Featured image depicts Peter denying the Christ. Image taken from the image library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Matthew 26 : 69-75 KJV
69 ¶ Now Peter sat without in the palace: and damsel came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee.
70 But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest.
71 And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and said unto them that were there, This fellow was also with Jesus of Nazareth.
72 And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man.
73 And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee.
74 Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.
75 And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.
The Life of Christ – Written by Frederick W. Farrar – Originally published in 1874.
The Interval Between the Trials
“I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” – ISA. 1. 6.
AND this was how the Jews at last received their promised Messiah – longed for with passionate hopes during two thousand years; since then regretted in bitter agony for well – nigh two thousand more! From this moment He was regarded by all the apparitors of the Jewish Court as a heretic, liable to death by stoning; and was only remanded into custody to be kept till break of day, because by daylight only, and in the Lishcat Haggazzith, or Hall of Judgment, and only by a full session of the entire Sanhedrin, could He be legally condemned. And since now they looked upon Him as a fit person to be insulted with impunity, He was haled through the courtyard to the guard-room with blows and curses, in which it may be that not only the attendant menials, but even the cold but now infuriated Sadducees took their share. It was now long past midnight, and the spring air was then most chilly. In the centre of the court the servants of the priests were warming themselves under the frosty starlight as they stood round a fire of coals. And as He was led past that fire He heard – what was to Him a more deadly bitterness than any which His brutal persecutors could pour into His cup of anguish – He heard His boldest Apostle denying Him with oaths.
For during these two sad hours of His commencing tragedy, as He stood in the Halls of Annas and of Caiaphas, another moral tragedy, which He had already prophesied, had been taking place in the outer court.
As far as we can infer from the various narratives, the palace in Jerusalem, conjointly occupied by Annas the real, and Caiaphas the titular High Priest, seems to have been built round a square court, and entered by an arched passage or vestibule; and on the farther side of it, probably up a short flight of steps, ‘ was the hall in which the committee of the Sanhedrin had met. Timidly, and at a distance, two only of the Apostles had so far recovered from their first panic as to follow far in the rear of the melancholy procession. One of these the beloved disciple – known perhaps to the High Priest’s household as a young fisherman of the Lake of Galilee – had found ready admittance, with no attempt to conceal his sympathies or his identity. Not so the other. Unknown, and a Galilæan, he had been stopped at the door by the youthful portress. Better, far better, had his exclusion been final. For it was a night of tumult, of terror, of suspicion; and Peter was weak, and his intense love was mixed with fear, and yet he was venturing into the very thick of his most dangerous enemies. But John, regretting that he should be debarred from entrance, and judging perhaps of his friend’s firmness by his own, exerted his influence to obtain admission for him. With bold imprudence, and concealing the better motives which had brought him thither, Peter, warned though he had been, but warned in vain, walked into the court-yard, and sat down in the very middle of the servants of the very men before whom at that moment his Lord was being arraigned on a charge of death. The portress, after the admission of those concerned in the capture, seems to have been relieved ( as was only natural at that late hour ) by another maid, and advancing to the group of her fellow – servants, she fixed a curious and earnest gaze on the dubious stranger as he sat full in the red glare of the firelight, and then, with a flash of recognition, she exclaimed, “Why, you, as well as the other, were with Jesus of Galilee.” Peter was off his guard. At this period of life his easy impressionable nature was ever liable to be moulded by the influence of the moment, and he passed readily into passionate extremes. Long, long afterwards, we find a wholly unexpected confirmation of the probability of this sad episode of his life, in the readiness with which he lent himself to the views of the Apostle of the Gentiles, and the equal facility with which a false shame, and a fear of “them which were of the circumcision,” made him swerve into the wrong and narrow proprieties of “certain which came from James.” And thus it was that the mere curious question of an inquisitive young girl startled him by its very suddenness into a quick denial of his Lord. Doubtless, at the moment, it presented itself to him as a mere prudent evasion of needless danger. But did he hope to stop there? Alas, “once denied” is always “thrice denied;” and the sudden “manslaughter upon truth” always, and rapidly, develops into its utter and deliberate murder; and a lie is like a stone set rolling upon a mountain-side, which is instantly beyond its utterer’s control.
