The Trial and Denial of Jesus – Mark 14:53-72
If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark, where we are going to be looking at Mark 14:53-72. Jesus has just been betrayed by Judas, arrested by the Jewish authorities, and abandoned by His disciples. And in our text, this morning, Jesus will be tried unfairly, while His closest companion will draw near only to deny that he ever knew Him.
I’m just going to read our passage, and then we will dive in. Mark 14, beginning in verse 53: “And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. 54 And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. 55 Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. 56 For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. 57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”’ 59 Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. 60 And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ 61 But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ 62 And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ 63 And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’ And they all condemned him as deserving death. 65 And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the guards received him with blows.
“66 And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67 and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, ‘You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.’ 68 But he denied it, saying, ‘I neither know nor understand what you mean.’ And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. 69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ 70 But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.’ 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak.’ 72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept."
One of my favourite courtroom movies, which isn’t as suspenseful as others, is the classic Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street (1947)—the movie is about a nice old man claiming to be Santa Claus who is institutionalized as insane, and a young lawyer who defends him in court as being the real thing.
There is something intriguing about watching a courtroom trial. The purpose of a trial is to find out the truth. Witnesses are brought in to testify about the person who is on trial, so that a judge or jury can decide if they are guilty or innocent.
In our text, Jesus has been put on trial. There has never been and never will be a trial more important than this one. But sadly, this trial was not held in order to find out the truth; this trial was held in order to find an excuse to kill Jesus.
But there is a second trial that takes place in our text. Both trials involve witnesses, and both trials involve a confession. But these trials couldn’t be more opposite. And this morning, we are going to look at these two opposing trials.
1. The first trial is the trial of Jesus.
Jesus is led away from the Garden of Gethsemane to the courtyard of Caiaphas, the high priest. In John 18:13, John records that they first led Jesus to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, but then the Sanhedrin, the governing body consisting of 71 Jewish leaders, quickly convene at the house of Caiaphas.
According to one commentator, nearly every detail of Jesus’ trail violated the rules for judging capital cases, as prescribed by Jewish tradition:
- In capital cases like Jesus’, trials had to take place during daytime; never, at night.
- In the case of a guilty verdict, a second day and session was required to ensure a fair trial.
- Such a trial could not take place on the eve of Sabbath or on a festival day. And yet, here they were having a trial during Passover.
- Witnesses were to be warned against rumor and hearsay.
- A charge of blasphemy could not be sustained unless the accused cursed God’s name, in which case the punishment was to be death by stoning, with the corpse then hung from a tree.
- And then, the formal meeting place of the Sanhedrin was to be in a certain place in the temple, but here they were meeting in secrecy in the house of the high priest.
This is not a legal trial. They aren’t exactly doing things by the book. But what we know about the Jewish leaders is that they care more about expediency than they do about fairness. They’re not looking for a fair trial of Jesus; they want to get rid of Jesus, as quickly as possible.
Back in Mark 14:1, it said that “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him.” Here in verse 55, it says that “the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death.”
Their intentions are clear: They want Jesus dead. But since the Jews were under the authority of Rome, they couldn’t just dish out capital punishment without Rome’s involvement, so they would find Jesus guilty, and then they would hand Him over to the Romans for them to put Him to death.
And so, the Sanhedrin gather up these false witnesses to testify that Jesus had violated the law. According to Deuteronomy 19:15, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”
The problem, however, is that the testimonies of these witnesses don’t agree, which usually, in most courtroom trials, leads to the charges being dismissed. But as we know, this is not a normal courtroom trial.
The only thing they can pin on Jesus is that He said something to the effect of, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”
And in John 2:19, Jesus does say something similar to this. Jesus had just finished clearing out the temple, and John records Jesus saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” There doesn’t seem to be much discrepancy here. That sounds very much like what Jesus said.
What they infer from Jesus’ statement is that Jesus is speaking about the destruction of the temple. And in part, they are correct. In Mark 13, one of Jesus’ disciples is admiring the splendour of the temple, and Jesus says to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” There is a sense in which Jesus is speaking of the destruction of the temple.
