The Arrest
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The Arrest

John 18:1–14  (ID: 2211)

With the scene of Jesus’ arrest, John paints a dramatic picture. Alistair Begg draws on John’s account to contrast the treacherous Judas with the majestic Messiah. Judas appeared to be a true disciple but in the end revealed his hypocrisy. Jesus, on the other hand, demonstrated His glory through His boldness, devotion, and submission. Clearly, Jesus was prepared to drink the cup of wrath which for us became a cup of salvation.

Series Containing This Sermon

Journey to the Cross

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23801

Sermon Transcript: Print

Now I invite you to turn again to John 18.

And we take my prayer from Sunday school, which I hope is increasingly our prayer, and we use it as we come to the Bible: “Make the Book live to me, O Lord. Show me yourself within your Word. Show me myself, and show me my Savior, and make the Book live to me.”[1] Amen.

As I said this morning, I want to spend these Sunday evenings up and through to Good Friday considering the final steps of Christ to the cross. And we obviously could go to any one of the Gospels in order to do so. Each of the Gospel writers, while covering the same sequence of events, highlights particular details according to their specific purpose. And John is clearly concerned to establish the supremacy and victory of the Lord Jesus over the very circumstances which are so clearly degrading and humiliating. And so, we’ll stay with John’s Gospel right through Good Friday. And I hope that you have your Bible open on your lap so that we can trace a line here in this evening meditation.

The Treachery of Judas

The central figures in the verses that we have read are clearly those of both Jesus and Judas—Judas, whose activities here are a tragic indication of treachery, and Jesus, whose approach to the circumstances is a wonderful illustration of majesty. You will notice that we are told the time reference: it was “when [Jesus] had finished praying.”[2] Immediately prior to this, of course, we have what we refer to as the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17. Prior to that, in chapters 14, 15, and 16, Jesus had been providing instruction for his disciples that had began, “Let not your [hearts] be troubled; [you] believe in God, believe also in me,”[3] and then he had begun to prepare them for the fact of his departure. And having, in 14, 15, and 16—in what we refer to as the Upper Room Discourse—having given them instruction, then in chapter 17 he intercedes on their behalf. And then, we’re told, “When he had finished praying, [he] left … his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. [And] on the other side [there] there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it.”[4] Now, it is in this olive grove, in this garden, that Judas the betrayer then comes to do his infamous work.

Now, the fact that it was in a garden is not significant in and of itself. But this wasn’t simply a garden or some garden; it was, as John tells us, a garden that the disciples knew very well, that Judas himself knew well, because this garden was a place of fellowship, it was a place of relaxation for Jesus and his disciples, it was a place of communion, and it was a place, doubtless, of many happy memories. It would be the kind of place that, if they were passing on the far side of the Kidron Valley, each one of them would have looked across and, with a measure of nostalgia and with a measure of appreciation, their eyes just glancing to the scene would have been able to recall so much that was marked by beauty and by blessing. And yet it was in this beautiful place that Judas comes in his act of betrayal. It is surely quite staggering that he would choose a place of such intimacy to perform an act of such infamy, like an adulterer who not only breaks the marriage bond, but chooses to do so not in some hideaway but in the very marriage bed.

When your deeds are dark and devious, then you prefer to be surrounded by a great majority. You can afford to be on your own and with the minority when you’re standing with someone of worth.

So, we know exactly where it was that Judas and his colleagues have come, and we’re told also how it was that Judas had arrived. His treachery was not alone; he “came to the grove” actually “guiding a detachment of soldiers.”[5] He who was himself so dreadfully lost becomes the guide. Truly, here we have the blind leading the blind. He comes, you will notice, with a crowd. The Greek word [speira] can actually describe a crowd that would range anywhere from two hundred to three hundred individuals. That’s why the word “crowd” is used in English, because if we think of him simply showing up with half a dozen or a dozen individuals going into the garden, then we have the picture completely wrong. He comes with “a detachment of soldiers … some officials from [both] the chief priests and [the] Pharisees.”[6] You know, when your deeds are dark and devious, then you prefer to be surrounded by a great majority. You can afford to be on your own and with the minority when you’re standing with someone of worth. 

They come carrying torches to find he who is the Light of the World. They come carrying weapons to arrest he who is the Prince of Peace.

Surely there is an irony in this. John’s Gospel is full of it. They come carrying torches to find he who is the Light of the World. They come carrying weapons to arrest he who is the Prince of Peace.  And look at where Judas is described as standing. Verse 5: “And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.” He who had been standing, apparently, with Christ—he who had been following Christ along with others—now stands with those who fight against him.

