The Gospel of John is all about who Jesus is. That’s the burning question, asked directly by the Jews, debated among the people, demanded by Pilate: Who are you? Tell us plainly. He did tell them plainly, never more so than in the garden where they came to arrest Him. It’s His last chance—to speak from a human point of view—to escape the dreadful cup of His Father’s wrath. Chapter 18, verse 5 is the last “I am” statement in the Gospel characterized by them, and the simplest: “I am He”—the one you’re looking for.
Early in His ministry there was a lot of looking and finding. Andrew found Peter and Philip found Nathaniel, and they all believed they had found the Messiah. Now the enemy has found Him, and with three words Jesus delivers Himself over to the judgment of men and of God.
But there’s more behind that statement than three words. The “I am” who declared Himself to be before Abraham (John 8:58) is in complete control of the situation. He faces a formidable crew: soldiers and temple officers, bristling with weapons and bright with torches, led by a traitor. But now that they’ve reached their goal, they behave like kittens. He’s the one who asks the questions; they can barely answer. Why the curious detail (John 18:6) that “they drew back and fell to the ground” when He identified Himself? Possibly to show that they couldn’t have taken Him by force. “I am” allows them to tie Him up and lead Him away.
Only one man took positive action. Like a soldier who boldly charges the enemy with his mouth wide open in full battle cry, Simon Peter probably expected the others to follow when he drew a sword and struck off an ear. Surely something would follow. But like the temple guards, he was rendered powerless by the Lord’s rebuke: “No more of this!”
Subdued and stunned, the inner circle—those who (no matter what Jesus said) were sure they were on the fast track to greatness—melt away as their leader submits to capture. They must have been asking themselves, Who is he, again? The promised Messiah, the King of Israel, the Holy One of God? Really?
Peter follows his master, possibly in hope of redeeming his grand gesture. Or perhaps he’s hoping that Jesus has more tricks up His sleeve, or perhaps he simply doesn’t know what else to do. We know what happens next. All four Gospels have set us up for it with Peter’s self-confident boast: “All these may desert you, Lord, but I never will.” While Jesus stands before a kangaroo court, Peter faces his own little trial, and before long he hears himself swearing, not once but three times, that he never even knew that man.
But John words it differently from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John, the question is negative: “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” And the answer is negative: “I am not.”
Think of that. The Gospel of John is all about who Jesus is. But when Peter has to answer to his own identity, he defines himself by what he is not.
I am not—this man’s disciple.
I am not—destined for glory in a messianic kingdom.
I am not—the brave, decisive right-hand man of my fond imagination.
While Jesus is being made—coming into His real kingdom by way of the cross—Peter is being unmade.
“You must be born again”: a painful process. We are not as we once imagined ourselves in our glowing daydreams, and by God’s mercy we finally know it. Pity the whiz kid or beautiful boy who is flattered and affirmed all his life, feeding his illusions. In the blaze of “I am,” all our pretensions vaporize to cinders.
So the wretched man shivering by a fire of sticks finally began to know himself, and in that sublime negation he was remade. Who are you, fisherman? “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.”