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Lesson 94: When You Fail The Lord (John 18:12-27)

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May 31, 2015

If you’ve never failed the Lord, you may leave now, because this message has nothing to say to you. But for the rest of us, I trust that it will be helpful and encouraging. The truth is, whether by un-Christlike words or behavior, we’ve all joined Peter in saying, “I am not a disciple of Jesus Christ.” When it comes to opportunities to speak boldly for Christ, I feel like I fail more often than I succeed. Usually about an hour after the opportunity has passed, it dawns on my slow brain what I should have said! If you can relate to such failures or even if you’ve failed more seriously in a way that has disgraced the name of Christ, the account of Peter’s failure should be of help.

John weaves the story together with the arrest and trial of Jesus before the high priest, Annas, in a way that contrasts the faithful, calm, courage of Christ with the cowardly compromise of Peter, along with the awful sinfulness of the Jewish leaders. (Harmonizing the different gospel accounts of Peter’s denials is not easy, but I can’t deal with that here. See John MacArthur, One Perfect Life [Thomas Nelson], pp. 437-444, for a suggested harmonization.) The overall effect of John’s account is to show the glory of Christ in contrast to the sinfulness of human hearts.

Historical background: To understand the account of Jesus’ trials, we need some historical background. There were two trials: one before the Jewish religious authorities and the other before the Roman civil authorities. Both trials had three phases and both were filled with illegalities. The Jewish trial began with an initial arraignment before Annas, who tried unsuccessfully to get Jesus to incriminate Himself. He then sent Jesus to Caiaphas, who illegally in the middle of the night brought false witnesses who contradicted one another (Matt. 26:57-68). In desperation, Caiaphas intervened and got Jesus to state openly that He was the Christ, the Son of God, resulting in the Jewish leaders declaring Him guilty of blasphemy (Matt. 26:63-66). Then in the early morning, Jesus stood before the full Sanhedrin, which formally condemned Him to death (Matt. 27:1-2). (John 18:24 is John’s only reference to the second and third Jewish phase of the trial.)

Since the Jews did not have the right of capital punishment, they had to get the Roman authorities to convict Jesus on charges of insurrection. So they sent Him to Pilate (John 18:28-38a). When Pilate heard that Jesus was a Galilean, he sent Him to Herod, the Tetrarch over Galilee, who was in Jerusalem at the time (Luke 23:6-12). Jesus remained silent before Herod, who sent Him back to Pilate for the final verdict (John 18:38b-19:16). Although Pilate found Jesus to be innocent and tried to find a way to release Him, he finally capitulated to the pressure of the Jewish mob and handed Jesus over to be crucified. Both trials were a mockery of justice.

Annas was high priest from AD 6-15. Pilate’s predecessor had deposed him, but after him five of his sons, plus Caiaphas, his son-in-law, had held that office. Caiaphas was high priest from AD 18-36, which included “that year” (John 18:13), the year of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Both Annas and Caiaphas were referred to as “high priest,” much like our former president is still addressed as President even though his term has expired.

Since the Jews did not accept Roman rule over Israel’s religious matters and since the office of high priest was supposed to be for life, Annas was still the most politically and religiously influential man in Jerusalem. As a Sadducee, he was the equivalent of modern religious liberals, denying what Scripture plainly teaches. The Sadducees did not believe in angels or spirits or in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8). So the office was more political than spiritual.

Annas controlled the lucrative business that went on in the temple. When pilgrims came to Jerusalem for the three annual feasts, they had to offer sacrifices which were approved by the high priest’s officers. If you brought your own animal and it was rejected, you would have to buy officially approved animals at a marked up cost. So rather than go through all that hassle, it was just easier to buy your sacrificial animal there.

Also, if you came with Roman or other foreign currency, you had to have it changed into temple currency, at an exchange rate that made a nice profit for the money-changers, who paid a percentage to the high priest. Since there were usually hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem for the feasts, the high priests were getting fabulously wealthy through the temple business. So when on two occasions this radical upstart prophet from Galilee upset the vendors’ tables in the temple and drove them out, it didn’t sit well with Annas and his conniving son-in-law, Caiaphas!

