This is the fourth week in our series, ""In the Moment,"" exploring the moments leading up to the death of Jesus from the perspective of the Apostle Peter.
I've found it so fascinating to see things from this fresh angle because Peter is such a flawed yet relatable character in the story. As he experiences bravado and fear and confusion and shame, we know exactly how that feels.
Peter represents all of us.
Which makes his ultimate forgiveness and redemption so much more encouraging because we know that, like Peter, the grace of Jesus Christ is more than enough for our brokenness.
So far in the story, Jesus has spent deep and intense time with his disciples at the last supper. He's prayed passionately in the garden of Gethsemane while his best friends slept. And he's been betrayed by Judas.
Today, we'll see what happens when Jesus is taken to the high priest's house to begin the trial that will lead to his execution.
Peter follows along to see what happens, but as we'll see, this becomes something of a trial for Peter as well.
So if you want to grab a Bible and follow along, we're going to be in Matthew 26:57.
As you're turning there, let me give you a bit of broader context for the story.
There are essentially two main 'moments' in the trial of Jesus. First, he is taken to the high priest's house where the religious leaders of Israel bring up charges against him. This starts in the middle of the night and lasts until morning.
Then, the trial moves to the court of the Roman governor, Pilate, where Jesus is sentenced to death.
Although there is so much we could explore in the Roman part of his trial, I want to focus in today on that first part in front of the high priest. So let's read what happens.
Then the people who had arrested Jesus led him to the home of Caiaphas, the high priest, where the teachers of religious law and the elders had gathered. Meanwhile, Peter followed him at a distance and came to the high priest's courtyard. He went in and sat with the guards and waited to see how it would all end.
Inside, the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find witnesses who would lie about Jesus, so they could put him to death. But even though they found many who agreed to give false witness, they could not use anyone's testimony. Finally, two men came forward who declared, ""This man said, ""I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'""
Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ""Well, aren't you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?"" But Jesus remained silent. Then the high priest said to him, ""I demand in the name of the living God - tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.""
Jesus replied, ""You have said it. And in the future you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God's right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.""
Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, ""Blasphemy! Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?""
""Guilty!"" they shouted. ""He deserves to die!""
Then they began to spit in Jesus' face and beat him with their fists. And some slapped him, jeering, ""Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who hit you that time?""
Let's talk about what's happening here. The key verse to pay attention to is verse 59. The religious leaders ""were trying to find witnesses who would lie about Jesus, so they could put him to death.""
You see, they already knew he was guilty. This was not a fair and impartial trial. They wanted him dead.
But during this time in Israel, the Jewish people weren't allowed to carry out executions. That was something only the Roman occupiers could do. So the religious leaders had to get their stories straight so they could take Jesus to the governor.
The best they could come up with was a misquotation of Jesus taken out of context in verse 61. As far as we can tell, Jesus never said he would destroy the temple, only that he could rebuild it in three days. And even then, it was all a metaphor referring to his own resurrection.
But, that was enough for them to pounce. Because claiming to have power over the temple was something only the Messiah - the promised leader of Israel - could do.
But notice this: Jesus won't defend himself. It says in verse 63 that he stays silent - the implication being that he was silent all night in the face of these accusations.
And so finally the high priest asks him, essentially, ""do you really think you're the messiah?""
How Jesus responds in verse 64 may seem a little weird to us - all this stuff about the Son of Man and the place of power and the clouds of heaven - but it's not when you understand what he was getting at.
All of this is actually a reference to the prophet Daniel. It's actually in the gospels a lot, because the phrase ""Son of Man"" was Jesus' favorite title for himself.
In Daniel 7, there's this wild vision of all these chaos beasts spreading death and disorder through the world, until a human shows up - one ""like a son of man"" - who is chosen by Yahweh to bring order to the world.
To share in God's authority over creation. To rise up on the clouds of heaven and sit on Yahweh's throne!
Here's why this is so significant: This isn't just a prophecy of the messiah; it's a prophecy about a human who is also in some way divine.
