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Ransom for Many – Chapter 22. Countdown to the cross (Mark 14:27-72)
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Chapter 22. Countdown to the cross (Mark 14:27-72)

Chapter 22. Countdown to the cross

Please read Mark 14:27-72

It is a night that Peter will never forget; and it all begins with the walk to Gethsemane. All week the feeling of danger, the sense of threat, has been growing. Now, while those strange words at the Passover table are still ringing in their ears, Jesus leads them out of the city to camp under the trees. Outside the city gates, they splash their way through the Kidron stream and make their way towards the Mount of Olives. Numbers of others are doing the same – there just isn’t room for all the Festival crowds to stay within the city. Finally, at the foot of the hill, perhaps twenty minutes’ walk out of the city, they arrive at Gethsemane, so called because of the olive press there. An unforgettable night is about to take another dramatic turn.

Battle in the Garden

The story in vv.27-42 forms the bridge from the Last Supper into the passion narratives which follow: the shadow of the cross falls starkly across it. Gethsemane is a double battle-ground, for there are two battles being fought here this night. One is lost, the other is won. One shows us human weakness and failure, the other shows us struggle and victory. Between them, the two battles give us a glimpse of the phenomenal price that was paid to save us and the depths from which God has rescued us. This story shows us the Person and heart of Christ laid bare; and it holds up a mirror to warn us of our own failure and weakness.

First, then, the battle that is lost. Look at vv.27-28. The expression ‘fall away’ means they will find Jesus such an embarrassment, such a problem, that they would rather have nothing to do with him. Probably this conversation takes place en route from the Upper Room in Jerusalem to the garden, the olive grove of Gethsemane. Jesus is warning them of the severe danger that lies ahead of them. The prophecy he quotes comes from Zechariah 13:7, and although some of the language is difficult, the prophet is clearly speaking about God’s purposes to bring salvation to his people, cleansing from sin, the rescue of a remnant; and in the middle of it all, God’s shepherd, the one who stands close to God himself, is struck down and his followers all scattered. Peter doesn’t grasp all this, but he has certainly picked up the words ‘fall away’ and ‘scattered’; and he knows who the shepherd is. He insists ‘even if all fall away, I will not’ (v.29). In v.31 his rebuttal becomes even stronger and more definitive. Peter envisages a choice between martyrdom and denial and is absolutely clear that whenever the challenge comes, he will be up for it – and he will win it! How typical of Peter to be so supremely confident, so brash. But the others are no different. Jesus’ solemn warning that by next morning Peter at least will have disowned him three times makes no impression whatsoever. All this throws into sharp relief the disastrous failure which follows.

The walk to the garden, known as Gethsemane because of the presence of an olive press, is soon over. Judas having departed (Mark does not say when), Jesus now leaves eight of his disciples behind and takes his inner circle, the little group of three, a little further, before leaving them too with clear instructions to stay awake and pray – vv.34,38. The command to ‘watch’ echoes what he said a day or two before, about being prepared for the crisis that is coming (13:37). Some people read this story as if Jesus is asking the disciples to pray for him – as if he wants their company and their support. But that cannot be the case. Jesus is looking elsewhere for his strength; sadly he knows he cannot rely on them. No, they need to pray for themselves because the challenge they seem so keen to bring on is now fast approaching. The fact that Jesus shows such care for them in the midst of his own agony is wonderful in itself. But instead of watching and praying, there in the dark at the foot of the olive trees, the three men immediately drop off to sleep. After all, it has been a long day; they are surrounded by the scent of the olive trees; and they are used to sleeping in the open! They get another chance, v.37, and again they drop off to sleep. What Jesus says in v.38 makes both the coming threat and the needed response explicit. They are about to face a deep temptation. In their human strength, the weakness of their flesh, they are simply not up to it. The only answer is to pray and so to gain strength from God, the strength of his Spirit; and they don’t do it. Failure is now guaranteed. The battle has been lost – because they have not prayed. As he returns to them we hear a strange echo of the day of his Transfiguration (9:6): the inner circle of three are lost for words (v.40). When Jesus comes back the third time and again has to wake them, it’s too late. The moment has arrived; and they are lost.

Here are three men who have been so sure, so confident that they can face anything – but when it comes to it they are sunk by the deadly combination of human pride and human weakness. Mark wants to warn his first readers, facing the immediate and terrifying dangers of persecution in Rome, that the same will happen to them if they don’t watch and pray. The same is true for us. If we try to face the spiritual battles of this life in our own strength, we too will be sunk. Our human pride and human weakness will lead us to defeat, just as they did for the disciples. We have to understand that as Christians, our life is a series of spiritual battles which we cannot face in our human strength. The rest of ch 14 will show how the consequences played out for Peter and his friends, but from this moment it is all too predictable – and so it will be for us. Whatever the next temptation will be for you or me – to cheat on expenses or to cheat on your spouse, to gossip about our friends, to look at those websites, whether the danger for you is pornography or your passion for the perfect home, which is idolatry – understand that every one of these battles is a spiritual battle, and if you do not pray, then you will not win. There will be spiritual challenges, danger, temptations, that you cannot avoid but will have to face. How will you face them? The answer is amazingly simple – watch and pray!

