One of the last things that Jesus says to some of his disciples prior to the cross is found in Mark 14:38/Matthew 26:41. The text is identical in both Gospels. Jesus has just finished the Passover meal with his disciples, led them outside of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, and then into the garden of Gethsemane. Selecting three men to proceed deeper into the garden to be with him while he prays, he begins to share with the Father his concerns about his imminent death. Peter, James and John, whom he had commanded to “remain vigilant” (Mark 14:34), however, fall asleep. Upon his return Jesus discovers them sleeping. He rouses at least Peter (14:37), addressing him in v.37b. At the beginning of v.38 the verbs become second person plural so it seems he now addresses all three, telling them to “watch and pray, lest you enter into testing/temptation (peirasmon)” (v.38). Jesus then adds the explanation: “on the one hand the s(S)pirit is willing (promuthon), on the other hand the flesh is weak.” Whether he is intending this last statement to apply to the disciples or himself or both is debated.
Jesus’ statement raises several questions. First, what is the meaning of the noun “the spirit?” Is Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit or the human spirit? Second, does the corresponding noun “the flesh” refer to the human sphere of existence (in contrast to the realm of the Holy Spirit) or does it refer to the material aspect of a human being (in contrast to the non-material spirit or soul of a person)? Third, what meaning does promuthos have in relation to “the s(S)irit?”
The adjective promuthos only occurs in the New Testament here in Mark and Matthew’s Gospel and in Romans 1:15. Peter used the corresponding adverb promuthōs once in 1 Peter 5:2. Paul employed the cognate noun promuthia particularly in 2 Corinthians 8:11,12,19; 9:2 and Luke also used the noun to describe how the Berean Christians “welcomed the message very eagerly (meta pasēs prothumias )” (Acts 17:11).
The verb prothumeisthai, noun prothumia, and adjective prothumos all occur frequently in Classical Greek authors such as the philosopher Plato and the historians Herodotus and Xenophen, signifying an eager willingness, normally voluntarily and bordering on zeal, passionate ardour, and tending to resoluteness, to become involved in some action, whether it is study, war, or some other venture. They also can describe the eager welcome expressed to an important visitor, petition, or relief force. Normally these terms define divine or human action by which intention becomes effective, often to the benefit of others.
The use of this vocabulary in the Septuagint aligns with prior usage. For example, in 2 Maccabees 11:7 Judas Maccabeus arms himself to defend Jerusalem from an attack by Lysias and rallies others who “eagerly (prothumōs) rushed off together”1 to do battle. Similarly, at the end of 2 Maccabees (15:9-10) Judas arrays Jewish forces against the Seleucid leader, Nikanor, and appealing to previous accounts of Yahweh’s victories, “made them the more eager (prothumoterous)” to do battle. The nuance of voluntary initiative based upon keen ardour is certainly clear in these usages.
It is also used to describe the willing and eager response of the Israelites to donate their skills and resources to building Solomon’s temple (1 Chronicles 28:21 “every willing person (pas prothumos) with skill in every craft.” David details the resources that he has prepared for this great project and urges the gathered Israelites also to participate with the question: “Now who is zealous (ho prothumoumenos) to fill his hands today for the Lord”(1 Chronicles 29:7)? Note how the sense of ardent eagerness overlaps with the idea of religious zeal. In this case they demonstrated their zeal by giving thousands of gold talents. As a result “the people were glad at the zeal that was shown (prothumēthēnai), because they had shown zeal (proethumēthēsan) for the Lord with a full heart,… “ (1 Chronicles 29:9). David then thanks God for the opportunity in which “In simplicity of heart I have shown zeal (prothumēthēn) for all these things and now I have seen your people found here showing zeal (prothumēthenta) for you with gladness” (1 Chronicles 29:17).
One other reference is instructive. In Sirach 45:23 the author praises Phinehas, son of Eleazor because “he was zealous (zēlōsai) in the fear of the Lord and since he stood firm in the turning of the people, in the goodness of the eagerness (prothumias ) of his soul;…” Here again we see a strong connection between zeal and the active ardour of a person willing to risk all in willing service to God. Eleazor, a scribe who resists Antiochus’ attempts to convert the Temple of Jerusalem into a pagan shrine, willingly gives his life “and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly (prothumōs) and nobly for the revered and holy laws” (2 Maccabees 6:28). Whether the translation “willingly” in this passage has sufficient force is open to debate, given the issues at play.
Philo, the Jewish philosopher contemporary with Jesus, used this terminology frequently. He lauds Moses for his attention to duty, “showing an eager and unprompted zeal (prothumiai) wherever it was needed….”2 It is this diligence that enables him to increase the flocks of Jethro. Philo noted the zealousness (prothumiais) of the Israelites in their attack upon the king of Arad.3 Moses chastises the two tribes who desire to enjoy their spoils east of Jordan before Israel has crossed the Jordan and taken possession of Canaan. He is concerned that they will “upset the ardent resolution (tas prothumias) of those who are fully disposed to manliness, whose spirits you paralyse and unnerve.”4 When describing the gifts Israelites contributed to the construction of the tabernacle, Philo says that the women donated their mirrors “with spontaneous ardour (prothumiai).”5 The Levites’ involvement in the punishment of Israel for the Golden Calf apostasy demonstrates “their zeal (prothumian) and the keenness of the inward feelings which urged them to piety.”6 Finally, we note that Philo urged the pursuit of wisdom “with utmost zest and keenness (prothumias), until we can come to the enjoyment of the things that we are seeking and longing for.”7 Josephus by and large echoes the usage we find in Philo.
