While Jesus stood trial before the Sanhedrin, another trial was going on outside. To escape the accusations of a servant girl, Peter denied that he knew Christ at all. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark, urging us to stand openly for Christ, no matter the cost.
Let us look this morning at Mark 14:53–72. I will ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
And they led Jesus away to the high priest; and with him were assembled all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes. But Peter followed Him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he sat with the servants and warmed himself at the fire.
Now the chief priests and all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. For many bore false witness against Him, but their testimonies did not agree.
Then some rose up and bore false witness against Him, saying, “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.’” But not even then did their testimony agree.
And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, saying, “Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?” But He kept silent and answered nothing.
Again the high priest asked Him, saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy! What do you think?”
And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death.
Then some began to spit on Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him, and to say to Him, “Prophesy!” And the officers struck Him with the palms of their hands.
Now as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came. And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with Jesus of Nazareth.”
But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you are saying.” And he went out on the porch, and a rooster crowed.
And the servant girl saw him again, and began to say to those who stood by, “This is one of them.” But he denied it again.
And a little later those who stood by said to Peter again, “Surely you are one of them; for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.”
Then he began to curse and swear, “I do not know this Man of whom you speak!”
A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And when he thought about it, he wept.
If you have ears to hear the Word of God, then hear it this day. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we seek the presence and assistance of the Holy Spirit who searches all things, even Your mind, and who illumines Your words to our understanding. Let this Word pierce our minds and our souls. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jesus Led Away
We concluded last week with the record of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane with the kiss of death. We read how a mysterious young man fled into the darkness naked, and we also read that all the disciples—not just Judas, not just Peter, but all of them—forsook Jesus, running for their lives, leaving Jesus alone with His captors. So, we pick up now with what followed that occasion.
Verse 53 says, “And they led Jesus away to the high priest; and with him were assembled all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes.” The high priest at this time was Caiaphas, who was the son-in-law of Annas, and Annas was perhaps the most powerful Jew in the land. We know that Caiaphas reigned from AD 18 to AD 36.
What is remarkable about this mention of Jesus’ being led away to the high priest and the assembly of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling body of the Jews, is that they did not take Him to the customary meeting place of the Sanhedrin. Normally, the Sanhedrin assembled at a place called the Chamber of Hewn-Stone, but this was the only time in recorded Jewish history that a trial was conducted at night, which was illegal, and at the home of the high priest.
A Safe Distance
Before we get to the trial, let us look at what Mark introduces into the text when he says: “But Peter followed Him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he sat with the servants and warmed himself at the fire.”
Beloved, there is enough in those few words that I just read to you to warrant a full sermon, and perhaps several sermons. In this notation that Peter came back from his flight into the darkness and began to follow the proceedings as an observer, Mark tells us Peter followed Jesus at a distance. Why do you suppose he followed at a distance? Peter was trying to make sure that he kept a safe distance between himself and Jesus.
There are people all over the world today who call themselves Christians, who call themselves followers of Jesus, but follow Him at a distance. They follow Him at a distance because to follow Jesus closely in a fallen world is to invite persecution, and in many times and places, to invite death. That was what frightened Peter. He followed at a distance so that he could save his own life and not be executed along with Christ. This was the same Peter who had said moments before, “I will follow You to the death.” But he followed Jesus to Jesus’ death as an observer at a safe distance. The other reason people like to keep a distance from Jesus is because in a hostile, secular culture, there is ridicule and shame that is often heaped upon followers of Christ.
How would you know whether you are following Jesus closely or following Him at a safe distance? There is one way you can find out. Let me ask you this simple question. Do the people you work with know that you are a Christian? Do the people you associate with know that you are a Christian? Do your friends know that you are a Christian? I am not asking whether you wear your Christianity on your sleeve and make a pest of yourself to your friends and co-workers. I am simply asking, “Do they know where your allegiance is?” If they do not know, then perhaps you are keeping a safe distance from your Savior.
In any case, what we are doing or not doing is not a part of the text. It gives a description of what Peter did. On that occasion, he followed “at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest.” We know from this part of the sentence that the trial was being held in the home of Caiaphas, likely on the second floor of his palatial villa, which was surrounded by a courtyard where servants gathered, even at night. Peter joined this group at the fire to keep himself warm. You see, he not only wanted to be safe but also comfortable as he followed Jesus.
The Unlawful Trial
“Now the chief priests and all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death.” The force of this language—the seeking of testimony—was not that they were on a truth-seeking mission. They were not interested in gathering the facts. The Greek implies they were intentionally trying to find something of which to convict Jesus of a capital offense. This was a witch hunt. Not only that, but they were willing to suborn witnesses. They were not interested in finding exculpatory evidence. They were only interested in the dirt they could gather.
