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John

Denial

John 18:1-27

The story of the arrest of Jesus, and Peter’s denials, is told in all four Gospels with slightly varying details. The passage presents a rich set of opportunities for the teacher. The more conventional choice of topics would examine the trials of Jesus; the Life of Christ series does just that. We shall, instead, examine the denials of Peter – for they are a window upon our own lives.

1When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it.

2Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. 3So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.

4Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

5“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

7Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?”

And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

8“I told you that I am he,” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” 9This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”£

10Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)

11Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

12Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him 13and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people.

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.

28Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.

Preliminary: Violence

It is a curious thing: have you ever considered what happened to the head of the disciples that he would betray his Master? The answer is found here. Peter uses a sword – to cut himself off from the Lord. The ear is merely an incidental item. After three years of discipleship, you’d think Peter would know better. This is an act of disobedience.

Christ, as He always will for those He loves, rebukes Peter. Indeed, it is a sharp rebuke, but it is followed with something which must have embarrassed Peter. Christ heals the ear cut off by Peter.

Sin separates us from Christ. Hiding in this passage – in plain sight – is the reason for the denials. Peter has sinned; he has disobeyed his Master and he has not repented of it. Make what you like of the circumstances, Peter has separated himself from his Master – which now leads to consequences that Peter swore would never happen.

Sin makes the denials easy. It is an old story that we tell a pack of lies to avoid being found out in one. Peter at this moment is feeling the pangs of rebuke coupled with the stress of seeing Jesus arrested. The problem is clear; Peter does not instantly appeal for its solution. The anger is still with him on the road to denial.

The sequence is clear also. Sin starts it; denial progresses until Peter calls down curses upon himself. Step by step we shall see how denial is formed in the disciple.

First Denial: Entry

Peter encounters the gate as he follows Jesus through the first part of his trials. We can draw a parallel in our own lives. The first type of denial seems harmless.

Gratifying our curiosity

It seems such a small thing. Peter wants to follow Jesus. He wants to know what will happen to his Master – and no doubt is telling himself that he really wants only to help. The gate and the servant girl are in the way. This is how it starts:

  • “It’s such a little thing – a little white lie. And the cause is so important.” That’s how it starts. We’re curious, it’s important – who would know? Does it happen to us? They don’t build strip joints for once in a lifetime customers.
  • “And nobody got hurt – right?” We know it’s sin; but as long as we can’t point to a victim (other than ourselves) we think it’s no problem. If it’s my business, whose problem is it? Or do we really believe in solo Christianity?
  • “I really ought to know.” Do you hear the rationalization? I’m only going to do it once, and I really ought to know – it will enlighten me. The oldest lie in creation (Satan used it on Eve) is that evil is enlightening.
Being “one of the guys”

If there is anything in the human being that will change the way we act, it is group pressure. Candid Camera once did a stunt where everyone in the elevator faced the rear of the elevator. I leave the results to your imagination.

One of the reasons for being one of the guys is the facelessness it brings. Since we’re one of they guys, no one will single us out for ridicule. We’re just part of the big crowd. (Look around during our worship services. What do you see?)

The nicest thing about this is that we get reassurance without asking for it. No one has to see our insecurities; just being part of the crowd makes insecurity vanish like steam. Interestingly, you feel this way even if those in the crowd have no idea who you are. It just may be that they’re looking at you to accept them.

Clearing the hurdle

This type of denial usually comes at a gate. Some hurdle, something blocking our road, must be overcome. The only way we can see it is to pretend that we’re not a Christian. We deny our Lord – and clear the hurdle.

The fact that we clear the hurdle should be a warning bell. It’s not, for most of us. It’s seen as a sign of approval. After all, the cause is righteous, and a cost benefit analysis will show clearly that it was a minor denial with a major result.

Indeed, so it is – but not as we think. The small, first denial paves the way for those which follow.

We leave the first denial still thinking that things are OK – no need of repentance yet. It’s no real problem. Or is it?

