You answer a knock at the door and discover that it is the Queen of England. What do you do? Perhaps search your mind for the proper etiquette in the presence of royalty? Perhaps wonder who would play a mean trick by hiring a look-alike? We find this kind of thing happening in John 18 at the arrest of Jesus. For the band of men called upon to make the arrest this should be simple enough. Judas will point this Jesus out, this man whom we heard is both a trouble maker and a wonder worker. And we have come with plenty of support, both Roman soldiers and the police of the chief priests, with lights, and weapons, so what can go wrong? Let’s see what happens:
Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. (John 18:4-6 NRSV emphasis mine)
See anything odd about that? They all fell down, armed soldiers and police and all! There is something in what Jesus says that just does not translate well into English. Where the English here says “I am he” a more literal translation is “I am.” Why is this significant?
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’ . . .This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (Exodus 3:13-15 NRSV)
Now can we see why these men fell back and fell down? Jesus had already made it clear through the way he entered into Jerusalem riding on a donkey that he had pretensions of being the Messiah. Now the soldiers face an even greater claim, that standing before them is God Himself. Notice that the police and soldiers do not respond with an immediate scepticism, but with the striking thought that this Jesus just might be telling the truth. There must have been something about his presence that struck a spear of doubt through their scepticism. Why else would they fall down?
Have you noticed that the mere mention of Jesus, or religion in general for that matter can strike fear into the hearts of many? And so it should! If we read the rest of the chapter we will find that Peter shrinks back in timidity at the mention of Jesus, the religious leaders stand in judgement over Jesus, and Pilate waffles about not knowing what to think. Many in our day will respond in these ways also, but the band arresting Jesus had the right response to the presence of “I Am.” To fall back in fear is the appropriate response of an unholy person in the presence of a Holy God. Consider this vision of the future:
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17 NRSV emphasis mine)
Indeed, who is able to stand in the presence of the Holy One? Thankfully, we are not left lying in our fear as this question is answered some verses later:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9 NRSV emphasis mine)
Who, instead of falling back like the Jesus’ arresting party, is able to stand in His presence? The book of Revelation anticipates our question:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:13,14 NRSV)
While the appropriate thing to do in the presence of God Himself is to fall back in fear, because of His love and grace, because of Jesus taking our place under judgement, we can stand amazed in His presence! Does the mention of religion strike fear into your heart? It should! But it need not, for the One who was arrested, was also crucified as an expression of love for you. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
(Revelation 7:15-17 NRSV)