You will all fall away,” Jesus told us, “for it is written:
“ ‘I will strike the shepherd,
And the sheep will run as though shorn of their wool.’
But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
He addressed us on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem among the olives trees. I could not believe what I was hearing. I blurted out defensively, “Even if everyone else falls away, I will not!”
“Mark my words,” Jesus answered, “as we live and breathe – before the night is through, you alone will disown me three times. Yes, even before the rooster has boasted its third crow of the morning!”
But I, Peter, was so resolute, so certain of my conviction that I said, “Even if I have to die alongside you, I will never disown you.” It was then that all of my brothers vowed the same. How wrong could we be?!
After all that happened in the temple since we had arrived in Jerusalem, I could be forgiven for being so blind. I see now why my understanding had been so dim and my grasp of it all, so weak. Earlier, I remember leaving the temple after he had taught us about true offerings of the heart. I had remarked to him, “Wow, teacher! What truly impressive stonework! Look at all these buildings – magnificent! Overwhelming aren’t they?!”
“Take a good look at all these buildings,” Jesus replied. “Not one stone that you see here will be left upon another; every last one will be toppled and the whole place utterly overwhelmed.”
Shortly afterward James and John and my brother Andrew and I took the opportunity to talk to Jesus privately. As we sat opposite the temple on the Mount of Olives – a place that would become for us a symbolic ‘holy of holies’ – we asked him, “Tell us when. When will these things happen? And what warning will we get?” Well, the words Jesus came out with and the images they brought to mind were as unexpected as they were extraordinary. I wonder if even he understood the depth of their meaning.
Jesus said to us:
“Keep watch so no one pulls the wool over your eyes. There will be a long line of people who claim the voice of the shepherd. “I am he!” they will say, and many people will be misled by them. Your ears will be filled with news of violent conflicts and those eager for war, but do not be alarmed. Such things are inevitable, they are the way of this world, not the end of it. One nation will puff up against another and one kingdom will kick against another. The earth itself will show no natural rhythm in its warning – its seismic shifts will still bring disaster and scorching heat will still bring famine. Notice these things only as the beginning of birth pains – a new world birthed in the midst of this one.
You must have the careful vigilance of midwives or priests. What you are tasked with is by no means safe – you will find yourselves at the mercy of petty councils and you will be whipped in the synagogues. On my account you will stand before leaders and kings as witnesses to them. And know this: the language of this God-news will continually find meaning to all the scattered peoples of the earth. You will come to expect arrest and being brought to trial. When this happens, again, do not lose any sleep wondering how you will defend yourself. Speak whatever is presented to you at the time, and the Holy Spirit will honour your words and advocate on your behalf.
You will see betrayal become a way of life for some, or more accurately a way of death. Brother will accuse brother to escape the sword. Even the heart of a father will be turned against his own flesh and blood, for the sake of preserving his own life. Children will disown their parents and turn away callously as the executioner looks on. Death and hatred will seem the only victors. All people will despise you and want you dead because of me, but the one who doesn’t flinch before those accusers will, in the end, know full and final deliverance.
What the prophet Daniel was talking about when he painted the picture of Jerusalem’s destruction and the sacking of the temple, will become a dreadful reality in your sight. Indeed, after this invader comes you will search the ruins but find only an eerie silence. In the temple’s sacred place you will see a tainted priest making putrid offerings to his own despicable gods and with a stench to make you retch. In those days there will be no sanctuary and it will cause the widespread misery of God’s people. It would be better to flee to the mountains beyond Judea, rather than enduring yet another enemy occupation.
These days will come upon the people just like murderous thieves. There will be no time to retrieve even a single treasured possession, even if you think it might be within your reach. Even if you returned to your house from the field to grab your cloak for the journey, death would surely meet you at your door. Imagine the terror of women heavy with child and breastfeeding mothers burdened with the care of little ones! Imagine if it happened in the depths of winter – actually, pray that it doesn’t! For those will be days marked with deep despair not endured since the world began until now – and never to have equal again.”
