Characters Around the Crucifixion - Part 3: Peter Who Denied Him
Ian Rees, Bath, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Most of the characters we encounter around the cross of our Lord were unbelievers; Peter stands out as an exception. He is a very popular character because he is so spontaneous and so honest, often opening his mouth and putting his foot in it. Yet Peter loved his Lord intensely and had such a profound insight into our Lord’s deity. He was the disciple who said, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’, Matt. 16. 16. It was Peter who replied to the Lord’s question, ‘Will ye also go away?’ with ‘to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life’, John 6. 68. And he it was who voiced strong objections to the Lord washing his feet in the upper room, being acutely embarrassed at the incongruity of the Christ kneeling at His disciple’s feet: ‘Lord, dost thou wash my feet?’ 13. 6. We are touched to hear his deep yearning to be associated with his Lord so that, in response to our Lord’s ‘If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me’, he bursts out, ‘Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head’, vv. 8-9. How was it possible, then, that he, of all the disciples, could deny knowing his Lord and that with oaths and cursings? How could he have let down his Lord at a time when he was most needed? There were several steps in his downfall which we need to observe.
Peter ignored a warning
Our Lord warned Peter pointedly in the upper room that he was going to deny Him. Matthew records our Lord as saying to the whole band of disciples, ‘All ye shall be offended because of me this night’, Matt. 26. 31. Then, specifically to Peter, He warns, ‘I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me’, Luke 22. 34. Our Lord also warned Peter from whom that temptation would come, ‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, [all the disciples] that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee [Peter] that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, [turned to me again] strengthen thy brethren’, vv. 31-32. Yet Peter refused to listen to such clear warnings. He was deaf to his Shepherd, because:
He trusted in himself
Peter’s responses to our Lord’s direct warnings show he was full of self-confidence. ‘Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death’, Luke 22. 33; ‘Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee’, Matt. 26. 35; ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I’, Mark 14. 29. In fact, the implication is that our Lord gave Peter his first warning in the upper room, and repeated it on the way to Gethsemane. Peter left the upper room and continued protesting his loyalty to the Lord all the way to the garden, vv. 27-31. ‘If I should die with thee, I will not deny thee in any wise’, v. 31. Here was one who was too full of himself.
He pandered to the flesh
Our Lord graciously issued yet another warning to His disciples. ‘Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’, Matt. 26. 41. Three times our Lord left them to watch with Him, and on each occasion He returned to find them asleep. When, eventually, the temptation to flee to save their own skins came with the men who arrived to arrest their Lord, none of the disciples had either the spiritual strength or the moral courage to resist that temptation. The result was that ‘they all forsook him, and fled’, Mark 14. 50. Admittedly, Peter raised a sword to defend our Lord, but his courage did not last and he, too, fled. We often quote the phrase ‘the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak’ when referring to our own feebleness to resist temptation in general, but surely our Lord was warning His disciples, and Peter in particular, about the temptation to leave Him that they would face that night. When the soldiers came to arrest Him, our Lord, who had spent time in the garden in prayer with His Father, and was thus strengthened, was the one who stepped forward and said, ‘I am . . . let these go their way’, John 18. 8.
He followed afar off
Three of the gospels record that ‘Peter followed afar off’. Although John, too, had fled from Gethsemane leaving our Lord alone, we discover him going in to the high priest’s palace to which our Lord had been taken; so, evidently, he thought the better of it quickly. Being known to the high priest, he was allowed in, vv. 15-16. It would appear that he was already in the palace with our Lord when Peter arrived at the door. It was John who came down and spoke to the doorkeeper so that Peter was allowed in.
