The first part of the 18th chapter of John tells how the disciple Judas led the Roman soldiers to Jesus while He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. This was the night before the crucifixion. The disciples had fallen asleep. The Roman soldiers and the Jewish Temple-guards came and arrested Jesus, bound Him, and brought Him to Annas (the older high priest) for a hearing. At that point all the disciples awakened (with all the commotion) and they forsook Jesus and fled (see Matthew 26:56 and Mark 14:50).
When the Gospel accounts are compared, we learn that there were two trials of Jesus—the ecclesiastical (Jewish) trial, and the civil (Roman) trial. The ecclesiastical trial involved hearings before Annas (John 18:13), Caiaphas (John 18:24), and the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66). The civil trial involved hearings before Pilate (Luke 23:1-5), Herod (Luke 23:6-12), and a second hearing before Pilate (Luke 23: 13-25). Our lesson in this article deals just with the early hearings before Annas and Caiaphas. This message is a study of John 18:15-27.
The Gospels make no effort to hide the weak side of Peter’s character. In our lesson today, Simon Peter denies the Lord Jesus, and yet two months later, he preaches the sermon at Pentecost. The strong leader which Peter becomes in the Book of Acts is a powerful testimony to the transforming grace of God in his life.
1. The High Priest’s Palace (John 18:15-16)
Because the office of high priest was for life, an older Jewish priest (named Annas) was still the official high priest in the eyes of the Jews, even though the Romans had appointed another high priest (Caiaphas). Thus Annas still carried much weight among the Jewish Supreme Court (known as the Sanhedrin), and so Jesus was taken first to Annas.
In verse 15 we read that Peter followed Jesus and so did another disciple who was known to the high priest. They went into the courtyard of the high priest. Matthew 26:56 says that when Jesus was bound and arrested (in the Garden of Gethsemane), the disciples forsook Jesus and fled, but after the initial panic, Peter and John must have mustered up enough courage to follow the soldiers to the high priest’s palace. Even though Peter denied Jesus, let it be said to his credit that at least he “followed” Jesus. To have tried and failed, is much better than not to have tried at all!
The “other disciple” was John. The phrase “so did another disciple” is simply John’s modest way of speaking of himself. He was known to the high priest, and identified himself to the girl at the gate, and thus was able to get into the courtyard. Peter was left on the outside. (John’s father, Zebedee, was a wealthy fisherman who may very well have sold fish to the household of the high priest for many years, and John may have helped to deliver the fish. At any rate John was known to the high priest).
In verse 16, we learn that Peter was outside the gate of the courtyard, but because of John’s connections, he was able also to get inside the courtyard of the high priest’s home. (The King James Version’s use of the word “palace” refers to a compound of several buildings, surrounded by four walls with a main gate—and an open area in among the buildings. The courtyard was the large open area surrounding the buildings and enclosed by walls.)
2. The First Denial by Peter (John 18:17-18)
We are not told where John went after he brought Peter into the courtyard area. He likely went across the courtyard to the room where Jesus’ hearing was being held, leaving Peter alone with the palace servants.
We can only guess what caused the gatekeeper to question Peter. Maybe his facial expressions gave him away. Maybe his associating with John (who was known to be a disciple of Jesus) aroused her suspicions. No doubt Peter was somewhat nervous and edgy. At any rate, the girl approached Peter, looked at him closely, and asked if he were not one of Jesus’ disciples. Verse 17 says that when Peter was asked if he was one of Jesus’ disciples, he said, “I am not.”
A mere servant girl said to Peter, “Art not thou also one of this man’s disciples?” And that simple question was enough to topple Peter! The grammatical structure of the girl’s question is stated in such a way as to expect a negative answer. The question more literally reads, “You are not one of His disciples are you?” Satan nearly always tries to make it easy for us to sin. The question was asked in such a way that it was easy for Peter to say “no.”
The question caught Peter off guard. He was unprepared for the challenge—and not only did he deny Jesus, but he also told a lie in doing so. Satan still uses this tactic. He knows that the mature Christian—if he is prepared—can often resist the devil, if he has his defenses set. And so Satan attacks at a time and place when the Lord’s follower least expects it.
Verse 18 tells how the servants and officers had made a fire and warmed themselves. Peter stood with them and warmed himself too.
