Jesus and his disciples go out of the city to the east, crossing the Kidron, which John refers to as a wadi (Valley, NIV; cheimarros, literally, "winter-flowing," since winter is the rainy season). This same word is used of the Kidron in the account of David's flight from Absalom (2 Sam 15:23 LXX), and John may well be alluding to that story (Westcott 1908:2:264; Brown 1994:1:125, 291). David was betrayed by his counselor Ahithophel, who later hangs himself (2 Sam 17:23), the only person in Scripture apart from Judas who does so. Thus David's sorrow and humiliation may be echoed in Jesus', though in Jesus' case he is actually in control, and this humiliation is part of his great victory (Hendriksen 1953:376, 383).
They go to a familiar place, an olive grove where Jesus often met with his disciples (vv. 1-2). In this way he is accepting the coming betrayal, since Judas . . . knew the place (v. 2). In the Synoptics it is called Gethsemane, meaning "oil press," which suggests an olive grove. While it is an olive grove, John does not actually call it an olive grove (despite the NIV); he calls it a garden (kepos). John notes that Jesus' death and resurrection also took place in a garden (19:41; 20:15). "The Passion and resurrection which effected the salvation of the world are contrasted with the Fall in the garden of Eden" (Hoskyns 1940b:604). Modern commentators express doubt that John would have the Garden of Eden in mind. However, the fact that he mentions the garden setting several times in the Passion and resurrection accounts suggests he does want to draw attention to this connection.
The group that came to arrest Jesus was composed of Roman soldiers, Jewish servants and an apostate apostle (v. 3). John will make it clear that both Jew and Gentile are guilty of the death of the Son of God. Jesus is about to die for the life of the world, and the whole world needs it. The Jewish forces that were sent were the same as those sent to arrest Jesus once before (7:32, 45-46). They were not a police force as such but "court servants at the disposal of the Sanhedrin when necessary for police purposes" (Brown 1994:1:249). The detachment of soldiers (speira) refers to a cohort, a group of 600 soldiers under a military tribune (chiliarchos, vv. 3, 12; NIV, commander). The entire cohort would not have been deployed on this mission, but there would have been a significant force. The festivals in Jerusalem were always politically volatile, and after the welcome Jesus had received there was good reason to expect trouble—or so it would have seemed to the Roman and Jewish authorities who understood Jesus so poorly. They bring torches and lanterns to search for the Light of the World; they bring weapons against the Prince of Peace (Hendriksen 1953:378).
They may well have expected to have to search in dark corners and meet with armed resistance once they had cornered the accused. But Jesus knows what is coming upon him (v. 4; 13:1), that he is going to engage the prince of this world one-on-one (cf. 14:30). So he goes out to meet them (v. 4) and asks, Who is it you want? This is not a question from ignorance, seeking an answer. Rather, it is like other questions asked by God that are intended to reveal a situation and bring people to action.
John does not mention Judas's kiss, which would have taken place just before or after Jesus' question. Judas here takes his place with those who have come out against Jesus (v. 5). The awkward statement that tells us where Judas is, which the NIV puts in parentheses, is an eyewitness detail branded into John's memory. We sense his shock at seeing Judas with them. John's continual reference to Judas as the betrayer all stems from this event. John makes it clear that Judas is not the revealer but rather that Jesus will identify himself. Enemies had not been able to lay their hands on Jesus before (7:30, 44-45; 8:59; 10:39; 12:36), and it is not Judas's presence that now brings success. Rather, it is now the Father's will.
They say they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus responds, I am he (v. 5, ego eimi). Here the most humble and human of Jesus' names is juxtaposed with the most exalted and divine. The two together are the cross hairs that target Jesus' identity: he is the human being from an insignificant, small town in Galilee who is also God. Jesus' self-identification has been at the heart of this Gospel, and this public act of identification produces dramatic effects. When he uses the divine I AM they drew back and fell to the ground (v. 6). People falling to the ground in the presence of God are mentioned elsewhere (for example, Ezek 1:28; Dan 10:9; Rev 1:17), but here the ones falling are his enemies rather than his worshipers. This reaction is closer to that of Pharaoh, who fell down as though dead when Moses said the name of God, as told by Artapanus, a pre-Christian Jewish apologist (Eusebius Preparation for the Gospel 9.27; Talbert 1992:233). This reaction is a reflection not of their hearts, but of Jesus' majesty. Here is a little preview of the moment in the future when every knee will bow to Jesus (Phil 2:10) and all things be brought into subjection to him (1 Cor 15:27; Phil 3:21), even those who do not own allegiance to him and thus for whom this submission is hell.
