Watch & Pray
Second Sermon On The Passion Of Our Lord Jesus Christ By John Calvin
from Corpus Reformatorum, Calvini Opera, vol. 46, 846-59
Translated By Leroy Nixon
Part 1 of 2

40 And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. 42  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. 43 And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy. 44 And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. 45  Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46  Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me. 47 And while he yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people. 48 Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast. 49 And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him. 50 And Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him” (Matthew 26:40-50).

We have seen… how the Son of God, having to sustain so difficult a fight as to appear before the judgment-seat of God His Father to receive sentence of condemnation as our security, was made strong by prayer. For it was necessary that human weakness appear in Him, and it takes nothing away from His divine majesty when He has so bowed down to the dust to bring about our salvation. Now we have to note that it was not only once that He prayed. By which we see that by His example He has exhorted us not to faint if we are not heard as soon as we would wish. So, those who lose courage when our God does not respond to their first wish show that they do not know what it is to pray. For the certain rule for finding our refuge in God involves perseverance. Thus it is that the principal exercise of our faith is prayer. Now faith cannot exist without waiting. It is not possible for God to humour us as soon as we have opened our mouths and formed our request. But it is needful that He delay and that He let us languish oftentimes so that we may know what it is to call upon Him sincerely and without pretense, so that we may declare that our faith is so founded upon the Word of God that it checks us as a bridle so that we may be patient to endure until the opportune time to help us shall have come. Let us note well, then, that our Lord Jesus Christ did not pray to God His Father only once, but that He returned to it a second time.

Besides, we have to consider what we have already touched upon: that is, to know that our Lord Jesus has not formed here any trivial prayer, but He has, as it were, been willing to lay aside all selfish considerations. He Who is the power of God His Father, by Whom all the world is supported, nevertheless, forasmuch as He had to show Himself a weak man, taking our place, being there in our stead; He has declared when He thus reiterated His prayer that it was not as a spectacle that He did it (thus several profane people imagine that when Jesus Christ appeared He suffered nothing), but it was so that we might be taught, that we cannot escape the hand of God and His curse except by this means. Now it is here declared to us (as it was this morning) that our Lord Jesus was crushed to the limit, even so far as that the burden He had received was unsupportable unless the invincible power of the Spirit of God had operated in Him. We must not think that it was superfluous language when He repeated these same words. For what is said in the other passage, that in praying to God we must not use a long babble, as those who believe that in dabbling in words they get much more, does not imply that we should not continue in our prayers, but it is to tax the hypocrisy and superstition of those who believe in breaking God’s ear drums (after a manner of speaking) to persuade Him of what they want. As we see, how this folly has prevailed in the world! Again, how many there are among us who use this sorcery, how many who say no more than their Ave Maria, to whom it seems as if they have gained a great deal every time they say their Lord’s Prayer, and that God will count all their words in which they dabble when they pray! Now I call that real sorcery. For they wretchedly profane the prayer which has been given us by our Lord Jesus Christ, in which He has comprehended in a brief summary all that we can ask of God and what is lawful for us to desire or ask for.

However, that does not imply that if a man is crushed in agony he should not return often to God, and that when he shall have heaved some sighs he should not begin again immediately afterwards. Supposing we come to it without ambition and without display and then that we have no idea of having gained anything by our babble, but that a deer feeling urges us on, then we have the true perseverance, similar to that of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now there is this article to note, as we have said, that the principal thing in all our prayers is that God should control us to such a degree that there is an agreement on our part to conform to His good will. That, surely, is necessary for us. Behold our Lord Jesus Christ, though all His affections were upright, holy, and conformed to righteousness, that, however, insofar as He was natural man, yet He had to fight against the agony and sorrow which might have crushed Him and He had to hold Himself captive under obedience to God His Father. How will it be with us who have nothing but malice and rebellion and who are so corrupted that we did not know how to apply our senses to anything whatever? Would not God be utterly offended? Since that is so, let us learn in praying to God so to hold ourselves in check that no one may give himself such license as he is accustomed to in following his own appetites. But let us know that we shall have profited much, being able to hold ourselves captives, in order that God may be complete master over us.

