Jesus was always in complete control of the situation.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 18:1-11
The most dramatic event in human history is really just spectacle -- Jesus was arrested only because He allowed Himself to be. Just as humanity succumbed to temptation and was lost in a garden, Jesus would overcome that temptation and save us all in a garden. Out of love for us, Jesus would see God's plan for salvation through to its end.
Then he asked them again, “Who is it that you’re seeking?” (18:7)
The Mastermind "Pulling All the Strings"
This is a favorite trope for books/movies -- "the man behind the curtain" who has been "pulling all the strings" "making the main characters dance" to whatever purpose they want. (Enough movies take this trope to its most ridiculous end that there's now a subset called "The Dog Was the Mastermind".) Anyway, I love the "secret mastermind" in the fiction I consume. It never gets old to me.
If you were to use this topic as an icebreaker, it would be something like "Do you have any favorite books or movies with a secret mastermind? What do you remember about that mastermind and his/her purposes and methods?"
The biggest thing that stands out to me is that the mastermind is almost always a "bad guy", influencing the police or the government through nefarious means. My favorite, most over-the-top example of this is The Emperor in the Star Wars universe, who singlehandedly manipulated an entire galaxy of trillions of inhabitants. The whole galaxy. By himself. Masterminds appear in just about every established comics universe. And Arthur Conan Doyle had to create a ridiculously overpowered nemesis who could rival Sherlock Holmes's already-overpowered powers of observation and deduction.
When it turns out that a protagonist has been the one pulling the strings (which is the main plot line for the Hunger Games, Now You See Me, and Oceans series), we're pretty excited when they win in the end, but we really shouldn't overlook the fact that they accomplished their ends through lies, stealing, violence, or murder.
You would need to follow that up with a question like "What are the limitations for a secret mastermind?" In our heart of hearts, we realize that there's only so much a mastermind can do. "Yes, I believe that I could be manipulated to do certain things, but I find it hard to believe that everybody in the world (or the galaxy) could be manipulated by one person." Or "Yes, I believe that I could be fooled into believing certain things, but I find it hard to believe that one person could precisely control my every thought or attitude."
That's where the greatest example of this "behind the scenes mastermind" came apart at the seams. Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is built on the premise that one man could "predict" the future by mathematical means ("psychohistory"), and then there are all of these groups trying to make or break that history. When you stop and think about it, it's pretty ridiculous. So, to tie up that loose end, Asimov began introducing multiple layers of masterminds who have been pulling the galactic strings keeping things on that set path until we are eventually introduced to one all-knowing robot with psychic abilities who has been manipulating the thoughts of trillions of people for thousands of years. Yep, that's the main plot of the series. Spoilers?
Why all of these negative connotations for the mastermind? Because we simply cannot comprehend the power and sovereignty of God. We can only comprehend how we would manipulate and abuse that power. Indeed, Asimov used his series as a shot across the bow to monotheists ("how ridiculous that one being could be in complete control of all of history!").
And yet, that is the exact point of this week's Bible study in John 18. Jesus was in complete control of every situation He faced. Everything that happened in Jesus' lifetime happened according to the plan He mapped out with God the Father and God the Spirit before they even created the universe. And so these are the sorts of questions you would want your group to keep in mind as they read this week's passage (and I'm skipping over "how is God different from a physic robot?", sorry):
How does God bring about His purposes in human history?
Did Jesus ever have to use manipulation to accomplish His tasks?
How did the Triune God choose their purposes?
And then in the background is a big theological topic -- predestination. How does God accomplish His purposes if not by predestining everyone's thoughts and actions? More on this below.
Where We Are in John
If we learn anything this week, it should be that everything that happened to Jesus was strictly allowed by God to happen. In other words, Jesus had finished saying everything He wanted to say in chapters 13-17. He was not interrupted by the mob.
With Jesus fully ready to move into this final phase of His earthly ministry, John's Gospel turns from Jesus' final lessons to His final actions.
The entry linked below from our lesson in Matthew 26 discusses everything that happens in the roughly 12 hours between Jesus' arrest in Gethsemane and His public sentencing. John's Gospel focuses on the role of Annas and Pilate. I will talk more about Annas in the commentary below, and next week's lesson focuses entirely on Pilate.
