As I have previously pointed out, John isn’t presenting a blow by blow account of the arrest and trial of Christ. By the time he is writing this epistle, the other three gospels have already presented all of the chronological events in detail. Instead, what John is doing is specifically highlighting certain events in order to illustrate particular principles which he is attempting to teach. And as we have seen from our previous studies, John is very focused on presenting the gospel as the truth of God. He quotes Jesus reaffirming this principle again and again in statements such as “God is Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” And “I am the way the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except by me.” And another, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Finally one more, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”
In fact, 83 times in his writings John writes about either truth or what is true. I firmly believe that for the apostle John, truth was the preeminent theme of the gospel. So what I think he is doing here in addition to presenting the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion is he is including a sub plot, which is contrasting the truth with the dangers of apostasy. The truth of Christ is contrasted with the apostasy of Peter. And Peter is representative of the church. Remember, Jesus had said in Matt. 16:18 “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” So the apostles, and especially Peter, are emblematic of the church because they are the foundation of the church. And in this passage we are looking at today, John is highlighting the dangers of the church slipping into apostasy.
Apostasy means the abandonment or renunciation of belief, particularly religious belief. So to become apostate is to abandon or renounce your faith, or the principles of truth which undergird your faith. In 2Thess. 2:3, Paul speaking of the second coming of Christ says, “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first.” The Bible teaches that in the last days there will be a great falling away from the truth. False prophets and false teaching will fill the church to the extent that Jesus said if it were possible even the very elect would be misled.
And we know from church history that in fact happened. When Jesus speaks for the last time to the church in Revelation 2 and 3, which was also written by John by the way, He speaks to the seven churches in Asia, which were symbolic of the church universal, and in practically each of His messages to the churches, He emphasizes their need to stay true to His word, and warns them to repent of their apostasy, lest He remove their lamp stand from the Earth.
Now last week we looked at the first part of this passage set in the Garden of Gethsemane where the mob came to arrest Jesus along with the Pharisees and the Roman cohort. And particularly we focused on the response of the disciples as an example of how the church often responds to a hostile world. We talked about the natural response of the human psyche to fear or intimidation known as the fight or flight syndrome which was exemplified by the disciples fleeing, and Peter swinging his sword and cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s slave. And if you will remember, my application contrasted the church’s natural response to the world as opposed to what should be the true response of the church as identified by Acts 2, in the first church of Jerusalem immediately following Pentecost.
In a similar fashion, I want to show a subsequent application to the church through the events recorded in this passage that may not at first be apparent from a superficial study of the chronology of events. But if you will bear with me, I hope to show you how the denial of Peter and the trial of Christ mirror the choice confronting the church today, namely, remaining steadfast in the truth, and on the other hand, denying the truth, or becoming apostate.
So what we see from the passage is that really what was on trial was the Truth. That becomes apparent in Jesus’s response to both Annas and Pilate later on in the chapter. It was all about the truth that Jesus taught and represented. Jesus was the Truth personified. That is what the Pharisees and Sanhedrin hated. They weren’t interested in the truth, they were interested in the law. The law was their religion. They had learned to manipulate the law. They could take advantage of the law. They could enrich themselves through the law, administered through religion. But Jesus focused on the truth. The truth trumps the law because the law comes from the truth. However, as I said, they were not interested in the Truth, they were interested in law, which was administered through their religion. And sadly, we see today in the church that there is an emphasis on religion as they define it, but there is very little emphasis on the truth. Truth is relative today in our culture, and the church in it’s efforts to be relevant to the culture has become a mirror of the culture, rather than a reflection of Jesus Christ who is the Truth.
So John’s record at this point doesn’t focus so much on the illegality of the trial or on the Pharisees, but he seems to deliberately juxtapose Peter’s denial with Christ’s affirmation of Truth. Twice John shows another side of what was going on, that which was happening in the courtyard below with Peter. And I am proposing that his intention is to show the counterpoint to the truth of the gospel, which is apostasy, and how easy it is and possible it is for the church to fall into it.
So without further introduction, let’s look at four steps to apostasy as illustrated in this text. And I will give you each step in advance; First, the steps to apostasy begins with acting in your own wisdom, which leads to # 2, distance from God, which produces #3, a desire for acceptance from the world, and #4, results in blasphemy and denial. That’s the four steps to apostasy.
