Cross Examinations: #3
Examining Key Witnesses In The Jesus Conspiracy
Do you smell that? It’s a charcoal fire. The smell of burning charcoal always reminds me of the most wonderful place in all of Israel.
It’s not the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
It’s not the carpenter shop where he worked and grew up under Joseph’s love and care in Nazareth.
It’s not the Olive Garden known as Gethsemane where we spent so many hours in prayer.
It’s not Mount Tabor where we saw Jesus transfigured and standing with Moses and Elijah.
It’s not the Upper Room where we shared His last Passover.
It’s not Calvary where our Savior died on the cross for our sins.
It’s not the empty tomb that gives us the promise of eternal life.
I know, I know. Those are all wonderfully inspiring and uplifting places but they’re not the most wonderful place in all of Israel. At least not to me.
This place isn’t even the sight of one of the major miracles. Though, for me, it may have been the greatest miracle of all. This place is a life changing place and a life giving place.
Take a deep breath. Do you smell it?
I guess I’d better introduce myself. My name is Simon bar Jonah. Some of my fellow disciples call me Cephas because of a conversation with Jesus that took place at Caesarea Philippi. A few of them got to calling me Rocky, just to poke fun. Most folks call me Simon or Simon Peter. Some people even call me the Big Fisherman. You know, I never really knew if that was because of my size or the number of fishing boats I owned in Capernaum and Bethsaida. But most people simply call me Peter. And you can, too.
I. THE DOCK:
Today I want you to walk with me along the shore of the Sea of Galilee to that most wonderful place of all. You see that valley off in the distance? That’s the Valley of the Doves. Just beyond that grove of trees is Magdala, where Mary Magdalene, our sister in Christ, has her home. You know she and some of the others were the first to see Jesus after He rose from the grave.
Behind us is Capernaum. And beyond that is my hometown, Bethsaida. Our fishing company, was based out of Capernaum. And this, this is that most wonderful place in all Israel,
It’s an ordinary fishing dock built of stone. Right here. You can see how long of a dock it is. This is the dock where we tied up our fishing boats; where we unloaded our catch; where we cleaned and mended our nets. Listen to the waves lapping against the shore. Listen to the sound of the boats bumping up against the dock. If you try, you can even smell the water and the fish. It was at this dock where my life was changed forever.
This is where I first encountered Jesus. Oh, I’d heard of him. My brother Andrew told me all about him. Andrew was always chasing the preachers and prophets, looking for the Messiah. He even told me that he thought Jesus was the Messiah and then he drug me off to hear him preach. And Jesus was good, as preachers go.
But it wasn’t until later that I actually met Jesus. Andrew and I were mending our nets. Our cousins James and John were at the far end of the dock doing the same thing. We saw Jesus out walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee that day. He was just taking a leisurely walk. We saw him come around to our part of the lake. He saw us and he came up and stopped to talk.
Jesus was always easy to talk to. And then , all of sudden, out the clear blue, Jesus looked at us and said, “Follow me. And I will make you fishers of people.”
You know what was really strange, we did. There was something so compelling in his voice and in his eyes that we dropped our nets like hot rocks and followed. We became Jesus’ disciples. He walked down the dock to where James and John sat with Uncle Zebedee and the next thing we knew, all four of us were following Jesus like chicks follow an old hen. There were a lot of followers after that, but Jesus chose twelve of us to be the inner circle and for three years we followed him.
For a long time we stayed in Galilee and just fished for fish while he taught and preached in the Synagogues and on the hills around the lake. But then there were times when we went to places like Tyre & Sidon, the Ten Cities of the Decopolis and even into Samaria of all places. Jesus turned our lives upside down but it was wonderful and exciting. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
II. THE PASSOVER:
We followed him all over Israel and helped as he preached and healed and taught us and others about our relationship with God. He spoke about God like nobody else I’d ever heard. It was like He knew God as well as I know my own father or my brother. So, we followed.
In the end, or really the beginning, we followed him to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. It was a hard couple of weeks before hand. His message started to change. He didn’t perform very many miracles and instead was teaching us about stuff we really didn’t comprehend. But that night, Passover, was the hardest night of all.
It was there in the Upper Room that he told us some pretty disturbing things. Right in the middle of the joy and laughter of the Passover celebration, He told us his ministry was almost over. He also said that one of us, one of his twelve chosen disciples, would betray him. Well, that got to us. We all wanted to know who.
And of course, I let my tongue get away from me and put my foot in my mouth as usual. I popped off and said, “I would rather die than betray you, Lord.” Jesus just looked at me for a long, long time. He had this sad little smile on his face and then almost reluctantly he said, “Peter. Peter, don’t be so sure! This very night, before the rooster crows at dawn, you will deny me three times.”
