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SECTION I. “ALL THE DISCIPLES FORSOOK HIM, AND FLED.”
Matt. 26:36–41; 55, 56; 69–75; John 18:15–18.
From the supper-chamber, in which we have lingered so long, we pass into the outside world, to witness the behavior of the eleven in the great final crisis. The passages cited describe the part they played in the solemn scenes connected with their Master’s end. That part was a sadly unheroic one. Faith, love, principle, all gave way before the instincts of fear, shame, and self-preservation. The best of the disciples — the three who, as most reliable, were selected by Jesus to keep Him company in the garden of Gethsemane — utterly failed to render the service expected of them. While their Lord was passing through His agony, they fell asleep, as they had done before on the Mount of Transfiguration. Even the picked men thus proved themselves to be raw recruits, unable to shake off drowsiness while they did duty as sentinels. “What! could ye not watch with me one hour?” Then, when the enemy appeared, both these three and the other eight ran away panic-stricken. “All the disciples forsook Him, and fled.” And finally, that one of their number who thought himself bolder than his brethren, not only forsook, but denied his beloved Master, declaring with an oath, “I know not the man.”
The conduct of the disciples at this crisis in their history, so weak and so unmanly, naturally gives rise to two questions: How should they have acted? and why did they act as they did — what were the causes of their failure?
Now, to take up the former of these questions first, when we try to form to ourselves a distinct idea of the course of action demanded by fidelity, it is not at once quite apparent wherein the disciples, Peter of course excepted, were at fault. What could they do when their Lord was apprehended, but run away? Offer resistance? Jesus had positively forbidden that just immediately before. On the appearance of the band of armed men, “when they which were about Him saw what would follow, they said unto Him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword?”627627Luke xxii. 49. Without waiting for a reply, one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. The fighting disciple, John informs us, was Simon Peter. He had brought a sword with him, one of two in the possession of the company, from the supper-chamber to Gethsemane, thinking it might be needed, and fully minded to use it if there was occasion; and, coward as he proved himself afterwards among the serving-men and maids, he was no such arrant coward in the garden. He used his weapon boldly if not skillfully, and did some execution, though happily not of a deadly character. Thereupon Jesus interposed to prevent further bloodshed, uttering words variously reported, but in all the different versions clearly inculcating a policy of non-resistance. “Put up again thy sword into his place,” He said to Peter, adding as His reason, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword;.” which was as much as to say, “In this kind of warfare we must necessarily have the worst of it.” Then He went on to hint at higher reasons for non-resistance than mere considerations of prudence or expediency. “Thinkest thou,” He asked the warlike disciple, “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?”628628Matt. xxvi. 52-54. He could meet human force by superior, divine, celestial force if He chose, but He did not choose; for to overpower His enemies would be to defeat His own purpose in coming to the world, which was to conquer, not by physical force, but by truth and love and godlike patience; by drinking the cup which His Father had put into His hands, bitter though it was to flesh and blood.629629John xviii. 11.
Quite in harmony with these utterances in Gethsemane are the statements made by Jesus on the same subject ere He left the supper-room, as recorded by Luke.630630Luke xxii. 35-38. In the letter, indeed, these statements seem to point at a policy the very opposite of non-resistance. Jesus seems to say that the great business and duty of the hour, for all who are on His side, is to furnish themselves with swords: so urgent is the need, that he who wants a weapon must sell his garment to buy one. But the very emphasis with which He speaks shows that His words are not to be taken in the literal prosaic sense. It is very easy to see what He means. His object is by graphic language to convey to His disciples an idea of the gravity of the situation. “Now,” He would say, “now is the day, yea, the hour of battle: if my kingdom be one of this world, as ye have imagined, now is the time for fighting, not for dreaming; now matters have come to extremities, and ye have need of all your resources: equip yourselves with shoes and purse and knapsack, and above all, with swords and warlike courage.”
The disciples did not understand their Lord’s meaning. They put a stupid, prosaic interpretation upon this part, as upon so many other parts, of His farewell discourse. So, with ridiculous seriousness, they said: “Lord, behold, here are two swords.” The foolish remark provoked a reply which should surely have opened their eyes, and kept Peter from carrying the matter so far as to take one of the swords with him. “It is enough,” said Jesus, probably with a melancholy smile on His face, as He thought of the stupid simplicity of those dear childish and childlike men: “It is enough.” Two swords: well, they are enough only for one who does not mean to fight at all. What were two swords for twelve men, and against a hundred weapons of offence? The very idea of fighting in the circumstances was preposterous: it had only to be broadly stated to appear an absurdity.
