Tried by the Fire (Mark 14:66–72)

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Doug Van Meter - 19 Jul 2020

Tried by the Fire (Mark 14:66–72)

The well-known, if not infamous, account of Peter’s threefold denial of the Lord is tragic. It is also painfully true to life for most disciples of the Jesus. We mean well, but we don’t always end well. This text needs to be considered, for it speaks relevantly to us. We too can expect to be tried—some, of course, in more severe ways than others. Our fidelity to Jesus Christ is under observation, if not under fire. How are we doing? How will we do? What shall we do?

Scripture References: Mark 14:66-72

From Series: "Mark Exposition"

An exposition of the Gospel of Mark by Doug Van Meter.

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In this Marcan sandwich, we find Peter sandwiched between the trials of Jesus. He is sandwiched in v. 54 between the commencement of the trial before the Sanhedrin (v. 53) and its conclusion (v. 65). In verses 66–72, Peter is again in the middle between the conclusion of the trial before the Sanhedrin and the commencement of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.

We saw previously the probable reason is that Mark is contrasting the bold, calm, and confident witness of Jesus with the erratic and ultimately failed witness of Peter. I don’t say this, and surely Mark did not include this, in order to be critical of Peter. Rather, Mark writes to glorify Jesus and to prepare the Christian to testify of him before a hostile world—including a hostile religious world.

You might remember that Mark’s audience was the church in Rome. The church there was beginning to experience severe hostility from the political powers and therefore pressure from the surrounding culture. The church was feeling the heat of witnessing to the truth of Christ and his gospel in a hostile environment. How would they fare? Would they be faithful, like Jesus, or would they fall, like Peter? This is the purpose of Mark’s “sandwich.” Mark wanted them, like Jesus, to be dependent on God rather than, like Peter, to be self-dependent.

In revealing the contrast between Christ the Solid Rock and Peter a crumbling rock (at least at this point) the reader is instructed concerning the need to be prepared to be tried by the fire. Peter would use this very language in his first epistle (1 Peter 1:3–7). I wonder if he had this scene in his mind.

Christian, we too find our faith tested by the fire. Like Peter, we are called upon to testify to the truth of Jesus Christ and his gospel. We are called to identify with him and to be loyal to him, regardless of the cost. Like Peter, and of course like Jesus, we testify to this truth amid an often hostile, even threatening and persecuting, world. How will we fare? It all depends on whether we will be self-dependent like Peter, or God-dependent like Jesus.

As a side note, let me say a word about Christians in our COVID-19 days who think claim that the church is under persecution because of laws limiting church attendance, restricting corporate singing, requiring the wearing of face masks, etc. Let’s be clear: There is no comparison with Christians who have been and who really are being persecuted. When I hear of Christians, particularly American Christians, whining about their “rights” being “violated,” I’m embarrassed to have an American accent!

But back to the main point: As Hughes says, “It is this awareness of human weakness and the necessity of moment-by-moment dependence that Mark was urging on the church.” We need this message.

Peter’s Failure and Our Preparation

We saw previously that Peter being by the fire was an act of bravery. But he would be tried by that fire. Literally.

This account of Peter’s fall is not here so that we can point fingers, unless, of course, we point them to ourselves. This account is to prepare us for faithful discipleship in a hostile world. Before we face the fire, we need to be prepared. This is the only way we will persevere.

Brothers and sisters, we are being tried by the fire. In these days of pandemic, we are being called upon to give testimony that we know the Lord Jesus and that we trust him. In our homes, in our workplaces, in our interactions with neighbours, and in our social media interactions, we are either confessing our trust in Jesus or we are in some way denying it.

Our families, our fellow-workers, and our neighbours identify us as having been with Jesus. After all, they know we go to church. They have heard our testimonies. But now, as the fire tries us, they are asking, do you really know and trust him? Is he the Christ, the Son of God, the ruling and reigning Saviour? May we so live that our lives shout a hearty amen!

Peter’s Folly

We begin by saying a word about Peter’s folly. We know from v. 54 that Peter had followed from a distance and was now in the courtyard, within eyeshot of Jesus, warming himself by the fire. In this context, Mark writes, “And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, ‘You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus’” (vv. 66–67). John Calvin observes, “Peter’s fall … is a bright mirror of our weakness.” In his folly, we see ours.

