Monday, August 24, 2015

The Insurmountable Authority of Jesus (John 18:1-9)

Every now and then, we hear in the media that some newly discovered, long forgotten “gospel” has been recovered containing scintillating information about Jesus that will change the way we look at Him. These books were not “lost” or “forgotten.” They were rejected by the early church almost immediately as they began to circulate for a variety of reasons. Some were known to be forgeries; that is, it was known beyond any shadow of doubt that they were not written by the individuals whose names they bore. Some were rejected because their content contradicted the Scriptural writings that the early church knew to be authentic documents written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But in every case, these so-called gospels were also rejected because they were not Gospels at all. The word “Gospel” means “good news,” and the good news of the Christian faith is that Jesus came into the world to die and rise again to rescue sinners and reconcile them to God. This is the central message of the Christian faith. Without the climax of Jesus work of redemption upon the cross, a writing is not a “Gospel” because it has no good news for us. We have four authentic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And in each of them, the writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, move relentlessly through their narratives toward the account of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Each of them climax on the final week of Jesus’ earthly life – His “Passion” week.
The word “passion” is well known to us, but most of us associate it with a meaning that is far removed from this sense. We associate it with “desire,” “longing,” or even “lust.” The sense in which it is used of Jesus has to do with suffering. When we speak of His passion, we speak of all that took place from His betrayal and arrest to His death on the cross.

With our text today we have come to John’s account of the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. His treatment of the “Passion Week” began back in Chapter 12. That means that roughly half of John’s Gospel is concerned with the final seven days of His earthly life, leading some to describe the Gospel According to John as a “passion story with an extended introduction.”[1] Writing his Gospel decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written, John assumes that his readers are familiar with some of the details of the narrative. Therefore, he omits details such as the name of the garden where Jesus was arrested, that Jesus labored there in prayer, or that Judas betrayed Him with a kiss. But John also provides us with information that the other Gospel writers omitted. Therefore what we have in the four Gospels are not contradictory accounts, but complementary ones, giving us a full picture of the incidents that took place. Each one has its own unique emphasis. John’s singular aim in his treatment of the suffering and death of Jesus seems to be to stress that Jesus was not taken by surprise by any of the events that transpired. Throughout it all, Jesus is shown to be in control of the situation.

It is a mistake to view the events surrounding Jesus’ death as a tragic accident. To hear some describe it, it is as though everything suddenly went haywire and Jesus fooled around and got Himself killed. No, quite to the contrary, everything took place exactly as the Father had planned it, and Jesus was a willing participant, not a martyr or an accidental victim. In John 10, Jesus foretold what was to happen, and He said there, “No one has taken [My life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative.” And beginning here with the scene of His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, John shows us that Jesus is the one in charge of the situation. His authority over everything that transpires is insurmountable, and it is demonstrated here in three specific ways.

I. Jesus’ insurmountable authority is seen in His perfect knowledge (v4).

It was game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, and my Boston Red Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees in the series, on the verge of yet another heartbreaking end to a promising season. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Sox were losing 4-3. We had a runner on second base that could tie the game. Everyone in the stands was on the edge of their seats. But not me. I was relaxed, calm, and at ease. I knew he was going to score that run and send it into extra innings. And he did. And the game went on to the bottom of the twelfth inning, still tied. With a runner on base, David Ortiz came to the plate and there was a nervous anxiety in the heart of every Red Sox fan. But not me. I was cool, calm, and collected, because I knew that Ortiz was getting ready to launch a walk-off home run to stay alive, and I even knew that the Sox would go on to win the next three games, and then to win the World Series. I knew that because I was watching that game from 2004 just a couple of months ago on my computer. But back in 2004, when I was watching it live, I was not so calm about it. It makes a difference when you know what is getting ready to happen.

We have a saying that says “hindsight is always 20/20.” That’s how I watched that baseball game not long ago. But none of us have 20/20 foresight. There isn’t a one of us who knows with absolute certainty what the next year, the next month, the next week, day, or even minute will hold for us. Jesus did. As the divine Son of God, omniscience was inherent to His nature. He knows everything with perfect knowledge at all times. And the Bible says here in verse 4 that He knew “all the things that were coming upon Him.” He knew He was being betrayed, He knew He would be arrested and tried, He would He would be convicted, sentenced, and executed. He had foretold it on many occasions. Matthew 16:21 says that Jesus began to show His disciples that “He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.” He told them this repeatedly. At the supper in the upper room, He had announced that He was being betrayed and even identified Judas as the betrayer. He knew everything that was going to take place.

