Nearing the Cross - Denied
by Pastor Mike Fortune
March 27, 2010
Follow Jesus [John 18:15-18; Luke 9:23]
Speak truth [John 18:19-23; Ephesians 4:15]
Deny yourself [John 18:24-27; Galatians 2:20]
This morning, our pilgrimage through the book of John continues. We actually started this journey three years ago! But because we’ve been taking plenty of detours during the summer months and holidays, today we’re starting where we left off in John 18:15. I’m calling this series Nearing the Cross not only because the content of John 18 precedes the account of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but also because we’re rapidly approaching Easter. In honor of that, our church has been chosen to host a community Good Friday church service starting @ 2pm. Sponsored by my pastor and priest friends in the community from 10 different congregations, this event promises to be a unique experience. You’re all invited to join me if you have time. But that’s next Friday. This week, if you haven’t read John 18 and 19 in a while, I encourage you to do so. They are among the most appropriate portions of Scripture to focus on in the days preceding Easter. So let’s turn in our Bibles to John 18 as we too journey near the cross.
The Bible says in John 18:15-27, “15Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, 16but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in. 17"You are not one of his disciples, are you?" the girl at the door asked Peter. He replied, "I am not." 18It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself. 19Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20"I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said." 22When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded. 23"If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" 24Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest. 25As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, "You are not one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it, saying, "I am not." 26One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" 27Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.”
Most commentators say the other disciple following Jesus the night he was arrested and betrayed was the apostle John. They base that on tradition and the numerous times Peter and John are associated together in Scripture. But in my preparation for this talk, I found a startling study online that suggests this other disciple could have been Lazarus since for starters John 11:3 specifically says that Lazarus was the one Jesus loved. But that’s another sermon. With other implications for how we read the Bible and what people say about the Bible.
For now, let’s notice that John 18 confirms that though all the disciples apparently fled Gethsemane following the arrest of Jesus, at least Peter and as verse 15 says, “another disciple” must have returned. And Jesus predicted the fleeing part would occur. Jesus said this in John 16:32 “A time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone.” In Matthew 26:31 Jesus said something similar quoting Zechariah 13:7, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” That’s why Mark 14:50 simply records the fulfillment: “50Then everyone deserted him [Jesus] and fled.”
Mark 14:51 adds the interesting info that an additional young man wearing nothing but a linen garment even fled naked leaving his garment behind no pun intended! Scripture doesn’t say specifically who that young man was either. But many commentators believe it was the author of the book of Mark who, though never one of the twelve apostles, eventually became a powerful preacher and tag team evangelist with Barnabas—even winning back the apostle Paul’s approval later in his life [cf. Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11].
So Jesus knew all his followers would flee. But apparently, He also knew Peter would come back and deny him three times since Peter boasts in Mark 14:29-31, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” But before Jesus leads the disciples from the upper room and on to Gethsemane, Jesus replies, “‘30I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, ‘today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.’ 31But Peter insisted emphatically, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ And all the others said the same.”
But deny him they did fleeing from the mob of soldiers and Jewish leaders carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons. But this denial had less to do with a lack of faith than it did a momentary lack of courage. We know this is true because Matthew 26:3 says, “Peter followed him [Jesus] at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome.” John 18:15 adds, “Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus."
So even though the disciples lacked courage, they still believed [at least a little bit!]. Or two of them would have never returned to followed Jesus. And this is point number one today. It takes courage to believe and follow Jesus. And the good news is God gives us the courage to be faithful. Galatians 5:22 says one of the fruits of the Spirit is faithfulness. The adult quarterly classes have been studying that in Sabbath School. Faithfulness is a characteristic that must be given to us by God because even the bravest among us lack that sometimes. And Jesus knew that. And prepared his disciples for that. He knew, even after all their boasting, that they would flee from him and deny him. So instead of crushing him in disappointment, he wanted them to know that when that happens, don’t be surprised, because even the most faithful among you sometimes lack courage. That’s what I think the look Jesus gave Peter in Luke 22:61 was meant to convey. Not rejection, but encouragement. Remember? I told you this would happen! Don’t give up! Keep following me! Even if you lack courage sometimes and deny knowing me even if you curse me with oaths, remember that I will never deny you! Courage therefore is never the absence of fear or necessarily the absence of faith but instead, it is a choice to return to Jesus and continue following him—even if its dangerous or seems embarrassing.
So you screwed up. Who hasn’t? So you made big boasts? Who cares? God isn’t surprised when we fall short of the glory of God. Brennan Manning describes this kind of love God has for his children in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel this way. “Imagine a little boy trying to help his father with some household work, or making his mother a gift. The help may be nothing more than getting in the way, and the gift may be totally useless, but the love behind it is simple and pure, and the loving response it evokes is virtually uncontrollable. Our sincere desire counts far more than any specific success or failure” [The Ragamuffin Gospel, pp.84-85]. If that’s true, Jesus must have given Peter a look of love in that courtyard not condemnation as Luke alone records in his Gospel chapter 22. That’s why Peter, overwhelmed with love and guilt, wept bitterly [Luke 22:62].
