They went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, “Sit here while I go and pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
He went on a little farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him might pass him by. “Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
Then he returned and found the disciples asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
Then Jesus left them again and prayed the same prayer as before. When he returned to them again, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open. And they didn’t know what to say.
When he returned to them the third time, he said, “Go ahead and sleep. Have your rest. But no—the time has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Up, let’s be going. Look, my betrayer is here!”Mark 14:32-42
My alarm didn’t go off yesterday morning. Usually that’s not a problem. I often awake very early in the morning. So even if I have an early morning breakfast meeting (which I did yesterday), I am often awake before my alarm goes off. I get frustrated sometimes when I wake up earlier than I need to. But not yesterday morning. I had actually slept 8 hours!
That’s not the issue here with Peter, James and John. They hadn’t overslept. They fell asleep on the job! After a long day, a full meal, likely several glasses of wine during the Passover Seder, and the not-so-exciting activity of watching someone else pray, they couldn’t keep their eyes open. They fell asleep.
It seems clear, however, that their sleep wasn’t just a matter of full stomachs and a boring activity. Jesus says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He implies with these words that there is a spiritual dimension at play here, and that their failure to stay awake was due to the influence of their flesh over their spirit.
We might think little of this unless we realize just what Jesus was concerned about during these hours. He was concerned about his own imminent arrest, suffering, and death. Forces of Satan were at work to attack him in every possible way. It seems clear that Jesus isn’t as afraid of the physical torment that awaits him as he is of the spiritual battle that is raging all around him and his disciples.
Jesus wanted Peter, James, and John to stay awake in order that they not fall into temptation. It wasn’t to protect him from the mob coming to arrest him with spears and torches. It wasn’t to alert him so he could escape into the darkness. Jesus wanted them not to fall prey to Satan’s wiles because of their spiritual sleepiness.
Perhaps that’s why Peter, years later would write, “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He knew how stealthy Satan could be. He knew we need to stay alert. We not only fall into sin by distractions and enticements, but by failure to remain alert to see sin and temptation coming our way.