217. Peter's Denials (Matt. 26:58, 69-75; Mark 14:54, 66-72; Luke 22:56-62; John
A certain mystery surrounds one of the apostles at the time of
the arrest of Jesus. Whereas the synoptists emphasize that Peter "followed afar
off" after recovering from his first panic, "another disciple went in with
Quite a case can be made for taking this "other disciple"
(Jn.18:15) to be Judas. But then there is the difficulty: Why should Judas exert
himself to get Peter into the courtyard when that hot-blooded colleague of his
could be counted on to resent the Lord's betrayal very strongly? Was he hoping
to enrol a second witness for the prosecution?
On the other hand, assuming that this "other disciple" was
John, there is here an easy explanation of the mention in his gospel of Malchus
and of the kinsman of Malchus (v.10,26). The reason for his astonishing
privilege and immunity is given: "that disciple was known unto the high priest."
All kinds of guesses have been made to explain this strange fact, if it applies
to John—from the speculation that the firm of Zebedee and Sons had a
contract to supply the high priest's palace with fish, to the idea of actual
family relationship. This last is just within the bounds of possibility, for
Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was "of the daughters of Aaron" and
was also kin to Mary the mother of Jesus; and she in turn was sister to Salome,
the mother of James and John. But one cannot be completely certain that either
Annas or Caiaphas had genuine connections with the true high-priestly
Whatever the explanation, John was near enough to his Lord
during those trying hours to be able to hand on what is obviously an eyewitness
account of some of the disreputable transactions here.
Peter however had no means of access to the palace and for a
while "stood at the door without." Yet somehow he knew that John was within and
must also have contrived to get a message through to him. Whereupon John got
Peter admitted into the courtyard. For Peter this was a risky manoeuvre. By his
violence in the garden he had already shown that his protestations of unswerving
loyalty to his Master were not just empty words. And now he underlined that
sincerity. But he was thrusting his head right into the lion's mouth. It is John
himself who tells how Peter got into the courtyard, as though taking upon
himself a share of the blame for Peter's disastrous collapse of morale soon
It was an exceptionally cold night, and the servants and
officers were standing round a fire. Was it cold or an excess of self-assurance
or a desperate anxiety to hear scraps of news about his Master which brought
Peter right into that ring round the fire? After a while he even sat down among
them (Ps.l :1; cp.also Is.50 :10,11). Probably his face was muffled in a cloak,
and he trusted to that to save him from recognition.
Unusually, for this late hour of the night, there was a girl
on duty at the gate-a small but significant indication of exceptional activity.
She, who had obliged by letting Peter in, all unwittingly began the wretched
ordeal he now had to endure. Natural feminine curiosity apart, this girl would
reckon it part of her duties to know about any stranger who came on the
premises. Or perhaps she simply wanted to cover herself from blame for admitting
a disciple of the Galilean. Whatever her motive, she now appears as the only
woman in all the gospels, besides her colleague mentioned later, not on the side
of Christ-and she only indirectly.
John, who had brought Peter in, was known to be "with Jesus."
Now it dawned on her that this other man might also be a disciple. But if a
disciple, why not also "with Jesus"? Hence the form of her question, the Greek
of which implies: "You are not one of this man's disciples also, are you?", as
though inviting a denial. It was that innocent form of question which was
Peter's undoing. It encouraged him to a quick and easy evasion, and he snatched
at it, not so much because of physical fear as from shame at being reckoned a
disciple of Jesus.
Perhaps the very brusqueness of the hasty alarmed denial
aroused the girl's further suspicions. After a searching look (Gk: em-plepo)
by the aid of the fire's brightening blaze (Mk.14 :54 Gk.) these now
crystallized out in a point-blank accusation: "Thou also wast with Jesus of
Nazareth"; and this was confirmed to the rest: "This man also was with
him (as we know John was)."
The probability is that if Peter had openly avowed his
connection with Jesus no harm would have befallen him, for that circle of
underlings may well have contained several who sympathized strongly with the
cause of Jesus. And in any case would it not have been assumed that the immunity
which covered John extended to Peter also, else why should he be
How remarkable that John openly showed his discipleship, and
went untouched; Peter tried to hide his discipleship, and paid for it. Peter's
first hasty disclaimer had set him on a very steep and slippery slope. There
could now be no going back-or so he would think. Yet even now. an open honest
admission that his first "No" sprang to his lips because momentarily he had been
too scared to say "Yes", might have saved him.
Instead: "Woman, I do not know him. I do not even understand
what you are talking about." The very vigour of such a denial would stamp it as
a lie, for if Peter had no idea what the girl was talking about, why should he
sound so indignant? And to say that he didn't know anything about Jesus of
Nazareth would be altogether too incredible to the rest, for in those days was
there a soul who had not heard about him?