I started to argue but the look on his face shut me up. As you can imagine, the whole mood changed.
III. THE GARDEN:
Shortly after that, we followed Jesus out to the Garden of Gethsemane. We used to go there all the time so Jesus could pray. It was one of his favorite places to go and pray. We could see the walls of the city and the Golden Gate that lead into the Temple from our camp site. The Olive trees made it cool and quiet. Did you know there are olive trees there as old as or older than the prophets? That was 500 to 600 years ago. There still there today.
This night Jesus took me and James and John aside from all the others. We thought he was going to give us some special instruction or some new job. Instead he asked us to pray for him while he went off and prayed.
Maybe it was the wine from Passover or the meal, I don’t know. But I was so tired I could hardly stay awake. I guess I fell asleep because all of a sudden there was lots of noise and confusion and people everywhere. Some of them were Temple guards.
That was when I noticed Judas. He stepped out of the middle of the guards, walked up to Jesus and kissed him on the cheek. One of us HAD betrayed Jesus.
We didn’t know what to do. We were out numbered. We watched as they drug Jesus off. Everybody was scared. So was I, but I wanted to know what they were going to do to him. So I followed the guards. I kept my distance but I followed.
They didn’t take Jesus to the Temple. Or even to a synagogue. They took him to Caiaphas’ house. They had to push their way through the Passover crowds who were camped out in his orchards and fields. Even his outer courtyard had campers in it.
IV. THE FIRST FIRE:
I tried to blend into the crowd already there. I inched my way over to a place where I could see and hear all the proceedings that were going on in the inner courtyard. It was a good spot. You see it had suddenly turned chilly and there was a charcoal fire burning there. I could warm myself and listen at the same time.
I hate to tell you this but Jesus was right. It was here, while I was warming my hands over that first charcoal fire, that Peter, the Rock, as Jesus called me, crumbled. Not just once, but three times. When people asked me if I knew him, I said, “No, I don’t know him.”
And just as those words fell out of my mouth for the third time, I looked across that charcoal fire and there was Jesus. Our eyes met just as the rooster crowed. My heart broke, knowing that Jesus was right. He just looked at me.
I’ll never forget the look in His eyes that night. I saw HIS heart break. I saw the disappointment in his eyes. And the thing that stung the most; the thing that went the deepest, was the fact that along with the heartbreak and disappointment, I saw something else. I saw love and compassion. There was no anger. There was no condemnation. And there was no threat of a lightning bolt to drop me in my tracks. There was only LOVE in His eyes.
Love! And still I turned. I hung my head in shame and went my own way, the way of denial. I knew his heart was breaking. And so was mine.
I didn’t know what to do. So, I ran. I did the cowardly thing and I ran like the hounds of Hades were after me.
John found me in the Garden of Gethsemane a couple of hours later. He was in tears. He had followed, too. He knew what had happened. He saw it all. He heard all three denials and he heard the rooster crow. He said he tried to catch me but I was too fast. So, he went back. He just had to. He followed the group of accusers over to the Antonia Fortress, the Roman Fort built right next to and dominating the Temple. That was where the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had his headquarters.
Pilate questioned Jesus. But that wasn’t enough. The accusers kept demanding more. So, Pilate had Jesus whipped and it looked like he might be let go. But then the leaders confronted Pilate and something they said changed his mind. Because, Pilate ordered that Jesus was to be crucified that very afternoon.
V. THE CRUCIFIXION:
For weeks Jesus had been telling us about the cross but we were too thick headed to understand. We thought he was telling another parable or something. John and I ran over to the hill just outside of the city Gates known as Calvary or Golgotha, the place of the skull. It was out by the garbage dump known as Gehenna. There was constant burning and smoldering fires. The place stunk to high heavens, just like what they did to Jesus.
We watched as they nailed him to the cross. There was nothing we could do. We just stood there and watched him die on the cross. When they were sure he was dead they took his body down. They were going to just throw his body into the trash heap but Joseph of Arimathea intervened and provided a brand new tomb.
Joseph and I put Jesus in his mother’s arms and watched as she wept. I took him from his mother’s arms and then helped carry his body to the tomb where I placed him in the tomb while the guards watched. It was almost sundown, the beginning of the Sabbath so we had to hurry.
We put him in the tomb without any of the funeral preparations. No prayers, no bodily preparation, nothing. We quickly wrapped him in two linen clothes, and then we went our way while the guards sealed the tomb.
VI. THE RESURRECTION:
The next couple of days are just a blur. We were all so filled with grief we didn’t know what to do. Somehow, we all wound up back at the Upper Room. We were just sitting there, stewing in our grief, afraid the Pharisees and Sadduccees would come after us next.
