Malchus’ Ear
Part 1 of 2 of the
THIRD SERMON ON THE PASSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST by John Calvin
from Corpus Reformatorum, Calvini Opera, vol. 46, 859-74
Translated By Leroy Nixon


“And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? In that same hour said Jesus to the multitudes, Are ye come out as against a thief with swords and staves for to take me? I sat daily with you teaching in the temple, and ye laid no hold on me. But all this was done, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled....” (Matthew 26:51-66).

If we wished to judge superficially according to our natural senses the capture of our Lord Jesus Christ, we would be troubled by the fact that He offered no resistance. It would not seem consistent with His majesty that He suffered such shame and disgrace without hindering it. On the other hand, we would prize the zeal of Peter, since he exposed himself to death. For he saw the great multitude of enemies. He was alone, and a man who was not skilled at arms. Yet he draws out his sword on account of the love which he bears toward his Master, and prefers to die on the field rather than allow such an injury to be done to Him. 

But by that we see that we must come with all humility and modesty to know where all that the Son of God did and suffered was leading, and that what seems good to us is worth nothing, but we must pray to God that He lead us and guide us by His Word and that we judge not except according to what He will have shown us. For that is how the Gospel is a scandal to many people. Others make fun of it, and all to their perdition. It is that they are inflated with presumption and are rash judges. But in order not to be deceived, we must always in the first place come back to what our Lord Jesus declares. It is the will of God His Father. That is one item. Then we have to consider the end of that which may seem strange to us. When, then, we shall have these two considerations, then there will be occasion to adore God and to know that what seems to be folly according to men is an admirable wisdom even to the Angels.

But to arrive at that, let us consider what is here told about Peter. It is said, “Having drawn out his sword, he cut off the ear of Malchus, who was servant of Caiaphas.” Here we see how men are too bold, when they follow their foolish opinion. Then they are so blind that they do not spare themselves under any conditions. But when they ought to obey God they are so cowardly that it is a pity. They even forget themselves in such a manner that it takes nothing to make them turn aside. That is how we shall always have hundred times more courage to follow our foolish imaginations than to do what God commands us and to do what our calling implies. We see too much of that in the example of Peter. For after he has shown that he has made confession and witness to our Lord Jesus, he blasphemes to his perdition. Yet he is content to die, even when it is not commanded to him. What moves him to draw out his sword? He does it as if in spite. For he received no such instruction from his Master. And when he renounces Jesus Christ, did he not already know the saying, “Whoever denies me before men, him I shall deny before God My Father Who is in heaven”? But (as I have said) he is hot-headed. This foolish desire to support our Lord Jesus in his own way and according to his fancy carries him on. Now by his example let us learn to exert ourselves to walk where God calls us. May nothing that He commands us be too difficult for us. But may we attempt nothing, not even to move our little finger, unless God approves it and we have testimony that it is He Who guides us. That is one item.

In fact, in the first place, our Lord Jesus shows him that he has offended grievously, because he was not ignorant of the law, where it is said, “Whoever spills human blood, his blood will be spilled.” St. Peter, then, should well remember this lesson, that God does not will that either force or violence be used. And (what is more) in what school had he been nurtured during more than three years? Had not our Lord Jesus held back as far as it was possible for Him in humanness and gentleness? Where, then, does he expect to get approval for his boldness? We must observe further what we have already said. That is, if our zeal is prized by men and we are applauded, to that extent we shall not cease to be condemned before God if we transgress His Word ever so slightly. There is then no praise except in walking as God shows us by His Word. For as soon as a man goes beyond this line, all his virtues only stink. That is how it is with all our devotions. As soon its we have worked to do what we have imagined in our brain, God will condemn everything, unless we have heard His Word. For apart from that there is no truth which He approves and which is legitimate before Him.

But as for the account we are treating now, the second reason which our Lord Jesus alleges is more noteworthy. What we have already touched upon is general. But there is here a sentence which is peculiar to the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he says, “Do you not think that I can now pray to my Father, and he will send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Now one legion in that time customarily made four or five thousand men. “There is, then, a heavenly army which I can have,” says He, “and yet I do without it. And why, then, do you come here to usurp more than God either wills or permits?” Now it is surely permissible to call upon God and to pray to Him that He may be willing to sustain our life; and as He holds it precious, that He may keep it in His protection. Our Lord Jesus declares that He does not wish it now and that He ought not to do it. How, then, will Peter use violence, seeing it is outside the order which God has permitted and established by His Word? If a means which is permissible in itself ought not to come into use, how distinguish what God has defended and what He has declared worthy of punishment? Here (as I have already mentioned) we see how the Son of God subjected Himself to such shames and that He preferred to let Himself be bound and tied like an evil-doer and a criminal rather than to be a deceiver by miracle and that God employed His arm to protect Him. By that we have to recognize how He prized our salvation. Here is a point which I have already noted: namely, that He refers us to the will and to the decree of God His Father. For apart from that one would find it strange that He did not wish to implore His aid, as He might surely know that He could have it. It seems that He tempts God when He does not pray to Him at all. We have the promise that Angels will surround those who fear God, even that they will follow them to prevent them from hurting themselves, and that they may not have to meet any evil in their paths. Now when God has promised us something, He wills that it may be to invite us to prayer. Yet when we are in need we ought to run back to Him in order that He may use His Angels to guide us, for which cause, He has given them this office. We see also that this was practiced by the holy Patriarchs and the Fathers. “The Angel of the Lord who has never failed me will be in thy way with thee and he will make thee prosper,” said Abraham. Thus, then, have the holy Fathers used it. Why, then, did Jesus Christ not wish to have the Angels? For already He had been comforted (as Luke mentions) and Angels had waited upon Him in order to sweeten the anguish in which He was.

