"Who's on Trial Here?"

  John 18:12-27

Have you ever heard of a judge being put on trial? It happened as part of the Nuremburg war crimes trials after WWII. In a trial known as the “Judges Trial” sixteen judges and prosecutors of the German court system who had cooperated with the Nazis were charged with "judicial murder and other atrocities, which they committed by destroying law and justice in Germany, and then utilizing the emptied forms of legal process for the persecution, enslavement and extermination on a large scale".

Ten of the defendants were found guilty and two were acquitted. One died before the trial began and the case of another was declared a mistrial. Four of the guilty were sentenced to life terms, while six received sentences ranging from five to ten years.

(Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007073)

Today we are going to study a passage about a trial that Jesus went through shortly after He was arrested. Although it was ostensibly Jesus who was on trial, in reality it was those at the trail who were put on trial - and they proved themselves to be guilty by the things they did and said. 

This passage presents a detailed account of two events that were running concurrently: The high priest's trial of Jesus, and Simon Peter's denials of Jesus. The scene switches back and forth between inside the palace of Annas where the trial was taking place, and the courtyard outside the palace where Peter's denials were being heard. As these two events are narrated, they reveal to us some significant points about two men - Annas and Simon Peter. Both were men of very high spiritual privilege: Annas was a high priest of Israel (v. 19) and Peter was a disciple of Jesus Christ. 

Let us see what else is known about these two men's privileges. History tells us that Annas enjoyed the highest position of spiritual authority at that time. Only the high priest could enter the holiest compartment in the Temple, and he could only do this once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Officially his son-in-law, Caiaphas, was now the high priest of Israel as v.13 says, but Annas was the real mastermind behind him. Annas had become high priest in 6 A.D. and had served in that capacity until the Romans deposed him in 15 A.D. But though he was officially retired from office, he continued to exert a powerful influence. A measure of his influence is seen in the fact that five of his sons subsequently became high priests and the current high priest, Caiaphas, was his son-in-law. This explains why Jesus was brought first to Annas rather than to Caiaphas immediately after His arrest.

Now we shall look at Simon Peter. He was one of the 12 disciples whom Jesus had carefully selected. And therefore, Peter had the privilege of being personally trained and mentored by Jesus for 3 years. He turned out to be the 'star pupil' - the one who boldly confessed Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16). And Jesus praised him for this, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (v.17) Soon after that Peter witnessed the awesome transfiguration of Jesus on a high mountain together with James and John (Matthew 17:1, 2). No other disciples were granted this special privilege. And Peter was always the most vocal among the disciples to profess his loyalty to the Master. He even attempted to defend Him with a sword against the mob that came to arrest Him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So, we see that both Annas and Simon Peter were men of great spiritual privilege. And yet we also see in our passage, that despite their high privileges both failed shamefully in their treatment of Jesus. Annas treated Jesus just like a common criminal, interrogating Him, allowing a servant to hit Him, and sending Him bound to Caiaphas. Simon Peter on the other hand denied that he was a disciple of Christ or that he even knew Him, not just once, but three times.

From this we can learn an important lesson: Having great spiritual privileges is pointless if one does not use them to honor the Lord Jesus. So, what if Annas was the high priest? That did not stop him from mistreating the Great High Priest. So, what if Peter was the chief of Christ's disciples? That did not stop him from dishonoring his Master by denying that he was his Master at all.

If you are blessed with great spiritual privileges, please don't allow them to make you proud or complacent. For instance, you may be born into a good Christian family, and have the privilege of growing up under godly nurture and instruction. But that will not necessarily make you spiritually stronger than others. You may have been attending this church for umpteen years, but that does not necessarily make you a good Christian. And you may be entrusted with important duties in church and even be a pastor. But that does not make you immune to spiritual defeat. I am sure you know the saying, 'the bigger they are the harder they fall.' With much privilege comes much responsibility.

Now apart from these points that we have seen of both Annas and Peter, there are other significant points which can only be observed in what each of them did. 

The Injustice of Annas

Let us look at Annas and begin by considering what he was supposed to do at the high priest of Israel. One passage that can help us understand what a high priest was supposed to do is Hebrews 5:1-4,

Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.

1. Unqualified to be high priest

This tells us that to qualify to be a high priest, a man had to be able to handle matters related to God. To do this, he obviously had to be holy and above reproach in all matters. According to v.2, a high priest also had to have a selfless compassion on the ignorant and on those who had gone astray. This means that he was to love the people well and minister gently and humbly to their needs. And v.4 says that no man should take the honor of being a high priest to himself. And so, this sacred office was clearly not meant for any ambitious, self-serving, greedy man to assume. 

And yet this was exactly what Annas was. History tells us that he was an arrogant, astute, ambitious and enormously wealthy priest. How had he become so rich? Well, Annas was notorious for his rapacity and greed. His family had a monopoly on the sale of sheep, doves and olive oil for the sacrifices at the Temple. Every Israelite who came to offer sacrifices had no choice but to purchase these things at exorbitant prices from one of the many shops that his family owned.

