A Sham Trial and A Serious Failure - John 18:12-27
©October 4th, 2021 by Rev. Rick Goettsche SERIES: John
The American justice system is predicated on the idea of due process for everyone, no matter what. This means that no matter who you are, what you are accused of doing, how much money you have, or who your friends are, you are entitled to a fair trial in which you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. People cannot be condemned without a trial, and every person’s trial is to be conducted by the same rules. We don’t always succeed at this ideal, but that is the idea on which our justice system is based.
The Jewish system of justice was very similar (much of our system is actually drawn from the Jewish system). They did not allow people to be condemned without a fair trial. And a person could not be convicted of a serious crime unless there were at least two witnesses who could independently give testimony of it. Furthermore, a person who was found to bear false witness could be subject to the penalty of the accused.
Understanding this strong commitment to justice in the Jewish legal system, we should be appalled at the treatment of Jesus in these verses. The “trial” to which Jesus is subjected is anything but fair. Nevertheless, even as Jesus walks through these sham trials, He continues to speak truth, even to those who believe they have power. Jesus is never threatened, He is never overmatched. Jesus is unflinching and uncompromising in His faith. This makes the contrast between Jesus and Peter that much greater in these verses. There is much to unpack as we look at the beginning of Jesus’ legal proceedings and how Peter responded to questions about his relationship with Jesus.
If you recall, last week we looked at the arrest of Jesus. An entire army came out to arrest this one man. Even when standing before a literal army, Jesus did not back down. As a matter of fact, the army backed down! Nonetheless, Jesus allowed himself to be taken captive and subjected to the machinations of the Jewish leaders.
John’s account can be a little confusing, because he bounces back and forth between the trial that is happening inside and Peter’s experience that is happening in the courtyard outside. Even so, John paints a pretty clear picture of exactly what happened.
12 So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. 14 It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people. (John 18:12-14, NLT)
John tells us that after they arrested Jesus, they first took him to Annas, who John identifies as the father-in-law of Caiaphas. This seems like a strange choice, since Annas seems to be a nobody. But with a bit of a history lesson, things become clearer.
The Jewish high priest was supposed to serve for life. But once Israel was conquered by the Romans, the Romans started installing the high priests rather than the people. And rather than serving for life, the high priests only served until the governor of the region decided to remove them. Annas was appointed as the high priest in AD 6, but eventually fell out of favor with the governor of the region, who removed him in AD 15. Though Annas had no official power, 5 members of his family later became high priests, one of whom was Caiaphas, who was Annas’ son-in-law, and the official high priest at this time. So even though Annas was not the officially recognized high priest, he was still viewed as the power behind the throne. In fact, the people still referred to him as the high priest, even though officially that position belonged to Caiaphas.
So while it seems strange to think the first person before whom Jesus would stand trial would be a person with no title and seemingly no power, the fact is, Annas still wielded quite a bit of power—though we will soon see, not nearly as much as Jesus had!
John also reminds us that Caiaphas was the official high priest at that time, and that Caiaphas had earlier said (in John 11) that it was better that one man (meaning Jesus) should die for the people, rather than arouse the anger of the Romans. I believe John includes this detail to drive home the point that this was not a trial at all. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. Caiaphas had already decided that Jesus would die. Nothing about what was about to happen was honorable, just, or legal.
After setting the scene for Jesus’ trial, John shifts the focus of the story to Peter for a moment,
15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 17 The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. (John 18:15-18, NLT)
We are told that Peter and another disciple (who most people think was probably John) arrived at the high priest’s residence. John said that the other disciple (again, likely himself) was known to the high priest, so he went right in. Peter, however, remained outside, but the other disciple went to the servant girl at the door and convinced her to let Peter into the courtyard as well. In this courtyard, a number of others who worked for the high priest were gathered around a fire, and Peter joined them.
The question she asks Peter is interesting, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” The question seems to indicate that she knew that the other disciple was one of Jesus’ disciples. This would make sense if she knew him—she surely then knew that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. The question she seems to be asking Peter is, “Are you one of His disciples too?” Peter says that he is not.
