Lessons from John, 18:13-27 Interrogation

John 18:13-27 Interrogation and Denial

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast September 9, 2007. Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible of Home Moravian Church. It’s been a hard week for our brothers and sisters on the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. Hurricane Felix left most residents homeless and the church is working hard to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the people. It seems that hurricanes are growing stronger and more frequent, and it is the poor who suffer most. This week brings a reminder of another kind of tragedy in which the innocent suffered. The difference between 9/11 and Hurricane Felix is that human beings were solely responsible for the events of 9/11. In both cases, though, our responsibility as Christians is similar. We need to care for those who have been harmed, do what we can to prevent future harm, and seek paths of justice and righteousness.

is now pursuing the call of God to new ministries. Kevin goes with our prayers and best wishes. On Sept. 20 at 7:00 p.m. there will be a special program in Wait Chapel titled Jazz and Job in which the story of Job is told with the help of jazz music. This could lead to a whole series of new cantatas: Samson and Disco; King David and Country and Western; Elijah Rocks; Ezekiel and a New Age; Paul and Heavy Metal; and the Gospel of John Unplugged.

The House of Annas                        This morning we are continuing in ch. 18 of John’s Gospel. Last week we saw that Jesus was arrested without putting up any resistance and then he was taken to be interrogated by the Jewish authorities. In John’s version of the story, Jesus was first taken to the house of Annas, who was the leader of a clan that controlled the high priesthood of Israel. Under Roman occupation, the position of high priest was the highest political office available to Jews. Rich and powerful Jerusalem families competed over the office, much like Roman families in the Renaissance competed over who controlled the papal chair. Not only had Annas served for years as the high priest himself, five of his sons became high priest. His son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest during the time of Pilate. It is likely that Caiaphas lived in the same palace as Annas in Jerusalem. The house Jesus was taken to was not like a modern suburban home; it was a sprawling complex that housed a large number of servants and guards.

John provides a number of details that differ the story told in the other gospels. We can’t discuss them all, but it is worthwhile noting that it is only John who records that Jesus was brought to the home of Annas. The other gospels say he was brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, for a trial at night. Since it was illegal for the Sanhedrin to meet at night, particularly to discuss a legal proceeding, John’s version makes more sense. Jesus was brought somewhere safe to be interrogated before appearing before the Sanhedrin. In modern terms, this nighttime encounter with Annas is similar to questioning in a police station after an arrest. Annas was examining the suspect in order to prepare for the trial. In the morning, Jesus was handed over to Caiaphas for the formal hearing. The other gospels focus on that event, but John passes over it in near silence. John simply reminds the reader that Caiaphas and the Council had already condemned Jesus before he was arrested. They had already decided to sacrifice him for the sake of the nation.

High Priest            One detail that has confused scholars for centuries is that John calls Annas the high priest even though Caiaphas was high priest at the time of Jesus’ arrest. There has been a remarkable amount of research on this little historical problem, and many scholars have used it as evidence that John did not know history or Jewish law. The answer to the problem appears to be quite simple. A former high priest, particularly one powerful as Annas, could still be referred to by that title as a sign of respect after leaving office. It is similar to how we refer to President Clinton or Senator Edwards even though they are no longer in office. The answer to the question of why the police took Jesus to Annas first is also rather simple. Caiaphas had to appear neutral and impartial for the trial. Annas would do the dirty work and find the best way to insure that Jesus would be executed.

Disciples in Annas’ House?                        John says that Peter and “another disciple” were able to follow Jesus into the house of Annas. This raises many questions for interpreters and historians, but it may tell us who reported what happened in the interrogation. What is strange is that this disciple is not identified. Many biblical scholars through the centuries have assumed that this was the Beloved Disciple who wrote the Gospel, but the text does not make that claim. Some scholars have suggested that it was actually Judas, who is the only one of the 12 who knew the high priest, but that seems very unlikely. I doubt that Judas would have helped Peter get into the courtyard after Peter saw him betray Jesus.

