When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him (Luke 22:49-51).
Midnight in Gethsemane.
Jesus has been praying alone. In the distance the disciples can see the flickering lights as a group of soldiers crosses the Kidron Valley. They are led by Judas.
It all happened so quickly. A brief conversation, a hurried kiss on the cheek, the soldiers step forward to take Jesus away. In the confusion and semi-darkness, Peter knows he has to act, has to do something to protect his master. Grabbing his sword, he takes a wild swing, aiming at no one in particular. The sword finds its mark but not as Peter intended. If he hoped to scare off the soldiers, it didn’t work. If he hoped to inspire the other disciples, that might have worked had not Jesus stepped in.
He lopped off the ear of the high priest’s servant. No doubt the servant fell to the ground and began screaming in pain. Blood must have come spurting out of the hole where his ear had been. The soldiers would have drawn their swords, ready to kill Peter. But before things get out of hand, Jesus touches the servant’s ear, healing it instantly. And just like that, the crisis is over.
It must have made an impression on the disciples because this little incident is recorded in all four gospels. Only John tells us that it was Peter who swung the sword and that Malchus was the servant’s name. Only Luke tells us that Jesus healed his ear. When we think about what happened that night, the betrayal and arrest of Jesus get all the attention, but the disciples never forgot what happened to Malchus. If it seemed that important to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, if the early church never forgot this story, then no doubt it contains important lessons for us. We can frame the question this way. How does a follower of Christ react when all is lost? What do we do when our dreams seem to disappear in the darkness? This little story offers several important answers.
We react righteously when all is lost …
I. By Refusing to Give In to Impulsive Anger.
We can easily understand Peter’s desire to fight back. In the confusion of the late-night arrest, he saw his Master being threatened, and he decided to fight back. Who can blame him? So grabbing a sword (we know from Luke 22:38 that the disciples had two swords with them), he takes a wild swing and cuts off Malchus’ ear. No doubt he meant to behead him but the angle wasn’t right-and I’m sure Malchus didn’t stand still either-so he lopped off his right ear. In his fear, anger and desperation, Peter has lashed out at the nearest target, the high priest’s servant, wounding him but not killing him.
Everything about this story makes perfect sense. You can hardly blame the disciples for thinking, “It’s time to fight,” and of course, we would expect no less from Peter, the volatile, emotional leader who generally acted first and thought about it later. The whole scene reminds me of a chapter from a business bestseller that extols “a bias for action.” The chapter begins with a subhead Peter would have appreciated-"Ready. Fire. Aim.” Which exactly describes what happened.
It is at this point that we recall the words of James, writing many years later. “Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20 NET). Slow to anger. How many of us are good at that? Raise your hand if you are slow to anger. I am sure there is a slice of humanity that can honestly say, “I am slow to anger,” but for the rest of us, here is a message from the Lord. Your anger and God’s righteousness generally move in opposite directions.
Years ago I was listening to a Christian counselor on the radio when he made a remark I have never forgotten. When you find yourself getting angry, he said, ask yourself this question. “What am I afraid of?” Most of our anger stems from fear, and most of our fear comes from the perception that we are losing control. Stop and think about it for a moment. As long as we are in the driver’s seat and things are going our way, we rarely get angry. But let things spin out of our control, as they did that night when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, and fear takes over. It is only a short step from fear to impulsive anger, and from sudden anger comes all manner of evil.
II. By Choosing to Lose Rather Than Winning Through Brute Force.
Losing is not a popular idea today. It’s definitely not a very American concept. As George Patton famously remarked, “Americans love a winner. America will not tolerate a loser.” We all want to be on the winning team, don’t we? That’s why millions of people are filling out their March Madness brackets this week. We want to be able to say, “My team won it all.” Nothing seems more un-American than choosing to lose.
But that’s precisely what the followers of Jesus are sometimes called to do. In Christ’s kingdom, the values of the world are turned upside down.
He that would save his life must lose it.
Take up your cross and follow me.
What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
He who would be first among you must be the servant of all.
Whoever loves his life loses it.
Whoever loses his life saves it.