And since the temple was at the center of Jewish life and worship, this was a serious charge against Jesus. But what Jesus is saying actually goes deeper than that. Jesus’ statement is actually more offensive than they realize.
You see, what Jesus is saying is that He is replacing the temple as the place where God meets His people. He is saying that He will be crucified, dead and buried, but He will be raised to life, three days later. His resurrected body will replace the earthly temple. There will be no need for the temple, for Jesus will be the temple of God’s people.
This is extraordinary evidence against Jesus. But in terms of the testimony they were seeking against Jesus, “they found none.” Finally, in verse 60, the high priest presses Jesus, saying, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”
But it says that “he remained silent and made no answer.” Like Isaiah 53:7 says, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
This motif of silence has been a common theme throughout Mark’s Gospel. Jesus does not come out and say who He really is. In Mark 1, Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit, who knows who Jesus is, but Jesus silences the unclean spirit. Later, Jesus heals a leper and commands him to say nothing to no one. In Mark 3, Jesus healed many with unclean spirits, ordering the spirits to not make Him known. In Mark 5, after Jesus raised a little girl back to life, He charged the parents to tell no one about it, which is funny, because people are going to find out that a girl who once was dead is now alive.
The whole of Jesus’ ministry has been a secret, which seems contrary to what we would expect Jesus to do. But the reason why was because Jesus’ time had not yet come. The purpose of Jesus’ silence was so that those who were opposed to Jesus would grow in their opposition to Jesus, while those who had ears to hear Jesus’ message would grow in their love for Jesus. And here, as He has throughout His ministry, Jesus remains silent.
There is a tendency in us to want to defend ourselves. When someone makes an accusation against us, we immediately get on the defensive: “Who told you that? Oh, that person. Well, they don’t know what they’re talking about. In fact, did you know this about them?” And we defend ourselves.
And it’s easy for us to do, because this was the reaction of our first parents when God called them out for eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. God asks Adam, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And Adam immediately begins to defend himself: “It’s that woman you gave me. She sure is trouble. Can you believe that she ate from the tree that you commanded us not to eat, and then gave some of it to me, and I ate?”
And then, Eve responds, “Me?! It was the serpent’s fault. The devil made me do it. While I was minding my own business, he came over and deceived me, and I ate. It’s not my fault.”
You see, we naturally want to defend ourselves. When I make a post on social media, and someone begins to criticize it, I feel the need to want to correct the other person, but the reality is that I just want to make myself look good. I don’t want to be found in the wrong. But if we are standing for truth, then we don’t need to defend ourselves, because the truth will eventually come to light.
The One who had every right to defend Himself before mankind does not defend Himself. In silence, He takes every slander, every negative word, every blow. Though He could have mounted His defence, He does not retaliate. And in verse 61, the high priest again asks, in the most straightforward way possible, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
What the high priest is asking Jesus is whether He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Everything in Mark’s Gospel has been climaxing to this point. This all started at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Mark 1:1 says, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark doesn’t hold anything back. He is straightforward about his view of Jesus. And yet, throughout Mark’s Gospel, there is this tension. Is this who Jesus really is? Will the people understand? But Jesus has never said who He really is. And it is here before the highest-ranking Jewish leader, where Jesus, under divine oath, is called to bear witness to His true identity, and He does not flinch, but answers directly, “I am.”
Now, we must understand that Jesus isn’t simply answering the high priest’s question. He isn’t simply saying, “Yes, that is in fact who I am.” Jesus is going all the way back to Exodus 3, where God is speaking to Moses from the burning bush, and Moses asks God what His name is that he shall say to the people, and God says, “I AM WHO I AM.”
When Jesus says, “I am,” Jesus is making the claim of equality with God. But He doesn’t stop there. No, He continues by quoting from Daniel 7:13-14, which says, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
Jesus is saying, “I am that guy. I am the Messiah. I am the divine Son of God. I am the One who was promised back in Genesis 3:15, who will bruise the head of the serpent. I am the One who was prophesied about by the prophets. I am the One whom you have been waiting for, all these years. ‘I am who I am.’”
