Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Trials of Jesus and Peter (Mark 14:53-72)

This week was a historic moment in my life because I now have over 800 friends. Some of you know exactly what I am talking about – someone of you think that was an odd thing to say – who keeps track of how many friends they have?

Well, I don’t, but a website called Facebook does. You create a page for yourself, and then it helps you network with friends from work, church, hobbies, old schools, and so on.

We all know people we would not add as a friend if they requested it because we wouldn’t want to be associated with them, and we wouldn’t want people to know we even knew each other. But that is a pretty harsh judgment. To be honest, so far I have not turned down a friend request on my Facebook page – that is a tough trigger to pull.

Yet in what we are going to study today, Peter repudiated his friendship with the Lord. And I will suggest that just as Mark 14 describes the formal, legal tribunal of the Jewish leaders before whom Jesus is arraigned, there is another trial. Not in the legal sense, but in a personal sense. The judge and jury are a servant girl and some bystanders; the accused is Peter. The charge: “You were also with Jesus.” By the time he is finished, Peter will deny that he ever even knew Him.

Since Mark brackets the story of Jesus’ trial with reference to Peter’s confrontation with the crowd in v. 54 and 66-72, I believe we are supposed to read these stories together. So let’s begin with the trial of Jesus.

I. The Trial of Jesus (Mark 14:53-65)

In the time of Jesus the ruling authority of the Jewish people was invested in the Sanhedrin Council, composed of the priestly aristocracy (the chief priests), the prominent families (the elders), and the legal experts (the scribes), overseen by the high priest. This is exactly who Mark tells us Jesus was led to.

53 And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together.

This is the same evil trinity Jesus mentioned in 8:31.

Conducting a trial in the middle of the night was highly unusual. In Acts 4 when the Council arrested the apostles for preaching the resurrection they waited until the next day to interrogate them because “it was already evening” (Acts 4:3). It would have been even more unusual to have a trial during a holy day like Passover, and it was illegal to convict and execute a man on the same day.

For these reasons many critics of the Bible assume that the gospel accounts are wrong, or even worse, that they were fabricated just to make the Jews look bad and to exonerate the Gentiles. Honestly, how anyone could read the gospels and think that Pilate comes off looking good is beyond me. The fact is that if these men were genuinely seeking justice they would have followed all the correct procedures. But these are not honest men. They had already decided to kill Jesus –
• After the cleansing of the temple, “the chief priests and the scribes… were seeking a way to destroy him” (11:18).
• After the parable of the tenants, “they were seeking to arrest him” because they knew he had told the parable about them (12:12).
• And just two days earlier, “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (14:1).

This was not the determined pursuit of blind justice. This was a kangaroo court which had already decided the verdict, and now just needed to come up with the charges, as Mark pointed out in 14:55:

55 Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death…

But there is a problem: “but they found none” (14:55). They can’t find anyone to testify against Jesus – or at least whose testimony would stand up to scrutiny. The Law gave the standard of two or three witnesses as the criteria to settle legal issues. Verse 56 says, “For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.”

Think about it – based on what we have read in Mark’s gospel, what charge could they bring against Jesus? The scribes from Jerusalem leveled two charges against Him earlier-

3:22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”


7:1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

But as you recall, Jesus defended His actions with reason and Scripture, so that the scribes were not going to be able to win that argument. How can you put someone to death for delivering people from demonic forces? How can you execute a man for challenging you to honor God’s word and not man’s traditions?

No, to put Jesus to death they need two kinds of crimes. The need one crime that warrants His execution based on the Law; and since the Jews did not have the power to carry out executions, they need another crime the Romans would take seriously. Some false witnesses try to give them the former:

57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”

If they can prove that Jesus threatened to desecrate the temple, even to destroy it, they could justify executing Him. But there is a problem -

59 Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.

What was it about their testimony that did not agree? Jesus did say something about the temple’s destruction. Early in His ministry according to John’s gospel, Jesus said:

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

But was Jesus threatening to destroy the temple Himself? No – He was challenging them to destroy the temple of His body, which would be raised up in the resurrection. Jesus’ disciples did not understand Him at the time, so I am sure His detractors didn’t either. Maybe that explains their confusion, and in the haste to get a guilty verdict they falsely claimed that Jesus Himself said He would destroy the temple.

Another factor to consider is that Jesus had predicted the destruction of the temple just a few days prior to this trial. When Jeremiah predicted the same thing in his time, he was nearly killed on the spot!

Jer. 26:7 The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. 8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die! 9 Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant’?” And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.

