After Judas identifies Jesus, the temple guard takes Jesus into custody (Matthew 26:47-50). Although Jesus willingly goes to the cross, at least one of his disciples draws a sword, ready to defend Jesus with violence. Who is the disciple who defended Jesus? What did he think he was doing?
This is a good passage to observe the growth of the Gospel traditions. In Mark 14:51, “one of those who stood by” drew his sword and attacked. In Matthew 26:47, it is “one of those who were with Jesus.” Luke tells us that the disciples took weapons to the garden, two small swords (Luke 22:38), and that the disciples saw the betrayer, “they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” (22:49). Luke also adds Jesus healed the man’s ear (Luke 22:51). It is not until John 18:10 that we learn the only disciple to defend Jesus was Peter, and the servant’s name was Malchus.
In Matthew, the story of Jesus’s arrest is limited to emphasize Jesus’s own actions and his refusal of a violent defense. Since Matthew 16, the disciples have been confused about what their role in the Kingdom would be. They thought the kingdom would be political, it was not. They all swore loyalty to Jesus and were prepared to fight to defend him and help him establish the kingdom.
A disciple cuts the ear off the servant of the high priest (26:51). The arresting crowd was expecting trouble. They were armed when they entered the garden to arrest Jesus. Sometimes pastors make fun of Peter’s impetuous attack, which fails laughably. Wilson says this is another example of apostolic failure, citing Matthew 5:38-39. Jesus taught the disciples not to resist persecution (see also Matthew 10:9, don’t carry a sword; Wilson, Matthew 13-28, 365).
However, Peter may have intended to cut the ear off the servant of the priest. By mutilating his ear, he would no longer be allowed to enter the temple courts to serve as a priest. Leviticus 21:16-24 lists a series of blemishes that disqualify a priest from service in the temple, including “one who has a mutilated face.” Josephus says Antigonus cut off Hyrcanus’s ears to disqualify him from the high priesthood (Antiq. 14.13.10, 366).
John 18:10 states Peter cut off his right ear; assuming Peter is right-handed, he attacked the servant from behind. Again, this is either a laughable failure to defend Jesus or a calculated attack to mutilate the High Priest’s servant. John 18:10 add the details that Peter attacked the servant, who is identified as Malchus, the servant of the high priest. In John 18:26-27, a relative of Malchus confronts Peter, leading to his third denial.
Malchus is a servant of the high priest. He may be there in an official capacity as the representative of the High Priest. However, BDAG says the name Malchus is “almost entirely of Gentiles, in fact of Nabataean Arabs,” so “Malchus may have been an Arab slave” (JoAnn Ford Watson, “Malchus (Person),” ABD 4:487). If so, it does not matter if he was mutilated. Luke adds the detail that Jesus healed the man’s ear (Luke 22:51). This would mean he could continue as a servant of the high priest and participate in temple worship.
What is remarkable is the disciple does not attack Judas, the betrayer. This could be more failure on the part of the disciples (misidentifying the source of the betrayal), or understanding the servant represents the high priest.
Jesus tells his disciples to put away the swords (26:52). To his disciples, Jesus tells them if they use the sword, they will die by the sword. The disciples were ready to risk their lives to defend Jesus, as James, John (Matt 20:22), and Peter (Matt 26:35) swore. But Jesus commands them to stand down, step aside and allow him to be peacefully arrested.
“Those that live by the sword will die by the sword.” Does this passage teach pacifism? These words have inspired Christian pacifism for centuries. Is Jesus teaching that the true followers of Christ should follow him in his example of complete pacifism? Those that would say that Christians are not to be total pacifists point out that Jesus says, “put the sword in its place,” indicating that he was not to get rid of it all together but use it at the appropriate time.
Jesus is clear: he is not a rebel, and he is not leading a rebellion (whatever his followers might think. If his followers behave like the (later) Zealots, they will die like the Zealots.