In fact, there is no reason to assume that this anonymous disciple was one of the 12. We’ve seen that the word “disciple” could refer to any follower of Jesus. John said that a member of the Sanhedrin, named Nicodemus, came to Jesus and may have become a follower. Other members of the Council spoke in his favor when they were debating what to do with the Messiah from Galilee. It is perfectly reasonable that a member of the Council or a member of Annas’ household could have been considered a disciple of Jesus. I think some scholars are too skeptical about the tradition that a disciple was allowed to attend the interrogation. Why do we not know his name? Perhaps, the church in Jerusalem protected him from arrest by keeping his identity secret. He remains one of the many anonymous figures of history who did what was in their power to do but whose names are forgotten by all but God.

Peter                        It is a more surprising that Peter would be allowed into the courtyard, since Peter was the one who had drawn a sword when Jesus was arrested. In our discussion after we went off the air last week, we decided that Peter probably had something more like a long fish knife than a military sword. Even so, he would have been considered a threat. Peter was certainly rash enough to try to find out what was happening to Jesus, and it is reasonable to assume that he would seek out an ally who could help him get into the palace. We can picture him standing outside the gate shouting out to a friend he saw inside.

This anonymous disciple spoke to the gate-keeper, who happened to be a woman, and Peter was allowed into the courtyard of the palace. She prudently asks Peter if he was one of the prisoner’s followers. She did not want to let someone in who might try to free Jesus. Peter prudently lied, and so he was allowed in. It was such a poignant lie. In order to be close to his teacher and master, Peter had to deny his teacher and master.   

All of the gospels record that it was a cold evening and the police and guards were warming themselves by a fire. John alone reports that it was a charcoal fire, which is only significant because it shows that John was not simply copying his account from the other gospels. This scene of the servants and police trying to keep warm while the prisoner was being interrogated is a very old part of the gospel narrative. It remains a compelling visual image: Peter standing with the slaves of the high priest and the police warming himself by their fire while Jesus is facing judgment inside. Could any fire warm the heart of Peter as he stood there in fear and despair? We aren’t told where the other disciple was at that time. He was probably inside observing the interrogation. But what happened to Judas who had accompanied the soldiers and police? Did he stay to give his testimony against the Messiah, to tell the high priest that Jesus spoke against the Temple and proclaimed God was his father? Unlike Matthew and Luke, John ignores Judas after the betrayal. He chose to go into the darkness and disappear.

Questioning                        John is an evangelist, but he is also a literary artist. The other gospels tell the story of Peter’s denial as one narrative, but John intentionally interrupts the story. Peter denied his was a disciple so that he would be allowed entrance to the courtyard. After that, John shifts the focus to what is happening inside one of the rooms of the palace. Jesus is being questioned by a crafty man who wanted to know what he taught his followers. Annas knew Jesus was guilty of subversive activities; he just wanted the evidence to convict him. It is a familiar story. It is bitterly ironic that a thousand years after this event, it would be the church that trained people to do what Annas was doing. The high priest was acting as the Grand Inquisitor ferreting out information about supposed heresies or blasphemies Jesus had committed. It was Annas, not Jesus, who was the model for the priests in Spain, France, and Italy who tried to trap suspected Jews and Waldensians into betraying their families and friends. It was Annas, not Jesus, who was the model for those who used torture to force people to confuse illicit beliefs.

Public Teachings            Jesus did not face his accuser passively in John’s version. He answered boldly and honestly. He said that he taught publicly and that everything he taught his followers in private was consistent with what he had said in the Temple and synagogue. There was no secret teaching; no plot to tear down the Temple; no secret plan to proclaim himself King of the Jews. This statement in John is important for two reasons. One, it connects Jesus’ teachings to the religious centers of Judaism. John emphasizes the fact that Jesus and his teachings were part of Judaism and the covenant. Though Jesus was critical of the corrupt priesthood and disagreed with Pharisees about the interpretation of the law, his teaching was part of that tradition. We’ve seen how closely tied John’s Gospel is to the Jewish liturgy and the Torah. Here, at a critical moment, Jesus reminds Annas and all of us that he was a faithful Jew preaching openly.

But John also includes this statement as a message to his church. The letters of John indicate that there were divisions in the church of the Beloved Disciple. Some people claimed to have special knowledge that the others did not possess. They believed they were more spiritual and closer to God than the rest of the church. In later years, such people would be called Gnostics, from the Greek word for knowledge. Many of the Gnostics claimed that Jesus had given secret teachings to a few of the disciples and only the spiritual elite could understand them. About a century after the Gospel of John was written, Gnostic gospels began to appear claiming to be the secret teaching given to a particular disciple like Thomas or Mary Magdalene or Philip. This statement in John indicates that there were no “secret teachings” of Jesus. He taught in the synagogues and the Temple. The teachings he gave at the Last Supper were consistent with the teachings he gave publicly.