And once again we are confronted by the chilling reality in the condition of Judas, reminding us as it does of how close a man or a woman may approximate to being a genuine follower of Jesus while at the same time being a dreadful hypocrite. Yes, it is possible for us to take our place in the expected row, to take our place along with our parents, to take our place along with our spouse, to take our place because people have regarded it as customary, now, that we would be there at that time; it’s just become so much a part of our existence. And yet it is sadly possible that like Judas we know that we are not a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

You see, such a person in such a condition doesn’t think that they’re a follower of Jesus. It’s not that Judas thought he was a genuine follower, and that he all of a sudden woke up and said, “Oh dear! I’m not a genuine follower!” No, he knew all the time he wasn’t a genuine follower, but he kept up the pretense for a variety of reasons. And if you know tonight that you’re not a genuine follower of Christ, presumably you’re here to keep up the pretense. A treachery that would end in the tragedy of his thirty pieces of silver being scattered in the temple precincts, and then this sorry man taking his own life and being buried in the potter’s field—a field that was bought with blood money.

The Majesty of Jesus

Well, that’s the focus on the treachery of Judas. But the focus is also, here in this little section, on the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ. Verse 4 tells us that Jesus “[knew] all that was going to happen to him.” He wasn’t caught off guard by this; he was the master of events, and he understood just what was unfolding.

It’s interesting that he goes out and takes the initiative in verse 4, and he asks them, “Who is it [that] you want?” If you remember the story of the Gospels at all, you may recall that earlier in the events, in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, people had come, and they wanted to “make him [a] king by force;” you can read that in 6:15. They came to Jesus and they wanted to grab him and “make him [a] king by force.” They wanted to force a crown on him, inappropriately and at the wrong moment. And he withdraws from them, and he continues with his journey. Here, when they come to force a cross upon him, he stands out and takes his place in the open.

Now, this must have been quite a staggering thing for those who were in the detachment. Soldiers were routinely employed in circumstances like this because the person would have been a danger either to himself or to others. They would probably anticipate that they were going to have to employ their training, and the torches and the lanterns and the weapons would not have been taken along simply for a show of strength, but they would have been taken along out of a sense of necessity. It may even be that they had stopped a little way from the garden and had rallied one another, saying, “Now, come on, and make sure that you’re ready, because we’re just not sure exactly what might happen when we move into this garden. Make sure that you check your lanterns and that your torches are aflame and that your weapons are at the ready.” And so, they all arrive, cluttering themselves into this beautiful setting—and all of a sudden their quarry stands forward and says, “Are you looking for somebody? Looking for someone?” And they reply in verse 5, “We’re actually looking for Jesus of Nazareth.”

And the reply that Jesus gives as it is there for you in verse 5 is more striking than we may at first realize. Because Jesus employs a simple phrase which is the same statement that we find back in chapter 8 when they were engaged in discussion with him claiming that Abraham was their father. And Jesus had said to them on that occasion, “Before Abraham was … ego eimi!” “Before Abraham was … I am!”[7] And we’re told that “they picked up stones to stone him.”[8] Why? Simply because he made what was apparently a ridiculous claim that Abraham, who was so ancient and so long gone, could somehow or another have been predated by Jesus? They knew when he had been born. They knew that he was from the carpenter’s workshop in Nazareth. Why would they stone him just for that? They didn’t. They stoned him because they realized that he had taken upon his lips the very phraseology that they knew to be part and parcel of the circumstances of Moses when he had encountered God in the burning bush and when God had said to him, “I want you to go and say to Pharaoh to let my people go,” and Moses had said, “Well who will I say has sent me?” and he said, “Say that ego eimi has sent you. Say that I am has sent you. Say that the self-existent, living God has sent you.”[9] And so, they come into the garden in all of their apparent bravery and finery and influence, and Jesus steps forward and says, “Who are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they say. “Oh, well,” he says, “ego eimi. I am he. ‘I am that I am.’”[10]

 Now, it’s no surprise that verse 6 then tells us that “they drew back and [they] fell to the ground.” They had come there anticipating that they were going to have to ferret out this fleeing peasant, this Galilean carpenter who had now apparently gone into hiding, and into the gloom of the garden they come. But instead of having to search for him with their lanterns, out he steps to confront them. “Who do you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I am he,” he said. And surely there was a majesty in his voice, a look in his eye, a bearing about his person that contributed to the impact here as they draw back and fall to the ground.

There are moments… or, as Shakespeare said, “There is a tide in the affairs of man that, taken at the flood, leads on to greatness, or missed, will alter the course of an individual’s life forever.”[11] And when these people arrived in this garden, and when they did what they’d been bidden to do under the leadership of the betrayer—namely, Judas—and when they were confronted by the majesty of the Lord Jesus, and they fell to the ground, number one, it was an act of great condescension on the part of Jesus that he saw them fall to the ground and not fall into hell; that they were stunned enough to be flat on their backs, but they weren’t wiped out completely; that they did not lose their lives. And in that moment there was the opportunity for them to say, “Aha! So he is the person that he claimed to be! Aha! So this majesty is real! So Judas, you have brought us here on a dreadful journey. We will no longer stand with you, but we will stand with him.” But there is no indication, at least in the immediacy of things, that any within this company changed to follow Christ. And it is a reminder to us of how hard the human heart becomes by a continual tramping on the pathway of unbelief.

