The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
Intro: Well morning friends and visitors. My Name is Matt Johnson and today we begin a new Easter sermon series called Jesus is Lord. But today in preparation for Easter – I really want to focus on our Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemane – “THE SPIRIT IS WILLING BUT THE FLESH IS WEAK.” What does it mean that our flesh is weak?
Prayer: Well the lead up to Easter is often called Lent; L-E-N-T. Traditionally lent was a season of examining the flesh, prayer and fasting. Now the practice of Lent seems to have connections with the Jewish Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur) which is also about self-examination, prayer and fasting. And lent perhaps also shaped Islam’s focus on self-examination, prayer and fasting during Ramadan.
But nowhere in Scripture are Christians told to observe Lent or to fast and pray prior to Easter. So among Protestants who pride themselves in only keeping Gods Word (and not church tradition) the observing of Lent and the practice of fasting and self-denial have largelyb fallen out of fashion. Now I am not saying that we should all observe Lent. But I am saying there is real value in the concerted self-examination, prayer and fasting – that traditionally went with Lent.
Now the first clear instruction to observe Lent came in the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. Prior to Nicaea there are records of Christians fasting and praying in the lead up to Easter. But for no specified time. But the Nicene Council in 325AD formed not only the Nicene Creed which became the Orthodox statement of Christian Trinitarian faith; the Council also produced 20 GUIDELINES for Christian churches to follow. One of those guidelines was observing Lent as a time of fasting, prayer and self-denial (for 40 days) – in the lead up to Easter.
So from 325AD until the Protestant Reformation in the C16th – pretty much all Christians fasted and observed Lent. Just as Muslims pray and fast in Ramadan, so Christians prayed and fasted in Lent.
But in the C16th some reformers like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli started to denounce Lent as a Catholic superstitious tradition. But pretty much all of them – continued to teach the importance of Christian fasting. John Calvin said; (Slide 2). So Calvin argues that periods of prayer and fasting are good and biblical, but don’t do it in Lent – because then it’s just Catholic superstition. So some Protestants stopped observing Lent and then also stopped fasting altogether.
Meanwhile Cranmer in the Protestant Church of England kept the observance of Lent in the Anglican Prayer Book. So some Protestants kept observing Lent. What’s more, in Article 35 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican church – there is a sermon on the importance of fasting to 1) mortify the flesh, 2) quicken prayer and 3) to humble ourselves before God. Same as John Calvin. And every Anglican-minister promises to uphold the godly and wholesome doctrine of Article 35 at their ordination. Yet when was the last time you heard an evangelical Anglican minister (especially in Sydney) teach about fasting or practice fasting – without it being some sort of strange anomaly.
So today, (in this season of Lent) I want to think a little about Jesus words that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak – and how self-denial, prayer and fasting may actually help Christians control the flesh.
Context: Jesus & the Disciples are facing a Difficult time of Trial
Show: Matt.26:31-32 (READ)
Explain: Well as you can see Jesus warns the disciples that they are all about to face a real spiritual attack. The shepherd (talking about Jesus) is about to be struck by Satan and the sheep (talking about the disciples) are going to run for the hills. Jesus is simply saying to his disciples we’re all about to go through a hard spiritual time.
(GOSPEL). Now the reason Jesus is going to be struck by Satan is to pay the ransom-price to set us free. We the sheep have all rejected God. Instead of listening to God and obeying God, we have all given in to our fleshly desires. Our flesh desires more money. So Satan says; just be greedy. Our flesh desires sexual intimacy. So Satan says; ignore the guidelines in the Bible and go for it. So as sinners we give in to our fleshly appetites and we listen to Satan. So we gradually become Satan’s people AND we deserve to go to hell with Satan.
But Jesus came to save us from our fleshly desires and from Satan’s temptations. Bishop Anselm (1100’s) explained the gospel in terms of Jesus offering his life to Satan in exchange for our lives being set free. It was called the ransom theory of the atonement. So Satan, thinking Jesus was a bigger catch than all of us – agreed to let humanity go, if he could kill Jesus and take him to hell. It was a swap. But no sooner had Satan sunk his teeth into Jesus – than he discovered Jesus was a hard fish to swallow – because Jesus was too powerful for him, death or hell to contain. So Satan discovered that in trying to checkmate God, he himself was checkmated…
Apply; Now the ransom theory alone does not fully explain the gospel. But Jesus did give his life over to death, so that you could be set free because he loves you. Now you have to decide (for yourself) whether Jesus died to set you free. If he did you should thank him. You should become a Christian and you should resist the temptations of Satan and fleshly desire and live a life pleasing to Jesus.
