I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: Denying Christ When Faced With Opposition
Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna in the second century and one of several early martyrs for the cause of Jesus Christ. He lived between 69 and 155 A.D. Polycarp was executed by being bound and burned at the stake and later stabbed when the flames failed to consume his body.
Since Christians like this brave saint refused to worship the Roman gods they were considered atheists. And the official reason for his execution was that he refused to burn incense to the Roman emperor, who was considered a god.
At his trial he was asked to reproach Christ and he'd be set free. He responded by saying:
“Eighty-six years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
His prayer to the Lord, shortly before his death was:
“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers and every creature, and of all the righteous who live before you, I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”
When we remember the great saints of old such as Polycarp, we think about their courage. And sometimes we forget that they were human just like us. And, no matter how strong they appear to us, they all had their weak moments of doubt and fear. And some may have even denied Christ for fear of what could happen to them.
When we think of the great Apostle Peter, we're reminded that, traditionally, he was martyred by being hung upside-down on a cross because he didn't feel worthy to be crucified the same way as Jesus.
But we often forget that this same Peter, earlier in his life, denied his Lord three times when Jesus was on trial for his life and about to be sentenced to be crucified.
We need to look at this sad time in Peter's life in order to get a more full understanding of him, as the Bible depicts him, and to help us to understand ourselves better as well. The truth is that we all have a little "Peter" in us, both his cowardice and, by God's grace, his heroism as well. And we can learn from his mistakes, as well as how Jesus responded to him in his sin.
Let's begin by looking at the narrative. And the best place to start is to show that Peter's failure was predicted by our Lord.
I. The Prediction of Peter's Denial
The story of Peter's denial can be found in all four Gospels, as well as the prophecy by our Lord that it would happen. We need to look at all of them in order to get a complete picture, for there are details in some that aren't in others. In the book of Matthew, for instance, we see that Jesus says something about all of the apostles. He tells them:
All of you shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.* (Matthew 26:31).
Here our Lord is quoting Zechariah 13:7, which was written several centuries before this incident ever occurred.
And there is another interesting fact in the book of Luke. We see that Peter was the object of an attack by Satan himself during this time. Jesus told the Apostle:
"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for you, that your faith does not fail: and when your are converted, strengthen your brothers." (Luke 22:31).
Like most of us, Peter was overly confident and said vehemently that he would never deny Christ. In Luke 22:33 he says:
"Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death."
In all 4 of thee accounts there is some form of Jesus telling Peter that before the cock crows he will deny Christ 3 times. For historical accuracy, something has to be said about these verses. Most assume that the cock crowing is an actual rooster crowing. However, the Mishnah, the earliest compilation of rabbinic oral law, states that roosters (chickens) may not be raised in Jerusalem due to purity concerns. So it may not have been the real animal that Jesus was talking about.
Rather “Cockcrow” refers to a time early in the morning when the priests began to prepare the Temple for the daily visitors. Every day they would remove ashes from the altar at cockcrow, or near to it. And the sound that was actually made was likely the blast of a trumpet that was sounded at this time announcing cockcrow.
But whatever the case, the fact is that Jesus predicted Peter's denial, as well as the actions of the other apostles. And shortly after this, it all came to pass.
II. The Fulfillment of Peter's Denial
At Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane Peter made a small though inappropriate courageous response. He drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus who was the servant of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas.
Jesus tells him to put away his sword and the Lord willingly surrendered to those who came to arrest Him. Then, as was predicted,, the disciples fled and deserted Jesus (Matthew 25:56). However, Peter decided to follow the Lord from a distance as Christ was lead away to trial by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy.
We find, in the book of John that Peter is actually accompanied by another, unnamed disciple who is known to the high priest and manages to get admission for both of them to his palace (John 18:15–16). Many scholars believe this to be John himself.
It would seem that Peter never actually went into the palace, however, The Apostle's denials took place in the courtyard of the High Priest. From all four accounts seen together, here is a sequence of events for the 3 denials made by Peter.
First of all several servants were gathered by a charcoal fire in the courtyard. Peter sat down by the fire to warm himself. While he was there, a servant girl approached him and accused Peter of being a follower of Jesus Christ. He then denied that he knew Jesus.
Then Peter got up from the fire and moved into the courtyard's gateway. At this place, the servant girl saw Peter again and made the same accusation to the servants that stood nearby at the gate. She didn't confront Peter again, however.
Among the individuals at the gate was a person referred to as 'another girl'. Although, in English the term girl is in italics. This means that the word for 'girl' isn't in the original manuscripts. So the gender is uncertain.
This second servant agreed with the first and repeated it to other servants (Matthew 26:71).
The second servant also confronted Peter with it as well. This lead to the Apostle's vehement denial of the accusation again. (Matthew 26:72; Mark 14:70a; Luke 58b).
About an hour later, another unnamed speaker accuses Peter also. However, this speaker refers to Peter as "this fellow" which leads us to believe that he wasn't actually talking to Peter himself but to others.
Then, after another hour passed, we find yet another group of servants that come and confront Peter with the accusation that he was a follower of Jesus.
