Jesus Predicts Desertion and Promises Reunion

31 Then Jesus said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed’; 32 but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.” 33 Peter said to him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” 35 Peter said to him, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And all the disciples spoke likewise. (26:31-35)

One of the curious “tests” that some scholars apply to a passage regarding “authenticity” (by which they really mean historicity) is “would it embarrass the early church?”  If it would, then it must be so “authentic” and compelling that the sacred writer includes it even though it is embarrassing.  Jesus’ prediction that all the disciples would abandon him in his hour does not reflect well on the future leaders of the nascent Christian movement.

The NSRV says “You will all become deserters [skandallisthēsesthe]…” – and though it more literally means to “fall away” “be caused to stumble” – there is something scandalous that will shake their faith to the very core. This is the word that Matthew uses to describe the hometown folk, the Pharisees, and those who profess belief in Jesus but who stumble when the world or persecution arises on account of Jesus’ word (13:21).

And because of the events soon to unfold, they will indeed desert Jesus. As serious as this desertion would be, it was not final, since Jesus promised to meet the disciples in Galilee after he was raised from the dead (cf. 28:7, 10, 16). Perhaps the picture of Jesus going ahead of the disciples to Galilee is intended to cause the reader to picture a shepherd going ahead of his sheep (cf. John 10:4). The shepherd image has already been raised with the reference to Zech 13:7 where it is God himself who strikes the shepherd, scattering the flock

Matthew has consistently portrayed Jesus as a messianic king who will shepherd God’s people (2:1-6), who has compassion on the people as sheep without a shepherd (9:36), and who understands his mission as regathering and reconstituting the lost sheep of the house of Israel into the saved community of the people of God (10:6; 15:24).  So too the disciples will endure their own scattering and be regathered by the risen Jesus who goes before them.

Where previously Peter had spoken for the group, now the group is breaking down and Peter boldly speaks for himself – the others speak for themselves – and already the sheep are scattering. Peter has yet to learn the weakness of his faith without the Good Shepherd leading him.

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