I remember sitting transfixed as Jesus told us all these things. The temple I had marvelled at not long before suddenly seemed insignificant. What’s more, as I heard the words that came out of Jesus’ mouth I found that he spoke from a place of timelessness. I remember thinking this must be what it is like to hear the voice of a prophet. Surely this ought to be reserved for the ears of priests. But it was more than that; he was more than that. This One who I’d thought of as The Divine Man or The People’s Favourite Son was so much more. The way he spoke there on the hillside garden, opened up for us the mysterious title of Son of Man, like the olive-wood doors open up before the temple. And our understanding began to grow, as he continued,
“Who could have endured? Who could have survived if the Lord had not cut those days short? But he has shortened them – like a mercifully short labour – and for the sake of those he has chosen to bring near and cradle in salvation. And just like a hasty or callous midwife some will say to you, ‘Look here is the Christ! Or ‘Look, our salvation is here at last!’ but don’t you believe it. Why? Messiahs and prophets will come and make a cheap imitation of the truth, which many will take for the real thing. Their signs and miracles will grab people’s attention and they will deceive even those birthed in the truth of salvation – if that were possible. So have the careful vigilance of midwives. I have told you what is true before all the others come with their falsehoods and fame.
Following those days of distress creation itself will express what no one else can. For,
‘the sun will be veiled in mourning,
and the moon will stay away in sorrow;
the stars will dissolve in tears
and the sky will collapse from exhaustion –
as with the fig tree laden with fruit in season.’
“The Son of Man will be ushered into this temple resounding in full voice and billowing with fragrant incense. At that time people will know his immense power and absolute splendour. He will command his angels to gather the ones he has chosen. They will cradle them from the very origin of the four winds – from the outermost places of the earth to the uttermost places of the heavens.
Now learn the lesson from the fig tree Isaiah talked about: from the moment its buds burst and its leaves flourish, you know that fruit will soon start to ripen in the summer heat. So it is with these things you’ll see happening. You’ll know it is near – as you would know the smell of rain before cloudbursts rattle your backdoor. Be sure of this: this generation will certainly not pass beyond the horizon until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will have their season, but my words will be eternally fruitful.
I know the question of ‘when?’ plays on your minds. Understand then, that the very moment these things are to be set in motion is not even revealed to the whole host of heaven, and nor to the Son, but remains with the Father. Be expectant! Be ready to act! You do not know when the time will be upon you. Think of it this way: a man goes away and leaves his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and on his way out the door he tells the one at the threshold of his house, “Keep watch!”
Keep watch so the life of prayer is fruitful in you. It’s a ceaseless work you are called to. For you simply do not know when the owner of the house will come back. It could be as evening sets in, or at darkest midnight, or in the greying dawn when the rooster crows, or at the first appearance of the sun. If you find he is suddenly with you, do not let him have to prod you into action. Read my lips and pass on this sacred task:
These were strange words to my ears and I have meditated on them many times since. After that sweeping montage of what would usher in his kingship, I began to see signs of it unfolding immediately.
At the time, we were back in Bethany at the home of Simon who had been healed of leprosy. The Passover and the seven-day Feast of the Bread Made Without Yeast were only two days away. We all knew the chief priests and the teachers of the rules were desperate to find a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. The rumour around the table was that they had decided, “Soon, but not during the Feast,” they had said, “or all hell will break loose!”
Perhaps that was when we heard the ‘clunk’ of a stone jar cracking. Everyone turned to look and saw a woman with a jar made of alabaster with its neck broken, pouring the contents carefully over Jesus’ head as he reclined at the table. It was not long before the entire house was filled with the fragrance of pure nard – this was genuine and highly prized oil from the distant mountains of the east.
I remember how that house also filled with complaint. We were offended and said to each other, “What a waste of perfume!” and, “What is the meaning of this?!” and, “Why, it could have fetched more than a year’s wages and the money given to those who need it most.” We carried on this harsh criticism of her tender act until Jesus interrupted.
“Let her be,” said Jesus. “Why are you disturbing her? She has done a beautiful thing to me among you. ‘Those who need it most’ will continue to be among you and you may stand up for them when you are so compelled. But being with me will not continue in the way you’re used too. She did what she was compelled to do. As fragrant oil prepares a body for burial so she has anointed my body ahead of time. Be sure of this: wherever this God-news is preached throughout the scattered nations, what she has done will not be overlooked and generations to come will honour her long after she has passed away.”