Secondly, the war that is won. While the disciples are losing their battle, the Lord Jesus is fighting his own; and while they fail to pray, he really prays! The disciples have never seen him like this, overwhelmed as if he is drowning under the weight of sorrow (v.34) as he goes ahead to fight alone. Vv.35-36 show us what he faces. What it is that makes Jesus recoil in horror like this, makes him plead with the Father that he should be spared? Is it the physical horror of the cross? Is it the thought of the agony of crucifixion? No, it is something worse. Jesus speaks deliberately of the ‘cup’ (v.36). In the Old Testament, the ‘cup’ comes to have a very specific meaning and because it is so important that we are clear about this, we will look at a number of references . In Psalm 75:7-8, the psalmist is clearly talking about the ‘cup’ as judgement. In Jeremiah 25:15-18 and on through the rest of the chapter, the prophet speaks of a cup of judgement taken from the hand of God. A similar picture is found in Isaiah 51:17. There are many similar references in the psalms, in Ezekiel and in the other prophets. The ‘cup’ in all these places, the cup which must be drunk, stands for the wrath of God which is poured out on people who are godless and disobedient. The image is used in the New Testament as well, if anything with even greater clarity, in Revelation 14:9-10 and 16:19b.

The language is vivid, fearful, extreme we might say. But we have to stress the reality of the wrath of God because many today do not understand it or else deny it. This is what the Bible teaches us about God’s response to our sin – our sin which is an outrage against him. What we call God’s wrath is his perfect, pure, just, steady and unending hostility to sin. His wrath means condemnation, eternal punishment, deadly separation and outer darkness. All who stand in rebellion against this holy God are destined to face this wrath, to drink this cup. There in the garden, this is what Jesus now sees ahead of him. He knows he is going to the cross; and he knows why. He knows that he will face the wrath of God poured out on him, personally and directly, in place of millions of those whose penalty he is paying. He will become our substitute, to spare us from the wrath so that we will be free. He knows it – and he needs no word pictures to describe what it will be like. For us, God’s wrath is unimaginable; but the Lord Jesus knows it vividly, from the inside. Of course, it is not as if he is realising this for the first time. But here, in the quiet of the garden, with the arrest squad already forming up in the city nearby, it strikes him like a thunderbolt – and with it the temptation to find another way. This is his battle – no, this is the war. At the very start of his ministry Satan tempted him to abandon his mission (1:12-13)Mark does not specify the content of the temptations, as Matthew and Luke do, but even in Mark the placing of the temptations between Jesus’ baptism and the start of his ministry implies this is what Satan is trying to do.. Later on, when Peter finally grasped that Jesus really was the Messiah, he tried to cut Jesus off when he began to talk about the cross – and Jesus rebuked Peter himself as Satan (8:33). The temptation to avoid the cross is real – and now that temptation has come flooding back – temptation to escape, to avoid the horror of the wrath – and again he must fight it off. It is here in Gethsemane that the issue must be settled.

We might want to ask, however, if Jesus is really God, why should this be such a struggle? Doesn’t he have all the infinite strength and resources of God at his disposal? In this passage, more clearly than perhaps anywhere else in Scripture, we see the full identity of Jesus Christ laid bare. Look again at v.36. Jesus’ battle in the garden is a struggle of two wills, the will of his human nature struggling with the divine will. Here we see him in his humanity and in his deity. This is Jesus who is fully man – the Jesus who as we read in vv.33-34 feels overwhelmed with sorrow to the verge of death; who throws himself to the ground in horror and distress; who has to pray to communicate with his heavenly Father. And it is the same Jesus, the same Person, who is fully God, fully divine: the Jesus who in vv.27-28 demonstrates complete knowledge of what lies ahead; including the fact that he will rise again and even where he will go to meet them after he is risen. (By the way, that also proves that he could easily avoid arrest that night – all he has to do is to go off in a different direction – but of course he does not.) The Lord Jesus Christ – one Person, two natures – is here revealed. Yes, this is beyond our understanding. It is another mystery, the greatest miracle of them all, that in Christ God has become a man and still remained God; and that here, in sorrow and distress, almost crushed by the horror that is ahead, the human will can struggle with the will of God within this one Person of the Christ – and yet remain sinless. In the words of the old hymn, View him prostrate in the garden, On the ground your Maker lies!

So in view of all this, how does the Lord Jesus win his war? The answer, again, is astonishingly simple – he prays! He enters the presence of the Father and he prays (v.36a). The word Abba is not a baby or childish word, but an intimate, personal way of addressing your own Father. He prays repeatedly, he prays intensely with his entire being: this is a struggle that goes down to the heart of his very identity. Jesus knows the will of God, of course he does; since the dawn of time he has known that this hour would come. He knows the will of God; and he wrestles and fights, but he submits – and wins the war. So by the time the arresting party arrive, all is well (vv.41b-42). The words he uses suggest the meaning: It’s settled. The business is concluded. As the sounds in the distance draw nearer and his betrayer approaches, he stands ready for all that he must face. The work has still to be finished – the cross still lies ahead and it will still be appalling. But the crucial fight has now been won and Jesus goes forward to the cross with unshakeable resolve. Long, long ago, a rebellion in a Garden brought in the reign of death. There was disobedience; there was a falling away; there was death. But now in another garden, submission brings in the reign of life – for us! What a hope!