It seems, then, that He despises a necessary help from God. But He takes it into account when he adds “How will the Scriptures be fulfilled?” As if He said, “If we doubt something, we can, then, and ought to pray to God that He may look upon us in pity and that by all means He may make us to feel His power. But when we are convinced that He must pass by some need, and that the will of God is known to us, then it is no longer a matter of making of Him another request, unless that He may strengthen us in power and in invincible constancy, and that we may make no complaint, or that we may not be carried away by our affections; but that we may go with a ready courage through everything to which He calls us.” For example, if we are persecuted by our enemies, and we do not know what God has in store for us, or what ought to be the outcome, we have to pray to Him as if our life were precious to Him and since He holds in His guard that He demonstrates this by the result and that He delivers us. But when we are persuaded that God wills to call us to Himself and that there is no longer any remedy, then we must cut off every dispute and fully resign ourselves that nothing any longer remains but to obey the decree of God which is immutable.

That, then, is the intention of our Lord Jesus. For He surely prayed throughout His whole life, and even previously in this great combat which He had sustained, He prays to God that if it were possible this drink might be turned away from Him. But now He has taken up His conclusion, because He was so ordained by God His Father and He saw that He must acquit Himself of the charge which was committed to Him, that is, to offer the perpetual sacrifice to blot out the sins of the world. Since, then, He saw Himself called to that place, and the matter was finished, that it why He abstains from praying to God to do the contrary. He wishes, then, to be helped neither by Angels nor by men. He does not wish that God make Him to feel His power to withdraw Him from death. But it was sufficient for Him to have this spirit of constancy, that He might be able to go by His free will to perform His office. That is what satisfies Him.

Now we see in the first place that the will of God ought to stop us and hold us in check so that, when things seem to us savage and against all reason, we may value more what God has ordained than what our brain can comprehend. Our imaginations, then, ought to be put under foot when we feel that God has proved otherwise. It is part of the obedience of our faith when we consider God to be wise, so that He may have authority to do everything that pleases Him. If we have reasons to do the opposite, may we know that it is only smoke and vanity and that God knows all and that nothing is hidden from Him, and even that His will is the norm of all wisdom and of all uprightness. Besides, what our spirit argues to the opposite, that comes from our rudeness. For we know that the wisdom of God is infinite, and scarcely have we three drops of sense. We need not, then, be astonished if men are scared when God does not govern Himself according to their appetite. And why not? For we are poor fools. In fact, there is only brutality in us however much our sense and reason rule. But since we do not understand the profound depth of the judgments of God, let us learn to adore what is hidden — to adore it (I say) in humility and reverence, confessing that everything God does is just and upright, though as yet we may not perceive how. That is one item.

Following that, since it is so that God willed that His Son might be thus exposed to death, may we not be ashamed of what He endured. May we not think that wicked men were in control and that the Son of God did not have the means to defend Himself. For everything proceeded from the will of God, and from the immutable decree which He had made. That is also why our Lord Jesus says in St. Luke, “Indeed, it is your reign now, and the power of darkness, As if He said, “Take no glory in what you are doing; for the devil is your master.” However, He shows that it is by means of the permission which God gave them. Although the devil possessed them, nevertheless, neither they nor he could attempt anything unless God had unleashed for them the bridle. That, then, in summary, is how we must have our eyes and all our senses fixed upon the will of God, and upon His eternal plan, when the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is spoken of to us. Now He declares that such is the will of God, because it is written. For if Jesus Christ had not had testimony of what was ordered by God His Father, He might still have been in doubt. But He knew His office. God did not send Him here below that He might not have given Him fully to His express charge. It is true, inasmuch as our Lord Jesus is eternal God, He did not need to be taught by any Scripture; but inasmuch as He is our Redeemer and that He clothed Himself in our nature to have a true brotherhood with us, He had to be taught by Holy Scripture, as we see, above all, that He did not refuse such instruction. 

