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Ever since Adam, mortality has been passed down through the seed of the male, for even though Eve sinned first, “in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22), and again, “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin” (Rom. 5:12). Mortality comes through one’s father.
Jesus was exempt from mortality, because He had a heavenly Father, whose seed was full of life. So when John 1:4 says, “In Him was life,” the apostle means to tell us that Jesus was immortal. However, when Jesus fell to His face in the garden and began to sweat, it was a symptom of mortality. As life drained out of Him, it was a new experience, and He felt greatly weakened.
The potential thus existed that He might not live long enough to be crucified, and He prayed for this cup to pass. Yet if the will of the Father had somehow changed, or if some portion of revelation had not yet been revealed that might postpone the redemption of the world, then the will of the Son would still comply with that plan. So Jesus said, “yet, not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39).
The angel then arrived to strengthen Him (Luke 22:43), no doubt assuring Jesus that it was indeed the will of His heavenly Father that He should not die until He had been lifted up between heaven and earth the next day.
Having received this assurance, Jesus stood to His feet. That is when He saw the torches of a company of soldiers coming to arrest Him, and He confidently went out to meet them. John 18:4, 5 says,
4 So Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” 5 They answered Him, “Jesus, the Nazarene.” He said to them, “I am He.” And Judas also, who was betraying Him, was standing with them.
Any uncertainty as to the will of the Father ended when the angel strengthened Jesus to complete His appointed task, and Jesus knew for certain that this was the time for Him to go to the cross. So He walked toward the soldiers instead of running away to avoid arrest.
The soldiers sought for “Jesus the Nazarene,” and Jesus affirmed this, saying, “I am He.” No doubt the religious leaders had emphasized “the Nazarene” throughout the evening during their plans to arrest Jesus, because “Nazarene” was a term of reproach in the common vernacular, as we saw earlier in John 1:46, where Nathanael said, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
The arresting officers had thus been psychologically prepared to arrest an evil man, but Jesus answered with another subtlety, saying, “I am He” (ego eime). The “He” was implied but not stated directly, so it could be read simply as “I am.” This associated Himself, not with Nazareth, but with the God of heaven who had delivered Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses.
There God had identified Himself in Exodus 3:14 as “I AM,” or Perpetual Living Existence. Nothing further was needed. “I AM WHO I AM.” By thus identifying Himself, after suddenly becoming mortal, we see in His answer the assurance of knowing who He was. He was not of the earth but came down “from heaven” (John 6:38). He was not an evil Nazarene, born of an evil father. His Father was the great I AM who had appeared to Moses in the burning bush and who had sent Moses to deliver Israel at the time of the first Passover.
Jesus Christ was prophesied to be one who was like Moses, a second Moses, if you will. The prophecy in Deut. 18:15-18 says,
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like Me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. 16 This is according to all that you asked of the Lord your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, or I will die.” 17 The Lord said to me, “They have spoken well. 18 I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”
This prophecy alluded to Israel’s refusal to hear the voice of God at Horeb, as we read in Exodus 20:18-21. They refused to listen to Moses as he entreated them to draw near to God and to hear His voice, so God promised to send a second “prophet,” identified in Acts 3:22 as Jesus Christ.
The point is that just as Moses was sent to Israel as God’s prophetic agent, and not as God Himself, so also was Jesus Christ sent as a greater prophetic Agent, and not as “the only true God” (John 17:3). So we must understand Jesus’ claim, “I am,” within that context. To hear Him was to hear the “I am” who had sent Him. Jesus was in full unity with His heavenly Father, and His voice was the voice of “I am.”
John 18:6 continues,
6 So when He said to them, “I am He,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
It appears that they were pushed back by an unseen force, and they took a step back to catch their balance, tripping over the one standing behind them.
The deeper question, of course, is what made them step back? To understand this, we must again turn to the law, because every action here was a fulfillment of the prophetic law in some regard. In this case, the relevant law is found in Exodus 13:12, 13 and repeated in Exodus 34:19, 20 with an added detail:
19 The first offspring from every womb belongs to Me, and all your male livestock, the first offspring from cattle and sheep. 20 You shall redeem with a lamb the first offspring from a donkey; and if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. You shall redeem all the firstborn of your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.
