There in the darkened olive grove, Jesus was still rousting his disciples from their slumber when the traitor Judas arrived.
We can piece the scenario together from the different gospel accounts. Matthew 26:47 tells us that Judas was accompanied by a well-armed party from by the chief priests and elders, which suggests that the Sanhedrin had sent the temple police. John 18:3 adds that there was also a detachment of soldiers; the word suggests a cohort of 600 Roman infantrymen. Six hundred. The whole party was armed to the teeth, and carrying torches and lanterns. The chief priests must have been able to convince the Roman authorities that Jesus was some kind of dangerous revolutionary, a threat to the empire.
Had the disciples been keeping watch as Jesus asked, they would have seen and heard Judas coming. How could anyone miss such a large, torch-bearing crowd at night?
You sleep through it.
Imagine the utter bewilderment of the disciples. Shaken awake by Jesus, they open their eyes to a confusing, frightening scene: their little band is surrounded by a teeming mass of soldiers, led by their friend Judas.
They have a total of two swords among them, but not being seasoned military strategists, they ask Jesus if they should attack (Luke 22:38, 49). Before Jesus can respond, Peter brandishes his sword and swings, managing only to lop off the right ear of a man named Malchus, a servant of the high priest (John 18:10). Just an ear, and nothing else? My guess is that Peter was swinging wildly, attacking whomever was closest. Poor Malchus ducked. Just not quickly enough.
Jesus immediately commanded Peter to stop, and reached out to heal Malchus’ ear, undoing the damage Peter had done (Luke 22:51). And even in such chaotic circumstances, Jesus used to moment to teach Peter and the disciples a lesson:
Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword. Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen? (Matt 26:52-54, CEB)
A small band of fishermen with two swords against hundreds of well-armed Roman infantrymen, and the temple police to boot? As I was reminded by a friend this morning, there’s something almost endearing about Peter’s testosterone-fueled, desperate defense of his Lord. But Jesus wants Peter and the others to get the bigger picture. Violence is not the way; it leads only to more violence.
Moreover, Peter seems to be reacting as if the situation were out of control. Jesus was without question the most powerful person he had ever known: why wasn’t he doing something about the situation? Not surprisingly, Peter takes matters into his own hands.
Thus Jesus assures Peter that he’s still in control. I’m reminded of the story in 2 Kings 6:8-18, when the enraged king of the Aram sends an entire army of horses and chariots to round up one man, Elisha the prophet. Elisha’s servant panics: “What are we going to do?” Then the prophet prays for God to open the servant’s eyes: the hills are covered with the fiery chariots of God’s army, more than a match for Aram.
Jesus could ask for help, and the Father would send it: more than twelve legions of angels, numbering 12,000 per legion. Talk about a turnabout: they would outnumber the Roman forces by well over 200 to 1–not that it would take 200 angels to bring one soldier into submission.
But that’s not the plan. Jesus’ prayer was that God’s will would be done, and the Scriptures had to be fulfilled. He submitted himself to a cowardly and unjust arrest, and the disciples, still uncomprehending, scattered like frightened sheep.
Over and over in this part of Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus telling his disciples to keep watch, to stay alert. The time is an urgent one: don’t get caught napping. If you do, you may wake up to a dire situation and respond in desperation or even violence, flailing wildly in the dark.
I’m forced to wonder: how is it that I flail when I’m not confident that God is in control? And what do I need to do in order to not be caught napping?