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?
14 thoughts on “The Arrest of Jesus (according to John 18)”
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Jesus could be referencing the answer God gave to Moses. Moses asks who should I say sent me and God answers I Am. John probably had that in mind. He did have the idea of the Exodus because of Passover on his mind like you said. I would think that with all the reference to dark and light that John would be trying to convey the message the Jesus was the messiah and has power. The reference to Him being the I Am allows the reader to see the God of the Exodus and the people falling shows the power in Christ’s words. It’s more interesting to me though that the people fall backwards and Christ stays. He could have just walked away especially since he has asked for the cup to be passed from him. I think the fact that he could have just walked away and didn’t is more beautiful than whether or not there is a reference to the Hebrew Bible.
It is very interesting to examine the different accounts of Jesus’ arrest. Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels) all have a fairly consistent account of what happened when Jesus was arrested. They explain how Jesus was teaching to a crowd when Judas comes up to kiss him on the cheek. Then one of Jesus’ followers cuts off the ear of one of the guards. Jesus then calms his disciples down and goes peacefully with the guards.
In the account of John (chapter 18) it is explained in a different way. They ask “Where is Jesus of Nazareth?” and Jesus responds “I am He”. Judas does not play a role in the identification of Jesus as he does in the Synoptic Gospels.
I am not sure why the account of the soldiers falling down in worship is added to the account of John. I would think that an incident as magnificent as this would be recorded in every Gospel. It could be that the disciples were so used to people bowing down in awe over Jesus’ authority that they didn’t seem it necessary to add. Whereas, John might have connected the significance of this incident to the stories of God speaking to Moses in Exodus 3, when God says “I am who I am”. I believe that Jesus intentionally alludes to Himself as “I am” in John 18. Why else would the people bow down in worship when he makes the statement?
It is interesting as to the reason why John put this in the Gospel. We probably will not know for sure, but I think that to him, that was astounding, more so then maybe some of the other Gospel writers. Every person takes certain things out of certain happenings more so than others, this may have been one of those extra special things to John, maybe not to others. It certainly does seem pretty significant and worthy of being noted, but who knows for sure why. I do not know if he really does allude to the Hebrew Bible, but in my opinion, I think he is alluding to that, I am sure he knew the Hebrew Bible very well and that could very well be why that was said like that.
I too find it interesting that the account of the night that Jesus is portrayed is a bit different then in the synoptic gospels. The book of John includes a lot of symbolism that seems easy to pick up on as well, as was pointed out by Professor Long. It is possible to find multiple accounts of fulfilment of prophecy and symbolism in all of John, even seemingly minute details. However, what I find to be the most impactful was first that he had previously rode through town on a donkey, as Solomon had done previously. This may have been seen as a fulfillment of prophecy or simply a sign of the true king. After this we see the symbolism in the night of the betrayal. The fact that the Roman soldiers were among those who arrested Jesus alludes to the exodus and the Jews being controlled by another, and the future “exodus” that was to become of Jesus’ death. The last key point that I see was that both Jews and Gentiles had a part in arresting and crucifying Jesus. This fact helps the modern reader to understand the roles of Jews and Gentiles today and how we all fit into God’s plan. Romans 3:9 says, “What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.” Later in the New Testament it is made clearer that the death of Jesus was for all, and it gave all of God’s people the opportunity to have eternal life.
John’s Gospel is certainly more theologically focused than the Synoptics, which could likely be why his account of Jesus’ arrest takes an interesting turn. I think it would be inaccurate to discount Jesus’ wording in His “I am” statement, especially considering how much stock we place on all of the other “I am” references in John’s Gospel. I AM had very specific ties for the Jews. I AM was the personal name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6; 14), the God of the Exodus, the God of the very Passover which the Jews were remembering when Jesus was betrayed.
Just as Moses removed his sandals and hid his face when confronted with the very presence of the self-existent God in the burning bush, so the soldiers could not help but be awestruck when Jesus revealed Himself to them in this way. It is convicting to think that we too should have this response and posture of the heart when we are confronted with the reality of Christ every day. There is no other response to a true realization of the holiness of God than sincere worship.
I agree with those above who’ve said that, because the Gospel of John is so much more theologically-centered, it isn’t surprising that events like these are found in it. John very well could be referring to a passage from the Old Testament. The writer does this numerous times, in quoting Isaiah in the first chapter, for example. Doing this would add credibility to the text. However, I think the writer is simply writing down his interpretation to what he witnessed. The events are described in detail, and the arrest as a whole fits with the description in the other Gospels. The fact that John’s gospel seems more “theological” than the others doesn’t necessarily mean that the events written in it didn’t take place.
