The story continues with Jesus Arrest. Judas arrives with “a large crowd armed with swords and clubs,” and signals his betrayal of Jesus with the famous kiss. Then as he’s being seized, one of the disciples (John tells us it’s impetuous Peter) takes his sword and trying to do something ends up cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus tells him to stop with these famous words: “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” He says he could stop this with legions of angels any time he wants, but the Scripture that predicts all that’s about to happen must be fulfilled. With this Scripture reference, Matthew is again telling his Jewish audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of everything they’ve been waiting for. To emphasize the point even more, Jesus tells the crowd arresting him, “this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled. Matthew adds, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled”—Not so brave now.
Jesus is taken to Caiaphas the high priest, and a gathering of the religious professionals he has so offended these last few years is waiting to condemn him. Matthew tells us that Peter had followed Jesus “at a distance,” to see what’s going to happen. Hadn’t Peter said just hours before that he’d die for Jesus if he had to? Betrayal and other bad things happen when we think we have it in our own power to do great things. Jesus tells us in John that apart from him “we can do nothing.” Zip, zero, nada.
Witnesses come before the proceeding to tell lies about Jesus as they look for some pretext to condemn him to death. In Israel false prophets must die, but the problem is that Israel’s leaders haven’t always been able to discern the false from the true prophets. But they won’t need any pretext; just the truth. To fulfill what Isaiah says in the great chapter 53 that points to these unfolding events:
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
To all the insults and lies, Matthew says, “But Jesus remained silent.” Then he seals his fate when the high priest asks the most obvious of questions. All of Israel has been waiting for Messiah 400 years, and Jesus has spent several years now claiming he is that one. The problem is not only that he claims to be the long-awaited Messiah, but to be divine as well, to be equal with God (in the high priest’s phrase, “the Son of God.”). His reply:
64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
In his accusers eyes he is speaking blasphemy; he is worthy of death. The irony, of course, is that this is the truth, and one day they and everyone else who has ever lived will know and confess it. But all Jesus gets now is beaten and spit in his face.
The chapter ends with Peter denying a perfect biblical three times that he even knows Jesus. We forget how astounding it is that the leader of this new religion (which isn’t new), and the early Church, is shown to be an utter coward in a writing used to build this movement. Wouldn’t it be more likely, if it were a made-up fable, to show the movement’s leaders in an heroic light? Do human being naturally like to make themselves look bad? Won’t they in fact do everything in their power to make themselves look good? Including lying? You don’t lie to show how terrible you are, do you? This really happened.
To add insult to injury, Matthew tells us that the first two times Peter is accused as being “with Jesus,” it’s by a young servant girl. Big burly fisherman Peter couldn’t even stand up to a young girl. Then as Peter cries out, “I don’t know the man!” Matthew says, as if to rub it in, “Immediately a rooster crowed.” Peter remembered Jesus’ prediction, “And he went outside and wept bitterly.” Pure pathos. Imagine people asking Peter about this as he was ministering in the early Church. The great, amazing, almost unbelievable thing about Christianity is that knowledge of our greatest weaknesses is our greatest strength! The last thing we want as followers of Jesus is some false confidence in our own abilities to “pull it off.” We never have to pretend we’re something we’re not, or put on some affectation that we’re really better than we are. Our boast is in him alone, in his sufficiency to save us from ourselves and our sin to the end, and forever.