Monday, October 26, 2015

And Can It Be? (John 18:38-40)

I want to introduce you to a man named Barabbas. He is only mentioned in one verse of John’s Gospel, here in verse 40, where his name occurs twice. Don’t let this fact mislead you, however, into thinking that he is an insignificant character. In fact, he is so significant that he is mentioned by name a total of eleven times in all four Gospels. When we combine the information that we have about him in the four Gospels, we learn more about Barabbas than we know even about some of the Lord’s twelve disciples. But why is the story of Barabbas so significant that it garners this kind of attention from the Gospel writers? It is because Barabbas’s story is our own story. In Barabbas, we find a picture of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

As I examine the story of Barabbas unfolded for us in the New Testament, I am reminded of the words of one of the greatest hymns ever written: Charles Wesley’s “And Can it Be.” Often described as Wesley’s “conversion hymn,” no hymn more vividly portrays the miracle of salvation from sin through faith in Jesus Christ than this one does. I cannot sing it without thinking of the wonders of God’s grace in my own conversion experience. I have a similar experience when I consider this man Barabbas. So, as we look at the Biblical account of Barabbas, I want to do so through the lens of Wesley’s hymn, and lead us to discover together the miracle of redemption and regeneration in Jesus Christ. This miracle has happened to all who trust in Christ, and can happen to whosoever will!

I. Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night.

These are the words that Charles Wesley used (in the third verse of the hymn as we now know it) to describe his life before he came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He viewed himself as a prisoner to sin and darkness. Those words are true in a spiritually metaphorical way for all of us in our natural condition. We are born enslaved and imprisoned to sin. Many will protest this and insist that they are “good people.” Indeed, even Charles Wesley could have said this about himself. He was raised in a Christian home as the son of a minister and a godly mother. During his college years, along with his brother John and some of their friends, Charles was part of a group known as the “Holy Club” because of their rigorous devotion to spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, and practical holiness. In 1735, he was ordained to the ministry of the Church of England and set sail for the colony of Georgia where he became missionary chaplain. His stint in the colony lasted just less than a year, and he never found acceptance among the settlers. In 1736, he returned home to England feeling as if the entire venture had been a disaster. In a few short years, Wesley would come to understand that in spite of all of his good deeds and service in the name of Christ, he did not really know Christ. He had never been truly born again, and so he speaks of himself in this hymn as being long imprisoned, bound in sin and nature’s night.

What was true in a spiritually metaphorical sense of Wesley was true in an altogether literal sense for Barabbas. In our text in John’s Gospel, we read that he was a robber. The Greek word here translated as “robber” literally means “one who seizes plunder.” The word, however, was often used in the first century to mean far more than this. It could denote someone who had taken part in a rebellion. Mark tells us that Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder, and Luke tells us that Barabbas had been a participant in these crimes (Mk 15:7; Lk 23:19). He must have made quite a name for himself in the act, for Matthew tells us that he was “a notorious prisoner” (Mt 27:16). It is not certain which insurrection effort Barabbas had taken part in, for during the time that Judea was under the control of the Roman Empire there had been many failed attempts. From the perspective of a nationalistic Jew, he would have been known as a guerilla freedom-fighter. From the perspective of the Roman Empire, he would have been rightly regarded as a terrorist. His guilt was evident to all, even to himself. His sentence was imprisonment to what we could call “death row.” We may infer that he was scheduled to be executed by crucifixion on the following day, for the criminals who were executed alongside of Jesus are called by this same title (Mt 27:44; Mk 15:27). The sentence was well-deserved, and he knew it. We do not know how long he had languished in his shackles awaiting the day, but he could say as well as Wesley, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night.”

My friends, the same could be said by us all. Barabbas and Charles Wesley may well represent two extremes of mankind in his natural condition. One was a notorious murdering rebel; the other a deeply pious and religious man. Yet, what they had in common with each other and will all of the rest of us is their need to be saved. No matter how good or bad you are – a member of the Holy Club, or a terrorist, or something in between – we are all sinners. The Bible says that this is true of every human being and our personal experiences in life confirm it. We are born in a state of rebellion to God, insurrectionists who seek to overthrow His right to reign as Lord of our lives. And we are all worse than we imagine ourselves to be. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28). He said that anger toward another was of equal guilt before God as murder (5:21-22). James 2:10 says that whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point has become guilty of violating the whole law. That means that when we stand before God, in our natural condition, we stand on level ground with Charles Wesley and with Barabbas. No matter how good or bad we think we are, we are all equally guilty sinners before the bar of judgment. We are rebels, with all manner of evil in our hearts, spiritual terrorists, imprisoned in sin and deserving of death and separation from God. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, not even one,” and in 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That was true of Barabbas; it was true of Charles Wesley, and it is true of you and me in our natural born condition.

This brings us to the second consideration …

II. He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace.

With these words, in the second stanza of Wesley’s hymn, the divine origin of the Lord Jesus Christ is set forth. From His infinite treasure of love and mercy, in the free grace of unmerited kindness toward the human race, He came forth from heaven to earth. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God became a man. He came to do what no man in all the history of creation, from Adam and including him to the present day, has ever been able to do. He lived a life completely free of the guilt of sin. Not only was He totally free from all sin, but He was completely, and perfectly righteous. That is, He not only never did wrong; He always and only did what was right, what was pleasing to God the Father and in perfect accordance with His will.

In the exercise of His earthly life and ministry, Jesus confronted evil wherever it was found. And in first century Judea, a dark heart of evil lay covered by the external piety of the Jewish religious leaders. He called them out as hypocrites, as thieves, and as spiritually blind guides who were not only ignorant of God’s truth, but also inventors of evil under the guise of religiosity. Under the pretense of righteousness, they tried to brand Him as a blasphemer because He claimed equality with God. To be sure, when one claims equality with God, it is the highest form of blasphemy – unless, of course, the claim is true. And Jesus had proven the truth of His claims by His many miracles and His teaching which set forth the heart of God and the true meaning of God’s Word. Never able to outmaneuver Him with Scripture or logic, the religious authorities had one final recourse to silence Jesus, and that was to put Him to death. This they could not do without Pilate’s ruling. Knowing that Pilate would not be willing to intervene in debates about Jewish religion, they manufactured charges against Jesus that would portray Him as an insurrectionist – a threat to Roman authority, stability, and peace in the land.

