The Stench of Betrayal, the Scent of Forgiveness
Meeting ourselves in the story of Christ’s love
Some years ago, in the spring of the year, a group of physicians in my community sponsored a seminar. The central question of the session was “What difference does the Resurrection make to your practice of medicine?”
I listened with interest to the answers offered. While the various responses probed my faith and thought, the greatest value came from examining my own heart. I began to ask, “What difference does the Resurrection make to me?”
Hope for a Hopeless Planet
I instantly knew the most important answer: the Resurrection transforms every funeral I will ever attend. It changes every funeral sermon I will ever preach. It shines hope into my heart as I weep at my father’s grave. It offers an eternal sunrise to those for whom life’s sunset would otherwise usher in eternal night. It births hope on what would otherwise be a hopeless planet.
The situation is just as Paul told the believers in Corinth: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:14-19).
But the Resurrection is like the sunrise: given time, it casts light on every dark corner of our lives. So then, while the central meaning of the Resurrection is that Christ is risen and we shall be raised as well, it also illumines and heals other dark corners of our souls.
So it is that in the years since that physicians’ seminar, when springtime looms and Easter dawns, I continue to ask, “What difference does the Resurrection make to me?”
A Story Simple and Profound
I have concluded that beyond the promise of future life, one of the most enduring and endearing answers is one that binds my soul to the apostle Peter’s; and how it is answered in John’s Gospel.
John’s Gospel is deceptively deep. A child reads it with understanding, yet in a single lifetime an adult will never plumb its depths. Among other ways, this reality can be seen in the two-tiered language John uses. His writing often has a surface, literal meaning, while also containing a secondary, deeper meaning, a meaning assimilated only through the Holy Spirit and thoughtful study.
An example of such is found in John 13, where Jesus confronts Judas with His knowledge of the fact that Judas will soon betray Him. To confirm what He has just said, Jesus dips bread into the cup and hands it to Judas. There is a brief interaction, during which Judas apparently elects to move forward with his plan. At that point he leaves the table and exits into the night. John records the moment with these words: “As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night” (John 13:30).
“It was night.” It’s a simple statement regarding when the incident occurred. Or is it? Consider Ellen White’s view of this:
“In surprise and confusion at the exposure of his purpose, Judas rose hastily to leave the room. ‘Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. . . . He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night.’ Night it was to the traitor as he turned away from Christ into the outer darkness.
“Until this step was taken, Judas had not passed beyond the possibility of repentance. But when he left the presence of his Lord and his fellow disciples, the final decision had been made. He had passed the boundary line.”1
John captures the essence of the spiritual condition of Judas in four words (in English) and three words (in Greek). It’s an example of both the simplicity and the depth of John’s Gospel. There are many such examples in his Gospel, examples that alert us to the fact that the language and metaphors John uses have meaning beyond the surface level.
A Charcoal Fire
With that in mind, I return to the question “What difference does the Resurrection make to me?” One of the key meanings it has to me is that it underlines the truth that God forgives, and that God forgives the most egregious of sins.
Consider: The Greek word anthrakia, most accurately translated “charcoal fire,” appears just two times in the entire Bible, and both times it appears in John’s Gospel. Its first appearance is in John 18:18. Jesus, having been arrested, is taken to Annas, the high priest. The disciples have scattered, though John and Peter have followed Jesus from a distance. Since the servants of Annas know John, he is allowed in, and since John knows Peter, Peteris allowed in. Peter enters and immediately seeks to blend in with the gathered crowd.
But the eyes of a servant girl fall on Peter. She gazes intently, thoroughly convinced that she knows him. Finally she speaks: “You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” (John 18:17). She asks a leading question, one to which the obvious answer is no.
And that is exactly how Peter answers: “I am not” (verse 17).
Then John writes: “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire [anthrakia] because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself” (verse 18, NRSV).2
Later in the same passage John says that “Peter was still standing there warming himself” (verse 25). While he stands there Peter is asked, first by some of those standing nearby, then by one of the high priest’s servants, whether or not he is a follower of Jesus, and whether or not they saw him in the garden with Jesus.
To each of these queries Peter responds with a firm “I am not.” After the third time, John—in typical, two-tiered fashion—simply pens: “And at that moment a rooster began to crow” (verse 27).
The Smell of Smoke
The last time you warmed yourself near an outdoor fire, you were reminded that the smell of smoke quickly permeates your clothes. Such would no doubt have been true for Peter. The stench of that charcoal fire’s smoke clung to him throughout that weekend, reminding him of his devastating denial of his Lord. That must have been the longest, most bitter weekend of Peter’s life.
In the world of his day, hovering around a fire was a daily event, whether for cooking or for warming oneself. So Peter faced a future filled with profound, persistent, and painful reminders of his betrayal of Jesus. Every time he inhaled the smoke from a charcoal fire, the stench of betrayal would singe his soul.
Isn’t that the way it is for each of us? A place, a song, an event, an aroma, and the memories come flooding back, memories reminding us of failure and cutting us to the quick. Try as we might to avoid them, charcoal fires often scorch the landscape of our lives, searing our souls with reminders of our brokenness.
Such was now the reality of Peter’s life. “Things could not have been easy for [Peter]. The story of his denial would soon get about, for people love a malicious tale. It may well be, as legend has it, that people imitated the crow of the cock when he passed [by].”3 So Peter would now stagger into a fractured future.