Jesus puts the question to them again (v. 7). The impression given by this passage is that they have been completely neutralized and that he must allow the events to proceed and give them permission to take him (cf. Talbert 1992:234). Amazingly, they answer the same as before: Jesus of Nazareth. They have just experienced the numinous, and it has not spoken to them at all. They are just doing their job, like those sent to investigate John the Baptist at the beginning of the Gospel (1:19-27). This repetition of the question "Whom do you seek?" emphasizes its importance, for it focuses on Jesus. It is also a question that searches the soul. The very first thing Jesus said in this Gospel was, literally, "What are you seeking?" (1:38), his question for the two disciples of John the Baptist, and their reply indicated they wanted to be with him. Now we see people seeking Jesus, but they do so not for their soul's sake. They have their own agenda, as many people do today. There are ways of seeking Jesus that do not bring life.
Jesus repeats the I AM but now allows the proceedings to continue by telling them to let his followers go (aphete, an imperative). He issues orders to those arresting him! Their power has just been shown to be insignificant compared to the power of his word, and now the fulfillment of his word is the operative force, not their designs (v. 9). The formula used to speak of the fulfillment of Scriptures from the Old Testament is now used of Jesus' own words. The Word himself, who created all that exists, has spoken of his protection for those the Father has given him (6:39; cf. 10:28; 17:12), and now he fulfills that word. The protection Jesus spoke of earlier referred to eternal salvation, and now we see that such protection includes occasions of temptation that threaten to overwhelm the disciples' faith (cf. Bultmann 1971:640). Here is Jesus as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock, a glimpse of the grace that is at work throughout the Passion as it has been throughout the ministry. The temptation the disciples face here is an extreme case of what all temptation represents. And the Lord's protection is as necessary in the day to day assaults as it is in this great test. It is not without reason that our Lord commanded us to pray daily not to be led into temptation (Mt 6:13 par. Lk 11:4; cf. Mt 26:41 par. Mk 14:38 par. Lk 22:46).
Jesus has demonstrated that he has complete power over these adversaries, and he has expressed his will that the disciples be let go, but Peter still thinks he has to resist with force (v. 10). The Synoptics tell us there were only two swords, and we might have guessed that Peter would have one of them. He may have been emboldened by their having fallen to the ground. But he does not go after one of the soldiers or one of the Jewish force, but rather the slave (doulos) of the high priest. He takes off the man's right ear! John does not mention that Jesus healed the slave's ear (Lk 22:51), though this would account for Peter's not being arrested or killed on the spot. John does, however, add that the man's name was Malchus. John was known to the household of the high priest (v. 16) and knew this man and his family (v. 26). We do not know how well John knew these men, but such connections add poignancy to the scene.
The fact that Peter only got the man's right ear suggests several possibilities: that Peter was left-handed, or that he attacked the man from behind, that the man moved or that Peter simply had bad aim. In any case, Peter's boldness is as great and as obvious as his misunderstanding. He is not at all in sync with God's will, and this isn't the first time he is out of step (cf. 13:6-9; Mt 16:22-23 par. Mk 8:32-33). Jesus says, Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (v. 11). Jesus is willing to receive all that the Father gives him, both the disciples (v. 9) and the suffering.
The image of the cup is used in the Old Testament to denote suffering (Ps 75:8) and, in particular, the wrath of God (Is 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15-29; 49:12; Lam 4:21; Ezek 23:31-34; Hab 2:16; cf. Rev 14:10; 16:19). John has not included the prayer of agony in the garden in which Jesus asked that, if possible, the cup be removed from him (Mt 26:39 par. Mk 14:36 par. Lk 22:42). But John includes this later reference to the cup, which reveals the conclusion of the earlier agony. "The struggle in Gethsemane is over. Jesus no longer prays that the cup . . . may pass from him" (Hendriksen 1953:382). The Son's humility and obedience continue to manifest the glory of God and his pattern of life with God.