The disciples, then, were not called on to fight for their Master, that He might not be delivered to the Jews. What else, then, should they have done? Was it their duty to suffer with Him, and, carrying out the professions of Peter, to go with Him to prison and to death? This was not required of them either. When Jesus surrendered Himself into the hands of His captors, He proffered the request that, while taking Him into custody, they should let His followers go their way.631631John xviii. 8. This He did not merely out of compassion for them, but as the Captain of salvation making the best terms for Himself and for the interests of His kingdom; for it was not less necessary to these that the disciples should live than that He Himself should die. He gave Himself up to death, that there might be a gospel to preach; He desired the safety of His disciples, that there might be men to preach it. Manifestly, therefore, it was not the duty of the disciples to expose themselves to danger: their duty lay rather, one would say, in the direction of taking care of their life for future usefulness.
Where, then, if not in failing to fight for or suffer with their Lord, did the fault of the eleven lie? It lay in their lack of faith. “Believe in God, and believe in me,” Jesus had said to them at the commencement of His farewell address, and at the critical hour they did neither. They did not believe that all would yet end well both with them and their Master, and especially that God would provide for their safety without any sacrifice of principle, or even of dignity, on their part. They put confidence only in the swiftness of their feet. Had they possessed faith in God and in Jesus, they would have witnessed their Lord’s apprehension without dismay, assured both of His return and of their own safety; and, as feeling might incline, would either have followed the officers of justice to see what happened, or, averse to exciting and painful scenes, would have retired quietly to their dwellings until the tragedy was finished. But wanting faith, they neither calmly followed nor calmly retired; but faithlessly and ignominiously forsook their Lord, and fled. The sin lay not so much in the outward act, but in the inward state of mind of which it was the index. They fled in unbelief and despair, as men whose hope was blasted, from a man whose cause was lost, and whom God had abandoned to His enemies.
Having ascertained wherein the disciples were at fault, we have now to inquire into the causes of their misconduct; and here, at the outset, we recall to mind that Jesus anticipated the breakdown of His followers. He did not count on their fidelity, but expected desertion as a matter of course. When Peter offered to follow Him wheresoever He might go, He told him that ere cock-crowing next morning he would deny Him thrice. At the close of the farewell address He told all the disciples that they would leave Him alone. On the way to the Mount of Olives He repeated the statement in these terms: “All ye shall be offended because of me this night; for it is written, I will smite the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.”632632Matt. xxvi. 31. And on all these occasions the tone in which He spoke was rather prophetic than reproachful. He expected His disciples to be panic-stricken, just as one should expect sheep to flee on the appearance of a wolf, or women to faint in presence of a scene of carnage. From this leniency we should infer that, in the view of Jesus, the sin of the disciples was one of infirmity; and that this was the view which He took thereof, we know from the words He addressed to the three drowsy brethren in Gethsemane. “Watch and pray,” He said to them, “that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”633633Ver. 41. The kind judgment thus expressed, though pronounced with special reference to the shortcoming of Peter, James, and John in the garden, manifestly applies to the whole conduct of all the disciples (not even excepting Peter’s denial) throughout the terrible crisis. Jesus regarded the eleven as men whose attachment to Himself was above suspicion, but who were liable to fall, through the weakness of their flesh, on being exposed to sudden temptation.
But what are we to understand by the weakness of the flesh? Mere instinctive love of life, dread of danger, fear of man? No; for these instincts continued with the apostles through life, without leading, except in one instance, to a repetition of their present misconduct. Not only the flesh of the disciples, but even the willing spirit, was weak. Their spiritual character at this season was deficient in certain elements which give steadiness to the good impulses of the heart, and mastery over the infirmities of sentient nature. The missing elements of strength were: forethought, clear perceptions of truth, self-knowledge, and the discipline of experience.
