The tears of opportunity

by Scott Grant

Matthew 26:57-75


Understanding failure

"Hearts of Darkness," the fascinating documentary on the making of the film "Apocalypse Now," shows that Francis Ford Copola, the director of the film, was convinced that he was failing. He was so worried about failing that he even began hoping that he would get hurt, even paralyzed, so that he could find a graceful way to bow out of finishing the film. For Copola, being paralyzed was a more pleasing alternative than failure.

We fear failure as if it were the worst thing that could happen. So we take great pains to make sure it doesn't happen. When we do fail, we beat ourselves mercilessly. We carry this outlook on failure with us into our lives of faith. Following Jesus becomes, then, a grand effort not to fail. That's not how Jesus looks at failure. He is not surprised by our failure. In fact, he expects it. He's not put off by it. One might even say he delights in it, for failure is an opportunity.

It was an opportunity for Peter. Jesus predicted Peter's failure, and when he failed, he wept bitterly. What failed, more than Peter, was his concept of following Jesus. He needed to change his mind about what Jesus was all about. The tears were part of Peter's spiritual formation. The bitter tears of failure are an opportunity to find out who we are as followers of Jesus and what it means for us to follow him.

Stage set for two trials (26:57-58)

Matthew 26:57-58:

(57) And those who had seized Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together. (58) But Peter also was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and entered in, and sat down with the officers to see the outcome.

These two verses set the stage for a two-part story. The main players are Jesus and Peter. Verse 57 introduces Jesus, and verses 59 through 68 focus on him. Verse 58 introduces Peter, and verses 69 through 75 focus on him. Matthew's brilliant narrative shows that both Jesus and Peter were put on trial, Jesus by the Sanhedrin and Peter by the officers. In the way that Matthew tells the story from the heavenly perspective, Jesus is on trial for being the Christ, and Peter is on trial for being a follower of Christ. Both are guilty as charged.

After Jesus is arrested, he is taken to Caiaphas, the high priest; the scribes and the elders; other priests; and the entire Sanhedrin, the top Jewish council (26:59). Caiaphas, the scribes and the elders had gathered in his court to plot against Jesus (26:3-4), and they have gathered there again to put him on trial.

Peter is following Jesus, but "at a distance." His purpose in following Jesus is "to see the outcome." Earlier, Peter told Jesus, in so many words, that he'd follow him anywhere (26:33-35), but that was under the premise that Jesus was the Christ and that he would be triumphant (16:21-23). His vision of who Jesus is and what it means to follow Jesus has taken a hit, but he still has hope. Peter hopes that Jesus - and his vision of Jesus as the Christ - will be vindicated and that the Jewish leaders will fall in line. If Peter gets too close to Jesus before the outcome is determined, he could be arrested and put on trial himself, and he'd end up sacrificing himself for a cause he doesn't believe in. Unbeknownst to him, Peter will be put on trial anyway, by the bystanders in the courtyard. His trial will cause him to face into reality.

Like Peter, we too entertain a vision of who Jesus is and what it means for us to follow him. From time to time that vision takes a hit, when things don't turn out the way we expected them to. We, too, then keep our distance from Jesus, afraid that he'll ask us to do things that aren't according to our version of good. Like Peter, we do everything we can to determine the outcome before entering into something that feels threatening. We walk around the issue, analyzing it from every angle, and then circle back again. We want an iron-clad guarantee that the outcome will be favorable. But we know there are no guarantees, so we become tentative, and we may not even be sure of what's true anymore. We become frustrated with ourselves, wondering what's wrong with us. Like Peter, at these times we have the opportunity to face into reality.

The trial of Jesus (26:59-68)

Matthew 26:59-68:

(59) Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; (60) and they did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, (61) and said, "This man stated, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.'" (62) And the high priest stood up and said to Him, "Do You make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?" (63) But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, "I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God." (64) Jesus said to him, "You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." (65) Then the high priest tore his robes, saying, "He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; (66) what do you think?" They answered and said, "He is deserving of death!" (67) Then they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, (68) and said, "Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?"

