Monday, June 4, 2007

Why did St. Peter Deny Jesus?

One of the most misunderstood incidents in the NT is the denial of Jesus by St. Peter on the night of his arrest. Many commentators see this as an act of cowardice on St. Peter's part where St. Peter denies Christ in order to save himself from arrest.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The denials were for a very different reason.

Let us study exactly what happened.

St. Peter like the other Apostles believed Jesus to be the Davidic Messiah-King who would free Israel from pagan bondage. He expected Jesus to lead the Jews to victory over the hated Roman occupation.

When Jesus told St. Peter that it would be necessary for Him to suffer and die, the conversation went like this:

Matt 16:21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
Matt 16:22 And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you."
Matt 16:23 But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men."
Matt 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Matt 16:25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. "

At the Last Supper, Jesus and St. Peter had their last conversation before Jesus' death. Jesus prophesied that:

Matt 26:31 ..."You will all be scandalized because of me this night; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'

But St. Peter would have none of it:
Matt 26: 33 Peter answered and said unto him, Though all [men] shall be scandalized because of thee, [yet] will I never be scandalized.

{The Greek verb that I translate as "scandalized" is skandaliz┼Ź which has the meaning "to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey".}

Jesus responded:

Mat 26:34 Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times."
Mat 26:35 Peter said to him, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you." And so said all the disciples.

After the Last Supper, Jesus and some of his disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Luke 22:38 makes it clear that the disciples had two swords with them. When the cordon of Temple Guards -- at least a dozen armed soldiers -- came to arrest Jesus, only one of the disciples raised a sword in his defense: St. Peter (John 18:10). The disciple with the other sword ran away. St. Peter alone took up arms against a group of professional soldiers in Our Lord's defense. It was only when Jesus told him to put the sword down that St. Peter withdrew (Mat 26:52). These were hardly the acts of a coward who feared for his personal safety.

Nor do his actions afterwards show cowardice. While the rest of the disciples hid in fear, St. Peter and St. John followed the mob as they took Jesus to the High Priest's House (John 16:15ff). Why had St. Peter come? Did he intend to testify on Jesus' behalf. No! He kept his identity secret. Was he afraid of being captured. NO! For if he were he would hardly follow Jesus all the way into the house. It was a risk that he had to take.

The only logical explanation for his actions was that he was there waiting for an opportunity to set Jesus free by stealth or force. He believed Jesus to be the true King of Israel and St. Peter was prepared to fight to free Him so that He could overthrow the Romans and their puppet Tetrarchs.

Jesus himself told us something important:

John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingdom is not from the world."

St. Peter was acting EXACTLY the way a faithful servant of an earthly king would have acted.

But to pull this off, he needed to be incognito. If everybody knew who he was, he would not be able to act stealthily. So when people began to recognize him as a follower of Jesus, St. Peter had to deny it. St. Peter could not save Jesus if his identity was known. It was his duty as the loyal subject of the rightful king of Israel to conceal himself. And so he denied Jesus. Three times. In fact at the last time:

Mar 14:71 But he began to curse and to swear, [saying], I know not this man of whom ye speak.

Then it happened:

Matt 26:74 ...And immediately the cock crew.

Mat 26:75 And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

Why did he then go out and abandon his plans? Why did he weep? Was it because of fear. No.

St. Peter realized that Jesus had warned him that He was not the conquering Messiah, Son of David, but the suffering Messiah, Son of Joseph, from Jewish legend who would suffer and die for his people as it said in Isaiah 53. St. Peter was clinging to his messianic dream of monarchy and glory but this was not to be fulfilled at that time.

His dilemma reminds me of a famous news quotation from the Vietnam War. During the Vietnamization program, the people of the village of Ben Tre were re-located to a government settlement and their village was burned to the ground. A newsman who witnessed this asked what was happening and an American Major responded:

"It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."

This is what happened to St. Peter. It became necessary for him to deny his Lord in order to save him. St. Peter realized the contradiction in that. If he really believed in Jesus, he had to let Him suffer and die. The only way that St. Peter could have interfered was if he did not believe all the things that Jesus had told him.

"My kingdom is not of this world..." That is why Jesus' followers could not fight to free Him.

And so St. Peter realized that his plan to rescue Christ would have been the undoing of God's plan. And to do so would be to reject his own faith in Jesus. He knew how close he had come to throwing it all away.

But it was too late. He had denied his Lord three times. In Semitic culture, a three fold denial is irrevocable. All a man needed to do to divorce his wife was to say to her three times "I divorce you" and it was done. St. Peter who had been Jesus' friend and right hand man had denied him forever. No wonder he wept bitterly.

