Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

209. The Warnings to Peter (Matt. 26:33-35; Mark 14:29-31; Luke 22:31-34; John 13:36-38)*

"It is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered." Peter's reaction to his Master's quotation of a sombre prophecy about a "scattering" of the disciples was precisely what might have been looked for: "Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended."

Had Peter attended to his Lord's words more carefully, he might have answered differently. He would certainly have been better fortified for the ordeal of which his Lord spoke. But, instead, all that he could hear was: "All ye shall, be offended because of me," and he reacted in characteristic fashion. Yet in the light of that night's events he might as well have said: "Though others be caused to stumble, I will stumble most of all." What a trial, as well as an encouragement, Peter was to his Lord!

The answer to this cocksureness was the most solemn of warnings: "Simon, Simon" (that repetition of his old name must surely remind him that his old nature was still with him: cp, Mk.14 :37; Jn.21 :16,17) "Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not." The Greek verb means Satan "demanded for his own benefit," and has the further implication: "he demanded and he got."

Which Satan?

But who was this Satan? The glib, orthodox answer only creates its own difficulty: Who did Satan ask? An explanation which deserves more consideration than it has had is that this Satan be equated with Job's Satan—one of the Lord's angels of evil who was given authority, up to a point, to test the genuineness of Job's godliness (see "Job's Satan," by H.A.W.).

In that earlier instance of the mysterious ways of God, the patriarch came very near to a complete collapse of faith—after having at first shown a staunch loyalty. Later he was rescued from the depths of doubt by an overpowering revelation of the Glory of the Lord. And this was precisely what waste happen to Peter.

But there is another possible reading of the Lord's warning, on very different lines. Elsewhere "Satan" is often some personal adversary of the people of God; for example, Peter himself (Mt.16 :23), Paul's unnamed traducer in Corinth (2 Cor. 11 :14), the Roman adminstration in Pergamos (Rev.2 :13). So the same sort of explanation is likely here. (Compare similar suggestions in Study 184). The word "desired, demanded" might well require this. Probably, then, this Satan was the high priest pressing the Sanhedrin for authorisation not only to arrest Jesus but also, as a safety measure, to round up the entire band of apostles and sympathizers, so that all of them might be screened.

It could well be that the two ideas offered here blend together. They need not be mutually exclusive.

The great concern of Jesus in Gethsemane for the escape of the apostles (Jn.18 :8,9), and the very different concern of the high priest's servants about Peter being "one of this man's disciples" (18 :17) both support this second explanation.

And so also does Peter's own application of very similar language to a very similar situation: "Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion,... seeketh whom he may devour" (1 Pet.5 :8), with evident reference to "The Christians to the lions" at the time of the Nero persecution. (The same chapter has several other allusions to the Last Supper and Gethsemane: "the sufferings of Christ... the glory that shall be revealed ... the flock of God . . . filthy lucre . . . ensamples... the chief Shepherd ... a crown of glory ... be girded with humility ... after ye have suffered a while, stablish, strengthen, settle you").

Peter the stone

It was Caiaphas who had earlier asserted with domineering roughness and Machiavellian self-interest: "Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" (Jn. 11:49,50). And now the time was ripe to "sift them all as wheat." The words are marvellously like Amos 9:9, where "the house of Israel" is sifted "like as corn is sifted in a sieve." The original passage reads like a prophecy of the scattering of Israel among the nations. It is yet another example of the unexpected application and interpretation of Old testament prophecy which is so common in the gospels, all of tnem reminders to the thoughtful that Holy Scripture is not to be interpreted as any other book. Francis Bacon wrote very wisely: "I do much condemn (hot interpretation of Scripture which is only after the manner as men use to interpret a profane book." Not inappropriately, then, the words that follow (Amos 9:11,12) are applied in the book of Acts to the preaching of the gospels to the Gentiles (Acts 15:16,17).

"Yet shall not the least of grain (Heb: stone) fall to the ground" also had its counterpart in the words of Jesus: "I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith fail not." Thus Jesus interpreted the name Peter as meaning a very small stone, and not a mighty foundation rock as the Roman church would have it.

Peter's conversion

But what prayer did Jesus refer to? Was it the sublime intercessory prayer of John 17?: "Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom Thou hast given me ... I pray not (hot Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil"; or was it some other prayer not recorded? Probably the latter, for this was specially for Peter: "I have prayed for thee," in pointed contrast to the plural "you" whom Satan had demanded to have.

Men like Peter with the greatest potentialities for good are liable also to fall into the greatest evils. So Jesus prayed for him "that his faith fail not." From the Greek word used here comes the modern English word "eclipse" (s.w. Ps.31:10), Peter's faith had been expressed in his great confession at Caesarea Philippi. Nevertheless, in spite of many warnings, after his repeated denials of allegiance to Jesus had already left him ill-prepared, the crucifixion was to jolt him yet more severely. It was only this prayer, and the personal appearance of Jesus to a wretched Peter after the resurrection, which saved him (1Cor.l5:5).

"When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (s.w. Ex.17 :12). And who better qualified to do so after such an experience? There are disciples who need more than one conversion. Peter had at least three: Jn.l :41; Lk.5 :10,11; Jn.21 :15 (and perhaps Gal.2 :11-14). That it could be so in his case is surely heartening to many another.

That Peter did strengthen his brethren has ample witness borne to it by the book of Acts (4:19-23 5 :29-32) and especially Peter's two epistles (1 Pet. 1:3-5; 1 Pet. 2:24,25; 3:17; 4:12,10; 2 Pet. 1:15-19; 2:9; 3:1-18; also 1 Pet. 5:10 and 1 Pet.l :12 and 3 :17 employ the same Greek word "strengthen", used by Jesus; consider also Ex.17 :12 s.,w. LXX).

