John’s Gospel records that when Judas Iscariot “and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went . . . with lanterns and torches and weapons” to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, something strange happened.
They were looking for Jesus in the dark. But he “came forward and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’” (John 18:4). They said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he” (v. 5).
Here’s the strange part: “When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (v. 6).
Why did they fall to the ground?
One scholarly commentary says that the expression just means “they were floored.” They were so surprised that Jesus gave himself up so easily, you could have knocked them over with a feather. But the language seems to call for more than that. It says they actually hit the dirt.
The web site https://biblehub.com/commentaries/john/18-6.htm offers other thoughts. Here are a few of them.
Meyer’s New Testament commentary notes that ancient interpreters, and many since, think that at that moment Jesus stepped forward in the darkness to make a statement. “Christ wished, before His surrender, to make known His might over His foes, and thus to show the voluntariness of His surrender. He could remain free, but He is willing to surrender Himself, because He knows His hour is come (see John 17:1).”
That is helpful. But what was it that made the crowd, many of them armed soldiers, fall back and fall down?
An interpreter named MacLaren makes this suggestion: perhaps as Jesus said, “I am he,”
there was for a moment a little rending of the veil of His flesh, and an emission of some flash of the brightness that always tabernacled within Him; and that, therefore, just as Isaiah, when He saw the King in His glory, said, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” and just as Moses could not look upon the Face, but could only see the back parts, so here the one stray beam of manifest divinity that shot through the crevice, as it were, for an instant, was enough to prostrate with a strange awe even those rude and insensitive men. When He had said, “I am He,” there was something that made them feel, “This is One before whom violence cowers abashed, and in whose presence impurity has to hide its face.”
To this fascinating suggestion MacLaren adds: “But whatever we may think was the reason, at all events the incident brings out very strikingly the elevation and dignity of Christ, and the powerful impressions made by His personality, even at such a time of humiliation.”
Ellicott’s commentary moves in the same direction: “Guilt trembled before the calmness of innocence. Man fell to the ground before the presence of God. . . . To the officers the voice came from Him of whom they had been convinced before that ‘Never man spake like this man’ (John 7:46).They have come to take Him by force, but conscience paralyses all their intentions, and they lay helpless before Him.”
A traditional hymn, often sung to open a Protestant worship service, goes: “All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall.” We do well to recall this Jesus, Lord of heavenly glory, stepping forth in the darkness, not hiding from the captors who would take him to the cross but offering himself to them.
And we do well to remember the fear he struck in their hearts—not that we who call him Lord should fear, but that we should marvel. The power of the Son of God was held in check that night so Jesus’s arrest, humiliation, and finally self- and sin-sacrifice could proceed. Those who fell were right to sense that they suddenly faced one whose presence reduces even his adversaries to the posture of worship.