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“Under Pressure”

John 18:1-27
Bob DeGray
March 14, 2004

Key Sentence

Under pressure Jesus had a heart for others and for truth; Peter had an instinct for self-preservation and for denial.


I. The Arrest (John 18:1-11)
II. The First Trial. (John 18:12-14,19-24)
III. The Denial (John 18:15-18, 25-27)


        Most of you know I used to be a mechanical engineer, so I have definite ideas about what it means to be ‘under pressure’. For years I made my living designing pressure vessels, which are metal containers intended to work under pressure. Whether these vessels survive high pressure depends on several things. One key is the material. It must be the right thickness, and it must be as strong as it says it is. If you think the material has one strength and it really has much less, it won’t handle the design pressure: it will rupture. In the same way if the material is fabricated with flaws in it, it will not handle the pressure. I remember a story from my Exxon days where at a plant in France a big pressure vessel had tiny little cracks that grew in the steel where the top was welded on. When they pressurized it, ‘boom’ the forty ton head blew off and flew three hundred feet over the fence of the plant into a graveyard. Because the material didn’t have integrity, it couldn’t handle the pressure.

        Now that I’m a pastor I recognize that ‘under pressure’ has meaning for people as well as equipment. The circumstances and difficulties of life create pressures on our hearts, pressures that may cause us to fail in some way. As with pressure vessels, the difference is almost always the integrity and strength of our material. Small cracks in character can be amplified under pressure until we blow it, and do and say things we later regret. This contrast is never more clear than in John18, where Jesus is arrested and his trial begins. Jesus handles the pressure superbly, maintaining his care for others and his commitment to the truth without wavering. Peter, on the other hand, succumbs to the pressure and reveals an instinct for self preservation that results in denial of his Lord. Who are we going to be like in the most difficult moments of life? Will we imitate Jesus, with a heart for others and for truth, or respond like Peter with an instinct for self-preservation and denial.

I. The Arrest (John 18:1-11)

        Let’s begin by looking at the arrest of Jesus, John 18:1-12. Verses 1 to 3 set the stage: When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it. 2Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. 3So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. Jesus has been teaching his disciples, preparing them for his death, resurrection and ascension. During the meal, not recorded by John, he has shared the Lord’s supper, the bread as the symbol of his broken body, the cup of his shed blood. Some say the group then left the upper room and began to walk through the streets of Jerusalem, while Jesus shared the rest of his teaching. That’s possible. We know for sure that by the end of his prayer in chapter 17, the group is ready to leave the city and set out across the Kidron valley.

        This valley lies east and south of Jerusalem, and separates the city from the Mount of Olives. The valley and the slopes of the Mount of Olives were covered with olive groves, fine houses, and many ancient tombs. The three tomb sites in this picture have existed virtually unchanged since Jesus’ day. Here’s a map. You can see that the direct route from the presumed site of the Upper Room, over here, to the Kidron valley over here is through the city, and out one of these three gates. Jesus may have used any of them, and then crossed the narrow valley and climbed the slopes on the other side, going to a garden, most likely an olive grove. Even today there are olive groves in this area, and some of these trees date from the time of Jesus. Matthew and Mark tell us that the name of the garden was Gethsemene.

        Judas knew this place because Jesus had been in the habit of meeting there with the disciples, during this last week before the feast. He knew it was quite remote, far from the Passover crowds that threatened to become mobs. It was an ideal place for the betrayer to bring the soldiers. Notice that Jesus is already dealing with the pressure of the moment in a deliberate way. He doesn’t pick a new spot for his prayers, but goes to the place where Judas could count on finding him.

        Only John specifies that in addition to the Jewish officials, there was also a detachment of Roman soldiers. The Greek word refers to at least a squadron, from the Roman auxiliary, soldiers usually stationed at Ceasarea, but brought up to Jerusalem and quartered in Herod’s Antonia Fortress during the feasts. Their presence would inhibit any attempt by the crowd to deter the arrest. Along with them went a number of officials or assistants from the chief priests and Pharisees. These were probably Temple police, the primary arresting officers. This alliance of Jews and Gentiles in the arrest reminds us that the whole world bore the guilt of this crime.