Now, what is interesting about that is what Jesus does with that knowledge. Maybe you have imagined at times, if you could go back and do something in your life over again, knowing what you know now, you may have done things differently. Jesus doesn’t live with those kinds of thoughts. He didn’t know any less then than He knows now, and He wouldn’t have changed a thing about how He acted in the situation. The Bible says here that Jesus, after He had spoken these words – the words of the farewell discourse and the High Priestly Prayer that are recorded in John 14-17 – went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron, where there was a garden in which He entered with His disciples. The other Gospel writers tell us that this garden was called Gethsemane, a word meaning “olive press,” because the area was filled with olive trees. John tells us that Jesus had often met there with His disciples.

There on the banks of the Mount of Olives there were a number of private gardens of wealthy Jerusalem families, walled off and separated from one another. It is possible that one of these families had given Jesus permission to use the place regularly. During Passover week, the expectation was that the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem would stay in the city until the festival had ended. Because of the number of pilgrims who came, the “city limits” (if you will) had to be enlarged and would have included this hillside. Luke 21:37 tells us that during Passover week, Jesus spent the night every night here on the Mount of Olives. Judas had been there, and he knew that Jesus would go there on that night. Verse 2 tells us that.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Remember, verse 4 says that Jesus knew all things. He knew that He was being betrayed. He knew that they would come for His arrest. He knew that Judas knew the garden and would bring them there. So what would you have done? I would have gone somewhere else! What a plot twist that would have been! Judas brings the arrest squad to the garden and, what do you know, Jesus isn’t there! That’s what I would have done, but it is not what Jesus did. He went to the garden anyway. Nothing that took place on that night took Him by surprise, and nothing occurred that was outside of His knowledge or the Father’s purpose for Him. So, willingly and knowingly, He went to the garden where He knew the betrayer would bring the mob to arrest Him. Jesus was in complete control of the situation, and never once was it out of His control. His authority is insurmountable, and He shows us that by His perfect knowledge here.

II. Jesus’ insurmountable authority is seen in His powerful word (vv3-6).

For three years, Judas Iscariot spent nearly every waking moment in the company of Jesus. In that time, He saw the Lord do amazing things to demonstrate His power. But he never once saw Him act in a violent way. There was the cleansing of the temple incident, which may have occurred twice, depending on how one arranges the events of the four Gospels chronologically, but even in that event, Jesus did not do harm to anyone. So one has to wonder what Judas was expecting when he brought the arrest squad into the garden that night.

Verse three says that he brought a cohort and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees. The “officers” were members of the Jewish Temple police force who were responsible for maintaining peace in and around the Temple Mount. We don’t know how many of these there were, but they did not come alone. There was also a cohort, a Roman military detachment. The word “cohort” here translates a Greek word which refers to a unit of a thousand Roman soldiers. In practice, these cohorts sometimes consisted of no more than 600 soldiers, and at times the word can refer to a “maniple,” or a unit of 200 soldiers. Even if we assume that the word here refers to the smallest of these detachments, we are talking about hundreds of Roman soldiers in addition to the Temple police.  

Judas brought numbers out against Jesus, but we need to see also that they were armed to the teeth. They had lanterns and torches and weapons, according to verse 3. The lanterns and torches would not have been necessary, for the full moon that would have been in the sky during Passover would have provided plenty of light. They must have expected Jesus to run and hide in the shadows. We don’t know what kind of weapons they brought, but it wouldn’t matter. Several hundred trained fighting men armed with any kind of weaponry at all would have been an imposing force. Considering this sizeable armed militia, William Barclay observes profoundly, “What an expedition to send out against an unarmed Galilean carpenter! … What a compliment to the power of Jesus! When the authorities decided to arrest him, they sent what was almost an army to do it.”[2] But, as they were about to find out, it wasn’t enough.

