“… A great multitude with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and elders of the people.”
The crowd that captured Jesus at Gethsemane illustrates the world’s sinful, hateful rejection of Jesus Christ.
A crowd can have a positive, uplifting influence, as when a large group of neighbors bands together to help someone in need. But crowds can also have a negative impact, such as when they incite riots or heckle someone who is trying to give a speech.
The multitude that came to the Garden of Gethsemane to capture Jesus is a prime example of a crowd that formed for an evil purpose. That throng was not at all like the spontaneous groups of admirers that often sought the Lord. Instead, it was a carefully selected group whose only purpose was to arrest Jesus and ensure that He was executed.
Judas most likely rushed away from the upper room and informed the Jewish leaders that now was the time they had long waited for—an opportunity to seize Jesus, convict Him of rebellion against Rome, and force the Romans to put Him to death. By now the conspiracy against Jesus had grown very large and involved the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the entire Sanhedrin. In their desire to guarantee Jesus’ capture, the leaders gathered perhaps a thousand men that night.
This evil group was a prophetic portrait of the world’s opposition to Christ through the ages. The crowd illustrated sinful disobedience by falsely accusing Him of crimes, by mindlessly and selfishly participating in His arrest (even without an informed opinion about Him), and by cowardly using the cover of darkness and the safety of an obscure location to implement the leaders’ plot.
The unbelieving world has always disdained God’s kingdom and the mission of His Son. Instead of coming in repentance and faith and reverently embracing Christ’s work on the cross, the world wants to find any excuse to do away with the Savior. In contrast, believers are called to stand apart from any unbelieving crowd and defend the name of Jesus Christ.
Suggestions for Prayer: Pray for the discernment and courage not to follow the mind–set of the world’s crowd, but to rather be obedient to the Lord Jesus.
For Further Study: The large crowds that followed Jesus earlier in His ministry were not always sincere. Read John 6, and note the various ways the people misunderstood Jesus’ message. ✧ How did He answer their objections and grumblings?
The Attack of the Crowd
And while He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, came up, accompanied by a great multitude with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and elders of the people. (26:47)
While Jesus was still speaking to the eleven disciples in the garden, admonishing them to be spiritually vigilant and announcing to them His imminent betrayal (vv. 45–46), behold, Judas, one of the twelve, came up.
It seems strange and inappropriate that Judas would still be called one of the twelve while he was in the very act of betrayal. One would think Matthew would have been loath to refer to him in such a way. By the time the gospels were written, Judas’s name had long been a byword among Christians, a synonym for treachery and infamy. Why, we might wonder, was he not referred to as the false disciple or the one who counted himself among the twelve?
But, in fact, all four gospel writers specifically speak of Judas as “one of the twelve” (Matt. 26:14, 47; Mark 14:10, 20, 43; Luke 22:47; John 6:71), whereas no other disciple is individually designated in that way. The writers dearly identify Judas as the betrayer of Jesus, but they do not speak of him with overt disdain or hatred. They are remarkably restrained in their descriptions and assessments of him, never using derogatory epithets or fanciful episodes, as did many extrabiblical writers.
The apocryphal writing The Story of Joseph of Arimathea taught that Judas was the son of the brother of the high priest Caiaphas and that he was sent by Caiaphas to infiltrate the disciples and discover a way to destroy Jesus.
According to another apocryphal writing, The Acts of Pilate, Judas went home after the betrayal and found his wife roasting a chicken. When he told her he was planning to kill himself because he was afraid Jesus would rise from the dead and take vengeance on him, she replied that Jesus would no more rise from the dead than the chicken she was cooking would jump out of the fire and crow-at which instant the chicken was said to have done just that.
An ancient manuscript called Coptic Narratives of the Ministry and Passion maintained that Judas’s wife was exceedingly greedy and that he was nothing more than the pawn of a manipulative wife. In the ancient Near East, to accuse a man of being subjugated to a dominating wife was considered highly slanderous.
A twelfth-century writing called The Legendary Aura claimed that Judas’s parents threw him into the sea when he was an infant, because even at that early age they supposedly sensed he was diabolical and deserved to be destroyed. Somehow he managed to survive and grow to adulthood, and, according to the legend, soon after marrying a beautiful older woman, he discovered she was his mother.
Such bizarre accounts are common in extrabiblical literature. They are concocted to demonstrate the vileness of Judas and to reveal the contempt with which he was viewed. The gospel writers, by contrast, simply call him one of the twelve. Rather than minimizing the heinousness of Judas’ treachery, this heightens the insidiousness of his crime more than any list of epithets could do.
When the traitor came to the garden, he was accompanied by a great multitude with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and elders of the people. This great multitude was not the typical spontaneous crowd of admirers that often sought Him out. It was rather a carefully-selected group brought together for the sole purpose of arresting Him and putting Him to death.
The multitude included officers of the Temple (Luke 22:52), who were granted limited police powers by the Romans in matters concerning Jewish religion and society. This group was probably armed with clubs. The multitude also included a cohort of Roman soldiers (John 18:3), which, at full strength, comprised 600 men. Because they had to have Roman permission to exercise the death penalty, the Jewish leaders had requested Roman soldiers to join in the arrest. These soldiers from Fort Antonia in Jerusalem, and perhaps some of the Temple police as well, were armed with swords. The soldiers probably were also included because on a previous occasion when the Temple police were sent to arrest Jesus, they came back empty handed (John 7:32, 44–46).