        So now the stage is set: how will Jesus respond to this pressure? Verses 4 to 9: 4Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?" 5"Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am he," Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6When Jesus said, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground. 7Again he asked them, "Who is it you want?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." 8"I told you that I am he," Jesus answered. "If you are looking for me, then let these men go." 9This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: "I have not lost one of those you gave me."

        All four Gospels present Jesus as knowing what’s going on, but the theme is especially strong in John. As Carson says “Jesus offers up his life in obedience to his Father, not as a pathetic martyr buffeted by the ill winds of cruel fate.” So Jesus goes out from the olive grove to meet the squad. Perhaps it was at this point that Judas kissed Jesus - John doesn’t record this detail, but merely says that the traitor was there with them. Jesus asks "Who is it you want?" and they reply "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus does not shy away from identifying himself. He says “I am he”.

        At that, the soldiers drew back and fell to the ground.’ Why? It could be the words themselves, since they evoke the sacred personal name of God. Earlier the Jews had taken up stones to stone Jesus when he said ‘before Abraham was, I am’. On the other hand, people use this phrase in other places with absolutely no reaction - it was a common way to identify yourself. So there had to be something more, some power behind these words that made them awesome to those who heard. Perhaps Jesus allowed just a rumble of God’s power to shine through, so it would be clear that he was going with them of his own accord, not because of their intimidation.

        In verses 7 and 8 the arresting party pulls itself together and the conversation is repeated, but Jesus adds "If you are looking for me, let these men go." John tells us ‘This happened so the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: "I have not lost one of those you gave me."’ John treats Jesus’ words as Scripture. And notice that Jesus is concerned about others. Even under pressure he’s not thinking of himself, but of his disciples; he wants them to be safe. The turmoil of his soul hasn’t distracted him; he’s still focused on what is best for others, and he protects his own, as he had promised in chapter 6, “this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all he has given me.” There he was talking about eternal life, here about physical safety, but this fulfillment is a foretaste of that larger keeping of his promises.

        The next two verses contrast the instincts of Peter to the choices of Jesus. John 18:10 11: 10Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.) 11Jesus commanded Peter, "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" We’re not surprised that Peter who has a sword; Luke tells us there were two in the group. Clearly the other person thought twice before drawing on Roman soldiers. But Peter isn’t known for thinking twice. Fortunately his blow was a clumsy as his thinking and all he did was slice off the ear of a temple servants by the name of Malchus. The other Gospels tell us that Jesus healed the ear before the arrest was completed. Jesus also rebuked Peter, telling him to put the sword in its sheath.

        Apparently he gave Peter two reasons, one recorded by Matthew, the other by John. In Matthew Jesus says: “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Peter was trying to hold off by violence what was about to be achieved by sacrifice. He was trying to hang on to a misguided vision of Jesus as the king who defeats Israel’s oppressors by the sword. But that wasn’t God’s plan for the Incarnation. Instead, Jesus was born to be a sacrifice, as indicated by the remark John recorded “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” Jesus could have defeated this mob of soldiers, or any army ever assembled, with less than a word. He’s already knocked them off their feet just by answering their question. But he chooses to forego personal safety, satisfaction and even justice for the sake of His Father’s rescue mission, which requires him to be a sacrifice, a substitute to bear the punishment others deserve. This is his cup, and he will drink it.

II. The First Trial. (John 18:12-14,19-24)

        So, in verse 12, the squad of soldiers is allowed to arrest, bind and drag Jesus off for the first of several trials before Jewish and Roman officials. At these trials we will see that his desire is for truth. He speaks the truth no matter what the cost. Verses 12 to 14: 12Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him 13and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people.

        Only John reports this interrogation by Annas, the former high priest. The Scriptural high priesthood was for life, but under Roman rule it was only for a year, with option to renew. Annas had been the high priest for more than a decade some years before, and because his family was in favor with the Romans, five of his sons and one son-in-law, Caiaphas, were all high priests. He was the patriarch of a high priestly family, and many considered him the ‘real’ high priest, the power behind Caiaphas, though it was Caiaphas who had publicly stated that “it is better . . . that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” John explained in chapter 11 that ‘He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.’

