Why Did Peter Attack?

The night Jesus was betrayed, Judas led a band of men to the Mount of Olives to arrest Jesus. As the Son of Man was surrounded by soldiers, priests, and Pharisees, Peter charged the captors and struck the high priest’s servant in the head with his sword.

But why?

Despite what you’ve seen in movies, Jesus and His disciples weren’t surrounded by a small group of religious men. John’s gospel tells us Judas brought “a detachment of troops.” A detachment, for those not familiar with the Roman military, was one-tenth of a legion—a legion being five thousand men. In other words, Jesus was waylaid by about 500 trained Roman soldiers—as well as a group of priests and Pharisees.

So… you have 500 armed soldiers from the world’s most power army on one side… and eleven day laborers with two swords who just woke up from a nap. What was Peter thinking?

To make sense of this, you need to understand the prophecies of Zechariah. In the final chapter of his book, Zechariah foretold of a day when God’s people would be surrounded by enemy nations bent on destroying the Jews (Zechariah 14:2). On that day, the LORD Himself would go forth against the nations to fight on behalf of His people. And His attack would start when the Messiah stood on the Mount of Olives (v. 4).

As the Messiah stood upon the Mount of Olives, surrounded by enemy nations, a great earthquake (seismos)—greater than the earthquake in the days of Uzziah—would strike, splitting (schizo) the mountain in two. Uzziah’s earthquake, of course, had occurred when the priests tried to stop the king from making a sacrifice in the temple, causing the roof of the temple to split in two (2 Chronicles 26, Antiquities IX, 10.4). Then the LORD would enter Jerusalem with the saints (hagios) (v. 5).

Next, the lights would be diminished in the middle of the day and living water (hydor) would flow from Jerusalem. Then the faces of God’s enemies would melt (think Raiders of the Lost Ark), and the LORD would be declared King over all the earth (v. 9, 12).

This prophecy may seem obscure to you, but to a persecuted first-century Jew living under Roman occupation, this would have been well-known and oft-discussed. Now consider what the disciples would have thought. They have been traveling with the Messiah, the true King of the Jews, for over three years. Jesus has been constantly talking about finishing His work, and then they head to Jerusalem during the Passover. No wonder His disciples offered to call down fire on those pagan Samaritans a few days earlier (Luke 9:54). This was the end! The time for all of their enemies to be destroyed.

Every night that week they retired to the Mount of Olives. And every night the disciples waited for Jesus to begin His holy war on God’s enemies. And finally, after days and weeks and years and centuries of waiting, five hundred Roman soldiers and a pod of imposter priests launched their attack. On the Mount of Olives, of all places. And Jesus stood to His feet.

Now was the time.

Peter charged, expecting Jesus to begin shooting lasers out of His eyes and melting all these evil men in their armor.

But Jesus’ attack never came. Instead, He reprimanded Peter and surrendered to the troops, to be taken away, tortured, and murdered on a cross.

Where was the victory of the Messiah? Where was the earthquake? The splitting of the mountain? The darkness and the flowing water and the saints? Where was the King over all the earth?

Maybe the disciples were wrong about Jesus. Maybe He wasn’t their Messiah.

But as He hung on the cross, darkness swept across the land. At noon. In the middle of the day (Matthew 27:45). Then as He took His last breath, the earth quaked (seismos), splitting the rocks apart (schizo) and tearing (schizo) the veil of the temple from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51).

After He died, Jesus was pierced by a soldier, and living water (hydor) flowed from His side (John 19:34). Then the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints (hagios) were raised and entered the holy city (Matthew 27:52-53).

Peter and the disciples were expecting the Messiah to attack their enemies as He stood upon the Mount of Olives. And they were right. They just expected it to happen the wrong way. They expected Jesus to wipe out all the Romans. But the Romans weren’t their true enemy. The real enemy is death (1 Corinthians 15:26).

Just as Zechariah had prophesied, the rocks were split in two. The priests tried to stop the King, but instead the veil was torn apart. The lights were diminished. The living water flowed. The saints entered Jerusalem. Death was defeated. And Jesus became the King over all the earth.

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?
…Thanks be to God, who gives us
the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57)

Checed & Emeth

In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his most trusted servant (possibly Eliezer) back to his homeland to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Eliezer is told to find a wife among Abraham’s people, but if he is unable to find a woman (or she refuses to marry Isaac), he will be released from his oath. Essentially, if this doesn’t work out, the line of Abraham might end. This is sort of a big deal.

As you would expect, Eliezer prays to the LORD for help, asking Him to show Abraham “checed” (faithfulness, goodness) and to lead him in “emeth” (truth) (Genesis 24:12, 14, 27, 48).

These two attributes of God appear throughout the Bible, very often together. Jacob prays to God for his checed and emeth (faithfulness and truth) when he returns home to face Esau (Genesis 32:10); David prays for God’s checed and emeth throughout the Psalms (Psalm 40:11); God even reveals Himself to Moses as “the LORD abounding in checed and emeth” (Exodus 34:6).

So Eliezer prays for God’s checed and emeth as he journeys to Nahor, hoping to successfully find Isaac a wife and secure the lineage of Abraham. Sure enough, God delivers. Just as Eliezer finishes praying, he is approached by Rebekah, who is the perfect answer to his prayer. He thanks the Lord, tells her his story, and meets her family.

