Cleansing Fire

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Sifting Simon — Part III

March 19th, 2019, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Confronting the Betrayer

How distressing it must have been for Peter, half asleep, likely dejected from the justifiable criticism of the Lord, then seeing someone with whom he had just spent three years, as a brother in the Lord’s company, leading a small army to arrest Jesus in high drama. It isn’t clear if Peter knew who the betrayer was in advance. Although at the Last Supper, Peter asked John (John 13:25-26) to ask Christ who the betrayer would be and Christ did give John a sign, it is not recorded if John then actually told Peter or not. If Peter did know in advance who the betrayer would be, it might not have alleviated his stress; but he might well have experienced some guilt for not having taken any action to disrupt Judas’ plans.

Peter, faced with the intrusive presence of the betrayer and his accomplices and witnesses, thus being present at the very act of betrayal, must have experienced a deep, visceral effect from the reality of both surprise and helplessness, especially in the responsibility Christ had given him to be in a leadership role. Peter’s is not the kind of personality to fall into helplessness; thus, it is shocking when it occurs. Rather, he seems to have a bias toward action. How ill-prepared Peter must have felt, without having adequately prayed, having been disobedient to the Lord’s instructions to ‘watch”, and then to witness the unfolding events over which he had no control, or even a clear expectation of what to do.

There may be another reason for Peter’s having been surprised. Under Jewish Law, arrests were not supposed to be made at night, and if there is one thing Peter might have reasonably expected from the Temple Guard, it would have been obedience to the Letter of the Law. [5] When the Law does not hold firm, the ground beneath one’s feet must seem to tremble.  Meanwhile, in such instability, Peter’s own faults might be weakening further his understanding, his ability to think clearly, or to deal effectively with the rising emotional distress, anxiety and fear.

Confronting the Temple Guard

There are five elements of the arrest which “sift” Peter further: 1) the dialogue between Christ and the arresting parties; 2) the ignored but significant testimony by the Temple Guard to Christ as God 3) Peter’s misuse of the sword and its effect, 4) Christ being bound and 5) the flight of the Apostles. At each step, the tension builds, the chance to retreat fades. In this Part III, we will deal only with the first two items, and will continue with the remaining three in the next post, Part IV.

1. Dialogue: One might suspect that John found the Synoptic account of Christ’s words when He was arrested to be somewhat lacking. The Synoptics’ response by Christ to the Temple guard and crowd sounds largely accusatory, i.e. that they had plenty of opportunity to arrest Him publicly, while teaching in the Temple, but instead have come out under the cover of night with weapons. (The comment on darkness in Luke is important, as it hints at the illegality of the arrest.) 

In John’s account, the ‘kiss’ incident is ignored, perhaps as being unworthy to even repeat, or simply done well enough by the Synoptics to need no further comment. While the points of the Synoptics needed to be made, it appears that John has a number of additional points to make from his own “eagle eye” memory, which will inevitably notch up our understanding of the “sifting” of Peter during the arrest and, to some extent, of the other disciples as well. The happenings in the arrest would be quite incomplete without John’s additions for the sake of “the whole truth.”

It is important to note that, clearly, Christ ‘takes charge’ by going out to meet the arresting party and demanding twice to know “Whom do you seek?” Christ’s repetition mirrors John’s own recounting of the Lord’s willingness and choice to lay down His life; all seven New Testament occurrences of the words “lay, down, life” are from the writing attributed to John (John 10:15; 10:17; [13:37; 13:38]; 15:13 and 1 John 3:16., with the two in brackets related to what Peter won’t be able to do.)

Christ is clearly in control. He protects the disciples, not the other way around. Earlier, Christ had said: I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (John 12:17b.)  He addresses the arresting crowd with authority. “… if you seek Me, let these men go.” (John 18:8.) Those words echo down through the centuries, occurring nine times in Exodus, principally in Moses’ authoritative words to Pharaoh: “Let My people go.”  In these words, Christ also expresses willingness to be separated from His disciples, even though it was for their protection. It must have been chilling for Peter to hear his very connection to Christ being “sifted.”  Feeling unneeded, irrelevant, failed, abandoned, there is an aloneness like no other, to be separated from the Lord.

