26 March 2023

Could’ve stopped it at any time.

Matthew 26.50-54, John 18.3-9.

When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane on the morning of 3 April 33, the knee-jerk response of his students, same as every human, is fight or flight. Some of them fled. And some of them fought.

To some degree it was really stupid of them to fight. The senators had sent their police, along with a mob—you might call it a posse comitatus, but there was no such procedure back then for formally deputizing a mob. Basically it was, “Grab your staff and machete; we gotta go arrest a blasphemer,” and off they went. So the students were deliberately outnumbered. But there’s always gonna be a faction of true believers who think, “Numbers don’t matter; Gideon routed the Midianite and Amalekite armies with only 300 men; Jg 7 Samson personally slaughtered a thousand people with a jawbone; Jg 15.16 God can likewise supernaturally empower me to fight any number of people.”

True, God can do and empower anything he wants. But does he want to empower us to singlehandedly fight a mob? Did he say anything in advance about this sort of thing, like he’d said to Gideon and Samson? Or have we arrogantly presumed our cause is righteous, and right makes might?—because unless God intervenes, it really doesn’t, and if God hasn’t foresaid he’s gonna intervene, he likely won’t.

And had God foresaid he’d intervene in Jesus’s arrest? Or had Jesus said just the opposite, multiple times, and the students were in denial? Like this time:

Mark 10.32-34 KWL
32 Jesus and his students are on the road to Jerusalem,
and Jesus is going before them.
They’re amazed,
and the followers are afraid.
Taking the Twelve aside again,
Jesus begins to tell them what’s about to happen to him,
33 namely this: “Look, we’re going up to Jerusalem.
The Son of Man will be handed over
to the head priests and the scribes.
They’ll sentence him to death.
They’ll hand him over to the gentiles.
34 The gentiles will mock the Son of Man,
and they’ll spit on him,
and they’ll flog him,
and they’ll kill him.
And after three days, he’ll rise up.”

God hadn’t told anyone, “Fight the mob, and you’ll win”; Jesus told them he’s getting arrested. There’d be no supernatural defeat of any mob; neither by Jesus’s followers fighting back the mob, nor of angels pouring from the black sky to smite every sinner on the ground. Jesus wasn’t gonna fight back and win; Jesus was gonna surrender. On purpose. And in so doing, win and win big; but Christians still don’t understand that strategy, and still keep adopting the tactic to fight back hard.

Although the whole angels-pouring-from-the-sky idea? It actually was an option. In Matthew, Jesus says so in the middle of his arrest.

Stopping the mob with a word.

In John we see right away who really has control over the whole situation. Yeah there’s a mob; yeah they’ve come to bring the usual chaos and disorder, and in the middle of it swipe Jesus. But when they approached Jesus, he actually stopped them. With two words.

John 18.3-9 KWL
3 So Judas Iscariot, taking the military unit,
and men from the head priests,
and workers from the Pharisees,
comes there with torches and lamps… and weapons.
4 So Jesus, who already knew everything coming upon him,
comes forth and tells them, “Whom are you looking for?”
5 They answer him, “Jesus the Nazarene.”
Jesus tells them, “I’m him.”
Judas his betrayer had been standing with them.
6 So when Jesus tells them, “I’m him,”
they move backward and fall to the ground.
7 So again Jesus asks them, “Whom are you looking for?”
They say, “Jesus the Nazarene.”
8 Jesus answers, “I tell you I’m him,
so if it’s me you look for,
leave these others alone to go away,”
9 so he might fulfill the word which he says, namely this:
“I’ve not lost anyone whom you’ve given me.” Jn 17.12

Various preachers love to point out the two words Jesus stated to the mob were ἐγώ εἰμι/eghó eími, which are properly interpreted, “I’m him,” but literally mean “I am,” and of course the name of God which he shared with Moses is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה/Ehyé ašér ehyé,“I’m being what I’m being,”—or יהוה/YHWH, “Jehovah,” for short. They like to imagine, and proclaim all the time, that when Jesus loudly declared what’s essentially the HOLY NAME OF GOD, the Holy Spirit knocked this unholy mob back onto their keisters.

