Luke 22:54-60 “Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, ‘This man was with him.’ But he denied it. ‘Woman, I don’t know him,’ he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them.’ ‘Man, I am not!’ Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, ‘Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.’ Peter replied, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Just as he was speaking, the cock crowed..”
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 could have identified with King David and his fall. These men were individuals and so specific details of their giving in to temptation are unique to them, but the pattern of their falls has been repeated throughout history. Paul explains to a church, “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 by questioning, “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, according to John, 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). It was the same gang of soldiers who had arrested Jesus who now proceeded to make a fire right in the middle of the courtyard, so Luke tells us, and they sat around it and Peter moved across to them drawn by the warmth of the fire until he finally he sat down with them – with the soldiers who had just arrested his Lord. Peter came from 150 miles north of Jerusalem on the Sea of Galilee. Then a servant girl eyeing the soldiers saw him in the light of the fire, a new face at midnight, a country boy, and so she examined him. Luke tells us, “She looked closely at him and said, ‘This man was with him.’ But he denied it. ‘Woman, I don’t know him,’ he said” (Lk.22:56&57). That was the first denial. It was then that the cockerel first crowed, but that didn’t seem to have reminded Peter of Jesus’ warning.
Matthew tells us that Peter continued to “sit down with the guards to see the outcome” (Matt. 26:58). It is a fascinating statement. Does it suggest that Peter still didn’t believe that Jesus was going to die? Did Peter think that Jesus was going to speak, give some sort of statement, do a miracle, and then walk out through their midst as he had done before in a place like Nazareth? Peter is there as an observer, he hopes of the final vindication of Christ before the leaders of the people. It was a cold night John tells us (Jn. 18:18) – although it had been a night of bloody sweat for our Lord. Then Luke tells us, “A little later someone else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them.’ ‘Man, I am not!’ Peter replied.” (v.58). Peter having made his first falsehood, committed himself again. Then a whole hour of silence passes and someone else looks at him; “Another asserted, ‘Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.’ Peter replied, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Just as he was speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the cock crows today, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly” (vv.59-62). That is the infamous event in the life of young Peter that all the church knows.
2. WHAT PRIVILEGES HAD PETER 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 been commissioned to preach by Jesus and had seen many people changed and the demons were subject to him. He had also 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 background 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 foundation 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 prime lesson 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 must be on guard and pray lest we fall into temptation and that our fall be as calamitous as this man’s fall.
In other words this is one of the memorable 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. 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 path of redemptive history, 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 lessons 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 friends 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.
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 plus some others with 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.” 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.” II Cor. 8:7 “You excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge.” 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. 6:17 “Take . . . the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Phils 1:14 “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” 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.” Titus 2:3&4 “teach the older women . . .to teach what is good..” 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 ourselves and others to enjoy 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 our longing for Jesus Christ to be 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. Let us return to the case before us of Peter, the Christian in ungodly company. He denies his Lord not only by plain words as by the manner in which he speaks them and how he conducts himself. In other words Peter thinks, ‘These people have an impression that followers of Jesus behave in a certain way, that they don’t swear and get angry. 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 language 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? Mark tells us that Peter “began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”’ (Mk. 14:71). Peter was prepared to use 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 and taken the Lord’s Supper two hours earlier now used the foulest language because he wanted to counter the impression that he might be a Christian.
4. WHAT DID PETER OMIT DOING?
Peter failed to follow the example of his Lord. He had been with Jesus for the last three years. He had observed how he behaved in the company of men and women under all circumstances, at weddings, in synagogues, during meals in people’s houses, when men came to argue with him, when mothers brought their babies to him to bless, when he was in a hostile community. Nowhere did Jesus act as Peter acted. Peter was in a situation we have all been and will be in. We are the only Christian in a new school. We are on an Open University course for a week and no one else seems to have any interest in the gospel. We are in a open-plan office at our first day in a new job. We have been conscripted to the army for a year or two and we are sleeping in a large dormitory. There seems to be utter apathy, hostility and ignorance of the Christian faith everywhere we turn. That was what faced Peter that night, and he failed.
What did Jesus do? I was reading this week about the quartet of earnest evangelical Christians who are playing this week-end for the U.S.A. in the Ryder Cup, and how they always give glory to God in any victory, and are always eager to share their faith with anyone. One of them wears a rubber band on his wrist with W.W.J.D. on it – “What would Jesus do?” They and their wive and children are unashamed of their Saviour.