They were not seeking to learn the truth about Jesus, as John 18:14 reminds us: “Now Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people.” This refers back to John 11:49-53. After Jesus raised Lazarus, the Jewish leaders were concerned that many would believe in Jesus, resulting in the Romans taking away the Jewish nation. Caiaphas interjected that it was expedient that one man (Jesus) die for the nation so that it would be spared (John 11:49b-50). John (11:51) explained, “Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation.” So Caiaphas was an unwitting prophet!

But both he and his father-in-law hated Jesus and wanted to find a way to kill Him because He threatened their power and financial interests. But at the same time, because of Jesus’ overall popularity, they feared a riot among the people. So they had to be careful about how they got rid of Him.

There is one other historical note before we look at how the story applies to all of us who have failed our Lord. In verse 12 and again in verse 24, John notes that they bound Jesus. This was probably customary with prisoners, but there is irony in this when you consider that moments before in the garden, Jesus had just spoken a word and with a flash of His glory knocked to the ground more than a hundred fully armed soldiers! To get up and bind Jesus after this dramatic encounter shows the spiritual blindness of those who are held captive by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4), as well as the glory of Christ. John Calvin put it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 197), “The body of the Son of God was bound, that our souls might be loosed from the cords of sin and of Satan.”

Also, just before Abraham intended to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in obedience to God, he first bound him before putting him on the altar (Gen. 22:9), which was a type of Christ. Psalm 118:27 states, “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” Just as the Jews would bring their sacrifices to the priest, so Jesus was led to the high priest, who inadvertently would bind and kill Him on behalf of the nation, and (John 11:52), “not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” With that historical background, let’s look at the spiritual lessons for us:

Even when you fail the Lord, you can trust in the faithful Savior, who never fails.

John interweaves Jesus’ calm, faithful witness with Peter’s failed witness. One commentator put it (Brown, cited by D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Apollos/Eerdmans], pp. 585-586), “Jesus stands up to his questioners and denies nothing, while Peter cowers before his questioners and denies everything.” Another (Stibbe, cited by Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], p. 519) notes that Jesus’ twice-repeated self-identification in the garden, “I am,” contrasts with Peter’s twice-repeated denial, “I am not” (John 18:5, 8, 17, 25). But Peter is not alone in denying Christ!

1. We all have failed the Lord.

Our failures may not be as dramatic or as well-known as Peter’s failure, but whether by our words or our actions, we’ve all denied Christ as our Savior and Lord. If Peter, the leader of apostles (Matt. 10:2-4 & parallels), who obviously was a committed, loyal follower of Jesus, failed by denying Christ three times, then we are not immune! “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12)! We can trace four steps that led to Peter’s failure, which are often involved in our spiritual failures:

A. We fail to understand God’s ways, which are not our ways.

Peter could not wrap his mind around the concept of a Messiah who would suffer and die. After Peter’s God-inspired confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16), Jesus began to explain to the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. But Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him for saying such a thing, which caused Jesus strongly to rebuke Peter (Matt. 16:23), “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Although Jesus several times repeated the same message about His impending death, the disciples just could not conceive of such a thing. They envisioned the Messiah as one who would conquer Rome and rule over Israel on the throne of David (Psalm 2). But they could not picture the Messiah as a lamb who would die for our sins (Isaiah 53).

It was that persistent failure to understand God’s way of the cross that prompted Peter to draw his sword and attempt to defend Jesus in the garden. He probably felt hurt and confused when the Lord rebuked him and then meekly submitted to arrest. In that state of confusion, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings, Peter was off guard for Satan’s subtle attack through a servant girl’s question.

When you think that God has to work in a certain way, but He doesn’t conform to your expectations, you are spiritually vulnerable. Maybe you’ve prayed fervently for something, but it didn’t happen in line with your prayers. Look out! It’s easy in your disappointment, confusion, and hurt to succumb to temptation! When we dictate our plan to God rather than submit to His plan, we’re setting ourselves up for spiritual failure.

