Mission Impossible

The Impossible Task

I love studying at the public library. First, I love books, but people also have a chance to ask me questions and talk. This past week, a young mother asked me an insightful question about John 18:6.

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. (John 18:1 – 6)

It’s only mentioned in John’s account. Did you see it? “They drew back and fell to the ground.” It’s a detail the other gospels pass over. What would cause the soldier to fall to the ground? Did Jesus blast them with some miraculous power? No. Were the soldiers afraid of a dozen Galilean fishermen armed with two swords? That’s not very likely. What happened?

To answer that, we need to use our sanctified imaginations. It was Passover. That means there was a full moon illuminating the streets and walls of Jerusalem. It was quite late at night. They had searched all over Jerusalem. They first searched for Jesus at John Mark’s home, probably the scene of the Last Supper (Mark 15). Judas also knew about the Garden of Gethsemane, and so the soldiers followed him through the city walls, down the Kidron Valley, and up into the olive groves. Have you seen an ancient olive tree? They are thick and gnarly and look very sinister – even in daylight. Can you imagine what the trees must have looked like by the light of a full moon? Now think about what the soldiers knew about Jesus. He performed miracles. He healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water, had power over demons. “How are we going to arrest such a man?” If they were Jewish, they might have remembered the story of Ahaziah and Elijah. The king sent fifty men to arrest the prophet:

Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty men with his fifty. He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. 

Again the king sent to him another captain of fifty men with his fifty. And he answered and said to him, “O man of God, this is the king’s order, ‘Come down quickly!’” But Elijah answered them, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. (2 Kings 1:9 – 12).

The third captain was wiser, fell to his knees, and politely asked Elijah to spare his life and the lives of his fifty men and come with him peacefully. If the soldiers sent to arrest Jesus knew this story when Jesus showed no fear in the garden, it would be no wonder they would back away and fall down on their faces – a detail only mentioned by John, who was an eyewitness. Aren’t you glad he did? Thanks for the question!

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