Without a doubt, the nadir of Peter’s life, the absolute bottom, was his denial, his disowning, of his Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. I can imagine him looking back on that terrible time with sadness, perhaps even at the end of his life.
I’ve always heard that Peter’s three denials of Jesus, there around the fire with servants and street people, happened because he feared for his life. He certainly had reason to—the Lord had just been arrested and was on His way to be killed if no miracle intervened, and it would only make sense that His disciples would be arrested too.
But a conversation with my husband a few weeks ago led me to begin rethinking this motivation of fear for Peter’s denial.
For one thing, Peter didn’t run far away into hiding, the way some of the other disciples apparently did. He was right outside, waiting for news of the trial of his Lord. That doesn’t sound to me like someone who was responding out of fear for his life.
For another thing . . .
Well, let’s look back over some key points of Peter’s life as a disciple of Jesus.
Jesus had foretold His suffering, death, and resurrection in very plain language at three different distinct times. The first one of these was this inauspicious time in Peter’s life (from Matthew 16:21-23):
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
That’s another one of those memories that I’m guessing may have caused the older-wiser Peter to facepalm. Not only did he not get it, but he didn’t get it so bad that he let Satan use him to try to derail Jesus from His mission.
The second time Jesus foretold his death and resurrection went like this, from Mark 9:30-32.
. . . He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
At least this time he knew better than to try to correct the Lord, but he still didn’t get it.
And there was even a third time! Jesus said it ever so plainly again (from Luke 18:31-34):
And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
In spite of these three foretellings of His death, in spite of the rebuking of Peter, in spite of the fact that Peter himself knew Jesus had the words of life. . . .
Still . . .
I can imagine Peter saying, “I know He always tells the truth, but man, I have no idea what this parable is He’s trying to tell us here . . .”
When it came to the Last Supper, this is the conversation that transpired (here from Mark 16:27-31):
“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not." “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”
It’s the same brash Peter who said, “This will never happen to You, Lord.” The one who thought he understood but was still seeing things in purely fleshly terms. The Peter who thought he knew better than Jesus.
But here’s the thing. When Peter said he was willing to die with Jesus, he really meant it. He even had an almost-chance to prove it, when they were in the Garden.
When the crowd came to arrest Jesus—a large crowd, armed with swords and clubs!—Peter didn’t run away. He pulled out his sword. He surely saw that death was imminent because they were so vastly outnumbered, but he was willing to die with Jesus.
“This is what He was talking about,” he must surely have thought. “This is it. They’re going to kill Him now. But I won’t go down without a fight. I’ll protect Him with my dying breath.”
Peter wasn’t a swordsman; he was a fisherman. His handling of the sword was clumsy, but surely he meant to do more than slice off a man’s ear. He was going to beat back that crowd until he died, and he was going to take as many with him as he could.
We might say his heart was in the right place. Only . . . really it wasn’t. I don’t mean to be hard on him, but he was wanting to accomplish with fleshly efforts what could only be accomplished in the Spirit. This is most likely why Jesus had KEPT telling him and the others a little earlier that evening, “Stay awake. Watch and pray, so you won’t enter into temptation.”
So Peter was ready to defend Jesus with his life.
Until Jesus stopped him.
And this is where everything changed.
The account is in all four gospels (Matthew 26, Mark 16, Luke 22, John 18). Peter pulled out his sword and sliced off the ear of the high priest’s servant.
Jesus said (combining gospel accounts), “No more of this! Put your sword away! For all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way? Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
And Jesus healed the man’s ear, sent the crowd falling backwards when He said “I am,” and then went away with them quietly.
Can you imagine how Peter must have reeled back at that?
The Lord, the LORD, the one who has the Words of Life, the LORD . . . is going away to His death without even letting us fight! He rebuked me for trying to help Him!
I do not understand this Man.
This is why I would posit that Peter’s denial wasn’t primarily born of fear of danger.
He was willing to die for Jesus . . . if Jesus really was the one Peter thought He was.
But what if He wasn’t . . .