I would say that it is entirely possible that Jesus did this to not only show symbolism of how mighty and powerful He truly is, but also as a reference to the O.T. If we look at the passage where Job falls on the ground in worship, we find that the reason He did this is due to being overwhelmed by receiving the news of his family dying. It is entirely possible that He was overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit because He knew that the Lord was in control. It might be a bit of a stretch, but it connects. I would say that the people from the group in the garden that were arresting Jesus were overwhelmed by the shear power of two words. All this to say that the overbearing power of Jesus was evident, even to the non-believers.
I don’t know if it was intentional or coincidental, but either way it’s pretty cool! Jesus blew them away with his response of simply “I am.” Lindsey made a good point too that John loves the I Am statements.
The parallel that the soldiers and guards represent Jews and Gentiles is cool too. It shows that the whole world falls back in worship to Jesus, the I AM.
John’s version of Jesus’ arrest is definitely different than Matthew, Mark, or Luke’s account of the story. As was stated before, because his book is more theologically focused, it could be why John would add this account into his book. This account of Jesus’ arrest is amazing to think about, that the people coming to arrest Jesus would fall down and worship. Whether or not we ever really know if it was coincidence or not that Jesus responds with “I am”, I would like to believe that it is not coincidence. That Jesus purposely uses that phrase to show that he was the messiah that the Jews had been waiting for.
This is another instance of a small verse that I have overlooked in the past. I never really considered that when the crowd fell to the ground that it was done out of worship. It almost seems implausible that those who were there to arrest Him instead were so overcome that they fell in awe. I can only imagine the power those three words must have had to cause them to do that. Strauss says that John presents this as a theophany, “an appearance of God before human beings, producing awe and fear” (388). It would then appear that John did this intentionally, due to how he focuses more on the theological significance of Jesus’ actions and words (Strauss, 31). It is interesting to see why each gospel writer included what they did in their books. I do wish that there were a little more explanation or in-depth description to this event though. It is so easy to read over that one sentence, and not really understand what it means. It is probably the reader in me that would like just a little more development, so we could know exactly what the reasoning was in adding small little snippets like this.
I also was struck with how much symbolism was in even the minor details of Jesus’ arrest. The contrast between the dark and the light was especially interesting to read about. To think that Jesus was arrested at night not simply out of coincidence, but to symbolize Him as the light of the world, once again shows just how important every word in the Bible is.
Strauss, M.L. (2007). Four portraits, one Jesus: A survey of Jesus and the gospels (2nd Ed). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, someone else could have been quite easily confused for Jesus, it would have been nearly impossible for the Romans to find Jesus without help. Thinking in terms of the modern world, if someone is looking for someone, then in nearly every case the searcher knows at least what the subject looks like and often much more, thanks to modern technology. But at the time how would the Roman soldiers know when they found Jesus if not for Judas’s help? This is the pivotal role that Judas played in bringing about the crucifixion of Jesus.
The detail of the arrest being made at night is quite clever as a literary tool to symbolize the darkness in this situation. I also find the sensationalism in verse 6 to be interesting. I don’t know why this inclusion has been made, or what comes with this event, but I do find it to be a bit strange, and not keeping within the scope of the surrounding context.
I have never thought of the possibility that finding Jesus in the Garden would have been hard. So, having Judas to identify Jesus was crucial to apprehend Jesus. They really could not have pulled it off without an inside man.
I also find the lanterns intriguing. The contrast of Jesus being the “light of the world” and the people wanting to live in the darkness of the world. I never caught on to this and frankly it is pretty significant. Especially when we see them all fall to the ground when Christ says “I am”. They are living in the darkness and thus their eyes are opened to who is before them. The fact that Christ declares that He is God leaves no room for who He is. It also helps clarify that they have found Jesus and not someone else in the Garden. I think that by John keeping in the response of the men seems to allude to Philippians 2:10-11 when it says that every “knee should bow”. It just confirms what we read in Philippians. The men fell in worship which can be looked at as a confession that Jesus is Lord.
I find it interesting how even though the four gospels are very similar, each one focused on different things. The arrest of Jesus can be found on all four gospels. From the disciples having a feast, to Judas paying the Roman soldiers to Peter cutting off the man’s ear. “Second, the two groups represent Jews and Gentiles” (P.Long). There were Jews and Gentiles in the group that was arresting Jesus. This is interesting to read because Jesus’ crucifixion saved both Jews and Gentiles. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). It was also compelling to read the importance of the time of day Jesus was arrested. “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” (P.Long). God had a plan and purpose for everything. Jesus came to save this world that is filled with darkness.