Strength and weakness

Peter deemed his Lord's warnings to be utterly needless. His protestations in reply were as vigorous as could be expected: "Lord, with thee I am ready to go both to prison and to death." This order of the words brings out the proper emphasis. Peter knew that his strength lay in being with his Master. Separated from him, he was a very uncertain quantity. Attempting to walk on the waves of Galilee he had floundered helplessly when terrified by the sight of danger all around: but a minute later, with his Master at his side, he was calmly immune from all fear.

In Gethsemane, less than an hour after the present warning, though separated from Jesus by only a small distance, he slept along with the rest, and incurred the reproof: "Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour?

But when Jesus was arrested. Peter at his side was bursting with courage and resolution, and willing to risk all in a desperate attempt to defend his Lord against impossible odds.

Yet in the courtyard of the high priest's palace, with Jesus out of sight, he could not muster enough bravery to confess himself a disciple of the Galilean prophet. But it needed only the appearance of Jesus and one look in the direction of Peter to restore the apostle to his right mind, so that in remorse and contrition he went out and wept bitterly.

Even after the resurrection, the temporary absence of the risen Jesus threw Peter on the only other resource he knew—his fishing—and he went back to that, only to be reminded by a remarkable miracle that his fishing days were over, except for the catching of men; and he got himself out of the boat to be at his Master's side as quickly as was humanly possible.

The ancient and by no means incredible tradition of the early church has it that in the days of the persecution of the Christians by Nero, Peter suffered himself to be persuaded to flee from Rome that his life might be preserved for the benefit of the church, but a vision of his Lord as he left the city stopped him in his tracks and turned him back to face arrest and crucifixion. Whether it be true or not, the story is in character.

Just now, his over-emphatic assertion of unshakable loyalty was to his discredit in three different ways—he contradicted his Master, he set himself up as better than the rest, and he spoke out of a confident reliance on his own strength.

So it was for the good of his soul that he crashed worse than the worst of them. It is worth while to note also that Peter's words carried an implicit recognition that his Master was going to die. So at least he had travelled a long way from: "Be it far from thee, Lord; this shall not be unto thee" (Mt.16 :22). However he still had a long way to go. The Lord's rhetorical question was the best of all possible checks to his well-meant assertions of loyalty and strength: "Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake?" Will you, Peter, be the Saviour of me, Jesus? Are you the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the Lamb of God? Jesus' words were probably a deliberate riposte for Peter's rough refusal at the last supper: "Thou shalt never wash my feet."


Then came the solemn warning spoken with weight and plainness of speech that Peter might know the peril he was in: "Never be offended? I' tell thee, Peter, that this night before the cockcrow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice" (Lk.22 :34; Mk.14 :30).

Did Jesus introduce this allusion to the crowing of the cock to remind Peter that he was in danger of emulating its character in trying to scare away the darkness by impotent bluster? Or was Jesus particularising as to the time of Peter's denials? Attempts have been made, though with meagre evidence, to equate the cock-crow with the Roman trumpet which sounded the four watches of the night. If this attractive suggestion is correct, the second "cock-crow" (Mk.14:30,72) after this warning would be either midnight or 3 a.m.

The fact that whilst all four gospels record this warning to Peter, only Mark mentions the double cock-crow is something of a problem. The order of the narrative in Luke and John differs from that in Matthew and Mark, so it may be that the warning was given twice to Peter, once to himself alone, and again openly in the hearing of the rest, the former of these including the fuller detail given by Mark. The matter cannot be resolved with certainty.

What a powerful understatement it was which Jesus used: "Thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me"! Contrast the extremity to which Peter was driven: "He began to curse and to swear, saying, I know not this man of whom ye speak."

It is often overlooked—through sheer familiarity—that this prophecy by Jesus is one of the most remarkable in the whole volume of Scripture. It is not only one of the best-attested, occurring with minor variations in all four gospels, but it is also one of the most explicit as to time and circumstance. Further, the very fact that Peter was so explicitly warned of his imminent denial of Jesus would make it all the less likely of accomplishment.

The warning was given, of course, in an attempt to save Peter from himself. How glad Jesus would have been to be proved wrong. But it was impossible that he should be! All men with such confidence in their own powers as Peter had, need to be taught the same lesson in order that, like Peter, they might ultimately be all the better for it.

At the moment he could only protest "the more vehemently'—overflowingly (Gk.)—as though he would be heard for his much speaking.

This warning, together with his over-emphatic reaction ("Methinks he doth protest too much") probably made the rest suspect that Peter was the traitor about whom Jesus had spoken in the upper room. And Peter himself no doubt guessed how their thoughts ran and made matters worse by his protestations. Yet, in fact, with what burning sincerity he spoke! But how markedly incongruous were his achievement and his intention!

The words which mystified him now were later to be his reassurance: "Whither I go thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me hereafter" (Jn.l3:36;cp.21:18).

Notes: Mk. l4:29-31

Although. Gk.: if also, which seems to imply allusion to the Lord's plain words of warning about a traitor among the twelve.

Shall be offended. Future tense after 'if’ expresses Peter's confidence that there would be a wholesale apostasy among the disciples.
I say unto thee. Very weighty. This phrase comes in all four records.

This day, even this night. Passover night referred to as 'this day'; cp. same idiom in Num.8 :17.
Likewise also said they all. To keep face, they had to.

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