Mark 14:26-42

The Spirit is Willing but the Flesh is Weak

As was customary at the conclusion of the Passover meal, Jesus and his disciples sung a hymn (v.26). And with the meal being over they decide to talk a walk to the Mount of Olives. Earlier in the night Jesus has revealed that one of his own disciples would betray him and now he has yet another bombshell announcement.


#1 Peter’s Distress

Jesus and his disciples are presumably alone on the Mount of Olives when he shares with them some disturbing news: You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ (v.27) This would have been difficult for his disciples to take in. These were, after all, the very men who left everything to follow Jesus and now Jesus is telling them that they will all desert him. Could this really be? This would have been distressing for all of the disciples to hear but we see that Peter was particularly disturbed. He protests, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” (v.29) This is a curious response. Apparently Peter does not have a problem believing the rest of his friends would fall way, but he cannot accept the same could be true about himself. Jesus responds by telling Peter that he will deny him three times on that very night. Peter still can’t accept this and says to Jesus, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (v.31)

Peter clearly sees himself as the exception to the rule. Earlier in the night he was part of the group that were sorrowful and asking Jesus “Is it I?” But now he cannot accept the fact that he might desert Jesus. Peter is not lacking the desire to be faithful to Jesus. He is not lacking the willingness to follow Jesus into the grave. We do not have any sense here that Peter is insincere in his comments. He seems to fully believe his words. Proverbs 16:18 says that, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Peter is unwittingly fulfilling these ancient words here, but as we shall see pride alone does not fully explain what is going on here.


#2 Jesus’ Distress

Jesus and his disciples continue to a place called Gethsemane (v.32). The name Gethsemane comes from Hebrew and means “olive press” but the exaction location remains uncertain. Jesus withdraws with his inner three disciples, Peter, James and John leaving the remaining disciples to pray. This creates an opportunity for Judas to slip away in order to betray Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus began to be greatly distressed and troubled (v.33). Jesus says that his soul is very sorrowful, even to death (v.34).   He falls to the ground calling out to God in prayer, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will (v.36).In Luke’s account we are told that while Jesus was praying he began to sweat what appeared to be “great drops of blood” (c.f. Luke 22:44). We know this to be true medical condition sometimes seen in people under great stress.

What is the reason for Jesus’ distress and haven’t we seen other people face their death with greater calm than Jesus exhibits here? What is going on here is more than Jesus coming to face his own death. Earlier in Mark’s gospel Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).” What lies ahead for Jesus is worse than death. He asks his Father to remove this cup from me. Psalm 75:8 says, “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” This is the cup to which Jesus refers. Earlier in the night he held up for his disciples a cup which he says was “my blood of the covenant.” This cup of mercy for his disciples, but now Jesus knows that he must drink the cup of wrath. He completely empties the cup of wrath so that we might freely drink from the cup of mercy.


#3 The Real Reason for Their Distress

As this difficult night unfolds for Jesus, he asks his disciples to pray. Three separate times Jesus returns to his small group of disciples to find them sleeping. His warning about them all falling away is already coming to pass. Jesus is clearly exasperated by his disciples. The first time he finds his disciples sleeping he specifically calls out Peter “Simon, you are asleep? Could you not watch one hour?”(v.37) Remember that as Mark tells the story, the last time Jesus and his disciples were on the Mount of Olives he warned them about all the suffering which lay ahead and he had one important message for them: stay awake! (c.f. Mark 13:37). We understand that Jesus was referring to a spiritual alertness but as we see here this includes a physical alertness as well.

In the midst of Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples for their sleep, he gives us some profound insight into the issue they are facing. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (v.38). This explains so much. This explains what is going on with Peter, James, and John as they struggle to stay awake in prayer. This explains why Peter will later deny Jesus three times. This explains as well Jesus’ own distress in the garden of Gethsemane. More than anywhere else in Mark’s Gospel we see the very real struggle Jesus has to be faithful to his calling. The temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness with Satan was very real. The temptation he faces on this night is quite real as well. The author of Hebrews reminds that we have in Jesus, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are (Hebrews 4:15).” Jesus entered fully into what our “humanness.” He had a willing spirit but like us he had to wrestle with this flesh. So this is the reason for his distress and for Peter’s distress – a willing spirit but weak flesh. However, unlike Peter and the rest of us, Jesus overcame the flesh. This is why Hebrews 4:15 says that he was tempted in every way we are, “yet without sin.”

We have in this passage a roadmap for walking in faithfulness with Jesus. We must learn to surrender to the spirit and to crucify the flesh.   Paul writes about it in this way in Ephesians 4:22-24, when he says that you are “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” This is the substance of our sanctification and something we will be doing until we see Jesus face to face. Day by day we learn to put off our self and to put on the new self.


Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think Peter responds the way he does to Jesus?
  2. In what way is his over-confidence actually a bad thing?
  3. In what ways are you like Peter?
  4. What does this passage reveal about the heart of Jesus and his struggle to go to the cross?
  5. How does Jesus’ statement in verse 38 that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak help to make sense of Jesus’ struggle and the disciples’ struggle?
  6. Why is it important that we have a right understanding of the spirit and the flesh? In other words, what happens if we emphasize only the spirit but forget that our flesh is weak? Or on the other hand what happens if we emphasize the weakness of our flesh but forget the power of spirit?
  7. How does this passage give you hope?