2. Ignored Testimony? Mandatory Homage? The most significant addition which John makes to the Synoptic writers’ arrest account is one that is often missed in most translations of John 18:6 (and, sadly, in much preaching as well.). When Christ identifies Himself twice in reply to the guards asking for “Jesus of Nazareth,” current translations from the Greek offer: “I am He.” It appears that this translation is intended to be grammatically correct, or ‘smoother’ in English, but it misses the entire point of being an assertion of Christ’s divinity.

Only the most recent NAB translation stands out, surprisingly, for its more faithful interpretation. The NAB now states Christ’s words to the Temple Guard as “I AM,” rather than “I am he.”  It is not so much a question of translation, which might be argued both ways, but it is the witness which John offers of the Temple Guard’s collapsing to the ground, in verse 6, paying homage to the divine, which the Synoptics do not mention.

The NAB states in John 18:

2  Judas His betrayer also knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with His disciples.

3  So Judas got a band of soldiers and guards from the chief priests and the Pharisees and went there with lanterns, torches, and weapons.

4  Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to Him, went out and said to them, “Whom are you looking for?”

5  They answered Him, “Jesus the Nazorean.”* He said to them, “I AM.” Judas his betrayer was also with them.

 6  When He said to them, “I AM,” they turned away and fell to the ground.

7  So he again asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They said, “Jesus the Nazorean.” 

8  Jesus answered, “I told you that I AM. So if you are looking for Me, let these men go.”

If John’s decision to write a Gospel were caused by nothing other than adding this Temple Guard witness, and of others who fell down with them, it would be well-justified. The “ego eimi” (“I AM”) reflects the great and solemn words of God to Moses, in response to Moses’ asking God for His Name.  “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’.  And He said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’’” (Exodus 3:14) The (Greek) Septuagint also uses the “ego eimi” in Chapter 3 of Exodus, when God reveals His Name to Moses.

The Guards falling backwards
by James J. Tissot

How can we believe that Christ’s answer is the divine assertion?  Because John records in 18:6 of his Gospel that when Christ spoke those words, the company “turned away” and “fell to the ground.” (a position of respect and homage and perhaps fear of  blasphemy), clarified further in the RSV-CE translation as “they drew back”) Let’s also remember that the soldiers are Temple Guard to whom the words of ‘blasphemy’ would be well recognizable, and to which the Guard would be greatly sensitized. Whether or not they had control over their falling down is not the point.

Perhaps it is fanciful, but one might interpret this falling down as the Father’s eliciting not just their obeisance to Christ, almost a last sign of respect He will be shown in the Passion narrative, but a visible, physical proof of their worship as well, i.e. commanding proper respect for the Son of God about to surrender Himself to death in a most noble cause. It is a testimony to Christ’s “Ego Eimi” being the meaningful “I AM”, not just a nice smooth  English sentence structure. We do not know if Christ’s repeating His question “Whom do you seek?” was asked while the Guard was still on the ground or not. 

There is an echo of such mandatory respect, which we hear in the Palm Sunday narrative, when the Pharisees criticize Christ for allowing His disciples to shout His praise during His journey into Jerusalem on the colt of an ass:

“As He was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’”  Luke 19: 37-40 testifies that even inanimate objects may be compelled to render honor by the very glorious Presence of God!

Once homage had been paid in the Garden, the Lord submits to arrest to fulfill Sacred Scripture and His Holy Mission. There should be no doubt that the term in John 18:6 means homage, worship. The Greek ‘pipto’ is used, the same word for the worship by the Three Kings and is also the same word which Satan unsuccessfully used to try tempt Christ into worshiping the evil one. There are a number of related interpretations of ‘pipto’ in similar context in the New Testament.

It is difficult to imagine how the disciples would have reacted to seeing the Temple Guard collapse as they did. Just the very experience of the Guard falling down at Christ’s words might have added to the stress and confusion of the Apostles, especially Peter, because it is likely not a response they knew how to handle, although they would have seen worship offered to Christ at other times, such as by those begging a favor or a healing. But it must have contributed to the confusion in the Garden, of sorting out the purposes for the Temple Guard being present with such a large crowd. Sifting comes in various forms. In the Garden, confusion, division, mistrust and misunderstanding beget rash action, and even assault, as we’ll see further in Part IV, when Peter draws his sword.

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One Response to “Sifting Simon — Part III”

  1. avatar raymondfrice says:

    VERY ILLUMINATING

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