So then, since God has shown Him to what He was called, that is upon what He relies. That is why He is taken as a captive, in order not to draw back when He knew that He had to achieve the charge which was committed to Him, that is, to offer Himself in sacrifice for the redemption of us all. So, then, we must learn that, inasmuch as the will of God is secret to Himself and incomprehensible, we must have recourse to Holy Scripture. It is true that God does not cease to have His counsel ordered by things that we imagine to be by chance. But that is not declared to us. We shall not always have special revelation to say that God has determined this or that. Then, we must withhold judgment. That is why we pray to God that He may heal us of an illness or that He may deliver us from some other affliction when we have fallen into it. And why? We do not know what He wills to do. To be sure, we ought not to impose a law upon Him. This condition ought always to be added: that His will may be done. But all our prayers ought to lead here: to ask Him that He may know us to be necessary and useful, and that we may meanwhile refer everything to Him in His secret counsel in order that He may do as seems good to Him. But when we have testimony through Holy Scripture that God wills a thing, then it is not proper to offer any reply, as I have already said.

Here we are still better assured as to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He was afflicted cruelly and treated with such shame and haughty, scornful abuse, not only according to the desire of wicked and lawless men, but since God had so decreed it. And how do we know? By Holy Scripture. For had not the sacrifices been ordained in the Law two thousand years before Jesus Christ was born? And before the Law was given or written, had not God already inspired and taught the Ancient Fathers to sacrifice? And could the blood of brute beasts acquire remission of sins? Could it render men acceptable to God? Not at all, but it was to show that God would be reconciled by the blood of the Redeemer Whom He had established. Then He gives explicit testimony and declaration through the Scriptures. We see, indeed, that the Prophets have spoken of Him, and He also refers especially to them. When Isaiah said that He Who was to be the Redeemer, would be disfigured, that He would be held in disdain, that He would have no form or no more beauty than an adder, that he would be beaten and struck by the hand of God, that He would be a terrible thing to see, in summary, that they would take away His life, by what power did he prophesy that? Is it that God cannot resist Satan or all the wicked men? No but He pronounced by the mouth of Isaiah what He had previously ordained. In Daniel there is a still greater expression. Since it is so, then, that God had declared that His only Son had to be sacrificed for our redemption and salvation, now we are better assured of what I have said, that is, that we must always contemplate the hand of God Who governs when we see that our Lord Jesus is subjected to such shameful things at the hands of men. That is also why St. Peter says in Acts 4:27 that Judas and all the Jews and the police and Pilate did not act except as the counsel and the hand of God had determined, as will be declared still more at length. Here, then is where we must look, if we wish not to be troubled by our foolish imaginations. It is that God sent here below His only Son in order to accept the obedience when He would offer to Him in His death and passion to abolish all our faults and iniquities.

Now the second point which I have mentioned is the benefit which comes back to us from what our Lord Jesus suffered. For if we did not know why, that would be to take away the taste of what is here narrated to us. But when it is said that He has been bound and tied for our deliverance, then, indeed, we see our condition by nature, that is, that Satan holds us under the tyranny of sin and death, that we are slaves, so that instead of our being created in the image of God there is in us only entire corruption, that we are cursed, and that we are dragged like poor beasts in this cursed captivity. When, then, we know that and we see, on the other hand, that the Son of God did not refuse to be shamefully bound in order that the spiritual bonds of sin and death, which hold us under the servitude of Satan, might be broken, then we have to glorify God, we have to triumph with full voice in the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the capture which is here mentioned. So that is what we must remember from this passage.

Thereupon the Gospel-writer says that our Lord Jesus healed the servant who had been wounded by Peter. Not that he was worthy of it, but in order that the offense might be removed. For it would have been to defame the doctrine of the Gospel and the redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ if this wound had remained (I call “redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ” what he acquired for us) so that it could be said that He had resisted the governor of the country and all the priests and that He committed, as it were, robbery in this lonely place. That, then, might have obscured all the glory of the Son of God and it would be to put the Gospel in perpetual shame. Also let us see that this action of Peter was by zeal of Satan. For the devil schemed to make Jesus Christ be rendered infamous with all His doctrine. That is also the tendency of all our beautiful devotions when we wish to serve God according to our desire and each one is given leave to do what he imagines to be good. Jesus Christ, then, wished to abolish such a scandal in order that His doctrine might not be defamed at all.

However, we see here a detestable ingratitude in those who were not moved by such a miracle. There are the police who come to bind our Lord Jesus Christ. They see that the power of the Spirit of God is at work in Him in so many ways. He made them fall back a little before a single word. Now He heals a man who has his ear cut off. All that is nothing to them. We see, then, when the devil has once bewitched men and he has dazzled their eyes, that neither the graces of God nor all His powers can touch them that they do not follow and walk always in their deeds, and they have, as it were, the snout of a pig which pokes itself everywhere. Whatever God does, whatever He says, they remain always in their obstinacy, which is a horrible thing. Yet we surely have to pray to God that He may give us prudence to profit from all His graces in order to be drawn by His love and also to touch us when He raises His hand to show us that He is our Judge in such a way that we are then frightened into returning to Him in true repentance. This, then, in summary, is what we have to remember.

.… to be Continued next issue