“Then all the disciples left Him and fled.”
In defecting from Christ in an hour of crisis, the eleven disciples displayed certain marks of faithlessness.
Sometimes no amount of truth and logic will ever persuade someone to change their mind. We all know that is true from times we have debated another person on a particular topic. Nothing we say will convince them that their plans may be wrong or their opinions unsound. Jesus knew that far better than us as he continued to face the hostile crowd in Gethsemane.
As the Son of God, Jesus could confidently tell the crowd that “All this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56). The Son knew that, completely apart from the armed mob’s evil motives and intentions, the Father was sovereignly using the situation to accomplish His righteous and gracious purposes.
But Jesus’ words to the crowd obviously gave little comfort or reassurance to His own disciples. They finally realized Christ was going to be seized. Fear and panic gripped them when they further realized they might have to risk suffering and death with Him. Therefore, each of the eleven “left Him and fled.”
The disciples’ faithless desertion reveals several common characteristics of weak commitment. First, any believer who neglects God’s Word and prayer will be unprepared and unfaithful when testing comes. Second, a weak disciple is likely to be impulsive, like Peter, and respond to a crisis with faulty human discernment. Third, a defective disciple tends to be impatient, like Jesus’ men, refusing to listen to His promises and unwilling to wait for His deliverance.
It’s easy to criticize Jesus’ disciples for their faithless lack of resolve in letting Him down and running away when things became difficult. But if you are an honest follower of Christ, you know that you have sometimes compromised or run away when your faith was tested. As a result, you need to confess your failings and lean more than ever on God’s Word, prayer, and the strength of the Holy Spirit to help you stay the course (Eph. 5:15–21).
Suggestions for Prayer: Commit yourself today to be faithful to Christ, no matter what circumstance confronts you, and pray for strength.
For Further Study: John 14 comes from a section of the Gospels called the Upper Room Discourse. Read this chapter, and identify the verses in which Jesus promises peace. ✧ What additional Helper does He promise to send believers? ✧ What is the key to obedience (vv. 23–24)?
The Defection of the Disciples
At that time Jesus said to the multitudes, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left Him and fled. (26:55–56)
With an overtone of sarcasm Jesus pointed up the subterfuge and cowardice of the multitudes who now confronted Him in the garden. “Am I so dangerous,” He said to them, “that you had to come out in such great numbers and with swords and clubs to arrest Me as against a robber? Am I so elusive that you had to capture me by stealth in the dead of night? You know very well that every day I used to sit in the temple teaching. Why did you not seize Me then?”
Jesus knew that no amount of truth or logic would dissuade His enemies from executing their plot against Him. They knew their charges were spurious and unjust and that they had had countless opportunities to arrest Him publicly. But when evil men are determined to have their way, they will not be deterred by such considerations as truth, justice, legality, or righteousness.
Jesus then told the crowd what He had just reminded Peter of: All this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled. “Whatever your personal reasons and motivations may be,” He was saying, “you are unwittingly accomplishing what your own Scriptures have said through the prophets that you would do to your Messiah. Completely apart from your own evil intentions, God is sovereignly using you to accomplish His righteous and gracious purposes. And in doing so, He will demonstrate that His infallible Word through the prophets will be fulfilled.”
Those words obviously gave little comfort or courage to the disciples. At last it dawned on them that their Lord was finally a captive of His enemies and that He would neither do anything Himself nor allow them to do anything to interfere. Although the leaders of the multitude had said they sought only Jesus (John 18:5), the disciples were fearful they would be arrested as accomplices, and therefore all the disciples left Him and fled.
The “little faith” disciples did not trust Jesus to save them and were afraid to risk suffering and perhaps even dying with Him. Just as He had predicted earlier that evening, when the Shepherd was struck the sheep scattered (Matt. 26:31).
It is easy to criticize the disciples for their faithlesshess and cowardice. But every honest believer knows that at times he has run from possible embarrassment, ridicule, or mockery because of his association with Christ. We have to confess that we, too, have left our Lord and fled when the cost of discipleship has seemed too high.
