This article was originally written for 1517.
I’ve always loved that moment in Scripture when the apostle Peter cuts Malchus’s ear off (John 18:10–11). Was Peter going for his head and his aim was just that bad? Was Peter a horrendous swordsmen or did Jesus flick his finger and supernaturally nudge Peter’s dagger in space a few centimeters? What did Malchus do when he saw his ear on the ground? Or when Jesus miraculously reattached it? I have questions. It’s such a revealing moment, in an array of ways, exposing the quirks and qualities of nearly everyone in the Garden that night. In one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, we are told everything we need to know about Christ and his kingdom simply by a severed ear falling to Jewish soil and quickly being restored to its head again. Let me explain.
From the outset of Jesus’s Galilean ministry, he came preaching the “good news” that “the kingdom of God” was at hand (Mark 1:14–15). Over the course of his healing ministries and preaching tours, Jesus kept a proverbial finger pointed at himself signaling who the Messiah was. A none too small dose of confusion likely permeated the multitudes as more and more onlookers overheard that the carpenter’s Son was pontificating about the Messiah in a self-referential way. Everyone’s known about this “Anointed One” ever since their first Sunday school lesson (Dan. 7:13–14; 9:25–27). And now this wood-working hotshot is claiming he’s the guy? Nah, no way man.
Those familiar with all the old promises and prophecies concerning the “Ancient of Days” were understandably frustrated by Jesus. He was hinting and evidencing the fact that he was the Messiah, but he wasn’t doing “Messiah-y” things. He wasn’t staking a social position or carving out a political platform. Never once did he take advantage of the crowds who were basically begging him to launch an assault on the throne. Actually, throughout the Gospels, Jesus displays a propensity for upsetting everyone’s notions about the fabled Messiah. Indeed, it seems to be his preference to unnerve all prevailing notions about Israel’s storied king and what he was supposed to do.
From that perspective, we might better sympathize with the apostles. The Gospel presentation of The Twelve doesn’t always cast the most brilliant light on that bunch. But, surely, it must’ve been a confusing life to be a member of the kingdom of heaven — at least according to Jesus’s interpretation of the matter. “Jesus, can you stop needling the Pharisees for one dang second and just start doing ‘kingdom’ stuff?” I can imagine none too few apostles having a thought similar to that one. It’s not too dissimilar to our day, though. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything good or hopeful while watching any news broadcast. There aren’t many headlines that would make us think that the kingdom of heaven is getting stronger. These are confusing times, to be sure. But, luckily for us, Jesus is predisposed to speak into our confusion and administer his faith. Such, I think, is exactly what he was doing with Malchus’s hewn ear.
Can you imagine a more confusing moment? Perhaps you can — but I find the events of the Garden of Gethsemane to be among the most perplexing in history, especially from the apostolic perspective. Jesus has already been a little off all supper and then he takes his comrades into an abandoned winepress where he insists on praying for a spell (Matt. 26:36–37). That “spell” certainly lasted a heckuva lot longer than anyone expected, since Jesus emerges to find his inner circle taking a snooze. “Couldn’t you stay awake with me one hour?” a peeved Jesus asks (Matt. 26:38–40). This, to me, is the clearest indication that the apostles had little to no clue what was actually happening that night. Little did they know that the passion of the Christ was only a few short hours away.
In fact, before they knew it, Jesus is cryptically announcing that his “betrayer is near,” with their pal Judas suddenly showing up with a “great multitude with swords and staves” in tow (Matt. 26:46–47). As some soldiers begin putting Jesus in shackles, Peter springs into action, drawing his sword to come to Jesus’s defense. His (divinely) errant swing narrowly misses the high priest’s servant’s head, only severing his ear (Matt. 26:51). This prompts Jesus to reprimand not the mob seizing him but the apostle defending him. “Put up again thy sword into his place,” he says, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” (Matt. 26:52–54).
