I imagine the story this way. Having predicted the fall of Jerusalem (Matt 24:1-2), Jesus took his disciples out of the city to the Mount of Olives, where he taught them further about things to come. In particular, he impressed upon them the importance of being watchful and alert (Matt 24:3-25:13), of not getting caught napping. Perhaps they were even in Gethsemane at the time, or had passed through there; the place was probably familiar to them.
Later, when they were all back in Jerusalem, celebrating a Passover meal in a secretly arranged upper room, he broke the startling news to them that one of them would betray him (Matt 26:20). And after supper, when Judas had scurried off into the dark and the rest of them made their way back to the Mount of Olives, Jesus let the other eleven know that they too would fail him that night, Peter especially. But they wouldn’t hear it, insisting that they would be loyal to the death (Matt 26:30-35).
Knowing what he knew, Jesus must have felt very much alone. And his closest friends wouldn’t listen to what he was trying to tell them.
They reached Gethsemane, probably an olive grove. I doubt that Jesus was taken by a sudden spontaneous urge to pray; more likely, I think, he knew he would need to spend time with his Father before the coming ordeal, and planned to visit Gethsemane for that purpose. Indeed, this may even have been how Judas knew where to lead the mob.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him as he found a place to pray. He was overwhelmed with grief, and even told his companions so: “It’s killing me. Stay here. Keep watch with me” (Matt 26:38).
Thinking back to their insistence that they were ready to die with Jesus, I imagine the three men readily insisted that they would stay awake with Jesus. Surely they could do that much.
So three times Jesus went off to pray, staying close to his disciples, probably within sight (Luke 22:41 tells us that Jesus was only a stone’s throw away). And three times he came back to find them asleep. They wanted to stay awake. In spirit, they were more than willing. But it had been an emotionally exhausting evening, and they were filled with Passover wine. Their flesh was weak, their bodies tired, their eyes heavy (Matt 26:41, 43).
I’m guessing I wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes.
In his commentary on the passage, N. T. Wright remarks:
At any given moment, someone we know is facing darkness and horror: illness, death, bereavement, torture, catastrophe, loss. They ask us, perhaps silently, to watch and pray alongside them (p. 161).
Will we stay alert and watchful? Or will we be found asleep? Truth be told, I think I can understand why the disciples behaved as they did. I can identify with their willing but weak humanity.
But as I’ll confess in the next post, it’s the humanity of Jesus that astounds me.