40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 26:40–41). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
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.
26:40–41. Returning to the three disciples, Jesus found them sleeping. He rebuked Peter on behalf of the others, using plural verbs throughout verses 40–41. His question did not expect an answer: Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour? The disciples’ sleeping showed that they were unaware of the spiritual danger and that their guard was down. This time when Jesus commanded them to watch and pray, he was referring to more than staying awake physically. They were on the verge of entering into the temptation to deny and abandon him, and they needed God’s help to stand fast.
Jesus acknowledged their uninformed willingness to remain loyal when he said, The spirit is willing. But they were unaware of how weak their flesh was. Without prayerful dependence on God and continual spiritual watchfulness, the flesh would win at the first moment of weakness.
After the first prayer Jesus returned to the three men who had been exhorted to keep awake: 40. And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, So, were you men not able to stay awake with me for a single hour? Sleeping at this hour, probably past midnight, was natural, especially after the exciting experiences in the Upper Room (the washing of the disciples’ feet, the revelation that one of The Twelve was going to betray his Master, the departure of Judas, the institution of the Lord’s Supper) and afterward (“All of you shall become untrue to me,” Peter’s protest, etc.). Nevertheless, these men should have stayed awake. They could have, had they only prayed for strength to do so. Though Christ’s gentle reprimand concerned all three—note the plural—yet it was addressed particularly to Peter, no doubt because in the matter of pledging his loyalty and even boasting about it he had taken the lead. Jesus continues, 41. Keep on the alert and keep on praying, that you may not enter into temptation. The context clearly indicates that here a slightly different meaning must be assigned to the same Greek word that was used also in verses 38, 40. “Keep (or: stay) awake” becomes “Keep on the alert,” or “Remain watchful.” The reason for the change is the clause “that you may not enter into temptation.” A person may be wide awake physically and may still succumb to temptation, but if he remains awake spiritually, that is, if with heart and mind he remains “on the alert” or “watchful,” he will overcome temptation. The temptation for the disciples was to become untrue to Jesus. We already know that they, definitely including Peter, did not remain alert, did not make earnest work of prayer, and therefore did, indeed, succumb to temptation. Jesus adds: The spirit is eager but the flesh is weak. If in this nightly hour Jesus experienced the weakness of his own human nature, hence the need of prayer, we may be sure that this was far more seriously true in the case of the disciples. In the present passage “spirit” indicates man’s invisible entity viewed in its relation to God. As such it is the recipient of God’s favor and the means whereby man worships God. See further on 10:28, including footnote 453 on p. 471. “Flesh,” as here meant, is the human nature considered from the aspect of its frailty and needs, both physical and psychical. See N.T.C. on Philippians, p. 77, footnote 55. Cf. Isa. 40:6; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16. This use of “flesh” must not be confused with that according to which “flesh” indicates the human nature regarded as the seat of sinful desire (Rom. 7:25; 8:4–9; etc.). To the disciples, borne down with sleep, it was a battle between their “spirit” which was eager to do what was right and thus to remain “on guard” against temptation, and their “flesh” which, because of its weakness, was prone to yield to Satan’s desires.
40–41 When Jesus returns to the three disciples, he finds that they are sleeping and that he has received no support from them. They seem oblivious to what he is going through despite the indication of his anguish in v. 38. καθεύδοντας, “sleeping,” here and in v. 43 is a culpable act (unlike in 25:5), especially after the command of v. 38 (see Daube for the view that sleeping violated the fellowship of the Passover community [ḥăḇûrâ]), and becomes a metaphor in the NT for moral failure (cf. 1 Thess 5:6–7; Eph 5:14). Thus the rhetorical question to Peter conveys a rebuke (addressed to all the disciples as the plural form of the verb indicates), underlined by the reference to μίαν ὥραν, “one hour.” γρηγορῆσαι μετʼ ἐμοῦ, “watch with me,” corresponds exactly to the command of v. 38 (see Comment there). For a second time the command to “watch” (γρηγορεῖτε) is given, but here it is linked with προσεῦχεσθε, “pray.” Now the focus is not upon watching μετ ̓ ἐμοῦ, “with me,” but upon the need for vigilance in the future, threatening situation of the disciples. That is, they are to “watch and pray” (again plural verbs) so that they might not enter into testing. The lesson of Jesus’ experience is thus applied to the disciples. Accordingly, the command to “watch” (γρηγορεῖν) becomes a standard feature in ethical catechism in the NT (in the sense of spiritual preparedness; cf. 1 Cor 16:13; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8; see Lövestam, Spiritual Wakefulness in the New Testament), as does the command to pray (cf. Eph 6:18; 1 Thess 5:17; 1 Peter 4:7). The reference to praying so as not to enter testing recalls the petition of the model prayer in reference to the great eschatological trial (6:13). (The experience of Jesus’ own testing in the context of testing to be experienced by the disciples brings to mind Heb 2:18; 4:15). If Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane underlines the truth that τὸ μὲν πνεῦμα πρόθυμον, ἡ δὲ σὰρξ ἀσθενής, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” how much more will this be the experience of the disciples in the struggles that await them. This logion points to the tension between the inner person, the center of volition, and the outer person, the bodily flesh with its more obvious inherent weakness (for the spirit flesh distinction, see 1 Cor 7:34; 2 Cor 7:1; cf. Rom 8:4–17; Gal 5:17, where, however, flesh is contrasted with the Holy Spirit; for comparison with Qumran, see Kuhn).
26:40, 41 Returning to the disciples, He found them sleeping. Their spirits were willing; their flesh was weak. We dare not condemn them when we think of our own prayer lives; we sleep better than we pray, and our minds wander when they should be watching. How often the Lord has to say to us as He said to Peter, “Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation.”
 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.
 Weber, S. K. (2000). Matthew (Vol. 1, p. 442). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 918–919). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Hagner, D. A. (1998). Matthew 14–28 (Vol. 33B, pp. 783–784). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1303). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.