Larry Kirkpatrick

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The Last Hours of Jesus #4: Peter's Denial

We are going to focus in on this incident with Peter. Now, the series is the last hours of Jesus, so why are we going to put a focus on Peter? Because Peter was one of Jesus’ closest apostles. And because while Jesus was being harassed in the Thursday night/Friday morning hearings, Jesus knew Peter was present, and there came a moment when Peter betrayed Jesus and when their eyes connected.

The night was an intense one for Jesus and for Peter. For Jesus, He had wrestled in the garden of Gethsemane, been confronted by the mob in the garden, stopped the melee and reattached the ear of the servant of the high priest, and then began to be marched to the various hearings He would be questioned and tortured at through the night.

For Peter, it was the worst night of his life. In the garden he had heroically lashed out with his sword to defend Jesus, only to have Jesus stop the melee and heal the wound he had inflicted. Then he had urged the other disciples to flee the scene. Jesus had been taken away. Peter was so confused.

The passages we read from here are

Matthew 26:58, 69-75

Mark 14:54, 66-72

Luke 22:54-62

John 18:25-27

Let’s review the events as they shape up.

After Jesus’ garden of Gethsemane arrest, the disciples flee to the four winds, but John and Peter went back and followed the party the the house of Annas where Jesus’ questioning began. From there Jesus was taken to where the Sanhedrin council was meeting. With the coming of dawn, they will take Him to Pilate. But we are going to consider a special piece of that night of emergency. Peter denied His Lord. Just how did that come to pass?

John was known to the high priest and was able to get in and listen to the proceedings. He prevailed upon them to let Peter in.

John listened quietly; he did not try to pass himself off as someone other than who he was. But Peter was disoriented. He went and warmed himself by the fire as though he were one of those who had brought Jesus there for the hearing.

Peter, who had pulled the sword in the garden was now confronted by a servant girl. She stated she thought he had been with Jesus. And now, Peter descended still farther. He had deserted Jesus in the garden, but now, merely in answer to the question of whether he had been with Jesus, he denies it in front of all those present.(Matthew 26:69-70)

Mark says a rooster crowed then. Matthew, Luke, and John don’t mention that. But that was Peter’s first denial.

Luke 22:58 has Peter denying again not long after that. The whole situation around the fire is a bit confused. It is night, the questioning is lengthy and continuing. Doubtless different ones come and go; different ones have various things to say, different questions to ask. But the question comes round again.(Matthew 26:72; Mark 14:70; Luke 22:57; John 18:25) At the third time Peter denies with swearing and oaths. No one has yet heard any of the disciples of Jesus swearing, but in the emergency Peter is terrified. He is doing his utmost to not be identified as who he is. Ellen White gives us this striking paragraph in The Desire of Ages:

Peter had not designed that his real character should be known. In assuming an air of indifference he had placed himself on the enemy’s ground, and he became an easy prey to temptation. If he had been called to fight for his Master, he would have been a courageous soldier; but when the finger of scorn was pointed at him, he proved himself a coward. Many who do not shrink from active warfare for their Lord are driven by ridicule to deny their faith. By associating with those whom they should avoid, they place themselves in the way of temptation. They invite the enemy to tempt them, and are led to say and do that of which under other circumstances they would never have been guilty. The disciple of Christ who in our day disguises his faith through dread of suffering or reproach denies his Lord as really as did Peter in the judgment hall.(The Desire of Ages, p. 712)

Different people have different strengths and different weaknesses. Peter was heroic in the garden against the armed mob. But here, in the presence of a few servants and others, and not at all very far from Jesus’ physical presence, he completely loses it. Under other circumstances he would never have denied Jesus. But this was these circumstances, not other circumstances.

Peter was one of the boldest disciples most of the time. He was a man of action. Sometimes he acted first and thought about what he was doing after, but he acted. But this night Peter was undone.