The Sanhedrin seeks false testimony against Jesus because it doesn't think true testimony will be enough to condemn him to death. The Jewish leaders need to convince not only their people but the Roman authorities, to whom they are subject, that Jesus is worthy of death, so they need evidence that he is a threat to Rome. In order to convince Rome, they have to first convict him according to Jewish law, so they're looking for evidence that makes him guilty in both spheres. The many false witnesses couldn't provide the necessary testimony.

Then two witnesses, whom Matthew doesn't identify as false, come forward. What these two witnesses say, though they've jumbled things up a bit, is substantially true. The precise words that the witnesses put in the mouth of Jesus do not appear in the gospels, though his words in John 2:19 come close, even though there he was referring to the destruction of his body, not the temple (John 2:21). Nevertheless, he had pronounced and acted out God's judgment on the temple (21:12-17, 23:38, 24:1-2), and he did proclaim himself greater than the temple (12:6). He would, in fact, rebuild the temple, in a spiritual sense (Ephesians 2:19-22). The testimony of these two witnesses is significant in that it could be used to establish Jesus as a rebel bent on destroying the temple, Israel's sacred symbol. Such intentions would be offensive to Jews and threatening to Rome, which had an interest in maintaining the established order. The testimony, if true, also pictured Jesus as making a claim to royalty, for Israelite kings built the temple, and it was expected that the king, the Messiah, would restore the temple (2 Samuel 7:12-14, Zechariah 6:12). Jesus could therefore be presented to Rome as making a claim to kingship, another threat to Rome (27:11).

The high priest asks Jesus two questions, neither of which Jesus answers. First he asks, "Do you make no answer?" Jesus won't deny the testimony against him. Second, the high priest asks, "What is it that these men are testifying against you?" Jesus won't offer any explanation of their testimony. How are we to understand Jesus' silence? First, his silence is a fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 53:7). Second, he doesn't deny the testimony, probably because it is substantially true. Third, he doesn't explain the testimony, probably because they wouldn't understand it and this is neither the time nor the place. To sort out the truth of the testimony would require a lengthy explanation.

The testimony gives the high priest the opening he's been looking for. Because building the temple was connected with the Messiah, the high priest adjures, or charges, Jesus "by the living God," under oath, to tell them if he is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. Caiaphas, of course, does not believe that Jesus is the Christ; his question is designed to solicit evidence that can be used against Jesus. Jesus has repudiated everything that the Caiaphas believes in. And if Jesus were the Christ, the one who was going to deliver Israel from her enemies, there's no way he'd be on trial before Israel's high priest and on his way to being delivered up to Rome, the biggest enemy. Or so Caiaphas thinks.

Jesus has an interesting answer. He says, literally, "You said." His response is an idiom that seems to mean that the answer is contained within Caiaphas' question. He says in so many words that Caiaphas himself has answered his own question, and that answer is yes, Jesus is the Christ. By letting Caiaphas' words speak for themselves, Jesus is saying that he is under no obligation to subject himself to the priest's oath. Jesus answered Judas with the same words when Judas, in response to Jesus' statement that one of the disciples would betray him, said, "Surely it is not I, Rabbi?" (26:25). Just as surely as Judas betrayed Jesus, Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus then turns the tables on Caiaphas. With his next words, he takes the judge's seat, so to speak, and puts the Sanhedrin on trial (the pronoun "you" is plural, so he is speaking to others in addition to the high priest). The judges are judged. The high priest said, "I adjure you," but Jesus says to him, literally, "I tell you," and what he tells them is that he will be vindicated and that they will see it.

Jesus invokes a scene from Daniel 7, where Daniel sees a vision of dominion being taken away from the "beasts," the kingdoms of the world, and "one like a Son of Man" coming up on the clouds of heaven to receive an everlasting kingdom from the Ancient of Days, who is God. In God's courtroom, as pictured in Daniel 7, the kingdoms of the world are judged, but the Son of Man is vindicated. The Son of Man is the representative of the true people of God, and when Jesus identifies himself as such, he's also telling the members of the Sanhedrin that they are not God's people. Jesus says that he, the Son of Man, will be "sitting at the right hand of Power," in the position of authority next to "Power," a Jewish title for God, and that he will be "coming on the clouds of heaven." In Daniel's vision, the clouds of heaven were a method of divine transportation to carry the Son of Man "up" to God. Jesus is saying, then, that he will ascend to God, be vindicated, receive an everlasting kingdom and sit in authority over the world, including Caiaphas. This will mean the liberation of true Israel from the power of the beasts, the kingdoms of the world, and that's what it means for us, as Jesus reigns now from heaven, in authority over the whole world.

