Why was Peter carrying a sword? (Scripture Impressions and Digressions)

Welcome to my new category of posts: Scripture Impressions and Digressions. At times when I teach, there are rabbits I would love to chase while interpreting Scripture which time does not always permit. In these doxologies, time is relative. So let the chasing commence.

This past Sunday (3/18/12), I preached on the story of Jesus’ arrest on the edge of the Garden of Gethsemane as recorded in John 18:1-11. We paid particular attention the latter part of the story during which John records the story of Simon Peter and the “ear-echtomy” of Malchus. The garden scene is one of darkness which evolved into chaos, confusion, and desperation on the part of Simon Peter.

So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons . . . Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?”They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he” . . . “So, if you seek me, let these men go.”

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:1-11, abbreviated)

I love this portrayal by the Dutch painter Gérard Douffet (1594–1661). To me, this captures the chaos of the scene at the edge of the garden.

Indeed, Peter drew his sword and struck a blow for Jesus. John Chrysostom, one of my favorite Church leaders of all time, asks a great series of questions here: Why did Peter even have a weapon? Did Jesus not command his followers to refuse to carry items of value?

Then Jesus sent out the twelve, instructing them . . . “Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff . . . ” (Matthew 10:5-10)

And . . .

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out . . . And he said to them . . . “Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals . . . ” (Luke 10:1-4)

Jesus had commanded his followers to neither carry nor accept anything of value. This included money, extra clothing, or anything made of metal that was attached to their belts. In other words, Simon Peter probably should not have been carrying a sword. Chrysostom’s conclusion was that Peter had armed himself that evening fearing these events might come to pass.

Peter tried to take control of a situation that was not about him. This was not his time, it was Jesus’ time. Jesus was ready to be taken. Thus he corrected Peter, called off the uprising, and healed Malchus’ ear (Luke 22:51).

I like what Campbell Morgan says about this passage. He reminds us that Jesus still treats the wounds that His followers carelessly inflict on others. From Morgan:

“Simon drew his sword and struck a blow for Jesus. I like Simon. He had something in him. I know it was wrong. It was honest zeal; it was just zeal without knowledge. Jesus’ last miracle, a divine surgery on Malchus’ ear, was rendered necessary by the blundering zeal of a disciple. I sometimes think that our Lord is still often healing wounds that zeal-without-knowledge people make on other souls.”

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11 responses to “Why was Peter carrying a sword? (Scripture Impressions and Digressions)

  1. Stranger than strange that Peter would be armed: He fell asleep three times while Jesus was praying to the Father before His arrest. And after that, Peter denied Jesus three times. Before those happened, Jesus told Peter and the others that He was going to the Father, and still no realization on their parts.

    Could Peter have taken the sword of one of the guards? That sword seems to be a prop in a saga beyond my comprehension. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 26:52 (NCV). Jesus said to ‘the man,’ “Put your sword back in its place. All who use swords will be killed with swords. Surely you know I could ask my Father, and he would give me more than twelve armies of angels. But it must happen this way to bring about what the Scriptures say.”

  2. Pingback: Run to the Empty Tomb My Friends (Scripture Impressions and Digressions) | Doxology – by Eric Costanzo·

  3. Sorry for commenting on this post this late.
    Maybe I’m a simpleton, but doesn’t Luke 22:35-38 answer the question of why Peter had a sword?

    Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
    “Nothing,” they answered.
    He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’[a]; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
    The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
    “That’s enough!” he replied.

    I think Luke wraps things up nicely, first giving the prohibition, then its lifting and finally that that led to.
    (By the way, love your blog!)

  4. Nelima,

    I’m so glad you commented on this post. And yes, I was actually waiting for someone to mention that passage. Wheras I think it could be an obvious answer to the text, I also think there might be something else going on in the Luke passage. Perhaps Jesus was telling them symbolically – now you are going to be on your own. Make preparations. And perhaps the disciples, especially Peter, misinterpreted his meaning. Thus Jesus words, “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who take the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52).

    Jesus seems to rebuke Peter in Luke’s account as well as in the other gospels for taking his instructions to utilize a sword literally. Why would he want them to carry swords if they were not to use them? In Luke 22:38, Jesus says two swords are enough – as if to say, No, you don’t need to carry more swords!

    I have also heard that Jesus in fact told the disciples to carry swords and other possessions so they too might be “numbered with the transgressors”. I don’t like that interpretation with the John passage, though, when Jesus says ‘let these other men go.’

    Then again, maybe Jesus was only rebuking Peter’s blow to the servant’s ear and not carrying a sword. Maybe Jesus really did want them to have more possessions for the next step.

    Either way, a great passage to consider. The journey to understanding these texts is the best part!

    Thanks for reading…

    Eric

    • So I stepped right into a trap. :oops:
      You said: “Then again, maybe Jesus was only rebuking Peter’s blow to the servant’s ear and not carrying a sword.” I’m more inclined toward that explanation because if Jesus wasn’t talking of literal swords, then He probably wasn’t talking of literal moneybags or traveling bags either. That’s quite a stretch, in my opinion.
      It also occurred to me that we don’t read of the apostles resorting to the sword in Acts and beyond. They died by the sword, even though they hadn’t lived by it. I’m not sure what the significance of that is, if any.

      • the notion is that if one draws the sword…to do violence, he will die for that reason. The apostles did in their pursuit of sharing the Gospel, love, and peace. They died by the sword…but not because of it.

  5. Hey. Continue reading Luke 22:36. Jesus instructs the disciples to sell their garment if they have to get a sword.

  6. Actually if you read the parallel account in Luke 22:35-38 Jesus instructs his disciples to sell their clothes and buy a sword if they did not already have one. Whether this was meant to be taken literally or not I do not know however it is possible that Peter took it literally and therefore may explain why he was in possession of a sword at Jesus’ arrest.

  7. My question has always been how the ear-echtomy (love the word!) was apparently the only injury. Peter presumably cut with a downward stroke to sever the ear, but apparently managed to do so without cutting into Malchus’ shoulder or neck, which would have been more severe and thus likely to have been commented upon. Did Peter cut with a forward thrust? Was Malchus wearing leather armor on his torso that protected his shoulder?

    • I think this is one of the more interesting passages in the gospel account. I especially like that, as mentioned in this article, Jesus is willing to repair the damage of his over-zealous followers. I just think about the scene… Jesus is in the garden giving his if you had one last chance to say something to the people you care most about speech. An armed militia shows up demanding to take Jesus. I mean I think I’d be with Peter here. I’m throwing whatever and working out the wrongs and rights later on. So Peter presumably tries to chop the guys head off. Imagine the tension in this moment. How powerful is the Word of Christ that the whole scene stops on his say-so. Then, taking the parallel passages into the account he just heals the guys and off they go. It’s really unfathomable. I mean how is Peter also not arrested? It’s extremely interesting to think about.

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