So we come then to consider the usage of these terms in the New Testament. Paul in Romans 1:15 tells his audience that he is eager (prothumon) to discharge his apostolic responsibility with respect to the Gospel mission among them also. We should not discount the ardour that lies behind Paul’s desire to fulfill his apostolic calling.
The most significant concentration of this language occurs in 2 Corinthians 8:11,12,19; 9:2. Each usage relates to the involvement of the Corinthian Christians in the financial gift Paul is collecting for the aid of the Jerusalem church. In 8:11-12 Paul affirms their willing eagerness to complete the gift and strong desire for this outcome (“so that your eager (hē prothumia) willingness8 may be matched by your completion of it….For if the willing (hē prothumia) is there, the gift is acceptable….”). Paul emphasizes the willing ardour that motivates the gift, rather than the amount of the gift. In v.19 he sees the election of “the brother” (not identified by Paul) by the churches to help him complete the collection as something that will result in “our eagerness (prothumian)”(8:19). Exactly how this appointment aids or enhances Paul’s eager enthusiasm for this project again remains unstated. Perhaps with this appointment Paul considered he now had the help necessary to actually complete the project, which he was beginning to despair would ever reach its goal. Paul then affirms in 2 Corinthians 9:2 that “I know your eagerness (prothumian)to help.” Here Paul used this noun in parallel with “your zeal (zēlos).” He considers their enthusiastic involvement in this project a display of religious zeal for the mission of God.
Two other occurrences deserve quick comment. In Acts 17:11 the Jews in Berea “received the message with great eagerness (meta pasēs prothumias) and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Their zealous enthusiasm to discern God’s intent and obey it finds expression in their work to compare Paul’s teachings with the promises expressed in the Jewish Scriptures. And then Peter used the adverb once in 1 Peter 5:2 as he warns the elders to care for God’s flock with oversight motivated not by greed for money, but prothumōs, a zealous enthusiasm voluntarily to serve God in this way.
And so we come to Jesus’ words in Mark 14:38/Matthew 26:41. It should be somewhat clear that Jesus intends to describe an eager, ardent, enthusiastic willingness when he says that “the S(s)pirit is willing (prothumon),…” in contrast to the any human ability or motive, i.e. “the flesh” which is weak. We should be careful not to import the Pauline distinction between Spirit and flesh too quickly as the frame of reference for Jesus statement (cf. Galatians 5, Romans 8). The first question we need to ask is what is the “spirit” to which Jesus refers? Is this some aspect of human personality (i.e. body, soul and spirit)? I tend to think this is not Jesus’ meaning because we do not normally find in Mark’s narrative the use of spirit/pneuma to refer to some aspect of the human psyche. Some might argue that Mark 2:8 and 8:12 are examples of such, but both of these instances refer to Jesus and it is not clear whether Mark is referring to the Holy Spirit or some aspect of Jesus’ human condition in those texts. So I would suggest that the reference is to the Holy Spirit, unless we find good reason to propose another referent.
Second, Jesus is urging his three companions to “watch and pray so that you will not fall into testing/temptation, for the Spirit is enthusiastic….” The connection of prayer with the Spirit’s activity in the human context integrates well with biblical perspectives. We prayer for the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance, empowerment and gifting. To pray in the hour of testing for the Spirit’s assistance because the Spirit is willingly eager to assist God’s people makes sense.
Third, we cannot say whether Jesus is giving this explanation only for the sake of these three companions or as explanation as well for his urgent prayers as he anticipates the cross. His request that “Abba’s” will be done would find expression in the ardent zeal of the Holy Spirit to move God’s program forward. It is this Spirit which initially “drives” Jesus into the deserted areas of Judea to his encounter and trial with Satan (Mark 1:12-13). It is this same Spirit which is involved in some way in his dynamic ability to command all evil spirits (Mark 3:28-30). Further, this same Spirit, Jesus promises, will enable persecuted disciples to express the Gospel courageously (Mark 13:11). What Jesus does promises indirectly in this text is that the same Spirit at work in him, the Son of God, is also eager to work in the lives of Messianic followers to enable them to persevere in the most difficult trials.
However we interpret Jesus’ words in Mark 14:38/Matthew 26:41, we can be sure that God will answer our prayers for help in dire circumstances, strengthening our resolve to follow God’s will. If as I propose, Jesus is making a statement about the enthusiastic zeal of the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes and his willingness to assist us in this as well, then the sense of prothumos here is not a statement about the unflagging desire of the human spirit which tends to be hindered and squelched by mortal fear. No, this is Jesus’ own statement about the way in which he, true God and true man, was able to approach the cross in full confidence. He was aided by the Spirit’s zeal for God’s will to be done.
- When we find ourselves in difficult situations, do we believe that the Spirit ardently desires to come and help us accomplish God’s will, no matter if the threat is mortal?
- Will you avail yourself of this divine resource, the very Spirit of God, to help you adhere to God’s will when the tough stuff happens?
- 1All translations of the Septuagint are taken from A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford, 2007).
- 2Philo, De Vita Mosis I.63.
- 3Ibid., I.251.
- 4Philo, De Vita Mosis, I.325. Their eagerness is also described in I.333.
- 5Ibid., II.137.
- 6Ibid., II.170.
- 7Philo, De Migratione Abrahami 218.
- 8Perhaps “zeal towards willingness”. Cf. M.E. Thrall, 2 Corinthians 8-13, International Critical Commentary, 537-538.