Watch and Pray

Audio Player

This morning in our series on Jesus and Prayer we come to one of the most moving and most unfathomable of all the events in the earthly ministry of Jesus - his last time in Gethsemane. We are looking at Matthew 26.36-46. And my headings are first, PRAY WHEN IN TROUBLE, secondly, PRAY FOR GOD'S WILL AND MEAN IT, and, thirdly, WATCH AND PRAY

But by way of introduction let me just say two things. First, the context. The Last Supper has ended with Peter firmly pledging loyalty to Jesus. But Jesus has firmly had to contradict Peter, saying Peter would soon deny him. Then, verse 36: "Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, 'Sit here while I go over there and pray.'" Secondly, the place. Gethsemane actually was an old "oil press". The disciples probably used it as a camping ground for the Festivals in Jerusalem and would have slept there anyway at Passover time. With that said, what then can we learn from this passage and this event for our own praying? What are the lessons for today?

Well, the first, lesson is PRAY WHEN IN TROUBLE

In verse 36 the majority of disciples, we read, were told by Jesus to sit down and pray. Then verses 37-38:

He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.

And verse 39a:

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed.

Jesus was "sorrowful and troubled". He was "overwhelmed with sorrow." The words couldn't be stronger. This is extreme trouble. Sorrow and trouble is a normal human experience and a normal Christian experience. But on the fringes of the church some say that the normal Christian life in this period between Christ's first and second comings (that we celebrate at this Advent season) should mean the opposite. Some even say it should mean laughter! The Press has reported that one minister in an attempt to attract a congregation is replacing the usual Sunday morning service with "coffee and laughter". He is setting up the world's first dedicated "laughter room" because he says, "laughter is as important as prayer." Some years ago there were those teaching that an anointing with the Holy Spirit means uncontrollable laughter.

But nowhere in the New Testament do we read that Jesus laughed. We read that he wept - but not laughed. Of course, as a human being he would have laughed; and there is a place, of course, for laughter. But the Bible doesn't record his laughter as significant. It rarely records the early Christians as laughing and when it does, it is critical. Sadly in this fallen world normal life and normal Christian life is often marked more by suffering than hilarity. Peter says this about suffering for doing good (1 Peter 2.21):

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

People in this church know the truth of that only too well. There are people seriously ill or injured. One person has been through a quite terrible experience recently. There are others very worried about loved ones. Nearly everyone has some trouble. Well, remember Jesus was "sorrowful and troubled." What, however, does that mean? It means three things. First, it means that Jesus understands you and me. Hebrews 4:15 says:

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin.

Secondly, it means that Jesus was able to learn obedience through this suffering. Hebrews 5.7 seems to refer to this time in Gethsemane when it says:

Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.",/i>

It then goes on to say, verse 8:

Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.

Christian discipleship is not just learning the truths of the Christian faith. Yes, you need to know what the Bible teaches - its apostolic teaching - and the historic teaching of the church that is in line with the Bible. However, you can be as orthodox as you like but if you are not obedient to God, you will be useless in his service. That is why God sometimes teaches you directly through the discipline of hard times and suffering. And that discipline is a mark of God's love. It doesn't always seem like it at the time. But as Hebrews (this time) chapter 12 verse 11 says:

Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

So Jesus' suffering means that he understands you and me; it means that he learned obedience; and thirdly, it means he prayed. What do you do when trouble hits you? If you are going through a particularly tough time at the moment, what are you doing? Some people become bitter. Some people panic. Some people just try to keep a stiff upper lip. The Bible says that at such a time you should follow Jesus' example and pray. James 5.15:

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.

Yes, you should always be prayerful. Like Nehemiah you can pray arrow prayers even while answering your equivalent of King Artaxerxes. But there are times for specific prayer about troubles. Jesus was at such a time, and he prayed. But what do you pray? That brings us to our second heading.


Look at verse 39:

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, 'My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.

First, Jesus prayed for "this cup" to be taken from him, if that was possible. The "cup" was an Old Testament metaphor for suffering, death and the judgment of God. But at the same time he prays: "Yet not as I will, but as you will." Of course, it is not wrong to pray for freedom from suffering. Paul prayed three times for his thorn in the flesh (whatever that was) to be removed. So you start off from the principle that suffering, sickness and other evils are not God's primary intention. And you pray for relief. The Bible makes it clear they are the fruit of man's disobedience and fallen nature. Paul describes his "thorn" in 2 Corinthians 12.7 not as a gift of God but as "a messenger of Satan". But after his third prayer the risen Christ made it clear to Paul that he wasn't going to take the thorn away. Instead he had a wonderful promise, 2 Corinthians 12.9-10:

He [Christ, the Lord] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore [says Paul] I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses [this is Christian joy which is different from laughter], in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

So Jesus also first prays for his cup to be removed "if it is possible ... Yet not as I will but as you will”. But then look at verse 42:

He went away a second time and prayed, 'My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.

Jesus himself now seems to be more aware that it is not possible for the cup to be taken away. If so, he prays positively, "may your will be done". How important it is for God's will to be done in these times of trouble and for you to pray for that. For God's will is always good. It is not something arbitrary - so that he could choose what is bad. There has been some teaching over the centuries that separates God's will from God's character of compassion and love and justice. No! God's will or purpose for you is always good. Listen to Paul in Phil 2.13:

It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

So trust God when you are going through those, to you, very hard times. Pray for his will to be done and realize that his will in the long term is best. Pray like Jesus prayed in verses 39 and 42 and say, "My Father". Remember that God is your loving heavenly Father. And as Jesus taught, if an earthly Father gives his children what is good, of course your heavenly Father will give what is good in answer to your prayers. Things may seem hard at the moment, but in the end there will be a new day. Who needs to learn to pray for God's will and mean it this morning?

