June 16, 2024

Mighty, Yet Willing to Die

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Passage: Matthew 26:47–56

When people tell stories, sometimes we want them to finish more quickly: “Hurry it up! Spare the details. Just get to the point.” But if we’re not careful, we could miss why a good storyteller slows things down. Weeks ago, I mentioned that time plays an important role when discerning a story’s focus. When an author uses more text to cover less time, that often alerts you to the story’s focus. That’s especially true with Gospels in the New Testament.

Take John’s Gospel, for example. In John, chapters 1-12 cover three years of Jesus’ ministry. If that pace continued, we’d expect the next eight chapters to cover another two years. Instead, he spends eight chapters on one week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Matthew’s Gospel does the same. Chapters 3-20 cover about three years. With eight chapters left, you’d expect another year at least. Instead, chapters 21-28 cover only one week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. More text, less time.

Which tells us something about the Gospels’ focus: their focus is the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, his sufferings and his death on the cross. Jesus’ miracles, the statements about his identity, his teachings—it’s all been heading here. In chapter 26, Matthew has slowed the pace on the night when Jesus was betrayed. Or better, the Holy Spirit has slowed the pace; and it would be a great loss if we said, “Just hurry it up already!” No, the Spirit wants us to see important things about Jesus on his way to the cross. Today, we’ll see that Jesus is mighty, yet he chooses death to fulfill the Scriptures.

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.

Our passage develops around three encounters. One between Jesus and Judas in verses 47-50. Another between Jesus and Peter in verses 51-54. And lastly an encounter between Jesus and the crowd in 55-56. But all three encounters reveal that Jesus is mighty, yet he chooses death to fulfill the Scriptures.

Jesus responds to Judas’ betrayal

We see this first in the way Jesus responds to Judas’ betrayal. Matthew wants us to grasp the depth of Judas’ betrayal. We already know that Judas is one of the Twelve. In case we forgot, he mentioned it again in verse 14. But then he says it again here: “Judas came, one of the twelve.” Why repeat this? To feel how awful the betrayal is. He’s an insider—one who went out with the others to preach and cast out demons; one who ate with Jesus and heard Jesus reveal the secrets of the kingdom. But no longer is he known for following Jesus; he’s known as “the betrayer” in verse 48.

Judas knew where Jesus and the disciples usually gathered. He leads a great crowd to Gethsemane. The chief priests and elders have authorized this crowd to come and take Jesus by force. We’ll talk about them more in a minute. For now, notice how Judas greets Jesus: “‘The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.’ And he came up to Jesus at once and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ And he kissed him.”

Think about that—he kissed him. Not an uncommon greeting in Jesus’ day. The New Testament elsewhere says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Such a kiss was the mark of friendship, trust, endearment. Judas’ kiss is full of poison. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” The kiss looks friendly, but beneath is a treacherous heart.

We’re not told why Judas chose a kiss over simply pointing Jesus out. Perhaps this was his way of hiding motives from the other disciples. Whatever the case, we know this isn’t the only time in Scripture where God’s Son is kissed.

Psalm 2 speaks of God’s Son as king over all nations. He sits on God’s throne. He spreads God’s rule across the earth. Because of his power and might, it’s fitting that all people serve God’s Son in fear and rejoice with trembling. Then Psalm 2:12 says, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” This is the kiss Jesus deserves—one that pays homage and respect to God’s ultimate king. But that’s not the kiss he gets.

Another kiss happens in Luke 7:38. A woman from the street, basically a prostitute—she finds where Jesus is having dinner at a Pharisee’s house. She brings an alabaster flask of ointment, “and standing behind [Jesus] at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.” People begin ridiculing Jesus for allowing this woman to do this. But Jesus rebukes them and commends her. The woman knows how much she is forgiven; and it leads her to a great display of love for Jesus.

