And behold, one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and smote the servant of the high priest, and struck off his ear.
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:51-52).
The great confrontation had finally come.
The disciples had eagerly awaited the moment when they knew Jesus would inaugurate His Kingdom. They had been promised it would happen in Jerusalem; they had arrived in triumph; and now, finally, Jesus was confronted with the power of the religious authorities and the Romans. Now, they were no doubt certain, Jesus would rise up and defeat the Roman menace.
Peter was ready. He had promised Jesus he would not be offended by Jesus and would even die for Him (Matthew 26:33, 35); at his side was a sword, one of the two swords which Jesus had commended for them not long before (Luke 22:35-38).
And then all of a sudden it was not going according to the plan they had imagined. Judas had betrayed Jesus; the men with him laid hands on Jesus (Matthew 26:50). The disciples wondered: should they attack (Luke 22:49)? But then Peter then did what Peter was good at doing: he acted. Peter unsheathed the sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest; he did so perhaps to protect Jesus, or to begin the battle (Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50, John 18:10).
Yet Jesus would have none of it. He had a cup He had to drink; the Scriptures had to be fulfilled (Matthew 26:54, Luke 22:51, John 18:11). Jesus reasoned with Peter: could He not call upon God who would send twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)? Peter well knew the story of Israel: one angel struck down an Assyrian army of 185,000 men (1 Kings 19:35); a Roman legion included around 6,000 men, so how much more could an army of 72,000 angels wreak upon the earth? Jesus then healed the servant of the high priest, and was led away to trial, suffering, and execution (Luke 22:51).
But in Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus speaks of legions of angels and the need to fulfill Scripture, Jesus stopped Peter with a powerful premise: he ought to put his sword away, for all who take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52). This is not just about this night and this moment. This is about the way of the world and the way of Jesus.
The sword is the way of the world. Ever since the fall of man, people have sought to gain advantage over others through coercive and violent force. Jesus and Peter understood the way of the sword very well: they lived under Roman oppression. Jesus was not wrong to point out that power gained with the sword must be maintained by the sword: He was about to experience the full force of the power of the sword at the hands of the religious authorities and the Romans (Matthew 26:55-27:50). The Romans had overcome the Macedonians; the Macedonians had overcome the Babylonians, who had overcome the Assyrians. A day would come when the Romans would finally be overcome themselves. Peter nursed the hope of many Israelites that God would grant them victory over the Romans, but it would involve that same sword, and would just as easily be lost by that sword. Within forty years of Jesus’ death the Israelites would take up the sword in a vain attempt to gain freedom from the pagan oppressor by it; they would die at the hands of Roman swords. Jesus’ warning became prophecy.
Matthew, throughout his Gospel, contrasts the way of the world, the way of the sword, with the way of Christ. The Pharisees and the Jewish establishment understood the Law in carnal terms; the way of the Kingdom of God in Christ demanded greater righteousness (Matthew 5:1-7:27). The Roman rulers lorded their authority over others; it would not be so among those serving in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:25-28). The Israelites would choose the Messiah of their own desire, Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist, over the Messiah whom God had sent them: Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:17-23). Jesus’ way involved humility, service, suffering, even death (Matthew 16:24-25, 20:25-28). Jesus’ Kingdom would not be inaugurated by His servants wielding the swords against others, as so many other kingdoms had begun; Jesus’ Kingdom would be inaugurated because the sword came for Jesus Himself.
Jesus’ words to Peter ring out to faithful believers in Christ to this day. God has empowered earthly governments to render justice and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7); they will also all go the way of all kingdoms on the earth. For the most part the people of God attempt to live by peaceful means and seek to advance God’s purposes in ways which glorify Him. But what happens when danger comes upon the people of God? What then?
Peter learned the lesson well. We have no record of Peter ever wielding the sword against another person again, even though his life was endangered on many occasions (cf. Acts 12:1-19). When threatened by the Sanhedrin, he and his fellow Apostles prayed to God for power to continue to boldly proclaim the Gospel (Acts 4:24-30). A few years before the Romans did unto him what they had done unto Jesus, Peter wrote to Christians of Asia Minor, exhorting them to suffer persecution and general evil for having done good, not to revile or repay evil for evil, but bless, because Jesus provided them an example, suffering unjustly but entrusting Himself to God who judges justly (1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:9-16, 4:1-19).
Peter and the Christians of Asia Minor found themselves in far more dangerous circumstances than most of us could even imagine. But they did not resort to violence; Peter vividly remembered what the Lord had told him, and he lived and taught accordingly. One can go far in conversation with words and acts of love and hospitality, but once one turns to the sword and violence, the affair will be decided by violence. In this way those who take the sword shall perish by it. It is not for us to trust in the ways of this world, but to follow the way of God in Christ in His Kingdom, the way of humility, service, and suffering, even, if need be, unto death (1 John 3:16, Revelation 12:11). May we, as Peter, leave the violent coercive force of the world in its sheath, and put our trust in God in Christ and follow Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry