26. The Runaway Train – Thursday

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 26. The Runaway Train –  Thursday

Lk 22:7   Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.

Approach: It’s Thursday. I have been tempted, because so much happens this day, to spread it over two days but felt if we were to catch something of this day we need to pile it all in together. It strikes me that it is like a runaway train, flashing through the countryside so we almost miss everything we’re passing. Perhaps it would be best to simply itemize the things that took place and leave you to look them up yourself. Let’s start from, “Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives.” (Lk21:37)

The Events:

– THE MEAL

– Jesus sends his disciples to prepare the Passover meal (Mt 26:17-19)

– in the evening (v.20, Mk 14:17) they participate in the Last Supper.

– Jesus washes the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-12)

– Jesus declares one of them will betray him (Mt 26:21)

– Jesus instigates what we call Communion, The Lord’s Supper, etc. (Mt 26:26-28)

– Judas slips out (Jn 13:30) to convey Jesus’ intentions and prepare the arresting force.

– Jesus predicts they will all fall away but he will rise again (Mt 26:31,32)

– Jesus predicts Peter will deny him three times (Mt 26:33-35)

– Jesus gives extensive teaching (Jn 14-16)

– Jesus prays (Jn 17)

– THE GARDEN

– They go out to the Garden of Gethsemane outside the city (Jn 18:1, Mt 26:36)

– There Jesus prays three times while the disciples keep falling asleep (Mt 26:36-44)

– THE ARREST

– Judas, knowing where Jesus would be (Jn 18:2) arrives with the arresting party (Mt 26:47-50)

– When Jesus reveals himself, the whole arresting group fall back and down (Jn18:6)

– One of the group, Peter (Jn 18:10) lashes out with his sword taking off the ear of a servant (Mt 26:51) but Jesus heals him (Lk 22:51 – notice it is Dr. Luke who picks up on this detail!)

– one of the party, a young man flees (Mk 14:51,52 – thought to be Mark who wrote for Peter)

– the rest of the disciples flee (Mk 14:50)

– They take Jesus to the High Priest’s palace (Mt 26:57)

– Peter follows at a distance and his threefold denial takes place. (Mk 14:66-72)

– the mock trial takes place through the night, through what we would call Thursday night, Friday morning, but from Thursday sunset to Friday sunset is Passover.

Confusion: In formulating the list above, I have included at least twenty items, all things that occurred on this Thursday, starting from their return from overnight on the Mount of Olives, possibly back to the temple precincts and maybe some more teaching, preparations for the evening meal, probably taken after sunset, the meal and all the conversation that went with it, two lots of prayers, the betrayal and arrest and the denials. Yet, again, we must ascertain what was going on in people’s minds:

For Jesus it was time of absolute certainty, knowing exactly what would happen and who would react in the way they did, and never losing control.

For the disciples generally, they are in the heart of the storm. It started off like an ordinary day except Passover was about to happen. How would it happen? Jesus directed them. Before the meal Jesus insists on washing their feet. Peter, in particular, found this especially confusing. They lounge around participating in the meal and then Jesus starts speaking of his death again. They must be struggling to take it in still. As we’ve seen from John’s detailed account of the teaching at the Last Supper, Jesus again and again refers to his departure. They are still confused and various questions are asked. Then Jesus starts predicting that one of them would betray him. Uncertainty. Who? Then he predicts Peter will deny him three times. Uncertainty. Peter is almost heartbroken at the thought. The he predicts they will all fall away and desert him. Uncertainty. Surely not! He prays some things that must have left them even more confused in its nature (Jn 17 – read it and think about it from their viewpoint then.)

They follow him to the Garden of Gethsemane and he asks them to stay awake while he prays. They cannot and I guess felt bad about that. But it is late in the evening and they are no doubt tired and coming into constant semi-wakefulness they will be bleary eyed and muzzy-headed. Then there are voices and lights and the shambles of the arrest take place. The disciples flee in terror but Peter and John follow the arresting party at a distance. It is the middle of the night. They are confused, frightened and fearful of where this might end. It is the most terrible night of their lives. The word ‘uncertainty’ cannot do justice to all they feel. They mostly hide away behind locked doors. Are the authorities going to come hunting for them? They are ordinary guys facing the might of institutional Judaism and maybe even the Roman authorities. What is going to happen to us?

– For the authorities, it must be exactly the opposite to the experience of the disciples. Whereas their day had started off without problems but turned worse the further on it went into the night, for the authorities their uncertainty earlier in the day, about how and when they could arrest Jesus, gave way to certainty when Judas turned up with the information where Jesus could later be found, and agree to go along in the dark with the arresting party to identify Jesus in the half light of lanterns.

– And for God the Father? Here is someone who is rarely considered, but let’s speculate here, for that is all we can do. This is the Father who had led His Son on earth for three wonderful years, bringing good into this fallen world, day in, day out. This is the Father who had spoken His words of approval of His Son audibly more than once. This is the Father who delighted in His Son, the only one who could truly understand the wonder of who this being referred to as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ was, His divine Son who had put off his heavenly glory to live as a human on earth. And now that plan, formulated from before the foundation of the world, was coming to its awful climax. Two terrible things have got to happen. His Son in human guise is to experience the ghastliest death experience mankind has devised with all the physical agony that that would involve, made worse by the emotional sense of rejection as he is abandoned to his fate. And yet something far worse is to happen, but that we will leave to the next study with all it entails. The Father’s heart must be breaking for His Son and it’s going to get worse.

And Us? I’m not sure, having run through these things above, if I can make any further comment. Perhaps without sounding too trite, I can just sum up by saying we have been reading what the apostle Peter summed up: “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge and you, with the help of wicked men….”  (Acts 2:23) There was no other way the Son of God could die for your sins and mine. Let’s be staggeringly thankful in the midst of whatever other emotions we may have as we ponder these things. Enough said.

21. Peter

PART FOUR: Lessons through People (2)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 21. Peter

Luke 5:8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

 Focusing on Peter: As we move into the New Testament we pick up again on specific people and there is no better starting place than to consider Peter.  Now to put this in context, let’s remember what we are doing: we are considering the whole subject of redemption and seeing how God perseveres with individuals (as well as with Israel as a nation) to bring them through into a good place from a not-so-good-place. Peter’s is a ‘bigger than life’ type of story, and yet one with which I suspect many of us could identify.

Early Encounters: Peter, the brother of Andrew, first encounters Jesus in Judah, presumably because he has taken time off from fishing (his occupation) to go to see John the Baptist (see Jn 1:40-42) and has his name prophetically changed by Jesus. We don’t know how Andrew and Peter got there, but it suggests a heart willingness to see what God was doing through this newly appeared prophet, and in so doing, they meet Jesus for the first time. When they return to Galilee they find Jesus has also relocated there and he calls them to give up their fishing to follow him (see Mt 4:18-20 and Lk 5). It is Luke who gives us the fuller account. Peter, in what took place, recognizes that in Jesus, there is something about Jesus that makes him feel very inadequate, a sinner. It is a moment of real self-revelation and revelation about Jesus.  So far we see a seeker and a responder. Good stuff, the sort of people we like in church – but he is a fisherman so that might suggest more of a rough and ready character who braved the uncertain weather of the Sea of Galilee for a living.

A leading light: And so Peter goes with Jesus and the others. As I have studied Peter in the past, I have been struck by the number of times he is an ‘out-front’ sort of guy, so often opening his mouth and putting both feet in it, and yet there are other times when he is the one who steps out in faith. Here are some of the key times:

  • In the boat in the storm he steps out in faith (Mt 14:28)
  • He asks questions about Jesus’ teaching (Mt 15:15)
  • He makes a bold declaration about who Jesus is (Mt 16:16)
  • He even rebukes Jesus (Mt 16:22)
  • He speaks out on the mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:4)
  • He gets involved in the question that arose over paying temple tax (Mt 17:24-27)
  • He questions over forgiveness (Mt 18:21)
  • He questions about what’s in it for them in the future (Mt 19:27)
  • He initially refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, but then all-in capitulates (Jn 13:6-9)
  • He declares his over confidence in his own loyalty to Jesus (Mt 26:33)

A Summary of Peter? He appears bold, brash, impetuous and yet all for Jesus, having brilliant flashes of faith and revelation every now and then. He appears a real mixed bag of instability. He’s a live wire who is out front and going for it with a strong measure of self-confidence. He seems to revel in the wonder of the life with Jesus that impacts people and communities.