This is a law of the first-born, applied to both men and animals. Clean animals were given directly to God; unclean animals (such as donkeys and men) needed redemption. If left unredeemed, their necks were to be broken. There were three occasions in each year when all the males were to appear before God’s face (Exodus 34:23), and in each case they were to bring an offering to God as a token of entering a new relationship with Him.
When a donkey was redeemed by a lamb, it prophesied how the unclean could be made clean in the eyes of the law. The redeemed donkey legally became the lamb that had redeemed it. Likewise, when the firstborn son of any man was redeemed by a lamb, it signified that he was being cleansed by the Lamb of God. More than that, the firstborn son legally became identified with Christ. God no longer looked upon him as an unclean man but as if he were Christ Himself.
In other words, the righteous nature of the Lamb of God was imputed to the normally unclean man. Failing to comply with the law was to result in death by breaking his neck, symbolizing the breaking of his self-will (i.e., stiff neck).
A biblical example of this is found in the story of Eli, the high priest who refused to correct his sons. His ungodly sons later led Israel into battle against the Philistines, taking the Ark of God with them. The Philistines captured the Ark, and when Eli heard this news, he fell backwards and broke his neck. 1 Sam. 4:18 says,
18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell off the seat backward beside the gate, and his neck was broken and he died; for he was old and heavy. Thus he judged Israel forty years.
God judged him as an unredeemed “donkey,” for his heart was in a state of rebellion in spite of his position as the high priest.
A similar case, based on the same law of the firstborn, was seen when Jesus was arrested. As soon as Jesus identified Himself as “I am He” (or just “I am”), they fell backward but did not break their necks, because the Lamb was present to redeem them. Matt. 26:47 and Mark 14:43 tell us that a large crowd had come with the arresting officers, but Luke 22:52 says,
52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber? 53 While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power of darkness are yours.”
It is clear, then, that “the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders” were there and not merely a “Roman cohort” (John 18:3). In fact, the NASB adds the word “Roman” to its translation, although this word is not in the Greek text at all. No doubt they assume that because a cohort was a Roman word usually applied to a company of Roman soldiers, that the chief priests had retained the assistance of Roman soldiers.
But Luke identifies them as “officers of the temple,” not of Rome. Further, there was also a “temple guard” and a captain over them who were not part of the Roman army (Acts 4:1; 5:24). Further, Jesus reminded them that He had been with them “daily in the temple” during the previous week. These were the “chief priests and officers of the temple,” not Roman soldiers.
None of these “chief priests” are identified in any of the gospels. Only the high priest’s slave, Malchus, was identified by name after Peter cut off his ear (John 18:10). Malchus had probably accompanied Caiaphas to serve him and act as his bodyguard. My conclusion is that Caiaphas had come to arrest Jesus personally and that he was the first to step backwards and trip over the feet of those behind him.
Caiaphas’ neck was not broken, for he had already prophesied unwittingly in John 11:49-51,
49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, 50 nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” 51 Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation.
In relation to the law of the firstborn, Caiaphas was getting ready to offer the Lamb of God on behalf of the nation and on his own behalf. Unlike Eli, who had no lamb to redeem the nation or himself, Caiaphas had come to arrest (or claim) the Lamb. Because of this, his neck was not broken when he fell backward.
John 18:7-9 says,
7 Therefore [that is, because they had fallen backward and had to regroup] He again asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus the Nazarene.” 8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am He, so if you seek Me, let these go their way, 9 to fulfill the word which He spoke [in John 17:12], “Of those whom You have given Me, I lost not one.”
Jesus identified Himself the second time using the divine title, “I am,” establishing His identity (by the law of the double witness) as the Son of God. This identification, when applied by the law of redeeming the firstborn, provided for the release of His disciples in the immediate situation, while also providing for the release of the nation and ultimately the whole world.
The “saying” that Jesus referred to in verse 9 is not a quotation from the law or the prophets but is rather the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:12 and earlier in John 6:39. None of the disciples were to be lost except for Judas, the son of perdition, who stood with the chief priests who had purchased the betrayal.
Even this loss was only temporary, of course, for all will be restored at the end of time.