So perhaps Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s ruin combined with His veiled prediction of the rebuilding of the temple of His body created the garbled and contradictory testimony given before the Sanhedrin. And it was the kind of explosive charge that could capture the imagination of the public, because as Jesus hung on the cross the mob taunted Him,

15:29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!”

The inability to pin something on Jesus exasperated the high priest, especially since Jesus was silent and gave His accusers no ammunition to incriminate Him.

60 And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 61 But he remained silent and made no answer.

Centuries earlier Isaiah the prophet foretold of the servant of the Lord, who suffered in silence:

Isa. 53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.

In fact, there was one issue about which Jesus was silent His entire ministry. Do you remember the phrase, “the messianic secret”? This is the phrase commentators often use to describe Jesus’ insistence that people not spread the word about what He did or who He was. Let me remind you of a couple key examples:
• 1:34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
• 1:43 And Jesus sternly charged him (the leper) and sent him away at once, 44 and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone”
• 3:11 And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.
• After He raised the daughter of Jairus, 5:43 And he strictly charged them that no one should know this.
• And of course, immediately after Peter made the great confession, 8:30 says “he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.”

It wasn’t until this very week that Jesus openly accepted Hosannas as the Son of David, but even then the crowds during Passover season would have been singing psalms of deliverance no matter who was coming in to town, so there was still no open claim to be Messiah.

Which is exactly what the high priest is after. If he can prove that Jesus claims to be the Messiah, he can convict Him on religious grounds (since Jesus in no way matches the presumed qualities of the Messiah). And he can convict Him on political grounds in the eyes of the Romans, alleging that He claims to be King of the Jews and a threat to Caesar.

61b Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”

Have you ever seen Mister Deeds Goes to Town? It is a classic Gary Cooper movie in which he portrays a small-town man who comes into a fortune, moves to the big city, and ruffles the feathers of the elite because he doesn’t fit into their mold of what a sophisticated person ought to be. When he decides to give his money away, his crooked lawyer rigs phony charges against him to try to take away the fortune for himself. During the trial, Deeds sits in silence as witness after witness presents what seems to be damning evidence, and as you watch it, you can’t help but cheer him on to speak up and defend himself. When he finally does, he just completely annihilates every charge, and makes his scheming lawyer look like a fool – before he punches him in the face!

We know Jesus was capable of demolishing people in a debate – He did so in the temple just a few days prior. But at His own trial, Jesus gave no grand, stirring summation to defend Himself and discredit His enemies. He gave a simple answer, but an answer with shocking implications:

62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Two simple words (in Greek and English): “I am.” And then Jesus quoted from two passages.

The first is Psalm 110:1, “The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

This is the same verse Jesus questioned the Pharisees about in their debate in 12:35-37. Remember the question: How can the Messiah be David’s son and David’s Lord at the same time? Now, Jesus tells the high priest, He is indeed the great David’s greater son, and that He will not merely rule as an earthly king but that He will sit at the very right hand of God in heaven!

The other passage Dan. 7:13, “I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man

This is the same verse Jesus quoted in Mark 13, when He said the destruction of the temple would prove that He was indeed the Son of God receiving royal authority from God (13:26). In the OT, only God “comes on the clouds.” Now, Jesus is saying that He will!

This is far more than a claim to be the Messiah. This is a claim that He will dwell where God dwells, to come as only God comes! No wonder the high priest was horrified!

63 And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

Jesus has given them the perfect grounds for execution – blasphemy. Now all they need is for the Roman governor to carry out their sentence. But before they go to Pilate, they decide to give Jesus a taste of what is to come.

65 And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows.

Spitting on someone is a universal form of humiliation. They also began to beat Him, with His head covered. We have all seen the horrible images from Abu Grab and the way a few reckless soldiers humiliated their prisoners. Maybe we have read this account so often we have lost sight of how despicably Jesus was treated. Additionally, some of the Jews believed since the Messiah “shall not judge by what his eyes see” (Isa. 11:3) that the Messiah would be able to sense who people were with His eyes closed. Maybe this was their cruel parody of that prophecy.

Little do they realize that they are the ones who have eyes, but cannot see.

Isaiah did see this seven hundred years earlier, in another vision of a suffering servant:

Isa. 50:6 I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.

Before we move on to Peter’s story, there is an important point to be made about the verdict of the Sanhedrin. The Jewish council is an easy target for disdain, given the fundamentally dishonest way they tried Jesus. But there is one sense in which they acted with conviction. If Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and He was not, then He was a false prophet deserving death. These are really the only options. The idea, so common among people who want to be “spiritual” without the Bible, that Jesus was a great moral teacher and social reformer but was not God in the flesh is absurd. What kind of good moral teacher says He is the Anointed right hand man of God when He’s not?!?

The Jesus of the gospels forces us to pick a side, as Peter is about to find out once more.

