“As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.”
In Gethsemane it took place, the garden where Jesus and His disciples had retired after the paschal lamb had been eaten, and the last Passover kept. After Judas had been dismissed, and the Supper of the New Testament instituted, the Lord came here; not so much to be alone with His disciples before the deciding hour, as to be alone with His God. There He crawled in the dust, and became as a worm and no man. There he had poured out His soul which had become exceeding sorrowful even unto death. There He had prayed earnestly that the cup of suffering might pass from Him—that if the Father could devise another way to save His people than the bitter way of the cross, this was His desire; but also that desire He was willing to subject unto the will of His God. And when it became plain to Him that the Father had no other way whereby He could redeem His people, that the only way was the way of the cross, that He must pass under the outpouring of the vials of holy, eternal, divine wrath,—then it was that He was ready to walk that way.
Arousing His sleeping disciples, who could not watch with Him one hour and pray, because of the weariness of the rapidly turning events, and, more importantly, because the Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief might suffer alone in the midst of the garden, where He sweat as it were drops of blood and experienced no moral or spiritual support that men might give and He might crave,—then said He unto them, “Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.”
Then it was that the captors came for to take Him!
Evil men they were, inspired by the prince of darkness, and led by an erstwhile disciple whose heart Satan filled!
Judas, after he had been dismissed by the Lord from the table of Passover, with the words, “What thou doest, do quickly,” went swiftly in the darkness of the night to the leaders of the Jews, with whom he had already agreed for thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus into their hands, bringing them the message that their diabolical plan was known to the Lord, and urging them with haste to carry it out. Rushing into their presence, he urges them to act quickly and with force to capture and dispose of Him.
Indeed, it had not been the plan or desire of the enemy to dispose of Jesus publicly on the feast days, lest they stir up the people. What they planned to do, they had thought to do secretly. But now it appeared that their plans had to be changed. Regardless of the consequences, they sense that they must act now. And because they knew Jesus’ power, for they had witnessed it in the wonders He had performed, and most likely they had been forewarned by Judas that it might be necessary to come with force, they appealed to the captain of the temple guard for a band of soldiers, on the pretext that they were about to capture a dangerous malefactor. Therefore with a great multitude, armed with swords and clubs, with lanterns and torches, and led by Judas, they approach unto the gate of the garden.
Jesus, therefore, knowing all things that should come upon Him, went forth to meet them.
He addresses them with the question: “Whom seek ye?”
Significantly then we read in the text: “As soon then as He had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.”
Indeed, an amazing scene!
The would-be captors lie fallen upon the ground! They appear as dead men, utterly helpless!
The intended Captive captures His captors!
But how shall we understand their conduct?
That the enemy would be astounded at the fearlessness Jesus displayed before a numerically and physically greater host, we can easily comprehend. That they would momentarily pause in their contemplated endeavor to capture Him, and stand in amazement at the boldness wherewith He came forth to meet them, is not difficult to perceive. For they had come, so we may believe, to capture a “dangerous malefactor” who would either flee at the first sound of the footsteps of the approaching posse, or who would use every available weapon to avoid capture. This is what they expected; and therefore, they had come fully armed and with a great multitude. But instead of fleeing, or instead of using physical power to avoid capture, He confronted them with the simple question: “Whom seek ye?” This would, indeed, naturally cause consternation, and psychologically might cause them to halt and even to step backward. But it would not cause them, and especially the soldiers, to fall away backward and to lie prostrate on the ground. You cannot explain their conduct from a merely natural and psychological point of view. For consider that they were a great multitude, with hardened soldiers who were thoroughly armed at the head, led there by Judas whose heart Satan filled, and who was now determined to betray the Lord. Is it conceivable, do you think, that such a host-would fall to the ground helpless, and that out of mere natural fear or psychological wonderment? We think not. There must be another and a much better explanation.
Is it not significant that John is the only one of the gospel narrators who speaks of this scene? And remembering that it is he, in distinction from the rest, who would emphasize in his gospel the divinity of Christ, would it not appear therefore also here that he would have us see Jesus as the Son of God? From this we conclude that on this occasion the Lord allowed His divine power to proceed from Him, riding as it were on the words He spoke, “Whom seek ye?” that caused the multitude, all of them, including Judas, to fall backward to the ground. In one word, He allowed for a moment His divinity to shine through the veil of His flesh, the holiness and righteousness of which causes wickedness to recoil in the dust.
Here it must become perfectly evident that no one could take Him, unless He gave Himself willingly into their hands.
Something of this divine power He displayed on other occasions when the enemy sought to destroy Him. In Nazareth they brought Him-out of the city intent on pushing Him off a cliff; but He passed through their midst and escaped, for His hour was not yet come. Later when He was in Jerusalem and they were determined to stone Him, He departed from them into Peraea, for His hour was not yet come.
But now it was the hour!
And in this hour we see that, though He had the power to slay all His enemies and lay them prostrate at His feet, though He could have called down legions of angels to deliver Him out of the enemies’ hands, though even the disciples would fight in His defense, if necessary unto death,—He would not strike terror into the hearts of His captors while He had the power to capture them; but He gave Himself voluntarily into their hands. Before that hour which the Father had set in His counsel had come, no man could take Him. But when that hour arrives, .He will, according to the Father’s will, give Himself voluntarily unto death.
But there is more!
Not only must the captors learn that they cannot take Him until He gives Himself into their hands; but this evidence of His power, and His resignation to the will of the enemies must also speak to His disciples, and to us. They, and especially Peter, had made up their minds to defend Him. They had come into the garden with their swords. And Peter had been the first to show that he meant to use it. He had cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest, and was thoroughly rebuked of the Lord for his conduct. They that use the sword shall perish with the sword, the Lord had said. But more significantly he and the disciples had to learn that the Lord needed not their defense. He could on His Word call down a multitude of angels if He felt that was necessary. And what greater proof did they need of His infinite power when they, too, saw the ungodly host lying prostrate at Jesus’ feet? Indeed, He did not need their protection. The two Greek words which Jesus spoke, and constituting only seven letters, was all He needed to cast the enemy to the ground and hold them there until as on other occasions He would pass through their midst and thus escape. But so it must not be. The hour had truly come. The mob is here in the service of God to capture Him and bring Him to the frightful but at the same time glorious cross, where He would be raised up in order to draw all men unto Himself.
It was this instruction which they learned that caused the disciples to forsake Him and flee. Not because of any personal fear they might have had at the sight of the rabble, but because they now understood that the Lord would give Himself willingly into their hands that moved them to flee and forsake Him. This was indeed the offense concerning which the Lord had previously forewarned earlier that night, “All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered abroad.”
Yes, with the power to capture His captors, He must nevertheless be ready in this hour to lay down His life for His sheep.
While what He did when He cast the multitude .to ground was prophetic of what must also come to pass when He would be exalted’ at God’s right hand, when every knee must bow, acknowledging that He is the Lord, He must nevertheless in this hour forego the use of that power to deliver Himself from their hands, lest He should become disobedient to His heavenly calling.
“Wherefore God has also highly exalted Him” can only be realized after He had first “humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
The mighty Lord will attain to the highest pinnacle of His lordship, only after He has through the way of perfect obedience experienced what it means to become the servant of all.
Most blessed Saviour!
Glorious King and Deliverer of His people!