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Let’s read that sorrowful, yet precious portion.  Matthew 26:36-44, “Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy. And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.” 

The Lord’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane is second only to His suffering on the cross of Calvary.  As the Lord anticipated the horror of the cross, He said to His disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death”.  What anguish of soul He endured while in the garden.  Those words ‘exceeding sorrowful’ literally means to be ‘grieved all around’.  The Lord expresses here that He was surrounded with sorrow while there in the garden.  In His great anguish, the Lord longed for the presence of Peter, James, and John.  He wanted them to watch, or stay awake, with Him as He suffered. 

We then read in Matthew 26:39, “And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  Luke 22:41tells us that Christ, “…kneeled down, and prayed.”  Matthew tells us He “fell on His face.”  If we consider both of these accounts, we can picture the Lord falling to His knees and then on His face as He, in great agony, lifted up His voice to His Father.  And what a prayer, He prayed!  O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”  Was there another way?  Was it possible for God to save sinful man without the Lord Jesus dying on the cross for us?  Could we be saved without a sin bearer?  No, there was no other way.  Perhaps this prayer was for us.  Could it be that the Lord Jesus prayed this prayer so that we might realize that there is no other way of salvation except through His own suffering, death on the cross and resurrection from the dead?  The Lord goes on to pray, “…nevertheless not a I will, but as thou wilt.”  The Lord Jesus always did His Father’s will, without exception.  Speaking of the Father, the Lord Jesus said in John 8:29, “…I do always those things that please him.”  It was said prophetically of the Lord in Psalms 40:8, “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.”  So much more could be said of the Lord’s sufferings and prayers in Gethsemane, but let’s return to the original question: Why did Jesus return three times and find His disciples sleeping?

We are told in Luke 22:45why the disciples slept.  That says, “And when he rose up from prayer, and was come to his disciples, he found them sleeping for sorrow.”  The disciples, themselves, were overtaken with grief.  They finally understood that the time of their dear Messiah’s death was upon them.  The Lord had told them often that He must die.  We read in Matthew 16:21, “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”  That day had arrived and these men, who loved the Lord greatly, were greatly grieved to know that the Lord was soon to die.  They witnessed His exceeding sorrow and were sorrowed themselves.  Deep depression can cause a person to become exhausted, and so we find these men exhausted in their sorrow, falling into sleep.  It was not coldness, or carelessness that caused these men to sleep.  It was because of their great attachment to Him, and their deep sympathy with Him in his sorrows.  But, how quickly the Lord turned their sorrow into joy as He went on to Calvary and died and was raised again the third day.  How precious is the thought we find in Psalms 30:5, “…weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”  (131.2)