The 12 Legions
The Passover Seder has finished, which Jesus has just presided over. He added some new features that will be remembered and adapted for Christians two millennia later, including sacrificial acts of love such as foot washing, Holy Communion, and agape fellowship dinners
But in the midst of these Jewish celebrations – activities Jesus would have participated in since childhood – He realizes it is just hours now from fulfilling the most challenging mission God has given Him. To be sure Jesus has undertaken and accomplished many missions and miracles for His Father during an all too short earthly lifetime. But this next one would require all of Jesus’ faith, and strength of mind, body and spirit.
During such times, Jesus does what we have come to expect – He goes to pray. This was a common practice – sacrament – with Jesus. Only this time, instead of finding an isolated place to pray alone, as He frequently did - read Matthew 14 - Jesus takes the 11 Disciples to a place on the Mt. of Olives, which is walking distance to Jerusalem. A place called “Gethsemane,” which translated means “oil press.” After talking with God, Jesus …..
“45 Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.46Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.47 And while he yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people.48 Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.49 And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him.50 And Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus and took him.51 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.52 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.53 Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?54 But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?”
Matthew 26:46 – 54 KJV
These verses are filled with powerful imagery and lessons, launching many sermons and Bible studies. Most focus on the betrayal, Peter slicing off an ear, and Jesus’ submission to fulfill His destiny.
But what about the Verses 53 - 54, often treated like ‘fly over territory’ in Matthew 26?
“Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?”
Matthew 26:53 KJV
Notice Jesus didn’t merely say ‘ask my Father,’ but instead said “pray to my Father.”
Once again Jesus was teaching us what is written in Philippians 4:6
“Be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
And if ever there was a time to be anxious, facing crucifixion certainly ranks right up there. Ever the Savior and teacher, Jesus was reminding us in Matthew never forget to pray.
His words also were also from scripture –
11”For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.“
Jesus again reminding the crowds, and His Disciples He was the fulfillment of God’s Word.
Jesus was also reminding us that as co heirs of God, if we commit to Him, we can all on His protection as well, and that our Father knows us, too.
”The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and He delivers them.”
Throughout the Testaments, we are reminded God cares for us.
Jesus is saying prayer is powerful, and we should never forget it.
Moreover in Matthew again Jesus was confirming His Birthright, when referencing God as “My Father.”
Also only God could provide an army of angels, so Jesus was telling the crowds ‘Who’ they were messing with, and just how much retribution, Power, He could invoke with a prayer.
Jesus was also saying those words for us, as well. God’s Power, like Jesus Himself, is never far from us. We have our Indwelling God – the Holy Spirit as near as our soul.
“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing."
What about the 12 legions of angels?
Jesus often spoke in words of Divine mystery; literal and spiritually.
During Jesus’ era, legions were comprised of 10 cohorts made up of 6 centuries - ~100 men, so that ideally (excluding illness, injury, or transfers) each legion represented ~6000 soldiers, give or take cavalry and other warrior types, leaders, etc..
Interestingly there probably wasn’t a full legion in all of Judea, the nearest being in Syria. Historians suggest there were a handful of cohorts in Caesarea Maritima and one or two in Jerusalem, which aligns with scripture….
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters,[a] and they gathered the whole battalion* before him”
Matthew 27:27 ESV
*“battalion” equates to a cohort (500 – 600 soldiers).
So when Jesus said he could call upon 12 legions, and they would appear – that could be upwards of 72,000 angels. Such an army – even of mortals – is beyond what the most seasoned Roman generals and senator rank leaders would have seen on one battlefield or lifetime.
But there were mortals in Jerusalem who did witness such an angel army. Recall the shepherds. Some of them might still be working near Gethsemane, or came to the arrest out of curiosity. Jesus’ angel comment would have rekindled old memories. These men were witnesses to the awesome power of God associated with the Christ child.….
8That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” 13Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
15When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Luke 2; 8 – 15 NLT
So talk about a “wow” factor! Jesus was saying I can wipe out Rome and everyone here with one call to God.
The 12 Legions also could represent a future of protection for the 12 tribes of Israel, revealing Jesus’ Power to restore Israel. Or a reassurance to the 12 Disciples – showing they will have the God of angel armies by their side.
According to multiple sources the number 12 represents God’s power, and authority. It is considered a perfect number, and mentioned nearly two dozen times in Revelation, and nearly 190 times in the Bible. Not putting too fine a point on this, but Jesus was connecting Himself with God, and telling the audience about His authority, like God’s, over everything. Jesus made it patently clear He could stop this kangaroo court anytime He wanted, but chose not to, because there was something bigger involved that had to be fulfilled.
Not that they got it! Sometimes Jesus must want to say “c’mon guys, do I need to connect all the dots?!”
Jesus in asserting His relationship with the ultimate Power – God, revealed God’s military is far superior to Rome, by a country mile. Consider the power of 1 angel sent by God….
32 Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shield, nor cast a bank against it. 33 By the way that he came, by the same shall he return, and shall not come into this city, saith the Lord. 34 For I will defend this city, to save it, for mine own sake, and for my servant David's sake. 35 And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses
2 Kings 19: 32 - 35
So if 1 angel can wipe out the equivalent of thirty Roman legions, which is more than Rome could have amassed against Jesus, think about what 12 legions or more could do. Case closed – Jesus had but ask for God’s help, and the world was His.
But Jesus doesn’t command our hearts with force, but with love.
So why invoke such overwhelming force when Jesus intended to allow Himself to be crucified, especially when His followers would be more than familiar with the power of God’s angels.
Jesus was showing enormous restraint. Someone who could command 1 angel, let alone 12 legions of angels, and yet obeys God, fulfills His purpose, and allows Himself to be tortured and killed for the sake of God’s sinful creations – humanity, well if that isn’t love, what is?!
A powerful reminder for us to stay the course, even if following God imposes challenges.
And why He encouraged His Disciples to be armed that night, but not to use the weapons. If you have no power, you cannot reveal love through restraint. You have no ability to make the choice. But if you are armed, or have access to an army, and choose not to use your weapons, your power, but instead choose to show love, forgiveness, hospitality, tolerance – the value of your efforts is authentic, and legitimate.
So when Peter did draw the sword, slicing off a servant’s ear, it was yet another teachable moment Jesus didn’t let go to waste.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry during difficult times, whether being in the desert, or in potentially hostile towns, He could have made life a lot easier with a simple request to God. Instead He prayed for others, and ministered from a place of love, not power.
Jesus had a destiny to fulfill. It was the greatest act of love in all of history, in all of humanity, because no one ever had sacrificed so much for so many. Yes there have been lots of people who died to save others – a great sacrifice indeed. But to be the Son of God, giving up Heaven’s privilege to be spat upon, whipped, abandoned and crucified – carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, knowing that without your efforts mankind cannot be reconciled to God or have everlasting life, is a solitary journey.
So at those times you and I feel alone, think about this. The One Who could command angel armies, the Son of God, without peer, was truly alone, except for God. Who else could He confide in? Or share the burden with? Yet we have peers in faith, and the Hands of God through the people who love us.
And most of all we have as near as prayer the God of angel armies.
“I know Who goes before me, I know Who stands behind,
The God of angel armies is always by my side.”
From “Whom shall I fear?” By Chris Tomlin
God bless you, and Happy Easter.