Judas leads a group of soldiers and guards to the garden to arrest Jesus (John 18:2-9). Judas’s role as betrayer is to lead the temple guard to the place where Jesus is camping. It is likely that there are a number of campsites on the Mount of Olives, the Passover crowds probably made finding the exact spot where Jesus was nearly impossible. In addition, it is possible that another person could substitute themselves for Jesus, Judas provides a positive identification of his master.
The solders include Temple guards (who make the actual arrest) and Roman soldiers. Two observations are important about these two groups of soldiers. First, it is historically plausible that the Romans would assign a few soldiers to accompany the Temple guards to arrest Jesus. Passover was a celebration of the Exodus, the time when Israel’s God redeemed his people from their slavery. That imagery was a vivid reminder that the Romans were now the power which “enslaved” God’s people. Jesus was claiming to be the anointed one of God, he selected twelve disciples who form a new Israel: he rode a donkey into Jerusalem just as Solomon did when he was crowned king, the son of David. The Romans therefore were present to “keep the peace,” or at the very least they were there to keep Jesus from initiating a nationalistic riot.
Second, the two groups represent both Jews and Gentiles. Both come to arrest Jesus and both will have a hand in his execution. Darkness and light are powerful images in the Gospel of John. That the arrest occurs at night is important, since Jesus is the light of the world, yet the world prefers to remain in the darkness. The arresting guards carry “lanterns and torches,” a detail which is sometimes questioned since Passover occurs at the full moon. But the detail has the ring of truth to it, since even during a full moon additional light was needed to find a man camping in an olive garden!
When Jesus speaks, the crowd “drew back and fell to the ground” (18:4-7). Jesus asks the crowd who they are seeking, recalling the first words of Jesus in the book, spoken to two disciples who began to follow him: “What do you want?” When a group representing the whole world arrives, Jesus demands to know their intentions. Jesus’ response is “I am,” and the guards and soldiers “fell to the ground.” The phrase is rare, the adverb χαμαί appears in Job 1:20, Job “fell to the ground in worship” (cf., Dan 2:46 (Old Greek), Nebuchadnezzar fell to the ground to honor Daniel, also Ant. 20.89).
It is hard to know what the solders expected when they went out to the garden, but it was not hearing the voice of God, so powerful that they are driven back in worship! Why does John include this rather spectacular response to the words of Jesus? Is he intentionally alluding to the Hebrew Bible when he says “I Am” or is this a coincidence?