"More Than Twelve Legions of Angels"(Matthew 26:53)

Jesus's life was not taken from Him. He willingly "laid" His life down for our sake, all the while reserving the right and the power to take it back at any time (John 10:17-18). Never is this more clearly seen than in the moment of His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the servants of the high priest laid their hands on Jesus, Peter drew his sword and struck one of them. The man in question, whose name was Malchus (John 18:10), tried to dodge the blow, but the blade managed to cut off his right ear. Yet Jesus did not wish to escape His captors, for His hour had come. In refusing Peter's help, He rebuked him and then made this remarkable statement: "Do you think that I am unable to call upon My Father, and He would send immediately to My side more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:53).

What Is a Legion?

Legion was a military term. It designated the largest unit in the Roman army. According to the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 4.5), the Roman army had at this time twenty-five legions dispersed across its vast empire. Each legion consisted of approximately 6,000 men (5,300 infantry and 700 calvary), and an officer called a "legate" commanded each legion.

A legion was further broken down into ten cohorts, each composed of 600 troops and commanded by a tribune. Finally, each cohort was broken down still further into six centuries, each comprising one hundred troops and commanded by a centurion.

"My Name is Legion"

This meant that each legion contained sixty centuries or approximately 6,000 troops. Such information adds perspective to the remark of the demon-possessed wretch in Mark 5:9, who identifies himself to Jesus as "Legion." Apparently six thousand demons were tormenting this poor soul. Such a figure is staggering! When these demons asked Jesus's permission to translocate into a herd of pigs, the figures become more tolerable: Mark fixes the number of pigs at two thousand, which would average to three demons per pig.

But if one is surprised over the true significance of the demoniac's name in Mark 5:9, then surely one is even further astounded by the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:53. "Twelve legions of angels"? At 6,000 per legion, this number works out to 72,000 angels. Nay, but Jesus said "more than" 72,000 angels! In his beloved hymn "Ten Thousand Angels" (1959), Ray Overholt had underestimated the correct figure by more than seven times.

Overwhelming Odds!

But the surprises do not end here. One must now ponder the potential destructive force of this army of angels. In Numbers 25:9, we are told that one angel killed 24,000 individuals. In 2 Samuel 24:15, one angel slew 70,000 men. And in 2 Kings 19:35, we read where one lone angel struck 185,000 Assyrians soldiers dead. Can you imagine the destructive force of over 72,000 angels? The number of casualties would exceed 13 billion! This figure far exceeds by many times the estimated population of the world at that time. According to expert demographer Michael S. Teitelbaum (under "population" in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. [published in 1991], vol. 25, p. 1041), the population of the world at the time of Christ was only 300 million. In fact, 13 billion is double the current population of the world. And even at the frightful pace of our present population explosion, it is estimated that the exponential growth of the Earth will not cap 13 billion people for at least another half century.

Jesus assured Peter that his sword was not needed. Jesus had overwhelming odds on His side. But there is an intended irony in Jesus's answer that is often overlooked by the casual Bible reader. While all four Gospels note the "large, armed crowd" that had accompanied Judas, it is John alone who tells us that it included a "cohort" of Roman soldiers (John 18:3, 12; the KJV's "band" hardly does justice to the Greek term speira).

Remember that a cohort was the tenth part of a legion and thus consisted of approximately 600 troops. Ever eager to point out "another error" in the Bible, several liberal scholars have scoffed at the historical plausibility of this incident. "It is most unlikely," writes the liberal German critic Rudolf Schnackenburg in his commentary on John, "that such a powerful military force would have been used to arrest a single person" (Eng. transl., vol. 3, p. 222). "This is historically improbable," according to British scholar C. K. Barrett (commentary on John, 2nd ed., p. 516). But what these and other liberal critics fail to appreciate is not only the historical trustworthiness of the biblical text but also the Roman determination to preclude any thought of insurgence or unrest. Josephus (War 5.244-45 [= 5.5.8]) mentions that an entire Roman cohort was permanently quartered at Antonia, the fortress built by Herod the Great in the northwest corner of the Temple. These were Roman auxiliary troops and not actual Roman citizenry like the exceptional cohors Italica, to which Cornelius belonged (Acts 10:1). And the full complement of 600 would not be present at any one time, for they had to keep an around-the-clock vigil to protect the city. And this was the night shift. A good number of troops had been stationed throughout the city at key points like the city gates, since this was a festival when the population of Jerusalem swelled considerably and the fear of demonstrations or of insurrection was high. The rest of the on-duty troops remained at Antonia, standing ready to be dispatched at a moment's notice should some trouble erupt anywhere in the city. This is the detachment that had accompanied Judas and the temple guards into the garden. And as statements in Matthew 26:47-51 and Mark 14:43-47 make clear, it was actually the Jewish temple guards and the servants of the high priest who arrested Jesus. The presence of the Roman troops here in such a large number was only to discourage any hostilities, just like in a later incident involving Paul (Acts 23:23).

Now a single cohort would be no match for a full legion, to say nothing of more than twelve. What appeared to be an imposing force to Peter and the other Apostles was in reality no match for the army of angels that stood ready, just awaiting a signal from their Lord. Jesus here was no helpless victim. He was in full control of the situation. And He willingly allowed Himself to be arrested, just as He allowed the rest of what evil hearts had conspired to do that day.

Silence at the Cross

Can you imagine what the throne room of Heaven must have looked like on this day? Every angel had reported for duty. And silence filled the crowed room as everyone encircled the throne of God to witness the unfolding of this spectacle. Surely gasps and moans were heard when the angels saw the first temple guard slap Jesus on the face (Mark 14:65). Later, the entire Roman cohort-even those off duty-got involved (Mark 15:16). And as the angels watched these sinners, so experienced in brutality, beat their Lord, the King that they loved and worshipped, the shock and horror that they all felt at first quickly turned to anger, a fury that steady grew white hot with every lash from the whip. Soon more than 72,000 enraged angels were poised in Heaven, with their hands on their swords, ready to strike, just waiting for the divine command. But as they looked to the throne of God for His command, there was only silence. The command never came. Not from Jesus, and not from his Father. Not even when these sinners shamefully hung Jesus on the cross! And perhaps it is in this great silence that we can best see the boundless love that God and His Son have for us all.

-David Warren

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