Good Friday 2023
On Good Friday, our focus is on Christ’s crucifixion, which is as it should be. Yet, in reading the passages in Scripture which describe Christ’s arrest, there are some interesting questions in the Gospel text which are worth looking at.
In Matthew 26:47, we’re told that a large crowd came to arrest Jesus, and the Gospel writer describes them as servants of the chief priests and the local elders – all bearing swords and clubs. This sad description shows us the wide range of Jewish authorities who were organized against Christ. Some of the servants had come after Jesus at the command of the upper echelon of the priests. However, Matthew doesn’t stop there. Many of the servants had been commanded to come by elders who were part of the Sanhedrin, the great council in Jerusalem. That would have been a fairly wide swath of authorities who felt threatened by Him.
In verse 51, after Jesus has been betrayed, the servants come forward to arrest Jesus, and at that point, an unnamed disciple takes out his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus reprimands this unnamed disciple, reminding him that the arrest was only happening because He was permitting it, and that the arrest and all that followed needed to be allowed to unfold.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the disciple with the sword goes unnamed, and so does the high priest’s slave. All of this is very strange, as is the fact that any of the disciples have swords at all! Another question that would occur to nearly anyone is why the crowd didn’t immediately go after the disciple with the sword? That would certainly have made sense.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all written earlier in the first century than John was. John, writing at least a few decades later, decides to reveal that it was Peter who had the sword, and who cut off the slave’s ear. The earlier evangelists had kept Peter’s secret. It helps explain, as much as anything else, why Peter did not want to be recognized that night (Matthew 26:69-75). He was associated with a condemned rebel – Jesus – and he was also guilty of assaulting the slave of one of the most powerful men in Israel. After Peter’s martyrdom under Nero (Tertullian, Scorpiace, 15), which took place between A.D. 64 – 68, there was no need to keep him unnamed anymore.
The question still remains – why did these poor, itinerant preachers who were commanded to own nothing and to live on the mercy of others (Matt, 10:9-11) – ever have swords? Matthew didn’t give us the answer in his Gospel, but Luke eventually did. As His arrest drew near, Jesus advised the disciples to begin carrying money, and to find some way to purchase swords – presumably for self defense, Almost comically, a few of the men – Peter no doubt among them – already had a sword (Luke 22:35-38).
It is Luke who tells us that Jesus healed the slave’s ear – the last healing Jesus would perform before His death. Even though there would have no longer been some proof of injury, that would not have kept Peter safe from the man or his friends. For his protection that evening, Peter no doubt depended on the darkness of the night, the chaos of the moment, and a series of denials.
John gives us one more detail that the other Gospel writers never did – he names the slave of the high priest, telling us that the man was named Malchus (John 18:10). His name is related to the Hebrew word for “king,” which is melek. By trying to defend the King of Kings who came as a servant, Peter injured the servant whose name meant “king.” But why – why tell the reader the man’s name at all? When a person is named in the New Testament, it is because he or she was someone who was known to the people of that time. Richard Baucham goes into that subject at length in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. At times, as in the case of Simon of Cyrene, even the names of his children are known, because they were familiar to the Church of that era (Mark 15:21, Romans 16:13). While nothing more is known about Malchus, it can be hoped that his encounter with Jesus led to something deeper, and that he was named because he was remembered as one of the faithful.
Baucham, Richard, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.
Tertullian, “Scorpiace,’ Thelwall, S., tr., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James; and Coxe, A. Cleveland, trs.,Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm>.