Peter and the Disciples: Cowards or Brave?

So often when we hear sermons leading up to Jesus' death we get a one dimensional description of the disciples. This would be similar to people looking at us and defining us based on one area of our life (which people sometimes do). Quite often people are more complex than one simple assessment.

When we look at the biblical account a different picture seems to emerge.

One of fight or flight. First we read of acts (and potential acts) of bravery then fear since Jesus rules out any physical defence.

Further back from the Garden of Gethsemane we read: 

14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 

15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

No one disagreed with what Thomas said. He and the other disciples possibly thought Jesus would face death when he went there and they would be next as his followers. That was a group act of bravery. They didn’t run away and hide. Bethany is roughly two miles away from Jerusalem.

Then we read of Jesus’ prediction concerning Peter’s upcoming denial (Luke 22):

32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

33 But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”

34 Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

It is important to note that Jesus was the one to suggest bringing a few swords:

36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.

37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’[a]; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”

“That’s enough!” he replied.

At the critical time of Jesus’ arrest we read the following in Luke 22:

49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.  

Note how first Jesus’ disciples asked if they should defend him, even though they were greatly outnumbered and only had two swords! Yet they were still willing to take this step that would mean certain death for all of them. 

Peter, identified in John’s Gospel as the one cutting off the ear, didn’t wait for Jesus’ reply or show any hesitation, but took the brave and possibly deadly action of striking with a sword. He could have been put to death for that.  This should not be missed or underplayed.

51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

(Note how the direction and focus immediately shifts as Jesus makes it clear there is to be no fighting or protection on their part. It now shifts from being ready to fight to flight).

In Mat. 26:50-56 this scene is described then we are told:  

56 Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. 

Yet right after this statement (of all the disciples fleeing) we then read:

57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. 

58 But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome. (This too possibly have put him in danger.)

In John’s gospel we find that yet another disciple follows along (possibly John):

15 Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, 

16 but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in.

This disciple possibly had a good relationship with the high priest (which would be amazing considering all that is taking place!). Also, he seemed to carry some authority since he was able to speak to the servant girl and have Peter brought in.

What do we find in all of this? Great acts of bravery before Jesus was arrested. This then turned to fear and self preservation when Jesus said to not defend him. Later, after his resurrection and the reception of the Holy Spirit, they were now boldly proclaiming the word of God in Jerusalem! (Acts 4:13 etc.)

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