Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

217. Peter's Denials (Matt. 26:58, 69-75; Mark 14:54, 66-72; Luke 22:56-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27)*

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 Jesus."

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 line.

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 afterwards.

First Denial

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 there?

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 now considerable.

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 take warning.

Second Denial

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.'

Peter's foolishness

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.

Third Denial

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 themselves.

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 records.

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... "-especially Peter!

Previous Index Next