You may remember that from our earlier study of John chapter 2 we had seen how Jesus had used a whip to drive out all those who sold animals in the Temple, rebuking them for turning His Father's house into a market (v. 16). Those animal sellers were the employees of Annas. This righteous act probably incurred his wrath against Jesus since it would have affected his business severely. With such worldly behavior, Annas was most unqualified to be a priest, let alone to serve as Israel's high priest. 

2. Unqualified to be a judge

Annas was also most unqualified to serve as a judge, let alone to be judge over the Lord Jesus. According to v. 14 his son-in-law Caiaphas had already determined that Jesus must die. In any court of law, the sentence is given at the end, and never at the beginning. All the evidence must be weighed first, and the witnesses’ testimonies must be heard, and the sentence can only be given when these have proven that a crime has been committed. But in the trial of Jesus the death sentence was already given. It was now up to Annas to find a crime to justify such a sentence. And the only way that Annas could do this was to violate many laws of conducting a trial. 

The laws of Israel on how trials were to be conducted were widely reputed to ensure that justice was always served. In fact, these laws have laid the foundation for the judicial systems of the world. Their origins can be traced all the way back to Jewish laws regarding trials. One law states that all trials are to be held in the day time, so that members of the public could come and watch all the proceedings. But the 3 trials that Jesus went through all took place between about 1 am and 6 am while everyone was still asleep. This may have been done intentionally to keep them from public view, because Annas and Caiaphas feared that the multitudes of Jerusalem would hinder their plans to execute Jesus. 

Besides specifying the time when trials are to be conducted, Jewish Law also required a clear charge or accusation to be brought by someone before anyone could be put on trial, and self-incrimination was never allowed. But here we see that when Jesus was put on trial, no charge or accusation was made against Him. Instead, v. 19 tells us that the high priest asked Jesus about His disciples and His doctrine. Annas did this to find something incriminating in the Lord's answer that he could use as a criminal charge against Him. For example, he hoped to accuse Jesus of recruiting and teaching disciples secretly for subversive activities. But all his efforts proved to be futile because Jesus had been totally above board in His ministry, and had done nothing in secret (vv. 20, 21). 

Besides that, the Law also required the presence of at least 2 credible witnesses to testify against the accused before he could be sentenced. And the accused had the right to speak in his own defense without any threat of physical abuse. However, Annas had no witnesses at all to testify against Jesus. Jesus on the other hand, had many who would readily take the witness stand to testify for Him. That's why he said in v. 21, “Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.” For making this legitimate defense, Jesus was struck by one of the officers (v.22). And the high priest did absolutely nothing to stop that officer or even reprimand him for hurting Jesus. I am sure that you can see that this was a clear travesty of justice.

As this first trial of Jesus ended, it was clear that the high priest had run out of options despite violating so many laws in conducting the trial. The only thing he could do was to send Jesus over to his son-in-law Caiaphas to conduct another trial. Verse 23 shows us that Jesus had the last word and Annas had no reply. Therefore, instead of proving the Lord's guilt, this trial ended up proving His innocence and revealing the gross injustice of Annas the high priest. 

One day Annas will have to give an account for all his acts of injustice. And who will be the judge to pass the judgment when he is put on trial? No one else but the supreme Judge who sits on His great white throne - the Lord Jesus Christ! The roles will be reversed, but this time the judgment will be just.

The Inconsistency of Peter

According to v.27, when Peter had denied Christ the third time, he heard a cock crowing. For a more detailed picture of this let us turn to Luke 22:60-62,

60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Here we observe that although Peter had failed this trial miserably he did realize how much grief He had caused to the Lord Jesus. He went out and wept bitterly in deep repentance for his sin of denying His Lord three times. And later, in John 21, the Lord restored him fully, and he went on to take his place in the Church as an apostle whom God used mightily. Finally, Peter died a martyr's death by being crucified upside down and he went home to be with the Lord Jesus.

What happened to Peter here shows us that there is hope for a Christian after failure. Though at times we may fail and even bring shame to the name of Christ through our selfish compromise and sins, there is always forgiveness from God if we truly repent. And so, what you must do after you fail is to confess your sins! That is the way to be restored to loving fellowship and faithful service. Cling to the wonderful promise that He is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. And after you are restored learn lessons from your failure that will help you to grow spiritually. I am sure that Peter himself must have done this as he reflected on what happened. 

1. He trusted in his own strength, rather than the strength of Christ

Back in chapter 13 Peter had vowed, “I will lay down my life for you!” (vs. 37). In the garden, when Jesus was arrested, it was he who drew his sword and cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest (18:10). Peter was confident of his own abilities.

In fact, he thought he knew more than Jesus did. In Matthew 16:22 after Jesus had predicted his death, Peter

took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, LORD!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!"

Peter didn’t know himself. He had all the confidence in the world that he had the strength to stand firm, but Jesus knew him better,

“Truly I tell you," Jesus answered, "today-yes, tonight-before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times” (Mark 14:30).

2. He took the easy way out, rather than speak the truth

The devil's temptation sometimes comes from the least expected sources. According to v.17 it was the young servant girl who kept the door who looked at Peter closely and said, “You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?”

