Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?”
And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
“I told you that I am he,” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” (verses 4-8)
It’s the dark of night. Jesus and his disciples have just arrived at a familiar destination in a grove of olive trees, part of the Garden of Gethsemane, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Seemingly they’ve met there often, finding it to be a place of solitude and rest.
Not tonight. Judas, knowing the location, guides a detachment of soldiers (likely Roman) under the oversight of a gaggle of chief priests and Pharisees. They’ve come – with torches, lanterns and weapons – to ambush Jesus, seeking to arrest him away from the crowds so they don’t unnecessarily stir up opposition. It’s a cowardly ploy. And they’ve stacked the deck. Although the size of the “detachment” isn’t clear, a full complement would have likely been 200 soldiers. Whatever the actual number on this occasion, it was clearly adequate to completely overwhelm the small band of followers accompanying Jesus. Simon Peter will shortly swing wildly, lopping off the ear of the high priest’s servant, but his bravado will be short-lived and a vain attempt at turning the tide of oppression.
It’s a surprise, then, when John tells us these oppressors, with overwhelming odds in their favour, “drew back and fell to the ground” (verse 6). John is the only Gospel writer who gives us this detail, but doesn’t give us much. Why does this cohort, with overwhelming numbers, fall back? What was the cause?
The only detail John provides is Jesus’ simple response to the soldiers query. When they demand to see “Jesus of Nazareth”, Jesus owns it, stating simply: “I am he.”
It’s a simple, loaded phrase. In Greek (which John writes) it’s simply two words. It’s somewhat ambiguous, because it can be a very terse way of saying, “It’s me.” But this is a phrase that has been used throughout John’s Gospel with weightier overtones. Translated literally, these two words are: “I am.” We’re meant to hear echoes of a burning bush and the Lord’s declaration “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14), together with his many self-declarations in Isaiah’s prophecy (chapters 40-55) where again and again he says, “I am he … I am he.”
We’re not given any other details, but it seems clear to me John wants us to see a power encounter with Almighty God. The soldiers have come to arrest a preacher from Nazareth, but they encounter the great “I AM.” Some years later, en route to Damascus to arrest followers of this same Nazarene preacher, Saul the Pharisee would be blinded by a light from heaven as the risen Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road. Saul’s response? “He fell to the ground” (Acts 9:4).
Clearly, although the disciples are overwhelmed by the oppressive cohort, Jesus is not. Yes, the soldiers end up seizing him. Yes, they lead him away to captivity and trial. But Jesus remains in control. He himself is the one who gives up his life. As Good Shepherd he declares, “I lay down my life for the sheep … No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:15, 18). The soldiers marched him away in a show of great force, but Jesus himself, the Almighty Son, made the choice.
It's clear in the Garden.
Lord Jesus, I praise you. Willingly you gave your life for the sheep. Willingly you gave your life for me. Praise you, my Lord.
Reflect: Once again reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice for you. He went intentionally to the cross, laying down life that you might live. Reflect on the scene. Give him thanks. Speak his praise.