II. The Trial of Peter (Mark 14:54, 66-72)

Mark included the narrative of the trial of Jesus between two references to Peter’s experience in the courtyard of the high priest.

54 And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire.

66a And as Peter was below in the courtyard

In the chaotic moments of Jesus’ arrest Peter and the disciples were able to escape. And apparently Peter had doubled back to see what happened to His Master, following the temple guards to the high priest’s residence. On the surface, the fact that Peter trailed Jesus all the way to the courtyard of the high priest suggests that some of his courage had returned. But all it takes for that courage to crumble is a simple statement by a slave girl.

66b one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”

Peter was one of the inner circle, and this made him even more conspicuous as a disciple of Jesus. One of the young women working for the high priest sees Peter and recognizes him as one of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

68a But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.”

Suddenly, Peter finds himself in the middle of a spontaneous trial, and whatever curiosity or courage led him to see what was happening with Jesus were no match for his fear of punishment if he was identified as one of His followers. So he immediately responded to this slave girl in language that was the formal legal language of his day and time. He denies any knowledge of Jesus and His disciples. But his non-verbal communication gives him away -

68b And he went out into the gateway

Peter may claim to know nothing, but his move toward the exit of the courtyard speaks volumes. He is looking for another quick getaway.

But he cannot escape the prophecy of Jesus. The last part of verse 68 says, “and the rooster crowed,” immediately bringing to mind Jesus’ prediction about Peter’s denials. The crowing of the rooster also gives us a clue as to what time it is. Those who lived in Jerusalem have for years noticed that roosters typically crow from around midnight to three in the morning. So this indicates that Jesus’ trial and Peter’s denials take placed in the early morning hours.

Peter’s effort to deflect the girl’s accusation fails. Once again she fingers him as a follow of Jesus, and once again he denies it.

69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it.

And once again Peter contradicts his own testimony; this time, by his accent. Early Jewish literature often mentioned how peculiar the accent of people from Galilee was. Since it was well known that Jesus was from Galilee, Peter’s rustic accent betrays his identity as a fellow Galilean.

70b And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

Three times in the garden Jesus had asked Peter to stay awake while He prayed, and three times he fell asleep. The man who once bragged that if everyone else left Jesus he never would could not even keep himself from nodding of while his Master languished in prayer. And now, for the third time, he denied knowing Jesus in the strongest possible language-

71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”

The Greek says simply that he began to curse (KJV, NKJV, NASB). Was he cursing Jesus? Was he cursing himself (ESV, NIV), as if to say “a curse on me if I’m lying!” (NLT)?

There is no way to know for sure, but what we do know with certainty is that Peter’s denial of Jesus is deliberate, persistent, and emphatic. Sadly, there was a lot of truth in Peter’s denial. He truly doesn’t know Jesus, he still doesn’t really understand what kind of Messiah He came to be.

72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

We refer to someone who is brash and arrogant as “cocky,” because of the way the rooster struts around. How ironic that the cocky Peter who bragged that he would be faithful long after everyone fell away is reminded of his empty boast by the crowing of a rooster.

Peter did not deny himself and take up a cross. He denied Christ to avoid the cross.

III. Some Lessons for Us

From the time Jesus woke him up in the Garden, Peter must have felt like he was in a bad dream that wouldn’t end. First he sees His Master and friend arrested, but not before he tried to take matters into his own hands, only to be rebuked by Jesus. Then he ran like a coward. Then he decided to discreetly see what was going to happen, only to be put on the spot again, only to fail miserably again, and to break down in tears. But this is not the end of the story for Peter. He doesn’t fade from the scene like Judas. He becomes the Rock Jesus named him to be, and if I am right in understanding that Mark’s gospel was addressed to Christians in Rome, then Peter eventually gave his life for Christ in the very city to which this gospel was sent. So Peter must have learned something from what happened in the courtyard of the high priest. Here are three lessons I can think of that we need to learn.

A. We can deny Christ with our lives just as we can with our words.

It is hard to envision a time here in America when we could face grave danger for professing faith in Christ. But as I have said before, there are places in the world today where if you did claim to believe in Jesus as the Son of God you could very well pay with your life. And that was certainly a reality in the time Mark, when Nero’s persecution was in full throttle.

A couple of generations later during another outbreak of imperial persecution, an aged believer in Smyrna named Polycarp was arrested, and urged to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord” rather than Christ in order to avoid death. To this Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And so he died rather than deny Christ.

Hopefully we are nowhere close to facing that kind of persecution here. But this doesn’t mean we are immune to the temptation to deny Christ. We can deny the Lord in other ways besides saying, “I never knew the man.” The Bible teaches that we can deny Christ by the way we live.

