47 While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” 49 And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 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. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
The religious establishment saw the threat of Jesus and realized that they needed to move against Him if the power structures they had built were going to be maintained. Having plotted and schemed, they found an open door in the treacherous heart of Judas. Now, in the garden of Gethsemane, they make their move. Here in the garden where Jesus’ disciples slept and where He agonized, wicked men come to lay hands on the sinless Lamb of God. In doing so, they set in motion the most infamous and legally unjust proceedings in the history of the world. Even so, it was through these ignominious proceedings that God accomplished His great plan of salvation, for these proceedings will end with a cross and an empty tomb.
When we turn back to the garden, we see a number of revealing dynamics at play.
An act of betrayal intended to destroy.
First, we see the traitor, Judas, coming to perpetrate his heinous crime.
47 While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” 49 And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 50a Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.”
Shame is heaped upon shame as Judas feigns loyalty by referring to Jesus as “Rabbi” and then feigns friendship by kissing Jesus. This kiss was not in and of itself abnormal for that time and culture. Male friends might kiss each other in such away as a sign of filial devotion. However, A.T. Robertson notes that the verb used for “kiss” is katephilesen which means “kissed him fervently.”
Could it be that Judas overplayed his hand in a fit of nerves? Could it be that his kiss was more fervent than was customary because of the dastardly deed he was trying so very hard to conceal? The words of Proverbs 27 seem especially pertinent at this point:
6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
Profuse indeed are the kisses of an enemy. Profuse too are the kisses of true friendship and love. For instance, the same verb used for Judas’ kiss appears also in Luke 15:20, when the father welcomed home his prodigal son.
20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
So profuse are the kisses of actual love, but profuse as well are the kisses of an enemy. The difference is in the intent, the motivation, and, ultimately, the fruit. Jesus’ response is painful to read.
50a Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.”
Jesus called Judas “friend.” What must have passed between the two in that moment? I envision Jesus looking deeply into the traitorous eyes of Judas as he said this. Did Judas go pail? Did he flinch? Did he blink or stare wide-eyed? Whatever his response, he surely understood that Jesus completely understood what he had come to do.
Jesus called Judas “friend.”
When I was a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Dr. Thomas Long, then Professor of Preaching at Princeton Divinity School, came and spoke to us in chapel. I recall him making the point that “in the book of Matthew ‘friend’ is a bad word.” What he meant was that every time the word “friend” is used in Matthew it is in a scene of tension or conflict.
For instance, in Matthew 11 we see that Jesus’ friendship with sinners was used against Him by His critics. In this instance, the word “friend” is said with a sneer of contempt.
19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
In Matthew 20, Jesus used the word as he tried to explain to the outraged vineyard workers who were hired at the beginning of the day that he had done them no wrong by paying all the workers the same.
13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?
In the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, the King questions a man who had come without proper attire.
12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.
He next instructs that this man be tied up and thrown out into the darkness. Then here, in Matthew 26, Jesus used the word of Judas.
50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.
I recall Thomas Long saying that if ever you preach out of Matthew you should not sing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Jesus called Judas “friend.” The heart pang of this moment comes in the fact that Jesus truly had extended friendship to Judas, and so much more. He had offered eternal life. Jesus could have been and should have been the greatest friend that Judas ever had, but Judas returned the love of Jesus with deceit and betrayal.
In Michael Card’s song, “Why?” he sings this:
Why did it have to be a friend
Who chose to betray the Lord
Why did he use a kiss to show them
That’s not what a kiss is for
Only a friend can betray a friend
A stranger has nothing to gain
And only a friend comes close enough
To ever cause so much pain
That is so very well said, and so very, very true.
An act of violence intended to defend.
Now we begin to see movement and a heightening of tension.
50b Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 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. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Here we see an act of violence intended to defend. Peter drew a sword and struck the ear of the servant of the high priest off. Why? What was he thinking?
Undoubtedly he was feeling a sense of outrage at Judas’ betrayal, a sense of need to defend Jesus, and likely a sense of fear coupled with a desire to take control of the situation himself. Most likely Peter’s actions were reflective of the feelings of most or all of the eleven disciples. They were, from our vantage point, very natural actions to take.
Peter was the head disciple, it would seem, and it is almost certainly the case that he wanted to do something brave. After all, he had sworn that he would stand with Jesus until the end. So, in a surge of adrenaline and righteous indignation, Peter drew his sword and then drew blood.
It is a critical moment, for here we see what Jesus is truly about. Will He endorse this act of violence and thereby call His followers to the sword, or will He not?
52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Jesus calls His disciples to the cross, not to a stockpile of weapons with an eye toward violent overthrow. And let us remember this as well: had the disciples of Jesus thwarted this arrest, they would have disrupted God’s plan for Jesus to lay down His life for the world.
It is a good thing that this episode appears in the garden of Gethsemane account, for it tells us that the posture of the Church is not to be one of violence, coercion, force, and power on the world’s terms, but rather one of love, obedience, and sacrifice. “Put your sword back in its place” is a word the Church has often ignored over the years. The Church has tragically taken up its sword at critical moments and the result has always been disaster.