For a moment, perhaps, his denial was accepted, for it had been very public, and very emphatic. But it warned him of his danger. Guiltily he slinks away again from the glowing brazier to the arched entrance of the court, as the crowing of a cock smote, not quite unheeded, on his guilty ear. His respite was very short. The portress – part of whose duty it was to draw attention to dubious strangers – had evidently gossiped about him to the servant who had relieved her in charge of the door. Some other idlers were standing about, and this second maid pointed him out to them as having certainly been with Jesus of Nazareth. A lie seemed more than ever necessary now, and to secure himself from all further molestation he even confirmed it with an oath. But now flight seemed impossible, for it would only confirm suspicion; so with desperate, gloomy resolution he once more – with feelings which can barely be imagined – joined the unfriendly and suspicious group who were standing round the fire. If he remain silent.
A whole hour passed: for him it must have been a fearful hour, and one never to be forgotten. The temperament of Peter was far too nervous and vehement to suffer him to feel at ease under this new complication of ingratitude and falsehood. If he remain silent among these priestly servitors, he is betrayed by the restless self consciousness of an evil secret which tries in vain to simulate indifference; if he brazen it out with careless talk, he is fatally betrayed by his Galilæan burr. It is evident that, in spite of denial and of oath, they wholly distrust and despise him; and at last one of the High Priest’s servants — a kinsman of the wounded Malchus — once more strongly and confidently charged him with having been with Jesus in the garden, taunting him, in proof of it, with the misplaced gutturals of his provincial dialect. The others joined in the accusation. Unless he persisted, all was lost which might seem to have been gained. Perhaps one more effort would set him quite free from these troublesome charges, and enable him to wait and see the end. Pressed closer and closer by the sneering, threatening band of idle servitors – sinking deeper and deeper into the mire of faithlessness and fear– “then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man.” And at that fatal moment of guilt, which might well have been for him the moment of an apostasy as fatal and final as had been that of his brother apostle – at that fatal moment, while those shameless curses still quivered on the air – first the cock crew in the cold grey dusk, and at the same moment, catching the last accents of those perjured oaths, either through the open portal of the judgment-hall, or as He was led past the group at the fireside through the open court, with rude pushing and ribald jeers, and blows and spitting — the Lord — the Lord in the agony of His humiliation, in the majesty of His silence – “the Lord turned and looked upon Peter.” Blessed are those on whom, when He looks in sorrow, the Lord looks also with love! It was enough. Like an arrow through his inmost soul, shot the mute eloquent anguish of that reproachful glance. As the sunbeam smites the last hold of snow upon the rock, ere it rushes in avalanche down the tormented hill, so the false self of the fallen Apostle slipped away. It was enough: “he saw no more enemies, he knew no more danger, he feared no more death.” Flinging the fold of his mantle over his head, he too, like Judas, rushed forth into the night. Into the night, but not as Judas; into the unsunned outer darkness of miserable self-condemnation, but not into the midnight of remorse and of despair; into the night, but, as has been beautifully said, it was “to meet the morning dawn.” If the angel of Innocence had left him, the angel of Repentance took him gently by the hand. Sternly, yet tenderly, the spirit led grace up this broken-hearted penitent before the tribunal of his own conscience, and there his old life, his old shame, his old weakness, his old self was doomed to that death of godly sorrow which was to issue in a new and a nobler birth.
And it was this crime, committed against Him by the man who had first proclaimed Him as the Christ – who had come to Him over the stormy water – who had drawn the sword for Him in Gethsemane – who had affirmed so indignantly that he would die with Him rather than deny Him – it was this denial, confirmed by curses, that Jesus heard immediately after He had been condemned to death, and at the very commencement of His first terrible derision. For, in the guard – room to which He was remanded to await the break of day, all the ignorant malice of religious hatred, all the narrow vulgarity of brutal spite, all the cold innate cruelty which lurks under the abjectness of Oriental servility, was let loose against Him. His very meekness, His very silence, His very majesty – the very stainlessness of His innocence, the very grandeur of His fame – every divine circumstance and quality which raised Him to a height so infinitely immeasurable above His persecutors – all these made Him an all the more welcome victim for their low and devilish ferocity. They spat in His face; they smote Him with rods; they struck Him with their closed fists and with their open palms. In the fertility of their furious and hateful insolence, they invented against Him a sort of game. Blindfolding His eyes, they hit Him again and again, with the repeated question, “Prophesy to us, O Messiah, who it is that smote thee.” So they wiled away the dark cold hours till the morning, revenging themselves upon His impassive innocence for their own present vileness and previous terror; and there, in the midst of that savage and wanton varletry, the Son of God, bound and blindfold, stood in His long and silent agony, defenceless and alone. It was His first derision – His derision as the Christ, the Judge attainted, the Holy One a criminal, the Deliverer in bonds.
