[Originally published on Helium Network 02-04-2013]
Why did Peter deny Christ? Whenever looking into the reasons for an event that occurred in the Bible, it is best to turn to the source. In particular, it is important to get grounded in the event itself.
Jesus foretold that Peter would deny Him. So, the first information given about the denial was even before it happened.
33 Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.
34 Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.
35 Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples.”
Was Peter a Coward?
First, the record should be set straight as far as to whether or not Peter was acting out of cowardice, as Peter tends to get maligned a lot by uncharitable preachers and theologians.
It is far too easy to look back on events and judge the participants of events too harshly. Some commentators have even gone to the extreme of calling the disciples “cowards” for running away and denying Christ on the night of His arrest, but the Gospel accounts actually show that to be somewhat inaccurate.
When Judas appeared with the soldiers, he kissed Jesus as a sign of who Jesus was in order to pick Him out of the crowd.
45 And as soon as he [Judas] was come, he goeth straightway to him [Jesus], and saith, Master, master; and kissed him.
46 And they [the soldiers] laid their hands on him, and took him.
47 And one of them that stood by drew a sword, and smote a servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear.”
Not only was this not a typically cowardly act, but John fills in some details by telling us that this was none other than Peter who cut off the servant’s ear (Jn 18:10)! Therefore, whatever judgment one may make about Peter, the word “coward” needs to be carefully evaluated against what actually happened.
So, Why Deny?
Mark’s account tells us that it wasn’t until after the healing of the servant’s ear by Jesus that the disciples all fled. This gives us the first clue as to why Peter would deny Christ.
- Peter was confused. In spite of Jesus’ patient teaching that He must die, Peter hung onto the idea that Jesus was the promised Messiah that would restore Israel’s kingdom (cf Ac 1:6). His willingness to be arrested without a fight, however, was counter to that notion.
Peter was afraid. While “coward” is too strong of a word to apply in this case, the fact remains that all of the disciples were afraid. John recorded that before they were believing of the women’s story of Jesus’ resurrection, they locked themselves up “fear of the Jews” (Jn 20:19). Pure and simple, they were afraid. Their rabbi had been arrested, beaten and killed. For all they knew, they were next. They were all afraid, and not just Peter. They were just as (and justly) afraid on the night of Jesus’ arrest as well.
Peter lacked faith. Jesus tried to warn all of them beforehand, but they simply did not believe what He said. Unfortunately, there are many today in the same boat who confess Jesus is the Christ but fail to believe what He said.
Most importantly, Peter was lacking the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t until the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection in which the Holy Spirit was fully poured out on the Church. Jesus told them to not leave Jerusalem in order to “receive power” that was promised of the Father (Ac 1:4-8). Peter then became a changed man, who stood up to preach his first rousing sermon (Ac 2:14), converting about 3,000 persons that day (v 41). We are told by Paul that there is fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).
It is important to note that the Holy Spirit is the antidote. The Holy Spirit informs by bringing to mind the words of Christ (Jn 14:26; cf Heb 8:10), drives out fear (2Ti 1:7) and gives the Christian faith (Gal 5:22). The Holy Spirit can even lend us power when our faith is too weak!
Peter gets a lot of bad press from some quarters, but this emphasis is often misplaced. Peter simply did what other disciples were afraid to do at times. He jumped in with both feet. He was the first to acknowledge that not only was Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, but he also acknowledged that Jesus was the Son of God. Peter asked Jesus if he could join Him in walking on the water. He was a natural leader, and others tended to follow him. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, he decided to go fishing, and some of the others joined him (Jn 21:2-3).
What is important is not so much that Peter denied Christ, but more important is how he overcame that incident. Jesus asked him three times if he loved Him (Jn 21:14-19). Notice how Jesus then repeated a command that He had given at the beginning, to “Follow Me”.
Jesus countered Peter’s denials with love. Jesus countered Peter’s denials with the command to feed His sheep, His lambs and His ewes. Jesus then commanded Peter to once again follow Him. Jesus called Peter away from fishing in the beginning, and He was now repeating that command to give up his old way of life and way of doing things and follow Him.
With the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter rose to preeminence on the Day of Pentecost and was used powerfully by God to convert others. He was no longer confused, but he understood that this was the promised power from God. He was no longer afraid. He no longer lacked faith.
The details and stories given in the Bible are there not only to inform but to change lives by their examples, good or bad (1Co 10:1-6; 1Pe 2:21; 1Co 11:1). The real question, then, is whether or not you and I are using the power of the Holy Spirit to allow God to change our lives in a similar manner.