When God allowed the darkness its hour of power against the Son of Man, people quickly turned against the Lord Jesus. Even his disciples fell hard into sin, but Jesus powerfully resisted temptation. His love is strong (even for his enemies), so turn to him who is able and willing to forgive and restore the fallen.
Introduction – What is a “Passion Play”? It’s a dramatic presentation of Jesus’ trial, suffering, and death. Some Passion Plays begin with the Last Supper, but Jesus’ arrest seems a good place to start thinking about the original Passion. After praying in the garden, and coming to terms with drinking the cup of God’s wrath, Jesus is done preparing for his death. He now begins his work of passive obedience, submitting to the forces (including betrayal, arrest, and denial) that converge to execute him. The Passion of Christ ought to move you to examine yourself. “I could never betray Jesus like Judas did, or deny Jesus like Peter did. I could never fall away through temptation. They were special cases associated with the hour of the power of darkness. Right?”
I. Grasp the Story
A. Visualize what happened on-stage
1. Scene 1: In the garden (vv. 47-54). When one harmonizes the Gospel accounts, we get a more detailed picture of what happened. In the middle of the night while Jesus is urging his disciples to wake up and pray because they are in danger of temptation, Judas arrives with a huge crowd (“cohort” is 600 Roman soldiers) carrying lanterns, torches, clubs, and swords. In the crowd are chief priests, temple police, elders, Pharisees, and Roman soldiers, with Judas, one of the Twelve turned traitor, leading the way. When Judas approaches Jesus with the anti-greeting, the most unholy of kisses, Jesus sees it coming and calls him out. Then Judas gives the signal, the kiss of death, which may have been repeated, fervent kisses on the cheek (that is what Mark’s word for “kiss” often means), heightening his hypocrisy and betrayal. Jesus asks the crowd, “Who do you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answer. Jesus replies, “I AM,” (“Ego eimi,” a Greek translation of YAHWEH) and they draw back and fall down! Picking themselves up after being unexpectedly floored in the presence of deity, they make their move to arrest Jesus. The other disciples understand what is about to happen, so they spring into action. “May we use our swords now? Holy War! Call down fire from heaven and let God’s kingdom come! Freedommmmm!” Peter draws the sword and swings, cutting off the right ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. You can almost hear the sound of clanking metal as the soldiers and police rattle their sabers. But Jesus puts a stop to the violence. “No more of this!” he yells. He reaches out to Malchus, touches his ear, and heals him. As his last miracle and last action as a free man, Jesus chooses to heal an enemy. Then Jesus addresses the hastily assembled mixed multitude. “Is all this really necessary? I’m not a robber or a rebel. I’m a teacher. You could have arrested me any time this week when I was publically speaking in the temple. Why not then? Because that wasn’t your time, during the day. Your time is under cover of darkness. This is your hour when you have power. You walk in darkness, and this is the hour of the power of darkness.” Then they seize him and lead him away to the high priest’s house for an illegal kangaroo court. All the disciples scatter for cover, but Peter turns back and follows the crowd to see how it all would end.
2. Scene 2: In the courtyard (vv. 55-62). Peter gains entrance to the inner courtyard of the high priest’s house. The crowd (perhaps minus the Roman soldiers and temple police) is building a fire and waiting for the next step to get rid of Jesus. While Jesus is in the house being questioned by Annas and Caiaphas, the former and current high priests, Peter sits down with the crowd and warms himself—waiting, watching, listening, and sometimes speaking. A servant girl is staring at Peter in the firelight. He looks familiar. Then she speaks up, “This man also was with Jesus.” Almost by primal instinct, Peter denies it, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else notices him and says right to Peter’s face, “You also are one of those Jesus followers.” Peter, feeling the noose around his own neck a bit tighter, denies it, “Man, I am not.” Then an hour passes by. The other gospel accounts imply there is talk in the crowd about Peter being a disciple. The scene is tense. Peter is in imminent danger. He might be asking himself, “Why am I here? Why did I come? What was I thinking?” Still another person calls the crowd to attention, insisting he recognizes Peter as a disciple, for his accent gives him away. “Certainly this man was also with Jesus, for he too is a Galilean.” Peter feels his cover is blown, and he panics. Peter strenuously objects, calling down curses on himself and swearing up and down that it’s not true. “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” And while Peter is denying for the third time that he knows Jesus, the rooster crows. Just as Jesus had predicted. Instantly Peter looks to Jesus, who turns and looks straight at him. Maybe through a window, or maybe as he is being transferred to his next stop on the way of suffering. Then Peter remembers about the denying three times before the rooster crowing. And it’s too much for him to bear. So he runs away and breaks down, weeping bitter tears of sorrow. The last disciple standing falls hard.