It is also a noteworthy sentence when our Lord Jesus says to His disciples, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (v. 41). He showed here, then, that the principal spur which ought to goad us to call upon God is that we have to fight, that our enemies are near, and that they are strong, and that we shall not be able to resist them without being helped and aided from on high, and that God fight for us. Now we know that when man is assured, he asks only to be given all his comforts and to sleep. For we do not voluntarily accept anxiety or melancholy unless necessity forces it upon us. To be sure, it is a sovereign good to have rest, or else we would be tired out. Nevertheless it is very necessary that necessity press us to be vigilant. Our Lord Jesus, then, not without cause declares that we have to sustain many alarms. For what is said only once to His disciples pertains to all of us in general, since in our lives we must always be ready to meet many temptations. For the devil is our perpetual enemy, if we are members of our Lord Jesus Christ. There will be, then, open war without ending and without ceasing.

Then let us notice what kind of enemy we have to deal with. It is not only one, but the number is infinite. Moreover the devil has a vast number of means to cast us down; now he strikes openly, now he plots underground, and by craftiness he will have surprised us a hundred thousand times before we have thought of it. When it is only as St. Paul says that our enemies are powers who dwell in the air over our heads and that we are here as poor earthworms who only crawl below, that certainly ought to cause us to be concerned.  As also St. Peter alleges this reason, that our enemy is like a lion who roars and seeks prey and who never rests. That, then, is what we have to observe in the saying of our Lord Jesus that we must be on our guard in order not to enter into temptation. Besides, although we are vigilant, though we keep good watch, yet we cannot be exempt from the devil’s raising himself against us or our being assailed by him in many and diverse ways. We cannot, then, repulse the blows from afar. But before entering into combat, we must be on our guard lest we be plunged into temptation.

Let us learn, then, although the believers and children of God desire to have rest, nevertheless, they must not desire to be here at their ease. But let it be sufficient for them that God perfects His power in their weakness, as also St. Paul says that he had to pass through that. It is, I say, the condition of all the children of God to battle in this world, because they cannot serve God without opposition. But although they are weak, although they can be impeded, even often beaten down, may they be content to be helped and aided by the hand of God, and may they always lean upon this promise, that our faith will be victorious over all the world. Yet also the remedy proposed to us is that we fight. To be sure Satan is always making new beginnings to assail us, but Jesus Christ also commands us to watch. Besides, He shows that those who presume upon their own strength will be conquered by Satan a hundred thousand times before they obtain a single victory. What is needed, then? That, confessing with all humility that we can do nothing, we come to our God.

Here, then, are our real arms. It is He Who takes from us all fear and terror. It is He Who can give us assurance and resolution, that even to the end we shall remain safe and sound, that is, when we call upon God. As Solomon says, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe” (Prov 18:10)

Also says the Prophet Joel, “Although the world be turned upside down, whoever calls upon the Name of the Lord will be saved.” That is especially applied to the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order that we may be entirely persuaded that, although our salvation may be, as it were, in suspense, and though we may see, as it were, a thousand hazards, yet God will always keep us in His protection, and we shall feel that His power is always near us, and ready to help us, provided we seek it by prayer of mouth and heart. That, then, in summary is what we have to remember. In order that we may be better confirmed in this doctrine, let us note that our Lord Jesus in praying not only called upon God for Himself and for His own use, but He has dedicated all our requests and prayers so that they are holy and God approves them and finds them acceptable. As it says in the seventeenth chapter of Saint John, He sanctifies Himself in order that we all may be sanctified in Him. Surely we must also conclude that He prayed in order that His prayer may avail today, and that it might have its full strength, and that by this means we might all be heard.

This consideration is very valuable when he adds, “spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” For it is to show that all have need of the advice which He here urged upon His disciples. For many think that they have gained all if they have some good desire. That makes them indifferent. Soon afterwards they are seized with such laziness and coldness that they recoil from God and despise His help. That is also the cause why God often withdraws Himself and hides His power. For it is a good thing that men who confide too much in themselves find themselves frustrated and God mocks their arrogance and foolish imagination. In order, then, that both great and small may know that they cannot dispense with the help of God, and whatever graces they have received, God must still maintain in them what He has put there and even augment it that they may be strengthened, it is here said, “spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” That is, since we feel in us some good will, and God has already set us on the way, and has extended to us His hand, may we experience that He really governs us by His Holy Spirit. Although, then, we may have all of that, yet we must not be slow to pray. And why not? Let us consider whether there is in us only the Spirit. Surely we shall find many infirmities remaining. Although God may have already worked in such a way that we may have whereof to offer thanks to Him and to magnify His goodness; yet there is reason to bow our heads and to see that if He left us we would very soon be, I do not say weakened, but altogether fainting.