Truth                        Jesus remains true to his beliefs despite the threat of execution. He does not bow to the authorities and their threats. Even when Jesus is slapped by a guard for being too cheeky with the high priest, he stands firm. He challenges his oppressors, especially their secrecy and violence. He challenged them to bring witnesses to prove that his teachings were in error. If he spoke truthfully, then why hit him. If he spoke in error, prove the error. This was a powerful message for the Christians of John’s time who were facing persecution. I am sure that Perpetua, Justin Martyr, John Hus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and who witnessed to the truth with their lives were strengthened by this image of Jesus demanding truth rather than bowing to violence.

Denial of Peter            Let’s return to Annas’ house. While Jesus was being interrogated, there a different scene was being acted out in the courtyard. One of the slaves asked Peter if he was a disciple of Jesus, and Peter denied it. Even when an eye-witness to his attack on Malchus pointed him out as one of the disciples, Peter said “I am not.” Jesus met his accusers with the great “I Am” and they fell down before the divine presence. Peter miserably sought to save his life by saying “I Am Not.” Those who would save their lives will lose them. Peter denied his Lord and he denied himself. “I Am Not.” I no longer exist. I no longer know who I am or why I live in this world. I am nothing but a cold slave trying to warm this dying body while the one true man is boldly calling for the truth. “I Am Not,” Peter said. And the cock crowed.

John’s account of the denial of Peter is more restrained than that of the other gospels where a crowd gathers accusing Peter. They point out that he is a Galilean and some claim to have seen him with Jesus. In Mark and Matthew, Peter curses and swears when he denies Jesus. Luke adds the dramatic detail that Jesus himself turned and looked at Peter when he denied him the third time. It is a haunting scene, but it could not have happened that way according to John. Jesus was inside facing his accusers while Peter was standing outside in the dark denying he was a disciple. John’s account is less dramatic, but is powerful in its simplicity and contrast.

Crowing:  Like everything in the gospels, the crowing of the cock has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, much more than it deserves. Scholars have studied what time roosters crow in Jerusalem in the spring – usually about 2:30 a.m. Some historians have claimed that this event could not be historical since the Talmud forbids the raising of chickens in the city of Jerusalem, but others point out that the reason such laws are written is because people disobey them. Still other historians have discovered that the trumpet call at the end of the third watch in the Roman army was called cockcrow. It was about 3:00 a.m. One researcher even discovered that there were in fact, three such trumpet calls during the night, with the third coming about 2:30 in the morning. In short, there is no reason to doubt that Peter’s denial came about the time of cockcrow in the early morning hours. Nor is that reason to doubt that Peter did indeed deny his Lord and Teacher. We should ponder the fact that the only person who would have told this story to the church in order for it to be written down would have been Peter himself.

Conclusion                        In many churches, worship services during Lent include hymns or litanies in which the worshipers profess their guilt for the death of Jesus. Some churches even have the congregation shout out “crucify him” just like the crowds in Jerusalem. Others identify the worshipers with Judas betrayed the Lord. Those are vivid images, which may ring true. It is certainly important to ponder those things and ask ourselves if we would have cried out with the mob. But I think this story of Peter provides us a better model of our lives today. We follow Jesus and profess our undying love, but how easily we deny we are disciples. Someone sees us out in the world and says, “aren’t you a follower of Jesus,” and we laugh and say “no.” We see the lies and violence of the world around us, and deny we are disciples of Jesus who stood for truth and peace. Whatever happened to the bracelets that asked “what would Jesus do?” We took them off after 9/11 because we knew the answer but chose to deny it. When have you denied your Lord? When voting, in your business dealings, in your pursuit of pleasure, by closing your eyes to the suffering around you? Remember Peter, and remember that when we deny Christ, we deny our true selves. You aren’t one of those Christians are you?

Next week we will follow Jesus to the praetorium where he is questioned by Pilate.  

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  • Hannah  On August 16, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    I was wondering if you might have the story of Perpetua a martyr From 202-203CE. I have been searching everywhere! It must be a shorter version though if you Have one! Thank-you!

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