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How Can the Spirit Be Willing but the Flesh Be Weak in Matthew 26:41?

  • Jessica Brodie Award-winning Christian Novelist and Journalist
  • 2020 4 Dec
How Can the Spirit Be Willing but the Flesh Be Weak in Matthew 26:41?

One of the more tragic, upsetting moments for many in the Bible is when Jesus, consumed with sadness and grief over his coming crucifixion, retreats with his closest friends to pray.

There in the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before His arrest, Jesus asks His closest friends to stay awake and keep watch. Then, He falls to his knees in the dark night beneath the shelter of olive trees and cries out to the Father.

“If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will,” Jesus prays in Matthew 26:39 (NIV). 

Finding the disciples sound asleep upon His return, Jesus chastises His friends.

“‘Couldn’t you men 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 flesh is weak’” (Matthew 40-41).

Can’t you feel the dread? The need? Stay awake with me, the Savior of the world has asked, and yet they cannot. In spite of pledging just hours before to stick by Him, to stand strong in the face of opposition, these men are, after all, just men. They want to do the right thing, but they cannot keep their eyes open.

What is Jesus really saying in this passage? How can the spirit be willing but the flesh be weak, in Matthew 26:41?

What Does Jesus Mean by ‘The Spirit Is Willing but the Flesh Is Weak’?

The Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek sometime between 50-70 A.D., with the audience being Greek-speaking Jewish Christians. In the original text, Matthew uses the Greek word sarx, which means flesh or body, and asthenēs, which means “not strong,” or weak, whether physically or morally. The Greek word sarx refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit.

Not only are the disciples unable physically to stay awake, their eyelids increasingly heavy as the hour grows late, but it appears Jesus is also saying they lack the will or perhaps moral ability to stay awake.

As the NIV Theological Study Bible tells us, Jesus’s words here are illustrated by the disciples’ actions. With far less at stake than Jesus, they cannot stay awake and pray. Regardless of their desire to do otherwise, their bodies simply will not cooperate.

Many scholars believe Jesus is not only talking about their ability to stay awake and keep watch with Him that night specifically. He’s acknowledging that in other areas of our lives we also wish to obey Jesus and follow His example, but we are sinful, vastly imperfect humans by nature. We can wish all we like, but we cannot possibly achieve all we desire. We cannot “work our way” into heaven; no amount of good works will ever be enough.

He’s perhaps also acknowledging the other temptations they would face as followers of Christ. As Jesus told them in Matthew 10:16a, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves,” and in Matthew 10:22, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” They would face difficulties, persecution, arrest, and hatred; sometimes they would stand strong. Other times, such as when Peter denied Him three times before the rooster crowed later that very morning, they would falter.

What Do We Learn about Weakness and Temptation from the Disciples in Gethsemane?

The disciples’ weakness is a wonderful reminder of God’s grace. God knows each of us; He made us. He knows our strengths and our weaknesses. He designed us to be in perfect relationship with Him.

Jesus asked them to stay awake and keep watch, but without Him at their side, they failed. Perhaps His chastising not only serves as a rebuke but also a call to action. While on our own, we know we will fail. We still should strive to walk in God’s way, to be the best we can. Scholars often call this the “sanctification process,” whereby we grow and try our very best to become like Jesus—knowing that as mere humans, we cannot reach this pinnacle, yet we try, nonetheless. He’s urging them to do better.

Later in the garden, they keep trying—and keep failing. Jesus returns two more times after prayer with the same rebuke: Get up! Watch with me!

In spite of their failure of the flesh, they try. And in spite of their continued failure, Jesus still loves them—indeed, loves us all—enough to die in their place, sacrificing Himself on the cross to pay our sin-debt and pave our path to eternal life with Him in Heaven. 

As we learn, God loves us despite all this.

What Can Christians Do about Our Weak Flesh?

In addition to our striving to be our best and do our best in honor of our Savior, Jesus, there are some things we Christians can do about our weak flesh.

One, we can follow Jesus’s example when He faced temptation by the devil in the desert. Every time the devil tempted Him, Jesus countered the devil with Scripture (Matthew 4). Understanding God’s Word intimately becomes a form of protection against temptation that we can use in times of difficulty.

Two, we can do our best to identify and then get rid of what causes us to sin. Jesus tells the people in Matthew 18:8-9, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”

Three, we can heed the apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the early church in Rome. In Romans 7:4-6, Paul explains that before we became Christians, we “were in the realm of the flesh” and held captive by sin, but now we are set free. He continues in Romans 8:2-3, noting that when we live in Christ Jesus “the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.”

Indeed, Paul wrote, “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you” (Romans 8:9a).

And even more concretely, Paul added, “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8:13-14).

He says all this to reassure us: Even though we were born of flesh, when we become believers, we are “born again” in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must push aside the flesh and its earthly demands and heed the call of the Spirit—only.

Other Scriptures that Praise the Spirit over the Flesh

If you are looking for more on the Spirit’s triumph over the flesh, take a look at these passages:

Jeremiah 17:5: “This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.”

John 6:63: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.”

Psalm 73:26: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Prostock-Studio

Jessica Brodie author photo headshotJessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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