[March 13, 2011] During the season of Lent we will accompany Jesus in His passion, from His arrest to His grave, as this is told in the Gospel according to John. This is a singular failing of the Sunday Lectionaries in that they squeeze all of this—which makes up a significant portion of each gospel—into a single long reading that shares its space alongside the reading for Palm Sunday. This arrangement is not able to give the cross its due attention. Therefore, having chosen to divide each of the gospels into fifty or so weekly portions so that each gospel can be read in its entirety in the course of the year, I have chosen to use the season of Lent as the opportunity for us to meditate on the passion.
Lent is a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter. For Christians, every Sunday is a little Easter, for which we also ought to prepare. In the past, Christians have used Friday and Saturday for this, perhaps even fasting at least part of this time. Jewish Christians—those keeping Halakah—celebrate the Sabbath in the light of the cross and resurrection. In any case, our preparation for the Lord’s Day really begins on Monday, when we begin to gather the produce of our spiritual labor for the gathering of the church.
The season of Lent—a name which means “lengthening” with reference to the lengthening of the daylight portion of each day—is an opportunity to access our lives and get them back on course. We can do this by reinstating our disciplines. The traditional Jewish disciplines of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are effective. With almsgiving we act in light of the wickedness of the world by helping to bring relief to the suffering. With prayer we recognize our dependence on God and align our purpose with God’s. By fasting, we make use of the freedom that God gives us from everything that would attempt to claim and enslave us (we break free from the domination of our appetites). Without the benefit of the structure that Judaism provides, Gentile Christians need to give structure to their daily lives (in addition to the weekly gatherings of the church)—disciplines such as the traditional series, lectio divina (the sacred reading of Scripture), meditatio (ruminating on the Scriptures), oratio (prayer) and contemplatio (the simple thought-less loving focus of the heart on the Presence, i.e., spiritual communion with God). We may use the season of Lent to get these disciplines back on track so that we can begin again to keep them throughout the year.
Comparison with the Synoptic Accounts
The scene of Jesus’ arrest in John’s gospel differs significantly from the account in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark. There is no agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; in fact, the name Gethsemane (“Olive Press”) is not even used. “He went forth with His disciples across the brook Kedron, where there was a garden, into which He entered as well as His disciples.” Immediately we read that Judas with the cohort and attendants.
In place of the prayer in the garden, we have Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17 before they arrive at the garden. That crucial moment when Jesus gives Himself over to the Father’s will is assumed in the Gospel according to John. We see it reflected in 12:27-33. 18:11 indicates that John was aware of Jesus’ agony in the garden: “The cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?”
Also John’s gospel alone mentions that Judas came with soldiers of the Roman cohort. The other gospels only report a crowd, thugs sent by the high priest and his coterie. This is an important piece of information missing from the others, and helps us recognize that the Roman involvement in the execution of Jesus began before Jesus was brought before Pilate the following morning.
In the other gospels, Judas gives the sign of a kiss to indicate which man is Jesus. In John’s gospel, Judas’ role ends when the troops arrive. Instead of someone pointing Jesus out to these men, Jesus steps forward and takes charge: “Whom do you seek?” This also gives Him an opportunity to protect His disciples (18:8-9).
Only in John’s gospel is Peter named as he who cut off the ear of the high-priest’s slave, and only here is that slave’s name given, Malchus. This probably indicates the eye-witness nature of this account. It also may tell us something about when this gospel was written. These people can be named because they are both deceased. While Peter was still alive, he was still liable to get in trouble for having done this, and perhaps Malchus had become a member of the Christian community.
The other gospels report other words that Jesus spoke to the men after they had seized Him, and that the disciples then fled. John’s account ends abruptly with the taking hold of Jesus and binding Him (he does not report the disciples fleeing).
Also, John’s gospel alone reports that Jesus was taken to Annas first, before Caiaphas. This is an interesting and helpful eye-witness detail. Annas served as high priest for ten years (6-15 AD). After being deposed by the Roman Procurator “for imposing and executing capital sentences which had been forbidden by the imperial government” (Wikipedia), he used his five sons and his son-in-law as puppet high priests until his assassination in 66 AD (at the beginning of the war against the Romans), when the zealous did away with him because of his pro-Roman leanings. Numbers 35:25, 28 suggest that the high priesthood was held for life, but in the days of the Roman occupation, the governor literally held the keys to the office, and most high priests held a very short term. The fact that Caiaphas served the longest (18-36/37 AD) indicates how well he cooperated with the Romans. The fact that Annas’ family remained in ascendancy for so long indicates the influence that he continued to have over his sons and son-in-law and with the Romans.
This is significant because is evidence that the arrest of Jesus was initiated by Pilate (the Roman governor) and not by the Jews. Annas had Jesus arrested at the request of Pilate and Pilate provided the Roman cohort for this purpose. It was doubtless with the high priests’ concurrence—they too wanted Jesus out of the way. But they would not have wanted to take the blame for it when the pilgrims were in the city, which is why on their own they would have waited until after the Passover. However, Pilate wanted to use Jesus as an object lesson to the crowds (this is what happens with any aspirant to be “The King of the Jews”), only he also did not want the Romans to take the rap. He feigned innocence at the mock trial—it was all the Jews’ idea; they “forced” him to do it.
Still, John’s gospel is the only one that points out the role of “the other disciple” (most likely the author of the gospel, the disciple—not apostle—John) in getting Peter into the high priest’s courtyard. John, not the son of Zebedee, was known to the high priest, indicating his connection to the city of Jerusalem (rather than Galilee). Only John tells us that the servant-girl was the portress who kept the door.
