Holy Week Reflections 2: John 18

This is the second of a series that I wrote for  the Baptist Times.  Thanks to the Editor for permission to post them here as well.  The first in the series can be found here.

In the Garden: Reflections on John 18

There is no Gethsemane in John’s Gospel.  To be sure, chapter 18 begins by describing a night-time journey made by Jesus and his disciples to a "garden", but the garden has no name.  More significantly, John’s account of what took place in that garden is substantially different from the other gospel narratives.  There is no reference to Jesus praying or the disciples sleeping and, most important of all, John gives us no sense that Jesus is undergoing any kind of spiritual struggle in these last moments before his arrest.  The nearest John comes to this idea is in 12.27-28 where Jesus considers, and then rejects, the idea of asking God to save him from death.  Whereas Mark, Matthew and Luke give central place to the prayer "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me״ (Matthew 26.38), John in explicit contrast has Jesus ask the rhetorical question, "Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me".  The grammatical form of the question invites the unequivocal answer "Of course you are".

Yet the verses describing Jesus’ arrest in the garden, found in John 18.1-11, are not merely an account of historical events.  Throughout, John is keen to interpret the significance of these events for his readers.  Given that those first readers were very likely Jews, with a good knowledge of the themes and language of the Old Testament, we will better understand the story if we take time to consider the ways in which Jesus’ deeds and words interact with Israel’s scriptures.

Take the opening verse: "After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley" (John 18.1).  They seem simple enough.  However a literal translation would read "across the winter-flowing Kidron".  The Kidron valley, which stood between the central sites of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, was usually dry at the level of the river bed.  But in winter, when the rains came, a small stream would appear – thus it could be described as ‘winter-flowing’.  The use of the term in this context may be explained away as detailed topographical information.  Yet, the full phrase also occurs in 2 Samuel 15.23, where we find King David in remarkably similar circumstances to those facing Jesus.  In that chapter, David is betrayed by his closest counsellor, Ahithophel, and is forced to flee the city of Jerusalem as he is pursued by Absalom.  He too crosses the ‘winter-flowing Kidron’ with his people, and ascends the Mount of Olives (see verse 30) ‘weeping as he went’.  John’s gospel may not narrate Jesus’ agony and distress, but by means of this biblical echo, we are invited to consider again the poignant journey of Israel’s true King, rejected by his own people.

The arrest takes place in darkness (always a symbolic motif in this Gospel) and under the threat of violence.  The details of verse 3 are ironic given that Jesus has already claimed to be the light of the world, and unnecessary in view of his refusal to use force in defence of his kingdom (see verses 18.10-11, 36).  In a detail that stretches historical plausibility, John suggests that a cohort of Roman troops accompanied the Jewish temple police in making the arrest.  Subsequent verses will see the true King of Israel come face to face with the representative of Roman power and demonstrate a greater authority, much to Pilate’s bemusement.  There is no kiss of betrayal.  Jesus takes the initiative in verse 4 and asks the soldiers whom they seek.  When they tell him, he straightforwardly identifies himself: "I am he" – verse 5.

Or not so straightforwardly, for those words (egô eimi in Greek) again bring to mind numerous scriptural antecedents.  They are the words of divine self-revelation.  In Israel’s history, God’s saving power is accompanied by the revelation of God’s identity and name: "I am he, there is no god beside me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand (Deuteronomy 32.39; see also Isaiah 43.13; 48.12).  As these two words appear on the lips of Jesus (as they do so often in this Gospel) they reveal his identity as the only-begotten Son of the Father.  Those making the arrest assume that they are in control and that his life is now in their hands.  But the power to kill and make alive is God’s, an God has given all such authority to Jesus his Son.  No wonder the soldiers draw back and fall to the ground (verse 6).

The scene in the garden sets the stage for all that will follow.  Jesus is Israel’s true King and God’s only Son.  He will therefore move through the following events, the trial before Pilate, the flogging and taunting by the soldiers, crucifixion and death, in the sure and certain knowledge that this is his God-appointed destiny.  It is this certainty (to be compared with the uncertain agony of the other gospels) that enables Jesus to command the soldiers to let his followers go, and to tell Peter that the sword will really not be necessary (verses 8-11)

In the days leading up to Holy Week, as we accompany Jesus on that journey, it will pay to recall what happened in the garden.

First, we must always remember that the story of Jesus makes no sense at all without the story of Israel.  The allusions to the Old Testament in this passage remind us that Judaism has given Christianity the very categories by which we understand the person of Jesus.  At times, John’s gospel shows extremely hostility towards the Jews of Jesus’ and John’s own day.  That hostility has been carried over into Christian theology and liturgy and to this day generates popular forms of Christian anti-Judaism.  If you doubt this, then ask those in your church what comes into their mind when they hear the word "Pharisee".  Yet this same gospel is indebted to Jewish faith and Jewish scripture for its central ideas and images.   At Easter, when it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus was killed because legalistic Jews felt threatened by his message of love and grace, we must do all we can to show how the events of Holy Week are deeply connected with the story of God’s Holy People.

Secondly, we should be challenged by the ways in which John inverts the usual relationship between power and violent force.  Surrounded, as John would have us believe, by 600 or more soldiers carrying weapons, Jesus tells Simon to put his sword away.  Here, as on the cross, Jesus shows that true power is demonstrated through the renunciation of violence.  He may not endure the agony of Gethsemane, but neither does he embrace the strategies for victory used by his opponents.  In the context of Jesus’ day. this refusal constituted nothing less than an act of resistance to the forces of imperial power.  Empires today do not always act by armed guard (though in some parts of the world the image of soldiers turning up at night to make arrests is all too real).  Yet we are called to identify, expose, and resist the kind of power that sustains empire (whether it be of the geographical, economic of cultural variety).  Lent is a good time to reflect on the extent of our complicity in such strategies, and to think about how we might live our lives in the true power of Jesus.

Son of David, Son of God: these verses remind us finally that the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus are nothing less than the display of God’s glory to a world of darkness and violence.  From here until Easter morning, we are invited to see Jesus not as a victim of fate, but as the victorious king whose suffering death points to the nature of his reign, and establishes the future shape of true Christian victory.