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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 3 - The Great Denial

By James Stalker


      To the ecclesiastical trial of our Lord there is a side-piece, over which we must linger before proceeding to the civil trial. At the very hour when in the hall of the high priest's house Christ was uttering His great confession, one of His disciples was, in the court of the same building, pouring out denial after denial.

      I.

      When Jesus was bound in Gethsemane and led away back to Jerusalem, all His disciples forsook Him and fled. They disappeared, I suppose, among the bushes and trees of the garden and escaped into the surrounding country or wherever they thought they would be safe.

      But two of the Twelve--St. Peter and St. John, who tells the story--soon rallied from the first panic and followed, at a distance,[1] the band in whose midst their Master was. Keeping in the shadow of the trees by the roadside, keeping in the shadow of the houses in the streets, they stole after the moving mass. At last, when it got near its destination--the palace of the high priest---they hurried forward; and St. John went in with the crowd; but somehow, probably through irresolution, St. Peter was left outside in the street; and the door was shut.

      To understand what follows, it is necessary to describe more in detail the construction of such a house as the high priest's palace; for it was very unlike most of our houses. A Western house looks into the street, but an Oriental into its own interior, having no opening to the front except a great arched gateway, shut with a heavy door or gate. When this door is opened, it discloses a broad passage, penetrating the front building and leading into a square, paved courtyard, open to the sky, round which the house is built, and into which its rooms, both upstairs and downstairs, look. A similar arrangement is to be seen in some large warehouses in our own cities, or you may have seen it in large hotels on the Continent. It only requires to be added that on the side of the passage, inside the outer gate, there is a room or lodge for the porter or portress, who opens and shuts the gate; and in the gate there is a little wicket by which individuals can be let in or out.

      When the band conducting Jesus appeared in front of the palace, no doubt the portress opened the large gate to admit them and then shut it again. They passed under the archway into the court, which they crossed, and then entered one of the apartments overlooking the courtyard. But the police and other underlings employed in the arrest, their work being now done, stayed outside, and, as it was midnight and the weather was cold, they lighted a fire there under the open sky and, gathering round it, began to warm themselves.

      As has been said, John went in through the gate with the crowd, but Peter was somehow shut out. John, who seems to have occupied a higher social position than the rest of the Twelve, was known to the high priest, and, therefore, probably was acquainted with the palace and knew the servants; and, when he noticed that Peter had been left out, he went to the portress and got her to let him in by the wicket-gate.

      It was a friendly act; and yet, as the event proved, it was unintentionally an ill turn: John led Peter into temptation. The best of friends may do this sometimes to one another; for the situation into which one man may enter without peril may be dangerous to another. One man may mingle freely in company which another cannot enter without terrible risks. There are amusements in which one Christian can take part, though they would ruin another if he touched them. A mind matured and disciplined may read books which would kindle the fire of hell in a mind less experienced. There are always two things that go to the making of a temptation: there is the particular set of circumstances to be encountered on the one hand, and there is the peculiar character or history of the person entering into the situation on the other. We need to remember this if we are to defend either ourselves or others against temptation.

      II.

      John no doubt, as soon as he got Peter inside the door, hurried away across the court into the hall where Jesus was, to witness the proceedings.

      Not so Peter. He was not familiar with the place as John was; and he had the shyness of a plain man at the sight of the inside of a great house. Besides, he was under fear of being recognized as a follower of Christ and apprehended. Now also the unlucky blow he had made at Malchus at the gate of Gethsemane had to be paid for, because it greatly increased his chance of detection.

      He remained, therefore, just inside the great door, watching from the shadows of the archway what was going on inside, and, without knowing it, himself being watched by the portress from her coigne of vantage. He was ill at ease; for he did not know what to do. He did not dare to go, like John, into the judgment-hall. Perhaps he half wished he could get out into the street again. He was in a trap.

      At last he strolled forward to the group round the fire and, sitting down among them, commenced to warm himself. It was a miscellaneous group there in the glare of the fire, and no notice was taken of him. He took his place as if he were one of them.

      It was, however, a dangerous situation in another sense than he supposed. It was of bodily peril he was in terror; he did not anticipate danger to his soul; yet this was very near. It is always dangerous when a follower of Christ is sitting among Christ's enemies without letting it be known what he is. "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful." It is more than probable that when Peter sat down the air was ringing with jest and laughter about Jesus; but he did not interrupt: he kept silence and tried to look as like one of the scorners as he could. But not to confess Christ is the next step to denying Him.

      Temptation, as is its wont, came suddenly and from the most unexpected quarter. As has been said, when he was skulking beneath the archway, his movements were noted by the portress. They were suspicious, and she, with a woman's cleverness, divined his secret. Accordingly, when she was relieved at her post by another maid, she not only pointed him out to this companion and communicated to her what she thought about him, but, in passing to her room, she went up to the fire among the soldiers and, looking him straight in the face, said, with a malicious twinkle in her eye, This is one of the Nazarene's followers.

