You know that movie trope about heros? The one where the villain – maybe holding someone hostage – demands that the hero turn him or herself over to be killed? Then, usually, the hero-figure is handcuffed or bound and the exchange is made – the hostage goes free and the hero goes to die? Except you and I are in on it. We know: whether they’re Bruce Banner or Superman or Wonder Woman or James Bond – it won’t work. Somehow the bonds, the ropes, the kryptonite cuffs are going to fail. And, in the end, the hero will survive and win.
There’s a similar dynamic in Gethsemane. Jesus hands himself over to free us. And John’s gospel tells us, “They bound him.” But we’re in on it – they should have known it’s all for naught… At least, to start, they should have known that it was all without reason, right?
You bind someone who’s dangerous; who’s harmful to others. But when they came to find him, what had Jesus been doing? Praying in the garden with his disciples. Asking his heavenly Father for strength. And, as Luke told it tonight, Jesus said, “Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me.” Teaching, not gathering a rebellion. Healing people and driving out demons, not menacing the government.
And even when his own disciples let the moment carry them away and drew their swords and deftly hacked off a menacing ear… Jesus had commanded that they put their weapons away. And then he’d put the man’s ear back in its place – healed and whole. He was obviously not violent, nor had he any evil designs. Still, “they bound him.”
But they should have known that Jesus was actually too strong for this, shouldn’t they?
They might have heard of that earlier attempt, in Nazareth. When his hometown crowd hadn’t liked his message, and decided that they weren’t going to bother with binding him or trying him in a court of law. They decided instead to throw him off a ledge to kill him. What happened? “He walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).
They didn’t need to reach back that far, however. Just moments before, as John tells it, Jesus asked who they were looking for. They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said, “I am he,” and the group that was intending to step forward and arrest him instead “drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). Jesus had shown that he didn’t even need to lift a finger to keep them from laying a finger on him, much less bind him hand and foot.
We know – even if they somehow managed to bind him, nothing at all could have held Jesus against his will—not ropes, shackles, or chains. So as they bound him, as they casually cinched ropes or chains on the very Son of God, you expect it to be about as effective as binding the hands and feet of Bruce Banner – he’s just going to Hulk-out and snap those bonds like strands of spaghetti. You’d expect that those soldiers would soon realize the impossibility of binding Jesus.
Of course, you would think we would realize the impossibility too. If we know his might and power, his loving way, you’d think we’d understand. But we “bind him” ourselves, don’t we? When we too forget who he is – the one whose hands healed, who commands angel armies, who spoke the world into being – who’s promised to intercede for us and to provide help? Still, in moments of weakness or fear, we don’t “call on [him] in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks”? We assume our God and Savior can’t do anything here or there for us.
And, perhaps like the soldiers, callous to reality and just “following orders”, “doing the job”, “filling our shift”… we too have “bound him”, set him aside, and gone about things. Disregarded what he says in his Word and put it away. Bound up our Savior’s ability to speak to us and shut that Bible and put it in a drawer somewhere. We’ll come back later when we need him – so we say. But right now – in this moment or that one – our rebellious natures would prefer to keep him restrained, shut, quiet — bound.
But…he won’t be. We can make the same kinds of terrible misjudgments those soldiers and Judas did. Finally Jesus’ mighty power will out. And, in the worst end, would bind us with everlasting chains in death.
So, in one sense, what a blessing that the statement “they bound him” is false—or at the very least, incomplete. It may have seemed to anyone there as if the Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders were taking control and binding Jesus. A far more accurate description of what was actually taking place would be this: “Jesus allowed them to bind him.” They couldn’t do so without his consent, but Jesus consented. In a sense, he really bound himself. Why? Because he had already previously bound himself to us.
And there we should mark a difference: in that hero trope, usually the hero sacrifices him or herself for the innocent. But that isn’t the case here. We were already bound by our sins so tightly that we had absolutely no hope of escape. A hymn describes it this way: “Enslaved by sin and bound in chains, Beneath its dreadful tyrant sway, And doomed to everlasting pains We wretched, guilty captives lay” (Christian Worship, 1993 102:1). We had no way of escape, no tools for freeing ourselves. But Jesus had already chosen, in the words of Peter, to bear our sins “in his body” (1 Peter 2:24). By doing so, he had also chosen to be bound, not just by Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders but by sin and death. Jesus allowed himself to be bound so that, on his cross, he might also be bound by God to every last bit of just and righteous punishment from God for sins; our sins. There he gave himself over to death, whose power to bind was unmatched.
We’re in on that too. We know people who were bound very quickly by death at a very young age. Others who’ve held off death’s efforts to bind them for years. Some perhaps who seem to have cheated death, surviving accidents or illnesses we thought certain to defeat them. But we are only able to escape death’s binding attempts for so long. Eventually death bound them, will bind us, like it bound everyone. It always bound them completely. No one ever escaped from those bonds. No one could. A hymn says:
No son of man could conquer death, Such ruin sin had wrought us. No innocence was found on earth, And therefore death had brought us Into bondage from of old And ever grew more strong and bold And held us as its captive. (Christian Worship: Supplement 720:2)
Jesus willingly placed himself into “death’s strong bands” (Christian Worship: Supplement 720:1). And he showed that they were binding for everyone except him. Jesus burst those bands on Easter Sunday!
And that is our joy as we observe him at work. We are no longer bound by the guilt of our sin and the certainty of eternal death. The writer of Hebrews said that Jesus was bound and died to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). The grave could not bind Jesus. It cannot bind us who trust in Jesus. Our bodies may spend some time in the grave, but they will not stay there. Our fear of death falls away like burst bonds.
Jesus also freed us so that we, who have been raised from spiritual death to spiritual life, would no longer be “slave[s] to sin” (John 8:34), bound by sin in our daily lives. Instead, he sets us free to do as the writer of Hebrews encourages: to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And . . . run . . . the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).
That’s an ongoing thing for us because the devil never stops trying to tie us up with temptations, but we’re not bound by him. Therefore we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit living in us, do exactly what the passage says. We can daily “throw off everything that hinders,” and not just shuffle like someone who is shackled but actually run “the race marked out for us.”
Jesus, our Savior, is at work during the crucial hours of his Passion; working for us; working for our salvation. We continually bind ourselves to Christ. We continually bind ourselves to the one who bound himself to us. We continually bind ourselves to the one who allowed himself to be bound for us. We bind ourselves to him, so that we might be freed. Amen.