The Weakness of Disciples, the Wickedness of Man, and the Strength and Righteousness of Christ (John 18:15–27)

John 18:18–19 (ESV)

18 Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. 

19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.

—John 18:18–19

Here we see the weakness of disciples, the wickedness of man, and the strength and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Peter’s weakness is the weakness of every disciple. Annas’ wickedness is the wickedness of every man. Peter’s weakness is set in contrast to Jesus’ strength. Annas’ wickedness is set in contrast to Jesus’ righteousness.

Peter fled, but he then followed. At a distance (Matthew 26:58; Mark 14:54, Luke 22:54). He followed but he then denied. Often, doing a little good for Jesus is just a set up to do a worse evil. Beware a little loyalty, a little obedience, a little following of Jesus.

After Peter first denies the Lord, we find him with the officers and servants of the high priest, standing by the fire, warming himself (v. 18). This hearkens back to the description given of Judas in v. 5, “Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.” While Jesus is being tried and stricken, Peter is denying and warming himself.

All four gospels record Peter’s denial. Mark and Luke also mention this fire. But only John adds the detail that it was a “charcoal fire.” Why is this? Just a superfluous detail? It is also only John that records Jesus appearing to seven of the disciples at Galilee and eating fish with them. In 21:9 we read, “When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread.” These are the only two places in the New Testament where this word for “charcoal fire” is used. It is after they have eaten breakfast around this charcoal fire, that Jesus thrice asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This is not the end for Peter. Peter’s denial is ugly, but it is not ultimate. Peter’s denial is not like Judas’ betrayal. And the reason it is not is because of the very High Priest Peter has denied.

“‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.’” — Luke 22:31–34

Peter denies, but Jesus keeps. See the weakness of this disciple. See the strength of Jesus. See your weakness. See Jesus’ strength. He does not lose His own. See Luther trembling after the first day of the Diet of Worms. But then, see him the next day in Christ exclaiming, “Here I stand.” Do not presume on your own strength. Trust in the Lord’s.

Annas questions Jesus. We read over that too quickly. Annas questions Jesus. The false questions the true. The shadow questions the substance. The apostate questions the faithful. The wicked questions the righteous. He questions Jesus about His disciples and His teaching. Annas is aiming to get Jesus to incriminate Himself theologically and politically—to sentence Himself to death under both Jewish and Roman law. Jesus will say nothing concerning His disciples, of whom He will not lose one, though all have fled and one lies out in the courtyard denying Him. Jesus will say that He need say nothing concerning His teaching, vv. 20–21. Jesus is exposing the injustice of these proceedings. His teaching has been public, but His arrest and trial are now private. A charge is to be established on the basis of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). They have already condemned Jesus (John 11:45–53). Now they are trying to reverse engineer the evidence.

They will gather false testimony, but even that will not serve their purposes (Matthew 26:59). Ultimately it will be upon the basis of the true claims of the true High Priest that they condemn Him for blasphemy. But their sin doesn’t carry the day. Annas will send Jesus to Caiaphas; Caiaphas who unwittingly prophesied that Jesus would die to gather into one the children of God (John 11:49–53). Man had predetermined to condemn. But long before that, God had predetermined to justify. Listen to God’s dissenting minority but overriding opinion on this trial as presented in the book of Acts.

“[T]his Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

“…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” —— Acts 2:23–24, 4:27–28

Here we do see the wickedness of man in full relief, but we also see supreme over it the grace of God. The grace of God is greater that the sin of man. Man’s sin serves to establish God’s grace. God’s grace serves to erase man’s sin. The faithful High Priest is superior to this false one and He came to die, the just for the unjust. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit ” (1 Peter 3:18).

Disciples are weak. Men are wicked. But Jesus is strong and righteous. He is righteous for wicked sinners and He is strong for weak disciples. Look to Him for salvation from your sin. Look to Him for sanctification in righteousness.

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended, 
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended? 
By foes derided, by thine own rejected, 
O most afflicted! 

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? 
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! 
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; 
I crucified thee. 

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; 
the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered. 
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded, 
God interceded. 

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, 
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; 
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, 
for my salvation. 

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, 
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, 
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, 
not my deserving.

—Johann Heermann, “Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended?”

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