So even if its dangerous or embarrassing, follow Jesus. Choose to keep believing the truth about Him even if everything inside you is tempting to convince you otherwise. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. There is nothing you can do to make God love you less! Romans 8:31 says, “If God is for us, who can be against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Who can snatch us from His hand? Jesus said in John 10:28 that no one can!
So do our failures disappoint us? Sure. But should they paralyze us? Absolutely not! Get up and come back. Return to Jesus and keep following Him! When we do so, can we long for more courage? Yes. Can we ask God to help us be faithful? Yes. And when we do, just remember it’s at that moment that Jesus is the most proud of us. When we have every reason to throw our faith away and wallow in a sea of self pity and accusation, but instead, we keep following Jesus, trusting that He really does love us like crazy, even after we curse him and betray our faith in him time and time again, when we keep coming back to him, I think that’s when he is most proud of us! Because that shows him that we still believe him. Jesus wasn’t surprised Peter denied him. He was proud that he came back to follow Him!
And while that doesn’t remove the disappointment and guilt we feel for denying Jesus and as a result we may no longer have as much confidence in our abilities to obey, what we gain is much more confidence in his grace to forgive. And provide. And sustain. Peter needed to be completely convinced of this after Jesus’ resurrection, but I think the seed was planted in that compassionate look Jesus gave him in the courtyard. God news people! God is still for us! Even after we run away and curse God, when God looks at us, it is never with condemnation. It is always with tender compassion. So don’t give up! He told us this was going to happen. Keep following him! He will help you be faithful. When we fall short, he is not surprised or disappointed, He is so proud that you came back! That you still trust him! And like a little child sincerely helping their father or mother around the house, that certainly pleases the Father.
If you’ve seen me, Jesus said, you’ve seen the Father. Everything else will pass away, but the love of God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It’s because God loves us with this relentless love that Jesus says in Luke 9:23 “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke alone adds the word daily there. He knew we would crash and burn daily. But he also knew that God’s grace is new every morning. Even the Old Testament taught that. Lamentations 3:22-23 says, “Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Great is our faithfulness? No! Great is God’s! Always has been. Always will be. You will trust God only as much as you love him. And you will love him only if you know you are always loved by him. That’s the way it worked for Peter and this other disciple following Jesus. And that’s the way it works for us too.
Moving on, verses 19-23 describe how the high priest questions Jesus. In Jesus’ day, there were actually two high priests. From the accession of Herod the Great in 37BC till the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, altogether 28 different persons held the sacred office of high priest their average rule being about 4 years rule. Josephus says that Quirinius, the governor of Syria in 7AD, was the one who first appointed Annas as high priest but the Roman procurator of Judea who preceded Pilate, Valerius Gratus, removed him around 14 AD [Antiquities xviii.2.2]. A few years later around 18 or 19AD, his son-in-law Caiaphas was installed as Rome’s high priest for Israel and he continued in office until about 36 AD.
So while Peter is being interrogated by the high priest’s servants in the courtyard, Jesus is being interrogated by Annas—the high priest the people still preferred and considered their true high priest [cf. Acts 4:6] even though Caiaphas had by then taken over the official role. And in response to his questions about the disciples and his teaching, Jesus simply says, “20"I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
He said this for two reasons. One, because God as Jesus demonstrated in John 13:1, he was going to love and serve his disciples to the very end protecting them even if they didn’t always love and serve him back. He would not give Annas any ammo to accuse him of sedition or his disciples of secretly overthrowing the government.
The other reason Jesus said what he did is because Jesus always speaks truth in love. And this is point number two about speaking truth. Turning the other cheek does not mean ceasing to speak truth in love. We know this is true because Jesus is literally interpreting for us the meaning of Matthew 5:39 in our passage in John 18. And it’s good thing He does because many Christians read that text from the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek to mean that we’re supposed to be door mat Christians willing to be walked all over. But the assertive Jesus in 18, who 1 Peter 2:22 says committed no sin, points out that what Annas is doing is illegal. Jewish law did not allow prosecutors to extort a confession. And even if it did, it couldn’t come with the death penalty. So Jesus simply responds by insisting that the trial be conducted in a proper and legal manner with appropriate witnesses duly called. “21Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
Mark 18:22 continues, “22When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. ‘Is this the way you answer the high priest?’ he demanded. But Jesus replied, “23If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?’” Turning the other cheek does not mean ceasing to speak truth in love. Turning the other cheek can mean even using the legal system to protect others. I think of Gary Haugen who is president and CEO of International Justice Mission—a human rights organization based in Washington DC. A graduate of Harvard who was working as a lawyer in the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice when he was tapped to direct the United Nations investigation to the genocide in Rwanda, now he devotes the rest of his life and learning to securing freedom for the 27 million women and children still in slavery today. Gary uses the often times broken down legal systems of the world to speak truth in love exposing the evil that is taking place at truck stops in Toledo and in other cities and countries around the world where the trafficking of people takes place. What breaks the heart of God is breaking Gary’s heart and it should be breaking ours as well.