However, once this direct accusation had been so roughly
rebutted there was nothing else for Peter to do except either stick to his story
or else get out of that courtyard as quickly as possible. A wise man would have
chosen the latter course. But Peter may have reasoned that to do so would be to
invite further suspicion. So his eagerness to be near his Lord and to know what
befell kept him there, although both physically and spiritually his danger was
To avoid further embarrassment he went out into the porch. He
had been "revealed by fire," coals of fire which had no power to cleanse a man
of unclean lips (ls.6 :5-7). So he put a space between himself and any further
accusations-or so he hoped. And just then the cock crew. "Before the cock crow
twice, thou shalt deny me thrice", Jesus had warned. Mark's is the only
gospel to mention the double cock-crow (14 :30,68,72). It was Peter's
audible conscience, but the warning came at a time when he was too panicky to
Something like an hour passed (Lk.), and Peter's nervous
tension eased somewhat. The worst of his ordeal was now over, so he thought.
That first cock-crow had sounded an alarm. But now, more alert, he was surely
not likely to be caught once again in a panicky denial of his Lord. And in any
case there was no sign of his being accused again. Yet it happened.
It is in this second phase where the
gospels-packed-with-contradictions school of criticism has a field-day. John
says: "Peter was standing warming himself;" Matthew and Mark say he had gone
"into the porch", Also, Mark says: "the maid saw him again." Matthew says it was
"another maid." Luke says it was "another", and uses a masculine pronoun; and he
also words this denial thus: "Man, I am not."
Reconciliation of these divergences is a comparatively simple
matter once it is realised that each of the three occasions when Peter denied
his Lord was itself a complex of both uncertain and confident accusations and of
reiterated denials spoken not just to one person but to first one and then
another in the courtyard group. This is both hinted at and required by such
phrases as: "he denied before them all" (Mt.); "she began to say to them
that stood by" (Mk.); they said therefore to him" (Jn.). Thus there is no
need for the believer to lose sleep over problems of this kind.
It would seem that the maid who had admitted Peter at the gate
(Ps.69 :12) and who first accosted him now resumed her accusation, this time
more confidently and with greater hostility: "This is one of them," she said.
There are many examples in the gospels of the word "this" being used in an
antagonistic or contemptuous spirit, as here. The emphatic repetition now
brought confirmation and support from another maid: "This man also was with
Jesus of Nazareth." Someone else in the group was either more incredulous or
more sympathetic: "You are not one of his disciples also, are you?" The form of
the question invited denial. It was the kind of support that Peter would have
been better without, for it extinguished any last remaining flicker of
resolution to avow himself openly a friend of the Nazarene. The retreat was then
turned into a rout by the confident assertion of "another man" who said: "Thou
also art one of them."
So Peter delivered himself to the Enemy: "Man, I am not."
Again (says Matthew) he denied with an oath, I do not know the man." And the
form of the verb used by Mark suggests that he kept on denying over and over
again. It is possible that the phrasing in the Fourth Gospel is chosen to hint
at a contrast with John himself who was also in the palace yet did not deny his
Lord: but such a conclusion is not certain.
Peter's "Be it far from thee, Lord" had now become "Be it far
from me, Lord." The words: "He denied with an oath," shock the sensitive reader.
The disavowal is to be imagined spoken with roughness and vigour: 'As the God of
Abraham liveth, I do not know the man.'
It still remains a thing to marvel at that Peter, scared as he
had never been in all his life, should still wait around in such a place of
danger, and for so long a time (Luke specifies that the time gap between the
second and third denials was "about the space of an hour").
There is a two-fold explanation of this. The determination to
hang on in the courtyard in the face of every risk was an expression of Peter's
intense love for his Master. Eagerness to know how things were going with Jesus
cancelled out all commonsense judgement which might have told him that he could
do nothing to help.
But there was also another very different element in Peter's
thinking. No man would have played with fire so riskily and for so long a time
as Peter did that night except out of an inner confidence that he was equal to
the occasion. Doubtless after two denials Peter reproached himself bitterly for
such failures. And yet at the time he must have comforted himself—as many
another poor fool has done-with the reassurance: 'Never mind, that won't happen
again. The next time I shall be prepared. Not again will I allow myself to be
panicked into words of denial. I will tell them boldly that I belong to Jesus,
and they can do what they like.' Behind such an attitude which seems to be
implicit in this foolish hanging around in the place of danger was a lack of
humility, an unwillingness to recognize his own spiritual limitations and
weakness. God has no use for the spirit of se/f-reliance, even though the world
reckons it a virtue.
So, with nerves on edge Peter continued to wait around. During
this time there was doubtless a certain coming and going in the courtyard. Thus
"one of the servants, being his kinsman whose ear Peter cut off," found himself
close enough to the apostle for recognition. The form of his question expressed
his confidence: "I did see thee in the garden with them, didn't I?" And
there was probably mention of the violence that had been shown there.
