John 18:1-11 appears on the surface to be a straightforward, if somewhat unusual, narrative of Jesus’ arrest by officers of the chief priests and Pharisees accompanied by an apparently large group of Roman soldiers, all of them led by the betrayer, Judas. But there is much more here than what appears on the surface. Paying close attention to the unusual elements in John’s account opens up this paragraph and its story by connecting it to a larger web of Biblical allusion.
Of course, John presupposes that we already know what is written in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Though there are differences in the details of their accounts, they tell us basically the same story of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. In all three synoptic Gospels, we read of Jesus’ agony as He prayed that the Father would take away the cup that was being thrust upon Him (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Matthew and Mark include the details that Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him when He left the rest of the disciples to pray, that He commanded the three to watch with Him in prayer, that He prayed three times for the cup to be removed and returned each time to find the disciples sleeping instead of praying. However, only in Luke’s more abbreviated version do we read that an angel from heaven appeared to strengthen Him and that Jesus’ agony was so great that His sweat became like drops of blood (Luke 22:43-44).
The account of the betrayal of Jesus is likewise varied in detail, but essentially the same. All three synoptics begin their stories with an account of a “crowd” led by Judas coming to Jesus and Judas betrayal of Jesus with a kiss (Mathew 26:47-49; Mark 14:43-45; Luke 22:47-48). Matthew and Mark also tell us that when Jesus had been identified by Judas’ kiss that “they” seized Him (Matthew 26:50; Mark 14:46), a detail Luke omits.
The next incident is told with only slight but fascinating divergence. Matthew and Mark both report that when the crowd seized Jesus, one of His followers drew a sword and struck off the ear of the high priest’s slave (Mathew 26:51: Mark 14:47). Luke includes this also (22:50), but adds two significant details to the story. First, all the disciples, seeing what was going to happen, indicated their readiness to fight: “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” (22:49). Then, after one of them actually did draw his sword and cut off the enemy’s ear, Jesus healed the servant (22:51). Matthew and Luke record that Jesus rebuked the disciple who drew the sword, but just as only Luke tells us Jesus healed the servant’s ear, only Matthew records Jesus often quoted words: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?’” (Matthew 26:52-53)
Then, with only slight variation, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus’ condemning question to the crowd, in Luke particularly to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me like a robber? Every day I was with you in the temple teaching and you did not seize me” (Matthew 26:55-56; Mark 14:48-49; Luke 22:52-53). Matthew and Mark tell us that at this point, the disciples fled. Only Mark tells us about an unnamed disciple who was seized, but who managed to escape naked by pulling free of his robe (Mark 14:51-52).
Matthew emphasizes twice that all was happening in order to fulfill Scripture — first when Jesus rebukes the disciple who took up the sword and then again when Jesus rebukes the crowd who has come to arrest Him (26:54, 56). Mark includes only the second appeal to Scripture. Luke does not mention the fulfillment of Scripture at all in this part of his story, but after Jesus’ resurrection Luke tells us how Jesus instructed the disciples on the road to Emmaus that all had to happen so that Scripture would be fulfilled, so the same motif appears in Luke, though at a different place (Luke 24:25-27).
All of this is presupposed by John’s account. There is, therefore, no need for John to repeat the story of Jesus in Gethsemane and he does not. But John adds details which throw light on the previous accounts as well as bringing much greater emphasis on an aspect of Jesus’ betrayal that the synoptic gospels already hinted at without fully developing. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus Himself at the last supper alludes to Psalm 41. If we follow A. T. Robinson’s harmony, Jesus alludes to Psalm 41:9 three times, the second time when He announces that He is about to be betrayed (Mark 14:18; Luke 22:21) and the third time would have been after the disciples each ask with sorrow, “Is it I?” (Matthew 26:23; Mark 14:20). The first time, according to Robinson, would have been the clearest of the allusions.[i] In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus quotes from Psalm 41:9 and says that He will be betrayed so that the Scripture may be fulfilled (13:18).
Thus, all four Gospels link Judas’ betrayal with Ahithophel’s betrayal of David. For, in Psalm 41 David is speaking of Ahithophel and the uprising led by his son Absalom. It was Ahithophel, David’s most trusted counselor who advised Absalom and guided him. Ahithophel was Bathsheba’s grandfather and apparently deeply resented what David had done to his granddaughter and her husband. The one who ate bread with David, the one who was his friend and counselor became his betrayer.