Betraying the King

As I write, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan rages on. One of the horrors of this particular war is that the enemy is working in so many different ways. There is what we might call the ordinary business of war: the combat with men who will stand and fight, who can be seen and who occupy ground. But there is also the terrible threat of the improvised explosive devices left buried by the roadside. Then there have been times when the enemy has struck from the inside, when someone the Allied troops believed was one of theirs has turned against them; and these attacks have been the most deadly of all.

An enemy who can strike in different ways, at different times, from in front, from far away and from the inside: does this remind you of anything? If you are a Christian, it should, because the Christian fight, the fight of faith, is just the same. Our enemy too appears and attacks in many different forms. If that comparison seems absurd, then I suggest that you are probably not in this battle. You probably don’t know what it means to fight in the spiritual war, which is intense, personal, costly and painful and where the stakes in fact are even higher. The next section of Mark 14 reminds us that we Christians face an enemy who comes at us in different ways and in many different guises. When we first read this story in vv.43-54, naturally we immediately focus on Judas and his attack of insider betrayal – it grabs our attention because it is so outrageous – but as we look more closely we can see that around that central theme there are other opponents too whom Jesus, and we his followers, have to face. This passage stands, in fact, as a briefing for battle, for anyone who is an active soldier of Christ; and it lays down a challenge for those who are not.

Jesus needs no special knowledge to announce in v.42 who is about to arrive: they can be heard tramping up the hill through the trees. In v.43 they appear: the arrest squad, with Judas showing them the way. He’s probably allowed just enough time to be confident that everyone in the disciples’ camp will have fallen asleep – and he’s not far wrong; if it were not for Jesus they certainly would be! These are not Roman soldiers (as they are sometimes depicted); at this point the Roman overlords have no interest in Jesus; that will come later. These are the armed Temple police, probably with members of another small armed force which the Jewish authorities use to operate beyond the Temple. They have been sent by a combination of the three groups who between them make up the Jewish ruling council. Those men have not turned out in person, of course, but we will meet them soon enough. It is the same combination who came to challenge Jesus about his authority in 11:27 (see comments there). But because this armed squad may not recognise Jesus in the dark under the trees, Judas has explained that he will go and kiss Jesus (v.44); and when they see him do that, they are to make the arrest. The kiss is a perfectly normal way for a student to greet his Rabbi – which is the word Judas uses here. So the signal is given and the fateful arrest is made (v.45). After all this time plotting and planning, finally the troublemaker is in their grasp (v.46). There is one feeble gesture of resistance (v.47). The way Mark tells this – the Greek says it’s ‘a certain one of the bystanders’ – makes it clear that he knows the culprit’s name: in fact John tells us that this is none other than Mark’s own informant, Simon Peter (John 18:10). Perhaps we could have guessed that! It is a panicked move by a man who, not surprisingly for a fisherman, has no expertise with a sword; and it does no good. Jesus himself responds with words. He protests that they have no need to come armed as if for riot control (vv.48-49). What ‘Scriptures’ does he mean? There are many prophecies in the Old Testament which point clearly to the death of Jesus. One he has already referred to in v.27Zechariah 13:7. There are also two verses in Isaiah 53 which Jesus probably has in mind. Isaiah 53:8 can be understood as referring to his arrest and trial; Isaiah 53:12 refers to his being treated as a criminal. All these Scriptures and many more will be fulfilled in the events of the coming hours. By the purpose of God, written in eternity, Jesus Christ will be deserted, tried and convicted; he will be crucified for our sin and will rise again in triumph and to glory. In v.50, Zechariah 13:7 is fulfilled exactly.

In vv.51-52, Mark presents an intriguing little episode. Who is this unexpected character and whatever is he doing in the story? Mark’s gospel is the only one that includes him, and that is always significant. We can deduce that he got dressed in a tearing hurry, because he has nothing on under his garment; and that he is fairly well-off, because he is wearing linen. The most likely explanation is that this young man is none other than Mark himself, our author. We know Mark’s family lived in Jerusalem: it was a meeting place of the early church (Acts 12:12). Tradition has always held that it’s the same house where Jesus has just shared the Passover with his disciples. So perhaps Mark has done what Hollywood film directors sometimes do and given himself a cameo role in his own production, in which case Mark is actually an eye-witness of this episode!

But as Mark or whoever it is disappears to find some clothes, and everyone else has scattered at least for now, Jesus is taken away under arrest to face his trial (v.53). The scene has shifted back to Jerusalem, where the whole ruling body – the Sanhedrin – has assembled at the house of Caiaphas the High PriestThe site of the High Priest’s house where Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin is not known for certain: there are rival claimants. Archaeology has, however, confirmed the wealth of a number of houses in Jerusalem at this time. The High Priest’s would certainly have been one of these.. From the speed with which they gather, it’s likely that they have been warned they will be needed. Here Jesus will face trial at the hands of the rulers of his nation; and meanwhile Peter, with what motive we don’t really know, has caught up with the procession, goes into the courtyard, sits down by the fire and waits to see what will happen (v.54).