Yes, hers was an extravagant gift. If it were a king’s coronation her act would be considered a vital and priestly sacrament. I’ll never forget the aroma of the nard perfume and how its scent was near Jesus throughout all the events of the next week. This would come to first disturb me, then strangely comfort me, and eventually delight me.
Clearly it disturbed Judas Iscariot, and compelled him to go to the chief priest and teachers of the rules to betray Jesus to them. I imagine they would have been delighted to receive one of the Twelve as he offered to give them the man they wanted. This is when they would have promised to give him money and perhaps he saw an opportunity to get what he wanted. Judas would wait until just the right moment to hand Jesus over. I don’t think this was the kind of watchfulness Jesus had intended. But I do know this was the very act that would leave for Judas, a legacy of dishonour.
On the first day of the Feast of the Bread Made Without Yeast we were staying in Bethany. As you know, it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb for the meal that evening. We asked him, “Where do you want to share the Passover meal? We will go and prepare it for you to eat.”
So he sent two of us on another journey to Jerusalem. The task reminded me of the one I had taken to bring back the colt for Jesus to enter Jerusalem on. I had a feeling that what we were about to experience would enter into the realm of the truly momentous. Perhaps that is what made his instructions all the more strange to us. He said, “Go into the city, there you will see something out of the ordinary, but you ought to be used to that by now – a man will approach you carrying a water jar. Follow him for he knows the way. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room we talked about, where I may share the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a spacious upper room, with all the furnishings we will need. It awaits your hand to prepare all that is left to do.”
We had much to discuss along the way, and once there we began looking for what was hidden in plain sight. Consequently we were found, and we followed, we asked and we were shown. And there we prepared the Passover meal.
When evening came we met Jesus and the rest of our brothers, and returned to the room we had prepared. It began like any other Passover meal. As we ate together we stretched out at the table. Then suddenly Jesus said, “Be sure of this: one of you will betray me – even one who has eaten and enjoyed close company with me.”
I said to him solemnly, “Surely I will not.” There was a deep sadness in the room as all of my brothers, the Twelve, confessed the same.
“It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who has shared from the same loaf of bread with me; one whose life has been mingled with my own. The Son of Man will triumph just as the prophets foretold. But pity the wretch who waits to give up the Son of Man! He will wish he had never been born.
We continued to pick at the crumbs until Jesus broke the silence, saying, “Take this, it’s my body.” As he said this, he held some bread as if considering its weight. After a few words of gratitude to God he tore it open and gave us portions.
As we ate, he held a cup in the same precise manner. Again, after a few words of gratitude he served it to us, and we drained the cup.
While we drank he said, “This is my blood of the new and binding promise, which can never be drained, and which fills and flows for so many. I tell you the truth: the fruit of the vine will not pass my lips before the day comes when I share its fullness anew in the kingdom of God.”
Finally we sang as brothers. Our song of deliverance rose there in the spacious upper room, before we left for the Mount of Olives. Once there however, the praise died on our lips as we heard those ominous words from Jesus that we would scatter like sheep; that each one of us would fail to stand our ground. It had to be this way for us, as it must be for all those who follow.
And so this is how it happened. After Jesus had predicted my denial we went to a quiet vale called Gethsemane, where the olives were crushed and pressed to make oil. Jesus took James, John and I, while saying to the others that followed, “Wait here while I pray.”
We went along with him, and then he became deeply distraught. I remember his eyes and I felt the depth of his anxiety wash over me. He was beside himself with grief and apprehension.
“Sorrow looms over my soul – death might crush me at any moment,” he said to us, “Wait here and keep watch.”
He went a little further before I saw him collapse. I heard him pray that the waiting might quicken. Then he said what every language would recognise as the plea of a beloved son: “Abba, Father,” he said, “you see all possibilities. Let me hold this cup lightly, so you may hold it to my lips. Now press my will so it flows with yours.”
It was some time before I awoke to the sound of my own name. At first I thought the voice belonged to my father, but I stirred and saw that it was Jesus. “Simon, you’re not dead to the world are you? Could you not keep watch for the longest hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall on your pride. You have guts, but those hard pressed realise that willpower is not enough.”