This means that we will "skip" the well-known story of Peter's denials (as a focus of a Bible study). But we have talked about poor Peter at length, including in the other Gospels:
That post gives a lot more detail about the complete "trial" of Jesus. We will cover a little more detail of this next week when we talk about the trial before Pilate. Here's a brief summary to help you remember where this week's events are going:
A hearing before Annas.
A hearing before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin.
A sentencing before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin.
A hearing before Pilate.
A hearing before Herod Antipas.
A final appearance before Pilate (next week's lesson)
Yikes! The Matthew 26 post also goes into detail all of the ways that the Jewish leaders violated their own laws in the ways they treated Jesus.
The Garden of Gethsemane
When we think of "Gethsemane", we probably think of Jesus' prayer to the Father and the disciples falling asleep. John doesn't bring that particular prayer up at all, probably because the other Gospel writers covered it, and John the author instead focused on Jesus' prayer that we studied last week. If you want to learn more about that prayer, see:
John the author says that Jesus "crossed the Kidron valley" and went to a garden that Jesus frequented. We know from the other Gospels that this is a place called "Gethsemane" on the Mount of Olives.
You can tell that Gethsemane is pretty close to the Temple Mount. Below is the view from the site of Gethsemane across the valley (imagine fewer tombs and more trees). In other words, Jesus was easily able to watch the torches as they traveled across the valley to Him. Surely this contributed to Jesus' sense of urgency in His prayers! The approach of the torches is as close to a literal countdown as there could be.
As I mentioned before, John the author wants us to think of Genesis when we read his account. The Garden of Gethsemane "is" the Garden of Eden, a place of beauty, life, and the presence of God, and then a place of betrayal, lies, and violence.
But whereas Adam betrayed his trust to God and was severed from Him (setting into motion the events that would lead to Jesus' ministry), Jesus remained faithful to God, even in the face of those who betrayed Him, bringing many back into relationship with God.
The symmetry -- John's attention to detail -- is astounding.
This Week's Big Idea: Predestination
In its strictest sense, the doctrine of predestination is the idea that God -- before time began -- chose which humans would be saved and which would be damned. But any sober-minded Christian knows that salvation cannot be isolated from every other decision/action in a person's life, before or after salvation. Nor can that salvation be isolated from the people who came into contact with that person. Ultimately, the doctrine of predestination results in God being the one in charge of every decision and every action made by every person in the world. (Not unlike the psychic robot in Asimov's Foundation series.)
That plays really well with a verse like John 18:4: "...knowing all that was going to happen to Him..." Of course He knew! They were all doing what God predestined them to do!
If you've read this site long enough, you know I reject that interpretation of the Bible. God is not responsible for our sin. God is not responsible for the tragedies of human violence and selfishness. To me, the fact that God can bring about His purposes for humanity despite our rebellion and failure is proof of God's perfect sovereignty. In other words, Jesus didn't make anybody do anything; He knew what was going to happen because He knew precisely what those people would freely choose to do. The people living in Jerusalem at the time had been shaped by generations of political, religious, and social changes. God did not force any of those changes, but He could ensure that they would bring about His plan for salvation.
I freely admit that I don't know how this works. And that just makes me all the more convinced that the God of the Bible is so far beyond any god of human creation and understanding. God gives me full responsibility for my life -- and yet He can still use me for His purposes even when I'm rebelling against Him.
And that leads me to...
This Week's Little Idea: Judas Iscariot
If you read enough about Judas, you'll find plenty of people who try to claim that Judas should actually be considered the hero of the disciples. Well, about that...
I gave the more complete story of Judas when we studied this event in Luke's Gospel:
A point I tried to make was this: do we really think that Satan was just tempting Judas to betray Jesus? Luke 22:31 reveals that Satan wanted all of Jesus' disciples. History tells us that only Judas betrayed Jesus. Yes, Peter denied Jesus, and the other disciples abandoned Jesus, but only Judas betrayed Jesus.
