3 Words that will forever change the way you read the Gospel of John: Week 18

Contents

Chapter 18

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_027aThis is part 18 of a 21-part series which traces “seeing” and “hearing”, and looks at how they relate to “believing”, through the Gospel of John.

In Chapter 18, Jesus is brought before religious leaders, before being handed over to Pilate, the Roman Governor. At every stage in the process, guess who is in control… it’s Jesus, of course.


REVIEWING THE TEXT – CHAPTER 18

The arrest

The chapter opens with Jesus, having finished his prayer, going to the Garden. Meanwhile, Judas is leading a group of armed men to arrest him. Throughout this escalation in dramatic tension, nobody speaks. The first to break the silence is Jesus.

John likes to make things very clear in his Gospel, so he points out in verse 4 that Jesus spoke, “knowing all that was going to happen”. Not only that, he didn’t wait for them to find him. He went out to meet them and spoke first. He didn’t say, “What are you dong?”, or “Why are you here?” He got straight to the guts of it. He already knew the answer and he authoritatively demanded it from them, “Whom do you seek?” (v4)

They said his name, and Jesus replies, “I am he”. He said it so authoritatively that they “drew back and fell to the ground” (v6).

Jesus asked the same question again, “Whom do you seek?”

Again they reply, “Jesus of Nazareth”, and Jesus starts barking orders about what they need to do next.“I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” (v8)

Straight away, the ever impulsive Peter started waving his sword round, injuring one of the men. Jesus took command of Peter and brought him to heel (v10-11). Once Jesus had established his authority in the situation, the arrest proceeded. Jesus’ speaking in this section makes it clear that the arrest proceeded because Jesus had chosen that course of action, and had spoken it into action, not for any other reason.

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom do you seek?”

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 do you seek?” 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.”

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. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

– John 18:4-11

 

Peter’s Denials

Famously, we see Peter denying that he knew Jesus at all. He does so in precisely the manner that Jesus said he would, back in Chapter 13:

Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!”

– John 13:37-38

Now here’s something I want to lay out clearly, because I think many readers don’t notice it. In the “Questions to Ponder” on Week 13 of our study series, I posed this question:

Why would Jesus say that Peter was going to deny him, rather than die alongside him? (hint… look what happened when he spoke to Judas… who’s in control?)

The situation of Peter denying Jesus reminds me of a scene in “The Matrix”, a science fiction film with many references, subtle and obvious, to the Bible and to other religious narratives. The scene is where Neo, our hero, goes to visit “the oracle”, a prophetess. It goes like this:

Oracle: I’d ask you to sit down, but, you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.

Neo: What vase?

[Neo turns to look for a vase, and as he does, he knocks over a vase of flowers, which shatters on the floor]

Oracle: That vase.

Neo: I’m sorry…

Oracle: I said don’t worry about it. I’ll get one of my kids to fix it.

Neo: How did you know?

Oracle: Ohh, what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?

Now, that’s science fiction… But here, in the 18th Chapter of John’s Gospel, I want to suggest that Jesus just saved Peter’s life (actually, what’s really going to bake your noodle is that he arguably saved it back in the 13th chapter).

You see, if Jesus had not determined that Peter would deny him, Peter would likely have died. Peter is impulsive and rash. He just cut off Malchus’ ear with his sword! He was likely to have leapt into the courtyard declaring the kingdom of God to have come, waving his sword around, and get himself necked.

Why did he not? After boldly cutting off Malchus’ ear, why be so subdued in the courtyard?

The answer is this: Because Jesus said that it would happen this way.

If Jesus had not said it, Peter might well have been killed. But Jesus had plans for Peter, so way back in chapter 13, knowing what would happen, he spoke an alternative ending to Peter’s life into being. Jesus will do this again to Peter, in chapter 21. Jesus’ words are completely authoritative. Peter’s denial is part of us understanding this vital lesson. Whatever Jesus says, that’s how it is.

The Religious Leader

Before Annas, Jesus talks all about his teaching. This reflects key themes in how Jesus’ teachings are presented to the whole world throughout all time, are widely ignored, and are falsely misconstrued. In the end, Christians are persecuted for what Jesus said, but without any good reason.

Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

– John 18:20-23

In this little passage it is quite clear that the problem is not “what did Jesus teach?”, it is a deeper issue, one of the political power and worldly status of the religious elite.

It is worth noting that the two occasions in this chapter where John uses the expression “this was to fulfil”, he is referring to the sayings of Jesus. Five other times in the Gospel of John, the same expression refers to the writings of Scripture (John 12:38, 13:18, 15:25, 19:24, 19:28). The expression usually refers to the fulfilment of scripture elsewhere in the New Testament, too. John’s use of this expression makes Jesus’ words emphatically authoritative, just like scripture.

Jesus and Pilate

Of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate, I would like to highlight just one critically important point. It is revealed in verses 37 and 38.

In verse 37, Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Pilate’s response in verse 38 is, “What is truth?”

But Jesus just told him what truth is. Truth is “my voice” / “my words”. Pilate’s question is supposed to be seen not as a philosophical opening for the reader to ponder, but a simple irony in the face of what Jesus is saying.

That irony is then amplified when the Jews demand Barabbas instead of Jesus. John adds wryly, “Now Barabbas was a bandit”.


Questions to Ponder from Chapter 18

If you accepted the story of this chapter purely on what you could see as a bystander, without reference to what you might hear, how would that affect your understanding of these events?
What was the point of Annas (and Caiaphas?) questioning Jesus? What did it achieve?
What is truth?

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