Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "What, could you not watch with Me one hour? The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."—Matthew 26:40, 41
On reaching the Garden the Sufferer had said, "Pray that you enter not into temptation." When He took with Him into closer retirement the favored three, He again besought them—"My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death—wait here and watch with Me." Then He went from them only a short distance and for a short time, to wrestle alone in the prayer of His great agony. Yet when, with a heart ready to break, He returned for the solace of their sympathy, He found them sleeping.
How pathetic was His admonition! He specially addressed the one who had most emphatically protested his zeal, not now as Peter, the rock, but saying, "Simon, why are you sleeping?" (Mark 14:37). The others shared the gentle reproof, "What, could you not watch with Me one hour?"
"Could you not watch with Me?" It was not much just to keep awake; as a sentinel, to warn of danger or confer with his captain; or as a nursing friend, to minister to the suffering and sad. Judas had been on the watch. In the space of two or three hours he had been to the priests, concluded his wicked compact, explained his plans, helped to gather the armed band, and was leading them on their night-march of capture. Surely if the treacherous foe was awake and active, to discover, seize, accuse, and slay; the faithful friends might have been on the watch to share and soothe the grief of the Lord they loved?
"Could you not watch one hour?" The time during which their aid was needed was so brief. It was not as if some great continuous effort was required, or as if, after a long night of toil, sleep was an absolute necessity and could not be delayed. Surely seeing their Lord in such deep distress, hearing His earnest appeal, and witnessing the commencement of His agony, they should not so soon have yielded to drowsiness. They had toiled all night in their fisher-boat in spite of failure, taking nothing—could they not watch one hour of this night, to secure the in estimable privilege of ministering to their Divine Master?
"Could not you watch with Me? You are those who have continued with me in my temptations." After all they had witnessed of His endurance of trial and tender pity for others; after all their own strong protestations, it was sad that they should sleep.
"Could you not watch with me." He had at once risen from sleep to calm the tempest, when they aroused Him saying, "Save, Lord, or we perish." He had remained awake, watching and praying, when they, in the darkness of night, were striving against the opposing winds; and He had come to them across the waves, saying, "It is I, be not afraid." He had just been pouring out His heart to them in many words of counsel and comfort at the final feast of love—and could it be that they should so soon fail Him?
At this very time He was watchful for them. He came now to rouse them, not merely that they might minister to Him, but that they might not injure themselves. In the midst of His own agony He was solicitous for their good. They were losing a great privilege, they were imperilling themselves, they were storing up regretful memories. Could they not watch with Him who was so watchful for them?
David, the type of Christ, in his grief passed near Gethsemane, as he "went up by the ascent of Mount Olivet, and wept as he went up; and all the people that were with him went up, weeping as they went up." But these servants of the Divine Son of David, the Messiah King, left Him to weep alone—while they slumbered and slept.
How considerate was our Lord in making kind allowance for their infirmities. Their guilt was great, but so was their weakness. They were sincere in their love, though remiss in their wakefulness.
"He found them sleeping for sorrow." The Evangelist's statement was a statement of fact, known and appreciated by the Lord. He knew that the sleep was from weariness, not heartlessness. The weariness resulted from mental emotion. His pathetic address at the Supper must have grieved them by sympathy with His manifest sorrow, and by apprehensiveness for themselves. It was evident from His whole manner, His counsels as of one bidding a final adieu, His intimations of suffering and death, that some terrible storm was about to burst on them. And now, His obvious agony, and the warning which indicated approaching peril, so added to the pressure of grief, that mental and physical drowsiness overcame them, and instead of making the more vigorous efforts to master it, they were "sleeping for sorrow."
Perhaps some reader may have experienced what it is to be sleeping for sorrow, weary with woe. As severe toil exhausts the body, so does grief the mind. Physical agony often induces sleep, and for a season no more pain is felt. Mental distress often prevents sleep, but it also sometimes induces it. The supply of tears is drained. The capacity for conscious distress ceases. The spirit asks to sleep before it can again feel.