As we have said, Peter is to be commended for his courage. Though he initially fled with the rest of the disciples, leaving Jesus all alone, he soon after seems to have had a change of mind. Doubtless, he felt bad about his behaviour—perhaps particularly as he remembered his boast that though all would forsake him, he never would (v. 29). Armed with new resolve, he set out for Caiaphas’s home. But it appears that he was not resolved concerning what he would do once he got there. He reacted, and doubtless reacted out of love, but without being properly prepared. His response was folly.

I remember years ago, shortly after first coming to South Africa, I was working in my garden when two children came running in, pleading with me to help them: “Pastor Doug, help, they are beating up our dad!” I immediately dropped my tools and took off after the children, determined to help. The problem is, I hadn’t really thought through what I would do when I got there. As it turns out, when the men pummelling our church member saw me running up, they stopped out of respect for the pastor, but to this day I have no idea what I would have done if they had not voluntarily stopped.

As the narrative returns to Peter, we are reminded that he was warming himself by the fire. His face would have been lit up and recognisable. He has placed himself in a vulnerable position.

A servant girl of the high priest, who was busy running an errand late during this strange night, “looked at him.” The Greek word means to look at carefully and to discern clearly (see 8:25; 10:21, 27). She recognised Peter as one who had been “with the Nazarene, Jesus.” This was not a word of excitement but rather a sneering condemnation and an accusation. Perhaps she had seen Peter on one of those days when Jesus was busy teaching in the temple. Perhaps she was there the day Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Regardless, she recognised Peter as one who had been with this the contemptible Nazarene.

While Jesus was being tried, so was Peter. It was not going to go well for him. He should have stayed away. Had he taken seriously the words of Jesus, he would have (v. 30). He serves as a real-life example of the exhortation, “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Peter’s folly is our folly. We should rather adopt the attitude of Vance Havner who said, “The Lord had the strength and I had the weakness, so we teamed up! It was an unbeatable combination.”

Jesus had warned Peter and the other disciples that they needed to prepare for conflict. They needed to prepare to stand as faithful witnesses. Part of that preparation was knowing one’s weaknesses, knowing oneself. Peter didn’t. In folly, he entered where angels fear to tread. John Calvin pastorally notes, “It frequently happens that believers, under an appearance of virtue, throw themselves within the reach of temptation.”

Christian, be sure that you know your vulnerabilities before you go public. I am concerned when celebrities make a profession of faith and immediately start using their platform to publicly promote Christian values and preach the gospel. While I am all for preaching the gospel wherever possible, there is wisdom in being discipled first before taking a public platform. And while most of us are not celebrities, we would do the well to know the same. We should absolutely speak for truth as we have opportunity, but let us do so aware of our own propensities to fail.

Christian, be sure that you know your sin-weaknesses before entering into potentially tempting situations. Church, let us do a thorough job of preparing and training those who will be in positions of leadership in the church. Let us ourselves stay humble before entering into dangerous situations. Let us stay awake in Gethsemane.

Of course, in many ways, this was Peter’s folly: He assumed he could handle it. Well, he couldn’t. It’s interesting to read his first epistle in the light of this episode. Arrogance and self-assurance have been replaced with divine dependence and humility.

In your zeal to defend truth on social media, be careful that you don’t end up dishonouring Jesus. Be careful of the same in the workplace. Be careful of rushing into conflict without having properly prepared yourself. Don’t presume on your preparation, or lack thereof, when you enter into ministry opportunities. Be careful of self-confidence as you face temptation. Has lockdown been a means of revealing how unprepared you are? I have certainly had a rude awakening that I have leaned too much on people and things and giftings rather than on the Lord.

Peter’s Fall

Peter’s fall is recorded in vv. 68–71:

But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 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.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”

(Mark 14:68–71)

This is the heart of the passage. Having witnessed the faithfulness of our Rock who wouldn’t crack, we now see the unfaithfulness of what someone called “a crumbling rock.” Peter is like a rolling stone. To quote Bob Dylan, “How does it feel?” Sadly, we all know.

Peter responded to this servant, as Jesus predicted, with denial. The word means, to contradict, to disavow, or to reject. It carries the idea of disowning. This is captured by his words, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” Ouch. Self-preservation has a strange power to distort reality and to produce self-deception.

