It is Thursday night of “Passion Week.” We all know that Christ died on Friday and rose on Sunday, but what happened on Thursday night? He washed His disciples’ feet. He taught His disciples in the Upper Room. He transformed the Passover meal into “The Lord’s Supper” commemorating His death. He cried out to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane until He sweat drops of blood. He was betrayed with a kiss. He was arrested. And He knocked a large detachment of Roman soldiers to the ground with His word.
The beloved Apostle, moved by the Holy Spirit, remembered that night: “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.” (John 18:3-6)
Judas, along with the religious leaders, had organized a detachment of soldiers to come and arrest Jesus in the garden. The word translated “band” of soldiers in the ESV is a “cohort” of Roman soldiers that would normally number 600 men. However, depending on the circumstances it could be up to 1,000 or as little as 200. Given that there were extra Roman soldiers on duty for the Passover Feast, as well as the fact that the other Gospels indicate that there were others besides the soldiers in the crowd who carried clubs, it is no exaggeration to say that there was a minimum of 300 men there that night if not the full 1,000 given Jesus’ popularity just a few days before on “Palm Sunday.” This would be at least 15 times more armed men than are in the picture at the top of this post.
Jesus decimated them by simply answering “I am” to their question. These trained killers fell to the ground at the word of our Savior!
It is mind-boggling how some commentators will try to explain away this profound moment before Jesus was arrested. It is another display of His authority before He would let them arrest Him, and we are reminded once again that He is the incarnate God before He humbles Himself to the point of death on a cross. Before His greatest humility, He once again displayed His power. Yet some will say things such as that they fell down because they expected to find a meek peasant and instead were met in the dim light by a majestic person. Ludicrous. Others say that those in the front were startled when Jesus appeared out of the shadows, which in turn knocked down those behind them like dominoes. Nonsense. Roman soldiers were highly trained and had taken over much of the world. They battled against the most powerful armies on earth and often won. They did not easily spook and fall down like children when somebody emerged from a dark garden that was now lit up with their torches. But, they did fall down when Jesus said “I am.” As John MacArthur explains, “All Jesus had to do was speak His name–the name of God–and His enemies were rendered helpless.” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, John 12-21, p. 308)
It is no wonder Peter was emboldened to cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest! Christ quickly reminded Peter right in front of the soldiers that if He wanted to, He could ask the Father to send 72,000 angels that He could then command (Matt. 26:53). What was a detachment of Roman soldiers compared to His power?
This was a foretaste of Christ as sovereign LORD even though the cross was looming on the horizon. The same Apostle John who wrote the Gospel of John later saw Christ exalted and described Him: “…from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at His feet as though dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.‘” (John 18:16-18)
Just as He laid His hand on John to show His grace, how He loves you and me! That He would place Himself into the hands of these soldiers to obey the will of the Father, to be crushed on the cross as He paid the awful and incomprehensible price of sin when He could have stopped it all in an instant, with a word, needs to move us!
Even when they fell down at His word, the soldiers in the garden that night didn’t recognize Him as God. But it may have contributed to God’s work in some of their hearts as later some soldiers would believe in Christ as the Son of God and Savior even at the foot of the cross the next day. As you celebrate Good Friday and then Resurrection Sunday, remember that our King was not a victim of an evil plan (although it was evil, Acts 2:23), but rather the triumphant Victor of the Plan that had been made before the foundation of the world (Acts 2:23). Thank You Jesus for Your power, and thank You for Your grace!