Have you ever been in a situation where events seemed like they were out of control? When things were moving so fast, and circumstances were so big that you felt like you could not keep up with what was going on? You were trying to absorb one thing, and here comes the next big thing before you know what to do with the first big thing?
Did you feel confused?
Instead of making decisions, maybe you ended up reacting to every next thing, run by emotion, not really knowing what to do or say, so you did or said things without thinking them through.
Today you and I are poised to enter into one of those kind of dramas. A popular young healer and teacher is about to be falsely arrested, convicted, and put to death. Yet instead of reacting, Jesus never lost his composure. He had command of himself, making measured decisions all along the way, to be gracious, to speak with authority, to have confidence that God’s plan was unfolding exactly as designed.
After saying these things, Jesus went with his disciples through the wadi of the Kidron where there was a garden, into which he went, as well as his disciples.John 18:1
The first way Jesus kept his composure was to pray and not act until he was finished praying. How often do you and I act first, often without even thinking, and then realize afterwards, wow, maybe I should have prayed about that?
Jesus took his disciples to a familiar spot where he had often taken them before, near the temple mount. Matthew and Mark say this garden was an olive grove called Gethsemane. It is in this place the other gospels depicted Jesus praying deeply with the Father, making sure that he was in the Father’s will. It is here, according to Mark’s, Luke’s, and Matthew’s accounts that Jesus had urged his disciples to pray as well, to keep watch knowing what was coming.
When we put the four gospels together, we find out these men were exhausted with sorrow, sapped from a long and emotionally eventful day. If the last supper they shared together with Jesus was also the Passover Seder, then they had also drunk at least four brimful glasses of wine, each one laden with spiritual and historical meaning.
After the meal, Jesus had revealed to them almost more than they could bear, they were weary with the carrying of it. Yet Jesus would not have asked of them more than they could give. He had called three of them, Peter, John, and James, to move in close with him as he prayed, and told them it would be for their own protection. Jesus explained they would need to be fortified for the demands of what would soon happen. Events would unfold whether they were ready or not.
As it turns out, the disciples did not pray, they fell asleep instead, and when events did unfold they were indeed not ready.
Now Judas, the one handing him over—also having seen and known the place because often Jesus had gathered there with his disciples—so likewise this Judas, taking the military cohort and servants of the chief priests and Pharisees, comes there with lanterns and torches and weapons.Judas the Betrayer, John 18:2-3
Judas knew where to find the place because they had often gone there with Jesus.
The chief priests had quickly thrown together a warrant, but they were concerned that Jesus, with all his power and the devotion of his followers, would cause a major confrontation. During the Passover, Pilate would have been expected to be in Jerusalem to keep order. As governor of Judea, Pilate would have had soldiers stationed regularly in Caesarea and Jerusalem, and temporarily anywhere else that might require a military presence.
Since the main Roman fortress Antonia was right next to the temple, and since the Romans routinely stationed a cohort there during the Passover, the chief priests may have asked the Roman captain and some of his soldiers to come along with the temple guard.
Judas’ arrangement with the chief priests had been to
- Find a workable time to seize Jesus—when he would be away from crowds of people who might shield him, out in the open, alone, instead of in a house or in town, where Jesus might hide or escape.
- Kiss the man the soldiers were supposed to arrest. This was not anything weird. To this day, it is the Mediterranean custom for men to greet each other with a kiss to each cheek, and if they are close, to give each other three kisses or so.
For this, Judas would earn thirty pieces of silver.
Whom Do You Seek?
The gospel of Matthew indicates Judas first took the soldiers to the house where Jesus had been eating dinner with the disciples, the house Judas had left a couple of hours earlier. After speaking with Mark, who lived there, Judas then led the band of soldiers to Gethsemane.
The Passover always fell on the full moon, so it was also well-lit outside, by the glow of the moon and the stars. The soldiers carrying torches on a night of the full moon indicates they were preparing for a search.
A cohort of soldiers also typically numbered from 200 to 600 men, further indication they came expecting resistance, because that is how it often was for Pilate with the Jewish people, especially during the Passover. In fact, it was against the law for ordinary citizens to carry a weapon during the Passover time for this very reason.
Then Jesus, perceiving all these things coming upon him, went out and said to them, “Whom do you seek?”
They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
He said to them, “I AM.”
Now Judas, the one handing him over, had also stood with them.
Then, in like manner, he [Jesus] said to them, “I AM.”
They stepped back and fell prostrate on the ground.
Then again, Jesus demanded of them, “Whom do you seek?”
And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”Jesus to the cohort and assorted armed men, John 18:4-7
They had been expecting a search and a fight. What they did not expect was Jesus to step forward and willingly, calmly present himself. It so startled them they stepped back and fell over each other.
John gave us a hint, earlier in this gospel, as to why Judas would have kissed Jesus anyway, even when Jesus stepped forward. Thomas, one of the disciples, had been identified as “The Twin” in chapter 11, and would be again in chapters 20 and 21. It is possible Thomas looked so much like Jesus that it was hard for people to tell them apart.
With the disciples now crowded around the Lord, Judas may have chosen that moment to step forward and give the signal of his kiss. The gospel accounts indicate that Judas gave Jesus several kisses, a warm and affectionate greeting.
Maybe he was trying to make the disciples think he was still one of them.
Maybe he was trying make Jesus think that he was actually coming to warn him, or something. John made no reference to Judas’ kiss, but he did point out that Judas was standing there with the enemies of Jesus.
Judas had chosen to hand over his own Messiah.
To Worship or Destroy?
Why did Jesus ask them whom they were seeking?
Well, the subtext is in the phrase itself. Remember that it is a Hebraism that carries within it either, “Who do you strive after and desire especially to worship?” or, to plot against? It is the question Jesus asked of one who was seeking to become a disciple, but it is also the question Jesus regularly asked of those seeking after his life to kill him.
In the moment, John gave another reason as well:
Jesus gave an answer, “I said to you all that I AM, so if you seek me, let these go.”Jesus to the cohort, John 18:8
Evidently, they had begun to seize the disciples around Jesus.
John portrayed Jesus as unafraid and Judas and his heavily armed mob as in over their heads, having no understanding of what was happening, laboring under the misapprehension they had the power.
For the second time that night, Jesus had proactively taken control of the situation, making sure that prophecy was fulfilled, that his own were protected, and that only he would be taken.
[Gethsemane | The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]