As we focus on the scene of Jesus’ arrest, most prominent are the three different kinds of enemies he has to face and the way that he responds to them. Mark has continually told us that if we are to follow the Lord Jesus, we must be like him; and that includes facing the opposition that he had to face (8:34, 9:49, 10:29-30, 10:43-45). To be a disciple is to follow Christ on the way of the cross. In fact, there is a sense in which the whole of Mark’s gospel is a briefing for our battle. Three kinds of enemy, then: first, the violent. Look at v.43b. Here are the combat troops of Jesus’ sworn enemies, the chief priests, the elders and the scribes. They have always detested him; their agenda is simple: destroy him. This is full frontal opposition. See how Jesus responds in vv.48-49. They have come armed for battle, prepared for a riot: Jesus says, There’s no need. That’s not my way. Now: there is a view that non-violence, pacifism, is the core of Jesus’ message. This view would even say that the struggle Jesus faces and wins in Gethsemane is the temptation to take up arms, to launch a violent rebellion against the power of Rome, as others would do a generation later. There is a long and honourable tradition which defends that view – it’s the Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition, exemplified by John Howard Yoder in his book The Politics of Jesus; I respect the integrity of it, but it’s not what Scripture actually says. Jesus’ aim was not to turn the world upside down by preaching pacifism. This is what Jesus is saying. Look, your swords and clubs, your violent attitude, are wasted on me. You could have picked me up when I was teaching in the Temple – I was peaceful then, and look, I’m peaceful now. He refuses to retaliate. He makes no attempt to call his followers to arms and he has no time for the futile gesture with the sword. That is not how Jesus fights. We too will face enemies who want to destroy us. In the West, the violence will not usually be physical: elsewhere in the world it may well be. The agenda of these enemies is to destroy the Church, to bring an end to Christianity; they combine intellectual argument with a deep contempt for anyone who takes the spiritual realm seriously; and they genuinely believe that Christians in particular are not merely deluded but also dangerous. These people are the chief priests and scribes of secularism. But also among these enemies – and what an odd combination this makes! – are the powerful world religions, and especially today the power of militant Islam.

The temptation is to respond with either hatred or fear. They appear so threatening and so very strong. We hear news about our brothers and sisters suffering in Iran, Egypt or Somalia; church buildings burned down, families broken up, stories of arrest and even death; and we begin to hate the persecutors. We hear some insulting dismissal of the gospel on TV or read it in print; or we find it in a lecture in our university; and we feel weak and afraid. But look back at your Bible. Jesus is not fearful, and he does not hate; and neither must we. The answer to such violent hatred is love. We can hate atheism, but we are to love the militant atheist. We can hate Islam, but we must love every Muslim. Recently I spent some time with a Muslim friend: we went out for lunch and then to his mosque – a building that until very recently was a gospel hall. I sat there and imagined the services of worship that must have taken place through the years, the prayers that were prayed, the sermons that were preached. It hurts me to know that the Christian witness is no more. But the answer is not to rage, nor to keep quiet. The answer is to love. We keep on loving, through the power of the Spirit who can enable us to love anyone. We are to love people all the way into the Kingdom – even if they are people who hate and despise us. Isn’t that what Jesus did?

Secondly, look at the cynics (vv.44-45). Notice the massive irony, as Judas names Jesus as his master teacher and gives him the kiss of respect in the very act of betrayal! What has brought Judas to this point? He has spent the past three years with Jesus. Jesus chose him to be a member of his select band, involved him in the ministry – he was even part of the Twelve’s mission to preach, heal and drive out demons (6:7-13). This is what seems to have happened. As the months have passed, Judas has become hardened. Perhaps he is frustrated that he never makes it to the inner circle around Jesus; and he is jealous. Probably he feels that Jesus is missing the opportunities for power and influence that his popularity with the crowds has offered him. We know from John 12:6 that he has begun to help himself to the disciples’ communal funds. Eventually, as we saw at the beginning of ch 14, Judas has had enough. Jesus’ approval of the woman who wastes her life savings on perfume to pour over his head pushes Judas over the edge. He goes to the authorities and offers to betray him. Again, there have been attempts to recast Judas as a sincere follower who simply wants to force Jesus’ hand. The idea is that Jesus’ mission is coming to nothing and so Judas tries to bounce him into taking on the authorities head-on – in which case Judas would be horrified at what happens next. Unfortunately, there is no evidence for that point of view; and a great deal of evidence that Judas is exactly what he appears, a cynical traitor. His actions shock us, but he is no worse than we have been.

We too will face enemies like this. They may not directly betray us like Judas; but there will be people we think of as one of us, who in reality have sold out to the world. Over time they have been hardened. Other priorities appeal to them more than knowing Christ – their bank account, their image, their plans, or just being like everybody else – so their spiritual life becomes a burden and then it dies; and they become cynics. We must watch out for the warning signs even in ourselves. This is the person who for no good reason drops out of ministry because they no longer see the point; or who begins to say ‘You can’t tell me – I’ve heard it all before’; who pour cold water on every new idea and smile knowingly at any hint of spiritual enthusiasm. Such people are very hard. Judas himself spent three years with Jesus himself, and look how he ended up. It seems impossible, but it happened. You might meet a cynic in church or know one in your workplace: Yes, they say, I used to believe all that God stuff until I was about ten, then I grew out of it. When we meet such people, we must do what Jesus did. Jesus extended the hand of loving welcome to Judas for three years. Maybe they are like this because some devastating experience has embittered them – they need our love all the more. We warn them as Jesus did in 14:21. We keep showing them what spiritual reality looks like. We keep reminding them, calling them back. Look at Jesus: look at the cross.

