In the lead up to Easter I'm preaching through John 18-19. I'll be posting up my thoughts on the passages as I prepare, and the sermon audio as well. Here is the first installment.
In Jn 13-17 Jesus has been instructing his disciples for life after his departure, preparing them for a post-cross existence. The narrative takes two turns: firstly in Jn 13:30 Judas departs the last supper, heading out into the night to arrange Jesus’ betrayal; secondly in Jn 14:31 Jesus says “Rise, let us go from here” signalling (presumably) the disciples’ departure from the upper room. Thus the initial verse of 18:1 signifies a second geographic movement. Jesus has finished speaking ‘these things’, not only the prayer of Jn 17, but the entire upper room discourse, and he ‘went out’. This is a reference then to leaving the city of Jerusalem itself. Unlike earlier in Passover week when Jesus has withdrawn to his base in Bethany, the night of Passover does not permit such an extended journey, and requires them to remain within an ‘extended city-limit’. Thus, Jesus takes his disciples across the Kedron ravine, to a garden (i.e. Gethsemane).
The other gospels fill in the details of their purpose there – Jesus’ prayer and the disciples’ failed vigil. John records only the fact that Judas knew the place (Jn 18:2). That Judas knew the place is because it has been a place frequented already by Jesus, and so in fact we know that Jesus knows that Judas knows the place. This scene is dominated by Jesus as the protagonist, and by this stage Judas is far less the free agent he might think he is. His role is played out in Jn 18:3, as he leads the mixed group to Jesus. Three parties are represented here. Firstly, the Romans, in a ‘cohort’, probably a far smaller detachment of a cohort. Their concern is that Jesus, as with other popular, charismatic, and messianic, figures could be the cause of civil unrest. The officials are associated with both the ‘high priests’ and the ‘Pharisees’, two fairly antagonistic groups within Judaism, united at this point in hostility to Jesus. They bring ‘lamps and torches and weapons’, expecting either a manhunt through the wilderness for a fugitive, or else a violent struggle with armed insurrectionists.
Jn 18:4 extends the foreknowledge of Jesus hinted at in Jn 18:2 to all things. Jesus knows ‘what’s coming for him,’ and yet precisely in that knowledge Jesus is the one taking control of events. The entire scene is narrated in a way consistent with the authority of Jesus over the events. So it is that Jesus ‘came out’. The garden was almost certainly a walled enclosure, and as such Jesus comes out of the entrance, thus interposing himself between the pursuers and his own disciples. He immediately takes the initiative, and asks the question, ‘Whom do you seek?’. The interlocutors reply, ‘Jesus the Nazarene,’ to which Jesus replies starkly, ‘I am’. On the one hand this is simply no more than the correct response, ‘I am he’, the complement to their question. Yet, within John’s gospel, the last time this phrase received prominent usage was in Jn 8:24, 28, 58, where in connection to Isaiah 40-55 it has definitive tones of divine self-revelation. So too here it is difficult to deny a second level of meaning to Jesus’ utterance. Indeed, to add a further layer of complexity, Jesus is the one they have been truly seeking all their lives, if only they had eyes to see.
It’s at this point that John includes the remark that Judas stood with them. As elsewhere, Judas’ name is irrevocably blackened with the epithet ‘the one betraying him’. Though John omits the kiss of betrayal, no less should the human pain of Judas’ betrayal be seen. Here is one whose feet Jesus washed, a zealot for the messianic kingdom, now standing among Jesus’ enemies.
Though Jesus only appears to declare it twice, John’s construction includes an indirect statement in Jn 18:6, to thus provide three ‘I am’ statements. The resumption of the narrative after the Judas’ comment leads to the cryptic withdrawal and stumbling of the pursuants. No intra-narrative explanation is offered. Is it merely the boldness of Jesus in presenting himself to them, or are we to find a greater, theophanic, significance to the situation? Certainty is difficult. It is not, however, the pursuers who regain their composure, but rather Jesus who follows with a repeat of his question, to which they reply the same again. This provides the opportunity for Jesus to rejoined in 18:8 ‘I said to you that I am.’ Perhaps Jesus is subtly mocking them here – he has already identified himself as the one they seek, why then do they not act? There will be no capture of Jesus except Jesus permits it. Jesus then uses the emphatic declaration of whom they seek as the launch point for a trade, “If then you seek me, let these depart.”
It is hear that the full import of John 10 is realised. Jn 18:9 gives the key, as it speaks in scriptural terms of the fulfilment of Jesus’ words. The antecedent promise is primarily to be derived from Jn 17:12, but also Jn 6:39 and significantly 10:28. The physical dynamic of the garden arrest is now apparent. In Jn 10:6 when Jesus refers to himself as the ‘door’ of the sheepfold, and in those days a sheepfold would typically be a walled enclosure, and shepherds were known to sleep in the entrance way, thus functionally being the ‘door’, protecting the sheep within. Literally Jesus comes out of this walled enclosure (the garden), to face the thieves and robbers who have been false shepherds of God’s people before him, while behind him are his sheep. He thus physically interposes himself, before offering himself up for the free release of his disciples, in turn this surrender will mean the true liberation of his disciples, as “the evangelist is not just speaking about their bodily life, but rather means that Christ, by sparing them for a time, made provision for their eternal salvation.”1 He truly is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
The action then is interrupted by the unexpected violence of Peter. For the possession of a sword, it is worth comparison with the account in Lk 22:35-8. Peter draws his sword and makes an attempt on the slave of the high-priest. Only John records that his name is Malchus, another eye-witness detail by someone who knows significant details and facts. The futile strike achieves nothing more than slicing of his ‘ear’, perhaps better ‘earlobe’. In Lk 22:51 Jesus heals the ear, again protecting his disciple for what charge can be brought against him if the ear is there for all to see?
The two elements of Jesus’ speech in Jn 18:11 bring out the theological significance of this interruption. To take them in reverse order, Jesus’ statement about drinking the cup is loaded with Old Testament significance (Ps 75:8, Is 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15-17, 28-9; 49:12). It is the cup of God’s wrath poured out upon the wicked as judgment for sin. Functionally Jesus question here is the affirmation of the plan and so his resolution to do the Father’s will, mirrored in the other gospels by Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer. Peter’s outburst shows the practical outworking of the alternative, which is pitched so winsomely by Satan in Matthew 4. What happens if Jesus doesn’t drink the cup? If the Messiah initiates his messianic kingdom now, if Jesus takes the proferred kingdoms of the world, it will mean the Day of the Lord, judgment upon the wicked, the cleansing of sin from the face of the earth. It would mean no mercy, no forgiveness, no grace. It would be the crown without the cross, and an empty kingdom. Jesus’ refusal of that path is the determination to go to the cross, to offer his life up as the propitiation of God’s wrath upon sin, and so the Good Shepherd will indeed lay down his life – this indeed is the Father’s charge to him (Jn 10:18).
1 Calvin The Crossway classic commentaries Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994.