When you are genuinely praying for God's will, it will give you courage and bravery. If your mind is 100 percent wanting God's will, you will not fear. That is what the early martyrs found. When Polycarp, now an old man, in the 2nd century was arrested to be burnt in the arena, he immediately said (I quote his words): "The will of God be done". Then he ordered his captors to be given a meal while he prayed for an hour. When he was eventually in the Stadium the Proconsul tried to persuade him to deny Christ. But Polycarp replied with the immortal words: "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour."

Confident of God's good will, he could die for Christ - and he did. His example has helped thousands down the centuries to stand firm for Jesus Christ in similar and lesser situations of hardship. So pray for God's will and mean it.


This is where the rubber hits the road. Do you actually pray in times of trouble and for God's will? Well, Peter, and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, didn't. Jesus left them saying, verse 38,

Stay here and keep watch with me.

But verse 40-41:

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping.”Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.

Then Jesus went away again to pray and, verses 43-45...

... when he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. 45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, 'Are you still sleeping and resting?

Peter, James and John were leaders in the church. But did they pray? No! They slept. Great disciples can have great weaknesses. The presenting problem was tiredness.

But the real reason was that there was a spiritual battle going on. And it is still going on today. The devil, since Calvary, is defeated, but not destroyed - that awaits Christ's second coming. He now, however, is still active and so still needs to be resisted. And the spiritual battle is both internal and external.

First, the internal battle. Jesus said to the disciples that their failure to pray was because, verse 41,

the spirit is willing but the body is weak.

That is true for every Christian. They all have this battle going on. Paul speaks of this in Gal 5.17:

the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.

The sinful nature is what we inherit by natural birth and the Spirit we have by new birth through faith in Christ. This side of heaven there will always be that conflict going on. And Paul teaches that you have to put to death - he actually uses the word "crucify" (Gal 5.24) - that sinful nature. You must positively say "no!" to what is wrong. Like crucifying someone, you can only do it if brutally you are pitiless; realize it will be painful; and are decisive.

All this means that when it comes to prayer, you may have the best intentions but you let other things come in the way. You don't get up in the morning, or you don't spend some other time in prayer. You don't make time for your small group where you pray or for the Central Prayer Meeting. You let other things come in the way. You are undisciplined. You let your sinful nature get the better of your new nature that comes from the Holy Spirit. The Bible says that "by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body" (Rom 8.13).

This is something you do, but in the strength of the Spirit. So there is an internal warfare going on in the heart and life of every Christian. There is a fight to be fought - make no mistake. To be effective for Christ you can't just drift through the Christian life.

But, secondly, there is also an external warfare. You read about that most clearly in Paul's letter to the Ephesians 6.12:

our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

That is why prayer is so important. Yes, there is spiritual armour to use such as truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation and the word of God. But then you must

pray in the Spirit ... with all kinds of prayers and requests" (Ephesians 6.18).

And there was the greatest ever of external spiritual battles going on in Gethsemane. In the upper Room before going to Gethsemane Jesus had said:

I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. [However - and this was the good news] He has no hold on me" (John 14.30).

Then later when Judas and the arresting party arrived, Jesus said:

this is your hour - when darkness reigns" (Luke 22.30).

The salvation of the world was at stake. So the devil was working overtime. That probably was why Jesus was so distressed and said,

my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death?

Jesus' distress is unlikely to have been from the fact of crucifixion - a most terrible punishment, true. But crucifixion was so common, sadly, in Palestine in Jesus' day and in the Roman empire generally. Many had endured crucifixion with resolve and bravely. There must be something more to account for this sorrow of Jesus. Surely what was different with Jesus was that he was bearing the sins of the world in his death. This was the enormity of the occasion. When later Christian martyrs were crucified they could count it a blessing. But for Jesus, the Bible says, it was God's curse. He was being cursed for you and me. And because of this external battle that is why the disciples needed not only to pray but to watch or be alert and pray. They needed to be alert both to physical danger but even more importantly to spiritual danger. So Jesus said, "watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation."

How important all this is for us at JPC. We now have huge opportunities at this church to witness to Christ over the Christmas period beginning next Sunday with Carols by Candlelight. If so, the devil will be trying to stop good coming out of what we offer. How vital, then, that we pray for Carols by Candlelight. Never think that Carols by Candlelight will automatically be valuable for Christ's kingdom. No! We need to pray for the Holy Spirit to work to use this opportunity. Pray for Chris Edwards and the music. For Andrew Giffen and the candle teams. For the sidesmen. For me preparing and speaking. For the crèches and scramblers. For everything. "Watch" is what we do - and that involves personal discipline. "Praying" is for God by his Holy Spirit to act - to help us in what we do. He alone can open people's blind spiritual eyes this Christmas to the truth as it is in Jesus who came 2000 years ago and who will come again, as we remember on this Sunday - Advent Sunday.

I must conclude

Who needs this morning to open their spiritual eyes for the first time to Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world, who died for your sins and mine and rose again to give you new life by his Holy Spirit?

You can do that and commit yourself to Christ, just where you sit. You then need to live a Christian lifestyle in the fellowship of other believers. That will mean, one, that you pray when in trouble; two, you pray for God's will and mean it; and, three, you watch and pray.

Back to top