Let’s consider how this is illustrated in the text. The first point, acting in your own wisdom we pretty much covered last week. When confronted with the hostility of the mob, Peter did what he thought was right according to his own wisdom, according to his own strength. When he should have followed the Lord’s example and looked to him as to how to respond to the attack of the mob, instead he acted in his own strength, according to his own wisdom, and it resulted in disaster. He pulled his sword and whacked off the High Priest’s servant’s ear. That was a bad move. It could have been even worse had not Jesus healed the man’s ear. Because as we see later, Malchus’s kinsman was sitting at the fire later in Annas’s courtyard, and he recognized Peter and called him out in front of the soldiers.
We see this same attitude played out today in the church all the time, though perhaps in a little less dramatic fashion. More and more we see the church relying of philosophy, psychiatry, science, survey’s, and business practices in order to achieve their goals. The average sermon today is an impotent mixture of pyscho-babble and sentimentality, with a few jokes and a poem thrown in for good measure. Rather than looking at how the Bible says we should approach things like marriage, or sexuality, or church organization, etc, we follow what science or business or common sense tells us to do. But we need to remember that God has given us a blueprint for the church, and when we deviate from it to follow our own wisdom, we do so at our own peril.
I want to point out another contrast inherent in this scene. Peter decides to fight with his sword against the forces of darkness that are arrayed before him. And though he manages to wound one out of possibly 50-200 armed men, it was not a very effective strategy. And as I said earlier, if Jesus hadn’t stopped it and healed the servant, it would have probably ended badly for Peter. But then notice the contrast of the truth. In vs. 4, it says, “So Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth and *said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered Him, “Jesus the Nazarene.” He *said to them, “I am He.” And Judas also, who was betraying Him, was standing with them. So when He said to them, “I am He,” they drew back and fell to the ground.”
Here is the irony of the contrast. Peter takes his sword and wounds one man, and potentially sets up a disastrous situation. Jesus uses the sword of His mouth, the very word of God, and 200 men are knocked flat on the ground. I believe that John shows us this contrast to illustrate that even the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of men. We must not neglect the word of God. It is powerful even to the destruction of fortresses. 2Cor. 10:3 says, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” The efforts of our flesh in our wisdom and strength fail to make a difference for the kingdom. Whereas God’s word is powerful and sharper than a two edged sword. Because it is the truth of God.
Well, as we see in Peter’s case, acting in your own wisdom leads to the second step towards apostasy, which is distancing yourself from God. It’s really amazing that Christ demonstrates His divine power even in this hour of darkness, in both knocking the mob on the ground and healing the man’s ear, and yet the mob is unmoved. They are resolute in their hatred and determination to put Jesus to death. Their hearts are hardened.
But what’s even more amazing is that the disciples, also seeing these things, and having seen so many other miracles that Jesus had done over three years, are unmoved as well. They run away. You would think that they would have recognized that the safest place for them to be was with Jesus.
I have said that from this pulpit many times and I will say it again this morning. There is no safe place outside of the will of God. And there is no safer place than to be in the will of God. Yet how quickly we forget that. The disciples thought that it would be safer somewhere else. So they ran. Peter, I will give him some credit, doesn’t run. Instead he follows from afar, according to Matthew 26:58. And so when Jesus is in the house of the High Priest, Peter is hanging around outside in the dark, outside the courtyard door.
Over the last couple of months or so, I have had a number of people tell me that they felt as if they were far from God. They didn’t feel close to God anymore. They feel like God didn’t care, or didn’t love them anymore. They felt distant. And I will tell you what I tell them every time. It’s an alternate version of the old adage; sin will keep you from God, or God will keep you from sin. When you feel distant from God it’s usually because you have moved away from God, not vice versa.
It’s like the couple that had been married for 30 years, back in the day when cars had bench seats, not like the bucket seats we have today. And the couple were driving down the road, and the wife looked over at the husband who was driving and said sort of reproachfully, “Remember when we used to take a drive when we were dating, and how you used to put your arm around me, and hug me close? Don’t you ever miss that kind of closeness? And the husband looked over at her on the passenger side of the car and said, “Well, I didn’t move, you did.”
