Caesarea Philippi became a high-water mark in Peter’s experience. Then, with joy and confidence, he declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Months later, in the courtyard of the High Priest in Jerusalem, a different Peter emerged. Now, at a low point of his disciple life, with oaths and curses he says of his Master, “I don’t know the man”. What brought about this change?
With obvious leadership qualities, Peter’s natural instinct would he to master any situation by his own strength. Though sincere, warmhearted and responsive, under extreme pressure he became vulnerable through his self-assertiveness. His home life lay within the influence of a close-knit fishing community of family and friends. As one of the Twelve, he knew the warmth of loving companionship and fellowship with the Master and others. Peter’s story is a warning to us, as we see him in ourselves. Matthew 26:30-75 introduces us to three highly charged incidents. How did Peter respond?
The Mount of Olives (vv. 30-35)
The Lord had clearly warned of the Devil’s snare. God was about to smite His Shepherd, resulting in the scattering abroad of the flock. Peter impulsively contradicts such predictions. The severe rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16:23, “Get behind Me, Satan”, had for the time being been forgotten. Luke provides additional insight into the Lord’s foreknowledge and forewarnings, and also His prayer on Peter’s behalf (22:31,32). Satan desired to have the Twelve that he might sift them as wheal The Lord made request to His Father that Peter’s faith would not fail. The emphatic repudiation by Peter of even the possibility of such faithlessness, was thoroughly characteristic of his affections, yet also of his self-confidence (Luke 22:33; Matthew 26:33).
Here, as he claimed exemption from self-weakness, he admitted that others might fall away! Peter was too self-assured. As the snare was closing because of his own undetected weaknesses and Satan’s wiles, he said, “I will not deny You”. The Lord, in predicting Peter’s almost immediate downfall, would no doubt do so with great sorrow. What Peter had said, likewise said also all the disciples. The fault lay not so much in the willing declaration of their love as in misunderstanding the divine purpose in the crucifixion. With the Lord’s help and guidance, let us learn from Peter’s experience to heed the Lord’s timely warnings and be aware of human weakness.
Gethsemane (vv. 36-56)
Our present study is not to comment on the Lord’s intense agony and sorrow in the Garden, but rather to observe the actions of Peter. To him the Lord said, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40,41). The Lord again warned of the trials that lay ahead for Peter. As Judas, accompanied by the great multitude came with their swords to arrest Jesus, Peter having a sword (John 18:10), drew it in an impulsive attack, striking off the right ear of Malchus, servant to the High Priest. Jesus, on healing Malchus (Luke 22:51), turned to Peter and said, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).
Peter’s display of zeal may well have been but a conspicuous show of mingled affection and self-confidence. The Lord’s past discourses and admonitions made such a militant response look absurd. Peter disregarded the risks to himself and to the other disciples, yet behind all these events, the Lord knew of a better day for Peter: “And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).
Let us guard against impulsive actions. One act of mistaken zeal done in the strength of the flesh can lead to circumstances fraught with dire consequences. Like Peter, we can so easily be caught off guard as ready prey for the Adversary. Our need too, is to watch and pray against temptation.
In the Courtyard (vv. 57-75)
“Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest … and Peter was following him at a distance … and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end.” Sad reading indeed! Peter’s actions show bewilderment as events so rapidly unfolded; events he obviously was not ready to accept. Had recent occurrences disillusioned him as they did others, who said, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21)? It was not the time for the kingdom to be restored (Acts 1:6). No doubt Peter had with great excitement and anticipation entered Jerusalem with his Messiah. He had heard Him acclaimed by the multitude: “Hosanna to the Son of David”. Now that vision was dimmed, almost extinguished.
The Upper Room experiences, the feet washing, the Passover supper, the startling words of the Lord as He announced His imminent death, His pronouncement of a New Covenant, the betrayal by Judas, the Malchus incident, the admonitions by his Master, all were bringing great pressure and confusion to Peter’s mind and hearing His faith was being tried; the wheat sifting process by the Adversary was well under way. His morale so low, disturbed, disappointed, dejected, Peter followed afar off – “to see the end”. Although there had been ample warnings by the Lord against Peter’s self-assurance, bravado and pride, still, “he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same” (Mark 14:31) – all guilty with Peter of defection in this hour of crisis.
So, without heeding the Master’s warnings, Peter denied the One he truly loved. Full of self-confidence and lapsing in loyalty, he chose to ignore the danger signals; his denials were emphatically reinforced before his tormentors, with oaths and curses. The old nature reasserted itself, perhaps to distract and play for time which was fast running out. It may be that we all have our breaking point, and Peter had reached his in an unexpected way saying, “I don’t know the Man”. Group pressure had become too much for him to take. In his Master’s hour of need, he had denied Him three times.
How dangerous then it is for us as Christians to sit as Peter did, in compromising company, and to warm ourselves by the enemy’s fire. One denial leads to another and another. Peter failed as a friend and companion. It is when we are up against it that we need loyal, courageous and trusting friends, yet the Lord knew that all would forsake Him and flee. Thankfully, in Him we have a friend that sticks closer than a brother. “And immediately the rooster crowed”. The pathos and drama of Peter’s night was almost over, but for the Lord so much more lay ahead. Peter suddenly remembered what the Lord had said, and he went out weeping bitter tears of sincere repentance.
The Look of Love (Luke 22:61)
“And the Lord turned and looked at Peter … and Peter remembered”. Only Luke tells of this poignant moment, enacted perhaps as Jesus was being led away to Pilate. It brought home to Peter not only the nature of his guilt, but also the arresting love of his Master, saving him from total despair and ruin. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
By the Sea (John 21:7, 15-22)
Three denials brought three requests from the Lord for love to be demonstrated. The wounds of Peter’s denials were so fresh, so deep, that the hurt was still there. Could he any longer be trusted? Could he trust even his own emotions, commitment and love to his Lord and to others? The Lord who warned of denial, foretold also the turning again, and the stablishing of Peter’s brethren through his restoration. “Do you love Me more than these?” (Greek: Agapao, a real affection for, exercised in an active and devoted way). “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You” (Greek: Phileo, a fondness and natural affection for). What will our response be? The Lord longs for real love from devoted hearts, just as He sought this from Peter.
The Lord would yet be honoured by a changed Peter, one preserved by Him to love and serve in deed and truth. It was indeed a reflective Peter who later, against the background of personal experience, wrote to other saints facing trials: “that the tested genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). And again, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed … if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed” (1 Peter 4:14-16).
What a warning Peter’s early life story is to us. Should we fall, or fail our Lord, he longs to grant us restoration to Himself through repentance. “He himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). The roughest diamond can be cut and polished by the divine Lapidary if we allow ourselves to be so transformed by Him. “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling … be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever” (Jude v.24).