B. We fail to recognize our own weakness, so that we trust in ourselves, not in the Lord.

When Jesus warned Peter of Satan’s demand to sift him like wheat, Peter protested that he was ready to go to prison and death for Christ’s sake (Luke 22:31-33; John 13:37). He put himself above the other disciples by protesting (Matt. 26:33), “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.”

Trusting in your own commitment and devotion to the Lord is a sure way to fail Him! Pride goes before a fall (Prov. 16:18), but when we are weak (and know it!), then we are strong (2 Cor. 12:10), because then we trust in the Lord and His strength.

It was probably Peter’s lack of awareness of his own weakness that drew him into the snare that Satan had set for him. We don’t know who the other disciple was (John 18:15-16), who was allowed into the high priest’s house and who arranged for Peter to come in. I tend to think it was John, although others disagree; but the focus is not on him, but on Peter. As soon as he walked through the entrance, the slave-girl who kept the door said to Peter (John 18:17), “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Peter was immediately caught off guard and replied, “I am not.” Perhaps at this point he was mentally kicking himself for his failure, but he may have justified himself by thinking, “She’s only a slave girl. What difference does it make?”

But next we find him warming himself by the fire along with the slaves and officers of the temple guard. These were not aggressive enemies of Christ, out for His blood. They were just employees, doing their job. They were probably more concerned about getting a raise in their wages or other trivial news than they were about the death of this Galilean preacher (Charles Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 56:38). But their indifference to the most important spiritual event in the history of the universe while they warmed themselves by the fire was a subtle danger that Peter didn’t detect. In the course of their small talk, one looked at Peter and said (John 18:25), “You are not also one of His disciples, are you?” Peter denied it and said, “I am not.”

Be on guard when you’re around worldly people! Keep your purpose in mind: You’re not there to warm yourself by their fires and banter with them. You’re there as a witness. If you’re not careful, at an unguarded moment, it’s easy to deny your Savior.

C. We fail to recognize the spiritual battle that we’re engaged in and so fail to pray as we should.

Peter didn’t understand that Satan was out to get him and that this hour belonged to the power of darkness. Thus he failed to pray at that crucial time in the garden (Luke 22:31, 46, 53). This caused him to react to Jesus’ arrest by swinging his sword, rather than with weapons for spiritual warfare. Then he blindly wandered into the path of temptation in the courtyard of the high priest’s house.

So often, like Peter, we react to difficult situations from the physical or human perspective, rather than realizing that we’re in a spiritual battle with the unseen forces of wickedness in heavenly places (Eph. 6:11-12). Someone says something against you at work and you react in anger by putting him down or getting back at him. By not praying and seeing it as a spiritual attack, you missed the opportunity to bear witness for Christ!

D. We fail to fear God more than we fear people

The fear of man was behind Peter’s third denial (John 18:26), “One of the slaves of the high priest, being a relative of the one whose ear Peter cut off, said, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with Him?’” Peter panicked! This guy could get Peter in big trouble for what he had done in the garden! So Peter denied Christ again. Then the rooster crowed to remind Peter of Christ’s words! Luke (22:61-62) tells us that at that moment, the Lord turned and looked at Peter. That look pierced Peter’s heart! I’m sure that he never forgot it. He went out and wept bitterly.

To some extent, we all want the approval of others. But when we worry about what others think, our focus is wrong and we forget the most important thing: what does God think? Our aim should be to please Him. Proverbs 29:25 warns, “The fear of man brings a snare, but he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted.”

In Matthew 10:33, Jesus warned, “Whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Those are scary words, but thankfully, we see Peter restored at the end of John and then used greatly for the Lord in the Book of Acts. So if you have denied Christ by your words or actions (and we all have!), there is grace if you repent and trust in Christ.

