A Willing Sacrifice
Series: The Gospel of John
The Gospel records of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection spend an inordinate amount of time on his death. Why? So that we might not only know that he died, but know why he died, and what it means for us.
It’s been said about the Gospels that they are passion narratives with extended introductions. While that is certainly an overstatement, there is no denying that the Gospels, the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, focus inordinately on Jesus’ death and the events leading up to it, which is known as the “passion narrative,” from the Latin word for suffering. Though Jesus lived for 33 years, most of the Gospel of John, which we’ve been preaching through on Sundays, focuses on a three-week period in Jesus’ life, culminating in his death. Today, as we near the end of the book and our series of sermons on it, we come closer to the narrative of Jesus’ death. Why do the Gospel writers spend so much time on it? It’s simple enough to record the historical fact that Jesus died on the cross, but they want to teach us something about it. There was a significance to his death that was unlike any other, a significance that we must get if we are to get Jesus, and if we are to follow him. Jesus has promised his followers throughout his ministry that following him would also mean following him into suffering and death. So in the first part of this passion narrative that we encounter today, we see that Jesus died willingly, and from it we learn why Jesus came to die, we see more of the glory of his death, and we learn how we can suffer with him as we follow him. He died willingly instead of fighting back and instead of fitting in so that we would never be lost. Let’s start with that last part: He died willingly so that we would never be lost.
So that we would never be lost
Our passage begins where Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17 left off. The priests before the coming of Jesus had three basic jobs: To teach the law, to pray on behalf of the people, and to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. So John records Jesus teaching his disciples before chapter 17, in chapter 17 he prays for his people, and now he prepares to offer himself as the sacrifice for them. So he went to a garden where he often met with his disciples, a garden where he knew Judas could easily find him. Jesus knew Judas was going to betray him and he knew the hour was upon them for Judas to carry out that betrayal. Now what do people usually do when they know someone is out to get them? They hide, right? Jesus didn’t do that, because he died willingly.
So Judas shows up with a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the pharisees, who show up with lanterns, torches, and weapons. This shows us the kind of hostility Jesus was facing. They’re coming after him like he’s some kind of terrorist or serial killer. Remember that this is a guy who spent his time healing sick people, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, and raising the dead, yet they come at him with a band of soldiers, torches, and weapons. And it shows us that the hostility was universal. In the group coming to arrest Jesus, we have Jewish people, Jesus’ ethnic and religious group, in the officers and chief priests of the pharisees, and we have the Romans, non-Jewish religious outsiders who are there in the band of soldiers. Diversity isn’t always a good thing; here the Jews and Gentiles come together in opposition to Christ.
In verse 4 John reminds us that Jesus knew all that would happen to him, and yet he asked them whom they seek. When they say Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus says, “I am he,” we read in verse 6 that they drew back and fell to the ground. So once again, we see that Jesus is no mere victim here. He knew all that was happening, and his word is powerful over his enemies, so much that his mere announcement that he is Jesus of Nazareth makes them draw back and fall to the ground. Then later in verse 8 he says, “if you seek me, let these men go.” John tells us in verse 9 that this was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.”
Jesus had said those words to God the Father in prayer. Though Jesus was overwhelmingly rejected while on earth, there was a people the Father gave him, who the Father had chosen before the foundation of the world, who, as true sheep, heard the voice of their shepherd while on earth, came out of the world, and followed him. These disciples were among those sheep, and it was Jesus’ task to lose none of them, but raise them up on the last day. Here, as with much in the Bible, there is a kind of short-term and a long-term reference. Short-term, Jesus is saying he did not give up these disciples to be arrested by the Roman soldiers and Jews. Instead, he offers himself to be arrested, and, ultimately, crucified. But on a deeper level, this was part of Jesus’ work of keeping these disciples until the last day, when he would come again to raise them from the grave. By protecting them from arrest, he also protected them from a temptation he knew they could not bear then. We’ll see in just a bit that Peter denied him without even being arrested; if all his disciples had been arrested at this time, it’s safe to assume they would have all permanently turned from him. Remember that behind Judas, the Roman soldiers, and the Jewish officials, was another spiritual being, who Jesus calls the “evil one,” the devil, who entered into Judas, and who wanted to claim Jesus’ disciples as his own. By not allowing his disciples to be handed over at this time, Jesus protected them from the evil one.