Pilate examined Jesus thoroughly. John only records a portion of the exchange, but the other Gospels contain more information. Luke records that Pilate even shipped Jesus off to Herod Antipas in an attempt to recuse himself from the responsibility of rendering a verdict. As tetrarch of Galilee, Herod was the senior Jewish political official in the land. This maneuver backfired as Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate. The decision had to be made. And Pilate ultimately made a decision and announced it to the crowd: “I find no guilt in Him.” In Luke 23, the statement is fuller: “I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. … and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him.” Thus we must all conclude if we consider the full truth about Jesus.

Throughout the Bible there is a link between sin and death. In Genesis 2, God commanded that Adam must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, saying, “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” In Romans 5, Paul says that sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and “death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” In Romans 6:23, it is stated as succinctly as possible: “The wages of sin is death.” And Pilate’s testimony of Jesus is as true a statement as any man ever made: “I find no guilt in Him.”

Jesus was not guilty and did not deserve to die. Barabbas was guilty and deserved to die. Barabbas stands guilty and deserving of the sentence of death because of His rebellion against Roman authority. If Barabbas deserves death because of His rebellion against Rome, how much more do we all deserve death because of our sinful rebellion against the God of the universe. Barabbas deserves this. We deserve this. Jesus does not. In the words of Charles Wesley, “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace. Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”

Now we can begin to see more clearly how it is that Barabbas presents us with a picture of redemption, and how his story parallels our own.

III. And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? 

In the hymn’s opening stanza, Wesley speaks of gaining an interest in the blood of Jesus. Writing, as he did, in the middle of the 18th Century, the word “interest” would carry something of the idea of a “benefit.” He is said to have begun writing this hymn within days of his conversion, and the opening line expresses his amazement that the blood which Jesus shed in His death could be of some benefit to him personally. I imagine that the very thought of it would have been just as overwhelming to Barabbas.

Pilate was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he couldn’t knowingly condemn an innocent man. Had he simply announced his verdict and proclaimed the matter settled, he might have gone down in history differently. But, Pilate also had an interest in appeasing the Jewish leaders. His political position depended on his ability to keep a volatile region under control and at rest. So, he seized upon a loophole that he was sure would get him out of the fix. He says in verse 39, “But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover.” His obvious assumption was that the people would see the folly of condemning an innocent man, and so he set the matter before them in this way: “Do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?” How surprised he must have been that the crowd demanded the release of Barabbas instead!

The other Gospels tell us that the chief priests and elders had persuaded, had stirred up, the crowd to ask for Barabbas. They had a twofold reason for persuading the crowd in this direction. Jesus was a threat to them because He spoke the truth. Barabbas was a threat to Rome, having already committed murder in an effort to liberate the nation from Rome’s oppression. The exchange of Barabbas for Jesus was a win-win situation for the religious leaders of Israel. But why did the crowds comply so willingly? As a preacher of a bygone era put it, “The memory of all the gracious words and life-giving actions of Jesus did not subdue the raging passion of their lust; they could neither see with their eyes, nor hear with their ears, nor understood with their hearts. The light that was in them was darkened. … Human power and popular feeling and corporate conscience reached the bottomless abyss of destruction.”[1]

Barabbas, a man who actually did pose a threat to Rome, would be set free, while Jesus, whom Pilate was convinced posed no political threat to Rome, would go to the cross.
Isn’t it striking that the accusation that sent Jesus to the cross was the same one that threatened to send Barabbas there? Barabbas was an insurrectionist, complicit in a murderous, bloody rebellion to overthrow Rome. This is the very same charge that was falsely applied to Jesus – that in claiming to be the Son of God, He was setting Himself up as a deity (in defiant opposition to the Roman Emperor’s claims to deity) and as the true King of Israel (in opposition to Rome’s oppression of Judea). And it was for those charges – charges that were true of Barabbas, but not of Jesus – that Jesus was crucified.

It was a blatant perversion of justice. Proverbs 17:15 says “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” And yet, this travesty of injustice took place under the sovereign oversight of God. Reflecting back on the murder of Jesus, the early church prayed to God in Acts 4, saying, “truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Ac 4:27-28). If the question is how such an injustice could have ever happened among civilized people, the answer is that God willed it! Why would God do such a thing … such a thing that He Himself had declared to be an abomination? It is because in this act of substitution, God Himself was bearing the condemnation of our wickedness in our place, so that we could be set free from our imprisonment from sin and actually made righteous by faith in Him.

You see, Jesus not only took upon Himself the charges that stood against Barabbas, but He took upon Himself the charges that stand against us all. We have gained an interest in the Savior’s blood because He died to take our penalty, that our sins could be condemned in Him as our substitute, and we could be granted a pardon for our sins, and declared righteous. This is how Barabbas’s story becomes our own. Like Barabbas, we are guilty under the curse of condemnation because of our sin. But it was not the whims of the crowd, but the will of Almighty God that His only begotten Son might go to the cross we deserve so that we could be set free. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, it is written that God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Frank Mead gives us a beautiful and imaginative picture of Barabbas.

Barabbas, the brigand, shook his chains. … Tomorrow Roman nails would pierce [his] hands. Barabbas had been caught red-handed at rebellion, and he had to die. His cross was ready. … [But] his door flew open and light streamed in. “Come out … Barabbas; you’re free! Jesus of Nazareth will die in your place.” … They led him to the prison door and turned him loose in the sunny street. He walked off, blinking, afraid to laugh, afraid to cry.[2]

At verse 40 of our text, Barabbas exits the stage of biblical and secular history. Nothing more is known of him. Did he ever comprehend what Jesus had done for him by dying in his place? Only in heaven will we find out. For if he ever did understand it, he will be there. And so will all who receive this pardon that has been made available to us through the substitutionary death of Jesus. But not all will.