2. We always can trust in our faithful Savior, who never fails.

It’s interesting that the Greek word used for the charcoal fire (John 18:18) is only used one other time in the New Testament, in John 21:9, where the risen Jesus had kindled a charcoal fire to cook breakfast for the disciples. At the first fire, Peter denied his Lord. At the second fire, the Lord restored Peter to fellowship and service. If you’ve failed Him at the fire of temptation, He invites you to come to the breakfast fire of fellowship and trust in His grace!

Briefly note how Jesus’ calm courage stood in contrast to Peter’s cowardly compromise on each of the four points:

A. Jesus knew the Father’s plan and submitted to it, even though it was painfully difficult.

Peter failed because he did not understand God’s ways. But Jesus knew that He was sent to this earth to go to the cross. This was the cup that the Father had given Him, and so He courageously faced it (John 18:11). As He said (John 6:38), “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”

B. Jesus always depended on the Father.

Peter failed because he did not recognize his own weakness and thus trusted in his commitment. But as a man, to show us how we should live, Jesus did not trust in Himself, but in the Father. He said (John 5:19), “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” Thus Jesus conquered the enemy.

C. Jesus knew the enemy and wrestled in prayer to gain the victory before the crisis hit.

Peter failed to recognize the spiritual battle and so he failed to pray. But Jesus won the victory in the garden as He overcame the powers of darkness through prayer.

D. Jesus feared God, not man, and bore faithful witness to these sinners.

Peter feared man, not God, and thus failed as a witness. But Jesus feared God, not these in power, and thus bore faithful witness. When Annas asked Jesus about His disciples and His teaching, he wasn’t seeking the truth. Rather, he was illegally trying to get Jesus to incriminate Himself. Under Jewish law, a defendant was not required to testify against himself. Rather, other witnesses were called to testify. So Jesus’ reply (John 18:20-21) was a rebuke, exposing Annas’ illegal approach. Christ in effect says, “If you were really interested in My teaching, you’ve had plenty of opportunity to hear it. But you’re proceeding illegally by not calling witnesses. You’ve already prejudged My case.”

The officer standing near Jesus recognized this as a rebuke. Trying to ingratiate himself with his boss, he illegally hit Jesus in the face. Needless to say, he was siding with the wrong boss! But Jesus didn’t retaliate. Rather, He calmly replied (John 18:23), “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?” Christ’s fearless witness to these hypocrites was aimed at convicting them of their sin, without which they would not see their need for the Savior.

The measure of effective witness is not whether it produces converts, but rather that it is faithful to God. As far as we know, neither Annas nor the one who hit Jesus in the face ever repented (see Acts 4:5-22). But Christ bore faithful witness to them and they will have no excuse on judgment day. Because Jesus was faithful and He never fails, we can trust Him when we bear witness in this hostile world.


There is no guarantee that if we bear faithful witness, God will protect us. Jesus was faithful, but died a horrible death. The Lord tells the church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:10), “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” When we bear witness for Christ, we must remember that unconverted people are hardened in their sin. Only God can break through to bring the light of the gospel into their darkness (2 Cor. 4:4-6).

Unlike this conniving, self-serving high priest, Annas, Jesus is a faithful High Priest who sacrificed Himself willingly for His sheep. Know that when you fail, you can draw near to Him to find grace to help in your time of need.

In addition to Peter and Jesus, there is a third group in this story, namely, those who put Jesus on trial. Unlike Peter, they did not believe in Christ at all. They thought that they were putting Him on trial; but really they were the ones on trial, because when you encounter Jesus, you’re the one on trial. The question you must answer is the one Pilate asked the Jews (Matt. 27:22), “What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” Their tragic answer was, “Crucify Him!” Will you prejudge Him and reject Him as Annas did because He threatens your comfortable way of life? Or will you bow before Him as your Lord and Savior?

Application Questions

  1. When have you been most prone to fail the Lord? How can you prepare for the next time so as not to fail again?
  2. How can believers mingle with unbelievers without being wrongly influenced by their worldly behavior (1 Cor. 15:33)?
  3. If you have disgraced the name of Christ in front of unbelievers, what should you do or say to try to correct it?
  4. How can you know whether your failure was like Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial of Christ? What was the difference?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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