Jesus is on trial for his life. The religious authorities have arrested him and he has been found guilty of blasphemy by the Jewish high court. Christ’s disciples have all forsaken him and fled. He stands alone to endure the judgment, not only of men, but also of God. It was for this purpose that he came into the world—he would soon pour out his life’s blood as a sacrifice for sinners.
During this ordeal, one of his disciples, the leader of the band, Simon Peter, hovered between courageousness and cowardice. He followed Jesus from a distance (58). When the soldiers took Jesus into the residence of Caiaphas, the high priest, for the trial, Peter gained entrance into the courtyard so he could “see the end.” It was dark so surely no one would recognize that he was a disciple of Jesus. It was a chance he took because he greatly desired to observe the proceedings.
But recognize him they did. Peter was questioned whether he was one of the Nazarene’s disciples. He was given a great opportunity to confess Jesus as the Christ before men but he shamefully denied that he knew him. Peter was put on trial and perjured himself before God and all the witnesses present.
What a contrast there is between the reaction of Jesus to his trial and that of Peter to his! Jesus is on trial inside the palace of Caiaphas and tells the truth in his responses to the interrogation; Peter is on trial (figuratively speaking, for he has not been arraigned before a formal trial) outside the palace of Caiaphas and lies in his responses to the questions asked of him. Jesus displays courage and bravery before the Jewish high court; Peter displays fear and cowardice before the servants of the palace (‘While Jesus holds up astonishingly well under life-threatening conditions before the most powerful authorities in Judaism, Peter fails miserably under far less threatening conditions in the presence of people of very little status,’ Blomberg).
The disciple who boasted that he would never be made to stumble (33); the disciple that declared he would never deny the Lord, even if it meant death (35), bent under pressure and denied Christ, not once, not twice, but three times. Jesus had prophesied, “Verily, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (34). Just as he spoke it, it came to pass.
Let us now study the verses that tell us of Peter’s shameful denial.
I. Denial One (69-70)
Peter is in the courtyard gathering what ever bits of information about Jesus’ trial that he can get. He is probably trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. But while Jesus is being questioned indoors, a servant girl outside thinks she recognizes Peter as one who had been with Jesus. She walked over to him and said, “You also were with Jesus of Galilee.” She isn’t asking him a question, she is making a statement. And she isn’t accusing him of any crime (like rebellion or blasphemy). She simply said he was with Jesus.
How she came to recognize Peter is not known. There may have been some distinguishing features that stood out about him that she recalled. It appears that she had heard Jesus preach or teach before and had taken note of those who were closely associated with him.
Peter is disturbed by this woman’s comment! But why is he bothered by the statement of one (especially this person) who thinks he is a follower of Jesus? She is only a woman! Women carried little influence in that society. What could she do to him? And she is but a servant woman at that! She is a slave. She is not a free woman.
Her gender and her occupation underline her powerlessness (Blomberg). What could she do to Peter? Nothing. But he is still afraid. So he “denied it before them all, saying, ‘I do not know what you are saying.’”
Peter was standing in the midst of a group of people (John and Luke say he was warming himself by the fire) who served those who were seeking the life of Jesus. He would take no chances of his being arrested and put on trial, so he denied publicly that he knew what this girl was talking about. He probably felt very threatened, especially considering what he had done in Gethsemane (51).
Evasion sums up how he answered. It was not a direct denial; it was something less. It was a subtle equivocation. “But what is clear is that he refused to identify himself with Jesus, and that was effectively a denial” (Morris). He was given an opportunity to identify himself with Jesus and to declare that his Master was the Christ, the Son of the living God, but he could not sum up the courage to do it. Oh, how the mighty are fallen!
II. Denial Two (71-72)
After warding off the first charge, he moved to another place in the courtyard. He goes to the “gateway,” which was the main entrance into the residence of Caiaphas. He could still gather information about the trial there but he also hoped to avoid anymore confrontations with people who might associate him with Jesus. But he was not successful.
Matthew tells us that another girl saw him standing there and said to the others standing nearby, “This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth” (71). She did not speak to Peter, she addressed her comments to the people standing by the gate. Again, like the other girl, there is no accusation of any crime, just that he was somehow connected with Jesus.
Peter once again denies any association with Jesus. He “denied with an oath, ‘I do not know the Man!’” (72). Peter digs himself deeper into the quagmire of his own sin in his second denial. His sin is increasing both in number and in seriousness (quantitatively and qualitatively). There is a progressive aggravation of his sin (France). “Peter’s second denial of Jesus therefore went beyond the first. The first had been a general disavowal, but the second was more explicit” (Ridderbos). That’s the way it is with sin—they begin to pile up on one another are become more severe.
