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. 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. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.”
— John 18:3-9, NRSV
All of the gospels tell of Judas the betrayer. All describe Jesus’ arrest in the garden.
But only John tells us that earlier, Jesus was actually the one to send Judas on his way to set his nefarious plan in motion (13:27). Only in John’s gospel do we read of Jesus striding out confidently to meet Judas and his small army. Jesus takes charge from the get-go, demanding to know their business, and the mob falls to the ground like bowling pins when Jesus speaks. Even as he’s being arrested, Jesus is still the one in authority, demanding that the disciples be let go, to make good on the prayer he had made to his Father (17:12).
From start to finish, John tells the story in such a way that Jesus is always in charge. He is never taken by surprise. Everything he suffers, he suffers by his own free and sovereign choice, in obedient love for his Father. And far from Jesus’ Passion representing a tragic turn of events, it is treated as the story’s glorious and God-directed climax.
Why? Because Jesus is God in the flesh.
Christian orthodoxy has insisted over the centuries that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, the very embodiment of the second person of the Holy Trinity. But it’s hard to imagine that doctrine coming to fruition without John.
The Fourth Gospel declares the divinity of Jesus right from the opening verses, almost daring the reader to disbelieve. In John, Jesus makes bold claims about himself: “I am the Bread of Life” (6:35); “I am the light of the world” (9:5); “I am the gate for the sheep” and “the Good Shepherd” (10:7,11); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6); “I am the true vine” (15:1). In these statements, Jesus echoes Jewish metaphors and images for God.
And he also echoes the divine name, the name too holy to speak, taking it to himself: “I AM.” In one altercation, he tells his Jewish listeners, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58, NRSV). His hearers knew what he meant, and tried to stone him to death for blasphemy.
That’s why the Common English Bible renders John’s garden scene a little differently than what we read above. Jesus steps forward and demands, “Who are you looking for?” The would-be army answers, “Jesus the Nazarene.” And Jesus responds, not with “I am he,” but “I Am.” It’s two simple words in the Greek, and either translation is possible. But the latter is consistent with what John has been saying all along: whether you choose to recognize it or not, this man is God.
It will probably take me about two years, on and off, to finish blogging all the way through John’s gospel. But here at the outset, let’s take hold of what John will drill into us over and over and over again: Jesus is God. Read, and believe.