How Well Do You Know Him?

The word “know” speaks of certain, factual knowledge while the word “understand” speaks of experiential, practical knowledge. In other words, this was a full-orbed denial of any knowledge of Jesus. As Witherington points out, the irony of Peter claiming to not know Jesus “is of course that he is right. He does not really know or understand Jesus.”

Yes, Peter was a believer. He was therefore a true disciple of Jesus. The proof is that Jesus interceded for and preserved him (Luke 22:31–34; John 18:1–9). Thankfully, the Lord knew him (1 Corinthians 8:3; 2 Timothy 2:19). The problem is that Peter did not yet know the Lord as he should or could have. This was a failure of discipleship.

The Need to Flee

Peter, feeling vulnerable, moved away from the fire to the forecourt. Perhaps he wanted to get close to an exit. He was not running, but he should have. He should have fled the temptation but, apparently, he still didn’t believe the Lord’s prediction or heed his warning. He still hung around. And then “the rooster crowed.” God sounded a gracious alarm to rescue him but he behaved as though he didn’t hear it. And yet he must have heard it because he was ultimately the one who shared the account with Mark! Though he heard, he wasn’t listening. Have you ever been there?

Perhaps you’ve heard the warnings in a sermon but have turned a deaf ear: “That will never happen to me. I don’t need to be on guard at work in my relationship with that man or woman. We would never cross the line.” But then you do and the damage is enormous. Rather, learn to respond to the warning of the rooster.

Perhaps you’ve heard the rooster of a friend warning you that you are heading down a path of covetousness or spiritual lethargy and yet you’ve convinced yourself that you are an exception. Beware.

Perhaps you’ve hears the rooster of a convicted conscience about how you are making your career your god and yet, as Harry Chapin sang, the “cats in the cradle and the silver spoon and the little boy blue and the man in the moon” become missed opportunities as you lose meaningful influence with your family.

Perhaps you’ve heard the rooster of exhortations to stay off the Internet but have ignored it until you found yourself trapped in pornography or a useless life of arguing and hiding behind a keyboard while meaningful, spiritually-edifying relationships die all around you, including those in your home.

Christian, listen up! Hear God’s rooster today.

As Peter moved away from the fire, the heat of the temptation remained for this servant girl, like temptation, was relentless. She insisted to “the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’” Why so relentless? I can only guess that she was hostile to Jesus. She too was a disciple—of Caiaphas. Perhaps she too was concerned about self-preservation. If Caiaphas went down, her security would go down with him.

“But again, he denied it.” That was strike two. And yet, foolishly, he still hung around. He did not have the spiritual wherewithal to handle the pressure, but he would not admit it. He toughed it out only to experience a tragic fall.

As he hung around, a crowd of bystanders became curious through the assertion of the servant. They perhaps huddled together comparing notes and concluded that they had indeed seen him with Jesus. They approach him: “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” Some translations include “and your speech shows it.” Apparently, Galileans were like Americans and struggled with the guttural sounds.

These bystanders knew that Peter was not from around there and therefore concluded that he must be a follower of Jesus. This suggests that Jesus and his disciples were a well-known group in Jerusalem in those days. Ever since Jesus entered the city the Sunday before Passover, the city was stirred about this. How would Peter respond?

Consider that the original recipients of this Gospel were perhaps unaware of the answer. As they read this for the first time, they would have anticipated a better response. Unless, of course, they took seriously Jesus’ earlier prediction. So, just as those careful readers should not have been surprised, neither should we. More so because we know the power of temptation, especially when, like Peter, we are not prepared.

Nevertheless, Peter’s vehemence is shocking, for he used the strongest language possible to deny Jesus: “But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, I do not know this man of who you speak.” He was not returning to his fisherman days with profane language. The words here imply a passionate vow such as, “I swear by God, I do not know the man.” Of course, this is even worse than the most profane of language.

Peter was pronouncing a curse upon himself if he was not telling the truth. He wasn’t, of course, but thank God that he did not curse him!

