One of the most prevalent misconceptions that people have about the gospels is that the disciples of Jesus were dummies. They’re always misunderstanding things, coming to the wrong conclusions, and even showing moral failure. But this isn’t true at all. When the disciples misunderstand things, it isn’t because they are dummies. It is because the situation was mysterious and the teaching of Jesus was challenging. When the disciples exhibit moral failure, it is because the situation was difficult and nearly-overwhelming. The disciples were fallible men, to be sure, but they were men who had been trained by Jesus and walked with him for three years. They would have been impressive to us. And we need to remember this when we read about them falling asleep in Gethsemane:
When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation.” (Lk. 22:45-46)
I’ve often heard this part of the story presented as to indicate that the disciples had a lack of faith or at least a lack of willpower. They couldn’t fight off drowsiness, and so they gave in to the flesh. But this is not what the text says. By this point in the evening, the disciples were wired. Their nerves were racing. They were anticipating something awful. And the text says that they fell asleep “from sorrow.”
They were so wrecked by anxiety and grief that they collapsed. That’s why they were sleeping. That is what Jesus is encouraging them to fight off. And that’s what they could not overcome. “He found them sleeping from sorrow.”
I wonder if any of you have ever fallen asleep from sorrow? Probably a few mothers have. Perhaps in the event of a divorce or a death. It would have to be something traumatic, something gut-wrenching. And it would have to be the sort of thing that had worked on your mind and nerves in an intense way for hours at a time. This is what the disciples were feeling.
We aren’t the disciples on the eve of Jesus’ betrayal. That moment is over. And so we are not trying to re-enact that moment or pretend to be the disciples at that time. But I do think it is appropriate for Christians to feel a sort of sorrow when considering the cost of salvation.
I’m not very good at feeling things like this, to be quite honest. I’ve grown up in church, hearing these same stories every year, and I have a sort of disposition that just grins and bears it. But I believe that it is a Christian duty to empathize with the disciples on that night, to consider what the betrayal and death of Jesus meant and was, and to understand the weight of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
And so I keep coming back to this verse, “He found them sleeping from sorrow.” Sleeping from sorrow. Not mere tiredness. Not from lack of faith. Not from lack of interest. From sorrow.
Sleeping from sorrow.
May our hearts be grieved, but may our faith rest in our Lord and God.
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
for my salvation.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.