Then the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus, and bound him. (John 18:12)
When the modern Christian looks at the story of Jesus' betrayal, arrest, and trial, it is too often seen in terms of Jesus as a victim and the entire scene as one of dark pathos. Jesus, however, declared on several occasions that He went to Jerusalem in order to die (Matt. 16:21, 20:18; Luke 9:31, 18:32-33) and that no man took His life from Him but that He gave it up Himself (John 10:18). This, too, was Peter's understanding when he said Jesus was "delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23).
John gives us a picture of the conflict between Satan and Christ in Revelation 12, where Satan was utterly defeated in heaven and was forced to limit his evil influence to making war with the believers in Jesus Christ. The conflict of Scripture, then, is not one of good versus evil, which are too often seen as abstract terms defined by man. The conflict is one of Christ versus Satan; and thus the death, to which Christ voluntarily submitted, as much as it disturbs us, represents not a tragedy of history but the "determinate counsel" of God.
Christ was not the victim, but the victor by means of His willful submission to the cross. Those religious leaders who opposed Jesus throughout His ministry were, in fact, more than evil men; they were the surrogates of Satan, which accounts for Jesus' prayer from the cross that God not hold this to their account for they did not fully know the meaning of what they were doing.
At the betrayal, a new force enters the Gospel accounts. The opposition of the Jewish religious leaders had been ongoing. Now Rome entered the conflict. The apostate leaders of the covenant asked the Roman state for its help in destroying Christ.
The leaders of the Jewish priestly classes and various other prominent Jews made up the Sanhedrin, a council that governed the religious and civil life of the Jews in many areas where tolerated by Rome. Until as recently as A.D. 30, this council had been allowed to enforce the death penalty, at which time that privilege was revoked by Rome. The "determinate counsel" of God had thus forced Rome to take part in the condemnation of Jesus. This is why the Jewish leaders had accused Jesus of blasphemy and declared that by their laws He ought to die (John 19:7), while also complaining that "[i]t is not lawful for us to put any man to death" (18:31). The charge of sedition against Rome was brought up only because it was a charge a Roman official would have to take seriously.
Stepping back a few hours to the arrest of Jesus, John says that Judas "received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees" (18:3). The Sanhedrin had its own security/enforcement officers, but it appears they were supplemented with Roman soldiers (v. 12). The force was not a small one. The terms in this passage have been variously interpreted as describing a group of soldiers of anywhere between 200 and 1,000 men; even the smaller number would have been a sizable force to arrest a single man. Perhaps they felt the need for numbers was because Jesus was well-known as a miracle worker.
The Jewish religion was, we must remember, a legally recognized religion, and the priests were so powerful that Roman officials periodically removed the high priest from office lest he become too rich and powerful. Those priests, we know, feared Jesus' influence. They began desiring His death after His first miracle in Jerusalem, had openly threatened any who confessed Him as the Messiah with excommunication, and had, after the raising of Lazarus, openly declared that He must die. Then these religious leaders had supplemented their officers with a detail of Roman soldiers in order to arrest Jesus.
We often overlook John's reference that Judas "received" this force from the chief priests and Pharisees. The arresting force was placed under his command; he was more than just a man in the shadows who identified Jesus. The chief priests (largely Sadducees) and the Pharisees had long conspired against Jesus. Now, with the help of a military contingent, they had their opportunity. Judas was commissioned to lead this show of force, which represented religious leaders, the Roman state, and one apostate disciple. The religious leaders of God's covenant people had consummated their apostasy by asking the state to help them destroy Jesus.
Because He was executed on Roman orders, some still say it is unfair to blame "the Jews" for Christ's death. The term "Jews," as used by John, however, meant the Jewish religious leaders who were very clearly the schemers. Obviously, this does involve a strong sense of condemnation, but the judgment is toward their apostasy, not their race or culture. My father often pointed out that the point of Scripture in condemning the Jews was not because they were the worst of peoples, but because they were the very best. They had the revelation of God's Word and a providential history like no other. As compared with any other nation or culture of the ancient world, they were unquestionably superior in any number of ways. The point of Scripture is that no people can rest in self-confident pride because they feel secure in God's habit of blessing them. Racialist views always miss the point.
The number of men who came to arrest Jesus shows that there was a concern about a riot. Minimally, Jesus was a benign teacher to the people; many knew He was a miracle worker, including Herod. The arrest at night would have made a public reaction difficult. When 200 or more Roman soldiers marched through the streets of Jerusalem at night, no one was likely to resist or interfere in any way.