This is surprising, since Peter had been very vocal in his support for Jesus. Just hours before, he had told Jesus that even if everyone else left him, he would never leave him. Jesus told Peter he would end up denying him three times before the rooster crowed the next morning. In the garden, when the army came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword, ready to do battle against hundreds of soldiers, and even managed to cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants. Peter seemed ready to die for Jesus. What changed in such a short period of time?
This has always been a subject of debate. The truth is, we don’t know exactly what changed within Peter. My thought, however, is that Peter was confident as long as he felt like he knew what was going on. If Peter still believed that Jesus was going to fight a military battle, it would make sense that he would not hesitate to swing his sword, because this was the moment he’d been waiting for (or so he thought). But when Jesus simply surrendered and the Jewish leaders took him captive, I suspect Peter no longer knew what to think. He was surely scared that if they were out to get Jesus, they’d come after him next. Nothing was going the way he expected, and he was confused and bewildered. He may have simply been trying to keep his options open until he knew what was coming next. We don’t know exactly why Peter lied about being Jesus’ follower, but we know that he did.
John once more shifts the scene back inside to the account of Annas’ questioning of Jesus.
19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” 24 Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. (John 18:19-24, NLT)
We are told that Annas asked Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. We don’t know the details of these questions, but it seems that Jesus didn’t give very satisfying answers. Instead, Jesus makes a bit of an accusation against Annas. Jesus’ statement was simple, he had done nothing in secret. He had frequently taught in public, with literally thousands of people there to hear him speak. Jesus asked Annas why he was asking him, when he should be asking any number of the people who had heard him speak. Everything Jesus said was true. He had done nothing in secret. Jesus was not two-faced. He had been very consistent in all he had said and done. But there is a subtle accusation in Jesus’ statement—where are the witnesses?
Jewish law required that in a trial a person had to be condemned by the independent testimony of at least two witnesses. Jesus was saying to Annas that everything he had done was well known and done in public, so if they were really concerned about him, they should have no problem finding witnesses…but since there weren’t any, it raised the question of why he was even there.
Though Jesus’ answer was not overtly accusatory, the implication was clearly not lost on those who were standing near. One of the officers nearby slapped Jesus and accused him of speaking disrespectfully to the high priest. Jesus doubled down on his argument, however. He said that if what he had said was wrong, then they should bring forth the witnesses to prove it (or that this man himself should bear witness!) But if they couldn’t produce any witnesses to show that Jesus had done anything wrong, then there was really no reason to hit him, let alone put him on trial. We are not told that Annas responded to these accusations, just that he had Jesus bound and sent to Caiaphas.
They knew Jesus was right—and they didn’t like it. Instead of admitting their fault, they tried to use their power to cover up their sin. People often have this kind of response when they are confronted with their own sin. No one likes to admit they have done wrong. No one likes to think they have failed. And yet, the truth is that we all are guilty of failing in some things at some time. But it’s a lot easier to deny that we’ve done anything wrong or attack others than to admit our sin.
This is one of the great obstacles to the gospel message—we must come to admit our own sin and failures. We must stop trying to justify our evil actions and must instead turn to Jesus as our singular hope of salvation and forgiveness. But doing that requires great humility on our part, and apart from God working in us, we simply are unwilling to humble ourselves in this way. So we respond like the Jewish leaders—we justify our actions, we try to distract from them, we go on the offensive instead. And we further blind ourselves to the truth.
This is the challenge we face as we share the gospel with the world around us. The message of the gospel is unpopular, because it requires us to submit to Jesus rather than persisting in the mistaken idea that we are ultimately in control of all things. So we shouldn’t be surprised if people have similar responses to us when we try to tell them the truth of the gospel. People may lash out at you, they may try to justify their actions, they may try to change the subject. What can we do when this happens? We can remain calm and continue to love them. Their response is to be expected—and it’s the same response we once had to the gospel message. We should be patient, recognizing that people are not rejecting us, but they are struggling to accept Jesus. The gospel is wonderfully freeing once we come to understand and accept it, but it’s a tough teaching to accept. We should be patient with those who are still struggling with it.
I think there’s another lesson we can learn from the responses of the people in the room here—we need to be open to confronting our own sin. For the believer, this should be a daily practice. We should be honest with ourselves and those around us about the ways we have sinned and failed. We should give up trying to justify our actions and instead take responsibility for what we have done wrong. The good news of the gospel is that even when we fail, we stand forgiven because of Jesus. So of all people, Christians should be the ones most ready to admit when we have failed and seek forgiveness. We must drop the pretense that we never mess up—because we know it simply isn’t true. We will grow in faith and holiness as we admit our sin and deal with it, rather than trying to cover it up.