I think Peter’s primary motivations for his denials were confusion and deep disappointment, even disillusionment, with the Lord. His hopes had been dashed.
By jiminy, He needed to either ascend to the throne in glory or go down in the glory of battle. And neither of those things was happening.
Isn’t Jesus the Messiah? Why did He go in silence like that? Why did He ask us if we had swords if He didn’t want us to use them? What about that talk about the twelve legions of angels? I remember when He calmed the storm, healed the sick, raised the dead, silenced the Pharisees, preached the Kingdom. . .
I do not know this man.
If Peter experienced fear, it was most likely not fear for his life. It was most likely fear that he had been wrong, that all his hopes that had been set on Jesus as Messiah were completely and foolishly misplaced.
And yet . . .
Peter still loved Jesus. He had never known such a man, who could bring joy to the Samaritan woman and her town; who could teach the likes of Nicodemus; who could bless a woman who washed His feet with her hair; who could welcome the little children onto His lap; who could cradle the adulterous woman’s face in His hands; who explained deep mysteries of the Kingdom; who knew no fear, ever, of anything or anyone; and who loved nothing better than to commune with His Father.
Peter loved this Lord he had gotten to know over the three years. He loved Him.
He still longed to know what was going to happen to Him, even in his helplessness. So he stayed close, even though people kept recognizing him and accusing him of being “one of those.”
Denying/disowning Jesus was a terrible, grievous sin, of course. But I think there was far more behind it than fear for his life.
Jesus had told him he would deny Him. Peter couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t fathom it! No! It will never be! I will die for you!
So when he heard the rooster crow after his three denials, just as Jesus had foretold, it was as if he suddenly saw himself in a mirror.
He, the strong, the brave, the capable, the nothing-will-stop-me man. He saw himself shriveled, misshapen, as one who would crumble in the face of confusion and discouragement.
And then, Luke tells us (22:61), “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” Whether it was from a balcony or courtyard the Scripture doesn’t explain, but even though the Lord was still undergoing his humiliating “trial,” Peter saw his face.
He crumpled in grief, with deep wrenching sobs. Now he saw himself as untrustworthy, unfaithful. He would have never thought that about himself.
I would imagine, though, that the confusion remained. Especially as he saw that Jesus was not just killed by a mob the way he thought might happen in the Garden. But Jesus was killed in the most humiliating way possible, naked on a vile Roman cross.
It was a nightmare.
Nothing fit. Nothing matched up.
Except . . .
The women came back from the tomb to tell them that Jesus was alive and the angel had said, “Don’t you remember how He said He was going to be crucified and rise again?”
Oh yes, oh yes, He said that very plainly at least three times. Yes, I remember.
“These words seemed to [the disciples] as an idle tale, and they did not believe [the women].” (Luke 24:11)
But still, Peter got up to go look for himself. In the midst of the darkness of confusion and despair, there was a seed of hope.
Perhaps you know the rest of the story.
After Jesus rose again and Peter knew for sure He was risen again, all the disciples finally understood what He had been talking about. (“Ohh! He was actually saying exactly what was going to happen! Oh!!”)
And Jesus showed His tender love, forgiveness, and redemption for Peter when He urged him to “feed My sheep.”
And in that Upper Room when the Holy Spirit descended like tongues of flame, Peter was there. And Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached to thousands, completely free of any confusion, disappointment, or fear. Two thousand were converted on the spot, including some of the priests who had been so hard-hearted before.
And Peter, in his latter years, wrote of the glory of Jesus Christ that he himself had been privileged to witness, and he wrote about that resurrection, that living hope, which he himself ultimately experienced.
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:3-4)
If you are stuck in confusion and despair, feeling that God is not working the way all of common sense seems that He should, please remember.
This story is not over.
There was a darkness that Jesus—and His disciples—had to pass through. But Resurrection Day came, and Jesus was indeed alive.
Peter, and others, were transformed.
We will continue to hope in Him, as we wait for the Rest of the Story.
Happy Resurrection Day.