John 18:4-6 “Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, ‘Who is it you want?’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘I am he,’ Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.”
Imagine the power Jesus had at his disposal to prevent his arrest. Just three little innocent sounding words come out of his mouth and the entire armed mob in front of him is knocked to the ground. But some impressive words those were. In English, we add the word “he,” to the translation, because that is how we would identify ourselves. In the Greek Jesus simply says, “I am.” The last time he said that about himself, back in John chapter 8, the mob picked up stones to stone him. They recognized that he was identifying himself with the “I Am” God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. If the brute squad sent to arrest him didn’t recognize Jesus’ divinity from the meaning of the words, the force that knocked them all to the ground should have made them think.
Maybe they could have remembered Isaiah’s description of the Messiah as the Branch in chapter 11: “He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” Maybe they could have recalled the words of Psalm 46: “He lifts his voice, the earth melts.”
The point is, Jesus was not surrendering because he was faced with a superior force. In Matthew he reminds his disciples that twelve legions of angels stood by ready to defend him if necessary. But what was even their power compared to his own words? Jesus had the power to stop this any time he chose. He chose to let us see it. He chose not to use it.
So what leads Jesus to put away his own sword, so to speak? He accepts his cross, because he is moved by his love. “Again he asked them, ‘Who is it you want?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ ‘I told you that I am he,’ Jesus answered. ‘If you are looking for me, then let these men go.’ This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: ‘I have not lost one of those you gave me’” (John 18:7-8). Already, the brief demonstration of his power was an act of love for his enemies. It was a warning to them. “Think about what you are doing. Take note of the one you are dealing with. It’s not too late for you to change.”
Jesus accepts this path to his cross alone out of love for his disciples. The day will come when they can risk their lives for him, but not with a show of force and violence. This night he spares them, he arranges for their escape. He hands himself over before there is any mistake about which one he is, or before a real fight can break out.
Jesus put away his sword and accepted his cross out of love for us and the world he came to redeem. In one way this may seem sensible to us, almost expected. The captain of a sinking ship directs the evacuation and goes down with ship. As I am writing this a story of heroism is coming out of a tragic mass shooting in Florida. A football coach used his own body as a shield to protect students under his care from flying bullets. We have come to expect a leader to put his own life on the line to spare those under his care.
But don’t forget that Jesus wasn’t merely risking death. “Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him…” gave himself up. He was guaranteed unspeakable tortures and hell’s darkest agony! And for what, for whom? The ship on which Jesus was sailing was not filled with innocent passengers, but guilty criminals. Their crimes were not mere misdemeanors and traffic violations. The people for whom Jesus accepted the cross were rebels, traitors, murderers who had taken sides against God without exception. That reference isn’t limited to the mob who arrested him. When we were in that condition he loved us. When we were in that condition he set his power aside and accepted the cross to take our guilt away and set us free.
Yes, Jesus has almighty power. But that takes second place to his love.