Consider the unusual case of George Wilson, who was sentenced to death in 1829 for murder and the robbery of mail trains. In 1830, Wilson was offered a pardon by President Andrew Jackson. For some unfathomable reason, Wilson refused the pardon. The legal wranglings over his right to refuse the pardon eventually came before the Supreme Court of the United States. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in the majority opinion, “A pardon is an act of grace … which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. … A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.”[3] As a result of his refusal of the pardon, Wilson was hanged.

Like George Wilson, many have refused the even greater pardon of the Judge of the Living and the Dead, Jesus Christ. He has satisfied the wages of their sins by receiving in Himself the penalty upon the cross. And yet, when the free offer of grace is extended, they refuse it. Did Barabbas receive the pardon? It is nothing but a matter of historical trivia at this point. But, it is infinitely more important that you decide whether or not you will receive the pardon.

J. C. Ryle said this: “We are pardoned, though guilty, because of what Christ has done for us. We are sinners, yet counted righteous. Christ is righteous, yet counted a sinner. Happy is that man who understands and believes this …, who has laid hold on it by faith for the salvation of his own soul.”[4]

Have you understood and believed that? Charles Wesley did. Wesley understood that all of his righteous deeds were but filthy rags before the Lord, and he, like Barabbas, stood guilty and condemned before Almighty God because of his sin. And on the evening of May 21, 1738, after much consideration of the promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Wesley said, “I gave myself to Christ, assured that I was safe. … I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ. I saw that by faith I stood.”[5] Two days later, he began to compose these words:

And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain – For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou my God, shouldst die for me?

He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite grace –
Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race:
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray – I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my Living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown through Christ my own.

[1] H.R. Reynolds, in H.D.M. Spence, ed., The Pulpit Commentary (Vol. 40; New York: Funk and Wagnalls, nd.), 398.
[2] Frank S. Mead, Who’s Who in the Bible (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1976), 224.
[3] United States v. Wilson, Accessed October 22, 2015.
[4] Quoted in Arno C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of John (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1965), 353.
[5] Accessed October 22, 2015. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

What Shall We Do With Jesus? (John 18:28-38)


In the wake of recent political debates, political zeal is increasing in our nation. Rhetoric is intensifying from the camps of competing candidates. The pressure is on to identify oneself with this one or that one, or to align against this other one. On social media, one’s stance on a particular candidate has the potential to alienate some and infuriate others. But when we reach the end of our lives, it ultimately will not matter one iota which candidates we liked and which ones we didn’t, or which ones we voted for or against. And as important as the issues at stake are for our nation, at this point in the process, remaining undecided is still a viable option. But there are matters on which it is impossible to be indifferent or undecided. We may have to withhold judgment for now on which Republican or Democratic candidate would be the best leader for our nation, but when it comes to what we shall do with Jesus Christ in our lives, the decision must be made. It cannot be ignored, put off, or avoided. He said Himself, “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Mt 12:30). There are infinite and eternal consequences at stake, and there is no middle-ground.

Nowhere in Scripture is this more apparent than here in our text today. Following the informal interrogation before Annas (the man with the real religious authority in Jerusalem), and the more formal arraignment before Caiaphas (the man who held the post of high priest), the Jewish authorities bring Jesus to Pontius Pilate at the Praetorium. This word refers to the headquarters of the Roman government in a subject province. Pilate, as prefect of Judea, was normally headquartered at Caesarea. During religious festivals, such as Passover which was going on at this time, the Roman leadership would migrate to Jerusalem to keep a heavy hand on the surging population of pilgrims at a time of great religious and nationalistic fervor. While in Jerusalem, the Praetorium was likely in the Fortress of Antonia, just steps away from the outer court of the Temple. It was “early,” the text says. They had convened all night long in the adjoining palaces of Annas and Caiaphas, and at first light or just before, they brought Jesus to Pilate. The Romans divided up the night into four “watches.” The third was called “cockcrow” because of the regularity of the roosters crowing between 3 and 6 a.m. At six, dawn’s early light began to break the darkness for the watch which was simply called “early.” This was about the time that the Jewish officials showed up with Jesus at the Praetorium. This was not unusual, for many Roman officials in the ancient world customarily started their workdays before the rising of the sun, and wrapped up official matters by 10 or 11 a.m.

The Jewish authorities viewed this matter as a mere formality – a hoop through which they had to jump in route to a certain verdict. It was to be a slam dunk. Drag Jesus before Pilate on the basis of their trumped up charges against Him, and get Pilate to sign off on the execution order. Pilate was known to be a harsh and cruel man, and they must have assumed that the killing of one more Jew would bring him great pleasure. Perhaps offended by their presumptiveness, paranoid of creating an uprising, or alarmed by a dream that his wife had the night before about Jesus (recorded in Mt 27:19), or for some other equally unexpected reason, Pilate here shows a surprising measure of restraint and unpredictable impartiality. He insists on a fresh hearing in his presence. In what appears to be an uncharacteristic stand for justice, Pilate actually entraps himself in the impossibility of being indifferent to Jesus Christ. He becomes an example to us all that we must ultimately decide to be for Him or against Him. How do we do that? Pilate follows the right course, but ultimately falters in the conclusion. However, his footprints along that course help us come to the place of decision for ourselves. What shall we do with Jesus?

