Matthew 26:57-75, The Faithful and the Unfaithful

[February 17, 2008] Last Sunday Jesus was tried and came out victorious. Notice now how steadfast He is, how faithful, how unflinching and unwavering He is, how absolute is His confidence in God. He fulfills the words of the psalmist in Psalm 17:1-5 in every way as He faces His enemies (the plea in 17:6-15).

Jesus before Caiaphas

In the garden a contingent of Roman soldiers, sent from the “chief priests and elders” and led by Judas, came and arrested Jesus, taking Him in the dark of night to Annas’ house, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (John 18:12). From there He was taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest. There his collaborators—chief priests and members of the high court (the Sanhedrin)—gathered with him throughout the morning hours.

Who were these people? We are in the city of Jerusalem where the Temple is. The Pharisees are everywhere influential in the countryside, but not here. Here, the city and the Temple are run by the Sanhedrin and the aristocratic class, who are answerable to the Roman governor and collaborate with him closely. The Sanhedrin is the high court and the high priest is the head of this court, but his authority is granted by the Roman governor who keeps his vestments under lock and key in the Antonio fortress that overlooks the Temple. The religious party with influence in the city is the Sadducees, who believe only in the first five books of the Bible and do not believe in angels or an afterlife. This class of very wealthy people are at great odds with the masses of people who flock “their” city several times a year to worship. In less than forty years, when the zealots—led by Galilean Pharisees—rebel against the Romans and attempt to take the city, the “chief priests and elders” are as much their enemies as the Romans.

I agree with historians who think the governor—Pontius Pilate—put it on the high priest to have Jesus arrested and to come up with the charges against Him. Contrary to a misconception, what happened at Caiaphas’ house was no meeting of the Sanhedrin and there was nothing legal about it. The Sanhedrin met in a special hall and the way it tried cases followed very strict rules. The group of people meeting that night included no minority members of the court, such as Pharisees like Nicodemus and Gamaliel. It was the high priest’s own circle, his clique. There was no trial. Their purpose was to come up with charges against Jesus to give to the governor when they handed Him over in the morning—thus keeping the blame away from the governor.

These men acted out of fear and self-interest. Their concern was to protect their power and influence and wealth. They feared the masses who flocked into the city for the festivals and on whom the city was dependent economically, and they feared the Romans who occupied the city and whose soldiers were everywhere, and who every now and then reminded them that they were the ones in charge. In other words, they were practical political realists. And their actions were manifestly unjust.

They were supposed to be the stewards of the city and Temple of God. God held them responsible for shepherding the people. In Jesus’ case they acted to protect themselves, not to protect the people or to uphold God’s honor. Caiaphas not only was willing to accept false witnesses, he actually invited them, if only he could give the charge the appearance of justice. In the end they failed. They could not even agree on the charge of His saying that He would destroy the temple (Mark 14:59). The pretense of justice could not hold up even for Caiaphas, who gave up.

Notice how Jesus reacts. He is silent and refuses to cooperate with their bullying. He knows this is not justice, that they are attempting to manipulate Him, and He will not play along. He shows no weakness in the face of their attacks, but neither will He accept their rules of the game. He thus exposes their injustice. In this way, He sets an example for us.

He refuses to speak until Caiaphas finally speaks plainly, although the implied accusation would work neither for the Pharisees nor the Romans. Aside from procuring agreement among his collaborators (that Jesus deserved death), it did not serve his purpose, since they could not have him executed on those grounds. The terms of Caiaphas’ question, “Are You the Messiah, the Son of God?” are not His own, but are based on Jesus’ own words.

Then Jesus confesses clearly and boldly. The Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven refers to Daniel 7:13, a prophecy that the Sadducees do not accept. Nevertheless, it implies that Jesus Himself is the Judge judging them, and will come in judgment. They had no idea with whom they were dealing.

Let us draw three more lessons from this. When someone holds public office— whether elected or appointed— they are entrusted with authority and its responsibility, and are obligated to act justly. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrinists acted out of self-interest and concern for their own security. We need to watch for this when we elect (or appoint) officers in any capacity.