On the occasion that you find there is a tenderness in your heart, an openness in your mind, a prompting in your spirit which says, ‘Now, go ahead and embrace this Christ!

And I say to you again what I said to you this morning: you as a gathered congregation are in the most dangerous of all positions, to hear again and again the implorings of Christ from his Word, to be called out by his Spirit through the teaching of the Bible, and for your heart to be hardened to his promptings. For “the Spirit of God will not always strive with men and women.”[12] And on the occasion that you find there is a tenderness in your heart, there is an openness in your mind, there is a prompting in your spirit which says, in a way that is almost inexplicable to you, “Now, go ahead and embrace this Christ!” then embrace him in that moment, for you have no guarantee that another such moment will ever come again in all of your existence.  “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood…”[13]

Now, the question that he asks his foes is more than matched by the devotion that he shows to his followers. Isn’t it interesting how he asks this question twice? “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth.” He replies, “I am he.” And again, he asks them, “Who is it [that] you want?”[14] I think perhaps he gives them the opportunity to reply twice in order that they can make it clear out of their own mouths that their concern, at least in this moment, is with the shepherd and not with his sheep. Clearly none of his disciples could accomplish the task that had been given to him; “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.”[15] And verse 9 explains it: “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.”[16] And then, “This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: ‘I have not lost one of those you gave me.’” The fulfillment of these words in the ultimate spiritual sense, whereby those who are Christ’s own are brought safely into eternity, is in no way hindered by what we have here as, if you like, an intermediate, specific, physical application of this truth. Lord Jesus, he says, “I won’t lose… I thank you, Father, that I haven’t lost any of those that you gave to me.”[17] He’s just prayed this in his high priestly prayer. And now he says, “If you’re looking for me, let my friends here go.”

Was there ever kind[er] shepherd,
Half so [tender], half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather round His feet?[18]

He is not only protecting his disciples, but he is providing for his disciples, because as he stands forward here, he stands forward as our substitute for sin. He stands forward here as the fulfillment of all that had been anticipated in a shadowy form when Abraham and Isaac go up that mountain together; and Isaac asks of his father the question, “Where is the lamb?”; and Abraham replies, “God will supply the lamb”; and then he turns and sees a ram caught in a thicket, and the ram, is offered up instead of his son.[19] And as Jesus steps forward in this garden, he knows exactly to what it is he steps forward. “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, [in order that he might] bring [us] to God.”[20]

Such is the very perversity of our hearts that even in beautiful and tranquil circumstances we may play the Judas.

Some of you have been to this garden. It is a beautiful place. And it is hard, especially with the fragrance of the flowers and with the heat of the dying embers of the day, to conceive that in such a picture of absolute beauty and tranquility such a heinous event could take place. But then think of some of the places that we’ve been tempted to betray Christ: on some lovely vacations, in some beautiful gardens, even in places where we know that Christ has previously met with us and blessed us and wooed us and won us. Such is the very perversity of our hearts that even in those circumstances we may play the Judas. 

So, there’s a question that he asks his foes; there’s a devotion that he displays to his followers; and in this scene, as I draw it to a close, it is ultimately an expression of Christ’s submission to his Father. The struggle in the garden that Luke provides for us—“If you’re willing, Lord, gracious Father, let this cup pass from me”[21]—John has him at the point where Jesus is ready to drink this cup of suffering so that it might be for us a cup of salvation. “Let these men go; you’re looking for me.” He’s ready to proceed and then, look, who do you expect to jump in? If you were choreographing the thing, you would know that this was almost a definite cue for Simon Peter. If anybody’s about to do something dumb at the moment, it will probably be Peter. And right on cue, out he comes with his sword. He draws it, and he “[strikes] the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.”[22] Either he is tremendously accurate with a sword, or he is incredibly inept with a sword. He either was so accurate that he could pick an ear off, or he was so incapable that he could miss the head. It’s one of the two—and fishermen are not, I think, particularly known for their ability in wielding swords.

But what an enigma is Peter! Here’s the one who’s about to deny Christ. Here’s the one who’s about to be defeated by the insistent questions of a servant girl. But in the meantime, he’s ready to take on hundreds single-handed: “Let me at them! I’ll get them, Jesus! I told you before, I’m a confident one, Jesus! Back in chapter 13, I told you, ‘Lord, I will lay down my life for you.’[23] Let me get at them with the sword! I’ll take care of them! Even if the rest of them all back off, watch me go, Jesus!” Now, perhaps the baseness of Judas excited the boldness of Peter. And surely his good intentions offer an excuse, but not a justification for his actions. Because while he apparently was about to fight for Christ, he was, of course, actually fighting against Christ, for it was God’s purpose from all of eternity that his Son would be the atoning sacrifice for sins. And so he foolishly exposes his brethren to a bloodbath which might so easily have ensued.