The night had become chilly. It was springtime. Jerusalem is one-half mile above sea level. The climate is cool in spring and fall. Some accuse Peter of error in standing with the Lord’s enemies. They say he should not have been warming himself at the enemies’ fire. But it was really all right for Peter to associate with the other people who were standing in the courtyard. We are not to isolate ourselves from the world. It was good that Peter did not stand in a corner by himself and shiver in the cold. But he should have borne a clear witness concerning Christ right there in the midst of our Lord’s enemies. The problem was not that he was standing in among other people, but that he was silent about who Jesus was.
3. The Examination by Annas (John 18:19-24)
While Peter was warming himself at the fire which the soldiers and high priest’s servants had made, Jesus was in a room next to the courtyard, being questioned by the older high priest. The focus of John 18:19-24 is on Jesus, not on Peter.
Verse 19 explains that Annas questioned Jesus about His disciples and also about His beliefs and teachings. John does not record the charges and countercharges which are described in more detail in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John only tells about the hearing before Annas. The other Gospel writers tell more about the formal trial before Caiaphas. (It was before Caiaphas, a little bit after the events of John 18, that they accused Jesus of blasphemy [Matthew 26:63-65] for saying that he was the Son of God.)
In John 18, the high priest asked about Jesus’ disciples and His doctrine. Annas wanted to know how many disciples there were, and what kind of threat they may have posed. There were political extremists like the Zealots and the Herodians who dreamed of rebellion against the authority of Rome, and Annas wanted to be sure Jesus was not a dangerous character or a ringleader of some political fanatics.
Annas also wanted to know about His doctrine—the overall nature of Jesus’ teaching. He wanted to trap Jesus into saying something that could be used as evidence against Him, hoping to be able to carry a charge of heresy or blasphemy against Jesus when He appeared before the Sanhedrin.
The answer which Jesus gave is recorded in verse 20. He said, “I spoke openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing.” Jesus simply said that His teachings have been public; anyone could hear what He had to say; nothing was done in secret. And then (in verse 21) Jesus said that if His accusers really wanted to know the truth, they should call for some of the people who had heard Him speak.
The openness of Jesus’ teaching stands in contrast to the secrecy of His enemies’ actions. They were too cowardly to arrest Jesus out in the open—while He was teaching the crowds. They seized Him at night and took Him and tried Him under the cover of darkness.
Verse 22 tells how one of the temple officers slapped Jesus on the face. This, of course, was illegal. It was wrong to hit a person who was not convicted of any crime. This action shows how low the Jewish leaders had fallen. They allowed a prisoner to be physically assaulted for simply answering a question. Can you imagine such a thing happening before the Supreme Court of one of the democratic nations today?
Verse 23 indicates however that Jesus responded with perfect self-control. Jesus did not fly into a rage and hit back, but He did call attention to the unfairness of the act. He said, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if (I have spoken) well, why smitest thou me?”
The reaction of Jesus (to this slap on the face) should be a pattern for us. He did not retaliate physically, nor did He use abusive words (Compare 1 Peter 2:21-23). Notice two observations:
In Acts 23:1-3, Paul had been brought before the Sanhedrin, and on this occasion he also was slapped on the mouth. Paul responded by saying, “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall,” and then gave those who stood by a lecture on hitting a person contrary to the laws of the land. Paul did later apologize (Acts 23:5), but still it is clear that Paul had responded in anger. Paul was a human being, and in an unguarded moment, he responded in anger. (Jesus, by way of contrast, in John 18:23, did not retaliate, nor did He use abusive words.)
In John 18:23, it is noteworthy that Jesus did not literally “turn the other cheek.” Jesus’ action here is a commentary on what He meant in Matthew 5:39 when He said, “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Jesus (in John 18) did not actually turn the other cheek. Jesus did not retaliate, but He did call attention to the injustice of the act. (In Matthew 5:39 Jesus was using a metaphor to say that when we are abused we should not retaliate. We are not to return evil for evil. We are to accept mistreatment without physical abuse. But we may protest injustice like Jesus did here. If we let people do evil without protest, we may encourage them to take advantage of others, yet we must always accept mistreatment without hitting back.)
After the incident described in verse 23, Jesus was sent to Caiaphas, the younger high priest. Caiaphas was a son-in-law of Annas, and was the current duly appointed high priest. Caiaphas and Annas most likely occupied different apartments around the common courtyard, all of which was the residence of the high priest. John does not describe the trial before Caiaphas. For a description of this hearing, we must study Matthew 26:57-68 and Mark 14:53-65.