Not only that, but his death was necessary to not losing them. Every one of his disciples, like every one of us, were born into a world in rebellion against God, and we joined in that rebellion. There was, therefore, a demand of God’s justice against us that had to be satisfied before God could give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, who would rescue us from the evil one and keep us to the end. That’s the only way we could not be lost to the evil one. So instead of giving us over, Jesus willingly died in our place. He gave himself over to be killed by the evil one, to satisfy the demand of God’s justice by his death, and to overcome, so that we might receive the Holy Spirit from him, and so be saved and kept until the last day, when he will come again to raise us up. He won’t lose you if you are truly in Him. As one of the songs we sing here says, “He’ll not let my soul be lost; his promises shall last, bought by him at such a cost, he will hold me fast.” His promises will last: He will lose none of all that the Father has given him, for they have been bought by him at the cost of his own life. That’s why John doesn’t report Jesus’ death as a bare fact. He wants you to learn things like this from it. He wants you to learn not just that Jesus died, but why he died, and what it means for you. For all who are in him by faith, he died so you would never be lost. None of us are very good at following Jesus: Our faith is weak, our obedience is inconsistent, our love waivers. But he is very good at saving such people. And your hope for the future, your hope that you will not be lost, rests not on your ability to follow Jesus, but on his ability to save you. He has already given himself for you; he will not lose you.
God wants us to learn that from Jesus’ death, and he wants to teach us more of the glory of Jesus’ death, and how we, then, can learn to suffer with Jesus as we follow him. He does this by contrasting Jesus’ willingness to die with Peter’s fighting back and fitting in.
Instead of fighting back
So we encounter Simon Peter next, who swung his sword at the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. When I used to hear this story, I had a hard time imagining how you only get a guy’s ear, but I had a friend who served with the Peace Corps in Belize who was attacked by a man with a machete, and amid the scuffle, his ear was cut off. So it’s possible, and the scene here is probably Peter swinging for this guy’s head, to kill him, but the guy ducks such that Peter only gets his ear. Peter’s response is a natural one. Often when people know someone is out to get them, they flee, but what’s the other natural response? Fight or flight, right? The other natural response is fighting. So Peter, seeing a group hostile against Jesus, coming to arrest him, fights back.
But what does Jesus tell him, verse 11? Put your sword back into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me? Jesus came to earth to die. It was the charge that he received from his Father. Here he describes it as the “cup” that the Father gave him. In the Old Testament, the “cup” that God has is often associated with judgment from God. Listen to this from Psalm 75:7-8 – “it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” There is a cup in the hand of the LORD that the wicked must drink, and yet here Jesus says there is a cup the Father has given him, that he must drink, though he is righteous. And that’s because as we’ve seen, he came to die in our place, to give himself for us, as our substitute, to suffer the judgment we deserved, so that not one of us would be lost, but raised up on the last day.
Notice the love of Christ in this. There is obviously a great love for us in his willingness to die for us, to give himself, so that not one of us would be lost, to drink the cup of God’s judgment for us, so that we would not have to. But more fundamentally, notice the love of Christ for the Father. He fulfilled the word that he spoke to the Father, that he will lose none of all he has given him. Ultimately, He will not lose us, not so much because he loves us, though he does, but because he loves the Father, and we are those who have been given to him by the Father. Ultimately, he drinks the cup of judgment for us, not so much because he loves us, though he does, but because he loves the Father, and this was the cup the Father had given him. Notice how he succeeds at this very point where Adam, the first man, failed. Adam was also in a garden when the evil one came to him, only Adam was in a garden full of comforts, and he refused to obey his Father’s charge. Jesus was in another garden, in the most painful and unpleasant circumstances we could image, awaiting betrayal by one of his closest disciples, and he willingly drank the cup the Father gave him. And because he loved and obeyed God for us, as our substitute, we who, in Adam, have not loved God can be forgiven, and he will not lose a single one of us who the Father has given to him.
And because he did this for us, he is also able to work this in us. None of us will have to drink the exact same cup Jesus drank; only he could die for the sins of the world. And yet each of us does have a life that the Lord has assigned us, that in a fallen world includes suffering, and for those of us who follow Jesus, it also includes persecution. As Jesus has said repeatedly in John, a servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Jesus, they will persecute us. How should we respond? There are times when self-defense is permissible—you are an image of God with a right to not be murdered; if someone is trying to murder you, you have a right to defend yourself, even if it means harming or killing the aggressor. God has given governments in particular the sword, and he doesn’t tell them to sheath it. Even here, Jesus obviously knew Peter was carrying a sword, and did not forbid it, nor does he tell Peter to get rid of it.
