Sometimes Satan surprises us and attempts to overwhelm us with a sudden onslaught of temptation. Usually, however, if we look back and examine our pattern of smaller choices and analyze our inner responses to the Lord’s Word and voice, we may become aware of the process through which sin can gain a foothold before overwhelming us. Peter’s denial of Christ follows this latter pattern and is recounted by the Holy Spirit to instruct the prudent how to recognize the warning signs that portend a fall and the self-assured where to find restoration when they fall.
Several episodes on Christ’s fateful final night with His disciples reveal Peter’s careless attitude toward the Lord’s words directed to him. The first incident takes place in the Upper Room (Mark 14:15) during the evening Passover meal (John 13:1–15). Jesus the guest of honor, rising from the table and girding Himself with a linen cloth typically worn by a household servant, washed and dried the first disciple’s feet, to the utter astonishment of the other 11. He moved from one disciple to the next, making His way around the table.
Shocked by the Lord’s act of abject humility, Peter initially protests. Jesus assures Peter that he will understand after He sits back down and explains (John 13:12–15). But Peter refuses to allow the Lord to humble Himself on his behalf: “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” Peter meant well. But he was denying His Master in plain terms, regardless of his reasoning or motive. When Jesus clarifies that Peter has no part in Him if he does not submit to the washing, Peter relents. His responses reveal a great deal about his temperament. He was passionate about the things he believed, which led to an impulsiveness and spontaneity based more on his feelings than on simple submission to the Lord’s words.
Later the same evening when Jesus announced that He was leaving them (John 13:33), Peter asks, “Lord, whither goest thou?” Jesus answers Peter the same way He did earlier in the evening. He tells His impetuous disciple: “Wait.” But Peter persists: “Lord, why cannot I follow thee now?” It is at this point that the Lord answers with a sober warning of Satan’s desire to sift them like wheat (Luke 22:31). But Peter is ignorant of his true spiritual state. He trusts himself and his passions, and in emotional fervor he promises to stick by the Lord come prison or death (Luke 22:33) and adds, “I will lay down my life for thy sake” (John 13:37). The Lord’s response is solemn and penetrating: “Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.” Peter believed that his faith, his loyalty, his devotion were more unshakable than His Master’s stern prediction. He doesn’t seem to have taken the Lord’s words seriously.
Out on the Mount of Olives, Jesus again solemnly warns, “All ye shall be offended because of me this night” (Matt. 26:31). For the third time this night Peter rejects the Lord’s word as inapplicable to him: “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.” For the second time, Jesus reins him in with the terrible prediction of Peter’s impending denial. Peter’s reply? “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.” Ironically, with this very statement Peter had just denied Jesus. But all the other disciples said the same thing. They felt sure they would be loyal, and yet under the right provocation—in a matter of minutes—they would all forsake Him and flee for their lives.
At this contradiction, Jesus is strangely quiet. He takes Peter, James, and John further into the garden to pray with Him. Instead, they fall asleep. Jesus singles out Peter: “Simon, sleepest thou?” (Mark 14:37). Peter had promised unwavering loyalty, yet he couldn’t even stay awake, much less pray with his Master. The stillness of the night is broken by voices and torch lights. The disciples wipe sleep from their eyes just in time to see Judas leading a band of temple soldiers. The traitor kisses Jesus, and the soldiers surround Him to take Him. The disciples ask, “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?” But Peter does not wait. He “stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear.” He meant well. But Jesus corrects His disciple: “Put up again thy sword into his place.” Confused and frightened, the disciples did just as Jesus had predicted: “all the disciples forsook him, and fled.”
Peter is utterly unaware of the storm that will momentarily break upon him, unprepared for the test he is about to undergo. Indeed, he has already virtually sealed his own failure. He has responded improperly to the Lord’s words all night long, ignoring His warnings and rejecting His instructions.
However far Peter runs at first, he stops, watching as the company disappears into the darkness. We can only imagine the confusion, shame, and disappointment he feels as they lead his Master away to what must be certain death. But love draws him on. John goes into the hall, but Peter stays in the courtyard (John 18:15-16). As Peter slides through the gate, the maid asks him, almost offhandedly (John 18:17), “Art not thou also one of this man’s disciples?” Her question expects a negative reply: “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” How easy Satan has made it for Peter to fall! The question doesn’t even come from an elder or scribe or the chief priest. It comes from an insignificant maid, a mere doorkeeper. Peter responds, almost casually, “I am not.” Did his conscience register the denial?
Slipping inconspicuously beside the fire, holding his hands out to the heat, Peter hopes to hear some information of the trial. But Satan has another maid, also sitting by the fire in the small hours of this chilly morning. She examines Peter’s face in the firelight, ransacking her memory for a name to put with this familiar countenance (Luke 22:56). All at once she speaks out (Matt. 26:69): “Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee.” Fear grips Peter now as all eyes turn toward him. He is not inconspicuous any longer. “Woman, I know him not.” To make his lie more believable, he says it loudly, gruffly insisting that he does not even know this man they call Jesus. But they are all staring. The attention must be diffused somehow. He casually rises, denies even understanding what she was talking about, and walks out onto the porch, glad for the darkness. His mind is burning with guilty fear, so much that he does not even notice the rooster crow off in the distance (Mark 14:68) as he draws in the crisp night air and sighs. What treachery must be in man’s heart to make him deny even knowing One he had only hours before defended with a sword? What spiritual preparation and fortification might an hour of prayer back in the garden have afforded now?