Remember: we were called to carry a cross, not unsheathe a sword. We were called to love our neighbors, not attack our neighbors. We were called to speak truth to power, not overthrow power and replace it with our own version.
It is occasionally pointed out that in Luke’s account, Jesus tells His disciples to get swords for themselves. We find this in Luke 22.
35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. 36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” 38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.
Jesus does indeed instruct His disciples to sell their cloaks and buy a sword. It is a fascinating statement and a curious one. However, a number of things should be kept in mind.
- Immediately after this, Peter draws his sword and strikes the servant of the high priest and is rebuked by Jesus. This would seem to rule out the idea that what Jesus was doing in calling His disciples to get swords was calling them to a life of violent engagement with the enemies of the faith.
- It should be noted that Jesus tells them that two swords are “enough” for eleven disciples. This would seem to rule out the idea that Jesus is calling for a stockpile of weapons that would be sufficient to arm the body of Christ for conflict.
- Nowhere in the book of Acts do we see the early Church appealing to this saying and arming themselves for battle. That does not appear to be how the earliest Christians interpreted these words at all.
Almost certainly what Jesus is doing here is highlighting the fact that their mission will soon move beyond Judea and into increasingly hostile territory. Perhaps it is a statement filled with prophetic symbolism. There likely is a statement about the coming and likely occasional need to defend themselves in these words, though, once again, His proclamation of two swords as “enough” for eleven disciples must inform even that idea.
It is a basic rule of bible interpretation that more extensive and clearer passages should be allowed to inform more enigmatic passages. Given that immediately after this saying Jesus rebukes Peter for using the sword, and given that Jesus condemns the life of sword-bearing, we must simply rule out any notion that Christ Jesus was calling the Church to military power, to strategic force, and to a mission of dominance and coercion.
You cannot love your neighbor if you have him or her at the point of your sword. You cannot lead a person to Christ by the threat of death. That is not the way of Christ. That is not how the early Church overtook the world. The early Church overtook the world through radical demonstrations of selflessness, love, generosity, kindness, and the preaching of the gospel of Christ.
Perhaps this word is the word the Church most needs today: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” I say this because in times of great social upheaval, times in which the Church feels beleaguered, we also feel the temptation to fight power with power. As the powers that previously were favorable to the Church become less so, we are tempted to topple the powers and enthrone ourselves. But note the Jesus did not call upon His disciples to overthrow the Romans or to slaughter the Jewish religious elites. He called upon them to take the gospel to the nations.
An act of submission intended to save.
Over and against Peter’s act of violence intended to defend we see Jesus’ act of submission intended to save.
53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
In Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, He demonstrated radical power by revealing that He has the authority to call down an entire host of avenging angels should He so desire. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary points out that “a Roman legion had six thousand soldiers, which means Jesus could have called on 72,000 angels.” Imagine the scene in Heaven! Thousands upon thousands of righteously angered angels wait with weapons drawn for the sign from Jesus that they should descend and slaughter and wreak havoc upon the earth because of this heinous crime. Had He given the sign, it would have been an immediate and horrifying bloodbath, and the angels would have been justified in bringing vengeance.
Had Jesus given the sign.
But Jesus did not give the sign. Here was Jesus’ demonstration of power: He kept the angels at bay, resisted the temptation to vengeance, resisted an escape from the pain that was coming, and submitted Himself to the will of the Father.
This, Church, is power!
And let us note that Jesus said he could have called more than twelve legions of angels. That number is most interesting. Michael Card sees the significance of “more than twelve legions of angels” as being a reference to the number of disciples: “For each of the twelve disciples, Jesus says he has a legion of angels ready.” In other words, is it not possible that even here what Jesus is saying to Peter is not primarily about Jesus’ protection but about the disciples’ protection? If so, this may reveal a subtle acknowledgment on Jesus’ part that what Peter’s act of violence was really about was saving his own neck and not Jesus’. Thus, Jesus reminded Peter that He could call down an entire legion of angels for each of the disciples.
But He did not.
Praise God, Jesus did not call down the army of angels.
Jesus embraced the salvific will of the Father and embraced the cross.
In John 10, Jesus said this:
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
“I lay down my life for the sheep.”
“I lay down my life.”
“No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
“I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”
Jesus gives His life!
And yet, He does so in accordance with the will of the Father: “This charge I have received from my Father.”
Dear Church: behold true power! Behold true love! Behold true glory! Jesus is the manifestation of the power, love, and glory of God, and He manifests it in the most shocking and scandalous and unlikely of places: the cross!
We have a crucified and risen King, Church! Not a Caesar. Not a President. Not a Prime Minister. Not an earthly King. Not a dictator. Human beings are under these temporal powers for a temporal time, but the Church’s ultimate devotion is to a King who embraced a cross…and that matters. It matters a lot. It shows us the way of life, the way of ultimate victory, the way of true power, the way of the Kingdom.
To embrace Christ is to embrace His cross.
This is the way He has shown us.
This is the means by which He has saved us.
 A.T. Robertson, Matthew, Mark. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.I (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.215.
 Clinton E. Arnold, ed., Matthew, Mark, Luke. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary. Vol 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.167.
 Michael Card, Matthew (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p.231-232.