Jesus says to Caiaphas and the rest, literally, that "from now on" they will see it. At this moment, then, they are seeing the vindication of Jesus, as he turns the tables on them and becomes their eternal judge in their makeshift courtroom. They will also see it in the future, when they see events that prove the vindication of Jesus, culminating in the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by Rome in 70 A.D. Jesus would be vindicated as prophet, for he predicted the destruction of the temple (21:12-17, 23:38, 24:1-2).

Tearing one's clothes was a sign of mourning or repentance. It was also a sign that one had heard blasphemy. Even if Jesus were lying, what he said does still not qualify as blasphemy, but the Caiaphas is offended enough and now desperate enough to convict Jesus to call it blasphemy. The Sanhedrin agrees that Jesus is deserving of death, and they now hope they have enough evidence to convince the Jews and Romans of their case. But before they take their next political step, they spit in his face and beat him, mocking his supposed authority. If he's in authority over them and they're supposed to see it, their reasoning goes, he should be able to prevent such treatment. They demand that as the Christ, the one who predicts his own vindication, that he prophesy who is hitting him.

Peter doesn't see all this, but if he had, he would have been horrified. If Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish leaders, of all people, shouldn't be treating Jesus like this. They are the people that Jesus should win over. They are the ones who must recognize his greatness and submit to his leadership. Jesus, of course, is the Christ, but for Peter, following Christ will mean involvement with different people than he envisioned. The establishment simply will not be won.

Likewise, following Jesus may mean involvement with people who respond differently than we envisioned. Our friends, co-workers, neighbors, ministry partners, girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses may not look and act the way we think they should. It all may be significantly harder than we thought it would be. Have you ever noticed a common theme in your fantasies? In any of them, is there ever a scenario is which something is difficult? No, everything is easy. And where are people in our fantasies? They either meet all our needs or they are absent. Jesus' vision for our lives is not so easy. He has higher goals for us that involve real relationships with real people who don't meet all our needs. Instead, he himself wants to meet our needs, he wants to show us that others can meet some of our needs in the strangest ways and he wants to teach us how to love. Along the way, who knows what kinds of people Jesus is going to drop in our path?

I remember hearing a former missionary speak a few years ago. He ministered in the jungles of South America. When he first went, he said, "I wanted to work with a big tribe, but God wanted me to work with a small tribe."

The trial of Peter (26:69-75)

Matthew 26:69-75:

(69) Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a certain servant-girl came to him and said, "You too were with Jesus the Galilean." (70) But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you are talking about." (71) And when he had gone out to the gateway, another servant-girl saw him and said to those who were there, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth." (72) And again he denied it with an oath, "I do not know the man." (73) And a little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Surely you too are one of them; for the way you talk gives you away." (74) Then he began to curse and swear, "I do not know the man!" And immediately a cock crowed. (75) And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, "Before a cock crows, you will deny Me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.

Peter, too, is on trial, though he doesn't know it. Earlier, he said he was willing to die with Jesus (26:35), but now, as events propel Jesus toward his death, Peter is keeping his distance, sitting outside in the courtyard of the high priest - close enough to see the outcome but far enough away to make a break if the outcome is unfavorable. Peter may have been willing to die with Jesus, but Jesus has messed with Peter's concept of the Messiah so badly that he now doubts whether this cause is worth dying for. What is on trial, really, is Peter's version of life, which will fail.