Now this is the message of Easter. But just prior to Jesus’ betrayal and death on the cross – he warns the disciples it’s going to get pretty dark and scary. This is the context of todays story. Its bleak and hostile.
Point 1: But Peter says “No Worries! I’m ready for the Trial”
Show: Matt.26:33-35 (READ)
Explain: Now notice the pride and self-confidence. Jesus gives a real warning of spiritual danger and Peter (and all the disciples) – say no, we’re made of the right metal. We’ll be ok. We’re spiritually strong enough to die for you if necessary. Don’t worry about us.
Now of course, as Christians who know the rest of the Easter story – we laugh and think what idiots. Peter and all the disciples end up eating humble pie. But how often do we as born-again C21st Christians do exactly the same thing. God warns us in Scripture of real spiritual dangers – through false teachers, or the love of money or even the book of Revelation etc etc. And we think, no I’m ok Jesus. Don’t you know I’m a born again, reformed Sydney Anglican, spirit-led, evangelical, with x, y and z credentials. I’m stronger than others. Now of course, we all have slightly different criteria for what makes us the real deal depending on our denominational background.
Apply: But here’s the question. Do you think Peter or the disciples were insincere or perhaps lying when they said; “We’re willing to die for you Jesus. (PAUSE) Or do you think they really meant it?” It’s interesting that in context Jesus – then invites Peter, James and John (the three lead disciples) to watch and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane – saying that while their spirits may be willing to die for Jesus, their flesh is actually weak. I don’t think there is any false bravado. I think the disciples truly intended in their spirits and even believed in their hearts they would die for Jesus. The problem is they hadn’t yet comprehended the weakness of their flesh (or the remedies that God provides).
You may have noticed this battle in yourself. Perhaps, you struggle with pornography or drinking or sexual immorality. Pick the vice that is right for you. Now it’s not that you are not a Christian. You are a Christian. You have sincerely accepted Jesus as your Saviour and Lord and you have received the Holy Spirit. But that does not automatically give you victory over the flesh. Even as born-again Christian’s we have a battle with our fleshly desires.
Now how often (after crying out to God for forgiveness – for a particular sin) have you said – that’s it. It doesn’t matter what happens – I’m never going to commit that sin again. This time is different. I mean it. I’m done. And in that moment that is your real choice. Your spirit is truly and totally willing to give up the sin for Jesus (no matter what). You’re not lying to yourself. You’re not kidding yourself. In that moment you truly mean what you say. The problem is that what our spirits are willing to do for Jesus, our flesh is often too weak to actually do for Jesus. This is why we so needed Jesus to die for us. Even though our spirits may have desired good (in some ways) our flesh was powerless to follow through…
Apply: The apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 7. He says that his spirit longs to do Gods will, but his flesh struggles to comply. He then says what a wretched man I am – who will rescue me from this flesh? (Rom.7:28). That’s the literal translation. Who will rescue me from my flesh? We have a problem with our fleshly desires. Our flesh desires are often so exercised and indulged that fleshly desires control us – more than spiritual desires. Now after talking about this battle between flesh and spirit – Paul goes on in Romans 8 and talks about how the Holy Spirit helps us in this battle. But this doesn’t mean – Christians just sit back and become passive – waiting for the Holy Spirit to give us the victory over the flesh. No. The apostle Paul tells us that in the battle between flesh and spirit – the Holy Spirit moves us to pray “Abba Father” – help me. Prayer is a means of grace – in the flesh – spirit battle and Jesus tells the disciples the same thing…
Point 2: Jesus meets the time of trial by Watching and Praying
Show: Matt.26:38-41 (READ)
Explain: Now what we see in the Garden of Gethsemane is more than Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity. Most people focus on the dichotomy between Jesus’ divine will and Jesus’ human will – and end up opening up a pandora’s box of paradoxes. But what we actually see (and what Jesus tells us we are seeing) is a battle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the spirit. Jesus says the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Herein lies the problem.
The disciples say they are willing to make great sacrifice for God and Jesus, but they fail to grasp how resistant their flesh will be when the times comes. So they do not watch and pray. They slumber and give in to another fleshly desire which is sleep. No self denial. No Watching. No prayer. Just fleshly self-indulgence. Meanwhile, Jesus has come to earth for the very purpose of dying on the cross for the sins of the world. This is His Fathers will and his spirit wants to do His Fathers will with all his heart. The Son of God wouldn’t have come to earth and become human – if his spirit was not willing to do his Fathers will. So Jesus’ spirit is fully willing. But as the hour of real trial and testing draws near – Jesus also knows and acknowledges that the flesh of man is weak. So he does something. He watches and prays….