What would have driven Peter to such an impassioned denial? Fear, of course. “The fear of man brings a snare” warned Solomon (Proverbs 29:25). Fear tripped him up, because he did not pursue a right focus earlier, not only in the garden but also in the past three years. The fear of man is always a hindrance to the fear of God. Peter chose to trust in a lie rather than in the Lord. This is tragic. And it is relived over and again in our own lives.

Brothers and sisters, beware the fear of man by building your fear of God. This is at the heart of discipleship for, as Jesus said,

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

(Matthew 28:10–31)

It’s tragic that apparently Peter had not taken this truth to heart. It’s tragic that you and I don’t either.

We can summarise Peter’s response: “Poor Peter! He loved his Master too much to desert him absolutely, and so he had followed him ‘at a distance’ and at considerable personal risk. Yet he loved himself too much to be able to remain indifferent to the consequences of all-out faithfulness” (Ferguson).

In what ways do we deny Christ? Generally, when we live as though we have no relationship with him—as though he has no influence on our values, attitudes, and actions. You can claim that you know Christ all day long and still be guilty of denying him. If you do not do what he says, then you are practically denying him. And he will deny you (8:36–38; Luke 6:46; Matthew 7:21–23).

For example, your boss might instruct you to lie or cheat. By doing so, you are denying your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. When you mistreat your wife, husband, children, or parents you are denying your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. When you refuse and reject meaningful submissive membership of a local church, you are denying your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. When you redefine the gospel and its demands—in other words, when you preach a cheap grace—you are denying your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. This is so often the case at funerals and weddings. We need to be faithful to God’s word. We need to be faithful to the person and work and words of Jesus Christ. In other words, if we contribute to the growth of the curse of nominal Christianity, we are denying Jesus Christ (see Galatians 1:6–10).

Whenever we move away from doing and telling the truth as revealed through Jesus Christ, we are in some sense disowning and denying Jesus. May God give us grace to prepare for the fire and the grace to stand by the fire and openly declare our obedient allegiance to our Saviour. It will cost us, but honouring our Lord is worth it.

Peter’s Faith

We see a hint of faith in Peter in v. 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.”

Of all Mark’s 38 usages of “immediately,” this one stands out the most. When he denied the third time knowing and being a disciple of Jesus, the rooster crowed again and immediately his memory kicked in. Suddenly overwhelmed with conviction, and locking eyes with Jesus (Luke 22:61), “he broke down and wept.” What a tragic scene. What a tragic fall. And though it was a faltering of faith on Peter’s part, it was not a complete failure. Rather, this scene, it seems to me, reveals that Peter had real faith in the Lord.

Yes, “Peter’s bold denials give way to remorse as he realises that he has fallen into precisely the trap of which Jesus had warned” (France). But it is the story of his remorse, which encourages us that, though he had a great fall, nevertheless, this crumbled rock became a converted and constructive rock. His faith may have faltered, but it did not fall away.

Peter remembered the words of his Lord and that memory resulted in conviction. This indicates that Peter’s faith in Jesus was genuine. Christians, it has been said, are people of the Book. Jesus said of his disciples that the truth (God’s word) sanctifies his people (John 17:17). He said that the proof of discipleship is that one continues in his word (John 8:31). One of the marks of a Christian is the Spirit of God reminding us of the truth of the word of God. This is all present in v. 72.

Only Disciples Can Deny

Only those who have at one time pledged allegiance to Christ can do what Peter did. You cannot deny one whom you have not previously had a relationship with.

The problem was that Peter failed personally to listen and to learn. We have seen this throughout the narrative. He would now learn, but it would be a painful lesson, which could have been avoided. The seed sowed into his life was good, but the soil of his heart needed some more work. Clearly, his mind was not set on things above (see Colossians 3:1–3). We see this in the events that transpired in chapter 8 when he initially confessed Jesus as the Christ but then rebuked him for suggesting that he would be arrested and killed. We see this in his foolish talk at the transfiguration in chapter 9, where he was once again focused on the crown but disregarding the cross. We see this in his desire to be first as recorded in chapter 10. This is evident in the fact that he fell asleep in Gethsemane, failing to heed the warnings to watch. When he depended on his own resources, he failed.

But notice that Peter’s conviction led to contrition. This too reveals that his faith in Jesus was genuine (see Psalm 51).

