Monday, August 31, 2015

Put Away Your Sword (John 18:10-11)


This week, we are celebrating something of a milestone here at Immanuel. Though the actual anniversary date is not until September 11, we are prematurely commemorating the fact that you all have patiently and graciously endured my ministry here for a decade! That is far more a tribute to you all as a church, and to God’s faithfulness, than it is to me. So as far as our family is concerned, we are celebrating Him and celebrating you as we mark this milestone. This week, as you might imagine, I have been doing a lot of reminiscing, and one thing that came to mind concerned the five stones which I hold in my hand. I suppose I had not been pastor here for more than a few weeks when Tillie Rice came into my office and dropped these, one by one, down on my desk. When I gave her a puzzled look, she said, “When I was working as a nurse in Gaza, I went to the Valley of Elah, where David killed Goliath. These are five smooth stones from that valley, just like the ones the Bible says that David picked up. And I want you to have them, because if you are ever going to make it here, you are going to have to kill a lot of giants!” Well, I am happy to say that, 10 years later, I still have all five of them, I haven’t had to throw any of them, and I haven’t killed anyone. But, we have overcome a lot of obstacles together and had our share of setbacks. We have celebrated some victories, and endured some tragedies. Some of them were beyond our control, and all of them occurred under God’s providence. And if any good has been done over the last decade that someone may be tempted to attribute to me, I will simply say what Martin Luther said, looking back on all that people had attributed to him: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word. … I did nothing: the Word did it all.”

Some of Luther’s followers weren’t so sure that the Word had the power to advance the Kingdom of God during the Reformation. Inspired initially by Luther to break away from Roman Catholicism, some like Thomas Muntzer lacked the patience to see the Word of God accomplish its powerful work in Europe and decided instead to resort to force. They attacked Catholic churches, revolted against civil authorities, and caused much bloodshed, violence and death during the Peasant’s War. Their aim was to establish a Christian society, but they had employed extremely non-Christian means to establish it.

Today, the subject of religious warfare is often discussed as we see one example after another of Islamic terrorism taking place in the world. High-ranking government officials are quick to suggest that Islam is not alone in carrying out religious violence. They point to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the murder of abortion doctors by so-called Christians, and the antics of groups like the Westboro Church in order to suggest that Christians have had their share of dangerous extremists throughout history. We cannot rewrite history. We have to confess that Christians have had far too many woeful embarrassments over the last 2,000 years. However, we should also be quick to point out several truths: first, not everyone who claims to be Christian really is. The word “Christian” means “like Christ.” So if someone is conducting themselves in a manner that is unlike Christ, we can hardly say that their efforts are Christian. Second, we must say that the world has rarely ever seen a true Christian extremist. To be an extremist Christian would be to live in such a way as to radiate the glory of Christ in such a way that all would see and know Christ through the ways and words of such a one as this. To be a Christian extremist, one would have to be “extremely” like Jesus. The world has rarely seen anyone who fits that description. Third, we must say that the Bible alone sets forth the means and manner of establishing and advancing the kingdom of Christ in the world, and it is never by violence; it is always through the Spirit-empowered proclamation of the Gospel and the Word of God. Jesus never called any of His followers to kill in His name, but He calls us all to be willing to die in His name. Instances of God-ordained acts of violence in the Old Testament can be cited. In response to those accounts, and to those who would indict the church and the Bible on the basis of them, time only permits us today to say that those are uniquely set in contexts of place and time, and are not set forth as examples that we should follow or commands we should obey.

That brings us to our text today. The scene is the Garden of Gethsemane, and the setting is that Judas has just brought a militia out to arrest Jesus. The Lord has just identified Himself and essentially surrendered on the terms that the militia will let the disciples go. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the ever impetuous Simon Peter begins swinging a sword. Jesus immediately rebukes him and commands him to put away the sword. “Put the sword into the sheath,” He says in verse 11. There’s no “thanks,” no bonus points for courage and bravery, no “A” for “Effort;” just a stern and unmistakable rebuke. As one scholar writes, this “is a somewhat vigorous expression, and leaves no doubt but that swordplay is forbidden.”[1] Put away the sword. Apparently he did, but not without first striking off the ear of one in the arrest party. Sadly, some others throughout church history have yet to put away their swords, and like Peter, they continue to establish and advance the kingdom of Christ in the world by violent force. We would join with Jesus in saying to them what He said to Peter: “Put away your sword.” We will see two reasons why this is imperative here in the text.

I. Put away your sword, for the Kingdom of Christ is not established by our ignorant zeal.

Three specific things are said about Peter in verse 10: he had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword. Scholars tend to agree that the Greek word here translated as “sword” probably doesn’t refer to the long blade we envision when we think of swords. That is a different Greek word. This one most likely refers to something like a dagger or a long knife. Peter may have been carrying it concealed in his garments. According to Luke 22:38, the band of disciples collectively possessed two of them. A few verses later in Luke, when Judas came into the garden and betrayed the Lord with a kiss, they said to Jesus, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” But before Jesus could answer, Peter was already swinging the blade. He had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword.

