By T.R. Robertson
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ”Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. ”Stay here and keep watch” (Mark 14:32-34).
No doubt by this time the disciples found nothing out of the ordinary in Jesus taking his “inner circle” (Peter, James, and John) farther into the
garden with him, while leaving the other disciples behind. But what we, the readers of the story, may find curious is why Jesus didn’t instruct the rest of his disciples to keep watch. He simply told them to sit and wait.
A simple answer may be that he wanted to keep them at a distance from the scene, with soldiers coming to arrest him.
Or maybe he knew the other disciples would only sit and kill time, or take a nap, regardless of his instructions. Perhaps he didn’t expect as much from them as he did the three who were closest to him.
Jesus had spent a great deal of time talking to the disciples that evening during and after the Passover meal. He tried to warn them about the events that were soon to take place.
And yet their response had been less than encouraging. They just didn’t understand.
Perhaps he took Peter, James, and John along because he assumed they understood more than the others, and he hoped he could count on them.
Overwhelmed With Sorrow
We’re not told how long the next events took, whether a matter of minutes or several hours. However long, the drama that played out was both tragedy and comedy, a contrast between the response of Jesus and that of his disciples to their enormous weight of sorrow and weariness.
Jesus knew he was going to die soon. His sorrow was compounded by the knowledge that his Father was the one sending him to die, that one of his own disciples, Judas, would be his betrayer, and that he himself had the power to keep all this from happening, to change history itself, with only a word.
And his burden was made heavier by his physical weariness. The day had been filled with the hustle and bustle of people preparing the Seder. The upper room may have been provided, but the preparation of a meal for so many people would not come without a whirlwind of activity.
The meal itself was the kind of holiday celebration intended to be a joyous and relaxing gathering of friends, but it probably made for a very long and tiring day. And then came the foot washing, the teaching, and the questions that prolonged the evening. Not to mention the increasing emotional turmoil of the people around him.
But instead of saying, “I’ve had enough,” Jesus took his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. Not a long journey from where they were, but not a short one either.
How was Jesus able to stay awake, to pray to God, to wrestle with the flesh for what may have been hours? The answer is simple: He had done it before.
The Gospel writers record his habit of rising early—before sunrise—and spending hours on his own praying in seclusion. At the beginning of his ministry, he spent no less than 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and watching and praying.
He knew this discipline well. What he didn’t know was how to give in to the little voice that might have said, “What you need most is a good night’s rest. Everything will look better in the morning if you just get some sleep.” Perhaps the voice sounded like one he had heard from his mother in childhood. But he chose instead to listen to his Father’s voice.
He Found Them Sleeping
When I’m watching and praying for an extended period, I’ll spend a lot of time sitting or kneeling; but I’ll also stand up and walk about, continuing to pray and to think. I’ll talk out loud at times, even moving my hands around as if I’m addressing someone in front of me.
Maybe Jesus was up and moving around in the garden when he found himself back in the vicinity of the three, who were, after all, just a “stone’s throw” away. Or maybe he knew how difficult it would be for them to watch and pray after such a day, so he returned to encourage them—only to find them fast asleep.
After chiding them for their lack of attentiveness and telling them to “watch and pray,” he returned to his solitude and to his own prayers. Sometime later, he wandered back to check on them again, found them asleep, and this time didn’t say a thing, but returned again to his lonely vigil.
Why could they not stay awake to watch and pray? Did they care so little?
Again, the answer is simple. They hadn’t practiced watching and praying like Jesus had.
They’d been taught to pray by the best teacher possible. Not just through the “model prayer,” but through three years of watching and listening to Jesus pray. The disciples had learned a great deal from their Master about the pathways of prayer.
They were also aware of his penchant for going off and praying for long periods of time, and of the importance he put on that habit.
But apparently, despite seeing its value to Jesus, they were not sufficiently motivated to work on the skills required for extended periods of prayer. If they had, they would have been much less likely to fail him on this final night.
Sometimes I shake my head and mutter when I read about the denseness of the disciples’ minds and the buffoonery of some of their actions in the Gospel accounts. They’re almost like the Three Stooges at times.
But it’s not that they’re failures with a capital F. It’s just that they hadn’t trained themselves to do the things that slowly produce wisdom and strength.
The Spirit Is Willing
No one can be expected to succeed at an arduous spiritual task simply by deciding at the very moment of challenge, “I’m going to do it!”
Jesus told his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). He did more than coin a pithy proverb for them to remember. He gave them the answer to their failure to watch and pray.
An athlete will never be successful if he neglects to train his body and mind repeatedly for the skills he needs, no matter how much he wants to be great. Likewise, having the passion and motivation to walk by faith will become a reality only for those who daily let their spirit move the physical body to live out that faith in the real world. Climbing spiritual mountains requires daily development of spiritual muscles through multiple repetitions of study, meditation, fasting, and prayer.
Our spiritual muscles need the assistance of knees trained to kneel, of a schedule tamed and directed toward spiritual activities, of physical endurance trained for the purpose of walking by faith in a straight direction for many days, weeks, months, and years. Running a spiritual marathon such as watching through the night requires the purposeful execution of a plan to increase time spent in stillness, solitude, and conversation with God.
Men of faith like Moses, David, and Paul also followed the spiritual practice of watching and praying—as have Christians through the centuries. Throughout church history faithful followers have understood the need and benefit of watching and praying in the face of great sorrow or in times of great crisis.
When crisis comes in your life—and it will come—will you have prepared yourself for the arduous task of watching and waiting in preparation for the spiritual battle? Or will you fall asleep on the watch, only to be awakened suddenly, engulfed in the crisis? Will you be like Peter, who was so startled upon being awakened that, instead of being there to stand with his Lord, took out his sword and swung it at the head of the nearest person?
TR Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
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