Sometimes when you follow Jesus, you have to lose in order to win. That’s what Jesus meant when he said to Peter, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Brute force does not advance Christ’s kingdom. We cannot accomplish God’s work by bullying people into submission. When we try that approach, it may produce short-term results but it always backfires in the end because the appeal to brute force means that we don’t really believe in God. If we did, we wouldn’t try to take matters into our own hands. “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (v. 53). Twelve legions would be at least 72,000 angels. Do you think 72,000 angels could handle the soldiers that came out to arrest Jesus? But if Jesus had that sort of power at his disposal, why didn’t he use it? Verse 54 says that Jesus refrained from calling on those angels because he knew that his arrest was necessary to fulfill God’s plan. “It must happen this way,” Jesus said.
I don’t blame Peter for not fully understanding those words. It’s after midnight, and he is tired, distraught, confused, angry, worn out, upset, and in his despair he wants to do something, anything, that will rescue Jesus.
But Jesus doesn’t need his help.
He doesn’t want to be rescued.
Jesus can take care of himself. What seems to be the cluttered rush of events turns out to be the plan of God unfolding to bring salvation to the world. When evil seems to be winning, Christ calmly submits, knowing that in the end, God’s will must be done.
J. C. Ryle puts this in perspective:
He did not die because he could not help it; he did not suffer because he could not escape. All the soldiers of Pilate’s army could not have taken him, if he had not been willing to be taken. They could not have hurt a hair of his head, if he had not given them permission.
An old hymn reminds us that sometimes we must “learn to lose with God.” And in our losing of our power, our significance, our place in the lights, our fame and fortune and all that we hold dear, especially our reputation in the world, in giving all that up, our losing with God wins for us a blessing the world can’t match and does not understand.
III. By Relying Completely on Christ’s Supreme Power Rather Than Our Own Puny Strength.
Sometimes we just have to let go. How hard that is for most of us. Letting go doesn’t exactly mean giving up. It doesn’t mean passively sitting by while the world takes advantage of us.
Letting go means giving up the right to always be in control.
Letting go means admitting that you aren’t calling all the shots.
Letting go means that you choose not to manipulate others.
Letting go means admitting that you don’t have all the answers.
Letting go means yielding your frantic emotions to the Lord.
Letting go means resigning your position as Boss of the Universe.
Could God have made things turn out differently for Jesus? The answer is yes. He’s God. He could have arranged the circumstances any way he chose. But God ordained that his Son would die. “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10).
Jesus had to die!
Ponder that statement for a moment and you will know why Jesus didn’t fight back. He knew that without his death, the whole world would be lost. So to serve God’s greater good, he endured the indignity of the howling mob, the false accusations, the brutal beating, and the shame of death on a cross.
Good Friday always comes before Easter Sunday. There is no resurrection without a crucifixion, and there are no shortcuts on the road to glory. Peter’s wild attack, motivated no doubt by desperate love, meant that he still didn’t understand that Jesus had to die. And that’s why he relied on his sword to protect the Son of God. When Thomas Whitelaw wrote about this story, he used five words starting with “U” to explain Peter’s folly. His use of force was . . .
- Unavailing. “The Church’s feeble instruments can do as little against the world’s battalions as Peter’s sword could have done against the guardsmen of Caesar.”
- Unnecessary. If you can command 72,000 angels (and all of heaven besides), you don’t need Peter’s puny sword to protect you.
- Unchristian. In attacking the servant, Peter contradicted Jesus’ own teaching to turn the other cheek when you are attacked (Matthew 5:39).
- Unreasonable. Even if Peter had prevented the arrest, it would have accomplished nothing of value. Our goal is to convert our opponents through love, not to coerce them through force.
- Unwise. Peter’s vain attempt to protect Jesus would have hindered the Father’s purpose to bring salvation through the death of his Son.
- Unsafe. Peter’s sudden action called attention to himself and made it easier for him to be identified later in Caiaphas’ courtyard. His attempted rescue boomeranged and only hurt himself.
IV. By Extending Christ’s Healing Love to Those Who Have Hurt Us.
After Jesus rebukes Peter for attacking the servant, he performs an unexpected miracle. He restores his ear. “He touched the man’s ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51). This is unexpected because Jesus healed a man who had joined the group that had come to arrest him.
