|Has the Darkness Triumphed? (John 18:1-27)
If John 18 were read in isolation from the remainder of the Gospel of John, know what we’d think of Jesus? We’d conclude he was a failure. A tragic, heartbreaking failure for all who had put their hopes in him.
The Appearance of Failure
John 18 is an account of betrayal. Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, was in the lead as Jewish temple police – backed up, it appears, by some Roman soldiers – came to take Jesus into custody. After the meal he had eaten with his disciples, Jesus went outside the city to an olive grove called Gethsemane in the Synoptics. “After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons” (18:1-4).
It is a narrative of futile resistance. When Peter saw Jesus being taken into custody – and that probably not very gently – and realized the near-certain outcome of his arrest, he did a typically impetuous thing for which many of us would express admiration. He pulled out the only weapon he had and went after one of the assailants. He was not only hopeless against the odds but was called down by the one he was intent on protecting. “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath’ ” (18:10-11a).
It is the story of apparent resignation to the dark powers of evil. Once Jesus had restrained Peter and headed off a skirmish between his little group and the armed men who had come for him, he surrendered. And he was led away to the beginning of a series of informal hearings and official trials. “So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year” (18:12-13).
It is the sad and demoralizing tale of Peter’s cowardice as the night evolved. An unnamed apostle who had fled with the others from Gethsemane soon showed up at the residence of Caiaphas. Most of us are inclined to think the apostle is John, the writer of this Gospel. And one of the reasons for thinking so is that Peter – the close friend and former fishing partner of John – is with him. John got in and talked a female servant at the high priest’s residence into letting Peter into the open courtyard too (18:16). As she let him in, she asked, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” Peter lied and said, “I am not” (18:17). As he later stood beside an open fire pit to warm himself, he was asked not once but twice more about his relationship to Jesus. “Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed” (18:25-27).
From the bits and pieces I have offered you to this point, it would appear that all has been lost. Jesus is in the hands of his enemies, and his frightened disciples are useless to him. It looks like the darkness has not only closed in on Jesus but has triumphed. He has been engulfed in the awful night of his betrayal. Ah, but it only appears so!
The Reality of Divine Sovereignty
In the larger context of the Gospel of John, chapter 18 fits nicely for the sake of making the contrast clear between appearances and reality. Better still, perhaps I should say it underscores the distinction between judging a situation by human vision and insight over against trusting in God.
John has tried to prepare his readers for this scene from the opening lines of his Gospel. “The light shines in the darkness,” he wrote in his Prologue, “but the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Jesus had tried to prepare the apostles for these events. He has spoken in the Gospel of John about his “hour” that was coming (cf. John 2:4). Twice he has stepped away from situations where people were bent on arresting or attacking him “because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30; 8:20).
His disciples didn’t sense it at the time, and his enemies certainly didn’t think so. But Jesus was the one in charge here! The narrative portrays him as sovereign, not confused, anxious, or victimized. The “hour” of his death for others had been chosen freely, and he and his Father were executing a plan that was clear in their minds.
Don’t you see Jesus taking charge at every step? When the mixed crowd of citizens, temple soldiers, and Roman legionnaires arrived, he took the initiative. “Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘Whom are you looking for?’ They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’ Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he,’ they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, ‘Whom are you looking for?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. . . .’ ” (18:4-8a). It seems obvious to me that nobody is “taking” Jesus’ life; he is in the process of “laying it down” for a purpose that is fixed in his own understanding.
It doesn’t come through in English translation, but Jesus appears to have done more than simply step out – John doesn’t tell about the Judas kiss of greeting and betrayal – but confronted them full force with the claim to deity that would ultimately lead to his death sentence. The translation I quoted above has Jesus saying, “I am he.” The text beneath that common rendering (Gk, ego eimi) is literally “I am.” So his reply to them has him saying what he claimed earlier in this Gospel: “I am” (cf. John 8:24,28,58). Understood this way, the reaction of his would-be captors makes more sense. Why was it that some of them “stepped back and fell to the ground”? If they heard Jesus assert his deity and oneness with Yahweh, that calm and bold claim must have unnerved them in the short term.