And Jesus is saying that they will see His vindication. When He is raised from the dead and ascends to heaven, they will know that He is who He is. And the terrifying reality for them is that they will one day stand before Him on trial when He returns in glory. On that great Judgment Day, the roles will be reversed.
But they do not have eyes to see or ears to hear. At this, it says that “the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’” And verse 65 says that “some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the guards received him with blows.”
This was what the prophet Isaiah prophesied, in Isaiah 50:6: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” This was what Jesus predicted back in Mark 10:33-34: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
For Jesus to make the claim He is making would be outright blasphemy, unless it were true. In Revelation 1:5, the apostle John refers to Jesus Christ as “the faithful witness.” Ironically, the testimony that the Sanhedrin seek against Jesus doesn’t come from the false witnesses, but from Jesus Himself. His true confession concerning Himself is deserving of death in their eyes.
2. That’s the first trial—the trial of Jesus. The second trial is taking place in the courtyard below. It’s the trial of Peter.
In verse 54, as Jesus is being led away to be tried by the Jewish leaders, we are told that “Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest.”
Just a few hours earlier, Jesus had told His disciples that all of them would fall away on account of Him. And Peter made his bold declaration: “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And after Jesus tells Peter that he will not only fall away, but that he will actually deny Jesus, three times, Peter says, in an even bolder declaration, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.”
Peter is about to be put on trial. He is in the courtyard when one of the servant girls of the high priest sees him warming himself by the fire, sitting by the very guards who likely had just arrested Jesus. And she says to Peter, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”
She is entirely correct about Peter, and we would expect Peter in this moment to stand up and declare his allegiance to King Jesus. But instead, Peter says, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” It’s not enough for Peter to say, “I don’t know what you mean.” Peter goes even further by saying, “I don’t even understand what you mean. It’s like you're speaking another language to me. What you're saying doesn’t make sense.”
Then, it says that Peter “went out into the gateway.” He moves to a different location, so that he doesn’t have to be put in that predicament, again. But what Peter doesn’t realize is that moving to a different location means moving further away from Jesus. A change of location will not change the state of his heart.
And it says that “the rooster crowed.” Jesus had told Peter that before the rooster crows twice, Peter will deny Him, three times. This rooster was a call to repentance. It was a warning sign to Peter, a prick of the conscience, to change his current course.
But in verse 69, the servant girl sees Peter again and begins to say to those around her, “This man is one of them.” Again, Peter denied it. Now, the bystanders are all coming together and talking about Peter, making the claim, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”
Galilee was up in the north and Jerusalem was in the south, which meant that you were dealing with different cultures, but also different accents and different ways of speaking.
Back in 2015, Helena and I, with the only child we had at the time, Liam, went to Ireland for a vacation. We were there for a couple of days by ourselves, touring around Dublin, before Helena’s brother, Cragg, and his wife joined us. And then, we started visiting Helena and Cragg’s distant relatives throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
And in terms of accents, it was really quite fascinating. We visited with one family in the north, who had an accent, but you could easily understand them, no problem. But then, we went down south and visited with Helena and Cragg’s second cousin once removed, who had married a guy from the other side of the country. And we could understand her alright, but there was not a chance in this world that we could understand him.
Now, I’m pretty good with accents. I can track what people are saying, for the most part. But this guy would say something, and I would just sit there and be like, “Yeah, I’ve got nothing.” I had no clue what he was saying. He could have been speaking another language, like Gaelic, for all I knew. And his wife just laughed, and said that he gets misheard all the time, and that it comes from a certain dialect in a certain part of Ireland.
Now, if you knew the different dialects, then you would be able to tell that this guy was from this part of the country. And that’s essentially what we’re seeing here with the accusation of the bystanders that Peter was a Galilean. They’re saying, “Your accent gives you away. You’re from Galilee. We can hear it in your voice. And we know that this Jesus was from Galilee, so you must be with Him.”
But Peter denies it in the strongest way possible. In verse 71, it says that “he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak.’” Do you notice that Peter denies Jesus without ever using His name? He cannot bring himself to say the name of Jesus, but can only refer to Him as “this man of whom you speak.”