A certain servant girl, or, more literally, "one" servant girl comes forward against Peter. The word translated "servant girl" appears in the diminutive form of that word. Jesus faced a barrage of false witnesses, but Peter only has to stand up to one little servant girl. The charge against Peter? "You too were with Jesus the Galilean." Just as Jesus was charged with being the Christ, Peter is charged with being a follower of Christ. Jesus did not deny the charge against him. Peter quickly denies the charge against him, though it is true. It's not enough for Peter to deny the charge; he has to do so "before them all." Peter launches something of a pre-emptive strike against further inquiry from others, but it fails, of course.

In an interesting narrative twist, the Sanhedrin in the trial of Jesus was trying to obtain false testimony. In his own trial, Peter provides the false testimony himself, denying that he is a follower of Jesus.

Peter feels the awful truth closing in on him, so he moves out to what he thinks is a safer place, the gateway of the courtyard, but the truth tracks him down. This time another servant girl says to others nearby, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth." From the perspective of the narrative, the girl is responding to Peter's denial before them all. If it's the word of the first servant girl against that of Peter, another servant girl comes forward to make it two against one. Now there are two true witnesses against Peter, just as there were two true witnesses against Jesus. The charge is getting more specific: Jesus is now identified as being from a specific town, not just a region. So Peter has to meet the growing number of witnesses and their more specific testimony with a more intense denial. This time, he takes an oath. The high priest tried to force an oath upon Jesus, but Peter takes one voluntarily. His denial is more specific also, going from "I do not know what you are talking about" to "I do not know the man."

The court has now heard the two witnesses and the defense, and it renders its verdict. The bystanders believe the witnesses, not Peter. A literal translation of the word translated "bystanders" would be "those who were standing." Just as the high priest stood in seeking a verdict against Jesus (26:62), those nearby are standing to render their verdict against Peter. They are convinced by Peter's manner of speech, which could be a reference to his northern accent or the shaky way in which he defended himself. Jesus told the high priest that the high priest's question as to whether Jesus was the Christ gave away the answer. Jesus said to Caiaphas, in so many words, "You have said it yourself." As to the question of whether Peter is a follower of Jesus, the bystanders tell Peter, in so many words, "You have said it yourself." The charge against Peter gets more specific still. They say, "Surely you are one of them" - one of Jesus' followers. The word "surely" makes the charge more emphatic, the appearance of the pronoun "you" in the Greek text makes it more emphatic, and the tense of the verb is now present. Earlier, the witnesses said "you were with Jesus" and "this man was with Jesus." Now they say "you to are one of them."

Peter, of course, has to turn up his denial a notch in order to meet the verdict. He "begins" to curse and swear; he's ready to do whatever it takes to convince them that he is not a follower of Christ. He "curses," which may mean the invocation of a curse upon himself in the event that he is lying. He swears, taking an oath again.

He was just beginning to deny his association with Jesus, but something interrupts him. A cock crows. And Peter knows that an even higher court has rendered its verdict, endorsing the verdict of the earthly court. He remembers the words of Jesus from earlier in the night. When Jesus said all of the disciples would fall away and Peter said he would never fall way, Jesus told Peter, "Before a cock crows, you will deny me three times." Jesus predicted that Peter, despite his vow that he would never fall away, would fall away this very night, before morning, signified by a cock's crow. Peter was supposed to deny himself (16:24), but instead he denies Jesus.
By the way, the members of the Sanhedrin mocked Jesus and tell him, "Prophesy to us, you Christ," and here, the same night, his prophesy regarding Peter has been fulfilled. He predicted that Peter would deny him three times, and Peter does so. That means his more significant prophecy, that "you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven," is trustworthy.

The crow of the cock pierces Peter's heart and catches him in mid-denial. He leaves the courtyard. Jesus was guilty of being the Messiah, owned up to it and got spit on, beaten and mocked by the court that convicted him. Peter gets out of Dodge.

What happens when the cock crows? Peter had earlier expressed belief that Jesus was the Christ (16:16), but subsequent developments have caused him to question that belief. But if Jesus could predict Peter's actions so exactly, how could he not be the Christ, even though he's not acting like the Christ is supposed to act? This question must be wreaking havoc in Peter's heart.