When Jesus refers to Psalm 41:9 being fulfilled through Judas, it is clear that He is interpreting David and Ahithophel as typologically foreshadowing Himself and Judas. What Matthew, Mark, and Luke communicate rather subtly through a relatively brief allusion, albeit repeated in Mark, John’s Gospel brings to the fore with an explicit quotation and the pronouncement of the Scripture being fulfilled — made by Jesus Himself (John 13:18). In this quotation, in other words, we see Jesus’ own view of the events that were transpiring and gain insight into His thoughts on the last day: “I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled: He that eateth my bread lifted up his heel against me” John 13:18).
In all four Gospels, other quotations from the Old Testament and allusions to David during Jesus’ last days, and especially while He was on the cross, contribute to the typology of David and Jesus. The David typology is important, therefore, to the whole narrative in all the Gospels. We are supposed to read the two stories together and meditate on each through the other.
John adds unique emphasis to this perspective on Jesus’ betrayal in 18:1 when he writes: “he went forth with his disciples over the brook Kidron.” None of the other Gospels record that Jesus crossed the Kidron on the way to Gethsemane. Only John refers to this brook, which had been made famous by David’s crossing when he fled from his ironically named son, Absalom (2 Samuel 15:23). No first century Jew would have missed the allusion in John 18:1, especially after the quotation of Psalm 41:9 near the beginning of the story (John 13:18).
Also, every first century Jew would have been aware that David crossed the Kidron to go to the wilderness, passing over the Mount of Olives on the way: “And all the land wept aloud as all the people passed by, and the king crossed the brook Kidron, and all the people passed on toward the wilderness. . . . But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered. And all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up weeping as they went” (2 Samuel 15:23, 30).
At this point, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke who all specifically mention the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26; Luke 22:39), John says nothing of the Mount of Olives, but instead refers to a “garden.” Luke does not refer to Gethsemane by name, only referring to it as “the place.” Matthew and Mark refer to Gethesemane as a “place” or “field,” but do not tell us it is a “garden.” Only John puts Jesus in a “garden.” Why? What does this mean?
Of course, there are those who will tell us that it was recorded this way just to tell us the facts. Gethsemane was actually a garden. John refers to Gethsemane as a garden. Other Gospels refer to it in different ways. Everyone is simply recording facts, giving us a true story of what happened. But that way of thinking is totally removed from the Biblical worldview. In the Bible, names are significant. If the same place can be referred to in different ways, each different way has meaning in its specific context.
If John says it was a “garden,” he is creating a specific set of associations. Just as referring to the brook Kidron alludes to David’s exile from Israel in the days of Absalom, referring to a “garden” creates an allusion to Adam and the original garden. Jesus as a new David leaves Jerusalem, having been betrayed by Judas and hated by His beloved son Absalom/Israel. Jesus as a new Adam goes to a Garden to face temptation. But Jesus does not give in to Satan. He resists and defeats the devil.
In the Gospel of John, even before Jesus goes to Gethsemane, Jesus has already repeatedly announced His victory over Satan (John 12:31; 13:27-32; 14:30-31; 16:11, 33). Thus, Jesus victory over Satan is emphasized from the beginning and as part of that emphasis John says nothing of Jesus’ agony, though he knows that his readers have already heard the story. Instead, John tells us of a piece of the story that the synoptics leave out. Skipping the narrative of Jesus overcoming all suffering in the Garden, John takes us back to the beginning. When John 18:2 tells us that He often went there and that Judas knew the place well, we see that Jesus had long been conscious of His coming betrayal and had prepared the way for it. He intended to be betrayed in a garden. Jesus intentionally planned to meet Judas in a place reminiscent of Eden and Adam’s temptation.
Only the Gospel of John tells us that Judas came with a “cohort” of Roman soldiers. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of a “crowd” that came to arrest Jesus, and Matthew and Mark refer to the weapons they carried, but the synoptics do not mention the Roman soldiers. John shows us that the whole world is against Jesus. Gentile and Jewish power unite to oppose the incarnate Word. The world was made by Him, but the world knew Him not.
Before Judas can identify Jesus with a kiss, Jesus, with full knowledge of what was happening, approached the weaponed crowd. When John tells us that Jesus did this “knowing all that would happen to Him,” we are supposed to see in Jesus’ action more than mere “knowledge.” Jesus not only knew the script — even more, He was directing the actors so that each would fulfill his God-designed part in the play. Therefore it was important for Him to take the initiative. He came forward to them and ask them: Whom do you seek?