So for Jesus - this village preacher from Galilee - to imply that he was the Son of Man - that he shared God's authority - this is blasphemy to the religious leaders. They're ready to put him to death.
Now to be clear, this was not a defense. He wasn't arguing his ""innocence."" He simply speaks the truth and goes silent again.
And after this statement, in Matthew's gospel at least, Jesus only says two more words before his final cry on the cross. He's not fighting these charges. He doesn't try to correct false accusations.
And all this stuff about the Son of Man? It just stokes the fires even hotter.
Jesus willingly goes to his death. He sets aside his own life for the sake of others. And he doesn't put up a fight.
There's another trial going on. Maybe not as severe, but a trial nonetheless. It's the trial of Peter. Let's read what happens.
Meanwhile, Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant girl came over and said to him, ""You were one of those with Jesus the Galilean.""
But Peter denied it in front of everyone. ""I don't know what you're talking about,"" he said.
Later, out by the gate, another servant girl noticed him and said to those standing around, ""This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.""
Again Peter denied it, this time with an oath. ""I don't even know the man,"" he said.
A little later some of the other bystanders came over to Peter and said, ""You must be one of them; we can tell by your Galilean accent.""
Peter swore, ""A curse on me if I'm lying - I don't know the man!"" And immediately the rooster crowed.
Suddenly, Jesus' words flashed through Peter's mind: ""Before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me."" And he went away, weeping bitterly.
It's not a coincidence that Matthew puts this story right where he does. He's intentionally contrasting Peter's actions on trial with those of Jesus on trial.
Think about it. Jesus is silent all night in the face of false accusations. Peter goes straight to arguing and oath-taking and cursing when asked basic questions.
And look at their physical movement. In verse 67, Jesus is being spit on and beaten and slapped, and yet he's staying put. But Peter starts in the courtyard, moves to the outer gate, and eventually flees the scene entirely - putting himself as far as possible from danger.
Where Jesus is demonstrating self-denial, Peter is demonstrating self-preservation.
Which makes me wonder: what was going on in Peter's mind at this moment? How could he so quickly deny Jesus after following him for so many years?
This is the same guy who said, just hours before,
""Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.""
Did Peter stop believing Jesus was who he said he was? Did his faith waver? After all these years?
GIVE UP YOUR LIFE
Well, to answer that, I want to go back to a moment Jesus had with his disciples long before his crucifixion, because I think it brings to light a lot of what's happening to Peter here at the trial.
So flip back to Matthew 16:13 and I'll show you.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ""Who do people say that the Son of Man is?""
""Well,"" they replied, ""some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.""
Then he asked them, ""But who do you say I am?""
Simon Peter answered, ""You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.""
In Matthew's gospel, this is the first time anyone comes right out and calls Jesus the Messiah. So Peter gets it. Jesus is the king promised to Israel.
Way to go, Peter. But right after this, Jesus begins describing how he would die at the hands of the religious leaders of Israel, and Peter would have none of it.
But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. ""Heaven forbid, Lord,"" he said. ""This will never happen to you!""
Jesus turned to Peter and said, ""Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's.""
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ""If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father and will judge all people according to their deeds. And I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.""
(There's Daniel 7 again, by the way)
Alright, look at verse 23. Jesus says to one of his closest friends and followers, ""Get away from me, Satan!"" Yikes. ""You're seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's.""
This is right after Peter calls Jesus the Messiah. Was he wrong about that?
Well, no. But his understanding of what that meant was incomplete.
Peter expected the Messiah - the anointed king of Israel - to do Messiah things: to rise to power, to root out sin from Israel, to kick out Gentile invaders.
That's what all the prophets said the Messiah would do. But Jesus didn't see these things through a human point of view. He knew that the kingdom of God is upside down.
Jesus rose to power by giving up power - making himself a servant.
Jesus rooted out sin from Israel by becoming the ultimate sacrifice - taking that sin on himself.
