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Matthew 26:51-54 meaning

Peter's Attack: A disciple pulls out his sword to defend Jesus to the death. His swing cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant. Jesus tells His disciple to stop, because this is part of His Father's plan.

The parallel gospel accounts of this event are found in Mark 14:47, Luke 22:49-51, John 18:10-11.

Matthew continues his narrative of Jesus's final night before His crucifixion.

Jesus's arrest and Peter's attack in the Garden of Gethsemane most likely took place on the night of Nisan 15 (sometime after midnight on Friday by Roman reckoning).

See "The Final 24 Hours of the Life of Jesus" to learn more about the timing and sequencing of this event.

In the past few moments much had happened. After praying fervently alone as His soul was deeply troubled in the Garden of Gethsemane to His Father for hours (Matthew 26:36-44) Jesus's hour was at hand (Matthew 26:45). As He woke His disciples for the third time that evening, a large crowd armed with swords and clubs led by Judas entered the garden (Matthew 26:45-47).

Jesus miraculously confronted them and told them He was the one they sought (John 18:4-8). Then Judas betrayed his Rabbi with a kiss as his sign to identify Jesus to the crowd (Matthew 26:49). Jesus said His final words to His disloyal friend and the armed crowd laid hands on Jesus and seized Him (Matthew 26:50).

As soon as they seized Jesus and laid their hands on Him (Matthew 26:50), Matthew said And behold one of those who were with Jesus suddenly reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear (vs 51).

Matthew remarks on the suddenness of this rash action with the phrase: And behold.

John's Gospel identifies which one of the disciples it was who struck the slave with his sword. It was Peter (John 18:10-11). John also gives the name of the high priest's servant whose ear Peter cut off. His name was "Malchus" (John 18:10).

Luke's Gospel tells us that as Judas was betraying Jesus, the disciples saw what was going to happen and asked Jesus, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?" (Luke 22:49). The disciples, who were startled awake just a few moments earlier, were ready to fight and die for Jesus, just as they had promised they would before entering the garden (Matthew 26:35). And they only awaited Jesus's command.

But Peter did not wait. It seems, before Jesus had time to respond to their question, Peter drew out his sword and attacked. Peter, ever the zealous man of action, was indeed ready to die (and kill) for Jesus.

As one of Jesus's most loyal followers, it would make sense that Peter was close to his Lord as these things took place. If so, Peter most likely attacked one of the men who was laying his hands on Jesus (Matthew 26:50).

Peter was ready to kill anyone who would harm his Lord, even if it meant he would perish too (Matthew 26:35). He was likely swinging for the servant's neck, but the slave either ducked in the nick of time, or Peter who was full of adrenaline swung too wildly and only cut off Malchus's ear.

Peter was trying to save Jesus from arrest and harm. More on this later. But Peter and the disciples lacked the faith and understanding that Jesus was willing to surrender and be killed as the true Passover Lamb of God.

Before any more violence could be done, Jesus immediately intervened, lest the other disciples join Peter in his folly. Jesus issued a short, sharp directive: "Stop! No more of this" (Luke 22:51a). Then Luke tells us that Jesus mercifully, and miraculously healed the slave's ear (Luke 22:51b).

Jesus's action was a stunning turn of events for both His disciples and His enemies—not to mention poor Malchus. Jesus was loving His enemies (Matthew 5:44).

Jesus continued speaking to Peter and commanded him to Put your sword back into its place (vs 52). John's Gospel records: "Put the sword into the sheath" (John 18:11a).

His message to Peter and the other disciples was clear: Put your swords away and do not fight!

Between the four Gospel accounts Jesus gave three reasons for why He commanded Peter to stop fighting and to put his sword away.

The first reason Jesus gave for why He commanded Peter to stop was because it would lead to Peter's death.

The armed crowd (Matthew 26:47) and Roman cohort (John 18:3, 12) came to arrest Jesus of Nazareth (John 18:4-5). They did not come to arrest Peter of Bethsaida. If no one interfered with their plans, they would seize Jesus and leave those who were with Him alone. But, if Peter interfered with his sword, he would be killed by their swords. This is what Jesus meant by His follow-up comment to the command: for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword (vs 51). Jesus loved Peter. He had big plans for him. Jesus did not want Peter to perish by the sword in Gethsemane. He wanted all his disciples to survive this moment so they could fulfill His ambitious plans after His resurrection (Matthew 28:20, Acts 1:8).