This is the kiss Jesus deserves—a kiss that pays homage to the king; a kiss that treats his forgiveness as precious. But that’s not the kiss he gets. What kiss would you offer to Jesus? One like that of Judas? Are there public displays of affection for Jesus while something treacherous lurks beneath the surface? Or is your devotion sincere? Do you truly see his worth, his might, his holiness, and pay homage to the king, like the kiss of Psalm 2? Do you come to him like the prostitute of Luke 7, who knows how much she needs his forgiveness and loves him so very deeply for providing that forgiveness? There are two ways to kiss the Son—in betrayal or in adoration…

But notice too how Jesus responds to Judas’ betrayal. Jesus never budges from doing his Father’s will. Notice Jesus’ strength/might in this moment. Before Judas comes Matthew is quick to tell us, “While he was still speaking, Judas came.” While who was still speaking? Yes, Jesus. But in verse 45 Jesus is the Son of Man. That means he’s the great king of Daniel 7. He’s the great judge of Matthew 25. He’s got all authority and a forever kingdom. Moreover, what was it that he just said in verse 45? Look at it again: “See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see my betrayer is at hand.” Jesus is still in control.

He knows everything here. Earlier in the Gospel, he promised the disciples that this day would happen; and it’s unfolding just like he said. Or better, just as he commands? “Friend, do what you came to do.” In other words, Jesus is not a helpless victim. He is still mighty; and we have glimpses of that here. But that’s so we understand that when he goes to the cross, he goes willingly on his own initiative. He goes to the cross not because a bunch of people finally decided to bump him off. He goes not because he’s forced into it and he’s too weak to get out of it. He goes because this is the Father’s will revealed in Scripture; he submits himself to it willingly.

For a second, just imagine what that means for these disciples. Jesus taught them to pray, “Father, your will be done” (Matt 6:10). They’ve heard Jesus himself pray, “Father, your will be done” (Matt 26:39). But now they are seeing what God’s will includes: betrayal, arrest, and suffering in the path of obedience. I wonder how many people think, “If I just do God’s will, everything will get easier in life.” No. Not true. Submitting to God’s will doesn’t mean things get easier. Many times, the path of obedience in a world that is broken and hostile to God will mean things get harder.

Jesus taught the disciples to take up their cross (Matt 16:24). They’ve heard Jesus say that he would take up his own cross (Matt 20:19). But now they are witnessing what the cross would include: betrayal, arrest, suffering, and death in the path of obedience. Christianity is not a religion where, by coming to Jesus, you get more comfortable. The call to follow Jesus looks like this right here. When you come to the cross of Christ, is this the cross you want to embrace for yourself? Is there a willingness to follow in the footsteps of Jesus when this is in view? This is the cross Jesus calls us to.

Jesus responds to Peter’s sword

Some of the disciples thought they could handle it. Wasn’t it Peter who thought he could handle it? Remember what he said in verse 33? “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Peter—so loyal to Jesus…until the realities of the cross settle on him. That brings us to the next part of our passage: Jesus responds to Peter’s sword. Verse 51 doesn’t name the disciple, but John 18:10 says it was Peter.

Peter “stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.” Don’t get the wrong idea. Peter is a fisherman, not a skilled swordsman. He’s not going for the man’s ear; he’s going for his head and catches the ear.* Peter believes he’s acting in loyalty to Jesus. He’s ready to defend Jesus.

But Jesus shows that Peter misses three things. One, Peter misses the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. When I say “kingdom,” I’m referring to God’s people under God’s rule. God’s kingdom comes in various stages across history. At one time it came partially in the land of Canaan. At the end of history, it will come fully over earth. But right now, we see God’s rule in the people who follow Jesus—his disciples, the church. The point Jesus makes here is that the sword is not entrusted to the church.

Verse 52, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Now, some will use a text like this one to support the idea of pacifism—saying that Jesus forbids here the use of force (physical violence) under any circumstances. But such a broad application is making the text say more than what’s present. Also, other places in Scripture leave room for the use of force in specifically defined situations—like when defending the innocent from reckless evil or when the state seeks to preserve the natural goods of a society. That’s not what Jesus is addressing.

Jesus is trying to help Peter see that his present kingdom does not advance by human aggression, by violent coercion. That’s how the world lives. And Jesus points that out with a proverbial statement: “Don’t you know, Peter, that all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Look at history. That’s how things go when people fight.