As I mentioned earlier, this meeting was not held in the normal meeting place of the Sanhedrin, which would have been much more open to the public. All these proceedings took place under cover of darkness, covertly, lest the people in Jerusalem be awakened to what was happening. They secreted Jesus away from the garden of Gethsemane, and it was six-tenths of a mile from Gethsemane to the house of Caiaphas.
The Sanhedrin held the hearing at night, which Jewish law forbade. The hearings could only be held during the day, and the Jewish law prescribed that no trial could be held on either the Sabbath, a feast day, or the eve of a Sabbath or a feast day. That regulation was violated as well.
Jewish law required that if a capital case was being tried and a criminal was convicted of a capital crime, the Sanhedrin would be responsible to meet the next day again to confirm that judgment. The Jewish law put a hedge around any attempts at kangaroo courts, any attempts of rash and sudden judgments in capital cases.
Further, the Old Testament law said that in a capital case, there had to be two eyewitnesses to the crime, and those two eyewitnesses had to agree in their testimony. So, everything about this hearing went against Jewish law.
“Now the chief priests and all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. For many bore false witness against Him, but their testimonies did not agree. Then some rose up.” These were members of the Sanhedrin. These were members of the Jewish council that had been consecrated and set apart to protect the law of God, just as our Supreme Court is to protect the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. They do not always do it, and neither did the Sanhedrin.
While the Sanhedrin had Jesus on trial, they broke the Ten Commandments by bearing false witness against the Son of God. Not only did they themselves bear false witness against Jesus, but they encouraged each other to do that.
The word for “witness” in the Greek is the word martyria, from which we get the English word martyr. The reason martyrs were called martyrs in the early church, which gave rise to the saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, is that the martyrs eloquently gave the finest testimony or witness to Jesus that they could give by dying for Him in the arena, the Circus Maximus, and elsewhere. They testified to the truth of Christ with their lives and hence were called martyrs, those who gave testimony.
There is another word in the Greek used in the text, and it is the word pseudomartyreō. You can likely guess what that means: false witness, lying witness, a witness that is counterfeit. This is what happened at this hearing: “For many bore false witness against Him, but their testimonies did not agree.”
“Then some rose up and bore false witness against Him, saying, ‘We heard Him say, “I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.”’ But not even then did their testimony agree.”
Finally, the high priest stood up and asked Jesus a rhetorical question: “Do you answer nothing? What is it these men testify against you? What do you have to say for Yourself, Jesus?” We are told that Jesus kept silent and answered nothing.
You can imagine the agitation of Caiaphas when Jesus refused to answer His question. Caiaphas said: “Speak up, Jesus. Answer these charges. What do you have to say?” Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53: “Like a lamb who is led before the slaughter is silent, so He opened not His mouth.”
Maybe Jesus maintained silence at this point simply to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy, but I think He had something else in mind. He knew what was going on. Whatever He said, no matter how accurate, sincere, or truthful it was, His words would be seized upon, twisted, distorted, and used against Him. Better to let the false witnesses give their testimony and Jesus stay quiet than for Him to say anything they could use against Him.
At this point, Caiaphas was beside himself, and so he pressed the issue: “Again the high priest asked Him, saying to Him, ‘Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’” The word “Blessed” used here is circumlocution. It is a Jewish protection from a misuse of the sacred name. But really, what was being said was, “Are You the Christ, the Son of God?” Jesus spoke, and He said, “I am.”
I want to mention a couple of things about this before I read the rest of what Jesus said. Notice that there were two questions Caiaphas raised about Jesus: “Are you the Christ?” and “Are you the Son of God?” They were not the same question.
Throughout the gospel of Mark, we have seen what is known as the Messianic secret. Anytime there was a discussion about Jesus being the Messiah, when He revealed that He was the Messiah to His disciples, He would say, “Don’t tell anybody.” Now, there was no more need for secrecy, so when Caiaphas asked Him: “Are you the Christ? Are you the Messiah?” Jesus said, “Yes.”
Charging the Son of Man
Here is something I find interesting: it was not a capital offense in Israel to claim to be the Messiah, even if you were not the Messiah. You could be charged with lying. You could be charged with stirring up trouble. You could be charged with all kinds of things. But it was not a capital offense to call yourself the Messiah. So, that was not enough to bring a death penalty verdict. But the second part of the question was getting more to the matter when Caiaphas said: “Are you the Son of the most Blessed? Are you the Son of God?”
Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man”—remember, that was His favorite self-designation—“sitting at the right hand of the Power”—another circumlocution—“sitting at the right hand of God, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” This was a clear reference to Daniel 7, with which everybody in the court was familiar. Daniel 7 describes a heavenly being who comes to the throne of the Ancient of Days.
