Sunday, June 30, 2013

Peter's Denial of Christ

At my Thursday study at work, we had an interesting discussion about Matthew 26 and Peter's denial of Christ. There is much to write about, but I just want to focus on a couple things here. All four gospels have this account in them, but they all differ a little bit; they are not totally in conflict, but sort of supplement each other. I find it interesting because by using all four accounts, you can build a bigger context around this incident and start to place yourself in Peter's shoes. I'll try to bring out some of the interesting things I've noticed.

The Garden of Gethsemane

In the garden, all four gospels talk of Jesus' betrayal and then Peter cutting off the high priest's servant's ear. I find it interesting that only John calls out Peter by name in doing this. I think it is important to know that it was Peter who did this, because it perhaps helps to explain his vehement denial that is about to come.
After this incident, Matthew and Mark record something to the effect of "then all the disciples left Him and fled". I would think that "all" would include Peter & John. How far and for how long did they flee? Obviously, there were scared in the garden; but how long did that fear continue? Apparently for Peter & John, that fear did not last long because they were about to find Jesus again and follow Him to the high priest's house. Where were the other 9 disciples (we know where Judas was...)? Had they gone totally "underground" at this point, or were they also pursuing Jesus' trail, but are just not mentioned? I would guess that they were in hiding at this point and that Peter & John were venturing out on their own. Judging by how often Peter & John are mentioned in the gospels, it seems that perhaps their faith and dedication to Christ was perhaps stronger than the others at this point. So, they might have immediately fled with the others from the garden, but were quick to turn back around and follow after Him.

Where was Jesus' questioning?

When Jesus was led away and Peter & John later found Him, He was at the house of the high priest; all four gospels record this. According to John 18:15, it sounds like there was a "court" that Jesus was being questioned in- perhaps some special room in the house? It must have been decently large to hold "all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes" (Mark 14:53). Mark also records that "as Peter was below in the courtyard" (v66) which would mean that the room Jesus was in must have been on an upper floor.

Where was John?

According to John's own account, he was in the main room with Jesus. This is very interesting to me. I've always pictured the disciples as fleeing until after the resurrection. But, here is John in the middle of all of this, but apparently unafraid and more interestingly, not threatened by the people here. Was he the only one of Jesus' followers there? Seems like it. John 18:15 records, "Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest". So, the high priest knew John and John was allowed to enter with Jesus. What was John's past history with the high priest? Did they have a mutual respect and partial friendship? Or, did the high priest just "know of" John and allowed him in because he wasn't a threat and as some sort of show of political courtesy? Just interesting to me that John could come right in after the high priest had already experienced Peter trying to physically defend Jesus with the sword. Why would he think John would be any different, unless he had a past history with John? Perhaps this is further evidence of why John is the "disciple whom Jesus loved" as seen various places in John's gospel. It seems that John & Jesus were pretty close and this is certainly scene in John being present as Jesus went through this tough time of questioning. I wonder if Peter wasn't a little jealous even of John's relationship with Christ and maybe that jealously resulted in some of the brash statements we see Peter make in the gospels as he tried to show Christ his faith?

Where was Peter?

According to all four accounts, Peter had kept his distance and then had come into the courtyard of the high priest's house, where some servants and some soldiers where sitting and standing around a fire to keep warm, while everything went on in the other room. John adds an interesting twist in that John had to go out and ask the servant-girl to let Peter into the courtyard through a door. How did John know Peter was out there? I'm guessing that Peter and John pursued Jesus together and then as they got close to the house, John went and entered with Jesus while Peter hung back. Then, later John came out to let Peter in, knowing that he'd be out there.

Why wasn't Peter with Jesus & John?

Since John was allowed to enter with Jesus, why not Peter? I would highly suspect that because of Peter's cutting off of the high priest's servant's ear just a little bit earlier, he was not welcome and perhaps was even on a "wanted" list. All the people in the room with Jesus would have known Peter by sight, since they had just been with him, so he would have easily been arrested for what he had done. So, probably Peter was desiring in his heart to stick with Jesus; remember his bold proclamation in Matthew 26:33: "Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away". So, Peter was probably burning with passion, but knew that he needed to "lay low" after what he did. So, he got as close as he thought he could get to Jesus without being recognized by others; perhaps the people in the courtyard had not been in the garden earlier that night. I wonder too if Peter and the others in the courtyard could hear the proceedings going on above them? I expect they could. Houses were probably not as tightly made back then and I'm sure that there was much heated loud voices involved. So, Peter was able to follow what was happening to Jesus to some degree while he stood out there around the fire. There must have been other people from the community in the courtyard also, besides servants and soldiers. If Peter was the only one, it would've been very suspect and he would be found out easily. But maybe there were other neighbors or concerned folks who saw the ruckus and stopped by. The gospels do mention some "bystanders".

