Mark 14:66-72 “While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. ‘You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,’ she said. But he denied it. ‘I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,’ he said, and went out into the entryway.
When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, ‘This fellow is one of them.’ Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, ‘Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.’ He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’
Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.”
This is a memorable incident recorded by all four evangelists. It is more than an incident in the life of Peter. All the church of the new covenant can identify with Peter in what happened, as all the church of the old covenant can identify with King David and his fall. These men were individuals and various details of their succumbing to temptation are unique to them, but the pattern of their falls has been repeated throughout history. Paul tells the Corinthians, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (I Cor. 10:11&12).
The incident is built up by the various evangelists’ contributions, for example, Matthew and Mark tell us that it was at Peter’s third denial that there was a reference to the peculiar accent of Peter as a man from Galilee. Mark alone tells us that at the first crowing of the cock Peter paid no attention. Luke alone tells us that an hour passed between the second and the third denial, and also he is the evangelist who describes Jesus looking at Peter. To John we are responsible for the information that the third time Peter was questioned it was by a relative of Malchus the man whose ear he had severed. John alone tells us of the three-fold restoration of Peter, “Do you love me?”
1. WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED THAT NIGHT?
Consider the narrative of Peter’s denial. He had been in the Gethsemane when the Lord Jesus gave himself up to the soldiers without a fight; all the disciples, offended and frightened, took off like deer running through the olive trees into the darkness. Then they regained their composure when they realised that the soldiers were not intent on arresting any of them. So Peter and another disciple followed the soldiers and the bound Jesus. The identity of this other disciple is not disclosed to us. John tells us that he was known to the high priest (Jn. 18:15); maybe it was Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. Whoever it was he had instant access to the courtyard of his house; he had been there before while the unknown Peter had to wait outside at the door. Then this other disciple went to the woman on duty at the door and told her that he vouched for Peter and that she could let him in (Jn. 18:16). Peter came from 150 miles north of Jerusalem on Sea of Galilee. When Peter came out of the darkness and passed the woman on his way. In a few minutes she notices him in the light of the firelight and she checks up on him, “When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. ‘You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,’ she said. But he denied it. ‘I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,’ he said, and went out into the entryway” (Mk.14:67&68). That was the first denial. It was then that the cockerel first crowed, but Peter ignored Chanticleer.
So Peter came into the garden and courtyard, and Matthew tells us that he had “sat down with the guards to see the outcome” (Matt. 26:58). It is a fascinating statement. Does it mean that Peter still does not believe that Jesus is going to die? Does Peter think that Jesus is going to give some statement with a token of his power and then walk out through their midst as he had done before in Nazareth? Peter is there as an observer, he hopes of the final vindication of Christ. It was a cold night John tells us (Jn. 18:18) -although it had been night of bloody sweat for our Lord – and so Peter was drawn back to the fire near the entryway – you can imagine a firepot keeping warm the men and woman on duty who were guarding the entrance to the chief priests’ house. Mark tells us, “When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, ‘This fellow is one of them.’ Again he denied it” (v.69). Peter having made his first falsehood, committed himself again. An hour passes, and then we are told that a bystander recognised Peter from the Garden of Gethsemane (Jn. 18:26) saying, “‘Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.’ He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’Immediately the cock crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: ‘Before the cock crows twice you will disown me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.” (vv.70-71). That is the infamous event in the life of young Peter that all the church knows.
2. THE PRIVILEGES THAT PETER HAD KNOWN.
Peter had been in the Lord’s company from the very beginning of his ministry. He had seen the mightiest and most stupendous of Christ’s miracles. He had been in the innermost circle as far as the teaching of Jesus was concerned. He had heard the Sermon on the Mount the first time any human ear had heard it. He had received from God the Father special inward illumination so that he saw clearly the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. He was enabled to confess, “Thou art the Christ the Son of the living god.” He had later been with them on the Mount of Transfiguration beholding the glory of Christ and Moses and Elijah brought from heaven to talk with him. He had heard the voice of God saying to Jesus, “Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
Even just before Peter’s denial the Lord had been particularly gracious to Peter. Christ had washed his feet, and then preached the greatest of all his sermons to Peter and the others. He had prayed at length and with much richness for Peter and the apostles. He then had sat with Christ as the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Then Christ invited him to be with the Lord at the Garden of Gethsemane where he had seen in some measure the anguish and solemnity of the occasion. In addition our Lord had given to Peter and to the others a very solemn warning as to the nearness of spiritual peril and the need of being especially careful in watching and prayer.