The second reason Jesus gave for why He commanded Peter to put his sword away was because it was unnecessary.

After rebuking His rash disciple, Jesus asked Peter: Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels (vs 53)?

Jesus did not need Peter to save Him. Scriptures say how God protected Jesus with angels (Psalm 91:11). At any moment, as the Son of God, Jesus could appeal to His Father in Heaven, and He would immediately send more than twelve legions of angels to rescue Him. Angels can be fierce and terrifying beings. The cultural image of chubby babies with wings comes from the Renaissance painter, Raphael, not the Bible.

The Bible describes angels as God's messengers (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 2:19, Luke 1:11-19, 1:26-38, 2:9-13). Indeed, the Greek word for angel means "messenger." But some angels are also heavenly warriors who are involved in spiritual combat and their powers are far superior to our fleshly strength (2 Kings 6:15-18, 19:35).

Jesus is the commander of armies. He is "the Lord of Hosts" (compare Isaiah 44:6 with Revelation 22:13). A Roman legion in the first century A.D. was comprised of 6,000 soldiers. The most Peter could muster would be 10 men to fight off the Roman cohort (100 men) and crowd. Jesus said He had more than twelve legions of angels at his command. Mathematically, Jesus could summon a force that was more than 6,000 x greater in number than what Peter could summon—and—heavenly angels are vastly superior warriors to any of the disciples, including Simon the Zealot. The military force Jesus could summon made Peter's efforts pale by comparison.

The fact that Jesus did not summon these angelic legions to rescue Him at any point during His suffering showed tremendous meekness (power under control) and humility (willingness to see reality as it is) to follow His Father's will, believing in the face of immense difficulty that this was, indeed, for His best (Matthew 5:5, Philippians 2:8).

The third reason Jesus gave for why He commanded Peter to put his sword away was because it was His Father's will that He should be arrested, condemned, abused, and executed.

Jesus had just spent hours praying in Gethsemane about doing His Father's will, even though it meant suffering and dying (Matthew 26:39, 42). His arrest and crucifixion was His Father's will.

Jesus recognized this as His Father's will, and He submitted to it (John 18:4). Even as He was being arrested, Jesus was inviting Peter to share His perspective. To this end, Jesus asked His misguided disciple two questions:

  • How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way (vs 54)?
  •  "The cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11).

The Scriptures that Jesus referred to in the first question are the prophecies about the Messiah's suffering and death. They include Genesis 3:15, Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, Zechariah 13:7, among others.

"The cup" that He was to given to drink (John 18:11) referred to the bitter and deadly cup of God's wrath poured out upon sin. Jesus prayed to His Father, "if it is possible [for Me to save the world from sin any other way] let this cup pass from Me" but He also prayed, "Your will be done" (Matthew 26:39), and "If this [cup] cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done" (Matthew 26:42).

The three reasons Jesus provided for why Peter should put away his sword were:

  • It would lead to Peter's death, and Jesus wanted him to live and continue serving.
  • Peter's protection was not needed because more than twelve legions of angels were available.
  • It was His Father's will that Jesus should be arrested and crucified.

An additional reason Jesus may have had for telling Peter to put away his sword was because this kind of violence had no part in His kingdom.

The kingdoms of men are based on coercion and violent force. Jesus's kingdom is founded on humility, faith, service, love and the other principles that are explicitly spelled out in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). For example, consider Jesus's surrender in the Garden and His rebuke of Peter's defense in light of His teaching from His Sermon on the Mount,

"But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also."
(Matthew 5:39)

At this point in history, Jesus was living among us as a human. As such, He was giving way to His Father to execute vengeance, and see that justice is done (Romans 12:19). Jesus's kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). While in this world, God chooses to dispense justice through the agency of human governmental authorities, whom He appoints (Romans 13:1). His wrath is poured out through the "sword" of government (Romans 13:4). However, in the age to come, Jesus will bring His kingdom to earth, and execute justice with His own hand (Revelation 19:11-16). It seems that part of what is transpiring here is that Jesus is providing an example to His followers. Jesus trusts Himself to His Father, knowing His Father will execute justice in due time (1 Peter 5:6). So should we follow Christ's example and entrust our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (1 Peter 4:19).