I. We must consider Jesus for ourselves. (vv28-32)

Do you like Indian food? I love Indian food. Now, if you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said that I didn’t. That’s because I’d never had it. I had often heard other people say that they didn’t like Indian food, so I figured I better not try it. I refused a tray of curry chicken on a transatlantic flight once, but other than that, the closest I’d ever come to an Indian meal was watching the dinner scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But after being put in a situation where I had no other choice but to eat Indian food, I realized that all those other people I’d listened to (including Indiana Jones) had led me astray. I had to make a decision for myself, not rest on the decisions of others. Of course it really doesn’t matter whether or not you like Indian food, but it matters a great deal what you decide about Jesus. And you must decide for yourself.

Deciding for yourself means that you will not be persuaded by the baseless claims of others. Notice that Pilate went out to the Jewish authorities and asked, “What accusation do you bring to this man?” Notice their answer: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him to you.” In what conceivable way does this answer Pilate’s question? They had no charges to bring against Jesus, and they knew it! They’d bribed a couple of fellows, according to the other Gospels, to make up some charges, but even their testimonies could not agree (Mk 14:55-59). They’d built a theological case against Jesus because He defied their traditions and personally offended them, but they knew that they didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to persuading Pilate. So they tried to dodge the question.

We will find the same thing in the religious rhetoric of our own day. People speak against Christ and against Christianity with venomous ire, and expect others to mindlessly follow along. Ask them questions before you do. What has Jesus done, or not done, to make you despise Him so? In what way has Jesus failed you? In what way have you definitively disproven His claims? What historical errors have you personally discovered in the Gospel accounts of His life and ministry? Most often, though they may become louder and more animated, they cannot provide actual answers to the questions. Many of them have themselves been persuaded by the baseless claims of a college professor they were intimidated by, a friend they admired, or a family member they respected. They have not considered Jesus for themselves, and they merely want you to follow them in their own folly. Like the Jewish officials before Pilate, they have baseless claims that they cannot substantiate. If you would consider Jesus for yourself, you will not be persuaded by that.   

Deciding for yourself also means that you will not be persuaded by the biased claims of others. The Jewish authorities had a reason to reject Jesus, just not a good one. He had exposed their hypocrisy and their sin through His teachings and His encounters with them and cast a shadow on their reputation, thus threatening their power and influence over the populace. They could not outreason Him, either with holy Scripture or human logic, so their only recourse to silence Him was to kill Him. Jesus knew that this was their intent. He had warned His disciples numerous times in advance that He would be put to death, even alluding to the manner of His death. He spoke of being “lifted up,” which could only refer to the Roman torture of crucifixion. But the Jews could not do this without Pilate, because Roman law deprived conquered peoples of the power of capital punishment. That is why they say, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”

The hypocrisy of these officials is evident here in the text: They are so concerned for their ritual purity that they would not even enter the Praetorium, for entering a Gentile’s residence would defile them. But they think nothing of killing an innocent man, and violating every underlying tenet of the very law they claim to uphold to secure their wishes. Not to mention their hypocritical pandering to Pilate, whom most of them would have despised anyway. He was one of the most hated men in Judea because of his cruel treatment of the people and his repeated defilements of their religious sensitivities and the temple of Jerusalem. But the officials play to him as if he is their best friend in order to gain what they want from him. They need his signature on the death order, so they had to pander to him, even though they hated him. Their bias against Jesus had completely distorted their entire value system beyond what it already was!

We find the same today, do we not? When people lambast Jesus Christ or His followers in the public square, is not often the case that the axe they have to grind relates to His confrontation and condemnation of their pet sins and their hypocrisy? Jesus said in John 3:19, “Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Else the case may be that Christ and His sword-like word has cut against the grain of their treasured beliefs and traditions, and without even considering the possibility that His words are true, they reject Him. They will say, for instance, that Jesus could not have performed the miracles recorded in the Bible because miracles are impossible. Ah, but it is the impossibility of them that make them miraculous. And if such phenomena actually took place in history, then they are not so impossible after all. But rather than investigating the historical authenticity of the reports of Jesus’ mighty works, they write them off by their preconceived bias that supernatural deeds are not possible. If you would consider Jesus for yourself, you will not be persuaded by biased claims.

In Matthew 16, Jesus presented His disciples with two questions. The first was, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The second, and more important one was, “But who do you say that I am?” It ultimately does not matter what others say about Jesus. Their claims may be baseless or biased, who knows? What matters infinitely here and now, and will matter eternally when life ends is what you say about Him for yourself. Each and every human being must consider Christ for himself or herself. In demanding to hear the evidence of the case presented before him, Pilate was off to a good start of doing just that. But he began to stumble when he said, “Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.” He was trying to avoid making a verdict for himself, and when it comes to Jesus, that is a position that is never afforded anyone.

That brings us to the second factor as we answer the question, “What shall we do with Jesus?”

II. We must be seekers of truth. (vv33-37)

Did you ever watch the television show “Columbo”? If you did, you recall that Lieutenant Columbo was a seemingly inept detective who always got his man in the end. The way he did it was by always asking a lot of questions. Eventually, he’d wind around to the right questions and get the answers he was seeking. In academics, a question-and-answer methodology is often referred to as the Socratic method, named for the philosopher Socrates. In Socrates’ day, the sophists were philosophers who used persuasive rhetoric to entertain or impress their hearers into uncritically accepting their views. But Socrates would engage his hearers in a dialogue based on questions and answers. Asking the right questions can be a great means of discovering truth, if we bring those questions to the right source.

Pilate seemed to know that. Unimpressed with the rhetoric of the Jewish authorities, Pilate brought Jesus inside the Praetorium and began to ask Him several very important questions. In verse 33, he asks, “Are You the King of the Jews?” In verse 35, “What have You done?” These are the most important questions that can be asked about Jesus: Who is He? What did He do? But Pilate did not take a popular opinion poll on these matters. He did what we all must do. He brought the questions to Jesus to let Him answer them for Himself.