        Skipping Peter’s first denial for a moment, the trial before Annas is completed in verses 19 to 24: “Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20"I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said." 22When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded. 23"If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" 24Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest.

        The interrogation probably took place at Annas’ house, possibly located on a common courtyard with the house of Caiaphas. Annas questions Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. The former questions may have dealt with the size of his following and the potential for conspiracy or uprising. The latter question was more theological and reflected the fact that these leaders were threatened by Jesus’ claims. About his disciples Jesus says nothing, protecting them to the end. As to his teaching, Jesus protests that “I have spoken openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret.” This doesn’t mean Jesus never spoke to his disciples in private: all four Gospels make it clear he did. But what he said in private was consistent with his public teaching; he didn’t have one message for public consumption and another, more dangerous one for a secret group. And his captors didn’t need to question him or his disciples to get at the truth: any of thousands who had heard him could report his message.

        Jesus’ answer reflects two motives. On the one hand, he is challenging the justice of this trial. It is likely, though not certain, that in Jesus’ day a person could not be forced to testify against himself. The Jewish rulers were allowed to interrogate witnesses, but not defendants. So Jesus is trying to steer them back to the path of justice. Second, however, Jesus is affirming a commitment to the truth. He is not going to bow to the pressure of the situation and spin an acceptable twist on what he has taught. He is willing, even in the face of death, to let his words be his words, not to knuckle under to political correctness. This is Jesus under pressure: true to his followers, true to his own word, and especially true to his Father’s will and plan.

        Some minor wormtongue, quick to perceive a challenge to the former high priest, strikes Jesus on the face. The Greek word refers to a sharp blow with the flat of the hand. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demands. But Jesus won’t back down. “If I said something wrong, tell me. But if I spoke the truth, why strike me?” Jesus knows his previous statement was simple truth: there was no insult or accusation in pointing out that his teaching was public record. Paul, a number of years later did apologize for calling his accuser ‘a whitewashed wall,’ but he didn’t realize the interrogator was the high priest. Jesus has nothing to apologize for. So Annas, with no official power, sees that he cannot resolve the matter, and sends Jesus to Caiaphas, the real high priest.

        What have we seen? Under pressure - betrayal, false arrest, punishment and looming sacrificial death, Jesus is still concerned about others and with the truth. He faces to his unjust captors and denies nothing, moving forward on his Father’s mission and acting to protect his disciples. If Jesus is our role model, then when we are under pressure we need to concern ourselves with the needs of others, with the will of the Father, and with integrity. There is no pressure, relational, business, financial, cultural, social or political that justifies self preservation or hypocrisy. Jesus is our model of humbe integrity.

III. The Denial (John 18:15-18, 25-27)

        But Peter, at this point, isn’t. We already saw his instinct for self-preservation in the Garden, or maybe an instinct for action combined with missing Jesus’ goals. In any event the swing of the sword came from Peter, not from the Father’s will. Now we’ll go out to Annas’ courtyard and see that while Jesus stands up to his questioners and denies nothing, Peter cowers before his questioners and denies everything. Verses 15 to 18: 15Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, 16but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in. 17"You are not one of his disciples, are you?" the girl at the door asked Peter. He replied, "I am not." 18It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.

        The identity of the ‘other disciple’ who was following Jesus has been hotly debated. We have already seen that John, the author of the Gospel, tends to identify himself as ‘the beloved disciple’. And we don’t expect a Galilean fisherman to have close ties to the high priest’s household in Jerusalem, as this other disciple appears to have, something more than a casual acquaintance. But if it’s not John, it’s odd that John doesn’t name him - he names everyone else, including sympathetic Jewish leaders like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Remember, the distinctions that separated people from each other in those days didn’t have the element of ‘blue-collar / white-collar’, so it would not be out of the question for the high priest to know a successful fisherman from Galilee - John’s father - or to be familiar with his children. So it’s at least possible this disciple was John.