In fact, Jesus tells us (in verse 14) that part of the remedy when the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak – is to watch and pray – so that we don’t fall into temptation. This means watching and praying are actually means of grace. That is the technical term that reformed Protestants used to use to describe “the good works” Christians can do to become stronger, more mature Christians. These good works were called means of grace. We are not meant to be passive in the flesh-spirit battle. God has provided us with certain tools to help us in the flesh-spirit battle and we ignore them at our own peril. So Jesus tells the disciples to watch and pray so that they don’t fall into temptation. Now what are they watching for?
Again, most Christians ignoring the focus of this passage think Jesus is telling the disciples to watch out for the Roman soldiers. But that’s nonsense. What Jesus is telling the disciples to watch out for is the desires of the flesh that will soon consume them in the hour of trial. The real enemy (that wages war on our soul) is not Judas Iscariot, or the Sanhedrin or even the Roman guards. The real danger is the desires of the flesh that constantly tempt us to deny Jesus is our Saviour and Lord. Every single day desires of the flesh – are leading you to deny Jesus, just like Peter. Perhaps in Peters case, his flesh desired to avoid death and discomfort. Perhaps Peters flesh was simply concerned about people’s opinion of him and wanting to be popular.
So despite Peters spirit being willing to die for Jesus, the flesh waged war in a moment of weakness and he denied Jesus – three times. And, we have to accept that part of the problem is that Peter, James and John ignored Jesus’ words about watching and praying.
Jesus told the disciples to watch and pray so that they didn’t fall into temptations and then Jesus modelled watching and praying so that he didn’t fall into the temptation. Jesus (in prayer) truly undertook a self-examination of what his flesh wanted and what his spirit wanted. Jesus’ flesh didn’t want to go to the cross. But Jesus’ spirit wanted to do his Fathers will. So Jesus brought this flesh-spirit battle into Gods heavenly throne room through prayer and he found the grace he needed in his hour of trial.
Apply: Again, this means real humble self-examination of our heart and prayer are means of grace. They are tools provided by God to strengthen us in God’s grace. Now many hyper-reformed Christians often struggle with the idea of means of grace – because they think everything apart from faith in Jesus is a good work. So they respond we’re not saved by good works we’re saved by faith alone in Jesus. Yet faith without good works is dead. Real faith calls us to good works – like prayer, bible reading, church attendance, alms giving, fasting at times etc etc.
And I guarantee that Christians who take up these good works or means of grace in the flesh-spirit battle will do far better, than those who don’t. So we need to utilise every tool God has given us for the flesh-spirit battle because we are not meant to be passive.
Point 3: Jesus Prevails in the Trial and Peter falls in the Trial
Show: Matt 26:63-64; 26:71-72 (READ)
Explain: Well friends there are layers on top of layers of complexity in the final chapters of the gospels. All sorts of Scriptures are being fulfilled and analogies drawn as Jesus dies and rises again. But one of the undeniable comparisons that takes place is between Peter and Jesus. Peter faces the reality of trial and death with an arrogant pride and bravado – thinking he is ready for such an hour. So he fails to acknowledge the reality of the flesh-spirit battle and he fails to take it to God in prayer. Then, under oath – he ends up swearing three times that he has nothing to do with Jesus Messiah.
Meanwhile Jesus also faces the reality of a time of trial and dying the worst death imaginable. But with great humility – Jesus acknowledges the flesh-spirit battle – undertakes great self-examination and takes it to God in prayer. Then also under oath – Jesus meets his hour of trial – confidently admitting he is Jesus Messiah and he will soon be seated at God’s right hand in heaven. Peter’s hour of trial ends in bitter tears (as he gives in to the desires of the flesh). And Jesus’ hour of trial ends in exaltation (as the spirit overcomes the flesh).
Now thankfully, where Peter failed Jesus succeeded – not only for himself, but for all of us – who struggle with the desires of the flesh. When we believe in Jesus and accept him as Saviour (we are forgiven all our sins) and God credits Jesus’ perfect obedience to our account We are saved by faith in Jesus’ perfect life and perfect sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean we should continue indulging our fleshly desires and giving in to the temptations of Satan. The Apostle Paul writes; (Slide – Gal,5:24 / Slide – 1Cor.9:26-27).
In response to Jesus saving us (and with the help of the Holy Spirit) we should take hold of every means of grace that God has given us to say no to the flesh and yes to the spirit – and this includes fasting. Lent was traditionally about self-examination in the flesh-spirit battle, a more focussed time of prayer and fasting – because in response to Jesus’ death and resurrection we should more and more say no to the flesh and yes to the spirit. And traditionally, Christians have understood from Scripture that fasting can help in saying no to the flesh.