A few verses ago in John 17:12, Jesus specifically described Judas as "the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled". Now, based on what I just said about predestination, does this mean that God chose Judas to be the one to betray Jesus? Far be it from me to suggest that I know how God does anything, so let me just say this: based on how the Gospels describe Judas, it would make complete sense to say that Judas freely chose to betray Jesus, and further that Jesus picked Judas to be His disciple knowing that Judas had that in him. Is that "fair" to Judas? "Fair" that he was the one put into a position to betray Jesus when any number of other people would have done the same?
I think I can respond to that like this: you're probably being influenced by Dante's Inferno. In the Divine Comedy, Judas is being munched on head-first by Satan in the lowest circle of hell (along with Brutus and Cassius, but that's a debate for another day). Judas is suffering the worst punishment that any human would endure.
That's just a book, y'all. If I don't believe in "circles of reward" in heaven, then I don't believe in "levels of publishment" in hell. To be separated from God for all eternity is the ultimate punishment and the worst possible existence. Judas is not enduring any "worse" than any other person who died apart from Jesus. Perhaps Judas remembers Jesus in a very personal way, and that's a psychological torment that no one else in hell has (Judas was the only disciple to reject Jesus).
Judas freely chose to reject and betray Jesus. He was not manipulated by Jesus. And now, Judas suffers the same fate as everyone else who has died while rejecting Jesus.
Part 1: Jesus Watched the Soldiers Come (John 18:1-3)
After Jesus had said these things, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley, where there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it. 2 Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas took a company of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees and came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons.
Again -- the mob did not interrupt Jesus. Jesus was done saying and praying everything needed. I've already briefly described the garden (Gethsemane) and also linked two posts in which I go into a lot more detail about it.
Jesus could have gone anywhere. Why go to Gethsemane? John the author is clearly suggesting the parallel with the Garden of Eden, so I'm going to ride with that. John is the only one who just calls it a garden (doesn't name it), and he does the same thing with the place where the tomb was. He's emphasizing the fact that this is a garden.
[Aside: Gardens. I know you want to know more about this garden. We don't know much more. In the ancient Near East, a "garden" was an enclosed plot of land (the word for garden means "to surround"). Gardens grew some food crops but also beautiful flowers and trees. Owners would go to gardens for solitude (Esther 7:7), cool escapes (Gen 3:8), banquets (Esther 1:5), and burials (2 Ki 21). The word "Gethsemane" means "olive press", which strongly implies that this had been a "working garden" where the olives from the Mount of Olives were processed. Whether or not it was still in Jesus' day is unknown. We don't know who owned the garden, although it is strongly implied that Jesus and His disciples had permission to be in the garden whenever they wanted.]
But I think there was also a practical reason why Jesus went to Gethsemane -- a well-known garden would have well-known escape routes. Jesus wanted to ensure that all of His disciples could flee safely (even if they didn't think they would), and a place like Gethsemane that was open and just far enough from Jerusalem was right for that.
So, some soldiers and officials have come. This lets us know that either Judas has been very busy, or that Annas (father-in-law of the high priest) has been preparing.
The word for "company of soldiers" is a single Greek word (speiran) which refers to a cohort of Roman soldiers (1/10 of a legion, so as many as 600 men). This doesn't mean that the entire cohort came, but the fact that any Roman soldiers were there at all means that Annas has been at work already. More on this below. The other Gospels describe this group as a "mob". That suggests that additional people had tagged along to this event, and so the Romans were there as much to keep an eye on the Jewish rabble-rousers(?) as anything.
The phrase "officials of the chief priests and the Pharisees" is the opposite, a long-winded way of referring to the servants of the Jewish authorities. Some scholars think this means the Temple Guard, but I don't think that's the case. Remember back in John 7, the Temple Guard had been dispatched to arrest Jesus, and they failed to. I think that these are simply Jewish representatives who have been sent to make sure that Jesus is arrested. The Romans are there simply for the muscle. This explains why the Jews were willing to take Jesus to Pilate so early in the morning -- he was expecting them. (Pilate would have had to approve the dispatch of the soldiers.)
We know from the other Gospels that Judas's signal to the soldiers was a kiss. [Aside: why the effort? Why not just point to Jesus and say "that's Him!"? My guess is that Judas was trying to protect his own image in the eyes of the disciples, who might not have followed what was going on. But could that protect him from himself?] John the author doesn't say anything about that. More about this in the next section, but that's because John is explaining that Jesus was in control of the situation at all times.