It was not without effect that he used the sword. Verse 10 tells us that he cut off the right ear of the high priest’s slave. It is interesting to note that, though all four Gospels record this incident, only John gives the names of Simon Peter and Malchus. In verse 16 of this chapter, we read that John was known to the high priest, so Malchus may have been an acquaintance as well. And, Simon Peter had been dead for three decades when John wrote his Gospel, so John could identify him by name here without fear of retribution. But John adds another detail that could only be offered by an eyewitness. He notes that Peter cut off the “right ear” of Malchus. This is more than just a trivial factoid. It helps us piece together a few possible scenarios. For Peter to strike Malchus in the right ear, one of two things had to be true. Either Peter had to be left-handed, because he would have struck the opposite side of the man facing him; or else Malchus had his back turned, making Peter’s act a cowardly one. But to strike the ear at all tells us something even more significant. No one aims for the ear. He wasn’t trying to give Malchus a haircut or a close shave. He was trying to separate Malchus from his head. It was intended to be a murderous blow, but either because of his sloppy swordplay, or Malchus’ quick reflexes, he just left him wounded.

Peter had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword, but I have suggested here that he did so in ignorant zeal. It is a difficult thing to measure one’s motives, but it is somewhat easy to do here. To take up the sword and strike Malchus, presumably with the intent of killing him and then hacking and slashing his way through the entire militia, was obviously a display of zeal. That it was ignorant zeal, however, is seen in the underlying thought that must have precipitated the act. Peter was either trying to defend himself or to defend Jesus. If he was trying to defend himself, then it was ignorant zeal, for Jesus had already secured Peter’s safety by demanding that the militia let the disciples go freely (v8). Peter was risking starting a battle that could have resulted in them all being killed on the spot. If he was trying to defend Jesus, then it was ignorant zeal nonetheless, for here once again, Peter is operating contrary to the will and purpose of God. It had happened before. In Matthew 16, after Jesus began telling the disciples that He would suffer and be killed, Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” And Jesus’ response to Peter then was, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Mt 16:21-23). Jesus was trying to make Peter see that His impending death was in accordance with God’s purpose for sending Him in to the world. But Peter did not understand then, and he hadn’t come to any better understanding of it by the time of our text. He was trying to prevent something God had ordained. In his ignorant zeal, he was denying the purpose for which Jesus had come, and the mission that was His to accomplish in His death.

Peter had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword, and in so doing he proved to have misunderstood nearly everything Jesus had ever said about being His follower. Peter was willing to kill for Jesus, but not to die for Him. And that is what Jesus calls each of us to do. He said that if anyone wished to come after Him, “he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23). There is a daily dying to self that must take place in the Christian life, as well as a willingness to hold fast by faith to Christ even in the face of the worst of this world’s threats. A North African Christian named Arnobius, writing around 300 AD, said that “We … have learned from [Jesus’] teaching … that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.”[2] The call of Christ to His followers is to take up the cross, but to put down the sword. We must be willing to die, but not to kill, because His Kingdom will not be established by ignorant zeal. The Christian motto is not that of James Bond: “Live and let die.” Rather it is, “Die and let live.”

There is room here to debate, and to agree to disagree, about issues like just warfare and pacifism under the Christian ethic. We do not deny that a nation has the responsibility to defend itself, protect national security, and ensure global safety. We do not deny that there are lawful and reasonable lengths that people can and should go to for their own self-defense and protection. Even the Apostle Paul appealed to his own rights as a Roman citizen when he was arrested (Ac 22:28). Personal and national interests are not what is in view here. We are talking about the advancement of the cause of Christ in the world, and this must always remain separated from, and elevated above, personal and national interests. Personal and national interests are often advanced by violence and ignorant zeal, but the Kingdom of Christ will never be established or advanced that way.

Peter had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword. But Jesus rebuked him. He tells him here to put it back into the sheath. In Matthew 26:52, Jesus warned him that “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Interestingly, the Bible speaks of another sword that is able to prevent us from perishing when we take it up. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are divinely powerful. In Ephesians 6, he describes the full armor of God in which we are to take our stand against the devil and his schemes. Among the pieces of that armor listed, he says that we must take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The only sword that a follower of Christ is called to take up is the Bible, the Word of God, for it is the sword of the Spirit. Peter had a sword, and so do we. But our sword is more powerful than that of Peter. Peter’s sword can only draw blood and kill. Our sword can save those who fall under its power and come to faith in Jesus. Peter drew his sword, and so must we. We must speak the word of God in the world as we give testimony to the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Calvin notes that it was “exceedingly thoughtless of Peter to try to prove his faith with his sword when he could not do it with his tongue.”[3] It is easier in some cases to start a fight than to share our faith, and Peter showed that when he sliced the ear of the high priest’s servant here in the garden, but wouldn’t bend an ear with his testimony for Christ at the high priest’s home. There he denied the Lord. He had a sword and drew it. We have the sword of the Spirit, and we must draw it, always being ready to give a defense to anyone who asks us of the reason for the hope within us (1 Pet 3:15). Peter had a sword, he drew it, and he used it. But Peter used his sword in an attempt to kill. Jesus will have none of that. In Luke 22:51, the Bible says that Jesus touched the ear of Malchus and healed him. As we use the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, the Spirit of Christ can open spiritually deafened ears to hear the glorious grace of the Gospel. And that Gospel brings us to the second reason why the follower of Christ must put away the sword.