Once more he turned to pray. I heard him call to the Father in the same way as before. Sometime later he returned, and again he found us in the shallow sleep that comes with grief. I was barely roused by his presence and I found, as if in a nightmare, I did not have the power of speech.
I awoke when he returned the third time. He said to us, “Are your senses still dulled and your bodies still unmoved? Enough! The time has come. See how the Son of Man falls into hands that hold so much deceit. Get up! Let’s go! Here comes my betrayer!”
At that very moment Judas, one of the Twelve brothers, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs. They had been sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the rules, and the elders. Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Teacher!” and kissed his cheek in greeting. This must have been a signal. Judas must have said, “The one I kiss is the man you want; arrest him and lead him away, but be on your guard.”
So the men seized Jesus and bound him and began to lead him away. Instinctively, I drew my sword and lashed out at one of those restraining Jesus. The blow fell on his head; there was blood and the man writhed in pain. Those with him said that this man was the servant of the high priest – and in my rash and impulsive act I had cut off his ear.
“Am I leading a horde of rebels,” said Jesus, “that you arrive armed to the teeth to apprehend me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts – and you didn’t take hold of me. However the scriptures must be fully realised.”
Then, every last one of us with him left Jesus for dead, and fled like there was no tomorrow.
My brother would tell me later that he followed Jesus, but the guards grabbed at his clothes. In the struggle they ripped off his linen garment, which was all that he was wearing. He escaped leaving his clothes and hid, for there was nothing to cover his nakedness.
They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders and teachers of the rules were called together. I followed at a distance right into the courtyard of the high priest. I remember sitting with those keeping watch and warmed myself at their fire.
In the courtyard I heard the chief priests and the whole Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, looking for evidence against Jesus so they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their accounts conflicted.
Then some stood, shoulders back, chests out, and delivered this twisted testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another without a human hand touching a single stone.’” Yet even their rehearsed testimony failed to find grounds for a solid case.
The high priest took matters into his own hands, and stood before the council where he questioned Jesus, “Aren’t you going to answer? What do you make of the testimony these men are bringing against you?” From the courtyard all I heard from Jesus was a steady silence.
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Anointed One, the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am”, said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man beside the Mighty One in the seat of power – arriving in the clouds of his presence, taking charge and claiming what is lawfully his.”
The high priest tore his clothes in rage. “Enough witnesses!” he spat, “Why do we need one witness when we are now all witnesses of his delusions of grandeur, his contempt of our rules and his mockery of the Most High? What say you brothers?”
The whole assembly erupted. Clearly there was one thing they all agreed on: his life was an utter offence, so they ruled in favour of his death. This quickly spilled over into violent behaviour; some spat at him; they blindfolded him, punched him and mocked him saying, “Prophesy!” And then the guards left their watch and took Jesus and beat him, and then the cold of the night closed in around me.
All the others had fled and I had remained in the lower courtyard, as close as possible to the master. But I would fail him too and I would be the worst offender. Eventually it was not a ranking official or anyone important who would find me out, but a mere servant girl of the high priest. She passed me as I warmed myself by the fire where she paused and eyed me closely.
“You were also with that cursed Nazarene, Jesus.” she said.
But I denied it, saying, “I don’t know what you mean or what you’re talking about,” and I retreated into the entryway.
But the servant girl wouldn’t let it go. She said again to those standing nearby, “I’m sure this man is one of them.” Again I denied it.
After eyeing me in the silence for a while, those standing near me said, “Surely you are one of them –you’re Galilean and that’s a dead giveaway.”
It was then that I made a show of asking God to punish me if my words were false. I even swore an oath and said, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”
Immediately the rooster crowed. It wasn’t until the second crow that I remembered how Jesus had given it to me so straight: “You will disown me three times before the rooster has boasted its third crow of the morning!”
That was the moment my spirit was broken. I ran from that place, reeling and out of my wits. But I could not escape from myself, so once alone I fell down and wept.
Yes this was to be his burden alone. Now I count myself as a brother to those who see themselves as least of all, and those who know they have dragged their feet when they should have come sooner, and among those who look desperately, but are unable to find the way for themselves. Yes, now I am able to ask the brutally honest question:
“Who among us is the faithful one?”