And who is clearly taking charge in what happened next? He told the contingent of police and soldiers, “So if you are looking for me, let these men go” (18:8b). John later realized: “This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me’ ” (18:9; cf. 17:12). Already here – and not just on the cross – Jesus takes the total burden for his disciples on himself. This is the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep (cf. John 10:11,17-20). He offers himself to his enemies in order to preserve those who follow him. What we call the substitutionary atonement at Golgotha is already in evidence here in Gethsemane.
Do you remember how the confrontation with Peter ended? Earlier I only read through the first part of verse 11. The latter half of that verse presumes the entire Gethsemane story that is told in more detail in the Synoptics but which John chooses not to duplicate here. “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” he said (18:11b). He had prayed three times for that cup to be removed. And his agony over what lay ahead was real rather than acted. With the matter settled now, Peter was not rebuked for defending an innocent person – something Jesus himself would do very soon before Annas (cf. 18:23) – but for standing in the way of the “hour” to which he was moving.
A Matter of Perspective
Before we watch the unfolding of this cosmic “hour” of the Son of God over the next few Sundays, please let me point out what should be obvious to believers from John 18. But I obviously feel the need to point out some lesson because I think it is not quite obvious – at least in its practice – among us. Right?
Evil often seems to triumph, if we take the short view of things. Satan seems to have the upper hand, if we judge by the immediate situation of our intense pain, deep emotional sorrow, or difficult physical circumstance. Death appears to be the strongest power in human experience, if we judge only by the fact that there has never been a tiny village or huge city without a cemetery.
Most of us seem to think we are entitled to judge Jesus by what is happening at the moment. Thus even John the Baptist appears to have wavered in his faith that Jesus was the Messiah when he was thrown into Herod’s prison (Matt. 11:2ff). Nothing about Jesus had changed because John was in a dungeon. He was still preaching. He was still working miracles. But something had changed about John. Instead of the euphoric feeling that he was part of a grand, divine scheme of announcing the Kingdom of God, he suddenly felt vulnerable and abandoned. So he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
According to a national poll taken by researchers in the fall of 2001, only one in five persons contacted – a mere 20 percent – said they “often feel hopeful” about the future; seven in ten – a whopping 70 percent – had reported such strong positive feelings in a 1990 survey. In the immediate aftermath of a post-9/11 world, there was a great deal of pessimism. I understand that. Our feelings fluctuate on the basis of our immediate circumstances – when thinking about national security, stock-market performance, or the world in which our children will grow up.
But what about life in Christ? Shall we all be pessimists because the world seems to be getting worse instead of better? Are you justified in embracing the vocabulary, ethics, and lifestyle of the world because you weren’t appreciated for trying to live by Christian principles in your career? Is your family or spiritual family supposed to accept your anger or backbiting or divisive behavior because you didn’t get your heart’s desire in something? Because we didn’t do it the way you wanted it done? Because God didn’t do it the way you wanted it done?
Jesus didn’t do things the way his disciples had envisioned or desired. They saw the glory of David’s Golden Age and pictured themselves in key government offices. They dreamed of being honored at the right hand of the Messiah. They expected homage from lesser persons who would understand their importance.
What they hadn’t counted on was the crucifixion of their leader, prison or martyrdom for themselves, and church members who would be as frustrating to them in their dullness and immaturity as they had been to Jesus in theirs.
And how is your spiritual life today? An intact marriage, healthy children, and a good job may incline you to answer that things are in great shape! Be careful. You may be judging your spiritual life by factors that have no direct power to index it. Are you sad? Have you lost a job? Are you seriously ill? Is there trouble in your family? These things may have you angry at God and feeling betrayed. God is still light, and there is no darkness in him or his ways (cf. 1 John 1:5). Perhaps some of us need to repent of judging God by our immediate circumstances and believe his promise that the darkness cannot overcome his redemptive purposes in our lives.
If you judge God by the situation you are in today, you may seriously misjudge him. Things have to be seen from the perspective of eternity, in light of God’s sovereign purposes, and for the sake of our eternal redemption. The darkness hasn’t triumphed – and can’t.
Unless we can trust him in the dark moments, our faith is still childish and unreliable. He is still at work and moving toward his sovereign goal. If we yield to our fear of the darkness, we stand to miss getting to share in his triumph. It was Judas who left Jesus and went into the night. That’s not an option you want for yourself.
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