Just as there are common marks of false disciples there are common characteristics of defective disciples, as the eleven proved to be on this occasion. First of all, they were unprepared. All of them, including the three Jesus chose to accompany Him into the garden, had fallen asleep at this time of Jesus’ great struggle. Because they confused good intentions with spiritual strength, they were powerless when testing came. They were overconfident and felt no need of prayer. Had they taken to heart the Lord’s marvelous promises in the Upper Room discourse (John 13–17), they would have had the divinely provided wisdom and strength to meet the crisis.
But because they had paid little attention to Jesus’ teaching and had neglected prayer, the disciples discovered they were unprepared and inadequate. It is an absolute spiritual law that a believer who neglects the study of God’s Word and neglects fellowship with Him in prayer will be unprepared. (cf. Matt. 26:41). When testing comes he will be weak, afraid, unfaithful, and ineffective.
A second mark of a defective disciple is impulsiveness. The eleven disciples, and Peter in particular, reacted on the basis of emotion rather than revelation. They did not look at the situation from the perfect perspective of God’s truth but from the imperfect and distorted perspective of their own understanding. Therefore, instead of acting on the basis of God’s Word and in the promised power of His Spirit, they reacted on the basis of their emotions and in the weakness of their own resources.
The believer who fails to saturate himself in God’s Word and to have fellowship in God’s presence becomes a captive of circumstances. His thinking is based on the emotions of the moment, and his actions are based on the impulses of the moment.
A third mark of a defective disciple is impatience. Because the disciples refused to take Jesus’ truth and promises to heart, they became anxious and impatient when things did not go as they thought they should. They could not wait for the Lord’s deliverance and so devised their own.
Many Christians take the easy route of fleeing from trouble rather than trusting God to see them through it. Instead of trusting the Savior to deliver them, and in so doing to demonstrate His grace and power, they try to avoid trouble at any cost and thereby bring reproach upon Him.
A fourth mark of a defective disciple is carnality. The disciples, typified by Peter, depended wholly on their own fleshly power to protect them. Because he refused to trust His Lord’s way and power, Peter had nothing to rely on but his sword, which was pathetically inadequate even from a human perspective.
When believers lose their fleshly weapons or discover those weapons are ineffective, they sometimes simply flee in desperation.
The major participant in this garden scene was Jesus Himself, and in Matthew’s account we see His triumph even while His enemies were taking Him captive. Through their evil plot to put Him to death He would accomplish the divine plan for giving men eternal life.
All of His disciples deserted Him, and one betrayed Him, yet the divine work of redemption continued to be fulfilled on schedule, precisely according to God’s sovereign and prophesied plan. As the disciples’ faithfulness decreased, Jesus’ demonstration of power and glory increased. As the plans of His enemies seemed to prosper, the plan of God prospered still more in spite of them.
It is not clear exactly when it happened, but perhaps right after Judas’s kiss, Jesus took the initiative and confronted the multitude. To assure His enemies that He was not trying to hide or escape, and perhaps to strip Judas of any credit for identifying Him, He said, “Whom do you seek?” When they replied, “Jesus the Nazarene,” He said, “I am He,” and at that those words “they drew back, and fell to the ground” (John 18:4–6). “I am He” translates egō eimi, which literally means “I am,” the covenant name of God (see Ex. 3:14).
The exact reason for the multitude’s temporary immobility is not revealed, but doubtless it was caused by the overwhelming power of Christ. Although the Jews in the group would have associated Jesus’ words with the name of God, on a previous occasion when He claimed that name for Himself they were enraged rather than fearful and tried to stone Him to death (John 8:58–59). And that name would have had no significance at all to the 600 Roman soldiers. In addition, it seems almost certain that many of the men in that huge crowd could not hear what Jesus was saying. Therefore their instantly and involuntarily falling to the ground as one man was not caused so much by fear as by a direct, miraculous burst of the power of God. It was as if the Father were declaring in action what He had previously declared in words: “This is My beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17; 17:5). The multitude was able to rise only when God’s restraining hand was lifted.