But then a few weeks later after he had gone back to fishing, St. Peter was having a bad fishing day (John 21ff), and some smart-aleck on shore told him to dip his nets one more time on the right side of the boat. When he did, the net was almost too heavy with fish to pull in. This had happened once before, when St. Peter had first met Jesus (Luke 5:4). St. Peter immediately recognized his master and impulsively jumped into the water and swam to shore.

In this last know meeting between them, Jesus asked St. Peter three times "Do you love me?" And St. Peter said "Yes, Lord, you know I love you" all three times.

It was like they had started all over again from the beginning. By this three-fold declaration, St. Peter's three denials were undone. And The Good Shepherd, named St. Peter to be his vicar as the ONE shepherd of the ONE flock (John 10:16).

There is a warning here. Many times we seek after gods made in our own image. It is hard to submit ourselves to the will of the One True God. But loyalty to Him is the measure of true wisdom. And God is neither beholden to us not fully comprehended by us. But He is good and true and what He tells us can be trusted.

Many of us learn this the hard way like St. Peter did. One reason why we venerate the saints is to study their lives and learn from them. Let us learn submission to the will of God from St. Peter.


Shane said...

Art, I've got to disagree with you here. Peter denied Christ out of fear. He was a human being, like the rest of us. One of the greatest proofs of it is the passage that you cited from John. Look at the Greek in it.

Jesus asks Peter, afte Peter having denied Him, if He loves Him - in the Greek, if he agapes Him. Peter does not affirm Jesus' statement, but he instead says that he phileas Him. He has a brotherly, affectionate, loyal love, but he will not say he has a love of total self giving.

So Jesus asks Peter again whether he has agape for Him, and again Peter says that He has philea.

So the third time, Jesus asks Peter if he has philea for Him. The gospel says, "Peter was grieved, because He said to him the third time, 'do you philea me?'"

Peter grieves because Jesus lowers His expectations for him the third time, and ceases to ask if he has the total self-giving love of agape for Him. He wants to love Jesus this way, but he knows that he does not, in part from his denial of Christ. By Jesus changing his question the third time, it grieves Peter, both becuase it hurts more to hear the truth coming from Jesus, and because it is a sort of confirmation that he does indeed lack the love that he aspires to.

But then Jesus immediately tells Peter of his death. He tells Peter that he will die by martyrdom so as to assure Peter that while he does not yet have the love to go to the death for Him, he will die doing that very thing.

The message is a wonderful pastoral point: if you don't love God the way you ought to now, don't beat yourself up over it, you will in time as God works in you. But aside from that, it shows very clearly that Peter was lacking in that love of total self-giving that would provide for martyrdom.

This continues well past this point, as we see later that the disciples were all hiding after the Ascension "for fear of the Jews."

Certainly, Peter responded with the adrenaline of the moment in grabbing a sword to defend Jesus, if not himself, in the garden, but there is no question that he was very afraid, as the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles attest to.

Peter was human. He was just like any of us. He was flawed, he did not have the faith, love, or hope he should have, and he sinned at times. Accepting this does not take away from Peter's glory or that of the Church. If anything, it augments it, because it shows even moreso the mercy and glory of God, which is the one and only glory that Peter or the Church could ever claim themselves as it operates in them.

Wendy said...

Art, great piece. I really love it when something that has always plagued me, like Peter's denial, is explained in such a way that it is finally laid to rest, much like when it was explained on the Envoy forum concerning the fourth cup during the Passover meal in relation to Jesus in the garden asking to have the cup taken from Him. Another mystery solved, thank you.

Art Sippo said...


I appreciate your comments, but I stick with my interpretations.

It has pretty much been demonstrated by linguists that at the time of Christ agape and philea were equivalent terms and that the distinct meanings that C. S. Lewis gave in his classic book "The Four Loves" came from the Golden age of Pericles. Protestant scholar James Barr did an essay on this over 30 years ago.

This is one of the problems with the Greek language. It is not a single language but a family of similar tongues in which words and grammar rules must be interpreted differently at different times.

Bottom line: Jesus and St. Peter were speaking of the same type of affection in that last discourse. St. Peter was grieved because Jesus asked him the same question 3 times. St. Peter apparently did not grasp what Jesus was really up to. Remember, this was before Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and their eyes were finally opened.

And please do not think that courage and fear are separate emotions. Any good soldier will tell you that at his very bravest moment he was scared as well. The difference is that some men act out of fear instead out of a sense of duty. St. Peter was acting like a loyal subject to try and rescue his monarch.

There is a very important pastoral point to my explanation of St. Peter's denial. St. Peter acted out of conviction and a sense of duty, but he did so following his own vision of who Jesus was, not following the teaching that he had received from the very lips of Our Lord.