And then the Fall: Peter’s three-times denial of Jesus (Mt 26:69-75, Mk 14:66-72, Lk 22:54-62, Jn 18:15-18, 25-27) is well documented in all four Gospels. There are relatively few things that come up in all four Gospels, but this is one of them. It is the classic example of betrayal of friendship. Peter had denied that such a thing would happen: he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death,” (Lk 22:33) when Jesus had prophesied, Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers,” (Lk 22:31,32) and then, Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (v.34)

Spiritual Dynamics: There is something here we so often miss: “Satan has asked to sift all of you.” Job 1 & 2 gives us insight of Satan’s access to the throne room of God and the biblical teaching would appear to be that Satan is allowed access to our lives where we tolerate less than godly characteristics. The Lord allows this that we might be chastised and humbled and brought to a place of repentance and cleansing and change. It is the same thing that we have seen again and again in these studies, that God, in His work of redemption, often has to bring discipline into our lives to help bring change to them so we can more fully become the people He has designed us to be.

Now in this situation Jesus reveals that the enemy has claimed opportunity to ‘sift’ all the disciples in what is about to happen. The Message version puts it, Simon, stay on your toes. Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from me, like chaff from wheat. Simon, I’ve prayed for you in particular that you not give in or give out. When you have come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start.” Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen and although he prayed for them, he wasn’t going to shield them from it; Peter is going to find himself facing a particular temptation and he’s going to find that he’s not yet up to it, despite all of his ‘out-front’ leadership type words. God is looking for more than words; He’s looking for life transformation.

Peter’s Life Transformation: So Peter falls and he is devastated. In some ways, in the studies we have considered, I think he’s rather like David, and certainly would like to think that he’s a man after God’s own heart, but in experience he becomes more like Moses whose self-esteem was utterly demolished by forty years looking after sheep after having been a Prince of Egypt. For Peter it is a crash course. His failure matches that of Moses, but in his case, he kills a friendship and steps back to let his master be killed. But then Jesus comes back from the dead and meets them all in the locked room but says relatively little. They are told to go to Galilee where he will meet them.  When I considered this at Easter it struck me what a turmoil Peter must have been in. He knew Jesus knows what had happened and he knows there is going to come some sort of accounting.

Personal Testimony: I have been through something a number of years ago with vague similarity to what happened here. In my case, to cut a long story short, I felt an absolute failure but had an opportunity at a conference to be prayed over by a top-flight group of prophets. I reasoned if God was going to have to chop me to pieces, it might as well be done properly. I found myself before this group and expected the worst. Instead, from the first word to the last, and it went on for over fifteen minutes, I received total and absolute acceptance from the Lord that reduced me to a blubbering wreck of gratitude.

And Peter: You find it in the last chapter of John’s Gospel where, to put it as simply as possible, Jesus makes Peter face his real and genuine love for Jesus three times (which makes the denial even worse in some ways) and then, instead of Jesus casting him away and saying (as we might expect), “Well, Pete, they were three good years but you didn’t pass the test so I release you to go back to your fishing,” we find Jesus basically saying, “OK, Pete, we’ve been through some pretty terrible days together haven’t we. I’ve got to be on my way back to heaven soon, so I place my church in your hands. OK!” And if I was Peter I think I would sit there flabbergasted, but that is what the love of God does. It devastates us!

And us? Now this isn’t just a nice story, this is God speaking His heart into us. You have failed in a big way?  No worse than Peter. You feel bad about it? No worse than Peter. Yes, there has to be a facing up to it and maybe some days, weeks, months or even years of corrective therapy by heaven, but the last thing the Lord wants is for us failures to sit around in little heaps of guilt, shame and hopelessness. This is all about redemption – the ongoing sort from God, and that for me AND you. Amen? Amen!

6. Abandoned – Denied

Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 6.  Abandoned – Denied

Mt 26:34,35    I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

We have considered two aspects of the fact that Jesus was abandoned at the end of this Passion Week, betrayal and rejection, and now we come to the third expression of this abandonment, the denial of Peter. We did very briefly allude to it in an earlier meditation but now we have to look more closely at it. It is not comfortable reading. However, before we really get into it, we must note that this is different from the previous two aspects for they were both essential to the whole work of the Cross.

Unless Judas had betrayed Jesus and told the authorities where and when to arrest him without public upheaval, it would not have happened. Unless the religious establishment had not made such a strong case for his death, it would not have happened. Unless the crowds had not bayed for his death and unless Pilate and Herod had both just shrugged their shoulders of all responsibility, it would not have happened. Unless the Father had allowed the Sin and sins of the world to sit upon Jesus so that Jesus lost sight of the Father’s presence and humanly felt abandoned by Him, the death on the Cross would have meant nothing beyond the death of another poor soul at the hands of the Romans.