For want of forethought it came to pass that the apprehension of their Lord took the eleven by surprise. This may seem hardly credible, after the frequent intimations Christ had given them of His approaching death; after the institution of the Supper, the farewell address, the reference to the traitor, the prophetic announcement concerning their own frailty, and the discourse about the sword, which was like a trumpet-peal calling to battle. Yet there can be no doubt that such was the fact. The eleven went out to Gethsemane without any definite idea of what was coming. These raw recruits actually did not know that they were on the march to the battle-field. The sleep of the three disciples in the garden is sufficient proof of this. Had the three sentinels been thoroughly impressed with the belief that the enemy was at hand, weary and sad though they were, they would not have fallen asleep. Fear would have kept them awake. “Know this, that if the good man of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.”
The breakdown of the disciples at the final crisis was due in part also to the want of clear perceptions of truth. They did not understand the doctrine concerning Christ. They believed their Master to be the Christ, the Son of the living God; but their faith was twined around a false theory of Messiah’s mission and career. In that theory the cross had no place. So long as the cross was only spoken about, their theory remained firmly rooted in their minds, and the words of their Master were speedily forgotten. But when the cross at length actually came, when the things which Jesus had foretold began to be fulfilled, then their theory went down like a tree suddenly smitten by a whirlwind, carrying the woodbine plant of their faith along with it. From the moment that Jesus was apprehended, all that remained of faith in their minds was simply a regret that they had been mistaken: “We trusted that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel.” How could any one act heroically in such circumstances?
A third radical defect in the character of the disciples was self-ignorance. One who knows his weakness may become strong even at the weak point; but he who knows not his weak points cannot be strong at any point. Now the followers of Jesus did not know their weakness. They credited themselves with an amount of fidelity and valor which existed only in their imagination, all adopting as their own the sentiment of Peter: “Though I should die with Thee, yet will I not deny Thee.”634634Matt. xxvi. 35. Alas! they did not know how much fear of man was in them, how much abject cowardice in presence of danger. Of course, when danger actually appeared, the usual consequence of self-conscious valor followed. All these stout-hearted disciples forsook their Master, and fled.
The last, and not the least, cause of weakness in the disciples was their inexperience of such scenes as they were now to pass through. Experience of war is one great cause of the coolness and courage of veteran soldiers in the midst of danger. Practical acquaintance with the perils of military life makes them callous and fearless. But Christ’s disciples were not yet veterans. They were now but entering into their first engagement. Hitherto they had experienced only such trials as befall even the rawest recruits. They had been called on to leave home, friends, fishing-boats, and their earthly all, to follow Jesus. But these initial hardships do not make a soldier; no, nor even the discipline of the drill-sergeant, nor the donning of a uniform. For behold the green soft youth with his bright uniform brought face to face with the stern reality of battle. His knees smite each other, his heart sickens, perchance he faints outright, and is carried to the rear, unable to take any part in the fight. Poor lad, pity him, do not scorn him; he may turn out a brave soldier yet. Even Frederick the Great ran away from his first battle. The bravest of soldiers probably do not feel very heroic the first time they are under fire.
These observations help us to understand how it came to pass that the little flock was scattered when Jesus their shepherd was smitten. The explanation amounts in substance to a proof that the disciples were sheep, not yet fit to be shepherds of men. That being so, we do not wonder at the leniency of Jesus, to which reference has already been made. No one expects sheep to do any thing else than flee when the wolf cometh. Only in shepherds is craven fear severely reprehensible. Bearing this in mind, we shall more readily forgive Peter for denying his Lord in an unguarded moment, than for his cowardice at Antioch some years after, when he gave the cold shoulder to his Gentile brethren, through fear of the Jewish sectaries from Jerusalem. Peter was a shepherd then, and it was his duty to lead the sheep, or even to carry them against their inclination into the wide green pastures of Christian liberty, instead of tamely following those who, by their scrupulosity, showed themselves to be but lambs in Christ’s flock. His actual behavior was very culpable and very mischievous. For though in reality not leading, but led, he, as an apostle, enjoyed the reputation and influence of a chief shepherd, and therefore had no option but either to lead or to mislead; and he did mislead, to such an extent that even Barnabas was carried away by his dissimulation. It is a serious thing for the Church when those who are shepherds in office and influence are sheep in opinion and heart; leaders in name, led in fact.
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