In John chapters 14-17, John has been telling us what Jesus said. Now, in chapter 18, he resumes telling us what happened. For now, I want us to focus on John 18:1-11. After speaking with his disciples, Jesus went to the place known in the other gospels as Gethsemane. Judas either knew Jesus’ plans, or maybe it was just typical of Jesus to do. In either case, Judas leads a group of temple police there to find Jesus and arrest him. Remember, Judas had already decided to help the Jewish leaders to capture Jesus (John 13:2). It wasn’t as if Jesus was hiding, but the Jewish leaders were afraid that if they had Jesus arrested in broad daylight in Jerusalem, the common people might riot. So they needed to find him at a quiet time and place, where no crowds would be there. The Passover celebration was perfect, because a lot of people would be celebrating with their families, and unaware of what was going on in Jerusalem at large.
So Judas and the soldiers find Jesus and the other disciples at Gethsemane, a quiet place away from the city, late at night. These were not Roman soldiers, but rather Jewish men who were in charge of guarding the temple and enforcing its regulations. This “temple police force” was never intended for the type of thing they were there to do. They were sent by the chief priests and pharisees.
Jesus goes out to meet them, and the confrontation that takes place is fascinating. John says that Jesus knew everything that was about to happen to him, but he asks the mob, “Whom do you seek?”
I think there is tremendous irony in this question. This mob, which included officials from the chief priests and Pharisees, has never sought Jesus for anything. They never sought him for his teaching or wisdom. They didn’t seek him for the forgiveness, grace and life which he offered. They never sought him to worship him, like the Magi (wise men) did.
Jesus himself had said to them much earlier:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will opened.” (Luke 11:9-10).
In Jeremiah 29:13-14 the Lord also says: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord.” But they never did seek them that way before, and now this is not the kind of seeking they are doing. They only want to find Jesus because they think that finding him will take care of their temporary problem. In fact, they think killing him will solve things.
So, when Jesus asks them who they are seeking, I think he intends a double meaning – who are you looking for right now, and who are you seeking to be sufficient for the sin, turmoil and darkness of your own hearts?
When they tell him they seek Jesus of Nazareth, he gives them the answer in a dramatic fashion: “I am.” By the way, virtually all English translations have “I am he” but in the Greek, the “he” is not present. It simply reads, “I am.” You may remember that “I AM” is what God said his own name is, in Exodus 3:14. Jesus said this in John 8:58 and everyone present at that time, recognized that by saying “I am” he was claiming to be God. At that time, (in John 8:58) they picked up stones, to execute him for uttering blasphemy by claiming to be God.
Now he says “Whom do you seek?” – a question loaded with spiritual overtones – and then responds to them by saying “I AM.” I think he is telling them – seek me for the right reasons, because in me – that is God – is the fulfillment of all human needs. Seek me for forgiveness, for love, for grace, for eternal life. The answer to all your life’s striving and seeking is standing in front of you.
Their response is fascinating. Last time he said “I AM,” they picked up stones to kill him for blasphemy. But this time, they have swords and clubs, and Jesus is not protected by the crowds. Even so, they draw back and fall to the ground. Why? Why not kill him where he stands – nothing prevents them this time.
What I am about to say is really just speculation, but it makes some sense. I think that just for this brief moment, Jesus let his true Divine nature show. The wrath of God against sin had been burning for thousands of years, and sin is soon to be dealt with, on the cross. It is almost time, and for a split second I think Jesus must have let some of that ancient anger show in his eyes and voice, for suddenly the crowd that was willing to stone him previously when he claimed divinity, now falls to the ground, though they are armed, and face an unarmed man in a quiet place. Maybe Jesus allowed himself this brief display in order to give some of these men one last chance to forsake their pride and acknowledge him. He never intended to avoid the cross, but he wanted them to have every possible opportunity to believe. It was perhaps a warning of sorts.
Knowing they have not the courage to confront God’s anger in the flesh, he asks the question again, and once again, I believe he intends the irony. This time however, it seems that he moderates the manner of his reply, so as not to scare them. He uses the same words (ego emi, or “I am”) but he seems to have suppressed whatever frightened them before.
Peter – being Peter – has a sword and a willingness to use it. He strikes off the ear of one of those in the crowd. John includes the kinds of details here that convince me that this was written by an eyewitness. He records that it was specifically the right ear, and that it was a particular man named Malchus, who was a slave of the high priest. John is the only gospel writer who names the man, and that makes sense, since John knew the high priest’s family (John 18:15).
Luke records that Jesus healed the man’s ear shortly afterwards. All four gospels record Jesus saying something to the effect that he had to go through with the arrest, and also pain and suffering that were to follow. John remembers him saying “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?”
As Jesus said earlier, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. (John 10:18).”
This is the most amazing thing about Jesus’ Crucifixion, and the thing that makes it such an incredible sacrifice. You see every person ever born is going to die sooner or later. That is, every person, except one. Jesus Christ was the one person in the history of the world who did not have to die. The Bible tells us that human death is a consequence of sin. But Jesus did not sin. He could have had immortality without ever dying first. He was the only person who ever had a choice about death. And because he did have the choice, he could choose to make a sacrifice. If I choose to die in place of someone else, I am only speeding up what will surely happen to me anyway. And I am only temporarily saving the other person. But Jesus would never have died at all – unless he chose to. That is why he is the only one who could make the sacrifice for our sins.
As we consider this passage, there is a question hanging there for you. It is Jesus’ question:
WHOM DO YOU SEEK?
In your daily life, as you go to work or school or make a home, whom, or what are you seeking? What is it you want out of life? Does it center around the person of Jesus? And if you are seeking Jesus, is it because you think he can solve a temporary problem, or is it because you believe that forgiveness, grace, meaning joy, peace and eternal life can be found only in Him, the true I AM?