The way that this question is worded anticipates a negative response. The natural response is “No, I am not.” Maybe Peter was thinking, “I’ve got to get inside and the easiest way to get inside is just to say I am not one of his disciples. And, after all, she’s just a servant girl she doesn’t really matter.”

The devil often makes it easy for us to fall. And once we take the bait that he dangles before us, he moves in for the kill by using one of the oldest tricks in the book. You see, once you start telling a lie, you can't stop. Circumstances will force you to tell another lie to back up the previous one. And so, you keep on propagating that lie and substantiating it until it grows to monstrous proportions. 

3. He drew near to the world, rather than Jesus

18 It 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.

Houses of the well-to-do in those days had outer courtyards. There would be a door on the street that led into the courtyard and another door that lead from the courtyard to the main house. “The other disciple” – probably John – had used his connections to get Peter through the outer door, but Peter doesn’t go all the way into the house with John and Jesus, he remains in the courtyard, warming himself by the fire with the very ones who had arrested Jesus.

Matthew 26:58 tells us that when Jesus was arrested, Peter “followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest.” We can say, “Well, at least he was there. All the others, except for John had run away.” Yes, that’s true, Peter was there, but he was not as close to Jesus as he ought to have been. It was safer to try to blend in.

The next question came from the servants and officers in the courtyard. And they asked him the same question that the girl had asked: “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?” Again, the expected answer was, “I'm not.” This time, we are told that Peter denied it, and said, “I am not.” This means that this second denial was much more emphatic than the first one. 

As the cold night air drew Peter closer and closer to the fire, the light of that fire shone on his face, and everyone there could see him clearly. Then came the third question. And we notice that this time, the one who asked the question was an eyewitness who had a personal interest in identifying Peter. He had been seen Peter cutting off the ear of a servant named Malchus when Jesus was arrested, and Malchus happened to be his own kinsman. And his question to Peter was different from the other two. He said, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?” It was a direct question which expected the answer, “Yes, you did.”

See how cunning Satan was to put this question from the eyewitness right at the end? If Peter had been confronted first by that eyewitness, maybe he wouldn't have denied Christ at all. But because he had already committed himself to tell a lie, he was led step by step to build it up until he blatantly denied that he knew Christ despite such glaring confirmation that he had been seen with Jesus. 

4. He let fear take over, rather than trusting in Christ

John simply says that after the third time Peter denied Jesus, “at that moment a rooster began to crow” (vs. 27). But the other gospels say that when that happened, Peter went outside and wept bitterly. This may indicate that all his fears from the beginning were completely unfounded.

Peter had been so afraid of what they would do to him if they knew that he was a disciple of Jesus. But the servants and officers made no attempt to restrain Peter or arrest him after they knew that he was a disciple. Even that relative of Malchus who might seek revenge for the damaged ear did nothing to him. Peter was able to leave that courtyard totally unharmed. Why was this so? The answer to this may be found in what Jesus had told the mob earlier on. Let us look at 18:8,

Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.”

The Lord had already given Himself up to His enemies in exchange for the safety of His disciples. Now that they had got him, they had no intentions to take any of His disciples. 

And so, Peter really had no reason at all to fear that his life was in danger. He did not need to hide the fact that he was a disciple of Christ from the people. He did not need to resort to telling them a lie. He did not need to deny Jesus three times and destroy his testimony before the world after all!

Let this be a lesson to all of us not to allow our lives to be ruled by fear. Fear is a very powerful force that can make you fall into sin very easily. It was fear that caused the Israelites to rebel against God in the wilderness when they heard exaggerated reports about the Canaanites from the 10 spies. It was fear that caused King Saul to sin by offering a forbidden sacrifice instead of waiting for the prophet Samuel's arrival. And as we have just seen, it was fear that caused Peter's downfall during the trial of Jesus. But in all these instances, the fears were completely unfounded. There was nothing to fear. 

What should we do then, when our hearts are gripped with an irrational fear? Turn to God in prayer and trust Him. The psalmist said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). Remember the words of David in the 23rd psalm, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Besides teaching us to overcome fear, what happened to Peter should also teach us the importance of loving Jesus more than we love ourselves. If only Peter's heart had been filled with selfless love for His master, he would probably not have denied Him so easily. He learned this lesson later when the resurrected Jesus restored him by asking him three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”' (John 21:15-17). 

Love is the greatest of all virtues, and love is the most powerful force that can work in the hearts of men - even more powerful than fear. It was love that brought our Lord Jesus down to earth. It was love that caused Him to surrender to the Father's will to be arrested at Gethsemane. It was love that brought Him to the palace of the high priest to be put on trial there. It was love that enabled Jesus to endure the injustice of Annas, and to receive the painful blow from his servant. It was love that sent Him to the cross soon after that to die for our sins.

Love is therefore what we all need if we are ever put on trial for our faith. We must be aflame for Christ! May we learn to love our Lord Jesus enough to confess before all men that he is our Lord and Savior, and to bear the cost of making that confession.