John 18—“Who is it You Want?”
Sunday morning worship, March 11, 2018
One of the things I love most about Jesus is that He never appears surprised. When I watch a movie or a television show I like to anticipate the ending. When I watch a sporting contest I like to think ahead, to see how a coach is working his plan. Even when I read books to the children at Voris I ask them what they think will happen next. The best I can ever do is guess. Sometimes I put the clues together correctly, other times I’m totally wrong and have to make adjustments whether big or small. Jesus always seems to be in control.
After preparing in prayer for the events surrounding his death on the cross, John writes that Jesus “left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it” (18:1). This did not happen by accident. Jesus knew where He was going. Judas “knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples” (v2). But knowing Judas knew where He would be didn’t keep Jesus from going anyway. Verses 3-4 put it quite bluntly: “Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out” to meet Judas who was guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. It’s almost like Jesus was saying, “Yes, this finally is the time. I’m not backing down. Let’s go!” John words it quite differently, “Who is it you want?” This is no mano-a-mano combat initiated by Jesus. This is Jesus about to arrested, tried, beaten, murdered, and buried in a tomb still looking for opportunities to reach people for eternity.
In John’s Gospel, Judas doesn’t speak. Judas doesn’t betray Jesus with a kiss. Judas doesn’t do anything but bring the soldiers and the religious leaders to Jesus. Back in John 13, John had already stated, “the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus” (v2) and that “as soon Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him” (v27). Jesus had already told Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (13:27). When washing Judas’ feet did not bring Judas to repentance (v5), Judas’ fate was sealed. Jesus knew Judas didn’t want Jesus; Judas wanted money, power, and influence. Jesus had looked like the promised Messiah when His ministry began. Judas had invested three years of his life following Jesus. Judas concluded it was better to cut his losses and make good with the existing regime. Maybe they would offer him the money, power, and influence he so desperately wanted. Judas soon realized he was little more than a stooge, a mere pawn maneuvered by more competent players of the money-power-influence game than he would ever be. John doesn’t even mention Judas’ death or say anything else about him after saying he was with the soldiers.
Jesus asked the soldiers and those with them, “Who is it you want?” (v.4). Across my years of reading the Gospels I’ve studied how Jesus encountered different people in different situations. The one conclusion I’ve more or less drawn is that Jesus met each person or group of people in a way that he/she/they could understand who was encountering them. Soldiers fight. Strength and power matter in their world. The four commentaries I read made the point that the Jewish leaders feared a riot so they enlisted armed Roman soldiers, soldiers that had conquered most of the known world. Jesus and his disciples stood facing a “detachment of soldiers.” The commentaries put the numbers of Roman soldiers from a low of 200 to a high of 1,000 men. Let’s take the average and say 600 soldiers, plus another 20-50 Jewish ‘policemen’ (that’s more or less how the Jewish temple guards functioned), and the Jewish leaders directing this ‘capture’ and we have odds roughly of 50-1. John writes, “‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they said.” I emphasize the inclusive they as opposed to saying ‘one of them.’ John writes: “When Jesus said, ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (v6). Jesus could have defeated this entire detachment with a spoken word. The power in His voice brought the entire detachment to their knees in fear. “Again he asked them, ‘Who is it you want?’” Jesus is looking for a different answer. Jesus is looking for a personal answer. Jesus wants to know if anyone wants to know Him, personally, not just carry out another task. Think about that for a moment. Did we all come here today wanting to meet Jesus personally? Did we come wanting to know what He wanted to tell us or did we just come because it’s what we do on Sunday morning and nothing is ever that different so we didn’t have any real expectations? The Roman soldiers didn’t understand what Jesus was offering them. The Roman soldiers didn’t understand the creative power, the life giving power of the spoken word of Jesus. They had recovered. “‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they said.” Their moment had passed. They missed the point of their encounter. They wanted to punch their time clock and get back to bed. It was late. This was the Passover time. There were too many Jews in Jerusalem and something was always happening somewhere during the Feast. 11:30 came. It was time to end. It was time to go eat.
“Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jewish leaders that it would be good if one man died for the people” (18:12-14). “Who is it you want?” Jesus might have asked them as well. “Not You. We want You dead!” would have been their answer. “If You, Jesus, keep doing what you are doing, we are going to lose everything. We love the praise of men. We love our synagogue, our church (see John 13:42-43) and You said You were going to destroy the Temple (John 2:19). You are trying to destroy our way of life. We want You dead!” While those are my words, I believe they accurately reflect the feelings of the Jewish leaders.
Jesus might have also asked Pilate, “Who is it you want?” Pilate’s answer might have been, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (v33). “‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me? My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’ ‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ ‘What is truth?’” Pilate might have said, “I just want a simple answer. I just want this all over with. I don’t want to talk religion with You. I’m out of my league in that arena. These Jews drive me crazy. I just to get a promotion and get out of this horrible place.” Most of us have encountered those people that make life at work difficult. That’s who the Jews were to Pilate. This job was a future-breaker, a career-killer. No one ever got promoted from Jerusalem to Rome. Pilate just wanted to keep the peace, keep his nose clean and get out of Jerusalem. The last thing Pilate wanted was a new king to serve, no matter where His kingdom came from.
“Who is it you want?” John wanted to be with Jesus. Peter thought he did, too. “Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple [John] was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in” (18:15-16). John and Peter went together. John got Peter inside, where the action surrounding Jesus’ first trial was taking place. But once Peter was inside, the same servant girl that saw Peter with John and let Peter into the courtyard with John asked Peter a simple question, a question not unlike, “I saw you with John. Are you guys friends?” In John’s Gospel these words are not threatening. Maybe this servant girl who knew John wanted to know more about Jesus, about what was going on. Maybe this was Peter’s chance to introduce her to who Jesus was. Maybe this servant girl wanted Jesus. But that’s not how Peter saw it. Scripture doesn’t tell us why Peter went so crazy. Luke’s Gospel tells us “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (22:31-32). Reading what is actually said, Satan wanted to attack all of the apostles. Jesus’ response focuses on Peter as the leader who would eventually gather the rest of the apostles together and get them headed in the right direction once Pentecost came. Maybe this humiliation was what God knew all of the apostles needed to go through. Jesus’ washing their feet wasn’t enough to teach them the way of the servant. James and John used their mother to see if they could get the prime leadership positions in Jesus’ kingdom bringing to the fore the desire they all probably quietly nursed (Matthew 20:20-28).
“Who is it you want?” Jesus wanted the apostles and wants us to really know Him. “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well…Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me… Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:7,11-14). Only John of the apostles was there when Jesus was tried. Only John of the apostles was there while Jesus hung on the cross. Some of us can do one thing, some of us another. There are things none of us can do. But one thing all of us can do is be there for Jesus. Sometimes just being available if Jesus needs us is enough. Hang in there. Don’t let go of Jesus. After the cross comes the resurrection and the ascension.