He’s been described as an impetuous coward, not nearly as brave as he wanted to be. But then, how many of us are as brave as we want to be?
He’s also been described as a miserable failure who lied under pressure. But was he? And did he lie?
After his bold boast to Jesus that he would never deny Jesus in any circumstance, he denied Him three times before the rooster crowed the next morning, even claiming, “I do not know the man!” But was Peter lying? Maybe not.
How many times have I thought that I knew someone, only to find out – sometimes in bitter disappointment – that I did not know him or her?
Peter clearly thought that He knew Jesus. He watched Jesus heal countless numbers of sick people and even raise the dead! He saw Jesus walk on water and trusted Him enough to accept His invitation to walk on water with Him. He understood enough about Jesus to recognize that Jesus was indeed “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
But there were telltale signs that Peter didn’t really know who Jesus was. Perhaps nothing revealed that fact as much as when Peter actually rebuked Jesus for warning His disciples that He would “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” Peter’s response: I am never going to let that happen! Peter thought He knew Jesus – but He didn’t.
On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, when Judas arrived with a crowd carrying swords and clubs, Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus from arrest. He was prepared to begin the battle to enthrone Jesus as the Messiah right then and there. Thankfully, he wasn’t much of a swordsman – he aimed for Malchus’ head but only managed to cut off his ear. Jesus immediately told Peter to put his sword away, explaining to Peter that if He was going to fight He could have commanded twelve legions of angels to come to His immediate defense. The shock to Peter – and it was a shock – was that Jesus was not going to fight against His arrest, or His trial, or His flogging, or His crucifixion or His death.
Peter recognized that Jesus was the Christ, the promised, and long-awaited Messiah. He was so convinced that he had walked away from his livelihood, his reputation, and his “security” and had followed Jesus non-stop for the past three years. And he had come to love this Man. And trust Him. And believe in Him. But He never understood one ultimately critical component of Jesus’ identity. Jesus was the Christ – but He came to be the crucified Christ, the suffering Saviour who would give His life for Peter’s sins – and mine. In spite of repeated warnings, Peter didn’t know that. So when He exclaimed, “I don’t know the man,” he wasn’t lying.
Jesus knew that Peter didn’t know that. That’s why He predicted Peter’s denial. Peter was about to go into confused shock, because it was going to be vividly and violently revealed to him that he had not fully understood who Jesus was.
By the way, I don’t see any cowardice in Peter here. Of all the disciples who had pledged that they would die for Jesus, only Peter and John are recorded as having followed Jesus through His trials before the scribes, elders and Romans. Yes, he denied knowing Jesus. But at that moment, Peter didn’t know Him. Jesus was not who Peter thought He was. As Michael Wilkins notes, Peter was not alone:
…throughout his life’s mission, Jesus disappointed many of his own people, because his was a revolution of the heart, not a revolution of swords or chariots.
After the cock crowed for the third time, Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” His weeping may have been in part from sorrow that he had failed his Friend and failed his promise. But his bitter weeping could have been in significant part because Jesus was not the Messiah he was expecting. Or the Messiah he had given his life to follow. The Man he followed, trusted and loved was not who Peter thought He was. This Messiah was going to die! This Christ was going to be crucified! That kind of shocking disappointment has driven many men and women to bitter weeping.
I have wept frequently – sometimes bitterly – over the past 18 months, and for the same reasons Peter wept. I have failed to keep some promises I made to Jesus. I don’t think I have verbally denied Jesus, but I have denied Him practically. And for the same reason Peter did: because I did not fully recognize (believe) who Jesus is – in spite of repeated explanations (just like Peter had).
For instance, in Matthew 6:33 Jesus said, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” What things? Food, drink, clothing…all these things. How much of my life and time have I spent trying to provide all these things? While – all the time – Jesus was saying, “Just focus on seeking Me and My Kingdom and My righteousness and I will add all this stuff to your life.” My too frequent unwillingness to believe that He would do that and let Him do it – while not a verbal denial – was a denial just the same; a practical, functional denial of who Jesus really is.
I fear that too many of us may have “accepted Jesus as our personal Saviour” as a form of fire insurance, a “guarantee” that when we die, we will not go to hell. But as Dallas Willard explains,
The appropriate question is, ‘If you don’t die tonight what are you going to do tomorrow?’ and the answer should be, ‘I’m going to trust Jesus with all of my life, with everything, and that will allow you to live in the Kingdom of God.’ Now, if you do die tonight you may go to Heaven, but you see most people are not going to die tonight. They, like the rest of us, have to face life tomorrow and the day after and the day after.
“The big question is, ‘Are you going to live life on your own tomorrow and the day after?’ and if you do then you’re not trusting Jesus.
And “not trusting Jesus” is, in essence, a practical, functional denial of Him and Who He is. Willard affirmed this fact in his remarkable book, The Divine Conspiracy:
The sensed irrelevance of what God is doing to what makes up our lives is the foundational flaw in the existence of multitudes of professing Christians today. They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ’s merit account to ours, and to wipe out our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true – even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us.
It is left unexplained how it is possible that one can rely on Christ for the next life without doing so for this one, trust him for one’s eternal destiny without trusting him for “the things that relate to Christian life.” Is this really possible? Surely it is not! Not within one life (emphasis mine).
In recent days, Jesus has confronted me with my lack of love for Him and for others. In one of my recent sojourns into solitude and silence, the Lord God asked me if I loved Him. (Something else I have in common with Peter.) My response was, “Of course I love You!” His response was, “Why aren’t you being obedient?” The Holy Spirit spoke loudly and clearly from John 15: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.”
There was more: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
My love for Jesus can be accurately and easily measured by my obedience to Him. And my obedience (or lack of it) is a perfect reflection of how much I trust Him (or not). The biggest issue for me was loving other people. He’s working on that in me. And He’s gracing me to love some folks I honestly believed only a few months ago I could never love. But my unwillingness to love them was my practical, functional denial of Jesus.
There is so much more for Him to do in me – so much more of me that needs to be changed and transformed into His likeness. But I am encouraged because Jesus is doing the same thing for me that He did for Peter: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus prayed for Peter. And He is praying for me! As I discover more of Who He really is, He is creating in me an overwhelming hunger for His transformative power to remove from me any trace of denial, especially the silent, invisible kind that just simply doesn’t trust and obey, even in – or especially in – the most mundane issues of everyday life.
 Matthew 26
 Matthew 14
 Matthew 16:16
 Matthew 16
 Matthew 26; John 18
 Matthew 26:35
 Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew: The NIV Application Commentary, p. 933.
 Matthew 26:75
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 49.
 John 21
 Luke 22:32