Matthew 26:74 has Jesus cursing and swearing oaths, as Mark records at 14:71. Mark has Jesus warning Peter that he will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows twice (14:72). Matthew and Luke have Peter remembering that Jesus said he would deny Jesus three times before the rooster crowed.(Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:61)

I’m not completely sure how to sort that out. But we do know that Peter denied his Lord and immediately after his third denial, while that denial was still on his lips (Luke 22:60) the rooster crowed.

Luke also tells us something not mentioned by Matthew, Mark, or John: It is at Luke 22:61: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” at just that moment.

Ellen White offers this:

While the degrading oaths were fresh upon Peter’s lips, and the shrill crowing of the cock was still ringing in his ears, the Saviour turned from the frowning judges, and looked full upon His poor disciple. At the same time Peter’s eyes were drawn to his Master. In that gentle countenance he read deep pity and sorrow, but there was no anger there.(The Desire of Ages, p. 713)

Remember, Peter and John were there to listen to the proceedings. While all this was happening, the main action was with Jesus’ being questioned. But Peter was facing his own trials. The terror of seeing Jesus after His prayer struggles in the garden, the anger of the mob, the furious melee there, the fleeing to save himself, and seeing Jesus permit Himself to be arrested and led away—it was the worst night in Peter’s life.

But in that moment Peter knew. Jesus, in spite of the relentless questioning and accusing happening around Him, Jesus had been aware of Peter and John. When Peter’s voice was raised in swearing, Jesus must have heard it. Jesus turned and looked into Peter’s eyes and Peter’s eyes looked into Jesus’ eyes.

What did Peter see there? A mild rebuke? A firm rebuke? Anger?

Nothing of the kind.

The sight of that pale, suffering face, those quivering lips, that look of compassion and forgiveness, pierced his heart like an arrow. Conscience was aroused. Memory was active. Peter called to mind his promise of a few short hours before that he would go with his Lord to prison and to death. He remembered his grief when the Saviour told him in the upper chamber that he would deny his Lord thrice that same night. Peter had just declared that he knew not Jesus, but he now realized with bitter grief how well his Lord knew him, and how accurately He had read his heart, the falseness of which was unknown even to himself.(The Desire of Ages, p. 713)

Matthew and Luke both report that from that moment, peter went out and “wept bitterly.”(Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:62)

Peter had the worst night of his life but it brought him to the best place of his life; the place of repentance.

Repentance is not a popular topic in our age. People are more inclined to “double down” than to repent. In an age when sin and iniquity are almost museum words, when we don’t think about wrong we have done or right we should have done, repentance is a neglected idea.

People have a superficial idea about what repentance is. They say that repentance means sorrow for sin. But a more correct understanding of biblical repentance is that is means sorrow for sin and a turning away from it. The literal Hebrew calls it TeSHUVa, turning. The Greek New Testament uses Metanoia, meaning a turned mind and heart. To repent in concrete terms means to be walking directly west, and to stop and turn and walk directly east. There are superficial repentances, human repentances, repentances where the person is sorry they were caught in the middle of their wrong act. There is some sorrow in a repentance like that but there is not the distinct turning away from sin.

The turning away from it part bothers people. How many times have they already tried to turn from sin but they found themselves turned right back to doing wrong again. We fail over and over because we turn in our own strength, or, we turn and then we try to keep going in the changed direction in our own strength. Attempts like that are doomed to fail. Human turning isn’t worth much. But supernatural turning, turning in the power of the Holy Spirit, that can take you 1000 miles and then more besides.

Earth is not safe and we are not safe. We need something deeper. Ellen white also called it a “conversion of purpose.”(Steps to Christ, p. 23) Where do you get it? There is only one source. God is the only source for this. But God does not force us to receive Him; the choice is ours. Romans 2:4 tells us that “the goodness of God leads to repentance.” God is always drawing us, His Spirit is always pleading with us. He is at work to heal and save us, but not without us.