Calvin has a tremendous comment on this, and I know you’re just desperate to hear it. Says Calvin,

It was exceedingly thoughtless in Peter to try to prove his faith by his sword while he could not do so by his tongue. When he is called to make confession, he denies. But now, unbidden by his master, he raises a riot. Warned by such a striking example, let us learn to moderate our zeal. And as the wantonness of our flesh ever itches to dare more than God commands, let us learn that our zeal will turn out badly whenever we dare to undertake anything beyond God’s Word.[24]

And so, his action is in need of correction. And Jesus intervenes. In Luke’s Gospel, it’s no surprise that the doctor tells us, with his interest in physical healing, that Jesus “touched the man’s ear and healed him.”[25] And he asks a question that demands the answer “yes”: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”[26] It’s a rhetorical question, but the answer is “yes.” In the Old Testament, the cup had been associated with suffering and the bearing of God’s wrath. And for Jesus to say this to Peter—to look him in the eyes, as he’s going to have to do on a number of occasions now, and to say to him, “Oh, Peter, this is not the way it’s supposed to be. Don’t you realize that I must drink the cup the Father has given me?”—how those words must have reverberated to the core of Christ’s being! For it was in the very drinking of that cup that would cause him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[27]

And so, from the beauty of the garden, the detachment of soldiers with its commander, the Jewish officials, they arrest Jesus; they lead him away like a common criminal in order that he might drink the cup of blessing so that you and I might drink the cup of salvation.

“A Thing Most Wonderful”

I want to finish with a quote, again, from a hymn that we don’t sing. There are so many hymns that we need to learn; time is passing us by. In many cases they need tunes that are better than they were or are more appropriate to the twenty-first century than the nineteenth, but the lyrics remain. Listen carefully. I want just to use this as a concluding poem, as it were, to the view of the arrest of Jesus in this lovely garden.

The hymn writer, in the early part of the nineteenth century, says,

It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from heaven,
And die to save a child like me.
And yet I know that it is true:
He came to this poor world below,
And wept, and toiled, and mourned, and died,
Only because He loved us so.
I cannot tell how He could love
A child so weak and full of sin:
His love must be most wonderful,
If He could die my love to win.
I sometimes think about [his] Cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails, and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me:
But, even could I see Him die,
I could but see a little part
Of that great Love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in His Heart.
It is most wonderful to know
His Love for me so free and sure;
But ’tis more wonderful to see
My Love for Him so faint and poor.
And yet I want to love Thee, Lord;
Oh, light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more,
Until I see Thee as Thou art.[28]

Well, I encourage you to read on in the record of John as we move towards our Good Friday worship gathering.

Let us pray together:

Lord Jesus Christ, you who were betrayed at the hands of cruel men; you who in the moment of your great need looked around and found that all of your disciples had deserted you and fled behind locked doors; you who love with an everlasting love; look, we pray, upon us in your mercy tonight. God grant that none of us may be found standing with the traitors. Save us, Lord, from the real temptation to doubt you and deny you. Thank you for the wonder of your protection, and your provision, and for the assurance that you will lose none of those whom the Father has given you. For we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.


[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1944). Paraphrased.

[2] John 18:1 (NIV 1984).

[3] John 14:1 (KJV).

[4] John 18:1 (NIV 1984).

[5] John 18:3 (NIV 1984).

[6] Ibid.

[7] John 8:58 (NIV 1984).

[8] John 8:59 (NIV 1984).

[9] Exodus 3:7–14 (paraphrased).

[10] Exodus 3:14 (KJV).

[11] William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4.3. Paraphrased.

[12] Genesis 6:3 (paraphrased).

[13] William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, 4.3.

[14] John 18:7 (NIV 1984).

[15] Cecil Frances Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1848).

[16] John 18:8 (NIV 1984).

[17] John 17:12 (paraphrased).

[18] Frederick W. Faber, “Come to Jesus” (1854).

[19] Genesis 22:1–14 (paraphrased).

[20] 1 Peter 3:18 (NIV 1984).

[21] Luke 22:42 (paraphrased).

[22] John 18:10 (NIV 1984).

[23] John 13:37 (paraphrased).

[24] John Calvin, The Gospel According to St John 11–21 and The First Epistle of John, trans. T. H. L. Parker, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 156.

[25] Luke 22:51 (NIV 1984).

[26] John 18:11 (NIV 1984).

[27] Matthew 27:46 (NIV 1984).

[28] William W. How, “It Is a Thing Most Wonderful” (1872).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.