Perhaps while they were still lying dazed and perplexed on the ground, Jesus again “asked them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ ” and they again replied, “Jesus the Nazarene” (John 18:7). He then said, “I told you that I am He; if therefore you seek Me, let these go their way” (v. 8), referring to the disciples.
The multitude that night reacted to being cast to the ground much as the homosexuals of Sodom reacted to being struck blind. Those wicked men were so consumed by their sexual perversion that even in blindness they persisted to the point of exhaustion, futilely trying to satisfy their lust (Gen. 19:11). In a similar way the men who came to arrest Jesus were so bent on their ungodly mission that they crawled up out of the dirt as if nothing had happened, determined at all costs to carry out their wicked scheme. Though not to the degree of being indwelt by Satan as was Judas, the entire multitude was subservient to the prince of this world.
Jesus had already unmasked the duplicity and cowardice of the leaders of the multitude when He asked why they had not arrested Him earlier in the week. He not only had been in Jerusalem every day but had been the locus of public attention on several occasions, most notably when He entered the city triumphantly and when He cleansed the Temple of the money changers and sacrifice merchants.
In His confrontation with Judas, the Lord also demonstrated His majesty and His sovereignty. He not only had predicted Judas’s betrayal but had declared that even that vile act would fulfill God’s prophecy (Matt. 26:21, 24). When the moment of arrest came, He faced it without resistance, anger, or anxiety. He was as perfectly confident of following His Father’s plan and of being under His Father’s care at that moment as when He performed His greatest miracles or was transfigured on the mountaintop.
In His confrontation with Peter and the other disciples, Jesus demonstrated His perfect faithfulness in face of their utter faithlessness. While they demonstrated their absence of trust in the Son, the Son demonstrated His absolute trust in His Father.
Alone, He Bore It All Alone
The last sentence of this account is a sad one. Despite their protests about standing by him to the end, the disciples fled into the darkness of the garden. The text says, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (v. 56). Jesus had said that the writings of the prophets had to be fulfilled, but here, even before he had fulfilled the most important prophecies by dying, the disciples fulfilled at least one of them by fleeing. Jesus had referred to it on the way to the garden: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Matt. 26:31, quoting Zech. 13:7).
Moments before, they had been sleeping rather than praying. Now they were fleeing rather than standing by their Lord. Do you want to know what you are made of, what kind of courage you have? Look at these men in that moment. That is what you are. Like them you are weak and fearful, more concerned for your own well-being than for Jesus. But look at them again a few weeks later, after the resurrection. Look at Peter, who struck with his sword, fled into the darkness, and then told a servant girl he did not even know the Lord. See him at Pentecost as he stands before some of these very people, saying, “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Look at Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, the same judicial body that condemned Jesus to death. They cry, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
What a difference the presence and power of Jesus Christ makes. He is able to turn cowards into heroes, foolish persons into those who are wise, and sinners into saints. He will do it for you if you will turn from your foolish self-confidence, embrace the gospel, and lean on him for your daily strength and courage.
After questioning the display of force by those who arrested him, Jesus said, “This has all taken place [see comments at 1:22; 21:4] that the writings [or ‘Scriptures’] of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Mark (14:49) simply has “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Matthew gives us more, doubtless because he is more interested in the prophetic nature of the Scriptures (see Introduction, section 11.b). “The writings of the prophets,” therefore, probably does not exclude the Law and the Writings, for elsewhere Moses and David are also considered “prophets.” The reference is to the Scriptures (as in v. 54), their human authors being considered primarily as prophets, not lawgivers, wise men, or psalmists.
All the disciples then fulfill one specific prophecy (see comments at v. 31) and flee. Mark 14:51–52 adds the account of the young man who flees naked. Probably at this time Jesus is bound (Jn 18:12).
26:56 Yet the Savior realized that man’s wickedness was succeeding only in accomplishing the definite plan of God. “All this was done that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Realizing there would be no deliverance for their Master, all the disciples forsook Him and fled in panic. If their cowardice was inexcusable, ours is more so. They had not yet been indwelt by the Holy Spirit; we have.
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 26:54–55). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (p. 579). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 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. 614). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1304). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.