It reminds me of that great line from "Brideshead Revisited" when Julia admits that all her life she was trying to create a good for herself in competition with the goodness of God.

We need to surrender ourselves to God's revelation and not to our own preferences. With his denials, St. Peter was a "cafeteria Catholic". That is what we must avoid.

rr1213 said...

I did not know of the change from agape to phileas by Christ in his questioning of Peter. However, if this is true and, yet,Art suggests the two words had pretty much the same meaning at the time of Christ, then why would the inspired authors of the Scriptures choose to use two different words in the passage? Generally, if two words are used where a single word would have sufficed, the presumption is that the choice of a different word indicates a change in meaning.

Art Sippo said...

Excellent question. We may not be able to answer that. We must remember that Jesus and his disciples seem to have spoken Aramaic to each other, so the Greek here does not represent what Jesus actually said.

Most commentators do not think there is any major significance to it. Jesus asks "Do you love me?" and St. Peter answers "Yes, Lord, you know I am your friend." St. Peter answers Jesus' question appropriately using different words.

For an example:

Q. "Can I trust you?"

A. "Yes, I am your man."

If we postulate that there was some significance to the different words, I would propose this:

St. Peter was not sure that he had that supernatural detached agape love for Jesus. But he knew Jesus as his friend. It would not be until Pentecost when he was filled with the Holy Spirit that St. Peter would truly have agape for his Lord.

When Jesus asked those questions, he knew that St. Peter had a naturally friendship for him. When he asked the thrid time He accommodated himself to St. Peter where he actually was knowing that more would come very soon.

Nevertheless, that was enough for St. Peter to become the ONE shepherd of the ONE flock and thus the Vicar of Christ. This IMHO points to the fact that a man does not have to be a saint to be Pope. The grace of the Holy Spirit will make up for any deficiencies in him.

Skadi meic Beorh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Art Sippo: said...


I appreciate your personal witness here. I myself have been in the same situation before and so I know from whence you speak. I do not think though that it is relevant to St. Peter's behavior in denying Jesus.

The highly introspective sensititivity that you and I have experienced is actaully not found in the 1st Century AD. Krister Stendahl in his small book "Paul among Jews and Gentiles" has pointed out that such concerns were more typical of the Classical world of the 4th Century and later than of Biblical times.

St. Peter from the very beginning of his walk with Christ harbored prejudices with regard to who the Messiah was and how the Messiah should behave. St. Peter clearly had a triumphalist vision that was not compatible with Jesus suffering and dying for the sins of the world.

The true epiphany for St. Peter came when the cock crowed and he realized that the only way to save his triumphalist view of the Messiah was to deny the man he believed was that Messiah. There was a flood of emotions at that point including shame, horror, confusion, and resignation. If he truly believed that his friend and Master was the Messiah, he had to let him go to the cross. St. Peter had not acted out of fear or cowardice, but out of false conviction. For all these things I believe he wept bitterly.


krysn said...

Didn't Peter almost sink when he lost focus on Jesus! The Bible is given to us to focus on Jesus !

Art Sippo: said...

Yes indeed!

I always find the story of Peter stepping out on the waters to be rather humorous. He boldly steps out on the water tehn he looks around and says to himself "What am I doing?!" As he panics and starts to go down, Jesus has to pull him up.

And that is an important point about Papal Authority. Prots generally think that the Popes take on the authority of the Petrine Office under their own powers. Quite the contrary, it is CHRIST who upholds the Pope by His divine power.

It is also notable that walking on whater is a divine prerogative (Gen 1:2; Job 9:8, Ps 93:4). Walking on the water is like making your enemy (water, chaos, Tiamat the sea monster) your foot stool. Peter ALONE of the Twelve was allowed to share in jesus' divine prerogative but as the story amde it clear, he did so only while being upheld by Christ.

The point I was making about St. Peter in my original blog was that he was not a coward but something far worse: someone who thought he was smarter than God and powerful enough to assert his human will over and against the divine plan of salvation. It was an act of submission and obedience when Peter gave up his pretensions and accepted that to follow Jesus, he had to accept the necessity of his dying on hte cross.

Jewel's Gems said...

Hey, I just stumbled across this wonderful post and I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your insight!I have always felt that the whole account of Peter's denial was misunderstood, but your insight gives me more to ponder on.
I have always felt that with Peter being the rock on which Christ built His church, during the last supper when the Savior told Peter that he would deny Him, it was not so much an accusation as it was an admonishment. I mean, think about. If they had caught Peter and killed him then, what would have happened to the Lord's church? The other apostles were not strong enough, as evidenced by their scattering. The gospel had to roll forth. Peter truly was a rock. He was solid.