That is the great back ground to the denial – a person undoubtedly in the grace of God; a person who was eminent in the church; a person who had been called to be an apostle, one of the foundations gifts of the church. Peter was someone to whom Christ had shown such great personal kindness and on whom our Lord had bestowed such considerate, wise and thorough pastoral care. That, perhaps is the warning of this incident, that no matter what our position might be, no matter how genuine our conversion, or the glory and fulness of our assurance or our usefulness in the church of Christ – no matter the number and richness of the privileges we have known and all the pains that God has taken with us, that still we are to watch and pray lest we fall into temptation and that our fall be as calamitous as this man fell.
In other words, as Principal Macleod has said, this is one of the great moments in the history of the Christian church, because it isn’t a moment in the history of Peter alone, it is a moment in the church’s history. In many ways Peter is the embodiment here of the church in the same way as David embodies it in the old dispensation in his adultery. These are events that are repeated constantly in the church’s history and in the experience of each one of us as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a singularly solemn moment; it is a virtual abyss in the history of the church of Jesus Christ, and I think that though one shrinks from its message it has much to teach us if God’s Spirit will take it and apply to us the warnings and encouragements of this event, and if we are serious about pleasing God, saying, about these words we are hearing at this moment, “Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path” (Ps. 27:11).
3. WHAT IS IT TO DENY THE LORD JESUS CHRIST?
Let us look at this by finding our answer here and outside this passage. It seems to me there are three great possibilities;
i] It is possible to deny him first of all by explicit and forthright denial
This is the kind of denial of which Peter was guilty here. In other words, there is a straightforward question, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” and the answer immediately is, “No.” The conversation suddenly moves round to ‘fundamentalists – these people who are always trying to save you’ and we are asked whether we are one of them, and we say, “No.” We are asked whether we believe in great truths like creation, and we say, “No.” We are asked whether we believe in hell and deny it. We are asked whether we ‘believe the Bible literally, cover to cover,’ and we say, “No.” We are asked about the sanctity of life, the right of the unborn child to live, and again we explicitly and deliberately say, “No.”
Maybe this happens more in our theological adolescence, if we have been raised in a Christian home, and have known the church’s teaching, but we are also drawn to our peers at school to whom the Christian faith is laughable. We then say, “No,” when they challenge us, and we say it because we are ashamed of Christ. We are ashamed of our parents. We deny that we had ‘a strict upbringing.’ We are denying bluntly every possible connection with this whole movement because of the contempt of the world for it.
We once had a family who attended our church, but the teenage boy was horribly embarrassed at being seen going to church with his family, and so he went out of the house by a back lane and went to the edge of the village out of sight of his cronies where his family picked him up. That is how far he was prepared to go in his denial of Jesus Christ.
ii] Secondly, we can also deny Christ by our silence.
John Stott records how he was once on a train going to a remote corner of Pembrokeshire in south west Wales. “I travelled by sleeper and found I was sharing the two-berth cabin with a young land agent. He was occupying the top bunk. In the morning, while preparing to wash, he accidentally dropped the contents of his sponge bag on to the floor and vented his annoyance by taking the name of Christ in vain. I said nothing. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to remain silent. The usual plausible excuses came crowding into my head-‘it’s none of your business’, ‘you’ve no responsibility for him’, ‘he’ll only laugh at you’. But the previous evening I had preached in church from Ephesians 4:26, 27: ‘Be angry but do not sin’. I had spoken about righteous indignation and the façade of sweet reasonableness which often conceals our moral cowardice and compromise. An inner struggle followed, as I argued with myself and prayed, and not until ten or fifteen minutes later did I find the courage to speak. Although his immediate reaction was unfavourable, I was soon able to witness to the Christ he had blasphemed and to give him an evangelistic booklet. I suppose this simple anecdote could be paralleled a thousand times. Again and again an opportunity presents itself to speak for our Lord Jesus Christ, but we hold our peace. And what is true of us as individual believers seems to characterize and paralyse the whole Church” (John Stott, “Our Guilty Silence,” Hodder and Stoughton, 1967, p.14)
It is Peter himself who later wrote, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (I Pet. 3:15). In other words, people might observe that you live in a particular way, that there are certain abstinences, things you do not do, places you do not frequent, and also they notice that there are truths with which you seem to align yourself, principles which seem to govern and regulate your lives. One day out of the blue they ask you a reason for your hope, and you are startled and unprepared to answer them. Old Major W. Batt called the Christianity he saw, ‘rabbit-hole Christianity.’ He pictured a prim little Christian popping up from his home in the mornings like a rabbit out of his burrow, making a brave little dash through the alien outside world and disappearing for safety into another burrow, his office, hiding behind his desk and computer for eight hours. At the end of the afternoon he summoned up enough courage to emerge again, look this way and that, and then head for a prayer meeting before reaching the safety of his home at 9 p.m. Should someone ask him about his hope he would be dumbstruck. It is not that he would deny his faith but that he would be unwilling and unprepared to explain what he believed and why he behaved as he did.
