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Knowing and Not Knowing

As Jesus moves from his priestly intercession for his disciples into his priestly sacrifice for them, John’s Gospel turns first to the betrayal and arrest of our Lord. Among the details that John chooses to highlight in his account of the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, he mentions that “the cohort” followed Judas to the garden of Gethsemane. While “the cohort” could be either a detachment of Roman soldiers or the temple police, either way John tells us that this group was reasonably large and also equipped for a fight (cf. John 18:3).

What’s fascinating about this group that came to arrest Jesus is that it demonstrates humanity’s simultaneous acknowledgement and rejection of God. That this group came equipped with weapons suggests that it acknowledged Jesus’ power. In their estimation of him, he was no flower child, incapable of offering up resistance. To be sure, many of them must have heard of the great things that Jesus had done, turning water into wine, stilling a storm, healing paralytics, and curing lepers, among other miracles. While none of Jesus’ miracles were violent expressions of power, all of his miracles pointed to his immense power and authority over the physical world. Thus, this group acknowledges Jesus’ power by bringing weapons with them to arrest him. And even if their weapons were for any resistance that Jesus’ disciples might put up, John reminds us a verse earlier that Judas was no dummy. He betrayed Jesus late at night in an isolated place. Even in that case, their excessive preparation for force reveals their acknowledgement of Jesus’ power.

On the other hand, they implicitly reject his power by bringing weapons with them to arrest him. It is the height of denial to think that some swords and spears could subdue the one whom the wind and the waves obey. More broadly, they reject Jesus by seeking to arrest him by force, him whom they must have heard teaching with an authority that excelled that of the scribes and Pharisees. There is a richly ironic rejection here on at least these two levels. And whether they were caught up in the moment or had consciences hardened against the word of the Lord, they rejected the one sent by the Father to save his people from their sins.

But as I said before, this scene is more than just a mere moment in time. Rather, it is a demonstration of the universal principle of humanity’s simultaneous acknowledge and rejection of God. This is a vignette of the rebellion of man against God, which Paul describes in the following way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Rom 1:18-23 ESV)

For the purposes of this reflection, the salient points can be summarized in the following phrases: “suppress the truth,” “what can be known about God is plain to them,” “So they are without excuse,” “exchanged the glory of the immortal God.” What we see in these phrases is a simultaneous acknowledgement and rejection of God by means of suppression and substitution.[1]

Turning to a thought on how this applies in our present lives and contexts, it is helpful to recognize that this universal human tendency expresses itself in all manner of ways. As a society, we reject God’s rightful authority and power over the course of history, but we simultaneously acknowledge it when the course of history takes frightfully unanticipated turns. To be sure, fallen man’s imagination means that this simultaneous knowing and not knowing can take on a variety of shapes and sizes, but for all the creativity of fallen imagination it can’t help but return to a few basic ideas that flow from God’s person and work. Our task is to use our sanctified imaginations to draw out what humanity knows about God and uncover its attempts at suppression and substitution. Thankfully, a clear presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a great starting point.

[1] For more on this idea, see Johan H. Bavinck, “Religious Consciousness and Christian Faith,” in The J. H. Bavinck Reader, ed. John Bolt, James D. Bratt, and Paul J. Visser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

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