B. Realize what happened back-stage
1. In hell (vv. 53-54; cf. 4:13; 22:3). There is more than meets the eye. The greater conflict resides in the spiritual realm. Just before Jesus began his public ministry, the Holy Spirit drove him into the wilderness for testing. Jesus fasted for 40 days while being tempted by the devil. When Jesus passed the test by resisting Satan, the devil withdrew until an opportune time for a concerted attack. Jesus occasionally confronted demons during his ministry, but now Satan musters all his forces to kill the Son of Man, launching his attack by entering Judas, possessing him to betray Jesus. Paul understood the back-stage events (Eph 6:12). The dragon has thus far failed to devour Israel’s Messiah, so he tries on last time before Jesus is caught up to God and his throne. It was fitting that Jesus was arrested at night, under the influence of Satan the Prince of darkness, for the powers of darkness are secret, clandestine, and hate the light (cf. Jn 13:30). Here is the full-force, desperate attempt by the powers of darkness to thwart God’s plan of salvation (Rev 12:1-4).
2. In heaven (Lk 22:42, 61; cf. Isa 53:8, 10; Ps 41:9). God, in his providence, mysteriously planned the evils of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denials, weaving it all into his good, pleasing, and perfect will to accomplish salvation (Acts 4:26-28). Jesus was afraid of all the cross entailed, but he knew it was his heavenly Father’s will. And so Jesus yielded his life to God’s hand and plan that was predestined by the word of the Lord to take place. It was the Lord’s will for Jesus to be cut off and stricken for the sins of God’s people. The Lord willed to crush the Son of God as a guilt offering for sin.
“The most diabolical of all the schemes of Satan was not only countered at every point by a superior plan of God’s devising. It was actually woven into that plan, and made to serve its ends. And if that was what God could do with the master-lot of hell, then there can be no evil which he cannot in the end turn to blessing.” ~ Michael Wilcock
II. Consider the Characters
A. Judas the Traitor
1. Greed (Lk 16:13; 22:1-6; Jn 12:4-6; Col 3:5). Judas was controlled by his greed for money. As treasurer for the Twelve, he was known to steal from the moneybag. That’s why he was indignant when, only a few days before the betrayal, Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment instead of selling it and giving the money to the treasury. That’s why he sold his soul for 30 pieces of silver. But greed is really a fruit rooted in idolatry. Jesus said no one can serve God and money, for if you have two masters you will always hate one of them. His discontentment, his covetousness, led him to reject the kind of kingdom Jesus promised to bring for the kind of kingdom Judas really wanted. His prayer was “my kingdom come, my will be done.” He wanted Jesus only to feed his own selfish desires.
2. Cruelty (v. 47). The traitor’s kiss must have deeply wounded Jesus. Only hours before Jesus shared the Last Supper with Judas. Now this supposedly close friend lifts up his heel against him (Ps 41:9). Jesus had loved and been patient with Judas for three years, always knowing he was a traitor at heart, and Judas can only repay his teacher with humiliation, hostility, and hypocritical affection.
3. Despair (Mt 27:3-5; Acts 1:16-20). The next time Judas appears in Luke-Acts, he is already dead. Seized with remorse, instead of returning to Jesus for mercy and forgiveness, he returned the blood money and then hanged himself. A life ended as cursed of God, not cursed for others like Jesus, but cursed himself (Dt 21:22-23; Gal 3:13).
You might be thinking, “But that’s Judas. Wasn’t he historically unique as the one who betrayed the Son of God?” Yes, he was unique. No other disciple ever betrayed Jesus like Judas did—with a kiss. And no, he was not unique. His sin operated the way all betrayal works. Traitors are always deceptive and self-justifying. Think of husbands who give their wives flowers and jewelry while having a secret mistress. Think of employees of charities or relief organizations who steal donated money given for the poor. Think of teachers and ministry leaders who are discovered to be living a lie, living secret sin that directly contradicts their teaching. People try to cover their tracks, but the footprints always match. Sin, especially betrayal, is inconsistent, ironic, hypocritical, diabolical.
B. Peter the Crusader-Coward
1. Pride (v. 50; cf. Lk 22:31-33; Jn 18:10). Jesus warned Peter that he was vulnerable to Satan’s attack. But Peter pledged to follow Jesus to prison and death. It seems he pictured himself going down in a blaze of glory. If he was to die by the sword, then he would live by the sword. And so he swung his sword like a crusader at the first opportunity to wage holy war.
2. Fear (vv. 54-60). When Jesus quelled the battle in the garden, it surely confused Peter. This is not the way he envisioned the end. So he bravely (foolishly?) followed into enemy territory as a spy. But he was not prepared to die or even confess Christ before a hostile crowd. Controlled by his fear, he denied his Lord to save his neck. The prideful crusader showed he was a shameful coward.
3. Sorrow (vv. 61-62). Peter knew he fell hard, and it nearly destroyed him. His sorrow was bitter because he brought it on himself, and because his denials broke the bond of love he shared with Jesus. He could have ended in despair like Judas who shipwrecked his faith, but unlike Judas he looked to Jesus. His was a godly sorrow that led to repentance. With grief and hatred of his sin, Peter turned from it to Jesus, resolving to live with a new obedience (cf. WSC 87) founded on humility rather than pride, and fear of God rather than fear of man (1 Pet 5:5b-7).