1)This time he uses an oath. He realizes that things are getting more serious so he had better affirm strongly that he isn’t a friend of Jesus. Taking an oath means he invoked the name of God that he was speaking truthfully when he said he didn’t know Jesus. To lie is bad enough, but to take an oath in God’s name when one lies is double the sin. 2)Not only does he take an oath, he goes on to say he doesn’t know Jesus. Before, he claimed that he didn’t know what the girl was talking about; now he says he doesn’t know Jesus. Before, he was using evasion as his tactic; now he rejects emphatically that he knows “this Man” (doesn’t even call him by name).
Jesus was truthfully testifying inside the courtroom and Peter was perjuring himself outside in the courtyard!
III. Denial Three (73-74)
Oddly, Peter remained in the courtyard. He still wanted to get information first hand from the court proceedings, so he stayed close by. He is pointed out one more time as being a follower of Jesus and he denies one more time. Matthew tells us that the third denial took place “after a while.” Luke informs us that this was approximately and hour later (22:59).
This time Peter was charged directly as being a disciple of Jesus. One of those who had been standing near him said, “Surely you also are one of them, because your speech betrays you.” He had been listening to Peter talk and he detected a Galilean accent. A Galilean accent didn’t prove that Peter was a disciple of Jesus, but it was a piece of evidence that was fairly conclusive considering he had been pointed out as a possible follower twice already.
NOTE - Judeans were contemptuous of the way Galileans spoke. Certain accents in America are treated the same way—Brooklyn, Southern, Texas drawl, etc. A Galilean accent, like these, is quite conspicuous.
Peter gets more emphatic at each denial. Mathew says “he began to curse and swear, saying, ‘I do not know the Man!’” (74). His language was very strong! To curse and swear means he is affirming an oath (as previously) but this time, he calls on God to punish him if what he said was not true. We expect lightening to strike at any moment!
NOTE - Peter did not “curse” as in “cuss.” He is not using foul language. He is calling down a curse on himself if he is not telling the truth. Also, it is possible that he was not calling down curses on himself but on Christ.
Then he repudiates any association with Jesus by saying, “I do not know the Man!” Morris says “It is a comprehensive repudiation of the prisoner being unjustly condemned and rudely mocked.”
This part of the passion narrative concludes with a mention of the rooster crowing and with Peter weeping bitterly. Jesus’ prediction was fulfilled. Jesus had told Peter that before the rooster crows he would deny him three times. This is obviously providential. God caused the rooster to crow.
The remembrance of the Lord’s prophesy brought him to repentance. Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (75). The crowing of the rooster brought home to him the terrible thing he had done. There is no question that his tears are an expression of genuine grief and repentance, for Peter will be found among the disciples again and will be used of God in preaching the gospel to others. Graciously, he was restored and re-commissioned.
There are many lessons for us to learn from Peter’s denial of Christ.
1. Peter’s denial forms proof of the weakness and faithlessness of anyone who thinks he can follow Jesus by relying on his own strength (Ridderbos). The proud always fall, they can never stand up. Proverbs says . . . A man’s trust must not be in the arm of the flesh but in the power of the Spirit.
Don’t ever be so foolish as to say, “I will never fall.” Humility is necessary along with a recognition of our weakness. As long as we are in the flesh and as long as the devil is walking about like a roaring lion seeking to devour us, there is danger!
2. Peter’s denial teaches us that Christians can sin grievously against God. Peter was the leader of the twelve yet he sinned greatly against the Lord. He loved Christ and was deeply pained afterwards that he had succumbed to the weakness of the flesh, but he still denied the Lord.
We must be very careful lest we think we can keep ourselves from sinning. We need God’s help. The best of saints are only men!
3. Peter’s denial shows that Christ will not let go of those whom he has saved. Were it not for the keeping power of Christ, none of us could keep ourselves in the faith. He is the One who is able to keep us from falling (Jude 24). Jesus once told Peter, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail . . .” (Luke 22:31-32).
“We must not set down men as graceless reprobates, because they occasionally stumble and err. We must remember Peter, and ‘restore them in the spirit of meekness’” (Ryle).
4. Peter’s denial reveals that when the child of God is overtaken in a fault, “he rises again by true repentance, and by the grace of God amends his life” (Ryle). Peter did not continue in his sin. He mourned over his fall; he loathed his wickedness; he repented greatly. The present passage does not mention his repentance but subsequent history declares it. And Peter became a useful servant of Christ’s again.
“It is remarkable and significant that the story of the denials should have been recorded at all. When the Gospel were written, Peter was regarded as the leading apostle, the chief man in the church. It would have been very natural to pass over in silence this man’s fall from grace. But all four of our Gospels recount it. They do not do this by way of demoting Peter, for in due course he repented, was reinstated, and continued in a position of leadership” (Morris).
Thanks be unto God that he restores the fallen and uses them again in the work of the kingdom.