But it was not like that with Peter. If Peter had not denied Jesus nothing would have changed. His denial was not essential to the death on the Cross – and yet it is another thing that happened that has significance and meaning, so what happened?

Our verses above show us something significant about Peter’s involvement: Jesus knew it would happen! That is not to say Jesus made it happen, but very simply he knew what was going to take place and he knew that would involve Peter in this way. Now before we think more on Peter and this action, let’s just note something about Jesus in all of this. At the Last Supper two things occur of some significance. First, Jesus clearly revealed that he knew what Judas was going to do. Second, as we’ve just seen, he also clearly knew what Peter would do. One would betray him, the other deny him. Now here’s my question: suppose you had knowledge of the future, and you employed or simply had a band of followers, and as you gathered them together you realised that before the time was out, one of them was going to betray you and the other deny you, how do you think you would feel about these two, knowing this? Even more, if the betrayer was also an accountant, would you let him hold the purse strings of your business? If the denier was a natural leader, would you let him rise up to be a leader among your group, knowing what is coming?

There is, therefore, either an incredible lack of judgment by Jesus or there is an amazing level of grace and forgiveness being shown.  With Judas it is slightly different because, as we’ve said, his betrayal is essential to the end outcome. But what about Peter, his denial (which does follow – see Mt 26:57,58,69-75) is not essential, it is merely an expression of human weakness? His denial is an abandonment of loyalty and a failure of that other word the Bible uses so often – faithfulness.

Now it is possible that you have never denied a friend, or at least have forgotten it perhaps. It occurs when you simply do not stand up for someone who needs you to stand up for them – and you step away and you may or may not utter words that separate you from them. It is rooted in fear, fear of consequences which, in Peter’s case, might have had severe physical repercussions. It may be the fear of what other people will think of you. Have you ever been in a room when people speak against God or against Jesus or against Christianity, and you remain silent? We live in an age where, tragically, there are so many marriage break-ups, and so often they are accompanied by abandonment by betrayal (going to another who is not your spouse), abandonment by rejection (walking away from your partner) and abandonment by denial (they don’t love me, I don’t love them, there is no marriage here). But we mustn’t digress from denial. I wish this paragraph didn’t apply to me in the past, but it does. I stand with Peter and weep at past failures, not having been there for people who needed me.

Why Peter’s denial? I think it is simply a terrible reminder that even the best of us are flawed human beings, prone to failure, prone to getting it wrong. It is made worse by the fact that Peter was one of the inner three, one of the ones who accompanied Jesus up the Mount of Transfiguration, one of the ones chosen by Jesus to go and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is also made worse by Peter’s unknowingness, his inability to know himself when Jesus, at the Last Supper, told him what would happen. It is made worse by the fact that mere minutes before, Peter was wielding a sword in defence of Jesus in the garden, an act of mistaken human desire to help God out.

How many of us struggle, even at this moment, with our human frailty: “I will never disown you!”  There are times to rejoice at the wonder of who we are and at the wonder of our salvation, and at the place held for us in heaven, but here on this Good Friday – yes, it is the day of Jesus’ death – it is a time for mouths to be silenced, mouths that would speak forth self-justification, mouths that would make excuses, mouths that would even deny the truth about themselves.

Yes, it is Good Friday, and you may be surprised that we have not focused even more on the details of what happened to bring Jesus to the Cross (we have been doing that surely?) or more importantly we might think, on what happened on the Cross. I have done that in other meditations in other series in past years; this series is all about why Jesus went to the Cross – for us, for our needs, for the needs of the whole, failing human race. We have faced confusion, we have seen anguish, we have seen plotting and scheming against Jesus, we have seen him abandoned to his fate on the Cross by betrayal, rejection and denial. These are the things that we, the human race do, these are the things that brought Jesus to the Cross. Yes, it was the will of the Father, stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted…. the punishment that brought us peace was upon him… and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:4-6) but as the apostle Peter preached, “with the help of wicked men, put him to death.” (Acts 2:23) That’s what we have been considering in these recent studies. Be still, be silent, be thankful, and yes, by all means weep at the truth.