In John's account (in chapter 18) of the events leading up to Jesus' death, it is a riddle the apostle poses. "Are you him?" was the question that the rabble in the dark asked as they came to arrest Jesus. In the confusion of the scene they didn't want to arrest the wrong man in a case of mistaken identity. So Jesus made it easy for them. He stepped forward and said "I am he" (vs 4,5). "Are you?". "I am".
A few hours later Jesus is in the court of the High Priest. Everybody is still in the dark. As Peter came in, the servant girl who appears to have been the unlikely bouncer at the venue for this black drama asked about his identity, thinking that he seemed like one of Jesus' disciples. "Are you one of them?" she asked. "I am not," Peter replied. "Are you?". "I am not".
Then the scene shifts to Pilate's court, and a parallel conversation unfolds. Pilate interrogates Jesus, anxiously asking,"Are you you a king?" Somewhat cryptically, but without a hint of a Peter-like denial, he says "I am" -and talks confidently of the fact that this was the purpose of his coming, as the king of a kingdom far higher than Rome.
John seems to stress the contrast.
The band of soldiers and Jesus: Are you? I am!
The servant girl and Peter: Are you? I am not!
Pilate and Jesus: Are you? I am!
Two things stand out. Firstly, the contrast with Peter.
Jesus was willing to affirm his identity at the cost of his own life. Indeed his very identity was that he was the one who came to lay down his life. Peter, on the other hand, was willing to deny his identity in order to save his life.
Peter's answer to Hamlet's question was unequivocal: not to be was clearly the better option! His bravado in cutting of the servant's ear in the bravado of the adrenalin rush in the anonymous darkness of the darkness had evaporated now that the spotlight was on him. He was not longer willing to identify himself with Jesus. He denied in triplicate. Meanwhile Jesus, in his willingness to totally identify himself with us in our sinfulness would rather die than deny his identity.
Then, secondly, we see the confidence of Jesus.
He knew who he was. And despite the fact that in human terms he was utterly powerless in the face of the weapons of the arresting soldiers or the might of Rome that stood behind Pilate, it was they who were afraid, and not Jesus. Pilate knew that there was truth to Jesus's assertion that he was but the puppet of a higher power far greater than Caesar. As he saw events snowballing out of control as the crowd insisted on a conviction and death penalty, John tells us that "he was even more afraid" (19:8). Afraid in the face of the one who confidently asserted "I am".
The same fear had been seen in the macho vigilantes. When Jesus spoke the dramatic words "I am", they knew what he was saying. This was not a common criminal they were arresting as they might have done on many a dark night. Their weapons were no match for the great "I am". At the sound of those words, "they drew back and fell to the ground" (v.6). In the darkness they had stumbled across Moses' burning bush. They stepped back and he stepped forward. He was who he was - so he took charge and freely gave himself up rather than being reluctantly dragged off against his will. He will be who he will be - the Lamb that was led to the slaughter.
"To be or not to be?" That was no question for Jesus. He was who he was. He eternally had been and eternally would be the great "I am". And as Peter would later discover, we who shrink back in denial in the trauma of an identity crisis can eventually find our true identity in Him.