God doesn’t move to distance Himself from us. Even when we are in rebellion against Him, He pursues us. The Lord is like the husband of Hosea, who watches and provides for his love from afar, waiting for her to return to Him, and never stops loving her. James gives us the prescription for a healthy relationship with God in James 4:8, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
Distance from God usually happens as a result of a lack of dependence upon God. You stop reading His word. You start skipping your devotions. You hardly pray. Start missing church services. It’s usually characterized by a desire to keep a comfortable distance from God, while all the while claiming to be in fellowship with Him. You want to be free to make your own decisions, and then that leads to neglecting the word of God so that you can operate independently without a guilty conscience.
Thirdly, distancing yourself from God leads to a desire for acceptance by the world. We see this illustrated in Peter’s example. There is an unnamed disciple in the text, who John says was known by the High Priest’s family. Most commentators believe that this is John himself. And so John realizes that Peter is outside the door, and he speaks to the girl watching the door so that Peter can come inside. I’m not sure that Peter really wanted to come inside. But nevertheless, he more or less had to come in when John came to the door.
But where he ends up is not back beside Christ as you might think. He hasn’t felt enough remorse over his earlier actions so that now he just wants to be next to Christ again. No, he just sidles over to the fire where the enemies of Christ are hanging out getting warm. So it’s apparent where his sentiments are at this point. There are two sides in this mock trial. There is Jesus all alone, and there is everyone else. Peter gains entrance to the house, but he chooses sides with the enemy. He wants to keep his distance from Christ.
We see that in Christianity all the time. There is a crisis in one’s life, and so they feel remorse that they were caught up in some crime, or put in jail, or totaled the car, or messed up their marriage somehow, but rather than come all the way to Christ, the natural tendency is to come only so far. To hang on to their autonomy, to hang on to their sin. The choice Peter should have made was to come all the way to Christ, even to the death if necessary, which was what he had boasted earlier that he would do.
So of course in our text we see that the enemy recognizes Peter as having been with Christ. So they start to call him out. First the slave girl says, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” And He said, “I am not.” He denies being a disciple. He doesn’t deny knowing Christ at this point, just denies being a disciple.
I don’t think that Peter was afraid of this slave girl. I think Peter suddenly is getting a clearer understanding of what Jesus has been saying all along about what it really means to be a disciple, to suffer for Him. I think it was easier being a disciple when they had this miraculous power to call down fire from heaven or cast out demons. But now this hour belonged to the power of darkness. And in this hour he begins to remember how Jesus had just told them they would be persecuted and killed for following Him. It suddenly is no longer theoretical, but an immediate possibility. And maybe he realizes at this point that this being an outcast from society, being persecuted, being publicly ostracized was going to be part of what it means to be a Christian. And at that moment, he wasn’t sure that he really wanted to commit to that.
So he chose friendship with the world, which Paul tells us is enmity with God. He found himself at odds with Psalm 1:1 which says, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!”
Acting in your own wisdom results in distancing yourself from God, which leads to a desire for acceptance from the world. And we see that all the time in the church today among Christians. Who at some point, come to realize that following Christ completely and being stedfast to the truth of God puts them in opposition to the world. It’s makes us an outcast, a fool for Christ. So to appease the world we want to soften our stance on things that the Bible speaks clearly about. We start to accept the dictates of the culture, because if we spoke out about adultery or homosexuality or evolution or a host of other subjects then we would become ostracized in our communities. We could lose our job. We might get “unfriended” on face book. We might get laughed at in school.
And before we know it, we have moved from walking according to the counsel of the wicked to standing in the path of sinners, and before we are done we end up sitting down with the scoffers. We find ourselves like Lot, who moved from living in the country near the city of Sodom to living next to it, to finally moving downtown. On the road to apostasy you get comfortable with the world, and uncomfortable with discipleship. So you move further and further towards apostasy. When you start to accommodate the world’s views in one area, it leads to another area, and soon it like yeast in a lump of dough it corrupts completely.