Except for one thing.
Another Place, Another Fire
The word anthrakia appears a second time in John’s Gospel. Knowing how John writes, this is no accident. It appears again in the days after Jesus’ resurrection. John 21 tells the story of one of Jesus’ final appearances to His disciples. Seven of the disciples—including Peter—gather at the Sea of Galilee. Peter says, “I’m going to fish.” And they join him.
Throughout the night they toil, “but that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3).
Early the next morning a Stranger appears on the shore. “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” (verse 5). They respond in the negative, at which point He tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. They do so, and the catch is so large they can scarcely get it to shore.
Stunned at the magnitude of the event, John declares to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” (verse 7).
Overwhelmed by the fact that Jesus is nearby, the ever-impulsive Peter dives into the water and swims ashore. The other disciples follow him to land in the boat, where Peter helps them sort and count the fish. At this point Jesus invites them to partake of a breakfast He has prepared.
Remember the background of this text: The last time Peter was this close to Jesus, he was choking on the stench of the smoke of betrayal. The intervening time has been horrendous. And now he is in the presence of Jesus again.
Does his breath come in choking gasps? Does he avert his eyes, refusing to meet Jesus’ gaze for fear of what he might see? Does he cast himself in the sand at Jesus’ feet, sobbing convulsively and begging for forgiveness?
Whatever Peter did, he is not John’s focus. Rather, John turns our gaze to Jesus and tells us what Jesus did during this encounter. Jesus lights a fire and fixes the disciples breakfast. “When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire [anthrakia] there, with fish on it, and bread” (verse 9, NRSV).
Because of the Resurrection we can bask in the smoke of a different charcoal fire!
Another charcoal fire. Once again Peter has smoke in his eyes. Once again he will face three questions. And, once again the questions will focus on his relationship to Jesus. Did memories of the worst night of his life come rushing back? Did tears sting his eyes and course down his beard? Was he overwhelmed with sorrow and guilt? The text mentions none of these.
What it does tell us is what Jesus asked him: “Peter, do you love me?” Once. Twice. Three times. And each time the essence of Peter’s answers is “Lord, You know I love you.” Can you hear the pleading tone in Peter’s voice, entreating Jesus to believe that his love for Jesus is real, despite his failure?
Yet Peter need not beseech Jesus, for Jesus is providing him with a visible, tangible token of unreserved forgiveness. Because each time Peter answers, Jesus affirms his call on Peter’s life. “Feed my lambs”; “Take care of my sheep”; “Feed my sheep” (verses 15-17).
In other words, Jesus is reinstating Peter to ministry; He is affirming His love for Peter; He is forgiving Peter for his act of denial. And He is doing it all next to a charcoal fire!
Peter will once again walk away from a key encounter smelling of smoke! But instead of the stench of denial, this time his clothes will reek with the scent of forgiveness. This time he experiences the forgiveness of a God who hurls all our sins into the deepest sea; who separates our sins from us as far as the east is from the west; and who turns our scarlet sins into the snow-white robes of His righteousness (see Micah 7:19; Ps. 103:12; Isa. 1:18).
The Scent of a Different Fire
We all have charcoal fires where in some way we have denied Jesus and walked away stinking with the stench of betrayal. I don’t know where that fire has been for you.
It may have burned as you sat at a restaurant eating with friends. The name of an absent friend came up in your conversation. A friend! Yet as you sat there talking together, things were said—many things were said—that destroyed your friend’s reputation. And you sat there and participated in it, saying nothing. You just tried to blend in—blend in with the group while your friend’s name and reputation were eviscerated. And you could hardly breathe for the stench hanging in the air.
Or you may have smelled it in a classroom. The exam was harder than you expected. You prepared, but you hadn’t prepared for this. Then your classmate unintentionally moved her arm, and you could clearly see her answer sheet. Nobody noticed. But when you copied her answers, you immediately wondered if anybody else noticed that stench in the air. Were you the only one who smelled it?
Or maybe the fire burned in a hotel lobby—a hotel lobby where you surreptitiously checked in with that colleague from work. “Mr. and Mrs.,” you said. “Mr. and Mrs.” And as soon as the words left your lips, you smelled that stench in the air. It was acrid. Stifling. A scent you cannot forget.
We all have our charcoal fires. The smoke gets in our eyes, and the stench lingers on our souls. Are we the only ones who smell it? The smoke makes it impossible to see God, and the stench chokes us to the point that we cannot breathe in the air of heaven.
But then comes the news: Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! And because of the Resurrection we can bask in the smoke of a different charcoal fire! Jesus builds this fire with the rough-hewn wood of an old rugged cross. And it emits a smoke sweet with the scent of forgiveness. If we will but cluster close to its flames, our lives will be suffused with its fragrance and our hearts will be renewed with its forgiveness.
Every year now, I ask myself the question “What does the Resurrection mean to me?” The answers continue to enrich my journey with Jesus. I am asking it again this year—and invite you to join me. In fact, this year, come and huddle with me next to a charcoal fire built by Jesus.
He has a message for you.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), pp. 654, 655. (Italics supplied.)
- Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
- William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of John, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: the Westminster Press, 1975),vol. 2, pp. 230, 231.