But Jesus’ kingdom—that is, God’s rule in the church today—advances by willingly taking up a cross. Hasn’t Peter heard these things before? In chapter 5, Jesus told his disciples to bless their persecutors and pray for them. In chapter 10, Jesus told his disciples to expect violent hostility. It was part of God’s plan for them to preach the gospel among the nations. But never did he tell them to take up the sword when opposed for the gospel. How did Jesus put it in John 18:36? “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would’ve been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

It is not the mission of the church to use violent means as a way of imposing God’s will on others. That religion flies under the banner of a crescent; Christianity flies under the banner of a cross, a cross where we lay down our lives in the path of love and obedience. Perhaps our more conservative circles need this reminder. It’s possible for disciples to express their loyalty to Jesus in all the wrong ways.

It’s possible to say that you stand with Jesus, but then turn from the path of his cross when that becomes “impractical.” I’ve seen this in anything from Christian political involvement (the “Come and take it!” attitude replaces the way of the cross) to a spouse/parent who intimidates to control others instead of laying down their lives in love. Be careful. The sword (and all that goes with it) will not bring the right kingdom; it might bring a kingdom, but it won’t be one where Jesus is king.

Peter misses the nature of Jesus’ kingdom—at least at this point in his life. Later Peter would learn, though. This same disciple who once drew his sword—he would eventually write a letter instructing the church this way. 1 Peter 2:20-22, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” What a picture of God’s grace, changing this Peter into that one. God’s grace can do the same for you.

Going back to our passage, Peter also misses the person of Jesus. Verse 53, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Guys, one angel in 2 Kings 19:35 struck down 185,000 soldiers. Jesus commands legions of such angels. “Twelve legions” is 72,000. I think this language also goes back to Daniel 7, where God sits as judge—“a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” As Son of Man, Jesus has immediate access to those armies. He’s mighty.

This crowd comes out swords and sticks. If Jesus wanted to, he could snuff them out in a second. “Come on, Peter! Jesus doesn’t need your sword.” When you miss the person of Jesus, you start looking to your own resources, your own strength, your own ways to get what you want. You start turning to other powers to save you from your greatest fears and to make things how you want them to be. So, Peter’s downfall here should be a reminder to us all once again: don’t miss Jesus. Keep your eyes on Jesus and trust in him when opposition strikes.

Finally, Peter misses the plan of Scripture. Verse 54, “But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” Notice the words, “it must be so.” That’s called a divine “must.” God planned things to go this way. So, Peter’s sword is not only misguided and self-confident; it’s totally useless. God’s saving plan was heading in one direction, and that was the direction of Jesus’ cross.

This is the only way to save the world. Let’s pretend that Peter was successful. Let’s say the other disciples had joined Peter—they take out their swords and they spill the blood of all these unjust evildoers. Let’s say the rest of Jesus’ followers also find out the following day; and they start a revolution and overthrew Rome and make Jesus king. No matter how much blood was spilled, the world would still be lost. The only way for the world to be saved was for Jesus to spill his blood, just as the Scriptures promised and in the way the Scriptures promised.

Jesus’ response to the crowd

Let’s talk about that more in the last encounter of verses 55-56: Jesus’ response to the crowd. After talking to Peter, Jesus turns to the crowd: “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.” What’s Jesus getting at?

A few things. One, he wasn’t some revolutionary/insurrectionist trying to stir things up in secret. He had nothing to hide. There was no plotting behind the scenes. Day after day, he was teaching the people publicly, healing them publicly, feeding them publicly. He’s done nothing wrong. And if anyone suspected ill of him, surely that was put to rest when he told Peter to put his sword away. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus even stopped to heal the servant’s ear (Luke 22:51). He’s innocent.

They know he’s innocent, too. That’s why they wouldn’t arrest him earlier in the story. If they had, the crowds would’ve been in an uproar. Because they held him to be a prophet. The people heard him teach and saw him heal. The only way they’d get away with an arrest is by coming at night and then making stuff up. Who are the real problem-makers in Israel? It’s this crowd who’ve come out against an innocent man. It’s the religious leaders who—instead of upholding justice—practice injustice.