Second Denial: Needs

In the second denial we meet our needs face to face. We want, we need, and a little denial of our Lord seems a small price to pay. After all, a man’s got to eat.

Bodily needs

For a guy who has overeaten as much as I have, you’d think I’d never worry about my next meal. Here, Peter wants only to warm himself by the fire. It’s cold out. Does this seem like a big deal? It is.

  • It’s a big deal if you do not have self denial in hand. Peter does not; make what you like of that. He’s cold. He doesn’t want to be cold. For the price of denial there is warmth at the fire.
  • Even if there is self denial, it must be based upon the providence of God. Peter is trying to do it all himself.
Security

In hindsight the question of keeping warm by the fire seems so trivial. It’s easy to say that Peter erred where we would not. But consider: isn’t it usually the case that the causes of our insecurity are highly visible – and the root of our security is not? We say we trust God – until our eyes tell us we can’t.

How do most of us handle such a thing? We are confident of the Lord when we can see his works – when we’re at the church the providence of God seems much more reasonable that it does on Monday morning.

“Enough”

Often enough, denial comes so that we may “enough.” We rationalize that we have to eat, so a little denial is not really a problem. It’s not like we are greedy or profiteering about this; we simply want “enough.”

  • But do we recognize “enough?” Do you ever challenge your ideas of what you want and what you need? Can you put a measure at “enough?”
  • Sometimes we don’t think in terms of “enough” as much as we do “all I want is...” a new car, a nicer house, a sexier wife, … Where does it end?
  • It ends when “enough” has gradually, slowly turned into “more.”

One thing for sure. The first type of denial left us reassuring ourselves that everything was still OK. The second one ends with us rationalizing our denial.

Third Denial: no pain and suffering

For as often as our Lord warned us that we would suffer in this world, we spend a lot of time and money avoiding it. When we deny our Lord to do this, we run quite contrary to his commands and indeed his statement of how life is. This is one denial that will not work, but it will show us the depths we can descend into – and how little we get for it.

Exclusion

It seems so devastating: we are “out” and everyone else in the whole world is “in.” We therefore are desperately attempting to be “in.” We are so insecure about this.

Herein we must begin to talk about mature Christianity. Such a denial means that we value our crowd more than our Christ. We are like a little child with his teddy bear or blanket. This is something we must have, at all costs.

Pecking order

Sometimes the temptation is a little more subtle than that. Sometimes we just want to maintain our place in the pecking order. We know we’re never going to be number one in the group – that’s reserved for the totally cool, of course – but we definitely want to be ahead of number twenty. At the top of the group, the signs of status are obvious. They’re obvious too at the bottom. It’s in the middle that the signs of status are uncertain, and therefore cause much more worry. After all, we could be sliding in position and not know it. But there is a worse case.

Humiliation

What could be worse than losing our place in the pecking order? Our status? Try this: be the one the group humiliates and laughs at. The only reason they allow you to stay in the group is that it’s wildly funny to laugh at you. You’re “in” but your role is class clown.

This can be a cruelly effective way of getting people to deny their faith. All you really need to encounter is one member of the group with a quicker wit and more acid tongue than your own.

What does this do? It means that you value your membership in that group so much that you are willing to play the part of village idiot to retain it.

It leaves you in the group – without Christ. How Satan must laugh that we prefer being in our little group even to the point of being humiliated in public to the love and fellowship of Christ! Just as Peter called down curses on himself, we rationalize that being the clown means that at least we’re in. How is it that such a thing could happen in the church?

It is simple enough. All that is required is for God’s people to do nothing. God knows that we need the fellowship of other human beings. He has provided the church for us – because solo Christianity is not real. It is in the church that the odd, the different, those who are at the bottom of the pecking order of life may find refuge. They will find that refuge only if we provide it.

The solution is so simple. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How do you want to be loved? Don’t you want to be “in” instead of “out”? Then consider: what do you do to welcome and include those who feel left out? Are you glad you’re one of the beautiful people at church, or are your arms open for those who never will be beautiful?

As often as you have done it for the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to me. Even Dumbo had one friend – a mouse.

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