The Mount of Olives Confrontation

Luke 22: 39-53

And then, as he had been doing, he returned to the Mount of Oliver with his disciples accompanying him. And coming to that place, he said to them:
“You should now be praying that you will not enter your own time of trial.”
And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and on his knees he prayed this:
“Father, if you would be willing, please take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, not what I want but your will be done!”
And there appeared an angel attending him, sent from heaven strengthening him. And becoming deeply troubled, he prayed even more fervently, his perspiration like drops of blood falling to the earth. And then, rising up from his praying, he came upon his disciples who were sleeping, having become very grieved. And he said to them:
“Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray against the trials you may be about to enter.”
While he was still speaking to them a crowd came with Judas, one of the twelve, leading them. And he came up to Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said to him:
“Are you going to betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”
And seeing what was taking place [the crowd circling] one of his disciples, standing with him said,
“Lord shall it be with these swords that we shall fight?”
And one of them made a cut in the ear of the High Priest’s servant. And Jesus’ response was to say,
“That is as far as it goes!” and he attended to the ear and healed it.
And Jesus said to those coming to him, the Chief Priests, Captains of the Temple Guard and the [city’s] elders:
“Have you come out with your swords and clubs to arrest a thief? I was with you day after day in the temple but you took no action to take me then. But the hour of darkness is obviously the hour for you to act.”

Luke makes a point of emphasizing the dangerous situation that confronted Jesus’ disciples to which Jesus had alerted them. We do not know how many shared in the Passover celebration that he had convened for his disciples – and we can surmise that women and children were also present. (Mark tells us of the young man in his pyjamas who escaped the grip of those wielding clubs leading to the speculation that this was Mark making an appearance in his own Gospel narrative). And the mention of the two swords being available, which Jesus condones, suggests the need for a degree of security for those gathered. Certainly, their use is confirmed with the mention of the healing of the ear of the High Priest’s servant. All four Gospels report on this, and it is John’s Gospel that tells us it was Peter who wielded his sword in this way (John 18:10).

Luke suggests what the other Gospels also indicate: this was a moment where things hung in the balance. A battle could have ensued. But it was not to be.

Despite the fact that all four Gospels refer to this Mount of Olives confrontation, we do not know in any precise detail what transpired in the confrontation. Were their skirmishes in which Peter and another disciple, both with swords, defended themselves against the advance of the mob? So what do we know?

Jesus had concluded the meal, having instructed his disciples of the danger they were in, that they were now to be numbered with their Rabbi who had been numbered with brigands (see 22:13). Given their knowledge of the prophets, Isaiah in particular (Isaiah 53:12), this should not have surprised them. To be associated with Jesus in that setting was to be in danger. The betrayal had taken place and thus the murderous plans could be carried out. And in that situation, Jesus counselled his disciples to be constant in prayer. Peter in particular had been warned and so the counsel was particularly an “application” of the prayer they had learned when Jesus had taught them in response to their request that he do so as John had done. The recently beheaded servant of God’s Kingdom had taught his disciples to pray (Luke 11:4). But now we hear of Jesus’ reiteration of his earlier response to that request

… lead us not into temptation …

fell upon deaf ears.

It seems that as they went on their way to the Mount of Olives that Jesus continued to explain to his disciples why it was necessary for them to pray. But rather than being driven to their knees in prayer – which was Jesus’ response – he came to find them sleeping because of their grief.

Now Luke’s interpretation as given here requires our attention. We should also note what he does not mention. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus took with him Peter, James and John (those whom he had taken with him up the mountain when they shared a vision of Moses and Elijah), seeking their support, their prayerful support. But Luke’s account simply indicates that sleep and grief overcame the disciples. He does not single them out. What we learn is that they couldn’t stay awake. Obviously, Jesus’ counsel was remembered later on, but at the time if it was effectively ignored.

Luke seems to have been content to recount this confrontation in terms that:

  • shows Jesus still confronting Judas with his responsibility and appealing to him to repent;
  • describes Jesus’ response to his own disciples who wanted to use the two swords they had with them for more than just the protection of those present in their midst (women and children perhaps?);
  • illustrates his continuation of his ministry concerned with healing even in this fraught situation;
  • focuses upon Jesus’ ability to provide a clear statement to the leaders of this mob that they are indeed lawless.

Given what we know of the later tension between Peter and Paul, and that Luke was an associate of Paul, it is worth noting that he does not identify Peter’s contribution to the fracas. Theophilus will already be informed of Jesus’ pastoral concern for Peter with his failings, by what Luke has already reported of the Passover discourse. This is the man who would eventually become the leader of those following “the way”, and Luke simply proceeds to recount how the threat of a brawl was stopped in its tracks by Jesus’ word to the lawless mob who had come by night to take him in hand.

So, has it come to this, coming out against me here and now under cover of darkness armed with swords and clubs as you would to apprehend any thief even though you could not bring yourselves to do this when I was daily with you in the temple?

That comment concludes Luke’s description of what happened when Jesus was apprehended. Luke tells Theophilus that Jesus, ever prayerful, gained encouragement to keep on walking in the ways of the Lord, in the way of truth and righteousness, and that the messenger of the Lord had come to him with divine reassurance as he prayed. Luke’s account of what Jesus did by way of response to what was transpiring depicts a man with decisive authority who formed the situation that had been brought to a head by a betrayal and a long-established evil resolve to bring him down.

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