And yet, he does tell him to sheath it, and he himself does not use it. If someone intrudes into your home because they just want to rob and hurt you, you are free to defend yourself. But if someone hates you because of your faith in Christ, don’t hate them back. That is the cup the Father has given every Christian to drink, in some measure, at some time, in some place. And it is this kind of response from the early Christians that stood out in the Roman Empire. When someone would come burn down their house and kill their family, the Christians wouldn’t then go burn down their houses and kill their families. They’d pray for them, forgive them, and look for ways to do good to them. That same moral imagination inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to advocating for Civil Rights: He was very clear in denouncing evil, just like Jesus and the early Christians were, but he always did so non-violently, even when it meant he became a victim of violence. When someone would make false accusations against the early Christians, they wouldn’t then go cook up false accusations in response. Certainly if you’re falsely accused, you should stand up for yourself and promote the truth, but that’s different from retaliation. When people speak evil against you, don’t speak evil against them. When people speak evil about you, don’t speak evil about them. Pray for them; pray for God to forgive them and bless them. Consider a good work you could do toward them. Consider something true and good that you could say to or about them. Grieve their pain; rejoice in their successes.
Take a deep breath; you don’t have to fight back. It’s a freeing thing, to put your sword back in the sheath, right? It’s a tiring thing to feel like you must always be assessing the threats and fighting to win. We Christians win by willingly losing. We lay down our swords, and open our arms, knowing that the world may put their swords through our hands, just like they did to Jesus. But that’s how he loved us, and ultimately, that’s how he loved his Father. That’s how you can willingly suffer instead of fighting back. See the persecution as the cup the Father has given you, and out of love for him, patiently endure it. More broadly than persecution, even, we often make our suffering worse by fighting back against God for bringing it, just refusing to accept the cup He has given us. Of course, if there are things you can do to alleviate your suffering, do them, but there are many times in life when you realize, “I can’t do anything about this right now.” Put your sword into its sheath. This is the cup the Father has given you; shall you not drink it? Rejoice, even, as you share the sufferings of Christ. The early Christians sang hymns of joy on their way to the stake. When Latimer and Ridley were preparing to be burned at the stake by Bloody Mary’s order, instead of fighting back, Latimer turned to Ridley and said to him, “Be of good cheer Master Ridley, and play the man; We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” And Jesus, though he knew all that would happen to him, though he had all power over the people doing these things to him, died willingly, to drink the cup of God’s judgment, to lose none of all that had been given to him, instead of fighting back.
Peter tried fighting back; Jesus shut that down. Next, we’ll see him trying another strategy that Jesus also does not employ: Fitting in.
Instead of fitting in
So the band of soldiers arrest Jesus and take him to Annas, who was kind of the High Priest Emeritus at that time. So they get to Annas’ courtyard, and Peter, along with another disciple, who is probably John, were following Jesus. John knew Annas and so could get in, but Peter could not. So John talked to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl asks Peter if he’s one of Jesus’ disciples as well, and Peter denies it. Here’s a guy who was ready to kill a servant of the high priest moments ago; now one of them simply asks him if he’s one of Jesus’ disciples, and he says no. He looked like such a bold disciple of Jesus, but turns out to be quite weak. And this is often the case: Those who make the greatest outward show and appearance of godliness are often those the farthest from it.
John goes on to tell us that it was cold there, and the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire to warm themselves. Peter also stood with them and warmed himself. Doesn’t that sound nice? I’m picturing those scenes from Rocky where people are gathering around a fire in a metal trash can somewhere in South Philly when it’s cold outside. Jesus is about to be questioned by the high priest at risk of his life, while Peter is hanging out with the high priest’s servants, getting warm by their fire. We talked about the natural response to hatred of fighting, but also mentioned another natural response: Fleeing. Peter doesn’t totally flee here; he did follow Jesus physically. And there are times where it is permissible for us to flee persecution physically. In the book of Acts, we see a time where the apostle Paul knew people in a city wanted to kill him, and for the sake of proclaiming the gospel more, he fled. But there is another kind of “fleeing” that is never permissible for us: Denying Jesus. Why’s Peter do it? To fit in with those who are in power. In Peter’s two responses, then, of fighting back and fitting in, we see how human flesh responds to the threat of persecution, and you can see it in how we often respond today. On the one hand, there are those of us who are prone to fight back: When the world gets angry at us, we get angrier, when the world insults us, we insult the world. Never admit weakness, always defend the church, always criticize the world. On the other hand, there are those of us who are prone to fit in: Always tone down or change whatever parts of our message we perceive might offend the world, let the world tell the church what we need to be doing, always criticize the church, always defend the world. We’ve already seen Peter try to fight back, now we see him trying to fit in, to enjoy the warmth of the world’s fire in the cold.