Jesus said: “Yes, I am the Son of God. I’m the Son of Man. I’ve come from heaven. I’m going back to heaven. The Son of Man is appointed to judge the heaven and the earth.” In a sense, Jesus was saying: “Yes, I am the Son of Man, and this is not the last time that we will meet in the context of a trial. I’ll be back, and I’ll be back with all the authority of heaven, and you will be judged by Me.” That was the clear implication when He said, “You will see the Son of Man at the right hand of God, who will return in clouds of glory.”
At this point, Caiaphas ripped his garments. We find in the Old Testament that when somebody rips their garments, it is either because they are overcome with profound grief and sorrow or they are overcome with rage and anger. Caiaphas was furious. He ripped his garments and said: “Did you hear what He said? You’ve heard the blasphemy. We don’t need any more witnesses. You’ve heard it yourselves. What do you think?” They all condemned Jesus to be deserving of death.
The Jewish law carefully defined blasphemy. To be guilty of blasphemy, you had to directly curse the name of God. Jesus did not do that. Jesus blessed the name of God. But what they considered blasphemous was His identifying Himself as the Son of God. Even there, the charge was without Jewish legal foundation. But they condemned Him to be deserving of death.
“Then some began to spit on Him.” We look back to Isaiah 50:5–6:
The Lord God has opened My ear;
And I was not rebellious,
Nor did I turn away.
I gave My back to those who struck Me,
And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard;
I did not hide My face from shame and spitting.
If somebody tries to spit in your face, you are going to cover yourself up. Jesus took it, following the prophetic utterance of the prophet Isaiah in describing what would happen centuries in the future with the Servant of the Lord. He was beaten, and He took it when they spit upon Him.
Meanwhile, Peter was below in the courtyard. While the trial was going on upstairs, another one was taking place downstairs outside in the courtyard, only the presiding officers in this trial were not the rulers of the Jews, the nobles of the community, or the Sanhedrin, but a servant girl with no status, power, or authority. She saw Peter warming himself, and she looked at him and said, “You also were with Jesus of Nazareth.”
But Peter denied it, saying, “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about.” He went out on the porch further away from Jesus, and no sooner did he move to a greater position of safety, running from this servant girl, than the rooster crowed. Then the servant girl saw him again and began to say to those standing around: “This is one of them. Look at him. I know he was one of them.” Peter denied it again.
Still a little later those who stood by said to Peter again: “Surely you are one of them; for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.” Mark tells us that Peter then “began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know this Man of whom you speak!’” The third time, Peter punctuated his denial with cursing.
We do not know for sure, but one of two things, or perhaps both, took place when Peter denied Jesus the third time with cursing. He could have just been using crude, foul language, saying: “Don’t you hear what I’m saying, blankety-blank? I don’t know the blankety-blank man. I’ve never met the blankety-blank guy.” Or, as some commentators suggest, maybe he mixed in solemn oaths appealing to God, saying, “I swear in the name of God, I don’t know the man.”
I once worked with a man who was a Christian whose language was a bit salty. One day in my presence, he was angry about something, and he said God’s name followed by an expletive. He looked at me, and he was embarrassed, and he said, “Oh, I mean,” and he again said God’s name, but this time followed by “darn it.” I said, “You changed the wrong word.”
You see, people are quite free in our culture—even professing Christians—to take the name of God in vain. Remember what Jesus said when He instructed His disciples how to pray. The first petition is what? “Pray like this: ‘Hallowed be Thy name.’ Pray that the name of My Father would be held in reverence, that it would never be used in a frivolous way, that it would never be blasphemed.” Jesus was convicted of blasphemy, and the one who was probably doing the blasphemy was down in the courtyard, Simon Peter.
Ashamed and Weeping
“A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.’ And when he thought about it, he wept.” Notice it does not say simply, “He wept.” He did not weep, friends, until he thought about it, until he remembered what Jesus had said, and he began to contemplate what he had done, and then he was sick to tears.
People do not really feel the force of guilt when there are people around them. Usually, the weight of guilt is experienced when people put their heads on their pillow at night, when all the defensive gestures are removed, and they are left alone before God. Then the truth pierces the conscience and breaks the heart.
This was Simon, who said, “I will die with You.” Jesus said: “No, you won’t. You’ll deny that you even know Me. Three times you’ll do it.” And that was what Peter did. That is what most people do when they try to follow Jesus at a distance and be safe Christians.
Beloved, when that moment of truth comes, that moment where you must stand up and be counted, when you must identify yourself as one who belongs to Jesus, remember that Jesus said, “If you will be ashamed of Me before men, I will be ashamed of you before My Father in heaven.”
I cannot imagine anything more embarrassing than to stand in heaven and have Jesus say, “I’m ashamed of this man,” or to have Jesus look at me and say, “Shame on you.” I pray that the grace of God and the strength of the Holy Spirit will keep you and me from ever doing that to Jesus.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.