Judas’s Remorse

At this point, you might be wondering about Judas. Was he not also remorseful? Does this suggest that he, too, was a true disciple who, like Peter, momentarily denied the Lord? After all, he changed his mind and returned the silver he had acquired for betraying Jesus. But the result was very different: Judas went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3–5). Peter’s remorse led to restoration (John 21), while Judas, “the son of destruction” (John 17:12), went “to his own place” (Acts 1:25).

Paul highlights that there is a remorse that leads to godly repentance and a remorse that is merely of this world (see 2 Corinthians 7:10). Judas was characterised by the latter; Peter by the former. True disciples of Jesus Christ truly repent. They don’t merely feel bad and change their mind; they also change their behaviour. And this is because they have hearts that have been changed by God.

Judas’s suicidal response indicates that he rejected God’s grace and forgiveness whereas Peter’s response reveals a life respondent to God’s gracious forgiveness. That is, Peter persevered in faith despite folly and failure. Apparently, Judas despised faith in the face of failure.

We must be careful about drawing unjustified conclusions. The account of Judas taking his life does not give us warrant to conclude that everyone who takes their life shares in Judas’s unbelief. In other words, the Bible does not teach that only unbelievers commit suicide. Not at all. Though suicide is a sin (self-murder), which cannot be repented of, it is not an unpardonable sin. Neither does it mean, of course, that the person has lost their salvation. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone is not dependent on our condition when we die. That is, unconfessed sin at the moment of death does not determine whether or not we inherit eternal life. The blood of Christ, which cleanses believers from all sin, is the issue. It always is, regardless of how one dies.

Peter was the real deal because Jesus ransomed him from his sin. He was a true (though flawed) disciple because the Good Shepherd laid down his life for him as one of his sheep. And no one was, or is, able to pluck him (or us) out of his hands (John 10:28–30). The proof of Peter’s genuine conversion was in his genuine perseverance.

Peter would ultimately be reconciled to and restored by the Lord Jesus. This reveals that his faith in Jesus was genuine.

Some may be reading this, greatly distressed over failure. Let this final meditation encourage you. When Jesus rose from the dead, the angel said to the faithful women at the (temporary!) tomb, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just a she told you” (16:7).

As Peter repeated this to Mark, tears probably filled his eyes. The angel was not denying that Peter was a disciple: “the disciples and Peter, the non-disciple.” He was, instead, including and affirming him as one. Yes, Peter had behaved foolishly. He had failed and fallen but he had also been forgiven. The crumbled rock had been put back together again and he would be stronger than he had ever been.

The point we need to dwell on as we close is the grace of God to forgive fallen disciples like you and me. The contrast between these two trials provides what we need to believe this.

Please note the most significant truth: While Peter was being unfaithful, the Lord Jesus was being faithful. If these scenes were displayed on TV screen, it might be a split screen. Both scenes were taking place at the same time. Jesus was proving faithful even as Peter was not. Jesus was speaking about his being at the right side of the Father while Peter was denying he knew Christ. Even in this ugliest of scenes, we see Jesus the intercessor for the likes of Peter, and for the likes of you and me. We will prove unfaithful. Praise God, Jesus never will.

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”

(2 Timothy 2:8–19)

Jesus’s trial led to his crucifixion, which was followed his resurrection, which resulted in his ascension, which means we have his intercession! He is faithfully interceding as we unfaithfully fall. This is why it is called good news!

What If We Have Denied

What do we do if we are guilty of having denied Jesus. Cole counsels, “Unless we see the seriousness of his sin, we cannot understand the bitterness of his remorse, nor the depth of his repentance, nor the grace of his restoration.”

Christian, have you denied the Lord? Has your behaviour suggested that you don’t know him? Have your words, attitudes, and pursuits, suggested that he is not your Lord? Has your family, your colleagues, and your neighbours observed things in you that contradict your claim to discipleship? Have you defiantly acted in such a way that you disowned any relationship with Jesus Christ?

If so, weep bitterly and repent of your sin. When you do, you too will hear the messenger of Jesus inviting you to come and dine—for all is forgiven.

Non-Christian, get on the right side of the fire. Leave a world that is hostile to faith. Repent of your sins and trust the Lord Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness. He will then reconcile you to God, empowering you to escape the fire of hell and to endure the fires of this world, for God’s glory and for your good.

AMEN