If anyone had the right to defend themselves, it was Jesus; and we see that by the questions he asks the crowd. But he chooses not to resist, not to fight back. Why? Was it because he’s weak? No. Was it because he lacks the witnesses? No. Was it because he lacks the authority? No. It was because he’s choosing death to fulfill the Scriptures. Verse 56, “But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.”

And what’s wild is that one of the Scriptures is fulfilled immediately: “Then all the disciples left him and fled.” Look back at 26:31. Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” That’s from the prophet Zechariah 13:7. There are many other prophecies from the Old Testament that Jesus continues to fulfill as he goes to the cross—we will keep encountering them as we go through Matthew.

But let’s sit on this one from Zechariah 13:7 a little longer. The first part of that prophecy reads like this. “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me,” declares the LORD of hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered…” Quite a few times in Scripture, God’s “sword” is as a symbol for his wrath. To awake his sword is for God to unsheathe that sword; it’s for God to awaken his wrath against his enemies.[i]

Now, in Zechariah’s larger message, it’s no surprise that God would awaken his sword. A false shepherd has failed to care for God’s people (Zech 11:17). False prophets have deceived others (Zech 13:4-6). The people themselves have oppressed the widow and the fatherless and the poor (Zech 7:10). The nations have gathered against God and his people (Zech 12:1-9). So, there’s no surprise that God is rightly angry.

But here’s what is surprising: he awakes the sword (i.e., his wrath) “against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me [or, better, my companion].” What?! If he’s your companion, God—your equal, the man on your side, the man who shepherds for you—why awaken your sword against him? What’s going on?

What’s going on is this: as people who have broken God’s law, we deserve God’s sword/wrath. But he awakens it against his own Shepherd instead. He awakens his wrath against the one closest to him, his true companion, his only Son. Jesus told Peter “Put down your sword,” so that Jesus would suffer God’s sword in our place. We’re often afraid of what the sword of man will do to us. But the sword that is to be feared most is God’s—and yet, because of his great love, he awakens that sword against his Son, Jesus. He put Jesus forward in our place, and Jesus willingly obeyed.

God struck Jesus in our place. In fact, the Hebrew word behind “strike”—“strike the shepherd”—is also used in Isaiah 53:4 when God offers up the Suffering Servant as our sin-substitute: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten [or struck] by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” The penalty for our sins was laid upon Jesus at the cross. That’s where Jesus is going—to fulfill that prophecy.

So, yeah, Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Peter got him all wrong, and then eventually abandoned Jesus with the others. And the crowds have arrested Jesus with their swords and clubs. If we looked at any other great leader, these aren’t very good signs. But this is not a bad ending to a failed ministry. Jesus is still mighty, yet he is choosing death to fulfill the Scriptures—Scriptures like Zechariah 13:7, where God puts the punishment we deserved on Jesus instead. That’s why we follow him.

Jesus satisfied the wrath of God in our place—sometimes the New Testament calls this propitiation; and it is good news. If you belong to Jesus—if you take him at his word and trust that he really is who he says he is—God’s sword against your sins has been quieted in Jesus. God’s no longer angry with you; he’s one-hundred percent for you. That’s why Romans 5:1 can say, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Brothers and sisters, do you truly believe that God has no wrath left for those in Christ? Or are you tempted to believe another gospel, a false gospel that says God is still angry with you? A false gospel that says there’s still more punishment that you must do to yourself? A false gospel that says, “Obey in order to avoid punishment,” instead of, “Obey because Christ already took away your punishment!” Are you guilty and afraid of God’s condemnation? Come to the Lord Jesus, and you will have peace with God.

Matthew (or better, the Holy Spirit who inspired these words)—he takes his time telling the passion of Jesus Christ. We get a whole chapter on his last night. Aren’t you glad he slows the pace? If we slow down with him, we will see that Jesus is mighty, yet he chooses death to fulfill the Scriptures, to become our salvation. Praise God that Jesus not only prayed, “Your will be done,” but he did it and finished it all on our behalf.


[i] Isa 34:6; Jer 25:29; 47:6-7.

other sermons in this series