In response to the cock's crow, Peter does something else. Rather, he stops doing something he was doing. He stops denying that he is a follower of Jesus. The simple fact of the matter is that Peter is a follower of Jesus. Despite his best efforts, he cannot deny who he is. Two servant girls say he's a follower of Jesus, the bystanders render the verdict that he is a follower of Jesus, Jesus predicted that he would be convicted as a follower of Jesus and even the stupid rooster says he's a follower of Jesus. Jesus has disappointed Peter by being the wrong kind of Messiah and submitting to arrest, but Peter loves Jesus. He is a follower of Jesus, and he will follow Jesus.
But first, he weeps bitter tears. He has tried to be someone he's not, and it has not worked. Bitter tears flow from the man trying to understand who Jesus is as the Christ. And who is Peter? Is he a follower, or isn't he? He said he would follow Jesus anywhere, but he wasn't able to follow Jesus any further than the courtyard of the high priest. But everyone in the courtyard said he was a follower, and ultimately, he stopped denying it. He crashes into the harsh reality: He is a follower of Jesus, but following Jesus is a lot different than he thought it would be, because Jesus' version of the Christ is a lot different than Peter's.

With his previous outlook on life, he doesn't have what it takes to follow Jesus in this new reality. Peter had to fail. He failed at something he had no business succeeding in - following Jesus with his previous concept of what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ and for him to follow Jesus. He failed because his version of reality failed. So the tears flow. And as the tears flow, he is being prepared to find out who he is, to find out who Jesus is. He is a broken man - exactly the kind of man Jesus is looking for. Jesus is in no way discouraged by Peter's failure. He expected it and even predicted it. The tears of Peter's biggest failure, then, water the seeds of his discipleship. He'll find out who Jesus is, and that the true version of Messiaship is significantly different from his. Peter will find out who he himself is. Not many days from now, he will "take his stand" on the day of Pentecost, in this very city, and preach a sermon about Christ that resulted in the conversion of 3,000 people (Acts 2:14, 41).

If we have chosen to follow Jesus, we too will face similar crises in identity as our version of reality fails to match up with what's really true - who Jesus really is and what he is really doing in our lives. Jesus may be leading us to a place that we never thought he would, and we may fight it. The truth is that Jesus wants us there, and if that's the truth, we'll be increasingly uncomfortable in the place that we formerly thought was comfortable. Peter felt fine in the courtyard, but then the truth closed in. We feel fine in the courtyards of our lives, so to speak, but then the truth closes in. We feel increasingly anxious and want to move to an even safer place. But ultimately, if we're followers of Jesus, we can't effectively deny who we are. We can deny it, but like Peter, we won't feel good about it. We'll feel as if we're living in two worlds, and our best efforts to compensate for the incongruity will fail to quiet the anxiety within.

Then one day the cock crows, so to speak. We hear something or see something or feel something which precipitates an internal crisis of sorts. We're not sure what's real anymore, and perhaps tears begin to flow. As we wrestle with reality, there is a release of sorts. What's unreal slips from our clutches, and we are reminded who we are, and we know we're where we shouldn't be. We know that Jesus is our Lord, that he is leading somewhere else and that we must follow him there. We now want to follow Jesus wherever he leads, because we're convinced of his goodness. We find out who we are, followers of Jesus; we find out who Jesus is, the Christ, who leads us to good places; and we follow him there.

Rich Mullins sings, "And step by step you'll lead me / And I will follow you all of my days." The words express confidence that the Lord will lead and that we, as followers of Jesus, will follow, when we know where the Lord is leading.

A grand opportunity

Jesus is in no way discouraged by our failures. We have to fail! Our version of reality has to fail! We have to fail at things we have no business succeeding in. Just as Jesus expected Peter's failure, he expects our failure, and is not in the least discouraged by it. He considers our failure a grand opportunity. The tears of our failure only water the seeds of our discipleship. Failure then becomes something not to be avoided at all costs. Failure, in fact, is unavoidable. More than that, it is necessary. The bitter tears of failure are an opportunity to find out who we are as followers of Jesus and what it means for us to follow him.

- SCG, 5-3-98