As He labored diligently in prayer before the Father, Peter, James, and John began their desertion of Jesus. They could not even stay awake and offer Him support during His time of greatest need.
Given all that was happening, the Lord’s question, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour?” was not a harsh rebuke. In the spirit of a mentor, Jesus exhorted the three about their need for divine help: “Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation.”
The phrase “keep watching and praying” indicates that all believers must have vigilance. Jesus wants all of us to anticipate temptation and seek God’s help to resist the adversary, just as He did during His vigilant prayer in the Garden.
Our own best efforts to overcome Satan will certainly fail. The only way to deal with the Devil is to flee immediately from him into God’s presence and prayerfully leave matters with Him.
But even when we know and seek to practice what Jesus told the disciples, it is often difficult to do what is right. Jesus saw His three dearest friends’ reaction and was in the midst of His own spiritual struggle, so He acknowledged, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The apostle Paul also knew the spiritual battle was real and very difficult (Rom. 7:15–23). But Paul was confident, too, that the only source of victory in our most intimidating spiritual challenges is obedience to the power of Jesus Christ: “Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24–25).
Suggestions for Prayer: Ask the Lord’s forgiveness for any recent times when you have failed to be alert and diligent when praying.
For Further Study: Read 1 Peter 5:6–11. What is the first key to spiritual success? ✧ Why must we be alert for Satan? ✧ What makes faithfulness in suffering worthwhile?
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. “Keep watching and praying,” He implored, that you may not enter into temptation.”
The Greek verbs behind keep watching and praying are present imperatives and carry the idea of continuous action, indicated in the nasb by keep. The need for spiritual vigilance is not occasional but constant. Jesus was warning His disciples to be discerning enough to know they were in spiritual warfare and to be prepared by God to resist the adversary He was warning them of the danger of self-confidence, which produces spiritual drowsiness.
The only way to keep from being engulfed in temptation is to be aware of Satan’s craftiness and not only to go immediately to our heavenly Father in prayer when we are already under attack but to pray even in anticipation of coming temptation. Peter perhaps first began to learn that lesson on this night in the garden. And after serving faithfully as an apostle for many years, he admonished Christians: “sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). He also gave the assurance, however, that “ord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation” (2 Pet. 2:9).
We cannot overcome Satan or the flesh by our own power, and we risk serious spiritual tragedy when we think we can. When a military observer spots the enemy, he does not single-handedly engage him in battle. He simply reports what he saw and leaves the matter in the commanding officer’s hands. In the same way, believers dare not attempt to fight the devil but should immediately flee from him into the presence of their heavenly Father. As our Lord taught, we are to pray for God not to “lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13).
As Jesus here acknowledges, doing what is right is often difficult, because although the spirit is willing, … the flesh is still weak. Regenerated people who truly love God have a desire for righteousness, and they can claim with Paul that they genuinely want to do good. But they also confess with Paul that they often do not practice in the unredeemed flesh what their regenerated spirits want them to do. And, on the other hand, they sometimes find themselves doing things that, in the inner redeemed person, they do not want to do (Rom. 7:15–20). Like Paul, they discover that “the principle of evil is present in [them],” that there is a law of sin within their fleshly humanness that wages war against the law of righteousness in their redeemed minds (vv. 21–23).
In light of that troublesome and continuing conflict, Paul then lamented, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” Answering his own question, he exulted, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand 1 myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (vv. 24–25). The only source of victory is the power of Jesus Christ.
40–41 Jesus returns to his disciples—i.e., the inner three—and finds them sleeping (Lk 22:45 adds “exhausted from sorrow”). Jesus’ question is addressed to Peter but is in the plural and therefore includes them all (see comments at 16:16; 26:33–35). Though “one hour” need not be exact, it certainly indicates that Jesus has been praying for some time. “Watch and pray” could be a hendiadys (see Notes); alternatively, it may suggest two components: spiritual alertness and intercession.
It is doubtful that “so that you will not fall into temptation” (v. 41) means only “so that you will stay awake and not fall into the temptation to sleep.” Indeed, Jesus’ prediction of their spiritual defection that “very night” (v. 31) should have served as an urgent call to prayer. So now he tells them that only urgent prayer will save them from falling into the coming “temptation” (see comments at 4:1; 6:13). Even in his own extremity, when he needs and seeks his Father’s face, Jesus thinks of the impending but much lesser trial his followers will face. He speaks compassionately: “The spirit is willing, but the body [sarx, ‘flesh,’ GK 4922] is weak.” This is not a reference to the Holy Spirit but makes a “distinction between man’s physical weakness and the noble desires of his will” (Hill; idem, Greek Words, 242). But though compassionate, these words, which doubtless hark back to v. 35, are not an excuse but a warning and incentive (Broadus). Spiritual eagerness is often accompanied by carnal weakness—a danger amply experienced by successive generations of Christians.
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 26:39). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 610). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.