You will notice in verse 34 that, before answering Pilate, Jesus gets at the motivation for the questions: “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” The difference is significant. Jesus never turned away from anyone who was genuinely seeking truth for themselves. But Jesus also never wasted time or words in engaging in an endless debate with people who were disinterested in truth, or who merely wanted to trap Him with His own words. If Pilate is personally enquiring, then “perhaps Jesus can lead him to better or deeper understanding.”[1] But, if Pilate is merely parroting what others have said, then Jesus knows that the deck is stacked against Him already. It is not that Jesus does not already know the contents of all of our hearts, but in asking the question, He is forcing Pilate, and all of us, to examine the motive of our inquiry.

Here Pilate tries to bob and weave and maintain his slippery posture on the fence. He says in verse 35, “I am not a Jew am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me.” Essentially, Pilate is saying, “Why should I care? I don’t have a dog in this fight.” But this position is impossible to maintain if we are seeking truth. Truth is not something that can be studied with disinterest. Truth calls for an active response. Pilate cannot get off the hook so easily, nor can anyone else. To continue the metaphor, everyone has a dog in this fight!
When Pilate asks his second question, “What have you done?”, Jesus begins to answer both of his questions. He says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” There it is. If He has a kingdom, then He is a king. He never denies it. When Pilate asks again, “So You are a king?”, Jesus says, “You say correctly that I am a king.” But Jesus is clear to explain what His kingship means. He has not come to overthrow Rome or liberate Judea from its tyranny. That would be too small a thing for a King whose kingdom is not of this world. He says, “If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews.” One of them had tried to take up the sword, but Jesus rebuked him and supernaturally healed the one whom he struck. Kings of this world preserve their power by force. Jesus has no need to do that. His kingdom is not of this world. It is neither established nor defended by force. His jurisdiction is universal, His authority is anchored in heaven, and His mission is not to liberate one corrupt nation from another. It is to liberate the entire human race from the tyranny of Satan and enslavement to sin.

How does this King accomplish this? He says, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.” His Kingdom is established, advanced, and defended by the power of His word. Those who hear His word and believe become citizens of His kingdom, and are delivered from the powers of evil at work in this world. John will say in his First Epistle (5:4) that those who are born of God by faith overcome this world by the victory of Christ. Thus, Jesus says, “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

Understand the weightiness of this radical claim. Jesus is here saying that He was born to be a King, but not of this world; a King of a wholly other realm that knows no borders or boundaries. And this King claims that He has come into the world to reveal the truth of God. He claims to be the complete revelation of who God is, and that apart from Him, there is no truth to be known about God. In John 14:6, He said that He is the truth. These radical claims knock everyone off the fence. As C. S. Lewis famously said, the one thing we must never say about Jesus is that He was merely a great moral teacher. Lewis said,

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic … or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit and Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.[2]

And this brings us to the final issue as we answer the question, “What shall we do with Jesus?”

III. We must follow truth wherever it leads us. (v38)

In that climactic courtroom scene in the movie “A Few Good Men,” when Tom Cruise exclaims to Jack Nicholson on the stand, “I want the truth!”, Nicholson boldly retorts, “You can’t handle the truth!” But this isn’t the movies, this is real life in the real world. If you are going to seek truth, and you must, then you have to ask yourself if you can handle the truth and where it leads you.

Truth will lead us to an inevitable decision. Once truth is discovered, we have to decide to receive it or reject it. We can no longer remain indifferent. And nowhere is this more vital than in the case of what we shall do with Jesus. Pilate has asked gone directly to the right source, and he has asked the right questions, and received the right answers. But still he tries to sit the fence. He says abruptly, “What is truth?”, and leaves the room. Carson says that his question comes “either because he is convinced there is no answer, or … because he does not want to hear it.”[3] And in this way, we see in Pilate an almost prophetic image of our contemporary culture. The worldview of postmodernism that has dominated our society for the last half-century is built upon the presupposition that all truth is relative, and that there is no such thing as an absolute truth – truth with a capital “T” that is true for all men at all times and places. People will say, “That may be true for you, but it is not for me.” With truth being relative, every person can decide for himself or herself what is right and what is wrong, and if you choose to judge my standards by your own, then I can label you with that most heinous placard: “You are INTOLERANT!” It is utterly impossible to build our lives on this kind of shifting foundation. Do you understand that even the claim that “there is no absolute truth,” is itself an absolute truth claim? The claim that there are no standards of morality is itself a standard of morality, and the person who tries to thrust that standard upon another is no different from one who says that, say, the Ten Commandments are the standard of morality. It is impossible to deny for long in the real world that there are standards and absolutes. Truth with a capital “T” is unavoidable and impossible to ignore.

But perhaps, as Carson suggests, Pilate’s question actually reveals that he is unwilling to hear the truth. The fact is that we all have an innate knowledge of truth and right and wrong. If you don’t believe that, consider how you would respond if someone were to steal something that belongs to you. You would say, “That’s not right!” The thief may say, “Sure it is. I can do anything I want.” And you may say, “That’s not true.” And the thief could merely say, “It may not be true for you, but it is for me.” And you might then say, “That’s not fair!” And immediately you find yourself caught in a trap of trying to simultaneously affirm and deny the very same standards. Could it be that we have spent much of our lives trying to avoid the responsibility that the truth of God brings to bear upon our souls? The Apostle Paul, in Romans 1, speaks of people who know the truth but who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. When the truth speaks harsh words to us about our sin or our unbelief, we have a decision to make: reject our sin and unbelief, or reject the plain truth. Like Pilate, you can try to dismiss this notion of truth, but soon you will be hung on your own noose. Dismissing truth does not make it go away, nor does it exempt us from our accountability to it. If we are committed to seeking truth, we must follow it all the way to the inevitable decision to accept it, surrender to it, and conform our lives to it; or else continue to live in rebellion to it. And if the truth is found in Jesus Christ, then life, death, heaven and hell are at stake in the decision. To not decide is to decide, and the decision may well be eternally disastrous.