II. Put away your sword, for the Kingdom of Christ is established by His sacrificial death.

It is interesting how the four Gospels relate the response of Jesus to Peter’s swordplay here. Matthew puts the focus on Peter, as Jesus warns him that those who take up the sword will die by the sword. Mark does not record a response. Luke puts the focus on Malchus, and how Jesus touched his ear to heal him. But John, writing decades later, provides an important detail. The focus here is on Jesus. He commands Peter to put away his sword and says, “the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?”

What is this cup of which the Lord Jesus speaks? In the Old Testament, “the cup” is often used in association with the wrath of God against the sins of man. Psalm 11:6 says “Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.” Again in Psalm 75:8, the Psalmist Asaph writes of this cup, “For a cup is in the hand of the Lord, … Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs.” Isaiah 51:17 refers to it as “the cup of His anger.” In Jeremiah 25:15, the Lord speaks of a “cup of the wine of wrath.” Ezekiel 23:33 calls it “the cup of horror and desolation.” It is the cup of judgment that God has filled with His holy wrath against all of mankind’s sin.

This is the cup that Jesus says that the Father has given Him to drink. Is it any wonder, then, that when the Lord Jesus prayed in the garden just before His arrest, He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will. … [I]f this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done” (Mt 26:39, 42). Is it any wonder that He had said to His disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Mt 20:22). The cup had been given to Him by His Father, and it was the Father’s will that He drink it. Isaiah 53 says of the Messiah, “He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief, if He would render Himself as a guilt offering.”

In drinking this cup, Jesus was taking upon Himself all of the sin that we have committed and all of the wrath that we deserve. The divine judgment that is due to us was transferred to the sinless and righteous One who suffered and died in our place. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. He drank the cup to the dregs on our behalf so that we might be saved. This is His saving grace: that He would take what we deserve, so that He might give us what we do not deserve – eternal life and the righteousness of Christ which is ours by faith. Human nature will always resist resting in saving grace. Peter could not bear the thought of Christ dying in his place, so he drew his sword to fight. So there are many who cannot bear the glorious weight of the Gospel, so they fight against the plan and purpose of God and try to earn eternal life with their own fighting merits. But this will never avail. Our only hope, and the hope of the whole world, is found in Jesus drinking the cup of wrath that we deserve on our behalf.

And this is how His Kingdom is established in the world: not by taking a life, but by laying one down. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, that the sheep might be rescued from the eternal peril of judgment and wrath. As He comes to reign as Lord and King over His people one by one, His Kingdom advances in the world. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech 4:6).

There are two cups mentioned in Scripture that come to mind as we conclude. There is the cup of wrath, and the cup of salvation. The Psalmist said in Psalm 116:13, “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I shall lift the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.” Every single one of us, and every human being who has ever lived, is going to lift one or the other of those cups: the cup of wrath or the cup of salvation. Jesus drank the cup of wrath so that we would not have to. He drank from that cup so that we could drink from the cup of salvation. But if we refuse it, then the only other alternative is to stand before Him in judgment on the last day and drink “of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed full strength in the cup of His anger,” as it stands written in Revelation 14:10. If you have never come to know Christ as your Lord and Savior, He is offering you the cup of salvation today, inviting you to come to Him and be saved – to have your sins forgiven, and be granted His righteousness in exchange. He made it possible for you when He died in your place, because He took the cup of wrath on your behalf.

If you are a Christian, you must realize that Christ’s Kingdom is only going to advance in the world as we take up the sword of the Spirit – the Word of God – and proclaim Christ and Him crucified for the redemption of sinners. This is our only sword. We have it, we must draw it, and we must use it, even as we put down all other swords. We must take up the cross and allow Jesus to fill us with a  wise and holy zeal, for He will not advance His Kingdom through ignorant zeal and weapons of the flesh. He established it by His sacrificial death, and this is the Gospel, the good news. We must proclaim the news that Jesus has drank the cup of wrath so that all who come to Him by faith can drink the cup of salvation.

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 745-746.
[2] Arnobius, Against the Heathen, 1.6. Online at Accessed August 27, 2015.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 409.

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