So sometimes in the midst of a storm there is a lull in the conflict of the elements, as though exhausted by their own violence, and there intervenes a delusive, perilous pause. The rain ceases to fall, the hurricane is hushed, no lightnings flash, nor thunders roar. The storm sleeps. So sometimes during a fierce battle there is a brief cessation of active hostilities. The guns are too hot to be fired, the field supplies need to be replenished, the soldiers must recover breath, or be nourished with food. The fierceness of the fight has necessitated such pause. The battle sleeps. And amid the storm or the conflict of trial, there is often a temporary pause, a partial oblivion; and the sufferer in the garden of grief is "sleeping for sorrow."
Our Lord not only recognized the fact that it was sorrow, and sorrow for Him, which produced the drowsiness, but He also gave them credit for willingness which was hindered by weakness, and by the temptations incident to humanity. "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
This was stated as a general fact, true of all mankind. True, therefore, of Himself as Son of Man. At that moment it was evident from His tears, His cries, His prayer of agony, that His own flesh was weak. But His watchfulness and earnest prayers, His unchanged resolve and entire resignation, were evidence that His spirit was willing in all things to obey the will of His Father.
An important distinction must be recognized between Christ and His disciples, both in willingness and weakness. His spirit was absolutely willing because divinely perfect, while our spirit is only defectively willing by reason of sinfulness. His flesh was weak solely by reason of blameless infirmities, incident to the humanity He had assumed; while our flesh is not only thus weak, but influenced by "fleshly lusts which war against the soul." In a sense not true of Christ, our "flesh lusts against the Spirit." Even were we like our Lord in purity, we must, like Him, watch and pray. How much more, being what we are! The spirit will only be willing by prayerfulness; the flesh, in its weakness, will only be kept from wickedness by watchfulness.
Weariness of body tends to becloud the mind and weaken the will. Men are not so capable of exertion when lacking food or rest. Thus a good general watches the food provisions, that the soldiers may not go into battle with the hunger that abates courage. Fatigue renders the eye less keen, the foot less firm, the hand less steady. All this the Elder Brother recognized, and so extenuated the fault. "He knows our frame, He remembers that we are dust."
He who promised "another Comforter," another Paraclete to help us, is Himself our Advocate. As Counsel, specially retained for us in the Court above, He makes the best of our case that truth permits. If our Judge, He is our Pleader too. Even when He accuses for the guilt, He praises for the goodness. "He who has the sharp sword with two edges," prefaced His reproofs of the church in Pergamos by saying—"I know your works—and you hold fast my Name, and have not denied my faith." While He said "I have a few things against you," He commended them for steadfastness amid the fierce trials of persecution—"even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwells" (Rev. 2:12-14).
With such an Advocate we need not ourselves seek for pleas in cessation of judgment. He will do this far better than we can ourselves. When He reproved the disciples they could find no excuse, "neither know they what to answer Him." But He promptly put in the plea—Sorrow, Weakness, Willingness. Let us leave to Him the extenuation, while we confess the aggravation. Sleeping! alas—in spite of Your love, Your sorrow, Your request, Your warning—in spite of my infinite obligations, and my often-repeated vows—Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner!
We should learn to put the gentlest construction on the faults of our friends. Sorrow sometimes makes us selfish, and pain induces peevishness. We are apt to think we are badly used when those we love are not so zealous in their sympathy as we expected. Let us try to minimise their fault, and make allowance for their own cares, or weariness, or grief. Excuses for them will soothe the wounds, which harsh censures of them would irritate.
Our Lord's gentleness towards us when sleeping for sorrow, and our imitation of Him in our own forbearance towards others, will always prove to be 'leaves of healing in our garden of grief.'
The reader is reminded of the special lessons of consolation this subject suggests. The love of Jesus in enduring for us this particular sorrow; His Brotherhood in suffering as we often suffer from failures of friends; His ability to sympathize with us in such disappointment; His gracious compassion towards our infirmities; His pleas in mitigation of our faults; His appreciation of the willingness combined with the weakness; His unslumbering watchfulness over us—such are some of the leaves of healing we may pluck in this part of the garden of grief.