        Peter on the other hand is not known and is stopped at the door, so that the other disciple has to ask the doorkeeper to let him in. By the way, the presence of a female doorkeeper shows this is a private house, not an official residence inside the temple compound, which would have been guarded by the male temple police. If this doorkeeper recognized the other disciple as someone who could be admitted, then she probably also knew that he was a follower of Jesus. When he asks that Peter be allowed in, she makes the obvious connection and asks ‘Are you another of this man’s disciples?’. There is just a bit of disdain in the wording of the question, an attitude that, under the circumstances, Peter probably found intimidating.

        But for Peter to deny this reminds me of an episode from my youth that’s become famous to my children. When I was about four or five I went with my sisters and ‘picked fruit’ at a blueberry patch, at the end of Blueberry Lane. But the owner didn’t want us eating his blueberries, which we well knew. Then, when I came back, despite the fact that the evidence was all over my face, I denied having done it. I was trying to protect myself but in the end I got double consequences, for disobeying and for lying. There is no doubt that by his denial Peter is trying to protect himself. His denial can’t do Jesus any good, or anyone else. But you also have to remember that he’s the one who cut off the servant’s ear, and if so identified he could be arrested. Under that pressure his concern is for himself and his denial comes naturally.

        John and Luke both add the detail that it was a cold night, not that unusual in Jerusalem at Passover, so that the officials warmed themselves by a fire. As the trial inside Annas’ home comes to an end. John keeps the focus on Peter. Verses 25 to 27: 25As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, "You are not one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it, saying, "I am not." 26One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" 27Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow. John doesn’t say who asked this middle question as Peter stood in the fire light. The wording is virtually the same as verse 17 “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” and may reflect the same accusing disdain.

        John reports that saying ‘I am not’, Peter denied it. This is, naturally enough, the same word used in Jesus’ prediction of the Peter’s denial. So that makes twice. Jesus had predicted three times. Verse 26: “One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?” At this point Peter had a hard choice between a continued denial or a painful confession. What could Peter expect from a relative of the injured man, even if he knew Malchus had been healed, except hatred and a desire for justice. So Peter denies a third time, and at that moment the rooster crows. John doesn’t mention the oaths and curses to which Peter resorted this third time, nor the bitter tears that followed. Nor does he say that it was at that very moment that Jesus was led into the courtyard on the way to his next trial. John’s account is sparse, but the fulfilment of Jesus’ words is evident, and Peters sin is stark and sad and serious.

        So who are you more like? Peter, or Jesus? Under pressure, Peter had in instinct for self-preservation and for denial. Jesus had a heart for others and for truth. What does this difference look like in our lives? It can range from very explicit to very subtle. We all appreciate the story of Cassie Bernall, who was given the opportunity to deny Jesus and maybe live, but who chose to align herself with him and became a martyr. That kind of allegiance under pressure has often characterized Christians, and our prayer is that if the pressure ever gets that high we’ll follow their footsteps.

        But on a more mundane level, I’m convinced we deny Jesus and his power before a watching world every time we choose to sin rather than to trust. When a pastor, for whatever desperate or hard hearted reason steals from the church, he is saying to the whole world ‘Jesus is not sufficient.’ When a husband says “I’m a Christian but I can’t continue in this marriage” he’s denying Jesus and his power to save, to heal, to sustain and to restore. When a young person who made a commitment to Jesus as a child says they aren’t interested in church or the Christian life anymore, they are denying the truth of the faith. And when by our silence or assent we buy into the world’s standards and political correctnesses and skepticisms, we are denying Jesus. When we act more in our own self interest than in the interest of others, we are being Peter. When we turn from the opportunity to serve Jesus or defend his cause we are being Peter. When we fail to live up to the standard of the Gospel, we are being Peter. But like Peter we can receive forgiveness and be restored.

        Then, when we cling to the truth and share it with others, when we serve others with our lives, when we put others first, we are being like Jesus. When we cling to the Father through hard times, and make mature decisions when we want to selfishly lash out or deny our responsibility, we are being like Jesus. The question to ask yourself as the pressures of life mount is “am I more concerned about my good, my pride, my comfort, my interests, or am I giving those up in order to give preference to the interest of others and the interests of God. Am I Peter, or am I am trying, even under pressure, to follow this wonderful example of Jesus?