John’s Gospel was written for a community facing persecution both for believing in Jesus and for witnessing to their faith publicly. The author of the Gospel was very motivated to provide comfort and encouragement to his fellow church members who were being persecuted. One of the principal means that the author used to encourage his audience was to portray Jesus as placid, almost impassive, during his passion and death.
When soldiers arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him the Gospel says that Jesus knew “everything that was going to happen to him.” (John 18:4) When Simon Peter tried to defend Jesus against the soldiers Jesus asked rhetorically, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” (John 18:11) When Pontius Pilate was looking desperately for a way to avoid condemning him, Jesus said, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” (John 19:11) Finally, while dying on the Cross he seemed much more concerned for his mother than for his own life. (John 19:26-27)
The disciples, the people of Jerusalem, the religious authorities and the civil authorities were all afflicted by varying degrees of confusion and stress. Jesus is the only person in John’s Passion Narrative who appears to be in control of himself and the situation around him; everyone else is pushed along by the tide of out-of-control events.
It is important for us to note the kind of control that Jesus exhibited. It was not control, at least, as we understand it. It was not a frantic attempt to control a life that was perceived to be out of control. It was confident trust that God’s will would be accomplished, even in the face of the faithlessness of the majority.
Jesus tried neither to impose his will on others, nor to force events around him toward a particular outcome. Rather, Jesus trusted in God’s will, and allowed those around him the freedom to choose for themselves whom they would follow. His sense of calm and control was not something he created for himself, it was the result of resting entirely in God’s will.
The world in which we live often swirls in chaos as a result of random events and intentional evil. There is, however, an alternative to being caught up in the normal disorder of the universe. Following God’s will always requires effort on our part, but it always brings a sense of peace, as well. We are offered the blessing of enjoying the same placid trust that kept Jesus above the frenzy of fear and envy that resulted from his arrest and trial. That blessing comes to us when we, like Jesus, rest in God’s will.
Jesus’ passion and death are often over-sentimentalized. The author of John’s Gospel would have been scandalized by the tendency of our culture to reinterpret Jesus’ suffering as something tragic; John’s Gospel ridicules Simon Peter for his tendency to do so. (John 18:11) The crucifixion was tragic defeat, but only for those devoid of faith. To the eyes of faith, the Cross is peace and reconciliation.
John’s Gospel portrays Jesus as calm and in control in order to remind us to keep our hearts set on God’s will and always at peace. This is both encouragement for us and instruction. The Gospel encourages us to be faithful to God’s will, especially in times of trial because our faithfulness keeps always us at peace. It is also instruction about how to make sense out of what happens around us and in our lives. Turmoil, jealousy, fear, anger, the desire for retribution, and the like, are sure signs of the absence of faithfulness. When these things afflict our lives it is a sign that we need to turn back to God, and find rest.