Now you cannot deny that the Bible talks about fasting. The Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur included fasting, Moses, Elijah, Nehemiah, Daniel and Esther all fasted. Jesus also had victory over the temptations of Satan in the wilderness – while fasting. Now is that simply a coincidence? Or did Jesus’ fasting and denying the desires of the flesh for food, actually quicken him to deny the temptations of Satan and the sinful desires of the flesh elsewhere? Did fasting really help Jesus in the wilderness? Did prayer really help Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? Are both prayer and fasting means of grace?
Now if you have never fasted and you come from a Protestant tradition that never practices fasting – I’m probably not going to convince you otherwise in the next 2 minutes. But I would recommend you read John Calvin on fasting and I would recommend you read the Anglican homily on fasting – then think a little more about what Scripture says. Not everything in the Protestant evangelical tradition is biblical. Hat’s why we need to keep testing everything by Scripture. But personally I think the next biggest problem in the western evangelical church after materialism and greed, is that we are people who indulge nearly every desire of the flesh. Really, the western church has lost all self control because we now have the means to pretty much indulge nearly every desire of the flesh (and so we do).
So very briefly I will explain to you the value in fasting – as John Calvin and as the 39 Articles of the Anglican church basically explain it. The flesh and the spirit in Christians are like biological muscles. The more you exercise the flesh (by indulging its every want) the stronger the flesh becomes. So much so that the flesh starts to override the desires of the spirit – because it is the more exercised muscle. So by practicing intentional denial of the flesh, (with say food) we can actually weaken the flesh. We weaken the hold the flesh has on our will by not feeding it. And yes, that is a double entendre. By denying the appetites of the flesh in one area we can learn to control the appetites of the flesh in another area. In fact, there are countless testimonies of people overcoming certain addictions through fasting.
What’s more as we turn down the volume of the desires of the flesh in fasting – this then allows us to hear the desires of the spirit within us more clearly. By saying no to fleshly desires that so often control us and our prayer life, it allows the spirits desires to be heard more clearly and so changes our prayer life.
Finally, (and remembering this is my summary of Calvin and Cranmer, not my own imagination) fasting after a day or two also starts to weaken our bodies, remind us of our mortality and so humbles us in our attitude before God. And this too is good thing (that comes from fasting) because God looks favorably upon the humble.
So based largely on these three reasons – some of the best thought out Christians in church history have argued for the value of fasting and have defended fasting as a means of grace for Christians in their battle with the flesh – if and when used rightly.
Sadly, I’d say the rejection of Lent and fasting among many modern, western Protestant evangelicals is not coming from good theology, but pure, unbridled and ever present indulgence of the flesh. Yes, modern evangelical Protestants may not indulge the flesh in the crass and carnal ways of gluttony. drunkenness and revelry. Instead, we have come up with “acceptable” ways to indulge the desires of the flesh.
We have just found new robes for the fleshly desires, rather than really addressing the fleshly desires. As such, Paul tells the Corinthian Church they are not spiritual, but carnal. The word is literally fleshly. They are Christians – but in flesh – spirit battle the flesh is winning; the flesh is dominant.
Apply: Very often as Christians our spirit is willing to make all sorts of sacrifices for Jesus (because we are quickened by the Holy Spirit) but very often our flesh remains weak – because we have not taken this battle seriously and we have not utilised properly the tools God has provided for us to overcome sin and fleshly desire. So this Easter – will you take time to pause and examine your fleshly desires properly? Will you then take that which is at odds with the spirit to God in prayer. Will you seek help? And this Easter (and in response to Jesus gift of salvation) will there be any greater denial of the flesh in your life – than preceding years. Or will we continue to deny the dangers of our materialistic, indulgent , fleshly form of Christianity we have in the west – and one day have Jesus return and address as not spiritual, but fleshly – mere infants in Christ. Yes, the spirit may be willing. But the flesh is weak.
As a full human being (who fears God) his spirit desires to do God’s will (even if it requires great sacrifice), but his flesh is resisting.
Jesus doesn’t want to die. Jesus’ fleshly desire is for comfort, ease
Its still the same hour of trial. But Jesus seems to be taking it a little bit more seriously than the disciples.
means of grace. There are certain things God has given us to help us keep in step with the Spirit.
Then Paul goes on in Romans 8 to talk about the powerful work of the Holy Spirit to change us. The Spirit helps our spirits to have victory over our flesh.
that shepherd in that moment of Jesus allowing himself to be struck by Satan – the sheep
Anselm explained it in terms of Gods Son clothed in flesh being a bait too irresistible for Satan to resist, but
So this is pretty intense. In terms of spiritual darkness – this is probably the darkest point in all of human history. Satan is doing his absolute best to wipe out the Word of God once and for all. This is Satan going for checkmate with God (and from all human perceptions) it looks like Satan has the winning move.