Satan does not need an army or a company of scribes to defeat Peter. A maid or two will do. As dawn approaches, Peter is emotionally and physically drained. Leaving Peter alone for an hour to allow his guilt to vitiate his conscience (Luke 22:59), Satan prepares a final assault. Onto the scene comes a relative of Malchus who was also in Gethsemane hours earlier (John 18:26): “Did not I see thee in the garden with him?” This time the question expects a positive reply. Like dogs, everyone joins in. They know now by his accent that Peter is Galilean. They are no longer simply questioning; they are confidently and repeatedly insisting that Peter is indeed a disciple of Jesus. Peter makes a last desperate effort to save himself. He begins to curse and swear, “Man, I know not what thou sayest.”
With those fateful words yet on his lips two dreadful things happened. The shrill crowing of a rooster again pierced the still morning air (Mark 14:72) and, through the window, “the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter” (Luke 22:61). All at once he saw his treacherously weak self, abhorred it, and went out from there and wept long and bitterly, remembering with sickening dismay every sad scene, every appalling word.
The gospel writers do not record Peter’s presence at the crucifixion. How could he possibly face Him now? The last image of his blessed Lord—turning within the hall and looking straight out at him—was seared on his mind. Peter returns to the other believers after the Lord is buried in Joseph’s tomb, but it is not until resurrection morning two days later that God begins to actively draw his wounded but wiser disciple back to Himself.
The women burst into the upper room early in the morning, insisting that Jesus’ tomb is empty and that they have seen an angel who said that Jesus was alive (Luke 24:1–12). One word in their message rivets Peter’s attention: “But go your way,” the angels had told the women, “tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.” Peter and John immediately departed to inspect the tomb (John 20:2–10). They did not find Him there, but the Lord found Peter as he walked alone toward home (1 Cor. 15:5). What was seen and said in that holy moment is shrouded in Scriptural silence.
The incident, however, in which Peter was drawn fully back into complete fellowship with his Master is recorded in John 21. Jesus takes this occasion by the seaside, after they had finished eating, to probe Peter’s heart in front of the other disciples. The question could not have been entirely unexpected. Peter had boasted of his surpassing devotion to Christ (Matt. 26:33). Would he make the same boast now? “Simon, do you have a sacrificial love for me more than these [other disciples]?” Peter’s reply changes the term: “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I have a strong affection for thee.” Peter’s denials had demonstrated all too clearly the deficiencies in his faith and love. It was important for Peter to see it, to acknowledge it publicly, and never to forget the treachery of self reliance. But it is equally important for Peter to realize that he still has a divine call to fulfill, so the Lord commands Peter: “Feed my lambs.”
But a threefold denial calls for a threefold repentance, so Jesus asks a second time: “Simon, do you have a sacrificial love for me?” He is asking because it is important that Peter comes to an honest, objective assessment of himself. Peter answers the same way as before: “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I have a strong affection for thee.” Were these questions painful for Peter? Not more than it was for Jesus to hear Peter’s denials. Jesus is only drawing out of Peter the brokenness necessary for this disciple’s usefulness. That is why again the Lord follows with a command: “Feed my sheep.”
Notice that the third time Jesus asks the question, He changes the word: “Simon, do you really have a strong affection for me?” This cuts Peter to his soul. But whatever Peter denied before, he cannot deny that he does indeed love Jesus. As imperfect and weak as his love may be, it is real. He appeals to Jesus’ omniscience: “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I have a strong affection for thee.” Again the command to feed Christ’s people with the Word of God is repeated to focus Peter’s attention on the task at hand. Jesus finishes this interview (John 21:19) by repeating to Peter one of the first things He ever said to him: “Follow me.” Peter’s forgiveness, restoration, and usefulness were affirmed.
What lessons does God want to communicate through this very difficult time in Peter’s life? Why has the Holy Ghost given all this information about Peter’s denials?
First, grave denials of Christ and larger failures are often the result of many little denials and refusals to obey. Arresting the small denials and refusals of God’s Spirit protects the Christian against larger falls later.
Second, self-confidence is detrimental to the Christian life, modern psychology notwithstanding. Faith and confidence are to be centered on Jesus Christ—never on self. Look how far down Peter had to go in order for his self confidence to be broken.
Third, a Christian may do bad things with good motives. Peter meant well, but he was guilty of insubordination and direct disobedience. Obedience to the Word of God is the measure of righteousness, not sincerity of motive. A thing is not right simply because the Christian means well.
Fourth, Peter seemed to respond to the Lord’s warnings and commands on the basis of his feelings rather than on the facts Jesus was giving him. This is not uncommon in Christians today. The Lord clearly said that Peter would deny Him, but Peter did not feel that such a thing was possible. What would have been a godly response to such predictions? Humble pleadings, profound sorrow. What was Peter’s response?
Fifth, let the believer be aware of Satan’s sifting strategies. Instead of watching and praying that he not enter temptation, Peter slept. Let the Christian prepare by self examination and humble repentance. Prayerful watchfulness and reliance on the Lord becomes the believer, especially during difficulty.
God is extraordinarily gracious. He takes the initiative in seeking out the fallen saint and drawing that one back to Himself. There is no place for despair in the Christian life, no matter what the offense. Correction and restoration to God’s fellowship may be a painful and humbling experience, but it is necessary to restore usefulness and a process to which he should yield wholeheartedly. God sees great value in our broken hearts (Ps. 51:17; Isa. 57:15). There is service yet to be rendered for the humbled soul who can receive the Lord’s forgiveness and leave a dark chapter of life covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Bud Talbert is President of Foundation Baptist Bible Collegein Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)
- Notice the similarity of the expressions “Thou shalt know hereafter” and “Thou shalt follow me afterwards.” Peter wanted to know now, and wanted to follow Him now. [↩]
- The term used here means that Peter was repeatedly anathematizing himself, i.e., calling down God’s curse on himself if he were not telling the truth. [↩]