The team had been working all year toward this one goal. Countless hours of practice, drills, weight training, and conditioning had been undertaken in an effort to be the best. Tonight they had a chance to make this happen. The championship game was only minutes away. The players huddled together. The team’s captain and Heisman winning QB fired them up. He had led them to this moment both through is play on the field and through his leadership both on and off the turf. Their competitor would be fierce but the team believed in themselves. They knew they could do this. Each player would put everything he had on the line tonight in order to be able to hoist the championship trophy in the air at the end of the night.
The kick off soared and the game was finally underway. The offense took to the field and lined up for the first snap. “Hike!” The ball was on its way. Linemen collided and pressed into one another. The ball was in the hands of the QB—but not for long. He pitched the ball to one of the opposing linebackers who was so shocked he almost dropped it. The defender regained his sense quickly enough to grab a hold of the ball and run it into the end zone for a touchdown.
“What happened?!?” It was the obvious question to pose to the quarterback.
“I’m not fighting. I’m going to let them win. We’re forfeiting the game. I’m just going to hand them the ball.”
Can you imagine this? How would you feel if you were on this team? Can you imagine being this guy’s teammate? I would be completely dumbfounded. It wouldn’t make sense. I wouldn’t know how to even process it. If this were a real team, of course the coach would immediately pull the starting QB and put in the back up. But imagine if that weren’t an option. What would you do? You were prepared to fight, not to forfeit.
I believe this is the sort of situation the disciples were in the night Jesus was arrested. “Peter declared emphatically. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” And all the others vowed the same.”1 I completely believe the disciples were prepared to fight along side Jesus, to risk their lives and potentially even die fighting for his kingdom. But they didn’t yet fully understand the nature of his kingdom.
“When the other disciples saw [that Jesus was about to be arrested], they exclaimed, “Lord, should we fight? We brought the swords!” And one of them struck at the high priest’s slave, slashing off his right ear.”2 This was the moment the disciples had waited and prepared for. Jesus was finally about to become the king of Israel. (Some speculate that Judas may have simply been trying to force Jesus’ hand.) They were ready to fight and began to do so.3
Suddenly—in a moment—everything changed for the disciples. Before they knew what was happening Jesus told Peter to put away his sword and then healed the servant’s ear. The disciples were dumbfounded. They had never considered that Jesus would just let himself be arrested. After everything that had happened? He had once just walked through a mob who was about to stone him to death. He had taught in Jerusalem many times and while he had angered the religious authorities, they had been too afraid to do anything to him. Yes, Jesus was riding a wave of popular support. He had been welcomed into Jerusalem days earlier with much fanfare. They were amazed at Jesus’ boldness in the temple. It was obvious he was a prophet—and they believed he must be the promised Messiah. The disciples were prepared to fight, not to forfeit. “At that point, all the disciples deserted him and fled.”4
Given the circumstances and their understanding, I certainly don’t fault the disciples for running away. Nor do I fault Peter for denying Jesus. He was in a situation which he couldn’t understand. All he really believed at that moment was that he might well be arrested too and then—he didn’t want to think about what they might do to him.
Peter and the rest didn’t yet fully grasp that Jesus’ kingdom is an upside-down kingdom (as Dallas Willard liked to say). It was not a worldly kingdom which would come to be through physical violence, force, and domination. It is a kingdom which will triumph because it is above evil and violence. Once evil and violence have done the worse they can, the kingdom and those belonging to the kingdom still stand.
Unfortunately, many present day disciples still don’t understand this and are fighting worldly battles. But what if Jesus is still forfeiting these sorts of battles? “I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.”
1 Mark 14:31.
2 Luke 22:49-50.
3 One person has pointed out that Peter cut off the servants ear, not because he was going for his ear but because he swung at the man’s neck in order to remove his head but the man ducked.
4 Matt. 26:56.
5 Jesus as quoted in Matt. 5:44-47.