That takes us to the final point, which is a desire to be accepted by the world leads to blasphemy and denial of the truth. Peter finds himself getting warm by the fire. Notice that John repeats that twice in vs 18 and 25. That accommodation of Christ’s enemies leads to Peter denying the Lord three times. You will remember that Jesus prophesied that before the night was over Peter would deny Him three times. Peter had denied such a possibility vigorously. Once again you see this disregard of God’s word. We think we can disregard God’s word with impunity. But we cannot. If the word of God convicts you, then you need to repent and ask God to forgive you. Because when you disregard the conviction of the Spirit of God through the word of God your heart becomes hardened, and you give the devil an opportunity to destroy you.
In his later years, Peter illustrated that he come to appreciate the schemes of the devil and how he uses such things to take you down. Peter writes in 1Peter 5:8, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” But at the point in our story, Peter had not learned that lesson yet. He thought he was good, he was strong, he could handle things himself. But in fact, Jesus had warned Peter earlier that Satan had demanded permission to sift him like wheat.
Peter didn’t believe that he was weak, however. He was confident that he could stand up to the devil’s temptations. Peter exhibited overconfidence in himself, and a lack of confidence in God. It would have been good for him to know 1Cor. 10:12 which says, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”
Well, as we see here, one denial of the truth leads to another lie, which leads to yet another lie. That’s the way sin is. A little leaven soon leavens the whole lump. And so we see Peter get deeper and deeper into sin, until he ends up not only denying Christ, but blaspheming and cursing in order to prove himself not a friend of Christ. It’s really just incredible to watch the fall of Peter.
John 18:25 “Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You are not also one of His disciples, are you?” He denied it, and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, being a relative of the one whose ear Peter cut off, *said, “Did I not see you in the garden with Him?” Peter then denied it again. (Matthew 26 tells us that Peter denied it with an oath, and then when asked again he resorted to cursing,) and immediately a rooster crowed.
Most of us when confronted with the possibility that we would deny Christ would protest as Peter did that we would die before denying Him. But that is in theory. In actuality, it doesn’t often go the way we think it might. Satan gets us to deny Him first by denying the Lord’s power in favor of our own. We do it our way, kind of like Frank Sinatra. We try to make it look like we are doing it for the Lord, but the bottom line is we want to deny Christ control over our lives and want to exercise our will and wisdom. That leads to further distance from God, as we think we are doing fine, and don’t really need to depend daily upon God. Skipping devotions or prayer time or church time becomes more commonplace as everything else starts to take precedence over the things of God. And that distance from God leads to a desire to find acceptance from the world. Maybe that is even our original motivation. We like the acclaim of men, so we seek out ways of pleasing the world, rather than pleasing God. And then finally, that leads to down right denial of Christ.
Oh, we may not be cursing God, or uttering blasphemies directed towards Christ directly, but in many ways I’m afraid we deny Christ in our relationship with Him, in His Lordship over us, we deny Him control over our lives, and we don’t trust Him to take care of us. And if we don’t turn and repent of such things, it can lead us into outright apostasy. We end up denying the truth of God. We deny the truth of God’s word. We fail to stand up for Christ when He is attacked by the world.
I think the lesson to be learned from this story is that if apostasy can happen to Peter it can happen to the best of us. Because, contrary to the way many portray Peter, I believe Peter was the best of us. I believe he was passionate about following the Lord. He loved the Lord. He was faithful to the Lord. He was an intimate friend of the Lord. And yet, he fell from faith in denying Christ three times on the night of His crucifixion. It is a tragedy that is possible for all of us. And many of us have already done as bad if not worse at some point in our lives. I know I have.
But like Peter, I am a child of God. Thank God my disobedience and denial of my Lord does not negate the fact that I am His child. God is a God of restoration. He came to seek and to save those that are lost. And just as Christ made a point to meet with Peter specifically after His resurrection and reconcile Peter to Himself, so He will do with you and with me if we are truly His people and we are willing to repent. If you don’t repent, Satan will use your rebellion to try to destroy you. But if you turn back to God, He will heal you and restore you.
In Peter’s case, not only did Christ reconcile with Peter, but He still used Peter to be the foundation of the church. Peter’s past mistakes did not disqualify him, but once he was reconciled to Christ he was used as the chief apostle of His church. God has a plan to use us, even when we have been broken and beaten up by the devil and by failures. The key is we learn to trust God, to let Him have control of our life, and we don’t trust in our own strength or wisdom, but trust in the word of God.