Mark 14:53-72, Jesus Is Steadfast but Peter Crumbles

[February 28, 2010] Last Sunday we looked at Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now we look at the night He spent in the high priest’s residence and His faithful confession and Peter’s simultaneous failure to confess while in the courtyard of the same residence. Remember that what we have in the Gospel according to Mark is essentially Peter’s retelling of the story of Jesus as he validates the two Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, during a time when the church—especially in Rome where Peter was—was suffering terrible persecution. A person could be put to death for confessing their faith in Jesus. The emphasis in the Gospel according to Mark is the faithfulness of Jesus unto death and the need for His disciples to also remain faithful unto death. They fail because they do not understand who Jesus is and the way of the cross. They fail because they still rely on themselves, their own strength and understanding.

But Jesus is the One revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration, even while He is under the guise of humility. And nothing happens outside of God’s will; it all takes place according to the Scriptures and Jesus Himself foresees it, even Peter’s denial. This is also true of the church: Christ dwells within us, that is, we bear within our bodies a hidden treasure, the eternal life of God, and the trials of the church do not take place outside of God’s purpose. We are in the world as Jesus was. Notice, however, that the obedience of Jesus is the way of the cross. When Jesus is under trial for who He is—though He resists being bullied into a false position—He does nothing in His own defense. What happens to Him is the judgment of the world, and what happens to the church (when it is being faithful to Him and confesses His name) is the same (see 2 Thessalonians 1). But the willfulness of His humiliation—His offering Himself up to the Father in obedience as He bears our judgment—is the world’s salvation. There is a parallel for the church: while our suffering is not atoning, our taking up the way of the cross and conforming to the death of Jesus does bring the salvation of Jesus to bear on the world. The transformation that happens within us—in the guise of death—contributes in an invisible way to the liberation of the whole creation from death into the life and glory of God.

The church and we as individual Christians are called upon to take up the cross in our daily lives as the form of our discipleship. The way of the cross does not refer to passive suffering. Rather, it is really a form of obedience—an obedience of confession and faithfulness—and of not yielding to the world.

Jesus’ Confession before the High Priest (Mark 14:53-65)

The Gospel according to Mark closely follows Matthew’s account here. The crowd that arrested Jesus included Roman soldiers and they took Jesus to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (see John 18:3, 12-13). He then had Jesus sent to the house of Caiaphas, the acting high priest. There the “Sanhedrin” gathers in the early hours of the morning and they conduct not a trial but a sort of investigation of Jesus so that in the early morning they can hand Jesus over to the Roman governor with an indictable capital charge.

It is well-known that this could not have been a legal gathering of the Grand Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of elders in Jerusalem. Capital trials could only be held during the day and no court could take place on festival days. Also a sentence of death could not be passed on the day of trial but only on the following day. Moreover, a legal gathering had to eet in the court chamber. Besides, a capital charge of blasphemy required that the person pronounce the divine name, which Jesus did not do. There are other reasons as well.

What some historians have concluded, and I concur, is that what Mark calls the “whole Sanhedrin” was not a gathering of the court but rather the inner circle of the high priest made up of his right-hand men and supporters (chief priests, elders and scribes), and their gathering was not a formal one. Annas and Caiaphas were acting on secret orders of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who wanted Jesus executed because He pretended to be the King of the Jews. Because of the popularity of Jesus, Pilate did not want to take the blame for Jesus’ execution. He wanted the Jewish leadership to take the rap, and so they were to hand Jesus over to him with a capital charge (which they failed to do). He loaned His soldiers to Annas to get the job done. The actual trial and sentencing took place early in the morning before the public even knew what was going on. What was taking place in the house of the high priest was the attempt to come up with actual charges to lay against Jesus.

Matthew and Mark speak of the attempt to find witnesses who can agree. They could only find false witnesses. Mark emphasizes that even their testimony could not agree (which Jewish law required). Mark portrays the scene as completely unfair and utterly chaotic. Jesus is self-possessed and refuses to respond to their accusations. He does not let Himself be bullied into a false position.

Then the high priest asks Him directly, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” This is the affirmation with which the Gospel according to Mark began: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Only there and when Peter confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ” (8:29), have we been told that Jesus is the Christ, and only there and in the words of demons have we been told that Jesus is the Son of God. The only other time is later, when Jesus dies and the Gentile centurion on watch confesses that Jesus was “the Son of God” (15:39). So this is a very important moment.

How does Jesus respond? In Matthew He says, “You (the high priest) have said so.” In Luke He refuses to answer the question about whether He is the Christ but when asked whether He is the Son of God He says, “You yourselves (all of you) say that I am.” In both, Jesus’ response is ambiguous. This is not the case in Mark.

When asked if He is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed,” Jesus says unambiguously, “I am.” Why the difference? I believe that the Gospel according to Mark wants to emphasize the faithfulness of Jesus to the church’s proclamation. He confesses Himself, or in the words of Paul (with reference to Pilate), He “testified the good confession” (1 Timothy 6:13). And He did it alone.