Mark notes that Peter’s trial ends bitterly, as the rooster does, in fact, crow twice. Luke, in his Gospel, records that, in that moment, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” And Peter remembers what Jesus predicted and realizes what he has just done, and it says that “he broke down and wept.”
There are two trials taking place here. As pastor and theologian Kevin DeYoung puts it, “Jesus is attacked by false witnesses but makes a true confession; Peter is approached by true witnesses but makes a false confession. Jesus is confronted by the most powerful people in Jerusalem, yet He stands His ground; Peter is confronted by the least powerful people in Jerusalem, and he is a coward. For Jesus, everything happens just as He predicted; for Peter, everything happens contrary to his own prediction. Jesus ends up looking like a defeated Messiah through no fault of His own; Peter ends up being a defeated disciple through no fault but his own.”
Two trials that are completely opposite. And it begs the question: What sort of witness will we be? Will we be the kind of witness who caves under pressure? When we face persecution or tribulation, will we deny Jesus? Will we go out of our way to make our commitment to Christ less obvious?
Last week, our family went out to Athabasca for pizza from Dominos. Helena made the suggestion that we get pizza and eat it by the river, and then the kids could play at the playground, afterwards. This was before the river swelled. The picnic table we were eating at, a few days ago, is now under water. But we ate our supper and went over to the boat launch to throw rocks into the river. And there was a guy sitting at a park bench, and we didn’t say anything for the first few minutes, but then he strikes up a conversation.
He recently moved to Athabasca for work on the pipeline, but the coronavirus had stalled the project. And he started talking about how people are going to be dealing with more emotional and mental issues as a result of the pandemic. And you would think that that would have been a perfect transition to tell him about the hope that is in Christ. But instead, I told him it was good talking with him, and we continued on to the playground.
In that moment, I was no different than Peter. I didn’t necessarily deny Jesus. It’s not like this guy asked me if I was a Christian, and I outrightly denied it. But when approached by this guy, I didn’t make a true confession about Jesus. I was silent at a time when I should have spoken.
What sort of witness will we be? This is not a question for us to answer when our non-Christian neighbour or co-worker ask us for a reason for the hope that is in us; this is a question for us to answer now. Peter’s example is a reminder for us to be a faithful witness to Jesus in our words and in our actions. We need to resolve now to be a faithful witness to Jesus, or it will be more difficult then.
What Peter illustrates for us is the danger for those who want easy discipleship. In Mark 8:34, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Peter follows Jesus, but follows at a distance. Instead of denying himself, he denies Jesus. Instead of taking up his cross, he says whatever he can to make sure he isn’t identified with Jesus. He has forsaken costly discipleship for a life of safe observation.
And we need to honestly look at our lives and see if this is us. We might believe what the Scriptures say about this Jesus, but we don’t want to be questioned about it. We don’t want it to go any further, and in fact, we would actually be embarrassed, if we were found out. What sort of witness will we be for Christ?
We must honestly look at our lives. But then, we must look to Jesus. We must be honest about our failure and about our sin, but then we must glory in the cross of Jesus Christ, for it is in the cross, where we are promised grace and forgiveness.
The good news of Jesus Christ is found in the look that Jesus gives Peter from across the courtyard. Peter had just denied Jesus for the third time, and the rooster had just crowed, and Jesus looks at Peter, but it’s not a look of condemnation; it’s a look of compassion.
Jesus would suffer what He would suffer for that. Jesus’ true confession would stand in place of Peter’s denial. And the good news for each one of us is that there is grace and forgiveness for all those who turn from their sin and turn to Jesus, as Jesus would suffer for us, as well.
Jesus made a true confession for all of our denial, so that when we repent, God removes our sin from us and remembers it no more. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The devil, the great accuser of God’s people, cannot use our sin against us when we stand before God in His divine court, because Christ suffered and died on our behalf. Our faith in His completed work on the cross is sufficient.
“Man of sorrows what a name for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim: Hallelujah, what a Savior!”
See the treachery committed against Jesus, see the injustice against Him, see the beating and the spitting and the ridicule, and run to Jesus. Run to the cross. Run to the place where your sin is great, but His mercy is more. Run to your Suffering Saviour, who made the way of salvation possible for you. Let’s pray…