C. Jesus the Son of Man
1. Power (v. 51; cf. Jn 18:4-6). Jesus shows he is both God and man, two natures in one person forever (cf. WSC 21). He is the almighty God, touching the servant’s severed ear and miraculously healing him. He commands his disciples to stop fighting, and protects them from the crowd’s vengeance. His enemies draw back and fall down under the divine power of “I AM”.
2. Obedience (vv. 50-54a). He is the Servant of the Lord. Jesus is meek. His supernatural power is under control and authority. He receives his kingdom not through robbery or rebellion, but through submission to God’s will as the Suffering Servant. The one who has legions of angels at his disposal allows his enemies to deliver him over to the cross.
3. Love (Lk 22:46, 51b, 60-61; cf. Jn 18:8-9). Why? Because he loves. He loved Peter by warning him to pray for strength to resist temptation. He loved Malchus by his healing touch. He loved his disciples by arranging for their release in the garden. He loved Peter again by turning to look at him after the rooster crowed. He even loved Judas with one last warning, giving him the chance to repent. His love is strong, merciful, and self-giving.
III. Be Changed by the Message
A. Let their great falls into sin reveal your own heart (vv. 47-48, 50, 57-60)
1. What do the falls of Judas and Peter have in common? They both pretended to be something they weren’t. Judas is the kind of person who pretends to follow Jesus—for respect, for the benefits, for the reward.
Whenever your Christian words or actions do not reflect your heart, then you’re pretending to follow Jesus. I’m not talking about saying or doing the right thing despite your inclination, and praying for your heart’s allegiance to align with God. I’m talking about saying or doing Christian things for ulterior motives (with malice aforethought), without any desire for your heart to align with God. If that describes you, that you know you’re scamming God, then you’re really not much different from Judas. Your hidden selfishness will eventually surface in acts of greed, cruelty, and ultimately despair. The weight of guilt will be too much to bear, because God’s judgment is severe for hypocrites.
2. Peter is the kind of person who sometimes pretends to be Jesus’ bulldog, and other times to not know Jesus at all—for pride, for fear, for peace. Crusader Peter was right that Jesus will use violence to bring the kingdom to earth. But he was deadly wrong about the timing, for Jesus will sheath his sword until the last day. Peter was blinded by pride in his own strength, zeal, and apostolic position.
Whenever you fight God’s battles by means opposed to the teaching of Jesus, then you’re pretending to fight for God. I’m not talking about a humble attempt to discern the will of God on a topic that is difficult or controversial among believers, and then choosing which means you think is wisest. I’m talking about zealous activism that baptizes force to accomplish your preference while demonizing thoughtful believers who are not on board with your conclusions or methods. If that describes you, that you get an emotional high after engaging in a little holy war, then you’ve cut off someone’s ear to get what you want. You’re really not much different from Peter. Your pride will eventually manifest in acts of verbal or even physical assault. Jesus says to you, “No more of this!” and offers instead the way of healing, submission, and suffering for righteousness sake.
3. Coward Peter wasn’t suicidal when he walked into the devil’s lair. He wasn’t wrong to want to escape danger when it closed in. But he fell hard when he pretended he didn’t know Jesus.
Whenever you hide the external evidence of your internal faith, then you’re pretending to not know Jesus. I’m not talking about making prudent decisions regarding when it may be inappropriate to bring Jesus into a discussion. I’m talking about a pattern of living your faith below the radar such that many of your unbelieving family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and coworkers would be surprised (if not floored) to discover you’re a committed Christian. If your heart races and you break out in sweats when you sense the faintest, “You are one of them,” and you do your best to flee, hide, or blend in, then you’re afraid of confessing Christ before men. You’re really not much different from Peter. Your hidden faith will eventually lead to fearful acts of cowardice, and ultimately sorrow. The taste of anonymity and safety will be bitter, because the one who denies Jesus before men will be denied by Jesus before the angels of God and the Father (Mt 10:33; Lk 12:9).
B. Let Jesus’ strong love be your hope of forgiveness and restoration (vv. 51, 61)
The sinful human heart is desperately wicked (Jer 17:9-10). We have all been traitors, crusaders, and cowards toward God. Apart from God’s grace, received and experienced through the spiritual means of his Word, the sacraments, and prayer, we will fall hard into these sins again and again. An honest look at yourself will drive you either to deathly despair or godly sorrow. Find your strength in Jesus alone, whose strong love can cover your betrayals, tame your soul, and forgive your hard falls into bitter sin. He’s turning to look at you now to restore and change you.
Conclusion – As we continue to hear the drama of the Passion, remember to grasp the story—visualizing what happened on earth and realizing what happened in heaven (and continues to happen as God’s kingdom fills the world). Remember to consider the characters—seek to understand their virtues and vices, their falls and victories—so you might truly see where you fit into the story. Remember to ask God that you would be changed by the message of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Let the gospel’s power drive you to godly sorrow for your sinful heart and actions, and drive you to Jesus for forgiveness, restoration, and transformation into a Christ-shaped disciple.