His disciples having been fully briefed and his prayers completed, Jesus crossed the steep Kidron Valley between the city walls and the Mount of Olives. In doing so, he was retracing his route of a few days previously when he had ridden triumphantly into the city, to the cheers and acclaim of great crowds.
Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives was his destination, and the rendezvous point for Judas and a detachment of Temple Guard soldiers, provided by the High Priest to arrest Jesus. The other gospels tell of a period of an hour or more when Jesus prayed alone a short distance from his increasingly trembling disciples. In John, we cut to the chase: “Who do you want?” asked Jesus of the soldiers; “Jesus of Nazareth”, they replied. “I am he”, Jesus responded, using the “I AM” that marked him out clearly as divine. For that reason, the arrest party drew back and dived to the ground, probably imagining that God in Heaven would punish such blasphemy with a bolt of lightning or something similar!
Despite repeating his claim, Jesus remained unscathed – by God at least. Jesus was then arrested and brought to the original High Priest, Annas- whom the Romans had deposed and replaced by his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Meanwhile Peter, in panic, lashed out with his short sword and wounded the High Priest’s servant, Malchus, by cutting off his right ear. Only Luke’s gospel reveals also that Jesus reached out and healed him immediately.
Annas had a perfunctory and rather nasty dialogue with Jesus, illegally striking him across the face. Jesus responded simply by requiring Annas to supply the evidence required for a legal trial.
Either side of this event, Peter denied his Master three times – just as Jesus had prophesied that he would.
Finally, we have the sham of a mock trial before Pilate, who was clearly extremely nervous about the political ‘powder keg’ he was expected to deal with. Only the Roman rulers could impose and implement the death penalty, but all the motivation was coming from the Jewish authorities. In an obviously distasteful effort to avoid offending these highly-strung Jews, he even had to leave the comfort of his own palace and walk outside to meet them – simply so that they remained ‘clean’ of Gentile ‘contamination’ just before the Passover!
Clearly annoyed, Pilate decided to play ‘hardball’: “What charges are you bringing against this man?”, he enquired. The Jews’ hasty and rather uncivil reply indicated that they thought that their ‘back-channel’ conversations via Pilate’s staff had already made this trial a foregone conclusion. However, whether it was his wife’s weird dreams the previous night, a sensing of greater powers than he could imagine being involved, or just his own sharp political ‘nose’ warning him to back off, Pilate decided that he wanted nothing to do with this sham of a trial and began to fall back to the comfort of his Roman sense of justice and due procedure.
Stalling, he went back inside the palace to Jesus and desperately sought an audience with the King of Kings, hoping perhaps to build a legitimate case against imposing the death penalty. This time, Jesus would give him nothing that would help. It was almost as though the man wanted to die! He also claimed that he had been born to bear witness to the truth.
Pilate knew without a shadow of doubt that this was no criminal in front of him – certainly no-one deserving the death penalty. For a brief moment, his boldness and the awareness of his position fired him up to resist the growing injustice around him. He had one last idea that he hoped would drown out the will of the Jewish authorities – by going over their heads to the huge crowd of people: “I am allowed to release one of your imprisoned people” he began; “Shall it be Jesus of Nazareth”?
In this macabre game of crucifixion-chess, the Jews were already a couple of moves ahead of him; anticipating his offer, they had already stirred up the crowd to demand the anti-Roman terrorist, Barabbas be released instead. Nothing was going to stop them!