This, therefore, means that the pursuit of truth will not only lead us to an inevitable decision, but it may well lead us to an unpopular position. Pilate had all the information to make the right decision, and he almost did. He went out on his portico and announced his verdict: “I find no guilt in Him.” But because Pilate’s power and prestige rested upon maintaining order in the land, when the people began to cry out against his decree, he waffled and gave in to the demands of the horde surrounding him. He had followed the right course, asked the right questions, and arrived at the right conclusions. But then he cowered under pressure and sent the Son of God to the Cross.

Friends, you should beware, if you decide to cast your lot with Jesus, it may prove unpopular with those surrounding you. But, you must never fear truth. Romans 10:11 says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” You might be unpopular, things might get uncomfortable, but ultimately and eternally, you will find satisfaction nowhere else than in the truth of God embodied in the Person of Jesus Christ. You should know how Pilate’s story ends. He waffled to safe his own skin at the expense of the life of Jesus Christ. But within a short time, his determination for self-preservation led him to order a bloody massacre of a multitude of Samaritans, resulting in him being removed from his post and recalled to Rome. It was not long after that the shamefully took his own life. His efforts to preserve his power, his prestige, and his image destroyed him. His earthly kingdom was threatened by the eternal Kingdom of Jesus, and in seeking to save it, he lost it. The same will be true for us. If we ignore truth as a measure to secure our own sovereignty over our lives, our kingdom will come toppling down around us at some point. Jesus said if we seek to save our lives we will lose them, but if we are willing to lose our lives for His sake, we will find life abundant and eternal in Him, because He is the truth. And so the question for us all is not what others think about Jesus, but what shall we ourselves do with Jesus? We must decide for ourselves. We must seek truth. And we must be committed to following that truth to the inevitable decisions and unpopular positions to which it may lead us. So what will you do with Jesus Christ?

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 593.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 52.
[3] Carson, 595. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Warnings of Spiritual Disaster (John 18:15-18, 25-27)

Audio (Poor sound quality due to technical difficulties)

The famous English military and political leader Oliver Cromwell is remembered by many for his great successes, and by others for his great failures. It is almost universally agreed, however, that Cromwell was not a handsome man, nor did he claim to be. When Sir Peter Lely was commissioned to paint a portrait of Cromwell, he reportedly told the painter, “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”[1]

The Bible often portrays men and women in this same way: “warts and all.” Their heroic deeds are portrayed with honesty alongside of their disastrous failures. Of course, one of the most obvious examples of this is found in Simon Peter. Ask the average Christian what he or she knows of the Apostle Peter and you will not often hear them mention his powerful preaching in the early chapters of Acts, or his brilliant New Testament epistles. You will hear of of his denials of the Lord Jesus. Peter’s story, like those of so many others in Scripture, encourages us that our God uses ordinary men and women to accomplish extraordinary things in the world. Like Peter, we are all flawed and imperfect. So, as we read of his failures here, we are able to identify some warnings that, if heeded, may safeguard us from spiritual disaster. There are at least six of them that I hope to draw from our text.

The first of these warnings is this:
I.  Don’t follow Jesus from a distance (v15).

When I first began to drive, I was pulled over by a police officer one afternoon. He asked, “Do you know why I stopped you?” I hate that question. I knew I wasn’t speeding, I hadn’t crossed the center line, I’d signaled for my turns and lane changes. But, I’d been so paranoid about the police car behind me that I had failed to pay attention to how close I was to the car in front of me. I had not left one car length for every ten miles per hour. I learned a valuable lesson that day – it is dangerous to follow another car too closely. But in my spiritual life, the even more valuable lesson I have learned is that it is disastrous to follow Jesus too distantly.

Following Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter abandoned the Lord Jesus and fled along with the rest of the disciples (Matt 26:56). After the passage of some time, for reasons unknown to us, Peter decided to follow Jesus to the place of His interrogation at the High Priest’s residence. Verse 15 says that he was accompanied by “another disciple.” We will discover later that this is John’s way of obliquely referring to himself. But what John doesn’t tell us here is how Peter followed Jesus. The other Gospel writers are careful to disclose it though. Matthew 26:58 says that “Peter was following [Jesus] at a distance.” Luke 22:54 and Mark 14:54 say the exact same thing.

Throughout the Gospels, there is a recurring theme of following Jesus. His first call to His disciples was for them to come and follow Him. Jesus never glossed over or minimized the costs and risks involved in following Him. Following Jesus is dangerous business – potentially deadly, even. So there are always going to be those who follow, but not too closely; not so closely that they risk personal danger or inconvenience; not so closely as to be considered a fanatic or anything. There is a safe distance kept – from intimate prayer, from regular study of the Bible, from faithful church attendance, from opportunities to serve. They follow just close enough to be considered a follower by other followers, but far enough away to not be implicated by the world. If you are following Christ from a distance today, heed the warning of Peter’s example and close the gap. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” There may be danger, but it is better to face danger alongside of Jesus than to enjoy ease from a distance. When you follow Jesus, danger will come but disaster doesn’t have to. Don’t follow Jesus from a distance. 

Now we immediately find the second warning:
II. Don’t be ashamed of who you are (vv16-17).

Once upon a time in America, being a Christian was so culturally prized that even the non-Christians claimed to be Christians. Today, the tide has shifted and the cultural pressures are such that Christians find themselves often embarrassed, intimidated, or ashamed to claim their faith openly. But, when we look at the history of Christianity and the state of the global Church, we find that being a Christian has rarely been popular. Yet to such a culture, the followers of Christ are called to be vocal witnesses for Him. In our text, Peter had the opportunity to do that, and failed. 