Thinking they would have to beat the bushes to drive Jesus out into the open, they must have been alarmed when He went forth and confronted them (v4). He made it easy for them. John doesn’t record Judas’s kiss, but it likely took place when Jesus came forth in verse 4. Jesus asked them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered, “Jesus the Nazarene.” Undoubtedly it was spoken with a serrated edge. Remember that it was often said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

Now here is where we have to know how to handle our Bibles. You don’t have to know Greek to study the New Testament, but you need to know your English Bibles handle the Greek New Testament. Usually it is explained in that front matter of your Bible that everyone always skips over. For example, on page vii of my copy of the New American Standard, the editors have explained, “Italics are used in the text to indicate words which are not found in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek but implied by it.” We have an instance of this in most English versions in verse 5. When they say they are seeking Jesus the Nazarene, Jesus responds by saying, “I am,” and then in italics we have the word “He,” so it reads “I am He.” “He” has been inserted so that the sentence is grammatically correct in English. But, theologically, the word “He” is not implied or required, and in fact gets in the way of what is going on here. Jesus said, in Greek, “Ego eimi,” or “I am.” Does that sound familiar? When Moses asked God at the burning bush what His name was, He said, “I am.” Seven times previously in John, Jesus has taken up this title for Himself, saying, “I am the Light of the World,” “I am the Bread of Life,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” and so on. Here, He simply sets for the divine name as His own: “I am.”

Notice what happened when Jesus spoke these two words: verse 6 says that they drew back and fell to the ground. There are some scholars who suggest that what happened here was that the militia was frightened when Jesus came out of the shadows suddenly, and shocked by the candid admission of His identity. Their surprise caused the front line of soldiers to lose their footing on the hillside and fall backward, sending the rest of them tumbling down like dominos. So, we are supposed to believe that they sent the Keystone Cops out to arrest Jesus and a madcap misadventure broke out. No way! These were elite, trained fighting men. So, why were they literally knocked to the ground? It was the power of Jesus’ word as He revealed His true identity and nature to them. He is the Great I AM, and the power of His word could not be overcome by armies or weapons.

There are two surprises that take place here as the militia falls to the ground. First is what Jesus did – or rather, what He did not do. I think if it had been me, I might have said, “OK, boys, they’re on the ground, let’s make a break for it!” But Jesus didn’t do that. He stood by and waited for them to regain their composure, and He asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” He was not going to try to escape or avoid the purpose for which He had come into the world. The second surprise is what the soldiers did. After picking themselves up from the dirt, when Jesus asked them the second time, “Whom do you seek?”, I don’t know about you, but if I’d been in charge of that group I might have said, “Uh, maybe we’ve got the wrong guy. Did we say Jesus the Nazarene? We meant to say the Nieces of Jazzercise. That’s not you, so we’ll be moving along. Have a good night.” But here is the alarming thing: they persisted in seeking to seize Him! They said once again, “Jesus the Nazarene.” So persistent is the rebellious unbelief and hatred of God in some people that, even after seeing a grand display of His power and nature, they will remain hell-bent on destroying Him. This is a hatred for Christ that has united the Pharisees, the chief priests, and the Romans: three parties that at any other time would mutually despise one another. But their relentless hatred of Jesus compels them to come together and to persist in spite of what they have just seen and experienced.

The power of the Word of God cannot be underestimated and it cannot be overpowered by anyone or anything, even relentless and persistent unbelief and hatred. Remember that it was by the power of His Word that the world and everything in it was created, it is by the power of His Word that souls are saved and lives are changed, and it will be by the power of His Word that the world and everything in it will be judged on the last day. The book of Revelation points us forward to a day when Jesus shall return, and from His mouth will come a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron (Rev 19:15, 21). Here we see a foreshadowing of that day, as Jesus speaks, and the sharp sword of His divine word overpowers the multitude that had come out armed against Him. On the last day, the scene will be much more severe and intense. His insurmountable authority is evident as we behold the power of His word.

III. Jesus’ insurmountable authority is seen in His sacrificial love (vv7-9).

Have you ever noticed how many books and movies depict someone laying down their life to rescue someone else? Why do you think that is? My theory is that every human being is hard-wired to long to hear the story of sacrificial love. Great stories are only great when they echo the greatest story every told. And the greatest story ever told is the story of Jesus laying down His life to rescue us from sin. He said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). He also said, “I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” And here in the Garden, we see Him doing just that.