Finally, the deserters (vv.50-52). Mark may have included this little story as a cameo appearance, but he certainly wants it to emphasise that Jesus was abandoned by everyone – not just his core of disciples but even the casual onlooker as well! At this point, Jesus stands utterly alone and unsupported. These deserters are not really enemies, of course, they are friends who fail – though we could say that with friends like these, who needs enemies? If they stay, they face arrest along with Jesus, possible trial, perhaps even death. Obviously, they are afraid. In the Christian battle, and in our church life, there will be times when we will lose people in the same way, as they simply abandon the fight. Sometimes we will be tempted to do the same ourselves. When the going gets tough, the tough may get going – but many of us simply want to quit. It may be in the workplace, your school or your office, or with your friends in the pub, where the atmosphere is so virulently godless and un-Christian that all you want to do is to keep your head down and avoid any risk of being abused for your faith. You abandon the fight.

What does Jesus do for his failing followers, these deserters? Remember, he knew this was going to happen; yet still he loved them. He urged them to watch and pray, so that they would be prepared. He warned them, carefully and in detail, in vv.27-28. Mark doesn’t tell us the story of how Jesus restored the disciples afterwards; but he does quote Jesus’ words, After I have risen I will be in Galilee – in other words, I want you to join me there! You may fail me – indeed, you will – but I haven’t given up on you. If you are reading this as a deserter, and you are hiding or running away, there is still hope. If you’ve run away, you can repent and come back. You know what happened to Peter and the others later on – that night they deserted, but a few weeks later it would be such a different story. That can be you!

Have you heard the call to battle? Some will attack us, many will fail us; at times we will surely fail ourselves. But there is a battle to be fought and we need to be ready. Our Lord Jesus calls us to war; and he is faithful.

God on Trial

In April 1964, Nelson Mandela was on trial in South Africa, accused of sabotage and treason against the white-ruled apartheid state. There was no disputing that he led an organisation that was struggling to overturn the government, though much of the evidence put forward by the prosecution was demonstrably false. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour: the authorities hoped he could be quietly forgotten. But the world was changing. Slowly the apartheid government was forced to shift its position. Finally, on 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela was dramatically released. The event was broadcast live around the world – it was a public vindication – one of that small number of moments in world history which everyone who witnessed it will remember. Four years later, Mandela’s vindication was completed as he was elected President in his country’s first ever multi-racial elections. It had taken decades; but the reversal in fortunes was now complete. From victim to victor; from enemy of the state to head of state; from condemned criminal to chief lawmaker!

Now take that dramatic reversal and multiply by a thousand: make the one accused perfect, make the injustice absolute, make the final authority worldwide and universal; and you have a faint glimpse of what happened to Jesus Christ. Here in vv.55-65 he stands in court, the accused: for all his dignity he is weak, vulnerable, abused; and yet this is the Christ who today is exalted in glory, seated in heaven at the Father’s right hand and will one day soon return in majesty as the Judge of all the earth.

Peter is warming himself by the fire; Mark will return to his story in vv.66-76. Meanwhile, Jesus himself faces trial. The court that has been hastily summoned for this all-night sitting is the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jewish nation. The three groups that comprise the council are listed in v.53: the chief priests, that is High Priest Caiaphas and a small selection of other senior men; the scribes or teachers of the law; and the elders, who represent the elite families of Jerusalem and the surrounding region. From what the Jewish documents tell us, we know that the Sanhedrin consists of seventy members in addition to the High Priest, though only a third of that number is needed for a quorum. They sit in a large semi-circle with clerks to keep records; and when they are acting as a court there are seats in the middle for the accused and the witnesses. In this court there are no barristers; the witnesses themselves act as prosecutors. To make full sense of this story, we need to understand what is on the Council’s mind. If they are going to dispose of Jesus as they are so keen to do, they must achieve two goals. First they must make some charge stick that the Jews will accept. Jesus is popular with some sections of the crowds; so it’s essential that they prove his guilt in Jewish terms. That means proving that he’s broken the Jewish law, the Torah. But there is still a second challenge. Although the Romans allow the Sanhedrin to operate, along with other Jewish institutions, the right to impose capital punishment has been removed – to the intense resentment of the Jews. That means they will also have to prove some political crime which will persuade the Roman authorities to have Jesus executed. The Jewish leaders dare not risk Governor Pilate taking the line that Gallio would later take in Corinth (Acts 18:14-16).

So here they are, in the early hours of the morning, sitting down to try a case. It is highly irregular for the court to sit at night, so much so that some commentators have argued either that the trial is illegal or that it can only represent a preliminary hearing. However, given that most of our information about the Sanhedrin’s operations is deduced from later information in the Talmud, I think it’s impossible to be sure about this. Other scholars have gone further, taking the opportunity to deny the historicity of the account altogether in an attempt to remove blame from the Jewish nation and preclude anti-Semitism. It has even been claimed that the Sanhedrin are trying to rescue Jesus from the Romans, whereas the reverse is the case. The reason they are sitting at night is simple: they are in a tearing hurry. At last they have their opportunity to convict Jesus and finish with him; they dare not let this long-awaited chance slip away. It’s Passover, a superb time to execute someone because with all the crowds around it will maximise the deterrent value. And there is one very practical reason for rushing the case through: they will need to catch Pilate before he goes off duty; and like other Roman officials, he starts work at daybreak and packs up by lunchtime.