Verse 15 says that the “other disciple” who was with Peter was known to the high priest. We have already said that this “other disciple” is John. John never refers to himself by name in this Gospel. He typically calls himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” In John 20, “the other disciple” and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” are used interchangeably to refer to the same individual. So, how did John know the high priest and his servants? It is at least plausible that John knew them from his father’s business. Before following Jesus, John worked in his father’s fishing enterprise, which was prominent enough to support the labor of hired servants. If, by virtue of his reputation as a leading fisherman, John’s father was the supplier of fish to the high priest’s home, it stands to reason that his father may have sent John to make deliveries. Whatever the case, he was known well enough to gain entrance to the courtyard, and to secure admission for Peter as well.

In verse 17, the girl who kept watch over the gate says to Peter as he enters, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” There may be a heavy dose of cynicism here, but it is not necessary to assume that there was hostility in her words. After all, she already knew John to be a follower of Jesus. Her question to Peter seems to be something along the lines of, “Oh no! Not another one!” If John could be known as a follower of Jesus in that courtyard without fear, then Peter could as well. But Peter wasn’t willing to be identified as a follower of Jesus. When asked if he was one of Christ’s disciples, he said, “I am not.”
All around us every day is a world filled with people who want to know, who need to know, whether or not you are a follower of Jesus. Sometimes they will come out and ask you, and other times they merely leave the door open for you to acknowledge it. Opportunities abound. Jesus was not ashamed to be identified with you when He bore your sins on the cross, so we must not be ashamed of who we are as followers of Christ when we bear scorn for Him in the world. Heed the warning of Peter: Don’t be ashamed of who you are.

We come to the third warning:
III. Don’t be too cozy with the world (vv18, 25).

In John 17, Jesus prayed for His followers, whom He said were “in the world.” He said that we have been “sent into the world,” and prayed that we would not be “taken out of the world.” But He also said very clearly in that prayer that His followers are not “of the world.” The Apostle John heard Jesus pray that prayer and it stuck with him. In his first epistle, John warns, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn 2:15-17). In the same letter, John says that the world does not know us because it did not know Christ, and he warns us to not be surprised if the world hates us (3:1, 13).

Throughout the New Testament, the world is described as being under the domain of the enemy, the devil. Those who are of the world walk in accordance with his purposes, at odds with the will and purposes of God, and at war with Jesus Christ. We see the world represented in the latter chapters of the Gospels by those forces which conspire to put the Lord Jesus to death. And sadly, here in our text, we find Peter alongside of them, warming himself by the charcoal fire that they have kindled in the courtyard. It is stated twice, in verses 18 and 25. Peter comes alongside of the enemies of Christ for warmth and comfort.  

The fires of this world are cozy and inviting. There’s warm companionship to be enjoyed by those fires, and a circle that will always be willing to widen to make room for you, as long as you don’t try to speak for Christ around that fire. As the circle of these officers widened to make room for Peter, they asked him, “You are not also one of His disciples, are you?” We can see Peter in our mind’s eye, jostling himself into their circle, as he says yet a second time, “I am not.” Had he told the truth, that circle would have shut on him as quickly as it had opened, and he would have been left out, cold, alone, isolated and outnumbered.

This is where Christians will often find ourselves standing, and a place that we must not be afraid to stand! The writer of Hebrews points us to Moses, who enjoyed all of the privileges that this world has to offer, but who by faith chose to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season (Heb 11:25). That fire that the world tends will provide warmth for a season, but that fire will die out, to be replaced by the fire of God’s judgment. There is no blessing of God found around the fires of this world. Peter knew the Psalms, and surely he knew the first words of the first Psalm: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicket, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” But here he was standing in the midst of them, warming himself by their fire.

We must heed the warning we see in Peter’s example. We are in the world, but not of it, and we find no comfort in the warmth of this world’s fires. We are in the world to be a witness for Christ to it. But if we become too cozy around the world’s fires, we will face a great temptation to be silent and even to deny the Lord, as Peter did.

We come to the fourth warning now:
IV. Don’t be afraid of confession.

It’s often said that the hardest people to reach for Christ are our closest friends and our family. Many of us have found that to be true, but why is it? One reason, I think, is that these people know us too well. They have seen us at our worst, and they are privy to our most humiliating failures. Because of this, we cower in silence before them, and if we speak, their ears are often dull to our message. We get a glimpse of that sort of thing with Peter here.

As he is enjoying the warmth of the fire, its glow provides a clearer image of his face. Immediately he is recognized by one who says, “Did I not see you in the garden with Him?” John says that this one who questioned him was a relative of the one whose ear Peter had cut off. Remember from verse 10 that as the mob encroached upon Jesus, Peter took up his sword and struck off the ear of a servant named Malchus. Peter can only imagine that the man must be plotting revenge for Malchus. Maybe he will draw the sword on Peter; maybe he will hand him over so that justice could be served upon him. And to save his own skin, Peter denies his relationship with the Lord Jesus a third time.

The world will often throw our past sins into our faces. And the easy thing to do is to cower in silent embarrassment and shame. But the easy thing to do is seldom the right thing to do. We must not be afraid of confession. When our sins are presented to our faces, we must be bold enough to say, “Yes, I did that. That was me. I am a sinner, and that is why I need the Lord Jesus to be my Savior.” That is what Peter could have done here. He could have said, “Yes, I am the one who cut off Malchus’ ear, but I remind you that the Lord Jesus, whom I serve, has the power to heal Malchus’ ear and to forgive me of my sin. He has already rebuked me for my impulsive act, and I have repented of it.” That may not have earned him the forgiveness of the crowd. They might have still killed him, but it would be better to die with a testimony for Christ on our lips than live by denying Him.

Confession is never easy, but it’s always right. When others remind us of our failures, we must take responsibility for them, whatever the consequences, and use the opportunity to testify to the grace of the Lord Jesus. Spiritual disaster looms whenever we are afraid to say of ourselves what God Himself says of us: that we are sinners who desperately need a Savior. Heed Peter’s warning, and do not be afraid of confession.

Now, fifthly, we want to enlarge the view and see the bigger picture of what precipitated Peter’s failure, and find a warning in it:
V. Don’t overestimate yourself (v27).