Why is that Jesus asked the mob twice whom they were seeking? We can’t know for sure. Certainly the second question gave them an opportunity to reconsider. But it also provided an opportunity for clarity. “Whom do you seek?” Twice it was asked and twice it was answered: “Jesus the Nazarene.” He is making it clear that their business is with Him, not with His disciples. He is putting Himself in between the violent mob and His beloved sheep in a demonstration of His sacrificial love for them. He says, “I told you that I am He (or literally, “that I am”); so if you seek Me, let these go their way.” Jesus gives Himself up willingly, and He gave Himself up to rescue and preserve His followers. This is the reason He came into the world. This act is a symbol, a foreshadowing (if you will), of what He will do on the next day when He becomes the substitute for us all on the cross.

John says that Jesus said this “to fulfill the word which He spoke, ‘Of those whom You have given Me I lost not one.’” Each one of Jesus’ followers have been given to Him as a gift of love from the Father. He cherishes each one is determined to preserve them to the end. He said in John 6, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:37-40). We rightly understand this faithful preservation of His own as a spiritual protection, not a physical one. We do not look to this and similar promises to find assurance that He will always protect us from harm and danger. Rather, we find comfort in these words because they instill in us the assurance that He will keep all those who belong to Him to the end. We are not keeping ourselves in His love, thank God, but He is holding onto us with a grip of grace that is greater than any of our sins or momentary lapses of faith. Yet, here, the promise seems to be applied to a physical protection, not a spiritual one. Well, we must not think that the two are unrelated. At this stage in their spiritual journey, with a fledgling faith in Jesus but without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit that they would come to possess at Pentecost, Jesus knew that the physical dangers of this moment could shake these men to the core of their faith and cause them to fall away. So His physical protection of them was for the purpose of their ultimate spiritual preservation.

You have heard me say often that there is only a half-truth in the familiar cliché, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” The truth is that we can’t handle much, and most of us are regularly going through far more than we can handle. The full truth of the matter is that God will not give us more than He can handle, and He has promised to handle those matters as we rest in Him, so that our faith will not be shaken, and we will endure and persevere because He is faithfully preserving us in His love. He has stood between us and the ultimate and eternal danger of the outpouring of God’s wrath, and weathered that furious storm on the cross for us. He endured the cross for the joy of reconciling us to God, and having done so, He will not allow the difficult circumstances our frail bodies face in this fallen world to sever us from Him. He who knows all and can do all, who has power in His word to speak and overpower any adversity, and who has saved us by His sacrificial love, could certainly deliver us from any circumstance we face. If He doesn’t, it is not because He is not good or does not love us. He has not let us endure any situation that will not be found in heaven to have anchored our joy and our everlasting satisfaction in Him. Whether He intervenes or whether He doesn’t, it always to the end that we will rest ourselves in Him and His sacrificial love for us.

No one has said this better than Calvin:

Christ did not keep the apostles safe to the last, but amidst endless dangers and even in the midst of death He did secure their eternal salvation. … [B]y sparing them for a time, [He] made provision for their eternal salvation. .. We see how He continually bears with our weakness when He comes forward to repel so many attacks by Satan and ungodly people, because He sees that we are not yet able or prepared for them. In short, He never brings His people into the field of battle until they have been well trained, so that even in perishing, they do not perish, because they can gain both in death and in life.[3]

That gain in death and in life has been secured for us by Jesus through His death – an act of sacrificial love as a demonstration of His insurmountable authority!

Friends, as you read the Passion narrative in Scripture – the betrayal, the arrest, the injustice of His trials, the brutality of His sufferings, and the bloody cross that He bore for us – you must understand that at every moment of it all, He was the One who had insurmountable authority of the situation. He knew all that would take place, and with a single spoken word, He could have changed any of it. But He did not, so that He might rescue us by His sacrificial love. Friends, if Jesus faced these horrors with this kind of insurmountable authority, we who are His can face our difficulties in life with the confidence that He possesses the same insurmountable authority now. He knew what He was facing, and He knows what you are facing. He could speak and change His circumstances, and He can speak and change yours. But no matter what comes our way, it is His sacrificial love that unites us to Him, and nothing can overcome or overpower His authority over us and all that we face.  

[1] Robert Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10;Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 609.
[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Daily Study Bible, rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 2.223.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 408.

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