Jude warned about those who

Jude 1:4 have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Paul told Titus:

Titus 1:15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

If you truly believe in Christ, that will be reflected in the way you live because He calls us to a total commitment. But if the way you live does not follow what Christ teaches – loving God with all your being, about loving others as yourself, about purity, about honesty– then what you are really saying is you do not believe Jesus is Lord, you do not believe He is God’s Anointed one enthroned at his right hand, because if you really believed this, you would be doing what He said to do!

We confess Him by our works, and we can deny Him by our works. What testimony does the world see in you?

B. If we deny Christ, He will deny us.

When we deny Christ, like Peter, it is because of self-interest. Peter was obviously scared, afraid of what the authorities would do if they knew he was in the inner circle (especially since he just tried to kill one the henchmen of the high priest!). And the reason we deny Christ in our conduct is self-interest. The simple selfishness of wanting our will rather than His; perhaps combined with the fear of what may happen to us if we dare stand up for His will.

Or to put it another way, it is because we are more concerned with what someone else thinks about us than what Christ thinks about us. But Christ is the only one who can create a saving relationship with the God who holds our eternal destiny in His hand. Not just a beating, not just imprisonment or even death. But eternal wrath!

And if we deny Jesus, He has made the solemn warning that He will deny us before the eternal God.

Mark 8:38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Paul makes the same promise in his final letter to Timothy:

2 Tim 2:12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us

I cannot imagine anything more horrifying than to stand before God, knowing that my only hope of mercy is to belong to Jesus Christ, and to hear Jesus say, “Shane did not want to confess that he belonged to me, and so I don’t recognize Him as one of mine.” Those are the stakes if I deny Christ.

C. If we are faithless, He is faithful.

The third lesson I want to draw is from the next verse in 2 Timothy 2-

13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.

“He remains faithful.” And indeed Christ did remain faithful. While Peter was crumbling in the face of one slave girl’s question, Jesus remained faithful to His Father’s will in the midst of a flurry of false witnesses and degrading abuse.

And it is His faithfulness that gives me hope. Because I know that when I am faithless, He remains absolutely trustworthy, and will keep His promise to forgive me.

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

We don’t have to imagine how heartbroken Peter was over his failure. But can you imagine how he must have felt when the women who visited Jesus’ tomb passed on this message:

Mark 16:7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee

“And Peter.” Why single him out? Maybe because of all the disciples, the one who denied the Lord three times needed the reassurance that Jesus intended to see him again.

I think this explains the scene at the end of the Gospel of John when Jesus asked Peter to feed His sheep three times. For each denial, Peter received a commission from Jesus to feed His sheep. Because even though he was faithless, Jesus remained faithful.

There may have been members of the church in Rome to whom Mark was writing that had caved in and denied Jesus. They needed to know that whether we have denied Jesus three times, 70 times, 70 times seven, we can have hope that like Peter we can be restored.

Have you ever been ashamed to admit you knew someone? A few years ago I read a book called Seventy Years in Dixie. It is the memoir of a man named T.W. Caskey, who lived through the War Between the States. One of the most moving passages in the book is the third chapter, certainly not PC, called “Black Mammies.” In many southern households, a black slave would help raise the children, especially if the mother was ill or had passed away, as was the case with Caskey. “The relationship between a child and its black mammy was both intimate and affectionate. Any Southern man would resent an injury to his old black mammy, as a personal insult, as long as he lived” (p. 42).

The account turns bittersweet when Caskey admits that the last time he saw his mammy, he was embarrassed when she showered him with affection in front of his sweetheart, which offended his sense of propriety in front of his girlfriend. “I blushed for shame that I should be thus kissed, by an old negress, in the presence of my young lady friend. I have never yet fully recovered my self-respect, when I think how I blushed to be kissed and loved by one who had so nobly earned her right to a mother’s affections and privileges, by all she had done for me during my helpless, infant orphanage. It was mean and contemptible in me. But I will yet atone for it, in a measure, if I am so fortunate as to meet her ransomed soul on the glory-gilded shore of eternity. In that sweet by-and-by, I will walk right up to her, and if her face is as wrinkled and black as it was when last I saw it, I will, nevertheless, throw my arms around her neck and, before God, Christ, the angels and assembled universe, tenderly press a loving, repentant kiss upon her cheeks.” (p. 48-49)

We need to feel the blush of shame for those times we have denied our Savior who has done so much for us. But we should also feel the great joy and hope of knowing that despite our failures, our spiritual blemishes, that He is always faithful to welcome us back, because “he is not ashamed to call [us] them brothers” (Heb. 2:11).

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