Peter then curses when he makes this third and final denial of his Lord. Immediately, the cock crowed or the trumpet blasted, depending on the interpretation. And Luke 22:61 states that the Lord turned and looked at Peter.
The fact that Jesus could see Peter is probably because the men holding our Savior had already brought Him out into the courtyard to be beaten by this time. The verb used suggests an intent, fixed look.
This reminds the guilty apostle of the prophesy by Christ that he would deny him 3 times. And it overwhelms him to the point where Peter then goes out and weeps bitterly.
I like what John MacArthur says about this response:
"The true Peter is seen, not in his denial but in his repentance. This account reminds us of not only our own weakness, but also the richness of divine grace."
This leads us to the final scene in the saga of Peter's denial of Christ. That is his restoration.
III. The Restoration After Peter's Denial
Thankfully for Peter, and for all of us who have failed miserably, his story doesn't end with his weeping. We get a feel of what that scenario would be like when we see the fate of another apostle whose name was Judas. After betraying Christ Judas was truly remorseful but not repentant. He saw himself as denying a righteous man and not his Lord and Savior. That unbearable remorse lead him to total hopelessness which resulted in his hanging himself.
Peter, on the other hand, was truly repentant. Jesus prayer to His Father that Satan's sifting would not result in Peter's faith failing was answered and this lead to the scene that we see later in the account in John 21.
After His resurrection, Jesus has breakfast with Peter and the other disciples. Then in verses 15-19 the Lord very specifically draws Peter back into the fold of disciples by asking Him questions. Here is John's account:
"When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
It is interesting that Jesus here asks Peter 3 questions that coincided with his 3 denials. It can't be seen in English but the first 2 times that he asks the question: 'Do you love me?' Jesus uses agape as His word for love which is love that is unconditional. Christ wanted Peter to love Him so much that he'd be willing to forsake all that he knew and be supremely devoted to Him.
Peter uses a different word for love. Phileo, which is brotherly love. It is usually translated as friendship or affection. So Peter's response fell far short of what Christ was asking of him.
Jesus' reply to this first answer was "Tend my lambs." The word "tend" or "feed" here refers to being devoted to the Lord as an under-shepherd. Jesus wanted him to be constantly feeding and nourishing the flock.
Christ then asks the question over again with the same word (agape) that He used before. And Peter answers with the same word he used before. In response, he basically told Jesus: "You know that I dearly love you" or "I care for you."
The Lord answers the second time: "Shepherd my sheep."
In the third and final question, Jesus turns the tables on him and uses the Greek word with which Peter had responded to Him. He asks: "Peter, do you dearly love me?" (phileo).
This signified something less than the total devotion that Jesus originally asked for. The Lord was questioning the level of love that Peter thought that he was safe in speaking of in regard to his Master.
This grieved Peter's heart and it caused him to appeal to Jesus' complete knowledge of Him as God. He said:
"Lord, you know all things! You know that I dearly love you?"
Although he didn't change his word for love, nonetheless, the lesson was learned. And Peter's total devotion to Jesus Christ finally came and was demonstrated with his death for his Lord several years later.
This story of Peter's failure and Jesus' forgiveness reminds me of the words of Corrie Ten Boom which she quoted from her sister Betsie. Corrie Ten Boom was a writer and speaker well known for her forgiveness of the Nazi German guards who held her captive during World War II. She would often say:
"There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still."
We've all had times when we have done things that would bring shame on the name of our Lord and Savior. And we've all denied Him in our own way. None of us is above being like Peter on the night Jesus was crucified.
But the good news is that the same Lord who prayed for Peter, is talking to His Father, and ours, today. Further, it is His love and grace that will keep us safe. Because of what He has done and what He is doing in us and for us, nothing can separate us from His love or the plans that He has for our lives. We are secure in Him.
Of course, we must, like Peter, turn back in repentance and follow Christ again if we sin. But not for salvation. We received that as a free gift of His grace when we believed in Him and trusted Him as our Savior from sin.
But when have been walking in sin and stop transgressing, turning back to Him, we restore the wonderful and close relationship that we received with our Lord after salvation.
The good news is that, like with Peter, Jesus is waiting there with His open arms of love, wanting to restore full fellowship.
A story is told about a building project that might help us to conclude our study of Peter's denial. An anonymous author said this:
During the building of the Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay, construction fell badly behind schedule because several workers had accidentally fallen from the scaffolding to their deaths. Engineers and administrators could find no solution to the costly delays. Finally, someone suggested a gigantic net be hung under the bridge to catch any who fell. Finally in spite of the enormous cost, the engineers opted for the net. After it was installed, progress was hardly interrupted. A worker or two fell into the net but were saved. Ultimately, all the time lost to fear was regained by replacing fear with faith in the net.
God's grace in our lives is that net to keep us safe. And it is that same grace that will lead us home to glory. Because of Jesus, our failures are not final. For in Him we have the victory that overcomes this world and any disasters in our lives. Even when we cause them ourselves.
All we can say in the end is "Thank God for His amazing love and grace!!"
© 2021 Jeff Shirley