Of all the moments in Jesus’s life that sparked bewildered faces, this one takes the cake. The Twelve witnessed this moment as our proxies. All they saw was a violent mob forcibly arresting their Teacher. Why wouldn’t they fight to stop that? Any loyalist would do the same, wouldn’t they? For the apostles, this occurrence meant that the success they had hoped Jesus would bring couldn’t proceed as promised. Jesus in handcuffs meant that the kingdom they dreamed of and believed in was crumbling right before their very eyes. But Jesus didn’t see it that way. He saw his arrest not as the kingdom’s program being thwarted but as it being “fulfilled.” How is that possible?
In a recent essay entitled, “Over Come Evil By Doing Good,” Orthodox minister Stephen Freeman offers some trenchant insight into this topic, noting how the heavenly kingdom’s manifestation in this world of ours is unlike anything we’ve ever anticipated:
His Kingdom’s source is not found within the things of this world. It is a sovereign act of God. As such, its reality is independent of our actions and will. There is nothing in the Kingdom of God that requires our swords (or even our words). It is heaven-breaking-into-our-world. It is unassailable . . . The Kingdom of God willingly enters into the suffering of this world, willingly bears shame, willingly embraces the weakness of the Cross.
The work of the Kingdom of God cannot be coerced, nor can it be the work of coercion. It is freely embraced, even as it alone is the source of true freedom.
If the Kingdom of God were a ship (an image sometimes used of the Church), then we should not be surprised when the seas become boisterous and the winds become contrary. Nor should we panic if we find that Christ is asleep in the back of the boat. His sleeping, indeed, should be a clue as to what the true nature of our situation might be. There are some who imagine that the work of the Kingdom can only be fulfilled once we’ve learned to control the winds and the seas. We fail to understand that they already obey the One who sleeps.
Throughout all those agonizing hours of torture and slander and death, there wasn’t an ounce of worry in the Christ concerning the fate of his kingdom. You could rightly imagine his spirit fast asleep in the stern of a dinghy while tempest waves rolled around him. Rather than frantically resisting, Jesus calmly embraced the horrors of the crucifixion. He didn’t lift a finger to struggle against that armed mob. Indeed, rather, he willingly walked out to meet them. Such is what the apostles just couldn’t wrap their minds around: Jesus appeared to just let this happen.
But such is the scandal of this moment, wherein the One who spoke the universe into existence is letting himself be bound and taken away by a gaggle of pitch-forked people. But that’s because he knew something his followers didn’t. He knew that the materialization of his kingdom wasn’t dependent on the materials of this earth. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus states a few hours later. “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36). The kingdom of heaven wouldn’t be established through the usual modes of uprising or any earthly method of dominance. Instead, it would be established in its King’s defeat.
This, I think, is among the most prescient comforts for those in the church. We who believe in Jesus the Christ as the Savior from all sin and the King of all nations are not given reason to panic. Even in the most dire of moments, when all hope of God’s kingdom breaking into this realm seems like a long-lost memory, God is still the sole governor of his kingdom. “The church,” writes Dale Ralph Davis, “must understand that God’s plan and God’s kingdom will come because God will see to it and not because we are such outstanding members of Jesus’ varsity squad.”1 Our white-knuckled-devotion hasn’t accelerated the kingdom’s coming by a single mile per hour. Neither has any of the recent calamities (take your pick) slowed it down. “There is no way,” Robert Capon declares, “of tying the kingdom of heaven to anything we do. It comes because the King makes it come, not because we give it a helping hand.”2 God is completely sovereign over success of his kingdom, regardless how precarious it might seem right now.
In fact, that’s just how God likes it. He relishes in those moments when the odds seem entirely stacked against him. Unlike a certain galaxy-hopping smuggler, he loves it when you tell him the odds, especially when they’re impossible (Mark 10:27). “The kingdom,” Davis continues, “is often present only in its mustard-seed form. So don’t be overly upset when the church doesn’t seem to be ‘flourishing,’ when she is beaten down and nearly brought to eclipse, when she looks like nothing among the real powers of the world, for God often does things the hard way, the weak way.”3 The kingdom of heaven is comprised of sheathed swords and surgically-repaired ears. It belongs to children who are just gullible enough to believe that victory can come through defeat.
But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. (Mark 10:14–15)
Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2007), 35.
Robert Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 109.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 48.