Does Matthew 26:52 Teach Pacifism?

peter swinging his sword in gethsemaneWhen the arresting party seized Jesus at Gethsemane, Peter drew his sword. In close proximity was the high priest’s servant, Malchus, who lost an ear as Peter swung it (Matt. 26:51; John 18:10).

Jesus responded immediately: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus issued a command and grounded it in proverbial wisdom.

First, the command. Jesus told Peter to sheathe the sword (Matt. 26:52a). Peter was going to defend Jesus, who had just been seized by the armed crowd (26:47, 50b), but Jesus stopped this intervention. Jesus emphasized the fulfillment of Scripture (26:54): the arrest must continue so that the Suffering Servant could be led like a lamb to slaughter.

Second, the proverbial wisdom. After commanding Peter, Jesus said, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52b). Like other examples of proverbial wisdom, this is a general truth. Those who sow violence may reap violence. Those who respond with physical force may be overcome by physical force themselves. There are exceptions to this proverbial wisdom, of course, since not everyone who takes the sword will necessarily die by the sword. Yet Jesus’ words serve as a fitting warning in a fallen world.

Now the question: does Matthew 26:52 teach pacifism for believers? I say no. To insist that the verse teaches pacifism would be to absolutize what is a contextually-governed command. Jesus is speaking to Peter, not to all believers. Telling Peter to “put your sword back into its place” doesn’t, by implication, mean every believer must do the same. In fact, he told his disciples earlier to sell their cloaks and buy swords if they didn’t have one (Luke 22:36).

Consider, too, the circumstances, which also shed light on the command. Peter was trying to stop the arrest. Every passing moment was a moment closer to Jesus’ death on the cross, and nothing must thwart the proceedings. Peter surely meant well, for he courageously stepped in to defend his Messiah, yet Jesus had already taught his disciples what “must” happen. Jesus must suffer many things from the religious leaders (Matt. 16:21), he would be delivered into the hands of men (17:22), and he would be condemned to death (20:18). So in a specific set of circumstances, and to one disciple rather than to all believers, Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place” (26:52a).

I don’t believe Matthew 26:52 negates a believer’s actions to defend the helpless, protect the innocent, and intervene with physical force when it would be wise and just to do so. Such opportunities, and the arguments for them, are beyond the scope of this post. Nevertheless, to use Matthew 26:52 in support of pacifism is to burden the command with weight it cannot bear.

One of the Twelve and the Betrayer: Qualifying Judas in the Gospel of Matthew

In Matthew’s account of the Gethsemane scene involving Judas and Jesus, the narrator says, “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” (Matt. 26:47).

One of the twelve. Let that sink in. Matthew doesn’t think the reader has forgotten that Judas was from that band of brothers. He highlights this point because it is so outrageous that one of Jesus’ own disciples would betray him. The betrayer was one of the twelve!

In the Gospel of Matthew, whenever the name Judas is used, there is a qualifier which focuses either on Judas being the betrayer or being numbered with the twelve disciples.

  • 10:4, “…and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him
  • 26:14, “Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot”
  • 26:25, “Judas, who would betray him, answered…”
  • 26:47, “While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve…”
  • 27:3, “Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned…”

To summarize, in the Gospel of Matthew (1) Judas’ name appears five times, (2) every mention of Judas’ name also has a qualifier, (3) this qualifier focuses either on his status as the betrayer or as one of the twelve disciples, and (4) the qualifiers appear in an alternating sequence (in 10:4 he’s the betrayer, in 26:14 one of the twelve, in 26:25 the betrayer, in 26:47 one of the twelve, and in 27:3 the betrayer).

Judas would forever be linked to that treacherous deed. And in order for us to truly see the outrage of Judas’ betrayal, the narrator reminds us he was one of the twelve.

“Friend, Do What You Came to Do”: Jesus In Control at Gethsemane

judas betraying jesus with a kissOne foot in front of the other, the betrayer walked up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi” (Matt. 26:49), and kissed him. This mark of friendship and affection was the prearranged signal for the arresting party to seize Jesus (26:48).

In the literal and spiritual darkness of Gethsemane, Jesus looked at Judas and said, “Friend, do what you came to do” (Matt. 26:50). Only then did the armed crowd seize Jesus (26:47, 50). Only then.

When Peter tried to stop the arrest, Jesus told him to put away his sword (Matt. 26:52). Jesus claimed legions of angels were at the Father’s disposal (26:53), so he was not helpless in the Garden of Gethsemane. The arresting crowd was large, Judas was betraying him, and the disciples would soon flee, but despite the intimidating circumstances, Jesus was not helpless. A vast angelic host could intervene at his appeal.

Jesus was the one in control at Gethsemane, not Judas or the armed crowd or the disciples. He told his betrayer, “Friend, do what you came to do” (Matt. 26:50), as if to show that the subsequent arrest happened because he directed it to take place! No matter how clever and sinister the conspiracy against him was, the hour of his suffering and death would not arrive earlier than the timetable established before the foundation of the world.

Now the hour of suffering and death was near. Jesus had resolved to drink the cup, and the betrayer had arrived at the appointed place. The crowd had their swords and clubs, but they were not in charge. At Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Friend, do what you came to do,” because he was no helpless victim. He was in total control.

“Rise, Let Us Be Going”: The Resolve of Jesus at Gethsemane

Three times at Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to the Father (Matt. 26:39, 42, 44). He struggled against temptation and prayed for the Father’s will to be done (26:39, 42).

Jesus’ resolve is evident when he returns to the disciples and says, “Sleep and take your rest later on. 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” (Matt. 26:45-46).

