Study the word Gethsemane for deeper picture of what happened that final night in the Garden. The word gethsemane is derived from two Hebrew words: gat, which means "a place for pressing oil (or wine)" and shemanim, which means "oils." During Jesus' time, heavy stone slabs were lowered onto olives that had already been crushed in an olive crusher. The weight of the stone would squeeze the oil from the olives just as the weight of the hour squeezed sweat like drops of blood from our Lord's brow. It was a place of weight for Jesus and the disciples, the heavy burden of an agonizing death, the cup of wrath that he alone must bear. And, for the twelve, the sorrow and grief of their continuing kingdom service without his physical presence.
Jesus asked his disciples to pray. He didn't ask them to pray for him or the horrible crucible of events that would define the way to the cross that night and the next day. No, he asked them to pray for themselves and gave them a specific direction for their requests before God. They were instructed to pray that they would not fall into temptation, that is, yield to the temptation they would face in those next pivotal hours. While the Synoptics basically agree in there representation of the events, Luke's is the most concise. When they're synced in parallel we know that he left them three times and when he returned they were asleep. Their eyes were heavy and the sorrow and fatigue of those days weighed heavily on them. it was the Garden of Gethsemane, a very heavy place.
Jesus explained their sleep in human terms. He said, "The spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41). But, there seems to be more in the texts that mere human fallibility. Note a couple of things about what happened in the garden---
1. No one took a leadership role in guiding their prayer time. In an earlier pericope
they had debated who would be the greatest in the kingdom and had boasted
about their willingness to die rather than deny him. But, when he left them to
pray nobody stepped up. They did their own thing.
2. They obviously misinterpreted the time, and no one called them to account.
Peter had been "protos", first among the disciples, the one who usually spoke,
the one most mentioned in the Gospel accounts. Here he is quiet and
subdued, in the background of a significant event.
3. Jesus had been very clear with them about what was going to take place that
night and the following day. But, they seemed oblivious to his predictions and
somewhat resistant to what he had described as God's will. Peter rebuked Jesus
when he spoke of his death, drew a sword against Malchus at the moment of
arrest, boldly announced his faithfulness even when Jesus told him he would
deny him three times. They seemed to superimpose their own personal desires
over the situation rather than yield themselves to God's plan for human
So, they didn't pray as Jesus had instructed them. Under the pressure of the hour they slept. Was it a trace of passive resistance that permitted them to misread what Jesus had been revealing to them?
How often do we humans place his will in a secondary position to our own? It's always interesting to note how we blame our human fallibility and weakness for what is so often a stubborn resistance, even if passive, to that God has ordained. It may explain what so many spiritual leaders and churches today appear to be asleep at the wheel rather than actively pursuing his plan for our lives and our influence on the world around us. Jesus had prepared them for what would take place in those few days, the culmination of the Father's plan for the redemption of humankind. Who among us will boldly and arrogantly ignore or disobey him? No, we'll most often attribute our weakness to our finite human condition.
Jesus had promised them many things. Years later the Apostle Paul would write, "For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory" (2 Corinthians 1:20, ESV). But, Jesus had already told them he would live in them through the Counselor who would come, that he would be alongside of them as they shouldered the burdens of the kingdom in his church, and that, though they would have trouble in the world, they should not be afraid, for he had overcome the world.
Still, they slept. And, so do we. It's Passion Week, a time to remember what happened in those critical days and celebrate his glorious resurrection. Or, it's passion weak, when we just sleep.