The people in the high priest’s house were unwilling to admit their sin. They were at their wit’s end, but they would not admit that Jesus was right. So John says Annas then sent Jesus to stand trial before Caiaphas, still in chains.
John’s gospel doesn’t include the details of this examination, but the other gospels tell us that Caiaphas’ trial also included the Sanhedrin (the council of religious rulers). They too could not find witnesses to condemn Jesus, though they were eventually able to find people who twisted Jesus’ words—technically saying what Jesus said, but completely twisting the meaning (Jesus’ statement that if you destroyed this temple—his body—he would raise it three days later). They argued that Jesus had made a threat against the temple, and so he should be killed. Theirs was not a trial in search of the truth, it was a verdict in search of justification. This was an incredible miscarriage of justice and a sham trial.
Peter’s Second and Third Denials
Peter’s Second and Third Denials
John takes us once more to the courtyard outside,
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.
As Peter was standing with the officers and servants gathered around the fire, they asked basically the same question as the servant girl. They wanted to know if Peter was also a disciple of Jesus. He said he wasn’t.
Finally, one of the servants of the high priest, who John says was related to the man whose ear Peter had cut off, approached Peter and asked much more pointedly, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied knowing Jesus. And then the rooster crowed. Peter had failed in exactly the way Jesus had predicted.
We are pretty hard on Peter for his denial of Jesus. Certainly what he did was wrong, but the truth is, we are not that different than him much of the time. We claim that it’s important to do what is right no matter what, but we tend to be happy to indulge sin when we know it will benefit us.
· We will happily (and quietly) accept too much change when the cashier makes a mistake, or when the government or insurance company doesn’t know any better.
· We will engage of lies of omission if it benefits us—“What the boss (government, cops, etc.) doesn’t know about won’t hurt him.”
· We will keep our faith quiet if we think it will hurt our popularity, job prospects, or ability to get what we want.
· We will justify not making time for the Lord because of extenuating circumstances—and then act surprised when we seem to have a long pattern of extenuating circumstances that keep us from Him for a long time.
Most of the time, we know what the right thing to do is, we are simply too scared to do it. We worry that doing what is right will cost us too much. We convince ourselves that these simple acts of disobedience are not that big of a deal. But Peter reminds us that those little compromises tend to snowball.
Peter serves as an example for us in these verses, and unfortunately not a good example. But there is still good news in Peter’s failure. If you know the end of the story, Peter is restored by Jesus. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, he later reaffirms his commitment three times. Jesus didn’t write Peter off because of the failures of his past. Peter was still able to serve the Lord, despite the ways he had failed in the past. God does not turn His back on us because of our sin. If we come to grips with our failures, God will restore us and can use us to accomplish great things through Him—even as flawed and broken people.
This passage shows us the incredible injustice of Jesus’ crucifixion. His “trial” was nothing but a witch hunt. But I think we should pay attention to the difference between Jesus’ response to this witch hunt and Peter’s. Peter was understandably afraid because he saw how they were treating Jesus and knew that if Jesus was treated unfairly, then he likely would be too. But Jesus, even in the midst of being condemned to death on trumped up charges, never seemed to worry or even get flustered. Why?
I don’t think that it was that Jesus suddenly stopped being human, but rather that Jesus trusted in God’s plan rather that his circumstances. Peter did not. We tend to be a lot more like Peter than we are like Jesus. We look at things around us and see no way that God could be working. We fear losing our rights, being marginalized, or any other number of what we see as negative outcomes. But we should take a lesson from Jesus, and simply be faithful to the Lord, trusting in His outlook more than in our own. When we do that, the world will be flummoxed, just as Jesus’ accusers were. The world won’t know what to do.
We’re going to have difficult times—Jesus promised as much. But we cling to this truth: God is still working, even in difficult times. He has a plan. Our job is not to figure out the future—it is to be faithful in the present.
©October 4th, 2021 by Rev. Rick Goettsche SERIES: John
Borchert, Gerald L. John 12–21. Vol. 25B. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002.