On the night of His betrayal, our Lord took the twelve, minus Judas, into the Garden of Gethsemane so He could pray. He left all but Peter, James, and John near the entrance of the garden and went a little farther into it. Then the Lord instructed Peter, James, and John to “keep watch with Me” (Mt. 26:38). He went a short distance beyond them and fell on His face and prayed (v. 39). After praying for about an hour, the Lord returned to find them asleep. In vs. 40, 41 the Lord said, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
This last statement acknowledged that the Lord knew the disciples wanted to keep watch with Him, but their desire to do so was hindered by their physical limitations. They had tried their best, but the weakness of their bodies undermined their efforts. The Lord’s exhortation to keep watching and praying lest they fall into temptation was not simply a mild rebuke, but was also an encouragement to not give up the struggle. The fact that they kept falling asleep as the Lord continued His prayers shows us that this exhortation is pertinent for every generation, because we, like they, struggle to do what the Lord wants us to do.
The struggle to do what is right, versus our natural inclination to do what is wrong, is summarized by Paul in Romans 7 & 8. Using himself as an example, Paul gave voice to the inner struggle that every Christian has. In Rom. 7:14-25 Paul spoke of the spiritual nature of the Law and of our fleshly bondage to sin. He said that the good things he wanted to do, he did not do, and the bad things he did not want to do were the very things he did.
Every one of us has likely had this same experience at some point in our lives. We set out to do the right thing, but stumble and fall, either by leaving the right thing undone, or by actually doing some bad thing instead. Whenever this happens we are overwhelmed by remorse at our failure. We may even be discouraged that despite our best efforts we have not lived up to the high calling of Christ our Lord. In Rom. 7:24 Paul put into words how we feel when this happens. He said, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
He gave us the answer to this anguished question in Rom. 8:1, 2. He said, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” In context, Paul was showing that the Law of Moses could not resolve the issue of sin because it depended solely on man’s ability to live by it. In Christ, however, sin is overcome by the power of His blood.
When we obey the gospel our sins are washed away (Acts 22:16), our old body of sin is done away with, and we rise to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-7). We are still capable of sinning, however, and will still sin. This reality leads us to cry out in anguish because of the weakness of our flesh, but we can overcome this weakness if we set our minds on the Spirit of life in Christ (Rom. 8:3-11).
Our desire is to not sin, but we know we will. The Lord has provided for this dilemma by the continual cleansing of His blood if we confess our sins (1 Jn. 1:5-10). Therefore, we must not give up the struggle to do what is right, even though the flesh is weak. The Lord will see us through this weakness if we rely on Him.