But then something interesting happens. He asks once more for checed and emeth—but not from God. He asks for it from Rebekah and her family. He asks them to deal faithfully and truthfully with him, to give him a straight answer, to let him know if she would marry Isaac, fulfilling God’s plan for the family of Abraham.

In other words, the plan of God was accomplished by the joining together of God’s checed and emeth and Man’s checed and emeth. God is always faithful and true, and when we respond in faith and truth, God’s plans are realized.

“Let not checed and emeth forsake you. Bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man.” (Proverbs 3:3-4)

The “Older” Shall Serve the “Younger”

While Rebekah was pregnant with twins, God appeared to her and said,

“Two nations are in your womb,
Two peoples shall be separated from your body.
One people shall be stronger than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

We often interpret this in light of what we know will eventually come to pass between the two brothers: Since we know the younger brother Jacob will end up with his older brother’s birthright and blessing, this heavenly declaration must be prophesying those events. “The older (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob)” by forfeiting his inheritance. Thus, Esau is the loser of the prophecy because he serves, while Jacob is the winner because he is served.

I think this interpretation is wrong.

For one, this verse doesn’t actually say that “the *older* shall serve the younger.” The word “older” is the Hebrew word “rab,” which actually means “greater.” And of the 458 times it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s only translated “older” in this passage. In fact, if the author meant to say “older,” there’s another word he could have chosen. The word “gadol” means “older,” as we see in Genesis 27:1, where Isaac refers to Esau as his “beni ha-gadol”: “my older son.”

In my opinion, a better translation of the end of Genesis 25:23 would be, “…and the greater shall serve the lesser.” When read this way, the passage is ambiguous as to who is the “greater” and who is the “lesser.” So… who was the greater one?

At first, we might think that the greater one was Jacob. After all, he outsmarted his brother and ended up with the blessing, right? Well… it’s not actually so clear. It’s true that Jacob deceived his father and brother in order to receive his father’s blessing (Hebrew berakah). But twenty years later, when Jacob returned home to face his brother, he returns the berakah, saying, “Please, take my blessing” (Genesis 33:11).

Okay, so maybe Esau is the greater one. He is stronger than his brother, after all. Additionally, after he meets up with his brother after twenty years apart, he tells Jacob that he doesn’t need his brother’s gifts, for “I am great (rab) enough” (Genesis 33:8). Right there, Esau declares himself to be the great one. Case closed, problem solved.

Except… Esau isn’t the only brother who is called great. After living in exile for twenty years, the Bible calls Jacob “exceedingly great” (rab) (Genesis 30:43).

So, both brothers are called great (rab), both brothers were increased greatly, and the blessing changes hands several times and doesn’t really seem to play into this all that much. Which one is the “greater” one? That original prophecy tells us:

“The greater *shall serve* the lesser.”

The greater one is the one who serves.

And with that in mind, which of the two brothers served? During the twenty years that they were separated, we read eleven times that Jacob served (abad) his uncle Laban. This service to his uncle led directly to Jacob becoming great, both in terms of finances, family, and influence. And then when Jacob and Esau finally reunite, Jacob calls himself Esau’s servant (ebed) five times. Those twins spent years and years seeking greatness by trying to steal the inheritance from one another. But finally, Jacob began to seek greatness *through service*.

You find this dynamic live on through their descendants. Esau’s people became the Edomites, while Jacob’s people became the Israelites. After 400+ years in slavery, the Israelites asked permission to pass through the Edomite’s land. The Edomites chose not to serve, refusing them entry into their land (Numbers 20:21).

Despite this poor treatment, God wrote it into the Israelites’ legal code that the Edomites would always be welcome to join the congregation of Israel and worship the One True God beside them, “for he is your brother” (Deuteronomy 23:7, 8). The Israelites were commanded to serve their brother Edom.

So often we read Genesis 25:23 and assume that the one who “serves” is the one that gets the short end of the stick, but the opposite is true. The one who “serves” is the one who is considered “great.”

And this interpretation of greatness and service fits much better within the whole narrative of scripture. The very first usage of the word “service” in the Bible (abad) is found in the Garden of Eden, where Adam was given the important task of abading the garden—of serving it, of tilling it. Hundreds of years later, Moses demands that Pharaoh “let God’s people go,” that they may abad Him. After their salvation from Egypt, God gives the priests and Levites the important job of abading Him in the tabernacle. And throughout the prophets, the future Messiah is called the ebed of the LORD—the Servant of God. Service is what God’s people are called to, and serving God and others is what makes us great in the eyes of the LORD.

And thousands of years later, we see this play out between two opposing kings. King Herod was an appointed “king of the Jews.” He was rich, ruthless, and wanted to be served. He considered himself to be so great that he gave himself the title, “Herod the Great.” And did I mention that he also was an Idumaean—an Edomite, a descendant of Esau.

But there was another King of the Jews. This One came not to be served but to serve. This One became poor that we might be made rich. This One bore our sicknesses that we might be healed. This One who knew no sin became sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God. This One—an Israelite, a descendant of Jacob—was the True King, the Servant King, the Great King.

And this Great Servant King taught all who would listen how to achieve greatness as well, by echoing the words He had spoken to Rebekah thousands of years earlier:

“He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)