Apparently the Jewish leaders had intended for some time to accuse Jesus of rebellion against Rome. In that way His death could be blamed on the Roman government, and they themselves would be safe from reprisal by the many Jews who as yet still admired Him. In order to take advantage of the opportunity, the chief priests and elders must have hurried to Pilate to request the immediate use of his troops. Or perhaps they previously had arranged with the governor to have the soldiers available on short notice. Under intimidation because he did not want to risk another insurrection, especially in the midst of an important Jewish feast (see Mark 15:6–7), the Roman governor granted the request.
When he left the upper room, Judas must have rushed to meet with the Jewish leaders and inform them that the propitious time they had been waiting for was at hand. Although Judas’s original arrangement had been only with the chief priests and other Temple officials (Luke 22:4), the Pharisees also became involved in the plot (John 18:3), as did the Sadducees and the entire Sanhedrin (Mark 15:1; Acts 23:6). And because the multitude not only included representatives from the chief priests and elders but the chief priests and elders themselves (Luke 22:52), those leaders obviously wanted to make sure Jesus did not overpower them or slip through their fingers again. When all four gospel accounts are compared, it becomes evident that the total number of men who came with Judas to the garden may have been as high as a thousand.
That mixed multitude was a prophetic portrait of the world’s treatment of Christ, a vivid illustration of its wickedness, mindlessness, and cowardice. Instead of humbly welcoming the Son of God, embracing their long-awaited Messiah, and falling at His feet in adoration and worship, they arrogantly came to put Him to death.
Their wicked intent was manifest first of all in the gross injustice of their accusations and actions, which had no relation to truth or justice. Jesus had broken neither Mosaic nor Roman law. He had committed no immoral or illegal act. His only offense was in not recognizing or obeying the man-made, legalistic rabbinical traditions. Pilate had no love or respect for Jesus, but he acknowledged He was not guilty of breaking any Roman law, much less of inciting a rebellion (John 19:4). Yet to protect his own position with Rome and to keep from arousing the discontent of the Jewish leaders, he was perfectly willing to allow an innocent man to be executed.
Second, the multitude not only was unjust but mindless. The majority of them probably had little idea of what they were doing or of the reasons for it. The Roman soldiers, of course, were simply obeying orders as they were trained to do, without questioning the purpose or propriety. Most of those in the multitude had no personal grudge against Jesus, and some of them probably had never heard of Him before. Yet they had no compunction about participating in His arrest. In their spiritual darkness they had no ability to recognize Jesus as the very source and incarnation of truth and righteousness. In any case, they cared little for truth, righteousness, or anything else of spiritual value, but only for their personal welfare. Most of them were hirelings who were indifferent to the justice of what they did as long as they were paid and did not get into trouble with their superiors.
That multitude has had counterparts in every age of church history. Countless millions have been incited against the cause of Christ without having the least notion of who He is or of what He taught. They become willing victims of someone else’s ungodly prejudice and join in causes that are patently unjust.
A third characteristic of the multitude in the garden was cowardice. Not only the leaders, but probably the soldiers and Temple police as well, preferred to arrest Jesus in this dark, isolated place rather than in the streets of Jerusalem in broad daylight. A riotous mob can be intimidating even to armed men. And despite the advantages of darkness and isolation, the cowardly, apprehensive leaders felt it necessary to bring a thousand men, including several hundred armed soldiers, to arrest a dozen men who were known to be peaceful.
A guilty conscience always produces cowardice. The wicked fear they may receive justice for their injustice and therefore seek protection in numbers and in darkness. They are afraid of exposure and opposition, and they take no public stand or action unless the odds are overwhelmingly in their favor.
The multitude was also profane. What an unbelievable sacrilege was committed that night by the murderous, sinful men who dared to lay hands on the sinless Son of God!
The unbelieving world has always disdained the name of God, the Word of God, and the things of God. No pagan deity is so openly blasphemed by mankind as is the Lord Jesus Christ. Few evidences testify more boldly that the world is now in the hands of Satan than the fact that it is the true God who is most often blasphemed and mocked.
47 Judas Iscariot (see comments at 10:4; 26:14–16, 25; 27:3–10) arrived with armed men. What he received payment for was probably information as to where Jesus could be arrested in a quiet setting with little danger of mob violence. He may have first led the “large crowd” to the upper room and, finding it empty, surmised where Jesus and his disciples had gone (cf. Jn 18:1–3). The “large crowd” accompanying Judas had been sent “from the chief priests and the elders of the people”—the clergy and lay members of the Sanhedrin (see comments at 21:23). Luke 22:52 says some chief priests and elders accompanied the crowd. The military terms in John 18:3, 12 suggest that some Roman soldiers were among the number, along with temple police and some others. Although many scholars have argued that no Romans were involved at this time, it is not unlikely that some were present. Especially during the feasts the Romans took extra pains to ensure public order, so a request for a small detachment from the cohort would not likely be turned down. Thus Pilate might have had some inkling of the plot from the beginning, and if he shared it with his wife, it might help explain her dream (27:19).
26:47 While Jesus was still speaking to the eleven, Judas arrived with a gang armed with swords and clubs. Surely the weapons were not Judas’s idea; he had never seen the Savior resist or fight back. Perhaps the weapons symbolized the determination of the chief priests and elders to capture Him without any possibility of escape.
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 26:47). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 612). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1303). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.