      Peter was taken completely by surprise. It was as if a mask had been torn from his face. In a moment the instinct of terror seized him; perhaps, too, the instinct of shame at being thought a disciple of Him they were mocking. Indeed, there was a further shame: how could he confess himself the disciple of the Master whom he had heard blasphemed without protest? He had denied his Master in act before he denied Him in word; and the preceding act made the word also necessary. "I do not know what you mean," he said, with a surly frown; and away she tripped laughing, having done her work quite successfully.

      None pursued the subject. But Peter was uneasy, and took the earliest opportunity of escaping from the fireside. He went away into the archway, intending apparently, if he could, to get out of the place altogether. But here the trap was closed; for the other maid, whose attention had been directed to him, and who may have been laughing from a distance at her neighbour's sally, was standing at the door of her lodge, with two or three men; and, pointing him out to them as he came forward, she said, "That is one of the Nazarene's followers."

      Poor Peter! felled to the ground a second time by the touch of a woman's hand. But how often has the saucy tongue and jeering laugh of a woman made a man ashamed of the highest and holiest! Peter flung at her an angry oath and, turning on his heel, went back again to the fire.

      He was now completely panic-stricken, and lost all self-control. He was boiling with conflicting emotions and could not keep quiet. Assuming an air of defiance and indifference, he plunged into the conversation, speaking loudly to throw off suspicion, but really defeating his own object; for he drew attention on himself, and they scanned him the more narrowly the more excited he became. A relative of Malchus, whose ear he had cut off, recognised him. His loud country voice and rough Galilean accent aroused the suspicions of others. To bait such a pretender was a welcome diversion in the idle night, and soon they were all in full cry after the quarry.

      Peter was thoroughly lost; like a bull in the arena attacked and stabbed on every side, he became blind with rage, terror and shame; and, pouring out denials, he added to them oaths and curses hurled at his adversaries.

      The latter element was, no doubt, the resurrection of an old fisherman's habit, long since dead and buried. Peter was just the man likely to be a profane swearer in his youth--the headlong man of temper, who likes to say a thing with as much emphasis and exaggeration as possible. This is a sin whose power is generally broken instantly at conversion. While there are sins which linger on for years and require to be crucified by inches, profane swearing often dies an instantaneous death. But even in this case it is difficult to get quit of the evil past. In Peter this sin may have seemed to die at his conversion; for years it had been dead and buried; yet, when the favourable moment came, lo and behold, there it was again in vigorous life. Old habits of sin are hard to kill. We seem to have killed and buried them; but do you not sometimes hear a knocking beneath the ground? do you not feel the dead thing turning in its coffin, and see the earth moving above its grave? This is the penalty of the days given to the flesh. Till his dying day the man who has been a drunkard or a fornicator, a liar or a swearer, will have to keep watch and ward over the graveyard in which he has buried the past.

      Yet there was a kind of method in the madness of Peter's profanity. When he wanted to prove that he was none of Christ's, he could not do better than take to cursing. They did not credit his assertions that he had no connection with his Master, but they could not help believing his sins. Nobody belonging to Jesus, they knew, would speak as Peter was doing. It is one of the strongest testimonies to Jesus still, that even those who do not believe in Him expect cleanness of speech and of conduct from His followers, and are astonished if those who bear His name do things which when done by others are matters of course.

      IV.

      While Peter was in the midst of this outbreak of denial and profanity, suddenly he saw the eyes of his tormentors turned away from him to another object.[2] It was Jesus, whom His enemies had condemned in the neighbouring judgment-hall, and whom they were now leading, amidst blows and reproaches, across the courtyard to the guard-room, where He was to be kept for two or three hours till a subsequent stage of His trial came on. As Jesus stepped down out of the hall into the courtyard, His ear had caught the accents of His disciple, and, stung with unutterable anguish, He turned quickly round in the direction whence the sounds proceeded. At the same moment Peter turned, and they looked one another full in the face. Jesus did not speak; for a single syllable, even of surprise, would have betrayed His disciple. Nor could He linger; for the soldiers were hurrying Him on. But for a single instant their eyes met, and soul looked into soul. Who shall say what was in that look of Christ?[3] There may be a world in a look. It may be more eloquent than a whole volume of words. It may reveal far more than the lips can ever utter. One soul may give itself away to another in a look. A look may beatify or plunge in the depths of despair.

      The look of Jesus was a talisman dissolving the spell in which Peter was held. Sin is always a kind of temporary madness; and it was manifestly so in this case. Peter was so bewildered with terror, anger and excitement that he did not know what he was doing. But the look of Jesus brought him to himself, and immediately he acted like a man. He made at once for the exit with impetuous speed.[4] And now nothing stood in his way: he got past the maid and her companions without trouble. For, indeed, the trap of temptation is only an illusion. To a resolute man it presents no obstacles.