But every piece of art you'll see about Gethsemane involves the kiss of betrayal. it's just such a powerful image. My favorite of these pieces of art is Caravaggio's Taking of Christ.
Yeah, the armor looks a little anachronistic, but critics say that placing the super-shiny pauldron in the very middle of the painting is designed to force the viewer to see ourselves reflected in the event. Would we be a soldier, blindly following orders? A part of the mob? Judas the betrayer? A fleeing follower? A make-you-think piece.
If you're a nerd who can't help but get distracted by random bits of fascinating history, have I got the video for you!
In summary, these verses are how John the author is setting up the dramatic final act of his narrative. All of the actors have been moved into place for their inevitable conflict.
Part 2: Jesus Identified Himself (John 18:4-9)
4 Then Jesus, knowing everything that was about to happen to him, went out and said to them, “Who is it that you’re seeking?” 5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered.
“I am he,” Jesus told them.
Judas, who betrayed him, was also standing with them. 6 When Jesus told them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. 7 Then he asked them again, “Who is it that you’re seeking?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they said.
8 “I told you I am he,” Jesus replied. “So if you’re looking for me, let these men go.” 9 This was to fulfill the words he had said: “I have not lost one of those you have given me.”
There might be just a little bit of dry humor in here. The earlier Gospels talk about this elaborate scheme and plan the Jews have come up with to identify Jesus. Well, John the author knows that all they had to do was ask! (This is a fun tangent: when have you jumped through a lot of hoops to find an answer that you simply could have asked for?)
John structures it this way to establish Jesus' full control of the situation. Who is the one asking the questions and directing people around? Jesus. When Jesus asks a question in John's Gospel, there's always a deeper meaning to it. "Who is it that you're seeking?" is a fundamental question in this Gospel -- one that each one of us is repeatedly forced to answer for ourselves. Yes, the soldiers know they are supposed to arrest "Jesus of Nazareth", but do they really know who that is? Do they really understand why they are there? Do they really know what they have been asked to do?
Jesus' literal answer is simply "I am" -- we translate it "I am he" for English grammar reasons, but there is no doubt what Jesus (and thus John the author) is alluding to. John used this claim earlier to very dramatic effect:
8:58 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was hidden and went out of the temple.
We don't know if vv. 4-5 happen before or after Judas kisses Jesus. Either way, all of the dramatic tension is evaporated. John the author, with the benefit of decades of reflection, realized that Judas was just a pawn of the Jewish leaders, that all of this was nothing but spectacle that Jesus allowed only because it was necessary. Judas is not the one who "betrays Jesus with a kiss"; he's just kinda there.
Calling Him "Jesus of Nazareth" was standard fare in that day, like using a first and last name. The leader material is right in highlighting the lack of respect.
This lack of respect is immediately shown to be false bravado (like the posturing before a fight), for the moment Jesus identifies Himself, they collapse. They don't just "take a step back" as if Jesus has made an unexpectedly aggressive move. No, they "fall to the ground". This is the same move by vanquished armies in the face of those who defeated them. (In the presence of God, we would call this worship. Involuntary worship, sure, but worship nonetheless.) One author named David Garland explains it like this: hundreds of soldiers came to take Jesus, but they were "hopelessly" outnumbered by Him.
That is so, so very cool.
And then Jesus repeats the question -- not to try to get them fired up again, but to make it clear to all of them that He is the one in charge. They aren't arresting Jesus by Rome's authority or Jerusalem's. Or even Satan's! Everything happens on Jesus' authority.
This makes His next request -- that they let the disciples go -- hard to turn down. What were they going to do to stop Him? After all, He has them singlehandedly outnumbered.
Jesus then refers to what He prayed in 17:12:
12 While I was with them, I was protecting them by your name that you have given me. I guarded them and not one of them is lost, except the son of destruction, so that the Scripture may be fulfilled.
There is no specific "verse reference" mentioned in either place, so this must be a more general fulfillment of Scripture. In particular, Psalm 41 (which Jesus mentioned when Judas left Him) suggests that God does not abandon those who call upon Him. It is worthwhile to note that John the author has clearly raised Jesus' words to the "level" of Old Testament scripture.