When they answered, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus responded with words that point us back to the prologue of the Gospel. He said, ego eimi, “I am.” This is usually translated, “I am He.” The “He” is not in the original Greek, but that would normally be a proper understanding and translation of the sentence. However, in the Gospel of John, the expression ego eimi has been used often and typically identifies Jesus as the God of Israel who announced His name as, “I AM WHO I AM!” (Exodus 3:14). We know that John intends us to understand Jesus’ answer in this fuller pregnant sense of the expression because of the effect His words have on the evil audience: they drew back and fell to the ground. There are two actions here. First, they withdrew from Jesus in fear and surprise. They were overwhelmed by His words. Second, they fell to the ground. Of course, this is not like Mary, who fell to the ground and worshipped Jesus when He came to visit her after the death of her brother Lazarus. They fell to the ground without understanding or intention. It was raw instinct in the presence of the incarnate Word. They came to find a man from Nazareth, but instead they met the Word who had become flesh. And His hidden glory — brighter in its concealed darkness than all their torches — flashed forth and struck them to the ground.
Jesus, therefore, asked them again who they sought. They answered a second time, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus told them again that it was He whom they sought and He added, “if you seek me, let these go.” He asked them a second time, it seems, in order to be able to emphasize that it was only He that the authorities had come to arrest. He sought, in other words, to protect the rest of the disciples. Adam had failed to protect Eve, but Jesus, even in His darkest hours, loves His disciples and protects them from harm.
John makes this explicit when he writes that Jesus said this in order that the word He had spoken in His prayer might be fulfilled (18:9). Note John’s expression. He said “to fulfill the word.” The idea of “fulfilling” a prophecy is used repeatedly of the Word of God. John here puts Jesus’ words in His prayer on the level of the Scripture of Israel, because Jesus is the incarnate Word and every sentence He speaks is indeed the very Word of the Creator God.
In the next two verses (18:10-11), John records an incident that the synoptic Gospels all include. But John adds two important details not found in the other Gospels. First, he tells us that it was Peter who drew the sword. None of the other Gospels tell us who it was who cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Second, John tells us the servant’s name, “Malchus,” an Arabian form of melek which means “king.” This might seem like an irrelevant detail, added to make the story interesting for the irony of a servant whose name is “king.” But it is not irrelevant. It is part of John’s helping us to link the story of Jesus and David.
When David left the city of Jerusalem and crossed the brook Kidron, he proceeded on to the Mount of Olives and from there went toward the wilderness (2 Samuel 15:23, 30). On the other side of the Mount of Olives, at Bahurim, a man from the family of king (melek) Saul, Shimei, met him and cursed him. Shimei’s name, which may appear in a shortened form in the narrative beginning with 1 Samuel 16:5, is linked to the verb which means, “to hear.” Abishai, in his zeal for king David, ask David to allow him to take off Shimei’s head (1 Samuel 16:9). Like Abishai, probably, Peter sought to take the man’s head off, but he only managed to cut off his ear. The servant’s name, Malchus, and his severed ear both remind us of Shemei. Peter and his sword remind us of Abishai. Just as David responded to Abishai with a rebuke, Jesus orders Peter to put away his sword. David told Abishai that it was Yahweh who sent Shimei to curse him. Therefore, David submitted to the curse in hope that in so doing, God would reward him with good. Jesus, too, would drink the cup the Father gave Him in hope of the resurrection victory that would be His reward for taking the curse we deserved.
John’s account helps us understand why all the disciples, according to Luke, were willing to take up arms and why Peter dared, in the face of a large group of Roman soldiers and armed Jews, to draw his sword and attack. The disciples had just seen the power of Jesus manifest in casting down the entire mob that had come to arrest Him. They knew that Jesus could destroy His enemies as easily as He could heal the blind or raise the dead. Perhaps they even thought that Jesus would now fight the Romans and establish His kingdom. However that may be, they were ready to fight for Jesus because they loved and trusted Him, but, as on other occasions, their love and faith was not wisely applied. Like Abishai, they sought blood when it was God’s will to submit to the trial.
The garden reference in John, as we saw, recalls Eden and the temptation of Adam. Jesus’ final words in this paragraph also ironically recall the Garden. In Eden, Adam had stolen the fruit the heavenly Father had forbidden him to eat. Now, in another garden, Jesus, after agonizing prayer, accepts the cup His Father has given Him to drink. If Adam had refused the fruit, it would have been a righteous expression of faith. Now for Jesus, humbling receiving the cup, which the Father put before Him, was the supreme expression of faith in the Father and love, both for His Father and for His people. Adam ate the fruit that brought the curse. Jesus drank the cup that washed away our sins and removed the curse from us as far as the East is from the West.
Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.