So Jesus wasn’t being rude. He wasn’t breaking Matthew 5:39. He was fulfilling it. He was showing us how to protect others and speak truth in love. Calmly but confidently. And if Jesus could do that in the most intense of situations imaginable, maybe we can do so too. Especially among the much easier non life threatening lives most of us live. But if the New Testament letters to churches in places like Corinth and Ephesus teach us anything, they teach us that this too is extremely difficult to do.
Congregations back then struggled to speak truth in love and likewise we do too. But it can be done. If, like Jesus, we choose to care more for protecting others than ourselves. So when conflict comes, will we be as thorough in protecting the reputations of others as we are in protecting our own? Will we love other children as much or more as our own? It takes courage to follow Jesus. Especially after we repeatedly fail to do so. But by God’s grace under fire, it can be done. Or Paul would have never encouraged us to do so in Ephesians 4:15. You’ve heard me say this before but I’ll say it again: “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”
John 18:24 concludes. “24Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest. 25As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, "You are not one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it, saying, "I am not." 26One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" 27Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.”
John’s Gospel alone tells us how Peter got into the high priest’s courtyard, that Peter stood up to soldiers in the Garden but withered under the questions of a little girl, and that a fire was needed at that time of year in the very early morning hours since it was still cold. Which may as our video clip intro revealed, add another dimension to the weight of suffering Jesus endured as He neared the cross—cold!
A further interesting aspect of these scenes is the way Peter is detected in verses 25-27. In the Synoptic Gospels, he is detected by his dialect. Matthew, Mark, and Luke imply that it’s his Galilean accent that gave him away. But in John, he is detected by a relative of Malchus. This also helps explain why the other disciple was not challenged upon entry into the courtyard but Peter was since he had come boldly to the front at the time of Jesus’ arrest.
But now the boldness that is most required of him is the boldness the writer of Hebrews describes in chapter 4:14-26 NKJV. “14Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
And this is point number three: Deny yourself. Peter denied Jesus three times. He boasted about his ability to obey. But all his boasting came to nothing. Because he put the boldness in his works not Christ’s. But mature followers of Jesus, who still lack courage at times and are sincerely growing in their faithfulness, they are as bold in claiming Christ’s works as their own. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in Cost of Discipleship p.296, “The law of God is still in force, and still demands fulfilment (Romans 3:31). And the only way to fulfil the law is by doing good works. But ultimately there is only one good work; the work of God in Christ Jesus...All our works are the works of God himself.”
That’s why the Bible says we can come boldly into the throne room of grace. And I like the metaphor that where God rules, there is grace. As Song of Solomon 2:4 sings, “His banner over me is love.” Paul describes this holy boldness this way in Galatians 2:20. He says, “20I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Occasionally, we too like Jesus, will make triumphal entries in our lives. But more often than not, like Peter, we will need to summon by faith the holy boldness God alone gives to deny ourselves, pick up Christ’s cross, and follow him. Asking for and receiving generous portions of his grace and faithfulness new to us every morning. Living that way may seem embarrassing at first. But it won’t always seem that way. And the good news in the meantime, Jesus never looks at us an embarrassment to him. He is always proud of us. And never more so than when we with holy boldness deny ourselves and come before the foot of the cross and fall upon the grace God. And that’s what I’m asking each of you here today old enough to understand me that has never been baptized to do so next week. Next week, Easter weekend, by faith, we’re filling the baptismal tank. A few of you have told me you’re thinking about it, but nobody has said so for sure. But we will have it ready anyway.
Perhaps you’ve been thinking about making this decision, but were waiting for the moment you would be less sinful. Well, if that’s what you’re waiting for, you’ll never be baptized because Philippians 1:6 says God won’t be completed with us until the day Jesus returns.
I know for a fact that some of you spouses walk in here every week with your husband or wife and say you love God and the partner you believe God has given you, but you have never made that decision to confess your sins, bury them in the water of baptism, and be resurrected to the newness of life in Christ. May I challenge you today to make that decision? Whatever your age, don’t run from it anymore.
Since baptism is only the professed beginning of your life in Christ, don’t worry if you haven’t studied everything already or figured everything out. You’ll have an abundant life ahead of you to learn and study and grow not to mention an eternal life as well. I’m not big into altar calls with organ music and the lights dimming low. I don’t want you manipulated into following Jesus. But I do want to ask you to do so! Never perfectly, but sincerely and boldly as you can!
To be honest, I used to be embarrassed to ask people to be baptized. But I’m not anymore so I don’t think you should be embarrassed to say yes! So if in response to what you heard today, is there anyone here that wants to express their love to Jesus by following his example and being baptized? Even if you didn’t raise your hand just now, would you please think about this invitation? And please let me or Pastor Rachel know after the service or some time this week if you believe the time has come for you to follow Jesus in this way. This congregation would love to cheer you on and rejoice with the angels in heaven when just one person chooses to sincerely love and follow God.
In the meantime, as we live our lives this week, let’s choose to keep following Jesus even if we’ve run away from him in the past. Let’s determine to protect others by speaking truth in love—even if we don’t get it right the first times. And let’s ask God to give us the courage and holy boldness to deny ourselves instead of denying Jesus. Not by our might or power [Zechariah 4:6], but by Spirit of the resurrected Christ living in us amen.