4. The Further Denials by Peter (John 18:25-27)
As Jesus’ trial progressed from Annas to Caiaphas (and then on to the Sanhedrin), Peter continued to warm himself nervously by the fire. Twice again Peter was questioned about his relationship with Jesus. And again Peter denied any knowledge of Jesus.
Verse 25 describes the time when Peter had been asked, “Art not thou also one of his disciples? He denied it, and said, I am not.” This time another girl (likely accompanied by a male servant) questioned Peter about his association with Jesus. (The text says “they” said to him . . . the girl likely questioned Peter the second time, and then the young man posed the third question. Matthew 26:71 says that “another maid” was doing the questioning, and Luke 22:60 indicates that Peter responded to a male). And Mark’s account indicates that one of the questioners referred to the Galilean accent of Peter’s speech. At any rate, once again Peter denied any association with Jesus.
In verse 26, John adds an interesting detail. One of the questioners was a relative of Malchus, the man whose ear Peter had cut off a few hours before. It was that relative who had posed the final accusing finger at Peter. This man was in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested, and he remembered Peter! And once again Peter was caught off guard. Peter surely didn’t expect to be confronted by a relative of Malchus! This time Peter was really scared. He was fearful that he might be singled out and punished for his violence back in Gethsemane. And so to make his denial even more emphatic, he denied this third time with an oath. Matthew and Mark both say that he cursed and swore (Matthew 26:74; Mark 14:71) that he did not know Jesus.
Jesus had predicted that Peter would deny Him three times. He said, “Verily, I say unto thee, the cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice” (John 13:36-38). And now the curse words were scarcely out of Peter’s mouth before the rooster crowed. The rooster’s crow in those early morning hours (3 A.M.) reminded Peter of the earlier words of Jesus. Also, Luke 22:61 says that—at that moment—Jesus turned and looked at Peter (perhaps through an open doorway).
Peter had reverted to his old habit of swearing, but now he withered under the look of Jesus, and suddenly he realized what he had done. He staggered out into the night, and wept bitterly (Luke 22:62). Peter’s conscience was tender enough to make him weep. He genuinely repented, and was greatly used of God less than eight weeks later to preach the great sermon on Pentecost.
Simon Peter does not stand alone in his denials of Jesus! All of us are surrounded with subtle suggestions to deny the Lord. The experience of Peter needs to be a reminder for us—a lesson to teach us the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.” All of us, no matter how firmly we think we are standing, need to be careful that we do not fall.
We can deny Jesus in a number of ways. Remember that Peter was not walking in rebellion against Jesus; he was simply cowardly before some accusing men and women. We can deny Jesus:
- When we consent to a dishonest business deal.
- When we fail to stand for what is right and good.
- When an opportunity to discuss a religious and moral issue comes up and we say nothing.
- We stand up for Jesus:
- When we decline to participate in obscene talk.
- When we dress modestly and with simplicity.
- When we reserve the Lord’s Day for worship and rest.
- When we help people who have special needs.
- When we refuse to retaliate when someone mistreats us.
- When we do not get angry if someone crosses our path.
To be victorious over the enemy—and he tempts us constantly to deny Him—we must continually seek to be alert. We must put on the whole armor of God (described in Ephesians 6), and use the armor which God has provided. We must have a confident faith to believe that the ridicule of the world now, is nothing compared to the displeasure of God in the Day of Judgment. The words of the old hymn should be a challenge to each one of us:
“When the foes of God arise, who his blest commands despise,
Do you boldly stand for Jesus and the right?
Are you found within his field, there his mighty sword to wield,
Clad in armor that is ever shining bright?
Oh be faithful, oh be true, to the One who died for you;
By and by comes sweet reward, that shall last while blissful ages roll away.”
—Harriet E. Jones
There is one final observation which every reader will do well to note. Peter’s denials came when he was alone—separated from the other disciples. He had been with John when he entered the courtyard, but he had become separated from John, and stood alone with the Lord’s enemies. The devil knows that we are usually weaker when we try to go it alone. Thus Jesus sent out His disciples two by two. The Bible encourages assembling together. We all need the support of fellow Christians. No Christian should ever come to the conclusion that he can get along without the church—without the fellowship of other Christian people.
We all need to be identified with a body of Christians seeking to be loyal to the Lord and to His Word. God’s people assemble (Hebrews 10:25) to pray together, to strive together, to sing together, to work together, and to worship together. When we see the zeal of our fellow-Christians and share in their trials and rejoice in their joys, it gives us new courage and new devotion for serving the Lord even in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.