Summary: At the arrest of Jesus He revealed his divine authority.
Jesus has finished His “high priestly prayer” of the previous chapter; He crosses the Kidron Valley (geographically the Wadi en-Nar) to the Garden of Gethsemane, and quietly waits…
Gethsemane, a walled olive grove, was a favorite, secluded place for Jesus and His followers to get away from the crowds when they were in Jerusalem. Gethsemane means “oil press” referring to the extraction of olive oil. When I toured Israel we visited this garden with its dramatic view of Jerusalem. The place is lovingly maintained by the Franciscans and next to it is the Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony. From the Third Century this has been a special, sacred place for Christians to gather for prayer.
Judas arrives with a detachment of Roman soldiers, prepared to meet resistance. They may have first gone to the house where Jesus and the Twelve had observed the Passover, then to this next most likely place. “They bring torches and lanterns to search for the Light of the World; they bring weapons against the Prince of Peace” (Hendriksen). The religious leaders grudgingly required the support of Roman soldiers. They lacked arresting authority, but got it by convincing Pontius Pilate that Jesus was a threat to the peace. With the soldiers came the Temple security guard, which maintained order in the Temple mount. The religious leaders weren’t taking any chances.
Jesus calmly makes no attempt to hide, but goes to the place where His betrayer would expect to find Him. He knows they are coming and is ready to face evil. No angels will be summoned to defend Him. “He is not proposing flight from danger but is leading His followers to confront it” (Everett Harrison). He has nothing to fear, nothing to hide. This is all part of His redemptive purpose.
The first move is Judas’. His betrayal was not only by prophetic decree but by his own deliberate choice. If this ambitious false follower wanted a legacy, he sure got it. A tree in Israel is named after him, the “Judas Tree” that sprouts reddish flowers that look like drops of blood. Judas wanted Jesus to overthrow the tyranny of Rome, and some scholars think that by having Jesus arrested, this would force Him to take action to complete what He had begun. Or Judas simply gave up on a Messiah teaching love of enemies in a time of foreign occupation. He failed to see the purpose of Jesus’ coming. For 30 pieces of silver Judas sold himself, not Jesus.
In the other gospel accounts Judas singles out Jesus in the darkness with a kiss. It was part of his arrangement with the religious leaders. In Luke 22 Jesus sadly asks, “Judas do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” The word “betray” can be translated “deliver.” A sign of devotion became an act of defection. Jesus’ words burned in Judas’ soul and led to his ultimate despair.
Jesus speaks unarmed to these armed men as One with greater authority. As Caesar’s army, they represented the grandeur and might of Rome--but a greater power had led Jesus to this place in time. He responds with another “I AM” statement, one we might easily overlook. He simply declares, “I am He”. So they found their man, but were not expecting to find God. “I am He” is a declaration of deity. In Deuteronomy 32:39 God declares: “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides Me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of My hand.” This is the One in the garden of Gethsemane.
And at that dramatic moment, with these few words, something startling happens that the text reports but doesn’t explain. Something about Jesus causes the soldiers to fall to the ground, paralyzed and overcome. Just a few words, yet they carried the weight of glory: “I am He” -the divine Name. This was more than the company expected. Jesus spoke with all the authority of God Almighty. They saw Heaven in His eyes. The guards came to the garden thinking they were in charge--they weren’t. They encountered the King of Majesty, who had redefined kingship.
Jesus did not speak for God, but as God…and with His authority, He charges the soldiers in verse 8: “Let these go.” Their business is with Him, not His disciples. He doesn’t give them the option of arresting everyone. This is hardly the “meek and mild” Jesus we’re familiar with. He spoke as the almighty Commander of angel armies, with gravitas. He was in command of the situation. He alone would be taken, for He alone was to pay for our sins--the Just for the unjust.
I’m told that elementary school teachers hope to cultivate what they call “the look.” You know what I mean if you’ve ever been intimidated by a teacher who with one look made you shape up. But along with this look from Jesus came an overpowering sense that they were in the presence of God, in the Holy of Holies.