The really irregular feature of this trial, in fact, is what we read in vv.55-56. A court is meant to be impartial: this one patently isn’t. It is in fact a desperate quest for credible evidence. It’s not just the august members of the court who’ve been hastily roused for this sitting; the witnesses have all been collected as well. There is plenty of evidence available; the problem is that none of it is any good.

The rules on this are very clear – see Deuteronomy 19:15. If two witnesses differ in even one minor detail, their evidence has to be entirely dismissed. In fact it would be virtually impossible to bring any genuine charges, because Jesus has lived perfectly according to the true Jewish Law all his life. But perhaps help is at hand: in vv.57-59 a new charge is introduced. Jesus did say something vaguely like this. Mark doesn’t record it, in fact, but John does (John 2:19); so we know Jesus never said he would destroy anything himself; but it makes a handy accusation. However, to the dismay of the court, they cannot get an agreed story here either.

By now, Caiaphas has had enough. Caiaphas, we know, is a wily character: in a time when high priests last only an average of four years, he manages nineteen. He refuses to give up on this dysfunctional trial. Thus far, Jesus himself has said nothing; so the High Priest rises from his seat and demands a response (v.60). But still Jesus says nothing (v.61). These nonsensical allegations don’t deserve a response: and so it is that he fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah 53:7. Faced with this silence, Caiaphas decides he will have to take on the interrogation himself, directly. So standing over the accused, he demands to know ‘Are you the Christ – Messiah – the Son of the Blessed One?’ This time, faced with a direct and worthwhile question, Jesus finally responds in the words of v.62. This is the crux of the trial. These are the key words; and in what follows we can see that the court now has the evidence they so desperately need. But exactly what is Jesus claiming for himself? The High Priest has asked him whether he claims two titles. First, the Christ, or Messiah. Second, the Son of the Blessed One, which is another way of saying, Son of God. The High Priest certainly doesn’t mean what we would mean by that – Are you the second Person of the Trinity? No, for him and for all Jews of his time, ‘Son of God’ would mean someone who has a unique and exalted relationship with God; but someone who is still just a man. So Caiaphas is not asking two different questions – to him, the Christ and the Son of God are really one and the same title.

Jesus accepts both these titles. But now he goes further: v.62 claims more. Jesus is putting together two of the greatest Old Testament prophecies about judgement and how God will bring it about; to understand this, we need to look at them both. The first is in Psalm 110:1. In Jesus’ day, everyone knows this is a Messianic psalm – one that points to the promised Messiah. Jesus has recently quoted this very verse to prove that the coming Messiah must be something more than a mere man, more than the Son of David (see on 12:35-37). The second prophecy is Daniel 7:13-14. The Son of Man figure comes into the presence of God, receives an eternal kingdom and is given authority over the whole earth; what is more, he comes with the clouds, which in Old Testament language always stands for the majestic appearance of God himself. In the face of the rulers of his own nation, in the face of the High Priest himself, Jesus combines these two pictures of majestic authority into one and applies them to himself. I stand before you today as a prisoner accused. But I tell you, yes, I am the Christ. Yes, I am Son of God. I am the Son of Man who will wield the very authority and judgement of God over the world. I am the ‘Lord’ who sits at God’s right hand; and when I come in divine majesty you will see it for yourselves.

It is an electrifying claim; and now they have him (vv.63-64). Blasphemy can be established here on two grounds: to claim to be Messiah is not blasphemy as such, but to claim it here, as a bound and helpless prisoner, makes a mockery of God who has promised to send them a powerful deliverer – ‘you claim you are the authorised agent of Almighty God – look at you!’. But still more than that, to claim the divine authority and the majesty of God, the one who will take eternal power and reign – that is most certainly blasphemy: hence the High Priest’s dramatically indignant gesture. Blasphemy is a capital crime, without question (Leviticus 24:16). They are right, of course – unless, that is, what Jesus says is true. But no-one in this room is pausing to consider that possibility! So the whole Sanhedrin rubber-stamps the conviction. Jesus has been condemned; all that remains is to persuade Pilate to pass the death sentence. With the formal business out of the way, it is the august members of this Council who begin the physical onslaught (v.65). Spitting is the age-old way of showing utter contempt; and if he’s really Messiah, he should be able to tell who hits him without looking. He can prophesy it. Then the guards follow the lead of their masters and beat him up in their turn. The appalling physical ordeal which Jesus must endure has begun; and it will continue all the way to the cross itself.

It is Caiaphas the priest who has the last word in the trial. But who will truly have the last word? Jesus is now on his way to execution. For any other prisoner, that would be the end. The torment of the cross, the slow lingering agony of death – that certainly lies ahead – but for him it is not the end! After the cross comes the grave; and from the grave comes resurrection; and after resurrection comes his ascension to glory, returning in triumph to the Father’s side, seated at the right hand of the Mighty One (v.62). No, the cross will not be the end. Heaven first sees his triumph and vindication. Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of the same Sanhedrin, the church Jesus leaves behind refuses to die. Instead it grows and spreads: they expel its members from Jerusalem but that just makes the flames spread further and faster. Then the first judgement falls. The nation rises up in rebellion against the Romans; and in AD 70, within a generation of this scene, Jerusalem itself is overwhelmed and destroyed. Its proud walls are flattened, the Temple burns and the ruins are razed to the ground; and the priests – the successors of Caiaphas and his colleagues? As the Temple falls into blazing ruins around them, they pursue the routine of the sacrifices until the moment when they are slaughtered, struck down at the great altar. Jesus’ words to Caiaphas are coming true. Then one day the final judgement will fall. Finally every eye will see him as he returns in glory to the earth, as he comes on the clouds of heaven and receives the eternal kingdom. From victim to victor; from enemy of the state to head of state; from condemned criminal to ultimate Judge!