It must have happened quickly.
Peter attacks, the ear flies off, blood spurts everywhere.
Jesus rebukes Peter.
Then he reaches out his hand, touches the bloody place where the ear had been, and suddenly the ear is restored.
Peter did what we all tend to do when we are hurt and scared. He struck out in anger and confusion, hitting and hurting the high priest’s servant. It seems like a natural thing to do.
Make someone pay!
Hurt them the way they hurt you!
But even in this case, we see the folly of retaliation. Why attack the servant of the high priest. He was only doing what he was told to do. But as we have seen, Peter swung wildly, in anger and desperation, wanting to hurt someone, wanting to protect his Master. But cutting off an ear wouldn’t stop them from arresting Jesus. In fact, if Jesus had not healed the man, it would only have further enraged the Jewish authorities. In trying to make things better, Peter made them worse.
Jesus did what only the Son of God could do. He healed the one who came to hurt him.
What if Peter had succeeded that night? What if he had led the other disciples in a desperate, fight-to-the-last-man defense of Jesus? It wouldn’t have worked, of course, because the Jewish leaders had the power of Rome behind them. But if somehow Peter had succeeded in “protecting” Jesus, he would never gone to the cross, God’s plan of salvation would have failed, and there would be no Holy Week, no Good Friday and no Easter.
Shall I Not Drink the Cup?
That brings us to the final words of Jesus before he was arrested. “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Jesus was always in charge, even in the garden in the darkness of the night, surrounded by the soldiers who came to take him away. He came to drink the cup of suffering, and drink it he must.
O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy Head!
Our load was laid on Thee;
Thou stoodest in the sinner’s stead–
Didst bear all ill for me:
A victim led, Thy blood was shed!
Now there’s no load for me.
Death and the curse were in our cup–
O Christ, ’twas full for Thee!
But Thou hast drain’d the last dark drop:
’Tis empty now for me.
That bitter cup, love drank it up,
Now blessings flow for me.
And off Jesus goes into the night while the disciples flee and Peter follows afar off. His hands bound, guarded as if he were a common criminal, Jesus goes to face his accusers. In less than twelve hours he will be hanging on a cross. But as he goes, one man rubs the side of his head and remembers that Jesus touched him and healed him.
This is truly the forgotten miracle of Easter. And it happens to be the last miracle of bodily cure Jesus ever wrought. It is a tiny slice of life, a midnight encounter, a small miracle on the way to the big miracle. And it is a revelation of the true heart of Jesus. In this little story we see how Jesus treats his enemies. When they come for him, he does not resist. When they are hurt, he heals them. He receives their attacks and then is led away to die for the very men who are putting him to death. He will not use his divine power to escape their clutches. He only uses his power to heal those who have been hurt by his followers.
On him was laid the sin of us all. If we are not saved, we cannot blame Jesus. The fault is all our own. He is as willing to pardon as he was to be taken prisoner, to bleed and to die.
What a Christ!
What a salvation he brings!
Glory to his name forever. Amen.
- Listen to this sermon (33:55)
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Topics in this messageGod | Sin | Work | War | Marriage & Family | Love | Heaven & Hell | Jesus Christ | Death and Dying | Hope | Trust | John | Gospel | Anger | Doubt | Fear | Giving | Law | Conflict and Confrontation | Salvation | Suffering/Trials | Peter | James | God's Will | Mercy | Forgiveness | Failure | Angels | Easter | Compassion | Thomas | Disappointment | Death of Christ | Pilate | Judas | Life of Christ |Current sermon series:
Beyond Denial: Finding Ourselves in Peter’s Story
» SEE SERMONS IN THIS SERIES
How Good Christians Sometimes Do the Devil’s Work Matthew 16:21-23
Why God Allows Good Men to Fall Luke 22:31-33
Midnight Miracle Luke 22:49-51
Before the Rooster Crows John 18:25-27
What Christ Does With Failure John 21
Walk on Water, Pete! Matthew 14:22-33
Dirty Feet John 13:6-10» Index for this sermon series