And sometimes they’ll add to this: When we declare the holy name of God, or when we declare stuff in Jesus’s name, it’ll knock evildoers and evil spirits on their butts.

Meh; this sounds way too much like Harry Potter shouting, “Expelliarmus!” for my taste. Too much like using God’s name as a magic spell. Which it’s not. In fact a lot of this behavior is a lot more like using his name in vain. Jesus didn’t knock the crowd back by declaring God’s name, or even by declaring himself God. (Which he is, but still.) He knocked the crowd back by knocking the crowd back. Didn’t need to say a word; he could’ve waved his hand, or closed his eyes, or even farted in their general direction. It’s not about the words. It’s the fact Jesus can tap the Spirit’s power whenever he wants; he has the Spirit’s power without limit. Jn 3.34 Magic words are a limit.

Because Jesus always had access to this unlimited power, he could’ve waved this crowd away completely if he chose. Could’ve confounded them like he had the Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites, and got ’em slaughtering one another while he stood by. 1Ch 20.22-24 Or, more compassionately, got ’em to seriously doubt themselves, and go back to the head priests like previous temple officers had. Jn 7.45-46 But he didn’t choose to. It wasn’t the plan. The plan was to let himself be taken.

Put your arms away.

So Judas Iscariot led the mob to Jesus and kissed him hello to identify him. Jesus greeted him in turn with ἑταῖρε/etére, “person from the same place”—which tends to get translated “friend” or “comrade,” and I was leaning towards “Bro” but it potentially makes Jesus sound way too much like a dudebro, so I went with the more Christianese-sounding, family-but-not-literally-family, “brother.”

Matthew 26.50-54 KWL
50 Jesus tells Judas, “Brother, why have you come?”
Then the approaching mob throws their hands on Jesus
and seizes him.
51 Look, one of those with Jesus stretches out his hand,
draws his machete,
and striking the head priest’s slave,
cuts off his ear.
52 Then Jesus tells him, “Put your machete back in its place!
For everyone who chooses arms
will be destroyed by arms.
53 Or do you think I can’t call out to my Father,
and he will give me, right now,
more than 12 legions of angels?
54 But then how might the scriptures be fulfilled?
So this has to happen.”

John identifies the ear-hacker as Simon Peter, and the slave as Malchus; Jn 18.10 Luke says Jesus immediately cured the slave. Lk 22.51 Not every gospel includes all the details, because to all of them, this part of the story isn’t as important as Jesus getting arrested. (And really, it’s not.)

But I wanted to zero in on this statement Jesus made in Matthew because it reminds us how utterly in control he is: At any point of Good Friday he could’ve stopped it. Any point.

Could’ve stopped every time they slapped him, punched him, spit on him, knocked him down. Could’ve stopped it during the ridiculous, pre-decided trials. Could’ve stopped the Romans from flogging him. Could’ve stopped Pontius from sending him to the cross. Could’ve stopped the soldiers from goading him to Golgotha. Could’ve stopped the nails from going in. Could’ve broken the cross. Could’ve eliminated the pain, the embarrassment, the suffering. Could’ve stopped any of it, or all of it. At any time.

Nobody in all of history was as utterly in control of his circumstances as Jesus the Nazarene. He wasn’t an unwitting participant, a victim of a situation which got way out of hand. He knew this was coming. Didn’t wanna suffer; who would? But knew this was what it was gonna take to defeat sin and death, so willingly went to his own death in one of the worst ways we humans have ever invented. And did defeat sin and death.

We who retell Jesus’s story, are frequently tempted to tell it in such a way that Jesus becomes passive; that he just accepts everything happening to him because there’s no escaping it. That’d be entirely wrong. There was escaping it. He could’ve ditched the crucifixion; he could’ve said, “Y’know, getting stabbed in the heart by some overzealous member of the arresting mob will do the job just as well and hurt way less,” and died enroute to his first trial, or his second, or his third. Heck, the people he outraged at Nazareth could’ve just stoned him to death years before; or Herod could’ve caught him when he was a baby. Jesus had options. But he chose this option. And had his reasons; I’m not one of those psychos who insist a gory death is the only proper punishment for all the sins of humanity. I suspect the reason is more like we can never claim Jesus didn’t experience the worst death imaginable. Still defeated it though.