It has been said, “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent,” and it is true. We need power from beyond us, but the choice is our own. Listen:

Man needs a power outside of and beyond himself, to restore him to the likeness of God, and enable him to do the work of God; but this does not make the human agency unessential. Humanity lays hold on divine power, Christ dwells in the heart by faith; and through co-operation with the divine, the power of man becomes efficient for good.(The Desire of Ages, p. 297)

Our power can become efficient for good but only as it is united with His power. What’s more, our power can never save us, or even contribute directly to our being saved. He is leading us toward Himself, but we must choose to be led. God never forced anyone’s footsteps for salvation. He gave you and I and Peter free will. The devils tried to destroy that will. God tries to strengthen that will. But we choose what we will become.

That night, when Peter looked into Jesus’ eyes and Jesus looked into Peter’s eyes, that broke Peter’s heart. He did not numb his heart or harden his heart or continue to give himself to fear. “He went out and wept bitterly.” The Holy Spirit was working and Peter received His work.

But it was harder than it might have been. One last quote:

Had those hours in the garden been spent in watching and prayer, Peter would not have been left to depend upon his own feeble strength. He would not have denied his Lord. Had the disciples watched with Christ in His agony, they would have been prepared to behold His suffering upon the cross. They would have understood in some degree the nature of His overpowering anguish. They would have been able to recall His words that foretold His sufferings, His death, and His resurrection. Amid the gloom of the most trying hour, some rays of hope would have lighted up the darkness and sustained their faith.(The Desire of Ages, p. 714)

You remember that Jesus had invited His disciples to watch and pray with Him at Gethsemane. He knew that night would test them as never before. He tried to get them to the source of help and strength they needed. He led the to the water but never forced them to drink. Why did Peter fail? He did not know Himself. He relied upon his own tiny strength.

Because he did not know himself, he denied the One who loved him most. Hidden not very deeply inside loud and bold Peter was a coward. Behind the arm of the sword-wielder was a man who could be intimidated by the servant girl. The privilege he failed to receive made it harder for him in his own testing.

We want to share one more thought together here before we conclude. This series walks us through Jesus’ last hours. I want to look at this from Jesus’ perspective.

Jesus was not surprised when the crowd came for Him that night in the garden. He was not surprised when His own disciples fled for their lives. He was not surprised by the questionings and reasonings and false testimony and the violence against Him. He was not even surprised when Peter denied Him. But He was not merely in human form, He was human. He experienced human hurting and suffering not only physically but emotionally. He had feelings like us, and the joys and sorrows of living affected Him as deeply.

When Peter was standing at the fire and making like he was an indifferent person, Jesus was nearby. Jesus, it seems, was aware of the presence of John and Peter. While the questioning went on, He kept some of His attention on them. He must have heard some of Peter’s denials, his loud oaths and claims “I do not know the man!” Imagine yourself about to die for a man like that. You might feel some anger, some disgust at the baseness, the selfishness. But when Peter and Jesus’ eye’s locked what was on Jesus’ face? Only a look of compassion and forgiveness. That tells us what Jesus felt. Not anger, not disappointment, but compassion and forgiveness. God was working and now Peter went to the bottom. He went out from there and wept bitterly.

Peter saw himself now for what he was. He saw his need of all of Jesus’ strength. The denial of Peter did not surprise Jesus but it cut Him deeply because of the senseless betrayal that it in fact was. Yet this deepest of all wrenching wounds to Jesus evoked from Jesus not resentment, not wrath, but compassion and forgiveness. God doesn’t love as some separate thing in Himself. He is love. He sees us fall and He still is love. He sees us fall and still “the goodness of God leads us to repentance.”

It was only a few years before this Jesus had worked a miracle and Peter had bowed in the bottom of his fishing boat and said to Jesus, “depart from me for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus had not departed; He kept drawing close. Later, Peter had said “You have the words of life; to whom shall we go?” And then further on, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter finally gave Himself wholly over to Jesus in the predawn chill of that awful Friday morning. An the book of Acts and 1 and 2 Peter tell a mostly glorious story of Peter’s journey from that time until his own eventual martyrdom.

Do not despair when you have betrayed Jesus. Return back to Him. Seek His forgiveness; He has repentance for you, forgiveness for you, power, hope, restoration.


Fremont MI SDA 2021-10-09

Muskegon MI SDA 2021-10-09