In a word, our Lord Jesus here wished to show that those who are the most perfect, the most advanced, and upon whom God has poured the graces and powers of His Holy Spirit, still must be humble, and they must walk in fear and carefulness, must call upon God every hour, knowing that it is not enough that He has begun if He does not finish.  Surely every good must come from Him. When He has given the goodwill He must continue to carry it out more fully, since perseverance is the most singular and the most rare gift there is. That is why our Lord Jesus wished to exhort us. Now if those who can be called spiritual, that is, who have an ardent zeal to serve God, who are fully accustomed to have recourse to Him, who are exercised in prayer of mouth and heart to God, are still so weak that in a single moment they can be ruined unless they are calling upon God; what will happen to those who are still so earthly and so pitiably weighed down that they cannot drag their legs and they hardly have a good impulse or a single good thought? How they must have to struggle for the prize! So then, may each one of us examine himself, and we shall find that we are so lax and so dull in the matter of praying to God that there is sometimes more ceremony than feeling. Seeing that, may we learn to be displeased with ourselves for such a vice and such laxity. May we even detest such a corruption, may we take pains to call upon God, and to raise our spirits on high and to seek the remedy which is here proposed for us. That, then, in a word, is what we have to remember.

Now when it is said that the disciples went to sleep for the third time, even though they had been spurred so sharply (beyond what we discussed this morning, that is, that we see how Jesus Christ to perfect our salvation sought no other companion) let us also contemplate how slow we are.  For it is certain that we have no more ability than these three who are here mentioned, and yet they were the most excellent of the company, and those whom Jesus Christ had marked as the flower of the twelve, who were to publish the Gospel to all the world. Although, then, there was already such a good beginning, yet we see how they weakened. Now it is in order that we may have recourse only to the Son of God and that we may seek in Him all that is lacking in us, and that we may not lose courage when we feel such a weakness in us. It is true that the example of the Apostles gives us no occasion at all to flatter ourselves (as many will say that they have as much right to sleep as Peter and John and James) but rather to make us displeased with our vices, that we may always know that our Lord Jesus is ready to receive us, provided we come to Him. Furthermore, there is always this special reason that we declared this morning, that it was necessary that everything that is man should give way in order that we may know that the accomplishment of our salvation is in Him who was appointed by God as our Mediator. We must also note when we are near our Lord Jesus Christ that it is then that we must be more vigilant. For the worldlings and those whom God has cut off entirely as rotten members  whom He abandons, have no great fight. For the devil already has dominion over them. And that is why they can sleep at their ease. But according as our Lord Jesus exercises toward us the grace to call us to Himself, and to draw near to us familiarly, the battles are also instigated by Satan, because he wishes to draw us back from the obedience of the Son of God. When (I say) he sees that we are on the right track, then we have all the more rude assaults. Thus may each one prepare himself, knowing for what he was called by God, and what is his charge. This, then, is, in summary, what we have to remember.

Besides, when it is said “Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand” (v. 45) that is, as it were, a declaration that they would soon be surprised unless God watched over them. However, He rebukes them by saying, “How now? Look where you are. For the devil is making every effort for the perdition of mankind, and in My Person the Kingdom of God must be recovered, or all creatures will perish. Yet here you are sleeping.” Now this admonition hardly served for that time. But as time passed the disciples knew they must attribute all praise for their salvation to God, in view of their ingratitude, which was displayed in such brutish cowardice.  So now we are admonished (as I have already mentioned) that the Son of God had to be shown to be our Redeemer by Himself alone and without aid. Besides, let us also learn that it is absolutely necessary that God watch over us even while we sleep. For how many times will it happen that the devil would have oppressed us a hundred thousand times? Yet what means have we to resist him, unless God have pity on us, although He sees us, as it were, reduced to insensibility. So that must not give us occasion to go astray and to quit addressing God in prayer.  But still we must always remember this sentence from the Psalm, “Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps 121:4.)

So for our part let us be vigilant, even as we are urged by this exhortation. But let us recognize that however vigilant we ourselves may be, God must still keep a careful watch. Otherwise our enemies would soon win against us.

.… to be Continued next issue