“And it was night.”
That’s what John tells us when Judas exits the Last Supper to set the machinery of betrayal in motion (John 13:30). It’s not just a time note, as if to say, “And it was half past seven.” Darkness stands for sin and evil in John’s gospel, and Jesus is consistently portrayed as the divine light that has come to a world of darkness (e.g., 1:4-10; 3:19-21; 9:5). Judas’ night was both literal and spiritual.
The scene shifts to Gethsemane. Judas is back. And it’s still night. The passage drips with irony: Judas and his armed companions bring torches to seek out the Light of the World in a shadowy garden.
The words John uses to describe the scene indicate that Judas may have had as many as 600 Roman soldiers with him, possibly those garrisoned at the Fortress of Antonia near the Jerusalem temple. The fact that they’re accompanied by “chief priests and Pharisees” (18:3) points to a temporary alliance with the Sanhedrin. All this suggests that the people in power feared a mob uprising, perhaps of Galilean supporters who were in town for the Passover festival. After all, the authorities had wanted to arrest Jesus before, but didn’t for fear of the crowds. So this time they took no chances; they came with superior numbers and weapons, ready for anything.
As they peered into the darkness by torchlight, however, all they found was Jesus and his groggy gang of eleven.
Do the math; that’s a ratio of 60 to 1. Talk about being overprepared.
But perhaps “found” isn’t the right word. They didn’t have to look for Jesus. He knew what was coming, and strode out of the darkness to meet them. From a distance of 2,000 years, the scene is almost comic:
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.” (John 18:4-8, NRSV)
Picture it. In this corner, Judas, members of the Sanhedrin, and 600 armed infantry, hunting a lone troublemaker. In this corner, an unarmed Jesus — who speaks but a few words and causes the entire mob of would-be captors to fall back and fall down.
Some readers believe that the soldiers were taken by surprise by the boldness with which Jesus stepped out of the shadows. Startled, they stepped back by reflex. Unfortunately for them, it was so crowded in the garden that they began stepping on each other, and in the ensuing confusion, began tripping over each other and falling to the ground.
Well, okay. Maybe.
Others note that the phrase legitimately and sensibly translated as “I am he,” is elsewhere translated as “I Am”: in other words, John is using a Greek phrase that translates the unspeakable divine name in Hebrew. The soldiers fall down, therefore, because it is God who suddenly and unexpectedly appears out of the darkness.
Against that interpretation, one can reasonably argue that the soldiers would have had no clue about the holy name of God, no tradition that would tell them to clap their hands over their ears at its mention. True. But that may miss the point. What John wants us to see is the irony: a whole company of armed soldiers is no match for the holy presence of the One. Despite appearances, the real power is on Jesus’ side. This is so much so that he doesn’t even have to bargain for the disciples’ lives; he commands their release (John 18:8) even as he willingly surrenders himself.
That’s not to say, of course, that the soldiers ever truly stopped believing that they were the ones holding all the power. I sincerely doubt that any of them gave any serious thought to the idea that they were binding and arresting the Son of God.
But you can hardly blame them. Even given everything Jesus had taught the disciples in the Upper Room, not even Peter understood what was happening.
More on that in Sunday’s post.