Peter is one of the most fascinating figures in the New Testament. As part of Jesus’ inner circle and a prominent early-church figure, he gets featured in many Gospel stories. There’s a lot of emphasis on Peter’s penchant for hasty, reckless behavior, but the fact that he plays such a notable role in the Gospels helps account for many of those shortcomings. We’re not given as much insight into the other disciples’ personalities, so we’re not as privy to their slip-ups.
Peter’s denial of Jesus is one particularly heartbreaking moment featured in all four of the Gospels. As readers, we see Jesus warn Peter that this moment is coming; we watch the denial happen and witness Peter’s immediate heartbreak at realizing what he’d done. Thankfully, we also get a front-row seat to his restoration.
Let’s dive in and look at Peter’s journey through this story.
Jesus predicts Peter’s denial
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” (Luke 22:24–34).*
This passage takes place during Jesus’ last Passover meal with His disciples. He’s just instituted the Sacrament of Communion and mentions a disciple (Judas) at the table who will betray Him. This naturally kickstarts an argument among the disciples about which of them is the best. Unfortunately, after all this time with Jesus, they’re still so quick to launch into these kinds of discussions.
Jesus reiterates a point He made when frustration erupted among the disciples because James and John had requested prominent positions in Jesus’ coming kingdom (Matthew 20:20–28). The greatest are those that serve. Jesus came as one who serves; if we genuinely want to be like Him, we’ll also serve.
Jesus then turns His attention to Peter, and it’s hard to know just how this shift occurs. It might be that Peter made a forceful case that he was the greatest of the apostles. But Jesus alerts Peter that a moment of trial is coming for them all.
It’s touching that Jesus also lets Peter know He’s been praying for the disciple. It’s a good reminder for all of us of the words of Paul:
Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (Romans 8:34, emphasis added).
After hearing Jesus’ warning, Peter informs the Lord that he’s courageous and ready to die if he must. Jesus responds by getting very specific, letting Peter know he’ll deny the Lord three times today.
Jesus is arrested, and Peter swings into action
Jesus leads the disciples to Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives to pray. It is here that the authorities arrest Him.
Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they said.
Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)
Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me” (John 18:2–11)?
A detachment of soldiers was led into the garden by Judas. Peter jumps at the chance to show Jesus he isn’t afraid and would never deny Him. He pulls a sword and takes a swing at the servant of the high priest (probably one of the least dangerous people in the whole entourage).
Jesus chastises Peter and heals Malchus’ ear (Luke 22:51). Jesus is arrested, and Matthew tells us that all the disciples deserted Him and fled (Matthew 26:56).
It’s hard to imagine what Peter is feeling at this point. He demonstrated his valor but got scolded for it, and now Jesus had been arrested. The evening was about to take a darker turn.
[ Insert video: The Arrest of Jesus and Peter’s Denial – English (jesusfilm.org)]
Peter denies the Lord the first time
John’s account of the evening dramatically cuts back and forth between Jesus’ trial and Peter’s experience in the courtyard.
Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
“You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter.
He replied, “I am not.”
It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself (John 18:15–18).
There is some discussion regarding the identity of this second disciple known to the high priest. Could it be Judas? Could it be some well-known disciple who was not one of the twelve? Could it be John himself? It’s hard to say for sure, and John doesn’t consider it critical to the narrative. He wants us to pay attention to Jesus and Peter.
Peter is brought into the high priest’s courtyard. This is probably a relatively small area and, due to the night’s events, is occupied by soldiers, priests, and servants. One of the servants asks a fairly innocuous question about why Peter is there. She has no power over Peter, and her question doesn’t necessarily put Peter in danger. Peter’s impulse to lie probably has more to do with the others milling about in this area and who might overhear his answer.
Peter’s second and third denials
After Peter’s first denial, John switches the narrative to Jesus before the high priest (John 18:19–24), brilliantly comparing Jesus’ response to His interrogation with Peter’s. As accusations are leveled against Jesus, He refuses to deny the charges. Peter, on the other hand, denies everything.
Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing there warming himself. So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?”
He denied it, saying, “I am not.”
One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow. (John 18:25–27)
Things start going south for Peter. Now others are inquiring about his relationship with Jesus. In fact, a relative of Malchus who was there at Gethsemane recognizes him. Considering his relationship with Malchus and the intense scene in the garden, it’s pretty bold of Peter to deny that he was there.
The other Gospel writers add some essential details to this story. Mark tells us that by the third denial, Peter was cursing and denied even knowing Jesus:
He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about” (Mark 14:71).
Luke tells us that at the exact moment that Peter denies the Lord for the third time, Jesus is being escorted through the courtyard:
Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly (Luke 22:60–62).
The heartbreak of realizing that he has fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy about denying Him is compounded mightily by Jesus’ presence. Peter’s humiliation and sense of failure were deep, and Luke tells us that he went away, crying.
Jesus restores Peter
Jesus appears to the disciples more than once, and Peter is present, but Peter had to feel that his denial was hanging over the joy of Jesus’ resurrection and the connection the two had previously shared.
When the moment presents itself, Jesus finally addresses the topic.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me” (John 21:15–19)!
Jesus asks him, “Do you love me more than these?” Peter has often been vocal about his faithfulness, suggesting that even if others fall away, he never would (Matthew 26:33), that he would be willing to lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:37), and promising to go to prison or die for Jesus (Luke 22:33). In light of Peter’s denial, Jesus pointedly asks him if he still considers himself the most faithful disciple. Peter is forced to consider the rashness of previous commitments.
Three times the Lord asks if Peter loves Him, and each time Peter affirms that he does. Each time Jesus instructs the disciple to demonstrate that love by serving the church. Jesus then explains to Peter that he is, in fact, going to suffer for following Him. And after all this, Jesus issued the same invitation that He gave Peter at the beginning, “Follow me.”
What can we learn from Peter’s denial of Jesus?
Like Peter, it’s pretty easy for us to believe that we’re more faithful and courageous than we truly are. However, it isn’t until we encounter difficult and challenging moments that we discover the truth. Sometimes those moments reveal sinful and broken areas we have yet to identify and deal with.
When we fail, there’s a huge temptation to give up. Many people have made tragic decisions, and the shame of those decisions caused them to walk away from Christian community. But it’s important to remember that failure isn’t fatal. Jesus is in the redemption business, and He doesn’t want us to let failure speak the last word in our lives.
As He did with Peter, Jesus wants to heal us, restore us and invite us to recommit to following Him. And when we let Him, we might discover that our experience has made us stronger, wiser, and more compassionate than we would have been otherwise.
Watch Life of Jesus (Gospel of John)
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*All Scripture is taken from the New International Version translation.