Part 3: Jesus Quelled the Violence (John 18:10-11)
10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)
11 At that, Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword away! Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?”
Leave it to Peter. What was he thinking?
Blessedly, Jesus quickly intervened (He had all the authority, after all).
Matthew mentioned other things Jesus said in addition to verse 11:
26:52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Or do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and he will provide me here and now with more than twelve legions of angels? 54 How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?”
55 At that time Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs, as if I were a criminal, to capture me? Every day I used to sit, teaching in the temple, and you didn’t arrest me. 56 But all this has happened so that the writings of the prophets would be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and ran away.
We all remember the "those who live by the sword die by the sword" and the "I could call on twelve legions of angels" lines because they're awesome. But the one John recorded (which is paralleled in Matthew 26:54 and probably spoken in sequence) is probably more important from the perspective of salvation history. This is how it must go.
David (our pastor) has described the cup metaphor at great length in his sermons. It's a reference to the "cup of God's judgment" (Ps 11:6, Isa 29:9, Jer 25:15, Ezek 23:21, etc.). If Jesus does not drink the cup, Peter (and everyone else) will have to drink it for themselves.
A lot of scholars (including your leader material and me) have said that Peter was aiming for the man's neck and missed. (Really bad aim.)
But my Klink commentary offers another possibility that I am fully on board with. Peter wasn't being violent as much as he was being defiant. Josephus the ancient historian recorded that this kind of mutilation would have been humiliating for his family and a disgrace to the high priest. In other words, Peter wasn't trying to kill him (which would have gotten himself killed almost instantly) -- he was trying to humiliate him in a very petty way. That's why we have the details of his name and his position. And likewise, Jesus wasn't simply "being nice to him" by healing him -- He was restoring his dignity. My personal (and unfounded) opinion is that Malchus eventually became a follower of Jesus, and he might have been known to some of the early Christian circles.
Your discussion might follow this line: how important is it to see a plan all the way through, not to abandon it when things get tough for you?
An easy starting illustration is diet or exercise -- you go into it thinking you understand what you need to stick through and what you're aiming for. But eventually, it's going to get really hard and you're going to be tempted to give it up.
The sports world has examples of this -- a team has a "three-year tanking plan" with the idea that they will be a lot better off in the years to follow. But then the manager or the GM doesn't want to get fired, so they abandon the plan and set the franchise back further.
Other examples get a little more fiery -- a government's austerity plan, a business's plan to cut expenses and boost profits, or maybe a business's plan to adopt new technology (or the like). If you've been through that, you know that eventually people start clamoring to abandon the plan.
You can also show how this is true for groups ("live together or die alone", to cite another Henry Ian Cusick vehicle, Lost) (or "sacrifice for the greater good") -- have everybody stand around a table and lift it (like an inch off the ground! we don't want this dropping on anybody!). Then, have people drop out of the group one at a time, symbolizing how people will abandon the plan when it gets hard. Eventually, the "job", which was easy for a large group, becomes difficult or impossible for one or two.
And yet no one else was ever faced with the cost of a plan like Jesus was. He could have walked away from all of this, and He would still be God. But we would all be condemned to hell. His love for us prevented Him from abandoning the plan.
Will our love for Him keep us following God's plan for our churches even when things get hard? We have an amazing model to follow in Jesus. (Remember that in John's day, things we bad for Christians, so this reminder of God's sovereignty would have been welcome.) (If you want to digress into a discussion of what God's plan is for our churches, by all means feel free to! We've certainly talked about that enough -- starting with last week's appeal to our unity with God and (subsequently) one another, mainly our unity of purpose.)
What Happens Next
This cohort delivers Jesus to Annas. Annas had been appointed High Priest by the governor Quinirius (yes, that Quinirius) in 6 AD, but then he was deposed by the next governor. However, his five sons, and also his son-in-law Caiaphas, succeeded him as High Priest, leading many people to grumble that Annas maintained personal power through back-channel means. The fact that the soldiers delivered Jesus to Annas, not Caiaphas, certainly promotes that narrative that Annas was the real power behind the Sanhedrin. This is absolutely a red flag about the motivations of the Jewish authorities.