Jesus and the disciples have now arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane. Darkness has fallen and dark forces make their move in what will be a disastrous night for Peter and will bring Jesus to the threshold of crucifixion at the hands of wicked men.

  1. What’s going on here?

We’ve been having a discussion at our Thursday bible studies as to how God works with mankind and specifically how God worked with Pharaoh as he was repeatedly asked to let God’s people go. Two views emerge of this: first, that since God is sovereign, all that takes place is according to his will and second that God has delegated his sovereignty and that actions of sinful men take place under conditions of free will whilst at the same time God retains overall sovereignty. The first view respects God’s place in the universe and the world and recognises that God is sovereign. With this view in mind, it seems that Pharaoh’s refusal to release God’s people from slavery was inevitable and something over which Pharaoh had no control. Alternatively, if God had delegated his sovereignty to Pharaoh, granting him free will and moral responsibility for his use of that freewill, then why would God say that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart: this seems to remove Pharaoh’s free will and moral responsibility?

Similar questions arise in this very passage in John, in which a number of parties contrive to bring about the crucifixion of Jesus: Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, the Jews in general, Pilate and the Romans. We cannot help but ask, if it was part of God’s plan to have Jesus sacrificed for the sin of the world then surely those involved in bringing this about were not in any way morally responsible as they were merely carrying out God’s plan and purpose? It seems to me that if God has absolute sovereignty and all that happens is ‘his will’ then we have a significant problem to deal with. Could God really have engineered and ordained the actions of Judas in betrayal of Jesus (and indeed Pharaoh in his work in killing baby Hebrew boys and enslaving God’s people in the harshest of circumstances)? This conundrum could be solved by appealing to ‘divine mystery’ in an effort to preserve God’s sinless nature whilst acknowledging his sovereignty. I find this a somewhat dissatisfying explanation. Alternatively, if we accept that God has indeed delegated part of his authority and that we thus all bear moral responsibility for our actions we immediately solve the problem of laying sin at God’s door. But, how then does God work out his plans using Pharaoh or indeed Judas, Pilate, the Romans and all those who were clearly responsible for Jesus’ death? I believe that the answer lies in the fact that God works out his plans and purposes in spite of the actions of sinful men rather than because of the actions of sinful men. This seems entirely consistent with the overall picture in the bible, which places moral responsibility on each of us. With these thoughts in mind, we turn now to the events that brought about a great injustice as well as a series of appalling sinful and rebellious acts of men, but through it all God was bringing about the greatest act of love and reconciliation that this world could ever know. I marvel at the contrast!

  1. The arrest of Jesus

Jesus and the disciples had arrived at Gethsemane. It seems that Judas had alerted Jesus’ enemies and they would soon arrive to make the arrest. John records that s a detachment of soldiers arrived – these would likely have been Roman soldiers brought up to Jerusalem from their barracks in Caesarea to maintain order during the Passover. Chief priests and Pharisees accompanied them. They were armed with swords, torches and lanterns. John’s account adds to the other gospel accounts (which relate Judas’ betrayal with a kiss) with Jesus identifying himself before his opponents. Perhaps in the dim light this was necessary. John records (verse 6): ‘when Jesus said ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.’ Perhaps this was yet another physical indication that what they were about to do was wrong – had they been doing what was right surely they would have fallen on their faces in worship! Jesus asked ‘who is it you want.’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ came the reply. There was no misidentification, they were about to arrest a man who spoke with power, eloquence and insight, a man who healed the sick and raised the dead. They were well aware of this and yet continued to work against the Messiah.

Jesus was thinking of his disciples and told those about to arrest him to let the disciples go. John notes that this was to fulfil what he had previously said: ‘I have not lost one of those you gave me.’ However, Peter had other ideas as well as a weapon! He was not afraid to use it! He struck Malchus the high priest’s servant with his sword. I suspect that Peter meant to kill Malchus but missed his target injuring only his ear. Jesus made it clear to Peter that this was not the time for swords. He would submit himself to these wicked men to bring about God’s purpose. The other gospel writers note that Jesus miraculously healed Malchus’ injury. I cannot help wondering if this was yet again another opportunity for Jesus’ captors to turn away from their sinful actions. Jesus was bound and taken to Annas. We discover that Annas was the father in law of the current high priest: Caiaphas. Apparently, the position of High Priest was a life-long appointment, but the Romans had replaced Annas with Caiaphas. Perhaps the Jews still regarded Annas as the rightful high priest.

  1. Denial and questions

John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection relates the side-story of Peter’s denial (and his ultimate re-instatement). You will remember that Jesus had predicted that Peter would deny him 3 times. Peter (and presumably John) were brave enough to follow the arresting party and to remain near Jesus. It seems that John knew the high priest (Annas) and was given access to the high priest’s courtyard. John spoke to the ‘girl on the door’ to secure Peter’s admittance. It was at this point that the girl recognised Peter and identified him as one of Jesus’ disciples. ‘I am not,’ was Peter’s emphatic reply.