iii. At last the miserable lingering hours were over, and the grey dawn shuddered, and the morning blushed upon that memorable day. And with the earliest dawn for so the Oral Law ordained, and they who could trample on all justice and all mercy were yet scrupulous about all the infinitely little – Jesus was led into the Lishcat Haggazzith, or Paved Hall at the southeast of the Temple, or perhaps into the Chanujoth, or “Shops,” which owed their very existence to Hanan and his family, where the Sanhedrin had been summoned, for His third actual, but His first formal and legal trial. It was now probably about six o’clock in the morning, and a full session met. Well – nigh all — for there were the noble exceptions at least of Nicodemus and of Joseph of Arimathea, and we may hope also of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel – were inexorably bent upon His death. The Priests were there, whose greed and selfishness He had reproved; the Elders, whose hypocrisy He had branded; the Scribes, whose ignorance He had exposed; and worse than all, the worldly, sceptical, would – be philosophic Sadducees, always the most cruel and dangerous of opponents, whose empty sapience He had so grievously confuted. All these were bent upon His death; all filled with repulsion at that infinite goodness; all burning with hatred against a nobler nature than any which they could even conceive in their loftiest dreams. And yet their task in trying to achieve His destruction was not easy. The Jewish fables of His death in the Talmud, which are shamelessly false from beginning to end, say that for forty days, though summoned daily by heraldic proclamation, not one person came forward, according to custom, to maintain His innocence, and that consequently He was first stoned as a seducer of the people (mesith), and then hung on the accursed tree. The fact was that the Sanhedrists had not the power of inflicting death, and even if the Pharisees would have ventured to usurp it in a tumultuary sedition, as they afterwards did in the case of Stephen, the less fanatic and more cosmopolitan Sadducees would be less likely to do so. Not content, therefore, with the cherem, or ban of greater excommunication, their only way to compass His death was to hand Him over to the secular arm. At present they had only against Him a charge of constructive blasphemy, founded on an admission forced from Him by the High Priest, when even their own suborned witnesses had failed to perjure themselves to their satisfaction. There were many old accusations against Him, on which they could not rely. His violations of the Sabbath, as they called them, were all connected with miracles, and brought them, therefore, upon dangerous ground. His rejection of oral tradition involved a question on which Sadducees and Pharisees were at deadly feud. His authoritative cleansing of the Temple might be regarded with favor both by the Rabbis and the people. The charge of esoteric evil doctrines had been refuted by the utter publicity of His life. The charge of open heresies had broken down, from the total absence of supporting testimony. The problem before them was to convert the ecclesiastical charge of constructive blasphemy into a civil charge of constructive treason. But how could this be done? Not half the members of the Sanhedrin had been present at the hurried, nocturnal, and therefore illegal, session in the house of Caiaphas; yet if they were all to condemn Him by a formal sentence, they must all hear something on which to found their vote. In answer to the adjuration of Caiaphas, He had solemnly admitted that He was the Messiah and the Son of God. The latter declaration would have been meaningless as a charge against Him before the tribunal of the Romans; but if He would repeat the former, they might twist it into something politically seditious. But He would not repeat it, in spite of their insistance, because He knew that it was open to their wilful misinterpretation, and because they were evidently acting in flagrant violation of their own express rules and traditions, which demanded that every arraigned criminal should be regarded and treated as innocent until his guilt was actually proved.