In these circumstances and after his earlier denials Peter was
now too scared to do other than deny again vigorously. "To prison and to death"
he had fervently and most sincerely promised his Lord. Yet, such are the quirks
of human psychology, this lesser ordeal bore far harder on Peter. And there are
plenty like him, for whom the enduring for Christ's sake of the quiet contempt
of others is one of the most trying ordeals in life.
But this latest accusation was only the spark to set going a
long explosive wrangle as to Peter's identity. "Surely thou art one of them, for
thy speech betrayeth thee"-as does the speech of every true disciple! The words
were spoken in Peter's face, and then immediately repeated to the rest: "Of a
truth this man also was with them, for he is a Galilean." Mark's phrasing
implies that this was repeated more than once, both to Peter and amongst
There is another detail here in all the synoptic gospels which
does not come out in the common version: "for also thy speech betrayeth
thee" (Mt. and Mk.): "for also he is a Galilean" (Lk.). Is this intended
to signify that John was known to be a Galilean and known to be a disciple?
Peter was plainly a Galilean and therefore (with a logic which was hardly
water-tight) he too must be a disciple? Or is it that the Galilean dialect was
taken as an additional reason, besides recognition by Malchus' kinsman, for
believing Peter to be a disciple? Either way the explanation pre-supposes facts
which are found in John's gospel (either v.15 or v.18 of John 18), and
thus once again there is built-in confirmation of the veracity of the
Peter's denial in the face of this latest verbal attack was
even more emphatic and violent: "Then began he to curse and to swear"-not only
with an oath as in his earlier denial, but now with curses also: ' God do so to
me, and more also, if I have ever spoken to this Jesus.' And God did precisely
so to him, for he too ended his life on a cross. Or possibly the word "curse"
implies an invocation of excommunication, for the word was frequently used in
that sense (Rom.9 :3; 1 Cor.16 :22; Gal.1 :8,9). In that case: "Let me be
excommunicated from Israel if I lie in this"-and so he was, but only that he
might find his place in the true Israel of God.
At this very time when Peter was trying to protect himself
with a smokescreen of bluster, Jesus was himself within sight and
hearing-probably being led from Annas to Caiaphas, and either passing along a
verandah or through the courtyard itself. "And the Lord turned and looked at
Peter." The second verb here is emphatic: "he looked fixedly at Peter"; it might
even be translated: "he looked into Peter" (Luke 22 :61), as Peter himself also
did, now that conscience was re-awakened by the strident cock-crow and the
experience of that penetrating gaze.
But for his denials, Peter now had a superb opportunity to
identify himself with Jesus, by going to his side and refusing to be separated
from him. And that would have meant "prison and death," as Peter had declared-a
far more glorious outcome than what now transpired. This incident surely
fulfilled the prophecy of John 1 :42 when Jesus "beheld him" (the same word as
here) and called him Cephas, a stone-not a massive immoveable foundation rock,
but a small stone, a stumbling block (Mt.16:23RV).
Thus, too late, "Peter remembered." Mark, giving Peter's own
version doubtless, puts it this way: "he called to mind the word how that
Jesus had said unto him . .." (RV). That "how" suggests something of the solemn
repetition with which Jesus had warned him.
This experience of Peter's exposes the essence of all failure
in time of temptation —he remembered too late! (Hence the emphasis in 2
Pet.l :12,13,15;3 :1). The disciple who has the commandments and warnings of his
Lord clearly in mind, whilst not immune from temptation, is certainly fortified
against it. But when Christ is out of mind, the disciple offers himself as a
ready prey to almost any seduction.
A surge of self-contempt now swept over Peter: "When he
thought thereon, he wept." This is an unsatisfactory though not impossible
translation of an enigmatic phrase. "Hurrying forth", "casting his garment over
his head'' "bursting into tears", "putting his hands over his face", "smiting
his breast," are all possibilities. And the verb "he wept" means "he kept on
weeping"-and well he might.
Peter's wretchedness and self-loathing were not yet at their
climax, for a few hours later he was to witness (1 Pet.5 :1) the harrowing sight
of a Leader crucified and suffering and dying, and himself without any
opportunity to draw near and confess and ask to be forgiven. For this he must
wait in misery until the morning of resurrection brought him also forth from the
darkness of a living death.
The contrast here with Judas is both moving and instructive.
There was really little to choose between the sin of the two men, yet the one
was restored to gracious intimacy with his Lord and became the leader of the
early church, whilst the other went away and hanged himself. Little difference
in the gravity of their sins, but all the difference in the world between their
reactions-and this difference sprang ultimately from a difference in their
assessment of Christ. To Peter Jesus was a Master who had suffered, being
tempted and who therefore could succour them that are tempted. But Judas,
convinced at the last that the one he had betrayed would indeed "sit at the
right hand of power, and come in the clouds of heaven," was also convinced that
his sin was too great for even Jesus to forgive. So Judas went and hanged
himself. What else could he do, poor fellow? But for the other there was the
gracious word to the women at the tomb: "Go, tell his discples and Peter...