Early on Sunday morning some of the women went to finish the funeral preparations. They weren’t gone long before they came running back with the incredible news that the tomb was empty. It totally bumfuzzled us. It was either too good to be true. Or someone had stolen the body. John and I ran as fast as we could to find out. he got there first, but I went in and it WAS true. The tomb was empty. It was empty. We found ourselves back in the Upper Room. We were excited and afraid all at the same time. We were doubting our own sanity and trying to remember what Jesus had said when all of sudden, Jesus appeared and stood in right in the middle of us. He showed us his wounded hands and side; and then ate supper with us.
Jesus appeared a couple of more times to different ones of us. And then he told the women to tell us to go to Galilee and wait. He said he’d meet us there.
VII. THE ENCOUNTER:
So we went. We waited and waited. But Jesus didn’t show. I couldn’t stand it. I was about to fidget out of my skin. So, I stood up one evening and said, “I’ve gotta do something. I’m going fishing.”
Half a dozen others went with me. We took two boats and fished all night and caught nothing, not a single fish. The sun was just coming up as we started stowing our nets. We were about fifty or sixty yards out when we saw someone on the dock bent over a charcoal fire. We could tell it was a charcoal fire by the smell.
The guy straightened up and called out across the water, “Did you catch anything?” We all groaned and called back, “Not a thing.
Then the guy called out again, “Try casting your net on the other side.” My heart stopped for a second. John’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. He could hardly get the words out, but he said, “It’s the Lord.” And it WAS. It was Jesus. While the rest of them cast the net on the other side and began hauling in a catch of fish that nearly busted the nets; I was so excited I jumped in and swam to shore. Do you have any idea what it’s like to swim in a wool robe? It soaks it up water like a sponge.
By the time I got to the dock, I had to be carrying half of the Sea of Galilee with me. I felt like an idiot and not for the first time in Jesus presence. But I made it. Jesus helped me out of the water, just like that time when I asked him to make me walk on the water. Only this time he was smiling.
VIII. THE BREAKFAST AND THE SECOND FIRE:
Once we got the boat docked and all the fish ashore, Jesus took some of the fish, grilled them and served us all breakfast. When the meal was over, we just sat there thinking and soaking up being with Jesus again. Jesus looked across that charcoal fire at me and asked, “Peter, do you love me.”
Without really thinking, I said, “Lord, you know I do.” And Jesus answered, “Feed my lambs.”
A few more minutes went by and Jesus asked me a second time, “Peter, do you love me.” Once again, without really thinking, I said, “Lord, you know I do.” This time Jesus said, “Tend my sheep.”
I sat there thinking about what it all meant when Jesus looked across the charcoal fire and asked me a third time, “Peter, do you love me.”
I looked up and said, “Lord, you know I love you.” For the first time, though, I really looked Jesus in the eye. Maybe it was the smell of the charcoal but I suddenly remembered that other charcoal fire at Caiaphas’ house, the night Jesus was tried by the Council.
I felt a stab of pain in my heart but then realized this was different. Suddenly I knew WHY Jesus had asked me three times if I loved him. If needed, he would have asked a hundred times.
Looking across the charcoal fire that night, I saw the same compassion and love I had seen when I looked across that first fire. And as I looked deeper, this time I saw something else. This time I saw forgiveness.
Jesus wanted me to know that I was forgiven. He smiled. His eyebrow went up and he smiled. It was the warmest, most loving, most unforgettable smile I have ever seen. It was as big as the opening of the empty tomb. I looked and saw that the smile and realized this forgiveness really WAS for me.
Jesus nodded his head, “Yes,” like he knew what I was thinking and as if to say, “YES, Peter. It really is true!”
Then he smiled again and said, “Feed my sheep.”
That encounter across that charcoal fire, on the dock in Galilee changed my life forever. Now you know why this dock is the most wonderful place in all of Israel.
If you’ve ever denied our Lord; if you’ve ever turned your back on the faith; or conveniently forgotten that you’re a Christian; then you know the feeling, and you know the look.
If you’ve ever looked across the first fire, the fire of denial, then you need to come to this dock and to the second fire. You need to look in his eyes. And you need to hear the question, “Do you love me?”
He’ll ask it as many times as needed. He offers forgiveness. And all he asks is, “Do you love me?”
Do you smell that? The smell of a charcoal fire, mixed with the smell of the lake and grilled fish? That my friends, is what forgiveness smells like.
Breathe it in and come to the most wonderful place in all of Israel. Come to this dock. Come to the second fire this morning. Jesus, the Son of living God offers forgiveness. And the only question he’ll ask is: “Do you love me?”
“Do you love me?”