Meanwhile the high priest was questioning Jesus. There is a certain righteous boldness in Jesus’ response to the questions; ‘I have spoken openly to the world….why question me?’  The atmosphere was not however one of ‘truth seeking’ and Jesus received a blow to the face for his statement. Again, Jesus is bold in his response: ‘If I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?’ Perhaps Annas realised that this was not going to be easy and he had him sent to Caiaphas.

During this time, Peter was warming himself around a fire with others in the courtyard. The night time temperature in Jerusalem in mid spring goes down to single digit Celsius – if you ever travelled on Southern rail in the winter you will know that you don’t need to be standing around outside for very long to begin to feel very cold indeed! It was as that small group stood around the fire that Peter was asked again: ‘You aren’t one of his disciples too are you?’ Peter again denied any association with Jesus. Moments later a relative of Malchus who witnessed Peter’s attack challenged Peter. Once again Pater denied it, and’ at that very moment a cock began to crow.  John does not mention Peter’s response to the third denial but Mark does, he simply records that Peter ‘broke down and wept.

John makes an interesting comparison in this account. He describes the actions of the soldiers and the religious authorities who it seems were being given a last chance to repent. They fell to the ground when Jesus identified himself, they saw the miracle when Jesus healed the man attacked by Peter, Annas heard the testimony of Jesus and as we shall see below Pilate had equal opportunity to turn away from the condemnation of an innocent man. As far as we know all of these people continued down the road of rejection of the Messiah. But what of Peter? He had just denied the Lord three times. No doubt he felt a total failure but he did believe, he did fail but the one in whom he trusted would not fail him. Peter would be re-instated and would go on to do great things in the name of Jesus. This is an encouragement to us too. We so often fail to do the right thing but when we have put our trust in Jesus we find that he does not fail us.

  1. Pilate

It had been a long night of betrayal, denial and injustice. As the morning broke, Jesus was taken from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. It was the day of Passover and it was necessary for Jews to be ceremonially clean – they would no enter the homes of Gentiles for fear of defiling themselves. These people were preparing to murder the Messiah, but were more concerned with observing rules! I think there’s a lesson for us here. How often do we battle in churches to preserve rules at the expense of doing what’s really important!

The meeting of Pilate and the Jews thus took place outside Pilate’s residence. Pilate asks four questions: "What charges are you brining against this Man?" (18:29), "Are You the King of the Jews?" (18:33), "Do you want me to release the King of the Jews?" (18:39), and "Where are You from?" (19:9).

The first question was important because the Jews wanted to kill Jesus for blasphemy (he claimed to be God), but under Roman rule they could not do so. They seemed to expect Pilate to give them clearance to kill Jesus, but it seems that Pilate wanted to hear at least some of the evidence. Pilate told them to take sort things out by their own law, but this was not good enough for the Jews: ‘but we have no right to execute anyone,’ was their reply. This then prompted Pilate to question Jesus directly. ‘Are you the king of the Jews.’ Jesus did not answer directly but rather asked if Pilate had heard this notion from the others. Pilate didn’t want to get involved in what he thought was Jewish politics – he asked Jesus what he had done. Jesus’ reply is of interest he said ‘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.

Much has been written about the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke so much of in his early ministry. There is no doubt that the Old Testament prophets spoke on God’s behalf of a coming kingdom on earth over which the Messiah would reign. The flow of the thinking in the bible leads to this point. But the kingdom could not come if the people were not ready. The kingdom that was at hand, a kingdom in which God’s will would be ‘done on earth as it is in heaven,’ could only come when God’s people, Israel were spiritually ready – how could this kingdom with spiritual foundations come when the people remained in their sin? The source of Jesus’ kingdom was external to the world, but the kingdom was to come on earth. Because of the Jews’ rejection of the Messiah the kingdom would be delayed.

Pilate was intrigued and said ‘so you are a king.’ Again Jesus’ reply is instructive: ‘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.’ As Pilate sat opposite the Lord he had the most wonderful opportunity to discover truth, but it seems that he closed his mind to the possibility: ‘what is truth?’ We encounter the same attitude today. The prevailing thinking today is that there is either no objective truth at all or that truth can only be found in the physical world. The result is at best a warped understanding of reality. Pilate was about to make the biggest mistake he could ever make because he closed his mind to truth.

Having interviewed Jesus, Pilate needed to resolve the situation and returned to the Jews with an offer. ‘I find no basis for a charge against him. But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews.’  Pilate at least seemed to realise that Jesus was indeed a legitimate king, even if he did not, the choice of the Jews was given a new clarity by Pilate’s words! The tragic response was emphatic: ‘No, not him! Give us Barabbas!’

What will you do with Jesus?