Once the men and soldiers arrived with their swords and clubs, another interesting event transpired.
Taking the cue from Judas’s kiss, “they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him” (Mt. 26:50). This was to be expected. What wasn’t expected was what happened next, “And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear” (Mt. 26:51). We learn from the gospel of John that it was Simon Peter who drew is sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest.
What stuck out to me was not the fact that Peter retaliated when the crowd seized Jesus, but instead that it was only an ear that got cut off.
This is how I picture the scene in the garden: Jesus stands amidst his disciples, having just returned from his intense time of prayer. The soldiers in the crowd pushed their way through the disciples as they followed Judas closely. Judas gives the signal with a kiss on Jesus’s cheek. Then, as they seize Jesus, Peter, realizing what is happening, draws his sword and strikes the person closest to him, the unfortunate Malchus.
But why did he strike the ear, and only the ear? Most swords in that region were meant for stabbing, not slicing.* Perhaps his killing blow to the head was knocked off target by a guard vying for better position to arrest Jesus, or perhaps Peter merely wanted to make his indignation known—not actually kill Malchus.
Whatever the motive behind his stroke, God, in his sovereignty, had the story result in a lost ear and Christ’s well known saying, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” What’s less well-known, however, is the next phrase, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Mt. 26:52-54). Beyond that fact that Christ denounces violence as a means of forwarding the gospel message, Christ makes it known that he is going to the cross willingly. While I admit that hindsight is 20/20, perhaps if Peter had spent the time praying alongside Jesus instead of sleeping, he would acted a bit more in-step with what God was doing.
Peter’s experience teaches us a powerful lesson we’d do well to remember in the future. When we try to take matters into our own hands and deny God’s sovereignty, we act in ways that aren’t to the glory of God. The problem wasn’t that Peter acted, but that Peter acted in a way that was out of touch with what God was doing. He wasn’t trusting in Christ’s divine authority that clearly could have stopped his arrest with legions of angels.
Do you recall a time you took matters into your own hands out of unrighteous fear, anger, or frustration? Was the resultant action out of touch with God’s will and his plan to sanctify you? (cf. 1 Thess 4:3) Unfortunately, I recall many such times. Instead we ought to lean hard into God’s word and abide in Christ. Through our fellowship and union with Christ our will will be aligned with the Father’s as Christ’s will is aligned with the Father’s and our actions will transformed accordingly.
God is sovereign and God is good, so let us trust him and respond with to our situations with a grace that is reminiscent of the gospel of Christ.
*ESV Study Bible footnotes