Most of us grew up hearing encouragement from our parents, teachers, and others who told us that we can be anything we want to be and do whatever we set our minds to. A little bit of that kind of confidence is healthy I suppose. Too much of it can be disastrous, especially in our spiritual lives. Throughout the Gospels we find in Peter a man who was overly confident of his own abilities, his own strength, and his own commitment to Christ. John MacArthur says of Peter that he had “a habit of revving his mouth while his brain was in neutral,” and calls him “the apostle with the foot-shaped mouth.”[2]

Peter had boasted to Jesus, “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death” (Lk 22:33). He said, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away. … Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You” (Mt 26:35). And just hours before this incident in the courtyard, Peter had said, “I will lay down my life for You” (Jn 13:37). But it was after this final assertion that Jesus said to Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times” (13:38). And John tells us, after the third denial, “immediately a rooster crowed.” The Lord’s prediction came flooding back into his memory, and Luke 22:62 says that Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” This brazen man became a broken man as the faƧade of his self-confidence came crumbling down.

The Proverbs say that pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling (16:18). In 1 Corinthians 10:12, Paul puts it this way: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that does not fall.” Some of my closest friends over the years have shipwrecked their ministries and their marriages by sins of pride, greed, and lust. Leaders I have respected have been exposed in scandals more times than I care to remember. And I have to confess to you, every time I learn of another one, there is this surge of self-righteousness rising up within me, screaming, “I’m so much better than those guys! I could never do that!” But then I remember, every single one of those guys thought the same thing. By watching others around me fail and fall, I have been reminded often that there is no depth of evil that could not overtake me at any moment if I were to rest in my own strength and forsake the grace and empowerment of the Lord Jesus and His Spirit. Every single one of us must heed Peter’s warning to never overestimate ourselves. We must remember what the Lord Jesus said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Let us learn from Peter’s example, lest we become yet another example ourselves.

All of this brings us to the final warning:
VI. Don’t underestimate Jesus (v27).

The word “Gospel” means “Good News.” The Good News of Jesus Christ includes the bad news that we are fallen, frail, feeble creatures who are subject to frequent failure. We are inherently sinful. This bad news is what makes the Good News good! Because we are inherently sinful, we are desperately in need of a Savior, and Jesus has come to be the Savior we need! And just as surely as we must never overestimate ourselves, we must never, ever underestimate Him! You didn’t stop needing the Gospel once you came to faith in Christ. You need the Gospel every day that live as a follower of Jesus! Never underestimate Him, or your need for Him.

Peter learned the hard way not to underestimate Jesus. He underestimated Jesus’ word. Jesus said, “You will all fall away because of Me this night,” and Peter said, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (Mt 26:31-33). Jesus said, “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times,” and Peter said, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.” The crowing of the rooster after Peter’s third denial was an indictment against him that he had underestimated the word of the Lord. Friends, we must never do that! Every word that the Lord Jesus spoke, and by extension, every word of Scripture, is true and will come to pass just as the Lord promised it. His word is food for our souls, more important to our lives than the next meal we will eat. His words are the words of life, and we depend on them every day for strength, for comfort, for encouragement, for correction and conviction. Don’t ever underestimate His word!

Peter would later come to learn that we must also never underestimate Jesus’ love and grace. As Luke records, after his failure, Peter went out weeping bitterly. He had blown it and there was no way to change that. But Peter’s failure ultimately would not be final. With the warning of his impending denial, Jesus also told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:31-32). With the promise of Peter’s failure there is also a promise of his restoration. He will fail miserably, but he will be turned back to the Lord and restored to a place of usefulness for Christ.

John notes that the fire by which Peter warmed himself in the courtyard was a charcoal fire. That seems to be an unnecessary detail, does it not? They say that scent has a strong connection to memory, and most of us have experienced that. Charcoal fires have a unique scent. When I get a whiff of a charcoal fire, I can remember the old rusty black Weber grill that we had when I was a kid. The most interesting thing about this detail of the charcoal fire here is that the Greek word only occurs twice in the New Testament, both times in the Gospel of John. The first time is here in our text. The second time comes later, in John 21.

There, after the disheartened Peter has returned to his former career of fishing with a few of the other disciples, the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to them on the shore of Galilee. As they came ashore, they noticed a charcoal fire. Imagine the memories that flooded Peter’s mind as he smelled the aroma of that fire. But it was there, in the lingering scent of that fire on the shore, that Jesus restored and recommissioned Peter to His service. From that day forward, we see a transformed Peter in Scripture. No more the cowardly denier, this Peter became the bold preacher of the Gospel that we find in the book of Acts and the tender-hearted shepherd we find in his letters.

When you fail the Lord – not if, but when – don’t underestimate His love and grace. We may fail like Peter, but we can also be forgiven like Peter when we return to the Lord and seek restoration with Him. Our failures do not have to be final. Jesus comes to us in our brokenness with subtle reminders, like the scent of a charcoal fire, reminding us that our sins need not drive us away from Him. Rather, they must drive us to Him. He died for our sins so that we can be cleansed in His blood, made right and whole by His grace, reconciled by His love, and restored to His service.

Peter’s threefold denial of Christ can’t be erased from the pages of Scripture. God paints His people with a fair brush, warts and all. His failures will never be forgotten, nor will ours. But they can be forgiven as we turn to Him in repentance and faith. And we can be safeguarded against disastrous failure as we heed the examples we find in Scripture – examples like Peter. Remember the warnings: Don’t follow Christ from a distance; don’t be ashamed of who you are as His disciple; don’t be too cozy around the fires of this world’s pleasures; don’t be afraid to confess, to take responsibility, and to accept the consequences of your sins and failures; don’t overestimate your own strength, ability, or commitment to Christ; but most of all, don’t ever, ever underestimate His Word, His love, or His saving grace.

[1] Horace Walpole, Anectdotes of Painting in England (London: Alexander Murray, 1871), 226.
[2] John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2002), 31-32.