“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).
There is a beautiful song by Ray Overholt entitled, “Ten Thousand Angels.” The chorus of that song says, “He could have called ten thousand angels, to destroy the world and set him free.” Many have pondered the nature of the biblical statement (Matthew 26:53), as well as Overholt’s poetic rendition of it.
It stirs a profound thought: did Jesus have a legitimate alternative to the crucifixion – specifically, could he have canceled the whole event?
In the next verse (Matthew 26:54) Jesus provides an answer this: “But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” Jesus had an alternative in mind, but not one that could be carried out in reality. Jesus is saying that, according to God’s unchanging word, there is no viable scenario in which Jesus calls for a legitimate end to his passion and at the same time serves the will of his Father.
So then, what did Jesus mean about calling twelve legions of angels? It seems to me the best explanation is that it was not intended literally (though, his command of angels is quite literal). Rather, this is an expression of a great truth: the only reason these men were able to apprehend Jesus in the Garden was because it was his Father’s will.
Going back in the context, this becomes even more apparent. When Jesus was approached by the soldiers, Peter tried to intervene in the apprehension by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. It is at this point that Jesus makes the statement:
Behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that is must be so?” (Matthew 26:51-54).
In the song’s chorus, Overholt added this interesting phrase: “…to destroy the world and set him free.” I’m not sure if Overholt believed that or not, but I don’t believe Jesus was actually mulling possible escape options. To the contrary, he was resigned to his fate because that was his Father’s will. He was saying that, compared to the power of God Peter’s sword was nothing but a wet noodle. It was totally unnecessary and completely unwelcome (not the only time Peter got excited enough to unwittingly attempt to thwart God’s will).
So what do I do when singing the song? I sing it with the understanding that what Jesus has the power to do (call upon his Father and request a dispatch of angels) does not mean he ever had any intention of violating his Father’s will.