Matthew 26:41 – Triumph in Weakness
… the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.Matthew 26:41b
This well-known saying of the Lord Jesus, spoken in His hour of trial, is sometimes quoted more often than it is understood. The words are simple enough, but who can fathom the full import of what the Lord Jesus says? For example, does He point out two conflicting elements in human nature, and if so, which? Does He contrast body and soul? The old man and the new? The inner man and the outer? Considering the many different nuances of meaning of the words "spirit" and "flesh," there's obviously more in these words than meets the eye.
Precisely the situation in which these words are spoken, however, warn us not to dichotomize, or think that the Lord Jesus is analytically dividing man into parts in this saying. His aim is quite the opposite. He seeks to unify or integrate doctrine and conduct, thought and action, word and deed in the lives of His disciples. The context accurately describes the collision course of thought and action among all the disciples, and Peter in particular. Brimming over with enthusiasm even in this dark hour, they are nonetheless unsuspecting and appear even somewhat nonchalant about things. They all firmly resolve to follow their Lord – but then the critical moment comes. At the point of crisis, the flesh wins out, and all are scattered.
The "flesh" here then is neither the old nature, nor the physical "part" of man. Rather, Jesus refers to our human nature in its weaknesses, its finiteness, limited abilities, and its susceptibility to a host of external influences. Here the Lord Jesus has more than man as sinful flesh in view; indeed, even man before the fall, man as creature, was but flesh and blood, Psalm 8. Even without sin, he was subject to the flow and ebb of the times, and caught up in changing seasons. He was the highest creature, to be sure, but nonetheless a creature: one with creation, sharing the movement and flow of the whole. How much more does not man feel this after sin enters the world! How easily is he beset with fatigue, lapses, falterings and stumblings on his way. How easily mind and spirit wander from one thing to the next – restless, unstable, dissatisfied, bored, excited, tired – daily the "flesh" contends with all these emotions.
The Lord Jesus certainly does not mean to dampen any enthusiasm for His Kingdom when He instructs His disciples with these words. Rather, He seeks to channel enthusiasm so that it realistically meets and contends with the spiritual battle of the moment. Facing the realities of the situation, our spirit must pull the flesh along, that is, concretely act, decide, and follow through notwithstanding the counter-pressure from the flesh. Here, the flesh is not our "bad" part; indeed, the spirit can be as bad as the flesh! One soars loftily; the other easily tends downwards, to the earth and natural things. But the Lord Jesus does not seek to eliminate either of these; He only wishes to see them held in balance, on a firm, unaltered, and united course.
And He knows what He is talking about! He does not speak as though He is detached from the temptations. Rather, He speaks from experience, as one who knew and felt the temptations of which He spoke. His very prayer to the Father shows how He, too, must force His flesh with all its infirmities in subjection to the will of His Father. But He does this as One who willingly took upon Himself the same nature, our flesh with its infirmities, in order to free us from Satan's grasp. He had not yet poured out His Spirit; still, He pulls His Church along through the temptation. He carries His Church to the day of Pentecost, the day in which all the scattered disciples are found together in one place, praising God, Acts 2:1ff.
He still carries His Church today! Even with the Spirit outpoured, we cannot say we have arrived. Our spirit does not easily align itself with the voice of the Spirit; our flesh still has its weaknesses and infirmities. The gift of the Spirit does not mean that "flesh" and "spirit" have lost their power. Christ did not destroy them! He is redeeming them through His Word and Spirit! And the call to the disciples is also the call to the Church: be watchful, and walk the sure but steadfast road in which, through the power of the Spirit, "spirit" puts "flesh" in subjection, and both faithfully answer the "upward call of God in Christ Jesus," Philippians 3:14.
And we are farther along on the road today than the disciples who first heard these words. Fatigue may strike, and despair may fill our hearts. For the flesh has not ceased to speak, and each one has his "thorn" to contend with – the messenger of Satan who tauntingly and haughtily challenges us to abandon the journey. Satan also has his ways and means to increase the pull of the flesh, and so increase the temptation. But if through all this goading of the flesh our spirit learns to follow the leading hand of the Spirit, then we learn the truth of the secret whispered to Paul,
… my power is made perfect in weakness,2 Corinthians 12:9
That secret is this: He has already passed over to the other side. He who once shared our flesh and blood, our human nature with its weaknesses, and triumphed over sin and temptation in it, He has now passed through the heavens, living in a world where all of those fluctuations and sensations are gone, and all is at perfect rest, both without and within. As one who knows and sympathizes, He pulls us along! From heaven He reaches into our world, and walks with us, so that the rule of His Spirit prevails.
Heeding this call, we may follow Paul's example who said,
I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
In the power of the Spirit, we must let a willing spirit take faltering flesh along, so that we are more and more united in thought and action, word and deed. So we plead today – until we are there with Him:
Guide my feet O LORD and teach me,
Be my Helper, I beseech Thee,
and unite my heart and aim
in Thy truth
to fear Thy Name.