Peter's Denial

The first denial comes at the hands of a servant girl. Luke records in 22:56 that some period of time passed where there servant girl had been intently watching Peter at the fire. She finally decided that Peter was a disciple; perhaps she was trying to recall a memory from years before- maybe she was at one of Jesus' sermons or something? Regardless, she finally felt that she had Peter pinned and she called him out on it. Peter, of course denied this. Then, some other period of time passes. The gospels record that Peter left the fire and went out to the "porch", or the "gateway". Maybe he was afraid of others back at the fire who had heard the exchange and were getting ideas. He was removing himself from potential conflict, and it sounds like getting himself closer to the exit! The second denial was also at the hands of another servant girl, who it sounds like was over near the porch where Peter had relocated. One gospel says that she confronts him and two of them say that she accuses him, not to his face, but to the by-standing crowd. Peter of course denies he knows Jesus. After this, Luke has an interesting tidbit that says "about an hour had passed" (v59) before the final denial. I always picture the denials as happening really quickly in succession. But, it seems like this was a drawn-out process. The accusers were not entirely sure and apparently did not pursue any further and were Peter's false stories as he denied Christ. Peter probably really though he was okay after a whole hour had passed without anyone else accusing him.
The third accuser knew Peter best and there's some interesting things to draw from this. Matthew and Mark just record that the "bystanders" accused Peter again. But, Luke records that it was just one man. John has the gold nugget: "One of the slaves of the high priest, being a relative of the one whose ear Peter cut off, said, "Did I not see you in the garden with Him?" (18:26) The last accuser had just seen Peter in the garden and really knew who he was. Now if this man was in the garden with the high priest earlier, why was he down in the courtyard now with Peter? Wouldn't he likely be in the upper room for the proceedings? Luke records another gold nugget: "The Lord turned and looked at Peter" (22:61). How could Jesus and Peter see each other from different rooms on different floors? I suppose it was possible, if Jesus was near the window or just at the right angle or something. But, I suspect something further that would answer all of this- I think the questioning had ended and Jesus was being lead outside along with the whole procession. This would mean that Jesus was out in the courtyard where he could see Peter and would also mean that the accuser would be back out of the upper room and down there as well. Perhaps Peter thought he was home-free as the questioning was ending and they were coming outside. But then, this man just happened to see Peter and he knew right away it was Peter and called him out. Jesus saw the whole thing and caught Peter's eye as the rooster crowed which then jogged Peter's memory as all four gospels record. This also might explain why Matthew and Mark record the "bystanders" accusing Peter at this point- perhaps this man with the most credible testimony has loudly accused Peter. By now, word of the other two accusations had probably spread in the crowd, though nobody had enough evidence to do anything about it. When this man accused Peter, perhaps it tipped the crowd and they all starting saying what they suspected. This would also likely explain Peter's violent reaction, how he "began to curse and swear" as he denied Christ. (Matt 26:74) Why would Peter react that way unless he was now suddenly under a lot more pressure than he had been an hour previously?
Apparently, Peter is able to elude arrest and flee to where he has time to think about his denial of Christ and weep bitterly about it.

The Rooster

Curiously, Matthew, Luke and John record one rooster call, but Mark records two. Actually, Mark only records one rooster call, but says it is the second of two and that Jesus had predicted two. I'm sure we'll never know the answer to this difference. Apparently after the first denial in Mark, later manuscripts add the first rooster call, but that's not in the originals. Probably later revisionists noticed the discrepancy and tried to account for it. Just curious.

Personal Lessons

We tend to draw a simple lesson from Peter in this along the lines of "don't deny Christ". That's good, but there's other stuff going on here too. I think Peter's heart was good and he had a strong faith. He was passionate about staying with Christ, even if he was putting himself in a dangerous place. I think the same passion he had for Christ may have lead to such a passionate final denial of Him. I think that Peter cared so much to be there and perhaps felt so responsible for "watching out" for Christ, that he would do anything to stay there and stick close to Jesus; even denying Him. The first two denials don't seem very passionate: perhaps the first two denials he justified to himself in order to be able to stick close to Jesus (I'm not condoning lying or denying Him; I'm just picking Peter's brain). I think that after the hour had passed, Peter was feeling pretty safe again. And as the questioning ended and he saw His Lord coming out, Peter was probably just thrilled and excited to be back near Him. Peter's mind was no longer worried about himself, but then suddenly Peter was confronted again, this time with somebody from the garden who maybe even Peter recognized. Peter's mind took a total 180 and he gave a passionate, instinctual reaction as he was now really caught, very publicly. His mind was now off of Christ and now totally in self-preservation mode. He responded as such, cursing and swearing, likely yelling and making a big scene of his denial of Christ.
I think the lesson from the 3rd denial is the most powerful to me. The first two are perhaps explainable (but not condonable), but the third one is life. What happens to us when we're going along, mostly focused on Christ, or even very passionately focused on Him, like I think Peter was, and then we're confronted with a total curve-ball from life? Somebody dies, we get sick, we lose a job, something breaks, something happens in our church, etc. These things happen all the time. What is our first reaction? Do we immediately turn away from Christ and go into self-preservation, effectively denying Him, like Peter? Or, do we immediately turn to the only One who can really help us through or really change the situation? I'm afraid that my natural instinct is much like Peter's. Its very hard to naturally turn to Christ when you've been blindsided, when you're whole perspective is now 180 of what is was.
I think a deeper lesson here is not only to not deny Christ when confronted by a person, but don't deny Him in your own heart when confronted with life's happenings. When our expectations of what life should be and what life will hold for our coming days are completely changed in an instant, how do we react? Perhaps this is why James says not to set our future expectations so high without seeking God's will first:
"Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." (James 4:13-15)

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