It’s late, but the torches still burn brightly at the high priest’s house. There’s a crowd of Temple guards and others of the priest’s household warming themselves by a fire in the courtyard. The babble of voices inside the house grows louder as the priests escort their prisoner outside—enroute to Pilate’s palace. Suddenly, a big man standing near the fire bolts from the courtyard. The flickering fire, for a brief moment, sparkles off the tears cascading down his cheeks. Then, he’s gone—melting into the early morning shadows of Jerusalem’s narrow streets.
Following him is a near impossibility as he dashes blindly down this street and around that corner. At last, in the shadow of some steps on an unknown side street, we find him—his gigantic frame racked with sobs.
As his weeping subsides, his tale of torment gradually comes out.
My name is Simon Peter, but you’d better just call me Simon. He called me Peter—said it meant “rock”. I wasn’t a rock tonight—I was a coward.
Just a few hours ago, I told Him “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”2 I meant it! I really did!! But when the Temple guard came to the Garden of Gethsemane and arrested Him, I ran! Just like the rest of them, I deserted Him!
But I went back! I followed them to the house of the high priest. I thought maybe I could do something—I don’t know what. But, I couldn’t go in. I wanted to—really, I did! But I was afraid. So, I just waited by the fire—waited to see what was going to happen.
Then, that little milk maid recognized me. She must have been in the crowd the other day after the big procession into town. I moved away from her in a hurry. I didn’t want any trouble—I just wanted to be there to see what was going to happen to the Master. Then, one of the other servants recognized me, too. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about. An hour later, someone else recognized my tunic and speech as being from Galilee.
Things were getting too close for comfort now. I started cursing and swearing at the guy. Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!3 Before I even finished speaking, the rooster started to crow. I looked up—and there stood the Master. I was so ashamed. He had heard. He heard every red-hot, vile word, every filthy oath, the ugly vehement fisherman talk I haven’t used in over three years!
That’s when I remembered. When I pledged to stand by Him no matter what, the Master told me “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”4
I promised to even die with Him—we all did! Now look at us. The others ran away. I denied ever knowing Him. ME—the only one who dared to say You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.5 I was with Him when He was transfigured there on the mountain in all His heavenly splendor. I know He is the Messiah.
But, I denied Him. I wouldn’t even stand by Him when He needed me. I just stood there in the courtyard, warming my hands by the fire—these hands, the hands of denial.
In a way, I always feel sorry for Peter. This great big burly fisherman suddenly discovered his own humanity. He had been in fearful circumstances before. He’s been caught on the Sea of Galilee more than once when the winds and waves rose without warning. He had nursed many a crippled vessel back to shore. More than once, his boat had filled with water and threatened to capsize.
Through all those hazardous times, Simon had been strong. He was a brave man, accustomed to facing danger and great physical peril. Whether it was a storm at sea or a brawl with another fisherman, Simon was known for his strength and courage.
Jesus had recognized that bravery in the muscular giant the first time He ever saw him. According to the first chapter of John’s gospel, when Andrew introduced his husky brother to the Master, Jesus looked at him, and said, “so you are Simon, the son of John? You shall be called Cephas (which means Peter)6 or “rock.”
Like so many of us, Simon Peter was strong and brave when faced with physical danger. He knew how to take care of himself when confronted by a life-threatening situation—he could handle himself in the clinches. But, when he was put on the spot for his faith and was challenged to stand up for what he said he believed, this mountain of a man folded. This one who had weathered so many fearful storms at sea and whose muscles bulged from strenuous work, cowered like a frightened child when a young maid “fingered” him as a disciple of the man called Jesus.
Peter’s Faltering Strength
The Scriptures don’t tell us why he denied the Master. We can only speculate. Perhaps out of fear for his own life. Perhaps out of fear of being misunderstood, ridiculed, laughed at. After all, who in that courtyard of the high priest would have believed that this Man now on trial for blasphemy was the Messiah for whom they had waited and prayed? Perhaps, like so often happens with us, it just slipped out. He didn’t mean to deny the Lord. It was an accident—a slip of the tongue.
Peter Personified in Us
We are often like Simon Peter. We can be quite courageous when faced with physical danger or life-threatening harm. We an be “cool under pressure.” We can speak very knowingly for long periods of time on certain pet subjects or interests. But if someone asks us what we believe, most of us become quite tongue-tied.
I doubt that there is one of us who has not “hemmed and hawed” and “beat around the bush” when someone, like the young maiden, has confronted us and asked, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” or “Tell me—why are you religious?” Sometimes, we try to evade such sticky questions with questions of our own. “Uh, ‘religious’? What do you mean ‘religious’?” Sometimes, like Peter, we feign ignorance—man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!3
On occasion, we may even outright deny our faith. Many a young person (or even adult) when placed in a threatening position will compromise or deny their faith. It’s hard to stand up for what you believe in when, like Peter, you’re the only Christian in the crowd. It’s easier to be “one of the gang” than to be “fingered” as a religious fanatic, a square or a nerd.
Sometimes, we deny Jesus without meaning to and even without realizing. Someone asks if we are “religious,” and we try to temper our answer a bit. “Well, I do go to church.” Or if someone asks if we are a Christian, and instead of answering “Yes” or “No”, we hedge. “Well, I belong to Maple United Methodist” or “I’m on the leadership team” or “I sing in the choir.”
Like Peter, we forget the Lord’s promise given to His disciples before their first missionary journey as recorded in Matthew.
Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account, you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But, when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time, you will be given what to say. For it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.7
In Luke, Jesus gave them the same lesson with the very same promise. When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.8
Peter knew who Jesus was. He was the ONLY disciple to ever say outright that Jesus was the Christ. He was one of the three who saw the Master in all His heavenly glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet, in a moment of anger, fear, uncertainty, Peter denied ever knowing the Lord. The hands he warmed over the charcoal fire in Caiaphas’ courtyard were the hands of denial.
In a brief moment of fear, anxiety, self-consciousness, Peter told a servant, “I do not know the man.” In moments of fear, peer pressure, worry and anger, we too, disclaim our Christian faith. We warm our hands over the same charcoal fire and deny the Master.
To Peter and to us come these words from the cross—Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.9