In 1962 I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary sitting at the feet of John Murray. After one class I asked him whether there were verses in the Bible that told Christians they should bear witness to their faith. He thanked me for the question saying how much he enjoyed getting questions like that and that he would answer me in a few days. At the end of the next class he made his way to me and gave me a piece of paper which I hold in my hand today. On it he had written the following verses in his customary black ink fountain pain. Many were quite unexpected verses and it was only as I thought of their application to my question that I understood why he had written them out: Acts 8:4 “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Acts 18:26 “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” I Cor. 1:5 “For in Christ you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge.” I Cor. 5:27 “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” I Cor. 2:15 “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment.” I Cor. 4:15 “You have ten thousand guardians in Christ.” I Cor. 11:4&5 “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” II Cor. 3:18, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” compared to I Cor 4:13 “when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” II Cor. 5:12, 17, 19 “We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart . . . Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! . . . God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” II Cor. 8:7 “You excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us.” Ephs. 4:15 “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” Ephs. 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephs. 5:11 “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” Ephs. 6:17 “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Phils 1:14-18 “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,” I Thess. 1:8 “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it.” Titus 2:3&4 “teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children.” I Peter 3:15 “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Do we obey the word of God? Do we with all the wisdom, and all the meekness and tact of which our souls are capable bear testimony to the glory and grandeur of our Lord? Has not Christ said to us, “You are the light of the world? Has he not exhorted us, “Then let your light shine!” You are light because you have a message, and it is the great message of Christian hope. The Kingdom has come because the King has come! The message is that God is love. Do we let that light shine, or do we keep it under some kind of bushel? Do we imagine that it is reserved for some particular kind of gathering like a service, or a conference? Do we think that just one particular segment of society will receive a light like ours. Or is our light one that we allow to shine out in any dark spot?
“Jesus bids us shine
Then, for all around;
Many kinds of darkness
In this world abound –
Sin and want and sorrow;
So we must shine –
You in your small corner
And I in mine.”
Think of Nicodemus; here was a man who was a disciple, but secretly for fear of the Jews. He was a man who came to Jesus by night, and isn’t that a constant possibility for ourselves as Christians. We have what we think is a secret and inward loyalty. We have perhaps profound longings and aspirations in the depths of our souls for the Christian salvation. We have a respect for Christ; we have a love for his people; we have an emptiness in our hearts that we know only God and his word can possibly meet.
“I tried the broken cisterns, Lord,
But, ah! The waters failed!
Even as I stooped to drink they fled
And mocked me as I wailed” (B.E.)
Yet, even singing that, we don’t want the thing brought out into the open. It has to be by night; it has to be a secret discipleship. I needn’t emphasise the absurdity of that, that either that secrecy is going to destroy the discipleship or else the discipleship itself must destroy the secrecy. We are not only light but we are light that shines in every small corner, and I am saying how often is it possible that we deny the Lord by our own silence?
iii] Thirdly, we can deny our Lord by hypocrisy.
Gehazi, Elisha’s servant was a hypocrite. Angry that his master had asked nothing from Naaman for curing his leprosy he decided he would act. “So Gehazi hurried after Naaman. When Naaman saw him running toward him, he got down from the chariot to meet him. ‘Is everything all right? he asked. ‘Everything is all right,’ Gehazi answered. ‘My master sent me to say, “Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing.”‘ ‘By all means, take two talents,’ said Naaman. He urged Gehazi to accept them, and then tied up the two talents of silver in two bags, with two sets of clothing. He gave them to two of his servants, and they carried them ahead of Gehazi.