We look at this world and we see the injustice. As God’s people we are called to fight against injustice, but we know that injustice will remain as long as this age endures. We don’t have to despair, because we know the Judge; we know that he is coming; and when he comes he will deal out perfect justice in every single case. We see injustices in the lives of people we know. Perhaps you yourself are the victim of some deep and painful wrong that has forced you to suffer. We think of our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for their faith in the Lord Jesus: it’s one of the biggest injustices of all. Even in heaven the souls are crying out for justice (Revelation 6:10). The Lord will bring it; and as his own people we are safe in the Judge’s hands.

Failing the test

We now come to vv.66-72, a story that takes us to the depths of human failure. Who knows what is really in Peter’s mind as he follows the procession into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house? Presumably, it is confusion above all. Picture the scene. As he sits down by the fire to keep warm, many others are waiting too. Some are the household staff; some are the personal attendants of the grandees who have swept upstairs to the council; some are witnesses, wanted for the trial. Probably there are a few temple staff as well. Peter will be glad he has dumped his sword! They have nothing to do but wait for the court to finish the job, so they do what they always do: stand around in groups and talk. Whenever it is quiet for a moment, they all hear the drone of voices from upstairs. From time to time another of the witnesses is called, and he climbs the stairs and a few minutes later comes down again and strolls off into the night.

It isn’t long before one of the servant girls comes and peers at him (vv.66-67). ‘I know where I’ve seen you before – you were with that Nazarene guy, Jesus – right?’ There is contempt in her voice. ‘I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about’, says Peter (v.68). After all, he won’t do anyone any good getting arrested. Just to make sure of that, he edges his way out into the gateway, where he can stand in the shadows. Faintly he hears the sound of first cock-crowAlthough the NIV omits the phrase ‘and the cock crowed’ from v.68, there is good evidence for its inclusion here (the ESV does include it). All but one of the key manuscripts include ‘the second time’ in v.72. . For some reason it doesn’t register. But even in the gateway he doesn’t find much peace. He can see the group standing there, glancing over and talking among themselves – that same girl is there again, pointing and whispering; then one of them called over: ‘Hey – you’re one of them, right?’ – gesturing up the steps towards the trial. Peter thinks, There’s no point changing my tune now! So again he denies it (vv.69-70).

It satisfies them, perhaps; but not for long. The voices upstairs are louder now: someone is getting angry. Then it happens. Several of them come walking over. ‘We’ve heard you talk. We know you’re a Galilean – your accent is so obvious. We can tell you’re one of them, we know you’re a follower of his!’ The voice is hostile now, sharp, dangerous. Panic sets in. It is not enough just to deny it, now. He has to curse and swear as well, to persuade them he has nothing to do with the one he has known as master and friend (vv.70-71). Then as he pauses for breath, he hears it. In the yard opposite, the cock crows again; and in that second it all comes flooding back (v.72). ‘I tell you the truth, Peter. Today – yes, tonight – before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.’ With that comes too the memory of his own boastful words – ‘No, no! Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you!’ Die? When it came to the test, he hasn’t even stood up to a servant girl! So for the second time that night, Peter disappears from the scene, stumbling out of the gate, away from the questioners, away from the trial, away from the Lord, and collapses in tears.

The story of Peter’s denial comes as a deadly warning of the power and reality of sin. It’s a story that embarrasses us. Judas we can maybe write off as a traitor. But Peter is one of us. If he can fail so spectacularly, what is to stop us from doing the same? If we want to be able to stand firm, and not to fail the test, we need to learn the lessons of Peter’s disaster. Mark has set the story out very carefully. He makes it clear that Peter’s denial takes place while Jesus’ trial is in progress: in v.54 he leaves Peter sitting by the fire getting warm; he then cuts to the trial scene; and now from v.66 he cuts back to Peter. More than that: not only does Mark show us that these events are simultaneous, he also points up the contrast. For while Jesus stands with such integrity and dignity before the court, Peter abjectly fails the test. While Jesus remains in control of the situation even under trial, Peter totally loses control. And at the moment when Jesus is being mocked as they beat him – ‘Prophesy’ – his own prophecy about Peter is coming true. Mark does not want us to miss the point. We, like Mark’s first readers, need to understand what happens to Peter so that we will be warned and prepared. We will highlight four ways this story impacts us.