Then what would Jesus do as the only Christian warming his hands by a fire on a lonely night? I think there were four principal approaches Christ adopted and Peter was quite familiar with every one.
i] Jesus mixed with a wide range of people. He called unusual people to be his apostles, gatherers of taxes who worked for the Roman government, members of the Zealot party who wanted to drive Rome into the sea. He accepted as disciples officers in the Roman army, women who were demon-possessed and also fierce demon-possessed men. We can unconsciously avoid certain people as too tough, too cynical, too powerful to hear the gospel. We don’t know what is going on in their hearts. 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, looking carefully around and then making a brave little dash through the alien outside world and disappearing for safety into another burrow, his office, hiding behind his 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 heads 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. Jesus was known as a friend of sinners. He calls us to be morally distinct, yes, but not to be socially segregated. He himself lived out the need to be in the world, among the people he had come to save, but not to live just like them. Peter started so well. He went to stand up for his master near his master, and he did not hide in a corner but he sat in the middle of the courtyard with the men who had arrested his Lord.
ii] Jesus was a good listener. We see in the gospels how he listened to people’s concerns and aspirations and needs. What do you do when you feel you are the only Christians in an 18th birthday party or on a visit of the county schools orchestra to Germany and you hardly know anyone? You ask questions: “Where are you from? What are you doing? What are your plans? What family do you have? Do you go to church on Sundays?” And so on . . . that’s all you need to do. But Peter didn’t have to break the ice and strike up a conversation. God gave him a gift, a young women came to him and spoke; “You’re with Jesus aren’t you?” What a wonderful question to be asked! You tell her how you came to meet Jesus for the first time, and the impact he made on you, and what you have learned from him in three years and what you have seen him do, and how you have come to love him and you hope he comes to no harm because you believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Then she will either think you are crazy and move on or ask you more questions. But Peter was so unprepared, and scared, and prayerless that he simply said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Now you think that that is the end. Peter has had his chance and he’s blown it, and often we think that, but God is merciful and he gives him a second chance and another person comes up to him in a little while and says the same thing, “You must belong to Jesus, don’t you?” Now all the rehearsed speeches of what Peter had been thinking, ‘I should have said this or that . . .” now can be poured out thanking God in his heart for giving him another chance to redeem himself, but again nothing, “Man, I am not belonging to Jesus and his gang.” Another lie! Well it is all over. He’s had it, just regret for the rest of his life. No! God gives him a third chance to say whose he is and whom he serves. Someone comes out of the darkness and in a moment says, “You’re from Galilee aren’t you, and so you must be with Jesus of Nazareth,” and now he can say, “Yes,” and bear witness to all he has experienced in the Saviour. But again he messes up but this time big-time. “You’re a funny fellow. What on earth are you talking about?” and he slips in some oaths to show that this line of inquiry is over for the night. His Master initiated conversations, but Peter made them impossible.
iii] Jesus took the initiative. He asked many questions – about a hundred someone has calculated. Why do you worry about clothes? Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Who do you say that I am? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Was John’s baptism from heaven or from man? Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? What do you want me to do for you? What do you think about Christ? Whose Son is he? Do you still not understand? Why do you call me good? Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your minds? Why are you so afraid? Whose superscription is on this coin? What can a man give in exchange for his soul? What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? If I am telling the truth why don’t you believe me?
Of course Jesus didn’t come to each conversation with rehearsed speech, “Three questions I want to ask you . . .” No. And he didn’t come with a bomb to be dropped. Once he was in a hostile community of Samaritans; Jews and Samaritans ignored one another and especially men and women didn’t get involved in conversation with one another. Jesus was in a small town called Sychar and to the village well a Samaritan woman came with her water pot and Jesus spoke to her. “Could you give me a drink of water?” He put himself in debt to her. “What you’ve just said is quite true,” he complemented her and he provoked her to ask him question after question.
iv] Jesus weighed up and evaluated what others said to him. All of what men say is not right. Some people seem to be living on another planet! When Jesus tells us not to pass judgment and rubbish people and their opinions he’s not saying don’t evaluate them. Jesus himself is a good example; he listens to hateful people like the Pharisees and rejects them as white-washed sepulchres, while he also hearing teachers of the Word that he met in the Temple and listening to them respectfully. When he was young he listened intently to what the scribes in the Temple said, and then he made his own contribution. He asked them very profound questions and then answered the questions they presented to him in a way that amazed them.
Jesus would have done all or some of that in the courtyard that night, mix and listen and ask questions and answer their questions, but Peter just said no. He wouldn’t speak to any of them, in fact he denied any knowledge of his Saviour. He denied Jesus timidly – he who would take on single-handed a hundred armed soldiers come to arrest his Lord. He denied Jesus unconvincingly. Three or more people in the courtyard looked at him and heard his accent. Maybe some of them had been at the Temple that past week and heard Jesus speaking and there at his right hand was this Galilean. He denied Jesus comprehensively. Three times, the first time affirming that he did not know him, and the second time stating that he was not his disciple, and the third time declaring that he didn’t know what the people were talking about. He denied Jesus grievously, after warnings and loving pastoral care, he denied him with oaths.
I have never met a Christian who looks down on Peter and despises him. Most of us, if not all of us, think yes that’s what the Christian life can be like. We let our Lord down. That’s what happens. Inside this outwardly brash Christian who’ll fight the world is a yellow-bellied Christian. The flesh fights against the Spirit and the Spirit fights against the flesh and we don’t do what we desire to do. And it’s only when we’ve been there that like Peter we can know what his friend meant when he said when he was weak then he was strong. He was learning that he could only survive as a Christian with the strength that God would give him. “Help me Lord . . . help me Lord . . . help me, Lord.” Pray it all the time. It is a real prayer.
30 September 2012 GEOFF THOMAS