When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from the servants and put them away in the house. He sent the men away and they left. Then he went in and stood before his master Elisha. Where have you been, Gehazi?’ Elisha asked. ‘Your servant didn’t go anywhere, Gehazi answered. But Elisha said to him, ‘Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants?
Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.’ Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and he was leprous, as white as snow.” (II Kings 5:21-27). Gehazi’s convictions were that mercy from God was totally free, unmerited and unbought. It was God’s gracious gift; Jehovah was no man’s debtor. So Naaman had nothing to glory in for any part he played in his cleansing from leprosy but only in the grace of God. That was Gehazi’s conviction but his conduct denied that truth. Gehazi was a hypocrite.
Or think of the way Peter behaved in Antioch, how he was intimidated by other Jewish Christians into insisting again on keeping old covenant food laws and circumcision and days. Peter was acting the hypocrite and his example influenced others; even Barbabas was led astray. There was a certain pretence in Peter’s life; he put on a certain façade that hid his real convictions. It wasn’t what he said but what Peter did that gave him away. He behaved in a manner that gave a false impression as to his own convictions. God had made it clear to him by an extraordinary revelation from heaven that he was not to call unclean what God called clean. The time had come for the end of the ban on eating prok. Peter knew this to be the case, but when the Judaizing Christians with their persuasive arguments and shining faces made their appeal, Peter was swayed. “Don’t you want to lay everything on the altar? Don’t you want the blessing of the totally sanctified life? Don’t you want to be completely open to all God’s blessings? You want to do what the Bible says don’t you? Doesn’t it say to keep the Sabbath day? Aren’t these food laws inspired by the Spirit and aren’t they for our good? How can we be blessed by God if we grieve his Spirit by our disobedience?” Those were the pleas that the Judaizers made. appealing to verses without any understanding of their place in the history of redemption.
So Peter drew back and separated himself from the Gentile Christians in the congregation. He refused to eat alongside them, sharing the common table and common drink, and common utensils, washing at the same bowl of water. They were uncircumcised gentiles and so second class Christians in the behaviour of Peter. Yet his conviction in his heart of hearts was that they were true Christians and his own brothers and sisters. But while there were other shining eyed ones who didn’t believe this Peter would do nothing to extinguish that light of fanaticism. If it were known in the church at Antioch that Peter stood exactly where Paul stood on this issue peter would no longer be regarded as the number one spokesman for Jewish Christians, and so peter pretended. The best way to do this was to avoid deliberately all fellowship with these despised Gentiles. There was a deliberate contradiction between his innermost convictions and the impression his conduct gave.
How often do we ourselves fall into that particular trap? It may happen inside the church itself. There may be some erroneous movement spring up and we try to avoid giving offence by behaving in a certain way, pretending we are ‘peace-keepers’. We see ourselves as neutral middle ground men between truth and error! There is no middle ground between truth and error; we are to stand with the truth. There may be some individual who has been badly dealt with by the congregation. He has been wrongly cast out of the church’s fellowship. He is one of the casualties of heavy shepherding, and we may be assured in the depths of our souls of the innocence and integrity of that man, and yet we are refusing to associate with him; we are not stretching out our hand to him; we are snubbing with all the other ungodly ones. We are putting up some kind of façade of hypocrisy.
Let us return to the case before us of Peter, the Christian in ungodly company. He denies his Lord not so much by what he says as by the way that he behaves and conducts himself. In other words he thinks, “These people have an impression that followers of Jesus behave in a certain manner. Well, if I don’t behave like that, if I behave like they behave, then they will think I can’t be following Jesus of Nazareth.” So we deliberately adopt the life-style and fashion and languages of the world in order to give the impression that we really are on their side, we’re not disciples of Christ at all.
You see how far Peter was prepared to go in that direction? “He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.'” (v.71). Peter was prepared to use the most profane language because that gave strength to the impression that he was no Christian. That is exactly what Peter did, can you believe it? He who had been in the Upper Room two hours earlier used the foulest and most blasphemous language because he wanted to counter the impression that he might be a Christian.
8 August 2005 GEOFF THOMAS