We have and do understand this passage to mean that the disciples - Peter, James and John - were literally asleep. Such was the weakness of their flesh, that, although they loved the Savior with the most sincere and abiding love, and were at that time willing in spirit to go with him to the prison or to death, they could not watch with him in that one hour of his dreadful agony and suffering. Peter’s protestation in a preceding verse, “Though all men should be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended,” and also, “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee,” were uttered in the sincerity of his heart; and we have no doubt that the affections of the other two disciples were equally strong. But what are our affections and resolutions, when we rely upon our fleshly powers to execute them? “The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
There was a special cause for the selection of Peter, James and John, from the other apostles, to experience this scene of trial and of suffering. Peter’s evident confidence in his own fidelity and power of perseverance required correction. And James and John had said they were able to drink of his cup, and to be baptized with his baptism; and therefore felt themselves competent to fill distinguished places in the kingdom of their Lord; the one to sit on his right hand, and the other on his left. But Jesus had said to them, “Ye know not what ye ask.” And this utter failure for want of ability to resist this lethargetic pressure upon their natural energies, taught them most effectually by experience what they were slow indeed to comprehend in any other way.
Nor was this important lesson of the weakness of human flesh alone for the benefit of these distinguished apostles of the Lamb. The saints in all subsequent time are admonished to beware of self-confidence, or of reposing confidence in the flesh. The flesh is to be denied, the body kept under, for in the flesh dwells no good thing. The spirit within these disciples which was willing, was born of God; but the flesh which was weak, was not born of God; it was only born of the flesh, and therefore could not rise above itself; and in the most critical and important hour of trial, its weakness was developed. They could not watch one hour. Well did the inspired Paul say to those who were with himself, members of the one body of Christ, “We are the circumcision which worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” And why should we have? “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.”
Another important consideration bearing on the subject is, that our Redeemer was by the irrevocable decree of heaven, to tread the wine-press alone, and that of the people there should be none with him to share in the work, making reconciliation for the sins of the people. He was himself legally the embodiment of all his members; so that his death and suffering was the execution of the penal demands of law and justice which stood against them. So that when he died for his members, they were legally dead; and in his resurrection for their justification, they were released from death and delivered from all condemnation; yet the propitiatory sacrifice was made by him as their High Priest, single handed and alone. Therefore in his victory, his arm, in the achievement of their salvation, brought salvation unto him; for they are his body, his flesh and his bones.
It could not therefore be that any fleshly power should aid in the accomplishment of that work. When the Shepherd was smitten the sheep were scattered; and notwithstanding the strong inclination of these disciples to drink of his cup, and be baptized with his baptism of overwhelming sufferings, it was impossible for them to keep awake or watch with him that one hour.
Middletown, N. Y.
June 15, 1858.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 4
Pages 116 - 117