NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 43-44: Then He went back to His followers. Again He found them sleeping. They could not stay awake. So He left them and went away one more time and prayed. This third time He prayed, He said the same thing.
This back and forth from prayer to awaken His sleeping disciples must have been even more tiring and disappointing to Jesus. Even though He told them at the supper that Judas Iscariot would betray Him this very night, they still did not seem to comprehend the seriousness and magnitude of the situation. None of the disciples came running to Him saying, “We can’t find Judas! Let’s get out of here before he comes back!” We can only imagine that since Jesus announced His betrayal with such calmness, and told Judas to go do what Satan had put in his heart, the disciples perhaps had taken it for granted that just as He slipped through the crowd in Nazareth when they wanted to throw Him off a cliff, He would find a way to survive this time. In other words, they were in denial that their Lord would really let Himself be beaten and crucified. So why weren’t they on their knees praying for God to protect their Messiah and Master?
Several early church scholars give us their impressions on what was happening at this critical point before the arrest and trial of our Lord. Origen writes this commentary: “But notice that after the first prayer ‘He came to the disciples and found them sleeping.’ Likewise after the second prayer, ‘He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.’ On this, I believe they were the eyes not so much of their bodies as of their souls. Besides, He had not yet removed the heaviness from their eyes, ‘because He was not yet glorified.’ And just as ‘the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified,’ so too the heaviness had not yet been removed from their eyes ‘because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ Therefore He does not rebuke them, but ‘leaving them again, He went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.” He also teaches us through those ‘same words,’ that we may not grow faint in prayer but persist in the very words of our prayer until we obtain those things we have begun to pray for.”1
When looking at the schedule kept by Jesus and His disciples in the previous two days, it is quite easy to see why stopping for a time in a quiet garden would lead to their falling asleep. But Origen does touch on an important topic concerning their lack of spiritual awareness. Did they really understand what was about to happen in a few short hours? Had they not been briefed by their Master on the impending crisis that was about to take place? So why did they not do something to make sure that someone was on guard just in case it happened on their watch? We might say the same thing about the church today and its state of alert on the return of the Son of God. Were He to come tonight, how many of His disciples would He find spiritually asleep?
Then Bishop Hilary shares his thoughts: “After that, He returns to the disciples and finds them sleeping. He asks Peter why he could not watch with Him one hour—Peter, indeed, was one of the three, for he had boasted in front of the others that he would not fall away. And He indicates the cause of His greater fear, saying, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ He wanted then to prevent temptation (so He included in His prayer the words ‘lead us not into temptation’),2 lest anything in us cater to the weakness of the flesh. He also makes it clear why he urged them to pray in order to avoid temptation, saying, ‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ These words did not apply to Himself but were aimed at them. For that matter, how is it that now His spirit is willing, whereas before His soul was sad even to death?3 At any rate, He orders them to watch and pray lest they give in to temptation and succumb to the weakness of the body. He, therefore, prays that, if possible, the cup may pass from Himself, for when it comes to drinking from it, all flesh is weak.”4
We also have the commentary of Jerome: “It is impossible for the human soul to avoid temptation. Hence we say in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Lead us not into temptation,’5 which we are unable to withstand. We do not refuse to face temptation entirely but pray for the strength to bear up under it. Therefore he does not say, ‘Watch and pray that you may not be tempted’ but ‘that you may not enter into temptation,’ that is, that temptation may not overwhelm you and hold you in its grip. For example, a martyr who has shed blood by professing faith in the Lord was certainly tempted but was not ensnared in the net of temptation. One who denies the faith, however, has fallen into the snares of temptation. ‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ This is aimed at those rash people who think that whatever they believe, they can obtain. Therefore, as much as we trust in the ardor of our spirit, so too should we fear the weakness of the flesh. And yet, according to the apostle, the works of the flesh are mortified by the Spirit.”6
Origen, whom we quoted before, has so more to say on this subject: “As long as Jesus was present, His disciples did not sleep. After He had walked a short distance away, they were unable to watch for even one hour in His absence. For this reason, we should pray that Jesus will not leave us for even a short while but will fulfill what He promised when He said to us, ‘And I am with you all days, even to the end of the world.’7 In this way will we keep watch as he banishes sleep from our souls, to make it possible for us to fulfill His command: ‘Do not give sleep to your eyes or slumber to your eyelids, that you may escape as a doe from the nets and a bird from the snare of the catchers.’8 But coming to the disciples and finding them asleep, He arouses them with a word and tells them to listen, so He may, as it were, say to those who are listening: ‘How is it that you were not able to watch with me for even one hour?’ He orders us then to be wakeful so we may keep watch and pray. Now that person watches who does good works, that person watches who diligently attends to the truth of the faith lest he be ensnared by any shady teaching. He who watches and prays in this way will have his prayer heard. This is what the Lord means when he says, ‘Watch and pray.’ We should first watch and while watching, we should pray.”9
And Bishop Hilary leaves us with this thought: “The fact that, after returning and finding them asleep, He first reproves them, secondly is silent, and thirdly orders them to rest, can be explained in this way: First, after the resurrection, He scolded them for scattering and for being apprehensive and restless; second, once the Holy Spirit had been sent, He came and found them sleeping, since their eyes were too heavy for them to discern the freedom of the gospel—having been held back by the love of the law for some time, their faith was still sleeping; and third, with the return of his radiance, He restored them to restfulness and peace of mind.”10
Verses 45-46: Then Jesus went back to the followers and said, “I see you are still sleeping and resting? But the time has come for the Son of Man to be handed over to the control of sinful men. So stand up! We must go! Here comes the one who will hand me over!”
We do not know how long our Lord prayed each time, but it must have been long enough for the wear and tear of the last 16-18 hours to overcome them. We know that Daniel prayed three times a day, but not within the same time frame.11 Besides that, at their last meal they drank from four glasses of wine, and that may have contributed to it as well.12 The disciples had the same opportunity to pray as Jesus did, but they chose rather to sleep. Even after Christ awakened them they still persisted on getting a nap. However, when the hour of trial came Jesus was prayed up; He withstood the persecution, but the disciples who slept instead of praying fled in terror. You can’t save up nor buy back your opportunities to pray. All too often we fail in the time of trial because we put off praying, even though we knew the storm was on the way.
When a person is informed by the doctor that they only have hours or days to live, they can be observed reacting in different ways: Some become remorseful, despondent, or resentful that life has treated them so cruelly. Some simply resign to it, act as if it’s their fate, and some withdraw into a catacomb of not wanting to be bothered; while others try to use each precious second of time left to prepare for the unknown hour. They become kind, gentle and self-sacrificing; they want to be a blessing rather than have a blessing said over them. So it was with Jesus. He knew that His time was short. But He challenged the future, marched into the difficulty with head held high, and gave His all for undeserving mankind. If in fact, Christ lives within us, then we are capable of doing the same for Him.
1 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 95
2 Matthew 6:13
3 See verse 38
4 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew, 31.9
5 Matthew 6:13
6 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 4. 26:41
7 Matthew 28:20
8 Proverbs 6:4-5
9 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 93
10 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew, 31.11
11 Cf. Daniel 6:10
12 Cf. Proverbs 23:34