It is not likely that this force marched up to Jesus in neat ranks. They were likely surrounding the garden. John says they had weapons, torches, and lanterns. For hours the disciples had been alone with Jesus, even napping in the garden. Then they were surrounded by dozens, perhaps hundreds of lights in the darkness.
In contrast to the shock of the disciples, John says Jesus knew everything that was going to happen and that He went forward to speak to Judas' force. He asked, "Whom seek ye?" The answer was "Jesus of Nazareth." This may have been the name on their warrant, though Jesus had repeatedly called Himself the Son of God and One with the Father. Jesus' answer was the point of who He really was. His literal response was "I am." Jesus was quoting God's own identification of Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. They asked for a man from Galilee, and Jesus responded with what meant "I am God."
John makes a point of noting that as Jesus said this, Judas stood with the arresting force, and at Jesus' response "they went backward and fell to the ground."
There are two ways to understand this. First, they were so shocked by Jesus' bold assertion they jumped back and fell over those behind them. They did know Jesus to be a miracle worker and perhaps feared His power. Then He had stepped forward, confronted them by demanding to know their business, and said "I am God." A second possibility is that Jesus' authority miraculously spoke them to the ground. Either way, Jesus did not react to them as a victim, but as a confident proclamation of all He had said before.
Do not see this as a scene of pathos or tragedy. Imagine this as a YouTube clip-these soldiers and Judas, who had come to overpower Jesus, were sitting on their behinds. There must have been some inappropriate language spoken, as each man blamed the others for falling on him. Jesus, in fact, had to refocus their attention by again asking, "Whom seek ye?"
God's "determinate counsel" had taken the right of execution away from the Sanhedrin not long before these events. This forced Rome into the situation because only the state could order Christ's execution. The fact that the Jewish religious leaders rejected Christ's claim and themselves claimed the religious loyalties of the people, as well as Christ's denunciation of their non-scriptural traditions forced on the people, are clearly laid out in the Gospel accounts of Christ's ministry. Rome's involvement was less sinister in design but just as evil in its practice.
Pilate was not interested in what he recognized was a religious question (John 18:31). The Jewish leaders chose to play political hardball and force Pilate into doing what they wanted. They chose Pilate's greatest vulnerability, his loyalty to Caesar. Pilate was, at that point, without a patron close to the emperor, his having been executed not long before. If there were any questions about Pilate's having Caesar's best interest at heart, there would be no one in Rome to stand up for his dependability. When the Jews threatened to air just such a rumor, Pilate caved and agreed to execute Jesus for questioning Roman power by claiming to be a king. Jesus had nothing to offer Pilate, so Pilate chose to kill Jesus as an expression of loyalty to the emperor. Whereas the issue of the Jewish leaders was their apostate rejection of Jesus as both God and the Christ, the issue before the state was Christ as king or Caesar as emperor. Pilate went along with the Jewish religious leaders who cried, "We have no king but Caesar (John 19:15).
Pilate's pragmatism in sending Jesus to the cross was not the end of the Roman state's involvement in the crucifixion events. Perhaps because they were used to themselves overseeing executions, these same religious leaders, after standing near the cross and ridiculing God incarnate, felt bold enough to request the crucifixion death be accelerated by breaking the victim's legs. (This prevented pushing up with the legs to expand the lungs, thereby speeding death by asphyxiation). Then they asked Pilate to post a guard at the tomb because Jesus had spoken of His resurrection on the third day. Our last scene of Rome's involvement is recorded by Matthew 28, where we learn an earthquake accompanied the rolling of the stone from the tomb and the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb shook with fear and became "as dead men." Presumably, they were still in this pathetic state (again, think of this as a YouTube clip) when the followers of Jesus first arrived at dawn.
The apostate religious leaders and the Roman state were united in their efforts to kill their God. This, remember, was all by God's "determinate counsel" and should tell us something.
Men tend to try to play God; this was the original sin of Genesis 3:5. To do this, they elevate their institutions. The greatest means of absolutism have been by religious establishments or the state. Both here are seen cooperating to kill Jesus. Both institutions are valid and necessary, but both are also capable of doing harm or even great evil commensurate with the power and authority they are allowed to have. All institutions are capable of corruption and must never be equated with the arm of God. It was Christ who said of Himself, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth" (Matt. 28:18). If we invest any individual or institution with power, they become at best a self-serving entity. At worst, they, like the Sanhedrin and the Roman state under Pilate, become a tool of the dragon cast from heaven that makes war on those who "have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 12:17).