The Questions of Jesus: Whom do you seek?

Midweek in the First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2018

John 18:4

It is now happening. What Jesus had been praying about that we saw last week was now beginning. He had asked His disciples to pray with Him. When they couldn’t stay awake, He asked them, “Could you not watch with Me one hour?” And so it is with questions we will learn the Passion of our Lord, His suffering and death. He teaches us as teachers often do, with questions; calling us to account, getting us to think.

Now that Judas, His betrayer, is at hand, Jesus knows that He will face everything alone. Judas comes with a detachment of troops. Jesus had gone to the Garden of Gethsemane knowing that Judas would know He was there. Jesus had gone there often with His disciples. Jesus knew what He was facing. It began with Judas and soldiers and lanterns and weapons.

When they arrived, Jesus asked them, “Whom do you seek?” This is the question. Of course, Jesus knew the answer. But it’s powerful when you have to answer the question, isn’t it? What was their answer? Jesus of Nazareth. Notice who it was who answered Him. It was ‘they’. It appears it was the detachment of soldiers. Judas had brought them to Jesus. The soldiers, they’re just doing their job. The chief priests and Pharisees had been wanting to do away with Jesus and when Judas presented them with an opportunity to hand Him over to them, they jumped on it. And they took no chances, sending a detachment of troops.

Whom do you seek? Jesus of Nazareth. They identified the one they were looking to arrest. They named Him and they stated His place of origin. To them He was nothing more than a man who had a name and was from an ordinary place. They were seeking the one the religious leaders hated and would charge Him with blasphemy.

What is Jesus’ response to them? I am He. He knew they were coming for Him. He wished for His disciples to be spared arrest. He knew He had to go the rest of the way alone. By their response they had established that this was a detachment, carrying out of orders to make an arrest. Jesus was nothing more to them than any other person they might have been sent to arrest.

And yet when He said, “I am He,” they all drew back and fell to the ground. Jesus had no intention of resisting arrest, fleeing, or otherwise preventing His arrest. But we do see that He nevertheless retained His power as God. He nevertheless continued to show glimpses of His divinity. What made them draw back and fall to the ground? Did Jesus cause them to do this much in the way He caused winds and waves to stop? It does appear that what they assumed would be an ordinary arrest was something different, there was something about this man they were arresting.

John doesn’t explain their falling to the ground. He continues on, saying that Jesus again asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And here we see the importance of this question of Jesus. He had already asked them and they had already answered. He had known before asking the first time why they were there. But this time He was asking under their awareness of His having told them, “I am He” and that telling them caused them to draw back and fall to the ground.

You have to wonder if it was with some trepidation that they answered a second time, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Perhaps thinking as they said it, “Who is this man?” Perhaps Judas had told them that Jesus would not resist arrest. Perhaps they thought, We don’t take chances. We will come prepared. They probably treated this arrest as any other and therefore were now wondering what they might have gotten themselves into.

Even so, they answered and Jesus responded this time by saying, “I told you that I am He. Therefore, if you seek Me, then let these men go.” There are two reasons for Him telling them to arrest Him only and let His disciples go. One is that He loved them and was protecting them. But ultimately it was because this was His hour He had been preparing for. This was the beginning of His suffering and death on behalf of the world. They could not go with Him. They could not join in this suffering and death because they themselves needed Jesus to go through it alone and accomplish salvation for their sins. The disciples had been through a lot with Jesus but their ministry would could continue after His suffering and death were over and He was raised from the dead.

Everyone there thought they knew what was going on, but only Jesus knew. Only He knew that this was His course. And that though Judas and the soldiers and the religious leaders appeared to have the upper hand it was Jesus who was in control. It was Jesus who was willingly enduring this treatment. It was Jesus who was choosing to go to His death and suffer for the sin of the world. That He was in control and could have put a stop to all of it is shown in what happened to the crowd who came to arrest Him when He said, “I am He.” They had the manpower and the weapons but they were powerless in the face of Jesus of Nazareth, the very Son of God.

So their answer to the question was “Jesus of Nazareth.” And so He was the one they arrested and they let the disciples go. It is with great irony that Jesus asks the question He does. And it is with great irony that they respond in the way they do. Because Jesus is the one we are to seek. So the question elicits the right response, only, they don’t believe who Jesus says He is. He is just Jesus of Nazareth. And yet for you and me Jesus of Nazareth is exactly whom we ought to seek. The one who was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth is the one who went to the cross alone. There is one to seek and He is Him, as He said, “I am He.”

Yes, He is the one. He is the one we ought to seek. And in His hour when it all began to unfold, His Passion—His suffering and death—He shows us what it means to seek Him. It means to seek Him as Lord and as Savior. It means that His being arrested is an event of salvation, Him submitting Himself to this action. That He is the one we ought to seek is seen in His proactive statement that they ought to let His disciples go. They could not accomplish salvation. Only He could and only He did. He is the one.

So if He is the one we ought to seek, what does that mean for you and me? We know, as none of those men there that night in Gethsemane did. We know who He is. We know what He has done. We know we have been saved. We know we are going to heaven. How does Jesus’ question still apply to us? It applies in the same way it did to the disciples after Jesus had died and risen from the grave. They hadn’t believed in Him, they had given up hope after He had died, but after He appeared to them in resurrected glory they believed. They sought Him thereafter and Him alone. Even after He ascended into heaven they continued to seek Him.

Ten days after His ascension the Lord sent the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit continues to give us the answer to the question of Jesus, “Whom do you seek?” As the apostle Paul says in 1Corinthians 12, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” We seek Him as Lord, we confess Him as Lord, we are forgiven by Him and Him alone. We seek Him where He comes to us, where the Holy Spirit brings the forgiveness Christ won for us on the cross: in Baptism, in the proclamation of the Gospel, in the written Word of God, in the declaration of the forgiveness of sins, in the Holy Supper of our Lord.

You don’t seek Him for salvation, you are already saved. You seek Him for continued forgiveness and strength. And He says to you, “I am He, I have saved you and I forgive you and I will take you to Myself on the Last Day.” Amen.