      But further, the look of Christ was a mirror in which Peter saw himself. He saw what Christ thought of him. The past came rushing back. He was the man who, in a great and never-to-be-forgotten moment, had confessed Christ and earned His hearty recognition. He was the man who, a few hours ago, had vowed, above all the rest, that he never would deny his Master. And now he had deserted Him and wounded Him to the heart in His utmost need. He had placed himself among His enemies as one of themselves and, with oaths and curses, trodden His sacred name beneath his feet. He had put off the disciple and reverted to the rudeness of his godless youth. He was a perjured traitor. All this was in that look of Christ.

      But there was far more in it. It was a rescuing look. If any friend had met Peter rushing out from the scene of his sin, he might well have been terrified for what might happen. Where was he rushing to? Was it to the precipice over which Judas plunged not many hours afterwards? Peter was not very far from that. Had it been an angry look he saw on Christ's face when their eyes met, this might have been his fate. But there was not a spark of anger in it. There was pain, no doubt, and there was immeasurable disappointment. But deeper than these--rising up from below them and submerging them--there was the Saviour's instinct, that instinct which made Him reach out His hand and grasp Peter when he was sinking in the sea. With this same instinct He grasped Him now.

      In that look of an instant Peter saw forgiveness and unutterable love. If he saw himself in it, he saw still more his Saviour--such a revelation of the heart of Christ as he had never yet known. He saw now what kind of Master he had denied; and it broke his heart. It is this that always breaks the heart. It is not our sin that makes us weep; it is when we see what kind of Saviour we have sinned against. He wept bitterly; not to wash out his sin, but because even already he knew it had been washed out. The former weeping is a pelting shower; this is the close, prolonged downpour, which penetrates deep and fertilises the plants of the soul at their very roots.

      Indeed, this was the real beginning of all the good St. Peter was to do in the world. But we will not speak of this now. Let our last thought be of Him who, in the crisis and extremity of His own suffering, when He heard His name not only denied but mingled with oaths and curses, yielded not one moment to the resentment which such an act of treachery might have occasioned, but, forgetting His own sorrows and overmastered with the instincts of the Saviour, threw into a look such a world of kindness and of love that, in an instant, it lifted the falling disciple from the gulf and set him on the rock where he ever afterwards stood, himself a rock in the constancy of his faith and the vigor of his testimony.

      [1] makrothen .

      [2] It is to St. Luke we owe the account here given of Peter's awakening; but he also refers to the crowing of the cock, the only cause mentioned by the other Evangelists. There is no difficulty in understanding that such a psychological crisis may have been due to two lines of suggestion.

      [3] Mrs. Browning's sonnets on this subject must be quoted in full:

       "Two sayings of the Holy Scriptures beat
       Like pulses in the Church's brow and breast;
       And by them we find rest in our unrest,
       And, heart-deep in salt tears, do yet entreat
       God's fellowship, as if on heavenly seat.
       The first is JESUS WEPT; whereon is prest
       Full many a sobbing face, that drops its best
       And sweetest waters on the record sweet.
       And one is where the Christ, denied and scorned,
       LOOKED UPON PETER. Oh to render plain,
       By help of having loved a little and mourned,
       That look of sovran love and sovran pain,
       Which He, who could not sin yet suffered, turned
       On him who could reject but not sustain.

       "The Saviour looked on Peter. Ay, no word,
       No gesture of reproach; the heavens serene,
       Though heavy with armed justice, did not lean
       Their thunders that way; the forsaken Lord
       Looked only on the traitor. None record
       What that look was; none guess; for those who have seen
       Wronged lovers loving through a death-pang keen,
       Or pale-cheeked martyrs smiling to a sword,
       Have missed Jehovah at the judgment call.
       And Peter from the height of blasphemy--
       'I never knew this man'--did quail and fall,
       As knowing straight THAT GOD; and turned free,
       And went out speechless from the face of all,
       And filled the silence, weeping bitterly.

       I think: that look of Christ might seem to say:
       'Thou, Peter! art thou a common stone
       Which I at last must break My heart upon,
       For all God's charge to His high angels may
       Guard My feet better? Did I yesterday
       Wash thy feet, My beloved, that they should run
       Quick to destroy me 'neath the morning sun?
       And do thy kisses, like the rest, betray?
       The cock crows coldly. Go, and manifest
       A late contrition, but no bootless fear!
       For, when thy final need is dreariest,
       Thou shall not be denied, as I am here;
       My voice to God and angels shall attest,
       Because I KNOW this man, let him be clear.'"

      [4] This may be the meaning of epibalon; but it is much disputed. Other interpretations are: (1) = epeballe klaiein, he began to weep; (2) with head covered--in mourning.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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