Perhaps, as they sat there with their King, bound and helpless before them, standing silent amid their clamorous voices, one or two of their most venerable members may have recalled the very different scene when Shemaia ( Sameas ) alone had broken the deep silence of their own cowardly terror upon their being convened to pass judgment on Ierod for his murders. On that occasion, as Sameas had pointed out, Herod had stood before them, not “in a submissive manner, with his hair dishevelled, and in a black and mourning garment,” but “clothed in purple, and with the hair of his head finely trimmed, and with his armed men about him.” And since no one dared, for very fear, even to mention the charges against him, Shemaia had prophesied that the day of vengeance should come, and that the very Herod before whom they and their prince Hyrcanus were trembling, would one day be the minister of God’s anger against both him and them. What a contrast was the present scene with that former one of half a century before! Now they were clamorous, their King was silent; they were powerful, their King defenceless; they guilty, their King divinely innocent; they the ministers of earthly wrath, their King the arbiter of Divine retribution.
But at last, to end a scene at once miserable and disgraceful, Jesus spoke. “If I tell you,” He said, “ye will not believe; and if I ask you a question, you will not answer me.” Still, lest they should have any excuse for failing to understand who He was, He added in tones of solemn warning, “But henceforth shall the Son of Man sit on the right hand of the power of God.” “Art thou, then,” they all exclaimed, “the Son of God?” “Ye say that I am,” He answered, in a formula with which they were familiar, and of which they understood the full significance. And then they too cried out, as Caiaphas had done before, “What further need have we of witness? for we ourselves heard from His own mouth.” And so in this third condemnation by Jewish authority – a condemnation. which they thought that Pilate would simply ratify, and so appease their burning hate – ended the third stage of the trial of our Lord. And this sentence also seems to have been followed by a second derision resembling the first, but even more full of insult, and worse to bear than the former, inasmuch as the derision of Priests, and Elders, and Sadducees is even more repulsively odious than that of menials and knaves.
.Terribly soon did the Nemesis fall on the main actor in the lower stages of this iniquity. Doubtless through all those hours, Judas had been a secure spectator of all that had occurred, and when the morning dawned upon that chilly night, and he knew the decision of the Priests and of the Sanhedrin, and saw that Jesus was now given over for crucifixion to the Roman Governor, then he began fully to realize all that he had done. There is in a great crime an awfully illuminating power. It lights up the theatre of the conscience with an unnatural glare, and, expelling the twilight glamour of self-interest, shows the actions and motives in their full and true aspect. In Judas, as in so many thousands before and since, this opening of the eyes which follows the consummation of an awful sin to which many other sins have led, drove him from remorse to despair, from despair to madness, from madness to suicide. Had he, even then, but gone to His Lord and Saviour, and prostrated himself at His feet to implore forgiveness, all might have been well. But, alas! he went instead to the patrons and associates and tempters of his crime. From them he met with no pity, no counsel. He was a despised and broken instrument, and now he was tossed aside. They met his maddening remorse with chilly indifference and callous contempt. “I have sinned,” he shrieked to them, “in that I have betrayed innocent blood.” Did he expect them to console his remorseful agony, to share the blame of his guilt, to excuse and console him with their lofty dignity? “What is that to us? See thou to that.” was the sole and heartless reply they deigned to the poor traitor whom they had encouraged, welcomed, incited to his deed of infamy. He felt that he was of no importance any longer; that in guilt there is no possibility for mutual respect, no basis for any feeling but mutual abhorrence. His paltry thirty pieces of silver were all that he would get. For these he had sold his soul; and these he should no more enjoy than Achan enjoyed the gold he buried, or Ahab the garden he had seized. Flinging them wildly down upon the pavement into the holy place where the priests sat, and into which he might not enter, he hurried into the despairing solitude from which he would never emerge alive. In that solitude, we may never know what “unclean wings” were flapping about his head. Accounts differed as to the wretch’s death. The probability is that the details were never accurately made public. According to one account, he hung himself, and tradition still points in Jerusalem to a ragged, ghastly, wind – swept tree, which is called the “tree of Judas.” According to not irreconcilable with the first, if we suppose that a rope or a branch broke under his weight – he fell headlong, burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. According to a third current among the early Christians – his body swelled to a huge size, under some hideous attack of elephantiasis, and he was crushed by a passing wagon. The arch-conspirators, in their sanctimonious scrupulosity, would not put the blood – money which he had returned into the “Corban,” or sacred treasury, but, after taking counsel, bought with it the potter’s field to bury strangers in – a plot of ground which perhaps Judas had intended to purchase, and in which he met his end. That field was long known and shuddered at as the Aceldama, or “field of blood,” a place foul, haunted, and horrible.