When the church is under persecution, this is what the church too must confess: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus could make this confession because He refused to let Himself be put into a false position by His accusers. In order for us to make our confession clear, we too must not allow ourselves to be put into a false position by society. This is very difficult because it means we must define ourselves instead of allowing the world to define who we are. This is difficult because we do not always seem to be very clear even with ourselves about who we are.

Jesus went on to say, “And you (all) shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven,” referring to Daniel 7:13. Matthew has the words, “However, from now on you will see …” Mark does not want to give the impression that the kingdom of God is visibly triumphant before the Second Advent. There is no triumph in history. Until the Son of Man comes, the way of the church is the way of the cross. At the same time, Jesus is letting the high priest and those gathered that they will be called to account on the day that the Son of Man is given eternal dominion, glory, and a kingdom that will not be destroyed (Daniel 7:14). They understood the reference. Though Jesus was alone, He spoke defiantly, authoritatively and with full assurance.

The gathering satisfied themselves that Jesus was guilty and worthy of death but they did not satisfy either their own law (the Halakah) or what the governor was looking for.

Peter’s Inability to Confess (14:54, 66-72)

Though we have spoken at length about Jesus before the high priest, the emphasis in Mark is actually on Peter. The night scene before Caiaphas is framed by Peter in Caiaphas’s courtyard. Mark underscores the contrast between Jesus and Peter. We have seen how steadfast Jesus was in confessing Himself. Peter, on the other hand, even takes an oath that he is not a follower of Jesus.

In Matthew Peter says he does not know what the maid was saying. In Mark Peter is more emphatic, “I do not know nor do I understand.” After the rooster crows, the same maid points him out to others and he volunteers another denial. Then they all agree on account of his accent and he begins to curse and swear.

In Matthew Jesus warns that Peter will deny Him three times before the rooster crows. But in Mark, Jesus warns that Peter will deny Him three times before the rooster crows twice. When the rooster crows the first time Peter has the chance to remember what Jesus had said and to repent. But even though he hears the rooster crow, he goes on to deny Jesus two more times. It is an amazing act of cowardice. The Jewish leaders acted out of fear of the Roman governor and condemned Jesus because Pilate could threaten their position of privilege. Now one of Jesus’ closest disciples denies Jesus for fear of his own safety. He is unfaithful to Jesus. With a little pressure, we too become no different than the world. This is the temptation that threatens Christians in times of persecution and for which we need to be on guard (Mark 13:9-13, 33-37).

Peter, of course, was the one who said, “Even if all will be stumbled, yet I will not!” (Mark 14:29). After Jesus told him that “today in this night, before a rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times,” Peter still said, “Even if I must die with You, I will by no means deny You!” He had no self-knowledge. Until we are put on trial, we do not know ourselves. When Peter remembered that scene from only hours before, he wept. We too would perhaps weep if we saw our true condition. We get so moralistic and demand it of others, yet we have no knowledge of ourselves. Yet Jesus sees through Peter. He never thought Peter was other than who he was. While Peter wept at his self-discovery, Jesus was bearing our judgment as He approached the cross.

On the one hand there is the stark contrast between the world and the Son of God come into the world, and on the other hand there is the stark contrast between who we think we are and who we really are. In the Bible, the world that stands in contrast to the Gospel is there in the pretensions of Israel—in the Pharisaic zealots and the conniving Sadducean establishment—and in the pretensions of the Gentiles who are seduced by their idols. The Gospel of Jesus is supposed to free us from the powers of the world that try to claim our souls and enslave us. Unless we recognize reality in Jesus and identify with Him in the way of the cross, renouncing all the powers that would entice us, we cannot know this freedom. But often when we believe in Jesus and think we are free, we are only fooling ourselves. Like Peter we imagine that we are not afraid and that we can stand up to the world. We think we are free when we are not.

Only the experience of failure convinced Peter that he could not trust his own strength. Our faithfulness depends upon faith. And faith is not a cheap commodity, as if it meant that we “agree.” Faith first requires an inner vision, an unveiling of Christ in His divine-human reality. But faith also means that we no longer trust in or rely on ourselves. This is putting it negatively, yet it seems that the positive can hardly emerge without it. Even though we try to believe, because we have seen a little light, we still cling to ourselves as if that were the more reliable option. We cannot help it. Grace does not work by fiat. While it builds us up inwardly, it also breaks us down outwardly. As our denial and defenses break down and our self-knowledge opens up, then the light begins to clarify for us. We rely on Christ not because of any strength in us, not because of our strength of will, but because of the grace of God that seems to simply be there.

This passage in the Gospel calls us to faithfulness, to be a faithful witness to Christ in the midst of a world that opposes Him, and it makes us aware that we cannot do this in our own strength. Ironically, it is only in our weakness—or rather, the knowledge of our weakness—that we can be strong, not with our own strength but the strength of Christ in us. When we confess His name, it is Christ Himself in us—through the Holy Spirit—who confesses Himself.

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