He took his eyes off the Lord
Having arrived before Peter, John evidently went ‘in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest’, v. 15. This was probably the inner chamber where the trial was to take place. He must then have returned inside having let Peter in. Yet Peter did not go in there, but stood outside in the courtyard. We may say it was courageous of Peter to return to be near the Lord, but the fact is that not only did he follow ‘afar off’, but he also kept afar off. John was the one who went in with the Lord and was witness to much of His sufferings there. Peter did not witness the wicked interrogation of our Lord by the high priest. He did not see the soldiers of the high priest mock his Lord, blindfold Him, strike Him, taunt Him and revile Him, nor did he see Caiaphas’ refusal to rebuke them for mistreating the accused. Peter’s eyes were no longer on the Lord and His troubles; they were soon to be on his own.
He kept the wrong company
Says the scripture, graphically, ‘it was cold’. Peter sees a fire kindled in the courtyard and approaches it to warm himself and his hands, then sits down among them, Mark 14. 54. Suddenly, he is accosted by one of the serving company. If we follow Luke’s record, thinking that his source was Peter many years after the crucifixion, ‘A certain maid beheld him as he sat by the fire and earnestly looked upon him and said, This man was also with him’. Peter’s response was ‘Woman, I know him not’. ‘After a little while another saw him, and said, Thou art also of them. And Peter said, Man, I am not. And about the space of one hour after another confidently affirmed, saying, Of a truth this fellow also was with him: for he is a Galilean. And Peter said, Man, I know not what thou sayest. And immediately, while he yet spake, the cock crew’, Luke 22. 55-60. Mark adds, ‘He began to curse and to swear’, Mark 14. 71. Where did a godly fisherman find such words? Surely he heard them from the company of soldiers and servants with whom he had spent the last few hours, and desperately wanted to appear to be one of them.
How did this disciple, who loved the Lord so much, end up weeping bitterly? It would seem as though, just as the cock crew, our Lord was led out of the inner chambers of the high priest, through the courtyard where Peter stood. I have little doubt in my mind that, when Peter heard the cock crow and remembered the warnings of his Lord, he desperately hoped the Lord had not heard him. But when Peter saw the face of his Lord, no doubt full of love and forgiveness, he broke his heart. How had it come to this? How are the mighty fallen! Observe again the steps in Peter’s downfall, for we must learn from them ourselves. If you and I ignore the warnings of scripture, trust in our own strength to follow the Lord, pander to the flesh instead of watching and praying, follow the Lord afar off, take our eyes off Him and keep the wrong company, who knows where we might end up, or what we might do or say? The warnings of scripture are for all believers, not just some: do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers; keep yourself from idols; deny ungodliness and worldly lusts; let all bitterness, and wrath and anger be put away from you with all malice; lie not one to another; grieve not the Holy Spirit of God; neglect not the assembling of yourselves together. We ignore these and other clear warnings from the scripture at our own spiritual peril. Let us be vigilant that we do not follow the Lord in our own strength, for if we do so we shall certainly fall. ‘Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall’, 1 Cor. 10. 12. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit in us and through the strengthening of Christ that we can walk worthy. Let us be careful to be spiritually-minded, not carnally-minded, pandering to the flesh. We must learn what it is to watch and pray, so that when temptation comes we have the spiritual strength to withstand it. And, as we follow our Lord, let us do our utmost to follow Him as closely as we can. The moment He becomes distant we need to be alarmed. Let us keep our eyes on Him, not on ourselves and not on others either. It is so easy for us to be wrapped up with ourselves, or anxious about what others think of us. Our Lord says, ‘follow me’, not follow them. And let us be careful what company we keep. It is part of our human nature to want to blend in, to be part of a group, to be accepted, to be popular. When we are at home with the wrong company, we are in a dangerous position and we can so easily be compromised.
Are you following the Lord? That is good. So am I, by the grace of God. There are many that you and I know who once followed Him but do so no more. Let us not be proud of ourselves if we are following. The question is, how close are we, and in whose strength?
AUTHOR PROFILE: IAN REES saw an assembly planted in Francistown, Botswana, having served the Lord there for 13 years. Now based in the UK, he was in fellowship in Manvers Hall, Bath, one of his commending assemblies. He has now moved to establish a new assembly in Tenby, West Wales. He is married and has seven children.