Second, we all have responsibility for others, to whatever degree, whether it is our family, or the work we do on our job or when we pay someone for a service. We are entrusted with a stewardship and we hold that responsibility in trust, and therefore we must handle it in a just and trustworthy manner.

Third, notice whether this says anything about the religious establishment today. Do religious leaders compromise with the culture or the tactics of particular interest groups out of fear of persecution or the need for political ‘relevance’? Do they manipulate God’s Word for their own ends out of political insecurity or a desire for power or gain? Are they so politically conscious and ‘practical’ that they are blind to the reality of Him with whom they are dealing? If so, would they not be like Caiaphas and his collaborators?

Peter’s Denial of Jesus

Now consider Peter’s actions. He boasted that though all others might deny Jesus, he never would. Yet he did, not even being aware in the moment of what he was doing—after all, Jesus had warned him—because he was so afraid. His experience has very much to do with our own.

First, consider how serious his failure was. He came very close to Judas in his actions, not in their outward affect but before God. Did not Jesus say that whoever would deny Him before men, He would deny before the Father in heaven (Matthew 10:33)? What a warning to us! This is how denial happens: we are caught up in a situation, afraid of danger or only of losing some esteem, and we keep our faith in Jesus a secret, or we minimize His importance to us. Or we rationalize our fear, telling ourselves that we are not good enough to represent Him. Before we know it, we have placed ourselves in the position of an unbeliever. Jesus says that to confess Him before men can cost us our soul, even our life, and when we are surrounded by a society that ridicules or disdains believers in Christ we find it hard to pay the price.

But notice that none of this happened to Peter without Jesus’ foreknowledge. In fact, in Luke 22:31-32 Jesus said to him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has asked to have you all to sift you as wheat. But I have made petition concerning you that your faith would not fail; and you, once you have turned again, establish your brothers.” In other words, Jesus not only predicted Peter’s failure, Peter was in God’s hands and God intended to use his failure for his own good and the good of others. John chapter 22 shows how Jesus restored Peter, and it shows what this experience accomplished in Peter.

Our lives are in God’s hands, even our moral failures, and no matter how shocking our failure may be to us, it is no surprise to God. In fact, He designed it for our good. We are so devastated, but by our moral failure we become useful to God. If, that is, we learn what we are meant to, and do not clutch onto our guilt as if it were some sort of treasure.

What did Peter learn from this? First of all, he got a lesson in forgiveness. After he saw that Christ forgave him, how he must have loved Christ! We too need to know that we are forgiven. If you do not love worship, you obviously do not yet know it. Worship comes out of this awe of God’s forgiving love.

Just as important, however, is that Peter learned to distrust himself. He was devastated. After this he could never have confidence in himself. He could not rely on his willingness or good intentions. He now knew better. What a bitter pill this is! Yet this alone makes us useful to God. It seems we are not willing to put our trust in God until we stop putting trust in ourselves.

We think our usefulness depends on our qualifications. We are wrong. It depends on our having an acute awareness of our dis-qualification, and our discovery of Christ’s presence, and of His sovereign grace over us and our work.

The work of building the church does not depend on what we imagine are our qualifications, abilities, gifts, or even our good intentions. It depends rather on our coming into awareness of our inability, vulnerability, failure and disqualification, and of our utter dependence on God. Then we pray as we ought. Then we act in fear and trembling. Then we stop pretending to be better than we are. And then Christ is free to work through us.

In terms of ourselves and our qualifications, we each already have what we need to do God’s work. What else we need is the self-knowledge and evaluation that comes from hard experience in relationship to others and the realistic humility that comes from this, and the experiential knowledge of Christ and of His faithfulness and love. This is real faith, and it is far more useful than all the stuff on which we are prone to depend.

We tend to think as man does, but the way God thinks is very different. He may put us through awful experiences of failure not to make us feel bad—in fact we need to let go of such feelings—but to teach us to trust Him instead of ourselves, to rely on Him, and to rely on Christ in us, His presence with us, and the might of the Holy Spirit within, among and around us. Jesus chose us to build up His church knowing ahead of time all about us. The surprise is ours, not His. So take confidence in this—that He knows you better than you do, and loves you far more than you can ever know.

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