The Spirit Is Willing But the Flesh Is Weak

By Dan King, Sr.

On the night of the Lord’s betrayal, he went with his three disciples Peter, James and John to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Matthew reports that in the solitude of the quiet garden “he began to be sorrowful and sore troubled” (26:37). Knowing what awaited him that night and the following day, he needed the company, prayers, and support of his nearest friends.

But they let him down. He asked of them only that they wait nearby and watch with him. When he returned to them after a short while, he found them sleeping instead of watching. They awoke to hear not a harsh voice of condemnation, but one filled with personal disappointment: “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” Surely they could have seen the depth of the gloom that had settled over his soul as he came to the garden to pray! Surely they must have felt the sense of foreboding that had at-tended the trip to Jerusalem and all the events of that week! Yet, when he needed them most they had failed him. They had fallen asleep like this was just any other night.

The advice Jesus gave them that night was filled with profound implications both for them on that night and for us in our own lives as well. “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (v. 41). With these words he slipped back into the darkness and prayed again that his Father might let this cup pass from him. Shortly, though, the disciples were asleep again (v. 43). Before the night was through he was betrayed into the hands of his enemies and tried on capital charges. The next day he was cruelly crucified.

Christ’s words to them on that dark night have several important lessons for us today. Let us make note of a few of them below:

The Spirit Indeed is Willing in Good People

The disciples of Christ were not bad men. They were good men. They wanted to go with him to the garden and to watch with him that night. Their spirits were willing.

The importance of this point cannot be minimized. The world is filled with people whose hearts are unwilling. There exists in this world in great profusion a “spirit that worketh in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). This was true in the first century, and it is true now. It is all about us, manifesting itself in forms both subtle and flagrant. This spirit is unwilling to yield itself to the loving appeals of the word of God. It is well illustrated by the answer of old Israel to the prophet Jeremiah’s call to repentance: “Thus saith Jehovah, Stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way; and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls: but they said, We will not walk therein. And I set watch-men over you, saying, Hearken to the sound of the trumpet; but they said, We will not hearken” (Jer. 6:16-17).

So, when there are those whose hearts are willing to submit to the Father’s determinations, there is reason for us to rejoice. But we need to be realistic too. A willing heart cannot, by itself, achieve the goal toward which we are striving.

But The Flesh is Weak Even in the Best of People

No doubt the disciples fell asleep that night because they were tired. It had been a long day, filled with heart-stopping moments of challenge and argument between Jesus and the Jewish leadership. The anxiety level had been high since they started the trip to Jerusalem several days before. As soon as they got still they fell asleep. The reason: the son: the flesh was weak. Their intentions were good, but good intentions at times can fall prey to fleshly weakness. In this case they did.

Paul described this struggle in his own being between the desire to do good and the fleshly feebleness which he sometimes displayed: “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I know not: for not what I would, that do I practice; but what I hate, that I do. But if what I would not, that I do, I consent unto the law that it is good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me, but to do that which is good is not” (Rom. 7:14-18). God’s remedy for this weakness of the human condition is put before us in the person of Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on the cross: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 24).

Many times today we meet those who intend to do what is right but who fail miserably. They make promises. They make New Year’s resolutions. They hope to do better. They plan to do better. But they don’t do any better, even though the spirit is willing, at least for a time.

If you are one of such people, the redemptive work of Christ at the cross will give you a new start in life and another chance at faithfulness. If you repent and pray for forgiveness, you can start over again (Acts 8:22).

But, dear reader, please play close attention to the lesson of the rest of the verse:

Christ Gave The Sleepy Disciples Some Advice

That Applies To All People: “Watch And Pray”

It would have been virtually impossible for these men to have fallen asleep if their minds and bodies had been occupied in some intensive activity. Watching and praying would have done it. But they fell asleep again because they apparently did not watch and pray. They failed the Lord Jesus because they did not listen to him! We fail him oftentimes today for the same reason.

The Lord’s counsel to the disciples was truly profound, although it usually escapes the reader. The point is that one ought always to be engaged in the good and beneficial activities of life, or else spiritual sleep will “slip up on us” before we know it. Those around us are lulled to sleep by the hum-drum activities of life: working and making a living, doing chores around the house and in the yard, recreating and partying, eating and sleeping, etc.: “So then let us not sleep, as do the rest, but let us watch and be sober” (1 Thess. 5:6).

Truly, “an idle mind is the Devil’s workshop.” Let us keep busy in the Lord’s vineyard till he comes. Let us “Watch and Pray”! Or, as Paul put it as he concluded his great chapter on the resurrection: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 22, p. 10-11
November 21, 1996