Let us continue our discussion on a symbolic exegesis of John 18. Prior to this, Christ has initiated the Apostles into many Mysteries, and at the start of John 18 Christ crosses Kidron brook and enters the garden, which we have come to know symbolically as the Garden of Eden. Christ has so far fulfilled Adam’s purpose as “high priest.” Now Judas, the betrayer, comes with a band of soldiers carrying torches, asking to find Jesus of Nazareth, so that Christ may fulfill the temptation of Adam.
Let us first look at Judas. Like how Satan comes to Adam in the garden to tempt him to partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Judas comes with a band of soldiers to trap Christ, who is the new Adam. “Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered him.” (John 13:27) Judas does not merely symbolize Satan here, as St. Cyril of Alexandria says in his commentary on the Gospel of John:
“For no longer has he [Judas] Satan merely as a counsellor, but he takes him now to be a master of his whole heart and absolute dominator of his thoughts, who was at first merely an advisor who whispered suggestions.”
Yet we have another example to further the symbolism of Judas as tempter and Satan. As Satan betrays Adam and Eve by mixing the truth, chopping it up and weaving in lies, Judas, too, chops up that which otherwise is virtuous, in order to mix it with the poison of betrayal.
“It must be used I think by way of question, as if he arrests the traitor with a lover’s affection. He says, Betray you with a kiss? that is, do you inflict a wound with the pledge of love? with the instruments of peace do you impose death? a slave, do you betray your Lord; a disciple, your master; one chosen, Him who chose you?” ~St Ambrose of Milan, commentary on the Gospel of Luke
And so we come to Christ, not shrinking away from His captive, but coming out to meet him. (John 18:4) As just discussed Christ, being the new Adam, first fulfills Adam’s role as high priest, that of instituting the Mysteries. Now He must, in essence, undertake that first temptation, fulfilling Adam’s original disobedience with His perfect obedience to the commandment of God, thus restoring Adam to his original state in Himself.
“And behold the Man! Such a One there has never been, there is not, and there shall never be. But why did Christ become such a one? In order to keep the Law of God and His commandments, and so as to enter into battle with and conquer the devil.” ~St Symeon the New Theologian, The Sin of Adam, Chapter 3
What was the Law of God that Christ kept which Adam failed? “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to guard it.” (Gen 2:15) In his commentary on Genesis, St Ephraim the Syrian asks the question of what tilling would Adam have done when he had no tools? And what guarding could he have done if there were yet no thieves? St Ephraim says that the “tilling” and the “guarding” Adam did was to fulfill the commandment that had been commanded of him.
Yet Adam did not fulfill the commandment first set down by God. And so Christ must be subject to that which Adam first failed. Christ must keep that commandment which Adam did not. And the commandment is this, as St Gregory the Theologian says, “[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on.” By offering, of His own Will, a perfect obedience and love to God, Christ “tills” and “guards” that first commandment of His Father. And He does so by posing a question to show the ignorance of His tempter.
Before Satan, in the form of Judas, and the soldiers can capture Christ, Jesus says, “Whom are you seeking?” It should be noted that Christ asks this question twice. This is to symbolize both the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. As there are two trees in the Garden of Eden, so Christ asks “Whom are you seeking?” twice symbolically referencing these two.
But, why didn’t Judas recognize Christ, having been with Him some three years? We cannot claim that it was dark, for the Evangelist says that they carried with them torches and lanterns. Even if their sight were compromised, couldn’t Judas have recognized Christ by His voice? What is the symbolic meaning behind why Judas and the soldiers do not recognize the Lord?
At first we can say that, Satan having entered Judas, and Satan not recognizing the Lord since the Lord did not initiate Satan into the Mystery of His Incarnation, Judas would not be able to recognize the Lord at this time either for Satan had become for Judas “a master of his whole heart and absolute dominator of his thoughts.” This is how Christ reveals the ignorance of those who have come to tempt Him. But in his commentary on Genesis, St Ephraim the Syrian offers an intriguing alternate way to symbolically understand this passage in the Gospel of John.
“God created the tree of life and hid it from Adam and Eve. This was so that the tree would not cause any great struggle with them by its beauty and thus double their agony. In addition, it was not right that they heed a commandment from Him who could not be seen for the sake of a reward that was before their eyes.” Commentary on Genesis, Section 2, (17), #4
Here we see our answer. Christ, who is Himself Life, as the tree of life, is hidden from the world. And so Satan comes in the same manner he did to Adam, as if by saying, “But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’” (Matt 21:38) Here Satan is posed with the Truth of partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here, Christ is that tree.
“Now when He said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” (John 18:6)
“Why is this, that the Elect fall on their faces, the reprobate backward? Because everyone who falls back, sees not where he falls, whereas he who falls forward, sees where he falls. The wicked when they suffer loss in invisible things, are said to fall backward, because they do not see what is behind them: but the righteous, who of their own accord cast themselves down in temporal things, in order that they may rise in spiritual, fall as it were upon their faces, when with fear and repentance they humble themselves with their eyes open.” ~St Gregory The Dialogist, Pope of Rome, commentary on the Gospel of John
So here we see a visual representation of partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree was surrounded by death. As St Ephraim the Syrian says:
“God withheld from Adam a single tree and set death around it, so that if Adam would not keep the law out of Love for the One who had set down the law, then at least the fear of death that was set around the tree would frighten him away from overstepping the law.” commentary on Genesis, section 2, (3)
If Adam had been obedient he would have fallen forward towards God. But since he was not obedient, he fell backwards, not knowing where he was going, both as a sign of not understanding the magnitude of his transgression, but also because death is a falling into non-being. Partaking of this tree was for the appropriate time, when God had taught Adam and Eve the proper understanding of good and evil. “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon.” ~St Gregory the Theologian
Christ had already, immediately prior, taught the Apostles the proper education of good and evil through the institution of the Divine Mysteries. He brought them to that place where they “reached maturity of habit to enter upon.” Now it is time for Christ to reveal Himself as the tree of life, which, after partaking of the knowledge of good and evil, no longer remains hidden, but is open for the whole world to see.
“Then He asked them again, “Whom are you seeking?” (John 18:7) And so Christ, having first symbolically stood for and Mystically revealing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that divine gateway to the hidden tree of life, reveals Himself now, Mystically, as the tree of life and source of life. Now He has fulfilled that first temptation while also revealing the way to eternal life.
“And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” (Gen 3:22) Having transgressed that first law of God, if Adam and Eve partook of the fruit from the tree of life, they would have remained in their fallen state forever. This is why God placed them outside the garden, for how great a punishment would it be to remain in this state forever!
As previously stated, Christ taught the Apostles the proper understanding of good and evil. They can, now, partake of Christ, that is the tree of life, properly and be granted eternal life. But Judas, as well as those who accuse Christ, remain under the condemnation of that first disobedience. This is what Christ means when He says, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (John 5:28-29) As well as what St John means here when he speaks of God’s judgment, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)
And so we come to the final symbolic point on this passage. Christ has “tilled” and “guarded” the commandment of God, but He has also guarded the Apostles who remain in the garden. He has taken the temptation originally for us upon Himself, and by accepting it freely, He guards us from falling into it. If we “keep His word” and are found to have “Good” abiding in us, we partake of the tree of life, that being Christ, properly, and enjoy life eternal in that good and glorious state.