Jesus ended Israel's conflict with Gentiles not by kicking them out, but by welcoming them in.
Peter expected the Messiah's rise to be filled with glory, and strength, and battle cries.
Jesus knew the Messiah's rise would come through humility, and weakness, and cries of pain.
This dichotomy, I believe, was at the core of what Peter was experiencing the night that he denied Jesus.
""What's happening? I thought Jesus was the king. But now he's being mocked and beaten. I thought he would rule with power, but he's not even defending himself. They want to kill him! They might want to kill me.""
""Hey, weren't you one of the people with Jesus?""
""Uh, no! I don't even know the guy.""
In those moments I am confident it felt like everything was falling apart for Peter. Everything he imagined about Jesus being the Messiah was crumbling. So can you really blame him for trying to save his own skin?
We know how the story ends. He didn't.
We know that ultimately, through his sacrifice and humiliation, Jesus did fulfill the role of Messiah. He did ascend to power.
God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
We know the Son of Man is sitting on the throne.
But in those early morning hours as Jesus was put on trial it seemed to all the world - and I imagine to Peter - like this messianic mission had come to an end.
Matthew 16:24 - ""If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way (deny yourself), take up your cross (die to yourself), and follow me.""
How many times did Peter hear those words? Probably hundreds.
And yet I don't think he ever really had them put to the test until his own life was on the line.
""If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.""
Peter hung on to his life in the moment, and it led to weeping and despair. Jesus gave up his life, and it led to the salvation of the world.
Now, here's the encouraging part of the story. Peter may not have understood the upside-down kingdom of God during the trial of Jesus, but he definitely got it after the resurrection.
The Bible goes on to tell us that - after being called back into ministry by Jesus - Peter became one of the core leaders of the early Church. He preached about the scandalous sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah and thousands of people joined the movement.
He dedicated his life to the gospel message. And ultimately, early Church tradition has it that Peter himself was crucified by the Romans. He literally carried his cross and followed Jesus, even into death.
CARRY OUR CROSS
You remember earlier how I said Peter represents all of us? Well, this is what I'm talking about.
From self-preservation to self-denial, Peter's story represents the journey every one of us must take if we want to follow Jesus.
Being a follower of Christ is an invitation to a life of self-sacrifice, surrender, and dying to ourselves. It's a life incompatible with self-promotion and self-preservation.
And yet we know, as Peter eventually learned, that carrying our cross with Christ is the path to true life, true healing, and true power. It's an upside-down kingdom!
So let me ask you this: where do you stand on all of this?
Are you carrying your cross? Are you dying to yourself for Jesus? Are you setting your own interests aside or are you focused on self-preservation?
I'm not asking this in any kind of judgmental or guilt-inducing way. Those of us who have been walking with Jesus for decades would tell you we still have so much to learn about surrender.
We're all in the same boat here.
I'm asking you this because just like Peter we are in the middle of a trial - with coronavirus affecting every part of our lives our faith is being stretched and tested.
This is a time to see how willing we are to carry our cross for the sake of others.
To see if we're willing to practice social distancing to protect the vulnerable (which is uncomfortable for many of us)
To see if we're willing to not hoard our resources but give generously to those in need.
To see if we're willing to reach out to those in our lives and communities we know are lonely and isolated right now (even if we'd rather just watch Netflix and wait for this all to pass)
Or, maybe most provocative of all: to see if we are willing to demonstrate love and compassion for those of other political persuasions!
These are just a few examples that came to mind. You could probably think of many others. Self-preservation or self-denial?
Look. Setting our interests aside - dying to ourselves - is just as hard for us as it was for Peter in that courtyard. And yet, unlike Peter in that moment we know the end of the story.
Jesus was the messiah - the promised king of Israel. He was the son of God - the divine in human form. He was the son of Man - a human worthy to share the authority of Yahweh.
AND YET - his ascent to power was through self-sacrifice and death.
So it's a question we all have to wrestle with: If that is true of Jesus, what am I willing to give up for the sake of healing the world?