Jesus did not resist the large crowd who came to seize Him. He submitted to their commands.

In so doing He was not seeking to save His own life from physical death, but was willing to lose it that the world might live (Matthew 16:24-25):

  • for the sake of His Father (John 10:17-18, Philippians 2:6-8, Isaiah 53:10a)
  • for the sake of His friends (John 15:13-14)
  • for the sake of the world (John 3:16, 1 John 2:2)
  • and even for the sake of His enemies (Colossians 1:21-2, Romans 5:8, Ephesians 2:1-5).

In losing His life for God's sake and for the life of the world, Jesus found life (Matthew 16:24-25). He overcame His trials and gained a name above every name and He will be greatly exalted because of His obedient humility (Isaiah 53:10-12, Philippians 2:9-10, Hebrews 12:2, Revelation 3:21, 5:6-9).

After praying in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was willing to surrender Himself completely to His Father's will by submitting to arrest, humiliation, and a painful death.

Peter and the disciples were not prepared for this outcome. It did not fit into their paradigm. They were completely disoriented as a result.

They were fiercely loyal to Jesus. They were not total cowards. They were willing to die for Him, within the paradigm they were operating. The disciples' question (Luke 22:49) and Peter's attack on the slave of the high priest demonstrates their loyalty and courage. Peter's intent was to save Jesus from arrest and harm.

But Peter did not conceive that Jesus would actually allow Himself to be arrested without a fight—even though Jesus told them He would be arrested and killed numerous times before. In fact, Jesus had told him this plainly, and Peter could not comprehend it as a possibility.

Despite Jesus's warnings, Peter had not really listened to Jesus on this point. Peter had not accepted it. Consequently, Peter was no more prepared for Jesus to obey His Father unto the cross at this moment in Gethsemane, than he was able to accept the idea when Jesus first told him that He would suffer many things and be killed at the hands of the priests and scribes (Matthew 16:21). When Jesus first told Peter:

"Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, 'God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.' But He turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's.'"
(Matthew 16:22-23)

Peter and the disciples were willing to follow Jesus unto their own death—so long as it fit their chosen perspective, their paradigm or worldview. They were not willing to follow Jesus (at this point in their lives) if it meant Him surrendering to His enemies. They lacked faith. Their strength and identity were in what they could do for Jesus. Their faith lacked knowledge—they did not yet understand/know Jesus sufficiently to believe in Him as He was.

In Gethsemane, their strength as disciples was not in what Jesus could do through them. They did not appear to be living in dependence upon Christ. Their faith was misplaced in themselves. They had not applied what Jesus taught them about the Vine and the branches just a few hours earlier:

"I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing."
(John 15:5)

Ironically, their Master and Rabbi, Jesus, was fully capable of living independently, yet chose to live in complete dependence upon His Father (John 5:30, Philippians 2:8). This was because He trusted that His Father knew best, and had His best interest at heart (Philippians 2:5-11).

Apparently relying upon their own weak, incomplete and incorrect understanding, the disciples were unable to imagine that Jesus, the Messiah, would let Himself be captured by His enemies, falsely condemned, publicly humiliated, and tortured to death as the Scriptures and Jesus foretold. When He let these things happen, their paradigms were shattered and they ran away (Matthew 26:56).

We are similar to the disciples whenever we are firmly willing to follow Jesus if He leads us down comfortable roads, but we are unwilling to trust Him through the hard things. But following Jesus always leads us to a cross, something difficult Jesus asks us to do (Mark 8:34). Will we have faith to "pick it up" and follow Him unto our humiliation and death/rejection by the world? Or will we be like the disciples and run away confused?

Jesus repeatedly warned them these things would happen,

"Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world."
(John 16:32-33)

Jesus warns us as well. But if we are to follow Him in our "hour" of tribulation, we must count the cost. We must take courage by choosing to trust Him in all things; seek His perspective; and share in His sufferings. Each of us has been appointed to steward three things we control: who we trust, the perspective we choose, and the actions we take. As we progress in maturity, it should be our constant aim to seek to have true knowledge, that we might see God for who He is, and trust Him fully. In trusting God, and seeking reality through His eyes, we are then equipped to have "His mind" and take actions that lead to pleasing Him, and to our greatest reward and fulfillment (Philippians 2:5-10, Revelation 3:21).

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