The Denying Denier
Peter has certainly drawn his share of fire over the centuries. He is presented by the gospels as the first one of them to open his mouth. And often his bravado got him into trouble. The man whom Jesus called “the Rock” when He called him into the ministry was the one who later the one who started to sink into the water when he took his eyes off the Lord. He was bold at the start and a coward when it really counted.
Yet there is something lovable about Simon Peter as well. He comes over as being one of us. He was no super saint who was above failure. Like us, he had his share of stumbles, but in spite of them, God made a great man out of him. This gives us hope as well.
Peter had had some bad nights before. But he had no idea how bad this night would be. It would end in cringing fear and bitter tears. It would seem to him that he had come to the end of the world. He would fail his Lord when the Lord needed him most, at least in Peter’s eyes. Jesus tried to tell him, I think more than once, but Peter was in no mind to listen.
Exposition of the Text
Jesus had just finished telling the disciples about the betrayal that was about to happen. All of them were in a state of unbelief and denial. He told them that they needed to follow the example of love he was setting before them. They needed to look after each other’s welfare in the difficult times ahead. In the other gospels, Jesus told them of the prophecy in Zachariah that they would all be scattered like sheep when the shepherd was stricken. Peter would not be the only dismal failure among them that night. He would simply be the one that got most of the attention.
Jesus had told them that He was about to go away and that they would not be able to follow Him. All of the disciples heard that. But Peter true to form, is the one who opens his mouth. At least Peter showed the courage to ask what all of them were probably thinking. In verse 36, he simply asks where Jesus could be going that they could not follow. He has no idea that following Jesus that night would get him nailed to a cross on Jesus’ left or right. Co-conspirators were crucified with the leader. By all rights, all eleven of the remaining disciples were in extreme danger of just that. There would be someone assigned to be crucified on the left and on the right of Jesus, but it would not be them. Jesus had to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53 and be numbered among the transgressors, but the only disciple to be crucified with Him was the repentant thief (or insurrectionist) who became one on the cross.
Jesus responds to Peter’s question that he did not have the power to follow him at this time. Jesus had an appointment to keep that hour, but not Peter. Jesus tells Peter that he did indeed have the same appointment to keep. But it would come later. Jesus is here telling Peter of his own crucifixion some years later, whether Peter understood it at that time or not, most likely not.
In verse 37, Peter does show that he is not entirely clueless to the situation. He protests and tells Jesus that he is right now able to follow Him, even to death. But Peter has overestimated his own resolve. Neither does he understand why these things were about to happen to Jesus, that it was to fulfill the will of His Father.
In verse 38, Jesus challenges Peter’s brash act of bravado. “Will you indeed lay down your LIFE for ME?” Jesus answers back. “Your life” comes first in this Greek sentence which makes it very emphatic. The pronoun “me” is also emphatic. Jesus goes on to say that before the cock crew in the morning that Peter would deny Jesus. The word “deny” has the idea of “disown”. Not only would Peter not lay down his life for Jesus, he would disown even knowing him. The last time is would be with cursing and swearing, brought crashing down to earth by a slave girl’s question. Then there would be that look “I told you so” from Jesus himself afterward. It was going to be a dreadful night.
From the other gospels, it appears that this came up again on the way to the garden where Jesus would be arrested. So on at least two occasions, Peter brashly stated his willingness to die for Jesus. Even the other disciples, not wishing to be shown up, said the same. Yet, they would all fail. Nine of them ran for it as fast as they could. John followed with Peter behind Jesus. He had to be the means of getting Peter entrance into the courtroom where Peter’s faith would be tested that night and found wanting. But John, who seemed to have influence with the High Priest stayed hidden. He did not risk himself for Jesus either. (See the sermon “The Telltale Rooster” for the rest of this story.)
Having pastored in the United Methodist Church for many years, I cannot begin to think of how many times we have sung the words “Lord, we are able, our spirits are Thine”. We also sing, “I’ll go with Him, with Him, all the way.” These words haunt me. It is one thing to sing these words in the safety of the United States, as a minister who has a salary, health, pension, and guaranteed appointment preaching to mostly middle class and professional people. Somehow we seem terribly disconnected from what it really means to follow Jesus. We hear of fellow Christians suffering terrible atrocities even unto death in places like the Sudan and Middle East. We even shed a sympathizing tear and say a little prayer for them. But what if the Lord held us to the words of bravado we sing?
What would happen to us if persecution came our way? Would we run just like the disciples did that night? Are we any more able than they? At least Peter made a feeble attempt to defend Jesus before he, too, failed. We are too afraid already to cross the tracks and go to the other side of town, the poor section, to minister there. Sure, we will take up offerings and give it to those who love Jesus enough to take the risk to go to the gangs with the good news of Jesus. And to be sure, we will take up offerings for missionaries to the Sudan, so long as we can be safe in our sanctuaries. But the definition of “sanctuary” is not “safe place” but “holy place”.
The mission statement of the United Methodist Church includes the words that we are to be “risk-taking disciples of Jesus Christ”. Surely, this means reaching out with the good news about Jesus Christ. For certain, we risk being rejected or even taunted about our faith. We are tempted to water it down so we can retain our respectability with the world. We are all too willing to compromise the faith with the world, lest we suffer for the cross of Christ. The Bible calls the preaching of the Cross a foolishness and a scandal to those who are without. But it also says that “it is the power of God unto salvation to them that believe”. So we must not be ashamed of the gospel.
I do know despite our crowing about our faith, that: ”If we in our own strength did confide, our striving would be losing” as A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther states. When it came time to show our cards, it would be apparent that we were bluffing. The cock would crow on our crowing. But that might be good. It brought Peter bitter tears, but God’s grace restored him in the end. The right man of God’s own choosing is on our side. We need to be emboldened by the Holy Spirit to be the witnesses to Christ in the world we ought to be. Whatever things are impossible among humans is possible with God.