Arrest and Trial by Night—John 18:1-27

Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 39

by Reta Halteman Finger

The Garden of Gethsemane - Photo by Reta Finger
The Garden of Gethsemane with ancient olive trees in present-day Israel. Photo by Reta Finger.

Imagine waking up in the morning to find a sheriff at your door with an arrest warrant for your young adult daughter! That’s what happened last week to good friends in my church. Thankfully, no crime was committed, just some legal misunderstanding. But think of those first moments of panic at the front door…

At least that sheriff didn’t come with a posse at night, shattering the peace with torches, lanterns, and the clash of swords, as in John 18:1-27. Whatever calming words Jesus prayed in Chapter 17, he certainly needs them now (18:3). Thus begins the strange and terrible “going away” Jesus had promised his disciples in the previous discourse (chapters 14-17; note especially John 14:27-29). But we, along with those frightened disciples, might ask: is this the way the Father glorifies the Son and the Son glorifies the Father, as Jesus prayed in 17:1? What irony!

Our last lesson noted that in the ancient world, the term “glory” also means “honor.” Evidently God will honor Jesus not by rescuing him but by strengthening him through his ordeal. So let’s look for ways in which Jesus, even though arrested, shackled, and interrogated, acts honorably and with authority in John 18:1-27. Is his character under duress consistent with his previous teaching and actions?

Who’s in control here?

First, Jesus and his disciples go to a garden across the valley from the Temple Mount (18:1). In those days, gardens had stone walls to protect the plants from animals or thieves. As Jesus comes forward to the doorway to meet the soldiers in verse 4, he enacts his earlier pronouncement in John 10:1-18. He becomes the Door of the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

Second, Jesus is in control of the situation. He knows “all that was to happen to him” (v 4). He steps forward and questions first: “Whom are you looking for?” When they reply, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he identifies himself. The NRSV quotes Jesus saying, “I am he,” but the Greek text uses the name we’ve heard many times before in this Gospel—egō eimí—“I AM.” When Jesus says this, all the officers step back and ignobly fall to the ground! (v 6). As they scramble to their feet, the question and the replies are repeated again: “I told you that I AM!” Taking charge in this way is a matter of honor. Only the inferior are controlled by those above them.

Nevertheless, Jesus is arrested, bound, and carried off to be interrogated by Annas, father-in-law of the present high priest, Caiaphas (vv 12-14). For his age and status, Annas is highly respected among the Jews. Since Jesus must maintain his own honor, this conversation is bound to be combative. Annas questions Jesus about his disciples and his teaching (v 19). Jesus knows this is a political trap, not an honest inquiry. He rises to the challenge and retorts, “I have always spoken in public where Jews gather. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said” (vv 20-21).

This rather “smart-alecky” reply seriously challenges the honor of the superior person. So a policeman responds by striking Jesus on the face, a very demeaning action. But the unsubmissive Jesus has the last word (vv 22-23).

A disciple dishonors himself

Meanwhile, Simon Peter is not faring well. Going on the attack in the garden, he has misunderstood Jesus’s acceptance of “the cup the Father has given” him (18:10-11). Still, he doesn’t run away. He and another disciple follow Jesus to Annas’s residence. (This “other disciple” is likely Lazarus, since he is from Bethany, close to Jerusalem.) This disciple uses his connections to the high priest (v 16) to bring Peter into the courtyard to warm himself by the fire through the night while they wait for news. Here Peter is asked three times whether he is one of Jesus’s disciples, and each time he denies it, mirroring Jesus’s “I am” words with its opposite, “ouk eimí—I am not!” (vv 17, 25-27). Jesus’s prediction in John 13:38 is then realized: “before the rooster crows, you will have denied me three times.” Peter’s bitter tears of repentance are recorded in the three Synoptics, but this Gospel says nothing about his reaction—at least not here. Our author leaves Peter dangling in dishonor and despair.

The value of the original language

Apart from the theme of glory, honor, and dishonor, several linguistic aspects are intriguing. For example, in 18:18, the charcoal fire is anthrakía in Greek, from where we get the term “anthracite” for a type of coal. The Greek word for those “warming themselves” by the fire is thermaínō—well-used in English for thermometers, thermos bottles, and thermal underwear!

Another Greek word hints at deeper implications. In 18:3, Judas “brought a detachment (speîra) of soldiers together with police (huperétas)  from the chief priests and the Pharisees.”  One would expect Jewish temple police to be involved. But a speîra of soldiers is always a Roman cohort. Yet Romans are not officially involved until the high priests hand Jesus over to them the following day. David Rensberger in Johannine Faith and Liberating Community suggests that our author exaggerates this detail in order to emphasize Roman (and thus political) involvement in Jesus’s passion and death from the beginning. Religion and politics are never separated in the ancient world. Watch for this in the coming lessons!

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Why are both Peter and Malchus (18:10) named in John’s Gospel, but unnamed in the Synoptics? (See Matt. 26: 51-53; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51.) Any guesses?
  2. Why do you think Jesus’s arrest and interrogation happen at night?
  3. Was it necessary for Jesus to return to his Father in this traumatic way? Why or why not?
  4. Have you ever risked arrest for principles of truth and justice?
Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.