READ : John 18:1-11
In this special Words of Hope program for Holy Week, David Bast explores how Jesus’ suffering and death on our behalf can transform our understanding of our own suffering.
Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, is also known as Passion Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, when Christians commemorate Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. On this Passion Sunday I invite you to reflect on God’s saving love in Christ. Here’s how Jesus’ passion began, as described in the 18th chapter of the Gospel according to John.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley, 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. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
Now at last Jesus’ hour has come, the hour of which he spoke often throughout the Gospel of John, the hour of his glorification, which was also the hour of his suffering. When it does come, it seems on one level as though Jesus is caught, helpless, like a rat in a trap. He has aroused the undying hostility of all the powerful forces in Jerusalem. He has a traitor within his own inner circle. Jesus’ enemies have all the power; they hold all the cards. Thanks to Judas, they know exactly where Jesus will go. They’re aware of his secret prayer retreat: Gethsemane, the garden in the valley of the brook Kidron, on the upward slope of the Mount of Olives, just to the east of the city. So in the middle of the night Judas, leading a group of well-armed temple soldiers, brings them in to arrest Jesus. Jesus is trapped, with no way out. What can he possibly do?
Yet as John tells the story, there is a strange sort of role reversal. We wonder who is really in charge during this midnight police raid? Who is in command of the situation? Which is the captor here, and which the captive? John says that Jesus, knowing all that would happen??”in other words, he is not caught by surprise in the Garden??”steps forward with a calm majesty and says to the soldiers, “Whom do you seek?”
And then Jesus begins to interrogate his would-be arresters. What kind of operation is this, where the victim asks the questions and the cops are forced to give the answers? “Whom do you seek?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said, “I am he.”
And John says that when Jesus identified himself all the soldiers fell back in fear. In another gospel account when Jesus rebukes his disciples for trying to resist his arrest by force, he says. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). Seventy thousand angels stood ready to defend the Lord’s Messiah, when one would have been more than enough! But Jesus really didn’t even need a single angel. He could have walked out of the garden by himself right through the middle of that hostile crowd. But instead Jesus allows himself to be taken. He saves his disciples and offers himself, a willing sacrifice, bound for the altar.
Actors in the Story
Consider all the conflicting motives at work in that little group of actors in the garden. There are all sorts of actors here, each with their own reasons for doing what they do. There’s Judas, of course. He betrayed Jesus, as we all know. There have been attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Judas. Some have speculated that Judas was just trying to force Jesus’ hand, that he thought if Jesus was arrested he would simply vanquish everybody, and immediately inaugurate the kingdom of God.
But John, who was there, describes a much more base and common motive. He says that Judas was a thief, who used to steal from the disciples’ common purse. Why did Judas betray Jesus? He did it out of greed. There’s no nobility here. There’s nothing higher than the chance of an opportunist to make a little more money by betraying his Master.
But behind Judas stands another actor in the story with even more sinister motives. John says that earlier that evening, as the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room for the last supper, “Satan entered into” Judas (13:27, cf. v. 2). There’s something going on in Jesus’ Passion that is inexplicable in merely human terms.
Indeed, how do you finally explain the mystery of evil? How can people do the horrible things they do? There is a power of darkness that lies behind and beneath all of the twisted motives and terrible acts of human beings. That, too, is a factor in the story of Jesus’ final hour. The devil sees it as an opportunity to destroy the Son of God.
Then, of course, there’s the priests and their allies among the Pharisees. We read about them, too, earlier in the story in John chapter 11 when Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. That really was the last straw as far as the authorities in Jerusalem were concerned. Now they were deeply worried that Jesus would indeed set himself up as a ruler, and that all the people would flock to him. Who could deny an act of power like that? And so we read that from that day on, they made plans to put him to death (11:45-57).
This, too, we can understand, can’t we? This is how politicians operate, calculating the necessities. Some of them may have been hell-bent on getting rid of Jesus, others perhaps were more reluctant. But Caiaphas the chief priest is the one who puts his finger on the key issue when he says that one man will have to be sacrificed for the good of all (11:50). It may be an unpleasant necessity, but it’s something we just have to do. That’s the way governments are. This man’s death is expedient. It’s a necessary evil.
But this brings us to the final actor in the drama. Of all these various characters and all their differing motives for bringing about Jesus’ death, it was one actor who really ruled and overruled. This is my Father’s cup, Jesus said, referring to his arrest, and all that followed, including his crucifixion. “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” God is the one who in and through all of the human actors is accomplishing his purpose, and his purpose is to save.
We see this and we can’t understand how this can be, how human freedom, human responsibility, human motivation, even human sin can somehow be taken up as part of the plan of God, and all these evil acts be used to bring the greatest good that the world has ever known. Ultimately it’s not the chief priests’ plot that we see unfolding here in the Garden. Yes, there is a plan operating here, but it is the plan the Father, the Son, and the Spirit have made together for the salvation of the world.
So the Father pours a cup for the Son. This cup, the prophet Jeremiah tells us, is the cup of the wine of the wrath of God, the righteous judgment of God upon the sin of the world. And the Son freely acquiesces in the Father’s plan. He takes the cup and he drains it dry so that there is no more wrath for us. The Apostle Paul, speaking of this in Romans 4, says of Christ: that he was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Christ was truly delivered up. And you ask, “By whom was he delivered up? For what reason?” He was delivered up by Judas out of greed. He was delivered up by Caiaphas and his cohorts out of fear and jealousy and envy. He was delivered up by Pilate, that corrupt Roman judge, out of a desire to save his skin. And he was delivered up by Satan out of sheer evil and malevolence. But ultimately, what matters most, is that he was delivered up by God for our trespasses. That is the gospel good news to which the cross points.
And because Jesus died for our sins, because he willingly drained the cup of holy wrath which the Father offered him, there is no more wrath for us. The sufferings of believers are not punishment, John Newton wrote, “there is no wrath in them; the cup [God] puts in their hands is very different from that which he drank for their sakes, and it is only medicinal to promote their chief good.”
Some day the hour of our own personal Gethsemane will come for you and for me, and we will face the same question Jesus did??””Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”??”but rest assured that however bitter the momentary taste of it may be, the end is sweet.