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John 18:6  When Jesus said, I am he, they drew back and fell to the ground

Earlier that evening, Jesus dismissed Judas Iscariot to do what was in his heart. Possessed by the devil (John 13:27), Judas went to the religious leaders and obtained a detachment of soldiers to arrest Jesus. The evening provided a cloak of darkness that would minimize any commotion.  

Perhaps Judas led them to the upper room where they ate the Last Supper (Luke 22:12). Finding it empty, he took them to the Garden of Gethsemane because Jesus often went there with his disciples (John 18:2). When they arrived, Jesus said to them, Who is it you want?Jesus of Nazareth, they replied. I am he, said Jesus. Immediately the soldiers drew back and fell to the ground (John 18:4-6).

This is interesting for at least three reasons. First, falling to the ground is a common reaction to deity. The Prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God, and he fell facedown (Ezekiel 1:28). When the risen Christ appeared to Saul, he fell to the ground (Acts 22:7). And when John encountered the risen Christ, he fell at his feet as though dead (Revelation 1:17). The authority of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that even professional soldiers could not remain standing.

Second, the word detachment (John 18:3) refers to a tenth of a legion, which could be as many as six hundred men. This seems like a lot of man-power just to make an arrest. But when the Apostle Paul was escorted to Caesarea, he was taken by over four hundred soldiers (Acts 23:23). Since Jesus had disciples who might be willing to fight, it’s not unreasonable to think of hundreds of soldiers assigned to make the arrest.

Third, when Jesus said I am he, what he literally said (in Greek) was, I am. This is the meaning of God’s name, which occurs over six thousand times in the Old Testament. Even in apparent weakness, Jesus was in control, because he was God in human flesh.

But another explanation may also be helpful. These were Jewish soldiers who were familiar with the stories of the Old Testament. When the king of Israel sent fifty men to arrest the prophet Elijah, the prophet called fire out of heaven that consumed them. When the king sent another fifty men, the same thing happened (2 Kings 1:1-12). Jesus did many miracles, and was known as a powerful prophet. The men who came to arrest him probably feared for their lives. So When Jesus said, I am he, they drew back and fell to the ground

John 18:10-11 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. . . . Jesus commanded Peter, Put your sword away! 

Then Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed him (Luke 22:51). This was good for the man, but also for Peter, and the church. Peter would have been arrested for cutting off a man’s ear, and the church would have lost a leader. But Jesus overruled Peter’s mistake, and has probably done the same for us. If we consider all the foolish things that we have done, we will be amazed how often God has kept us out of trouble. 

John 18:11b Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? 

This is an allusion to the cup of God’s wrath mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath (Jeremiah 25:15). [D]rink the cup of the wrath of the Almighty (Job 21:20). [T]hey, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath (Revelation 14:10). And again, [God] gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath (Revelation 16:19). The cup that Jesus would drink on the cross, was the cup of God’s wrath against us.

It is important to understand that the wrath of God is upon everyone, until they believe in Jesus Christ. [W]hoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them (John 3:36), said John the Baptist. Jesus bore God’s wrath on our behalf, so we would not have to bear it ourselves. [T]he punishment that brought us peace was on him (Isaiah 53:5), wrote Isaiah. And [We are] saved from God’s wrath through him (Romans 5:9), wrote Paul. The moment we believe in Jesus Christ, God is no longer angry at us, since his wrath was spent on the Savior.

The story is told of a child king who had a thousand servants at his command. His brother asked, What happens when you do something bad? The child king replied, Someone else is punished for me. To demonstrate, he broke an expensive vase, and one of his servants was given a beating. But Jesus reversed the order by taking a beating in the place of his servants. He bore the wrath of God, so we could have peace with God (Romans 5:1). 

John 18:26-27 Didn’t I see you with him in the garden? Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

Earlier that night, Jesus told his disciples that they would fall away from him (Matthew 26:31), and that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed (John 13:38). Peter denied this emphatically. Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will (Matthew 26:33). Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you (Matthew 26:35). I am ready to go with you to prison and to death (Luke 22:33). I will lay down my life for you (John 13:37), he said.

So when Jesus was arrested, and the other disciples ran for their lives (John 18:8), Peter and John followed him into the courtyard of the High Priest (Matthew 26:58). It is hard to know what Peter was thinking, unless he was hoping to rescue Jesus. He would have to avoid being identified, of course, so he denied that he even knew Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). He was not really denying Jesus, it only appeared that way—once, twice, and then again. 

Suddenly the rooster crowed, and Peter remembered what Jesus had said. [B]efore the rooster crows, you will disown me three times (John 13:38). In spite of himself, somehow, somewhere, Peter crossed a line.

Maybe you promised God that you would never do something, or never do it again. You were perfectly sincere, but then it happened—or it happened again. It does not mean you were lying, but that sin is bigger than us all. If Peter failed, so can anyone—provided it is the right temptation, in the right place, at the right time.

If there is a clue to Peter’s failure, it could be the confidence he had in himself. [I]f you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12), wrote Paul. 

A friend of mine was getting the mail when he slipped on a patch of ice. The next thing he knew, he was flat on his back, wondering what just happened. We do not depend on moral resolve for our stability, but on Jesus Christ. He alone will keep us firm to the end (1 Corinthians 1:8), wrote Paul.

Reflection and Review
Why did the guards fall to the ground?
Why did Jesus heal the man’s ear?
Should Christians make promises to God?