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The peril of spiritual pride

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Mark 14:26–31

Feeling powerless is a terrible thing. You’ve been treated unfairly and there’s nothing you can do about it.

This is how New Orleans Saints fans feel today, one week from the Super Bowl. In last Sunday’s game, a Rams player clearly interfered with a Saints receiver. If the officials had made the call, the Saints would most likely have run down the clock, then kicked the winning field goal to go to the Super Bowl.

Instead, they’re taking out their anger in creative ways. A baker has made “No Ref” cookies you can buy. A Louisiana auto dealer bought space on billboards in Atlanta saying “Saints Got Robbed.” One made a new logo for the game: instead of LIII, it’s LIIE. An eye doctor is offering free exams to all NFL referees.

Many are refusing to watch the game, calling the Super Bowl the “Boycott Bowl.” Some are even trying to organize a championship parade in New Orleans to honor the Saints during the game. Some have filed lawsuits against the league, suing for damages or to have the game replayed.

It’s hard to fight a battle you can’t win. But this is what Christians face every day in the spiritual battles we face. Scripture says: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

This is a battle we cannot win in our strength. But it is a battle we cannot lose in our Lord’s power.

This week we’ll watch the leader of the Christian movement fail his Lord. We’ll learn why he failed, and how we can stand for our Master in the face of all opposition. You and I will likely have an opportunity this week to practice what our text will teach us today.

Holy Week to Maundy Thursday

This week began with Palm Sunday and our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On Monday he drove the moneychangers from the temple. On Tuesday he debated the religious leaders in the temple precincts.

On Wednesday, he spent the day alone with his disciples and friends in Bethany. On Thursday, he had the Last Supper with his disciples. From there, he went to pray in Gethsemane, where he was arrested. That night he was tried illegally by the Jewish Sanhedrin.

The next day, he would be tried again by the Jews, then by Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again. Finally, he would be condemned to death. He would be beaten and scourged, then crucified. On Good Friday, he would die for our sins.

Stand in the power of God

Our text takes place between the Upper Room and the Garden of Gethsemane. It begins: “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (v. 26). This is a mountain on the eastern side of the city of Jerusalem. In the first century, it was covered with olive trees, hence the name.

A first-century olive press has been discovered here. “Gethsemane” means “olive press,” so we believe that the events in the Garden happened in close proximity to this location.

On the way from the Upper Room in the southwestern part of the city to the Mount of Olives on the east, Jesus and his disciples continued to talk. Here he said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered'” (v. 27).

This was a quotation from Zechariah 13:7 and was fulfilled when the disciples forsook Jesus after his arrest.

Our Lord continued: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (v. 28). This was yet another prediction of his resurrection they did not understand.

Now Peter speaks up: “Even though they all fall away, I will not” (v. 29). “They” refers to the other disciples. Jesus replies, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times” (v. 30). “I tell you’ translates a Greek statement which was the most emphatic way Jesus could have made his point to Peter.

The “cock crowing” marked the third watch of the night (Mark 13:35), 3:00 to 6:00 a.m. The cock would crow “twice,” a detail given only in Mark’s Gospel.

This fact would have indicted Peter further. When the cock crowed the first time, he should have remembered this prediction and stood for his Lord. But he did not, so that the second cock’s crow sealed his failure (Mark 14:71–72). It is interesting to note that Mark’s gospel probably came primarily from Peter’s testimony, so that the Apostle gave us this self-incriminating detail himself.

The apostle would not believe Jesus’ warning: “But he said emphatically, ‘If I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And they all said the same” (v. 31). “Said emphatically translates a strong compound adverb found only in Mark, a phrase which probably preserves Peter’s own witness to his remark.

Peter’s three denials

Who was right? When Jesus was tried illegally by the Jewish Sanhedrin that night, “Peter was below in the courtyard” (v. 66a). Then, “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. 66b–67).

Since she was a servant of the high priest who was trying Jesus that very moment, for Peter to admit his relationship to his Lord could mean that he would be arrested as well. And so “he denied it, saying, ‘I neither know nor understand what you mean'” (v. 68a).

Then “he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed” (v. 68b). But apparently, he did not take note.

“And the servant girl saw him and began to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them'” (v. 69). Again, if he admitted his relationship to Jesus, these “bystanders” could alert the authorities.

So “again he denied it” (v. 70a). “And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean'” (v. 70b). Peter’s manner of speech and clothing probably alerted them to this fact.

“But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak'” (v. 72). This “curse” was not profanity or swearing but the formal calling on something sacred to guarantee that what he said was true. We might say, “I swear on my mother’s grave.”

“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” (v. 72).

If Peter had admitted his need for God’s power and help, he would have had them. The fact that he tried to serve Jesus in his own strength and resolve meant that he would fail. If the leader of the apostles could not serve God in his own strength, what of us?

Beware the sin of pride

Peter was clearly tempted to deny Jesus. But here’s the point: all sin does the same thing. Every time we fall to temptation, Satan wins and our Lord loses. When others see our sin, they think less of our Savior. They judge Christ by Christians.

Even if we think no one knows, Satan rejoices and Jesus grieves.

The next time you are tempted by sin, recognize that this is a temptation to fail your Lord. And know that you cannot defeat this temptation in your strength. If Peter failed his Lord, so will we.

Satan doesn’t bring temptations he knows we can refuse in our ability. But he likes to hide this fact, luring us into the battle as though we can win. Then, like dragging us into quicksand a foot at a time, he lures us into failure that betrays our Lord.

So, take the temptation immediately to God. Ask him for the strength you need, without which you will inevitably fail. And know that with his help, you can withstand any attack from the enemy. In Christ, the victory is sure. As my college professor said, he could summarize the Book of Revelation in two words: “We win.”

Conclusion

I watched the Australian Open women’s final on television yesterday. I watched Naomi Osaka come back from nearly winning the tournament to nearly losing it to finally winning it. Her family and supporters were tense beyond words as the match unfolded.

I watched with complete calm, however. The reason was simple: I already knew that she would win. How did I know this? I cannot predict the sports future like Tony Romo can. But what I watched yesterday morning had already happened in Australia.

Since Sydney is seventeen hours ahead of us in Texas, the match began at 2:30 a.m. our time. ESPN tape-delayed its coverage to later that morning. But a news prompt on my cell phone told me the results of the tournament before the television coverage began.

As a result, I watched with absolute certainty as to who would win.

It’s the same with God and the future. He sees tomorrow as though it were today, because to him, it is. He tells us, “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). This outcome is guaranteed.

Submit and resist and you will win. This is the invitation and the promise of God.