It’s often the case in the world that those who oppose Jesus have the “fires” in the cold, that is, that those who oppose Jesus are in positions of power, live in big houses, safe neighborhoods, eat better food, get into better parties, travel to more exotic places, and so forth, and it’s easy to want to fit in with them. Who do you want to fit in with? We watch TV shows and movies filled with characters who live their lives without reference to God, and the writers make their fire look so warm. We listen to podcasts, news shows, and stand-up comedians who ridicule basic Christian beliefs, and it starts to feel cold where we are. What do you want in those moments? You want to fit in with them. They have the power to disseminate their message through these various media, such that it gets to you. Often, however, the people are closer to you: The professor who grades your papers, the boss who decides your pay, the neighbor who has the fun parties. Much of work, even, is not what you know, it’s who you know, right? So networking with the powerful is a means to doing your job well. There are a lot of fires we long to gather around, and we sense that if we toned down our Christian faith, or even denied it altogether, we could get closer.
Jesus is not swayed by such things. Unlike Peter, he denies nothing. We read in verse 19 that the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching, and Jesus openly owns all that he has spoken in the world. He’s not a cult leader who makes you get through certain rites of initiation before he lets you in on his secrets. He’s spoken openly since his ministry began, and the fact that the high priest is now questioning him shows that the high priest was more concerned to harass him and find something with which to charge him than he was to know the truth, which was already readily accessible through Jesus’ public teaching and the testimony of any number of witnesses who heard it. One of them even strikes him, and again, Jesus is not just being a doormat here. He stands up for himself and tells them to charge him with wrong if he’s really been guilty, but he also doesn’t slap anyone back. Then John tells us again in verse 25 that Peter was standing and warming himself, and two more times Peter denies Jesus in response to simple questions. The rooster crows after this third denial, in fulfillment of what Jesus had said to Peter already, that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed.
Notice the contrast between Peter and Jesus. At first, he fights back, while Jesus willingly accepts the cup of suffering from his Father’s hands. Then, he denies Jesus to fit in, while Jesus willingly states what is true of him, even though he knows it will lead to his death. Peter is a picture of what we are like by nature, and Jesus is the Savior we need. He didn’t need to fit in, so he could be excluded for us. There was, in fact, a time earlier in the Gospel of John, where people tried to take him and make him king. In John 6:15 we read that “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” He refused to be crowned by this world, but he willingly died, out of love the Father, and love for us, in hope of a kingdom that is not of this world. And when you get him, you become a citizen of that kingdom, and fitting in in this world just isn’t as big of a deal. So we’ll see that after Jesus dies and rises again, Peter is restored to Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, and empowered to boldly proclaim Christ in the face of persecution. But before he could follow Jesus into death, he needed Jesus to die for him. Left to himself, he was either a fighter or a coward, and there’s a fine line between the two. Both are afraid, and you will be too until you believe in Jesus, receive the forgiveness of your sins, and set your hopes on a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom Jesus died to make you a citizen of, and a kingdom he will bring you safely into when he returns on the last day.
So forget fitting in. The fire the world kindles may seem comforting in the cold, but one day it will run out of fuel. Don’t deny Jesus. When people ask you how your weekend was, consider telling them you went to church, and maybe one thing you learned from the sermon. Invite them to join you. When people are ridiculing Christians, let them know that you are one, and ask if you could share why you don’t see things the way they do. Dive deeper into your church community; fit in there. It’s probably no coincidence that Peter is bold when with Jesus and the other disciples, but denies him when with the servants of the high priest. It’s not clear why, when John gets Peter in, he doesn’t just go with John and Jesus; maybe he was starting to isolate himself already out of fear. Maybe the warmth of the fire was more attractive to him than the ridicule that Jesus was about to receive. In either case, he was more vulnerable when alone, and we are too. It’s natural, not sinful, to want to fit in with some group of people, to not want to be alone. The way God redeems that is he gives us a redeemed community of which to be a part, called the church.
The catch with the church is that it’s not made up of the people with the warmest fire. If you’re looking for the community of the impressive, the church isn’t it. Churches usually have some people in them who are wealthier, who have a lot of connections; that’s not evil. But it’s not how the community is organized, and it has a lot of people who aren’t. Instead, in the world, the church is typically opposed and in the cold, while the world gathers around its fires. It’s not the community of comfort. Sometimes relationships within it are messy and hard, but it’s a mess worth making. Whether you feel like you fit in well in your church or not, you should follow Jesus into suffering instead of trying to fit in. Jesus died alone willingly to save you; you should follow him even if it leaves you all alone. But the church is meant to help you in that, and you can work to cultivate that sense of “fitting in” more there. That’s the community Jesus willingly died to form. So believe in him, and suffer with him willingly, instead of fighting back, or fitting in.