Let My People Go
Jesus needs his men alive. When the betrayer Judas comes to the garden with a detachment of soldiers and the temple guards, he imperils not Christ, whose doom is already certain, but the eleven disciples whose faith has yet to be tested. Jesus the Light of men has just finished imploring the Father to protect the ones who are with him so that others may believe through their witness. Their time has clearly not yet come, and Jesus at least thought their fate worthy of specific prayer.
And Jesus is about to be arrested at night, the time immemorial of political disappearances. If the Roman Empire will not hesitate to execute Christ, the leader of a suspicious movement in the high Jewish city by the full light of day during the most sacred national week in all Israel, then his lieutenants must be in far greater peril in the darkness, very much imagined in John as the province of men. Otherwise, why not just arrest him openly by day? Who did they come for, really? Just Jesus? How about his number two?
True, the Jews have been advised by Caiphas that it would be better that one man die for Israel, presumably thus sacrificing an anyways troublesome leader to appease the Roman order’s demand for civic stability. But Peter’s striking the ear from that very priest’s servant would imperil the group still further; one wanders how long Caiphas’s advice would hold by night with violence in the air and soldiers and guards gathered to suppress a group of dissidents and arrest their leader.
Gathered here is everyone who does not understand the light, though their actions will very much bring about the elevation of Christ he has just foretold; the men of darkness carry light to Christ’s arrest just as they will later, unawares, raise up Christ for all to see and believe. Like the Pharisees in John 9, they believe they see, but do not see – and so they are condemned.
But are the disciples in danger? Surely threats loom on all sides from guards and soldiers alike, but most readings of this passage present Christ as in serene command of the situation. This is consonant with the magisterial Johanine gospel as a whole. And in this very scene, his words seem to unman the entire soldierly contingent, which falls to the ground.
As Romans fought in formation, this would have been a troublesome beginning for them were any kind of violence going to occur. The arrest of Jesus in John can indeed seem to play out as a drama where the lines of all the players have already been written.
Yet passion need not play so small a part in John’s account of Christ’s arrest, trial, and execution. Jesus’s reassurances mostly concern himself, his relation to the Father, and the triumph of his gospel. About the fate of his disciples Jesus seems both less certain and less triumphant. His most recent words concerning Peter, after all, are that Peter will deny him three times before the ordeal is over.
The reversal does not come until after the resurrection when, along with all the other disciples, Peter is ready to join the general witness, to testify to what they have all seen, and specifically to lead and feed Jesus’s sheep. Why the concern for Peter’s actions in this scene if his eventual (narrative) redemption was already determined?
But if John has Jesus working out the distinction between himself and his followers in narrative time – “if you have come for me, let these men go” (emphasis mine) – because their trial has not yet come, then it really, really matters that they leave the garden alive.
And it really, really matters that Peter puts away his sword, not simply because “the time” isn’t right yet, but because Jesus has just finished asking Peter if Peter will lay down his life for him, and answered his own question as “not yet.” The time of Peter’s trial has not yet come; Jesus is still the shepherd here. Peter will be one only after the first has laid down his life, which I contend begins here and now in John 18.
“Let these men go,” says Jesus the shepherd after Moses’s own heart – Moses the shepherd of Midian who God told to tell Pharaoh “Let my people go,” Moses who volunteered to be stricken down rather than the whole people of the Hebrews be condemned. That Jesus says much the same cannot have escaped the mind of Jesus, the minds of the Johanine author(s), or the mind of the text itself.
That Jesus actually surpasses Moses by being executed in spite of his innocence only means he becomes the shepherd that scripture promised, the one who lays down his life for his sheep. He offers himself repeatedly, “I am he, I am he,” not only to proclaim his identity as the promised one, but also to convince the guards and soldiers to focus their evil intent and attention on him rather than those around him, the sheep that have not yet reached their promised land.