Peter was able to sit by the fire and make himself warm with the slaves and attendants by denying his connection to Jesus. The detail about the fire is given in Luke 22:55 but John’s account is more detailed, again indicating its eye-witness nature.
Chiastically, this passage corresponds to 19:35-42. Again we come to the “other disciple” though here he is named as “he who has seen this.” In contrast to Peter who denies Jesus, this disciple “has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he says what is true.” Of course Peter is also a key—and chosen—witness to these events. Here, though, the emphasis is on the contrast between testifying and denial. This directs us to what meaning to look for in our present passage.
In contrast to how Jesus put Himself forward and offered Himself up for arrest, in chapter 19, having died, Pilate allows our Lord’s passive body to be taken.
Then, as the Roman cohort and the attendants of the high priest and his inner circle seize the body of Jesus and bind Him at night, so likewise—and in contrast—“Joseph from Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a hidden one for fear of the Jews,” takes the body of Jesus away. Together with Nicodemus, “who had come to [Jesus] the first time by night,” “they took the body of Jesus and bound it.”
As Jesus (the body of Jesus) had crossed the brook Kedron and entered the garden that was there, so Joseph and Nicodemus laid the body of Jesus in the tomb that was in a garden.
Jesus in Charge
What stands out most about this passage in comparison to 19:38 and the other gospels is the way Jesus takes charge of the situation from the beginning. In 10:17-18 Jesus had said, “I lay down My soul that I may take it again. No one takes it away from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it again. This commandment I received from My Father.” In 18:1 we read that Jesus “went forth,” as if He walked intentionally into what was awaiting Him.
Indeed, we read that only a few hours before, “Jesus knowing that His hour had come for Him to depart out of this world unto the Father … knowing that the Father had given all into His hands and that He had come forth from God and was going to God” (13:1, 3). His “going forth” into the garden where He would be arrested was His going forth to God. In chapters 14-16 He was very clear that His death was a going to God, which was fulfilled on Easter when He ascended. In 20:17 He told Mary, “I have not yet ascended to the Father,” and that this was the reason for her not to detain Him. In the evening, when He appeared to His gathered disciples He allowed Himself to be detained, and a week later He even asked Thomas to touch Him. It seems certain that Jesus ascended to the Father after He saw Mary before He manifested Himself to His disciples in the evening. That there would be another ascension “moment” forty days later is not contradicted by this first ascension. The Gospel according to John, especially our Lord’s words in chapters 13-17, is concerned with the event of His death and resurrection and giving of the Holy Spirit on Easter. In any case, His going forth to the Father begins—overtly–when He “went forth” to the scene of His arrest.
Moreover, though He waited for the soldiers and attendants to arrive at their destination, they did not take Him by surprise. Rather, He took them by surprise! Again, it says He “went forth” to meet them. And rather than waiting for them to announce their purpose, He asks them, “Whom do you seek?”
At this moment, He declares, “I am.” This is the seventh time in the Gospel according to John when Jesus says ego eimi (“I am”) without a predicate. It can be translated “I am he,” which would be the natural sense here, but on all the other occasions it was a moment of epiphany in which Jesus was declaring His exclusive identity with the one and only God. While the men may have fallen backwards out of confusion and surprise, we are left with the impression, or at least with the association, of the result of a divine epiphany. Jesus asserts the presence of God, which Presence places all before it under the judgment of His holiness. Judas becomes indistinguishable—John notably points out—than the others who came to apprehend Jesus. They all fall to the ground, even though at this point it is without any comprehension.
When Jesus comes in glory, the nations will again attempt to apprehend Him but then too they will be stricken to the ground. It will be the day of His manifestation when He reveals Himself. The scene in the garden here foreshadows that future event.
They still do not lay hold of Him, as if they are unable. In verse 7 He asks them again, “Whom do you seek?” and again they tell Him. At this point He takes charge, essentially telling them to carry out that for which they came: “I told you that I am; if therefore you seek Me, let these go away.”
As John tells us, Jesus by doing this keeps the disciples from being arrested along with Him. “If you came only for Me, then leave these others alone. I hand Myself over without resistance.” When John says, “That the word might be fulfilled which He spoke, ‘Of those whom You have given Me, I have not lost one,” he uses a fulfillment formula that sounds as if he were quoting Scripture. These, however, are words that Jesus Himself spoke. His own words have the authority of Scripture. They are “fulfilled” as if they are the words of God (which, indeed, they are). This too indicates how completely Jesus is in charge of this scene. The soldiers are not allowed by Jesus to touch the disciples.
This is so even when Peter foolishly takes out a sword. The men do not seize Peter. Instead, Jesus, the master of the situation, simply tells Peter to put the sword into its sheath and to recognize the playing out of God’s own will.
Of course this also shows how He cares for His disciples. No one can touch the Lord’s chosen without the Lord’s consent. That consent is always under the governance of His care for us. He is our Shepherd, no matter what the circumstances.
All of this indicates how nothing in this otherwise chaotic scene takes place outside of the authority of God. Later, when Pilate things he is completely in control and is running the whole show (with all his pretended innocence) and says to Jesus, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus calmly says, “You would have no authority against Me if it were not given to you from above” (19:11).
That Jesus protects His disciples shows that the authority of God over all circumstances extends to our circumstances as well. We are always under His providential and sheltering hand as He works out His purposes—even when we pass through fiery trials and death. This is also taught in the prophets of the Old Testament in relation to Israel’s election, though here it is vividly and intimately demonstrated with regard to the Messiah’s own.