Did Peter Deny Jesus Out of Fear? I Don’t Think So

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.

I’m guessing Peter knew the court of the high priest would be a kangaroo court, full of false witnesses with one evil, unjust, illegal agenda.

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.

Except not.

“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.

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amybechtelkimball
1 month ago

One of the best book series I I’ve ever read is Brock and Bodie Thoene’s historical fiction series on the life of Jesus. The AD Chronicles. It truly gives a fantastic, I’ve-been-there- kind of experience. It’s like what The Chosen has done for so many, only ten+ years ago, and in twelve books.
I say that because as you are describing these events from the Bible, I’m hearing, smelling and seeing them in my mind.
What a neat way to see Peter’s heart a little more closely!

May we never perceive that we know better than Jesus in our individual lives. May we never hear Him speak to us only to say back to Him, “surely you must mean this instead”. May we instead hear His voice and remain in a continual state of Wonder, as we see How He does what He said He would do!!

Anne
Anne
1 month ago

Excellent points. Thank you, Becky.

Ann Thelen
Ann Thelen
1 month ago

This is the most inspiring consideration of Peter and the Lord that I have ever read!! You back up your insights so well! Seeing heart-on-his-sleeve/soul-on-the-table Peter being sacredly touched to the core by Jesus’ knowing-all love, mercy, and grace is just breathtaking.

The way you unwrapped this revelation of holy, perfect, atracting relational dynamism in the humanity and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ…just makes me want to weep..I want to remember how thoroughly and breathtakingly Jesus knows, loves, transforms, keeps, and even enjoys every single one of us whom the Father has given Him.

Thank you for letting your pen write “Jesus loves you” so beautifully.

Julie Kong
Julie Kong
1 month ago

Wow. This was amazing. And profoundly thought-provoking. Thank you, Rebecca!

Lila R Feldman
Lila R Feldman
1 month ago

I have made some reactive choices in my times of hurt and vulnerability. Fear, pride, anger, confusion were all present.

Have you seen The Living Last Supper? Neat play if you ever get to see it. Shows a good illustration of Peter versus Judas.

Carolyn
Carolyn
1 month ago

Really enjoyed reading this. How encouraging! So many times God doesn’t do things the way I think or on a different time table, but His way is always the best way. The darkness will come to an end. The new dawning of resurrection life will come.

Gerry
Gerry
1 month ago

Thank you so much for the reminder that the story is not over Rebecca.
No matter what happens may we learn to trust Christ even when we are hurt, misunderstood and going through trials.
As with Peter we must pass through darkness to truly understand the Resurrection!

Barb Hegreberg
1 month ago

I think we are all more like Peter than we want to admit.

We have his pride.
We have his doubt.
We have his stubbornness.
We have his shame.

BUT

We can also have his redemption!

Cindy Burrell
1 month ago

Wow, Rebecca.

This is by far the deepest, warmest and clearest explanation of Peter’s relationship with Jesus that I’ve ever read. There are so many things we have been taught that fail to reveal the depth of Jesus’ personal relationships with the disciples. His relationships with them – and us – are always far more complex and intensely personal than we could imagine when seen in their fullness.

So thank you. I will be sharing this and printing it for future reference!

It is so amazing to know we serve a risen Lord who sees us and holds us in the palm of His beautiful, life-giving, nail-scarred hands!’

Blessings to you and yours, and Happy Easter!

Sam Powell
Sam Powell
1 month ago

So good, Rebecca. I think you nailed it.

Sally Wickland
Sally Wickland
1 month ago

I‘m so glad to hear you say that, Rebecca. This is the first time I’ve ever heard someone speak truth about this very complicated subject, one of my favorites. You are absolutely right. Peter’s denials were not motivated by fear. But neither were they “genuine”.

By that, I mean that Peter was caught up in Satan’s hour and the “power of darkness”, Luke 22:53.

Although there’s not enough space to go into it here, a couple things can be noted. For instance, upon examination of all the accounts, we can see that Jesus uttered this very personal prophecy to Peter, not once, but three separate times in two separate places on two separate occasions.
 
1. The Upper Room, John 13:38.
2. The Upper Room, same occasion, same conversation, Luke 22:34.  
3. Walking to Gethsemane after leaving the Upper Room, Mark 14:30/Matt 26:34 (parallel accounts).

Jesus had explicitly stated to Peter that Satan had “desired” them (disciples), to sift them as wheat (their faith), Luke 22:31. But it was “Peter” that Jesus had prayed for, knowing full well that he was the one who would “follow” Him into the spiritual darkness of that night and be caught up in the Satanic war that would rage. Peter indeed followed Jesus – John 18:15, Luke 22:54, Mark 14:54/Matt 26:58. Jesus was also confident that Peter would come out intact, Luke 22:32, (unlike Judas, the other disciple present, John 18:15), and strengthen the others.

It’s also important to note that the various people and groups following and hounding Peter all night long (hours) were looking for “witnesses” against Jesus. Mark 14:55/Matt 26:59, Luke 22:71, and in John 18:21, Jesus Himself tells the high priest to seek witnesses. There’s no way Peter could have stepped up to testify as the second witness (Judas), either on behalf of Jesus, or against Him. His words, like Christ’s, would have been twisted. Not to mention, the outcome was already determined by God, and there could be no interference, no other way for it to play out.

In addition, Peter denied a lot of things that night: Being a disciple, not knowing Him, not understanding what was said to him, being in the garden, and even being a Galilean, etc. His poignant weeping that night had more to do with his recognition of his own “little” faith in contrast to the magnitude of who Jesus really was, the God who knows the ending from the beginning. It’s comparable to Luke 5:4-8 and Peter’s reaction to the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy about the fish, “Depart from me: for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Loving him to the end, Jesus gave these personal prophecies to Peter in advance. They became the “lifeline” that kept Peter’s head above the demonic waters, and his focus on Jesus and WHO He was. They were the “outstretched hand” that caught him when he was struggling in the waves of Satan’s devices. “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”

This is why Peter could later say – “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:” – 2Pe 1:19 KJV

Peter was fearless unto his own death in testimony to Jesus and who He was. He lived up to his name, “petros”, a rock in his faith.

Dawn
Dawn
1 month ago
Reply to  Sally Wickland

Great insights, Sally. Gave me a wider and deeper view of these events. Thank you!

Dawn
Dawn
1 month ago

Thank you… thank you… thank you, Rebecca! This ministered to me greatly and timely.

Patsy Gaffney
Patsy Gaffney
1 month ago

We have to read the scriptures as if it is for the first time to understand the dynamic. My thoughts are that Peter had great courage to follow Jesus and the men who took Him away. He wanted to see where they took Him and what was going to happen next. We know exactly what happened, but Peter was experiencing it firsthand, waiting moment by moment from the courtyard. Had Peter admitted he knew Jesus, the focus would have shifted from Jesus to him and he would have compromised his anonymity. He didn’t want to chance missing anything. What if they released Him? He wonders anxiously what’s happening while we read word for word what’s going on as the torturous trial begins. So yes, Peter denied knowing Jesus – he lied – so he could remain as close to Him as possible. Yes, they all fled including Peter when they arrested Jesus, but he was the only one who came back. I know the scripture says that Jesus looked at Peter, but I’m not convinced that they made eye-contact. Upon the third denial and the sound of the rooster’s crowing, reality set in and he would wonder no more.

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