First, it brings us face to face with sin. Look at how sin works in this passage: see what it does to Peter. He actually denies his Lord – Jesus, his friend, his master (v.71). He insists he has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. It sounds appalling – and it is. Yet ultimately, all sin is a denial of Christ. A Christian is someone who has laid all their sins on Jesus Christ and asked for forgiveness, who has said, Jesus is enough for me. But when we sin, we are saying, Jesus is not enough. There is something I want more, something more attractive and appealing than Christ, and I want it. So every sin we commit denies the Lord. We have two clever ways of dealing with our sin. Either we make excuses for it – as I am quite sure Peter was doing as he stood in that gateway – a reason why it’s ‘not that bad’ – or we call it something else. We call it a shortcoming, or a character flaw – anything but sin. But if we are serious about living the Christian life, we must learn to call sin by its name. I was challenged recently by something I read about ‘respectable sins’ – the sins we make excuses for and don’t call sins. For example, impatience is a sin. Failing to trust the Lord is a sin. Envy of what others have is a sin. Speaking behind someone’s back is a sin. Laziness is a sin. All those may be respectable, some of them will be unseen by others – but they are all sin, missing God’s best for us. When we do these sins, we are denying Christ.

The first time Peter is challenged, it would not be that tough to give the right answer. Imagine it. ‘You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,’ she said. ‘Yes, you’re right’, Peter smiled back graciously, ‘I was with him – and I still am’. But the second time it was harder, because he had already put himself in the place of denial and now the challenge was greater – not just one girl now, but a group. The third time it was harder again. Each time was a chance to obey the Lord, but with each successive denial it grew harder to go back. Sin is like that. It’s progressive. Once you have compromised the first time, it is so much harder to stop. You and I know that’s true. You start a new job and from day one you find yourself being drawn in to the risqué banter, the gossip, or the office politics. Because you let that happen on day one, by day ten you feel hopelessly trapped. That’s how sin works.

Of course, we believe there is grace for those who have been trapped in sin, for those who have stepped over the line. But we will never get hold of grace until we grasp the reality and horror of sin, the sin that has blighted and infected every part of our being. We reach the cross as guilty sinners, profoundly and universally guilty. The Christian faith is not a game of let’s pretend – let’s pretend our sin is just a weakness, let’s pretend we are all OK really: the sort of words that people in the world use all the time. In fact, of all the world’s great belief systems, ours is the only one that allows us to be honest about how we really are – corrupt, sinful, rebellious and enemies of the God who made us. We can be honest about what we are because we have the only really good news – the gospel of Jesus Christ our Saviour. But we come as big sinners. Peter ends up in tears: have we ever wept over our sin like this – not because we have been found out and it’s embarrassing, but because it has suddenly burst upon us that we have denied the Christ who saved us? Do we know what real repentance means?

Secondly, this story confronts us with our weakness. Remember what Peter said in vv.29-31. They were big, fine words; but they were useless. Jesus knew that Peter’s words were empty. Now why does Mark give this story such prominence in his account of Christ’s passion? After all, it is really a sideshow. Peter has an altercation with a few servants in the yard – so what? It makes no difference to the major theme, which is Christ’s journey to the cross. But Mark is sending a very serious warning to his readers in Rome. He is warning them that one of their great heroes, Peter himself, had this disastrous fall, and if it happened to him then it can happen to any of us. Big words count for nothing. That is why Mark emphasises this story – and all the other gospel writers follow suit because they know it will be an issue for their readers as well. It is always tempting to take the easy way out and say, I don’t know this man you’re talking about.

That leads on to the third point. This story summons us to battle. Peter’s battle, as we have seen, was lost before it even started (vv.37-38). He didn’t watch and pray – so he did fall into temptation. It followed as night follows day. Suppose Peter had watched and prayed – stayed awake that dark hour among the olive trees – armed himself with the Lord’s strength for whatever lay ahead? Suppose, in fact, that he had done exactly what the Lord Jesus was doing. He would have stayed at Jesus’ side, marched with him – he might even now be standing by him at his trial – or at least, he could have given a straight answer to a servant girl! Sin is real and deadly: we are weak: so we need to be ready for the fight. Satan does not ask us if we are ready before he sends us temptation. He will attack when we are at our weakest – when it has already been a hard day, when we are feeling tired, when someone has just had a go at us – which is exactly what happens to Peter here – then he will whisper to you, Do you know what would make you feel better? Go on, you deserve it. Can we recognise his voice? Paul would write with masterly understatement, We are not unaware of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11). That must be true of us all. This story calls us to watch and pray. The Christian life is not a holiday, it’s a war – a war fought with weapons of prayer and the Word of God – but the key message here is, Be ready for the battle, or you will be knocked out of the battle!

Finally, this story promises our hope. While Peter is so dismally failing his own test, the Lord Jesus is victorious in his. While Peter lost the battle in Gethsemane, the Lord Jesus was winning the war. This is our great hope. Against our record of sin and failure stands his perfect record of holiness and obedience. Every outbreak of anger, lying, hatred, sexual immorality, impatience is outmatched by his love, his integrity, his peace, his purity, his patience – fulfilling the Law and perfectly pleasing to God. At the cross, those two records are exchanged. He got my sin and took the penalty, bore the wrath, suffered the curse. I got his perfection, his obedience, his nobility – credited to me, at the cross. That is why there is hope in this story. In v.28, in the middle of that prophecy that they will abandon and deny him, Jesus reassures them that when it’s all over, he will see them again. They will meet again in Galilee. He is looking forward to it already! Because of the cross, there is restoration. Because of the cross, there is the promise of hope.