Jesus did not rise to flee. “Let us be going” did not mean “let us escape.” The command meant he would meet the encroaching arresting party. Jesus knew the betrayer was coming, yet he rose anyway. Jesus knew his “hour” was at hand, yet he went anyway. After his prayers to the Father, the resolve of Jesus was clear. The words “Rise, let us be going” showed that Jesus was ready to drink the cup.

In order for him to die on a cross, he must first be sentenced. To be sentenced, he must be tried. To be tried, he must be arrested. And to be arrested, he must be betrayed. Jesus said, “Rise, let us be going,” because the moment of betrayal had come, a moment ordained from the foundation of the world, a moment that would lead to the cross and to the cup.

The Glory of the Transfiguration and the Agony at Gethsemane

Scholars have noted important connections between the episode of the transfiguration (in Matthew 17) and the episode at Gethsemane (in Matthew 26). There are at least seven points of contact.

  1. Both events are associated with a mountain. In Matthew 17 the mountain is unnamed (17:1), while in Matthew 26 the mountain is the Mount of Olives (26:30).
  2. Both events involve Jesus taking the same three disciples. In 17:1, he took Peter, James, and John. And in 26:37, he separated the same three from the other disciples.
  3. At the transfiguration we hear the words of the Father (17:5), while at Gethsemane we hear the words of the Son (26:39, 42).
  4. At the transfiguration, the disciples fell on their faces (17:6). At Gethsemane, Jesus fell on his face (26:39).
  5. At the transfiguration, the disciples were awake and alert to all that took place (17:4, 6, 8). At Gethsemane, Jesus repeatedly found them sleeping (26:40, 43, 45).
  6. The transfiguration displayed the divine glory of Jesus (17:2). The episode at Gethsemane displayed the overwhelming sorrow of Jesus (26:37-38).
  7. After the transfiguration, Jesus says the Son of Man would suffer at the hands of others (17:12). At Gethsemane, Jesus was delivered into the hands of others (26:45-46, 49-50).

Weak Flesh and the Need for Prayer

The episode of Jesus at Gethsemane teaches us, among other things, about prayer.

First, Jesus, the one and only Son of God, prayed. And if Jesus prayed, why should we not? If Jesus prioritized prayer, should we not view the practice with supreme importance and devotion and perseverance? If prayer mattered to Jesus, let it matter to us.

Second, Jesus embodied his own teachings on prayer. There are multiple allusions to his teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. For example:

  • “My Father” (Matt. 26:39, 42; see 6:9)
  • “as you will…your will be done” (26:39, 42; see 6:10)
  • “that you may not enter into temptation” (26:41; see 6:13)

We learn here that Jesus doesn’t just teach his disciples what to pray. The teaching for his disciples was the example he himself modeled.

Third, there are times we’re not praying when we should be praying. Jesus had asked the disciples at Gethsemane to “remain here, and watch with me” (Matt. 26:38), and this watchfulness probably involved a call to prayer because of 26:41: “Watch and pray.” Yet when Jesus returned to Peter, James, and John, he found them sleeping (26:40, 43). Earlier Jesus had told the disciples they would fall away “this night” (26:31), and yet disciples slept instead of prayed. Jesus had told Peter “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (26:34), yet Peter slept instead of prayed.

Fourth, we need to pray because we are weak. We’re not as strong as we think we are. The disciples had already declared their intentions: Peter insisted he wouldn’t fall away or deny Jesus (Matt. 26:33, 35a), and all the disciples claimed the same (26:35b). They had willing spirits, but good intentions don’t sustain devotion to Christ. Jesus said, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (26:41). Prayer comes from a recognized position of weakness not strength. Prayer says, “I am weak and tempted, but God is faithful and able to deliver.” Jesus and the disciples were heading into temptation, but only Jesus prayed.

Fifth, we need to pray because God’s will matters most. We have desires, and God invites us to ask and intercede and plead, but prayer also involves the practice of submitting our desires to God. Think about these words: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will….My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt. 26:39, 42). True prayer is not an exercise in manipulating God to accomplish our will on earth.

“Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.”
Matthew 6:9-13

Isaac and Jesus at Gethsemane

While studying for a sermon about Jesus at Gethsemane, I noticed several Matthew commentaries highlighting an echo of the Abraham-Isaac story in Genesis 22. They pointed to Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:36, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray,” as an echo of Genesis 22:5 when Abraham told his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”

Echoes of Isaac would not be surprising in Matthew, for the opening verse of the Gospel says, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). Jesus is the true and greater Isaac, the Father’s Son who would be sacrificed.

Consider some correspondences between Genesis 22 and Matthew 26.

  • Both stories involve a mountain. Abraham journeyed to a mountain in the land of Moriah (Gen. 22:2-4), and Gethsemane was at the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30).
  • Both stories involve a son who is facing death. In Genesis 22, the plan is to sacrifice Isaac. In Matthew 26, Jesus is facing sacrifice as well, an experienced heightened by the reality of the “cup” he will drink.
  • Both stories involve other people traveling with the person who will be sacrificed. In Genesis 22, young men from Abraham’s household joined them on the journey. In Matthew 26, eleven of Jesus’ disciples came with him to the Mount of Olives.
  • Both stories report instructions to stay and wait. In Genesis 22, the two young men receive instructions. In Matthew 26, the eleven disciples receive instructions.
  • Both stories climax with a son being alone with his father. In Genesis 22, Isaac is alone with Abraham. In Matthew 26, Jesus is alone with his heavenly Father.

Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, facing sacrifice and wrath. But no voice from heaven would stop the proceedings. There would be no ram provided in a thicket. The Father would not rescind the knife. The Son would willingly lay down his life, in obedience to the Father and in the stead of sinners. Jesus is the true and greater Isaac.