“The Denials of Peter”
John 18:12-28a (Part 2)
February 14, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
This morning we return to John 18:12-28.
Last Lord’s Day we looked at this passage and focused on the trial of Jesus. This morning we return to the same passage to consider how the disciples responded to Jesus’s arrest and trial.
With that in mind, please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
18:12 So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. 14 It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.
15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 17 The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” 24 Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.
28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, you are our portion,
and so we commit ourselves to keep your word.
We ask you with all our hearts to show us your favor,
and be gracious with us according to your promise.
When we consider our ways,
turn our feet to your testimonies.
And as we hear your word now,
give us a sense of urgency to conform ourselves to it,
so that we act on it without delay.
Grant this we ask, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:57-60]
This sermon is titled “The Denials of Peter,” but Peter is not the only one we will be talking about.
Peter gets the center stage in the text, and he gets center stage in our memories of the failures of the eleven faithful disciples … in some ways that we will get to this morning, that is not entirely fair.
And so, today we will consider not just Peter, but several people in (or not in) our text, and we’ll ask what we should learn from each of them.
So, we’ll ask:
– What should we learn from Peter?
– What should we learn from the other 9 or 10 disciples?
– What should we learn from the unnamed disciple?
– And what should we learn from Jesus?
WHAT WE LEARN FROM PETER
So first, what should we learn from Peter?
Peter, here, of course, denies his relationship to Jesus.
We should observe a few things about that.
First of all, Peter denies his relationship with Jesus three times. This is not a one-time impulsive mistake that Peter makes, but rather it is something Peter reaffirms twice – something he digs himself into deeper and deeper.
Second, Peter should not have been surprised by this temptation to deny Jesus. In John 13:38, Jesus told Peter that Peter would deny him. So Peter knew the temptation was coming. Peter should not have been surprised. Peter should not have been caught off-guard.
Third, it is by denying his relationship to Jesus that Peter denies Jesus himself.
This might sound like just a technical distinction, but I think it can be important.
Peter doesn’t deny orthodoxy or affirm heresy. He doesn’t declare “Jesus is not the Christ!” The form of his denial is not a denial of a statement or a doctrine. It is instead the denial of a relationship. Peter is not asked who Jesus is. He is asked about his relationship to Jesus. What Peter denies is the relationship. But, of course, as Jesus says in chapter thirteen, for Peter to deny his relationship with Jesus was for him to deny Jesus himself. [Augustine, Homily 113,2 (p.466)]
Fourth, Peter seems to be motivated in his denial by irrational fear.
Peter’s first denial, in verse seventeen, would seem to be out of fear – it’s hard to know how else to explain it. But that fear also seems at least somewhat irrational.
This would seem to be the case, first, because the one asking Peter was a servant girl – not someone with much power in the given setting. Second, Peter’s fear would seem to be exaggerated because Peter knew that another disciple of Jesus was already in the high priest’s courtyard, and nothing bad had happened to him. It was another disciple of Jesus, we are told in verse fifteen, who also knew the high priest, who told the servant girl to let Peter in. But that other disciple remained unharmed. Third, the servant girl already seemed to know that the other disciple was a disciple of Jesus, but it hadn’t led to any danger yet for that disciple. After all, the question she asks is not just whether Peter is one of Jesus’s disciples, but whether Peter is also one of Jesus’s disciples – which would seem to be a reference to the man who let Peter in already being known to her as a disciple of Jesus.
Now, of course, one could point out that it was quite possible that things could turn against a known disciple of Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard, and that is certainly true – we will get to that. But it hadn’t yet. There was no imminent threat to Peter.
And yet, when the servant girl asks him, Peter, out of fear, denies his relationship to Jesus.
And so, taking these facts together: Peter knows this temptation is coming, he has several chances to correct himself, and yet, out of irrational fear, Peter denies his relationship to Jesus, and by doing so, he denies Jesus himself.
This is what we see in Peter. And it should lead us to ask, as Christians, where we see the same pattern in ourselves. Where are we tempted to deny our relationship to Jesus out of fear?
And what does denial look like for us?
Of course one form denial can take is an open and overt form. We can flat-out deny our Lord, as Peter does here. And maybe you have done that – maybe that has been a temptation for you, to point-blank deny that you are a Christian. Such temptations certainly do exist.
But often the temptations we face to deny our Lord are more subtle than that.
One form of more subtle denial can come with the embracing of cynicism … at least around other people.
David Foster Wallace describes this well in one of his novels. One of the characters, named Mario, is unusual in a number of ways, one of them being his deep sincerity. Mario really cares about things, and in his innocence, he finds himself puzzled by those around him who seem more cynical.
Wallace writes: “The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone [he knows] over [a certain age] finds stuff that is really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” [Wallace, 592]
Later on Wallace writes that in our culture: “We are shown how to fashion masks of […] jaded irony at a young age […] And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent […] [and] naïveté is the last truly terrible sin in the theology of [modern] America. [Wallace, 694]
Does that sound at all like you? Do you have many people in your life that you are open and sincere with about things that really matter – about Jesus, about God, about life, and sin, and grace, and love, and hate, and heaven, and hell? How small is the group of people with which you are willing to speak sincerely about the things that really matter – about your life as a disciple of Jesus Christ? And is the smallness of that circle a way that you might be denying your Lord, out of fear of what others will think of you if they see your sincere faith?
We might deny that we are disciples of Christ overtly. We might do it more subtly, by refusing to ever speak sincerely with others about our Lord.
But another way we might disown our Lord is by disowning his bride – by disowning his people, the Church. Now, this pattern might disguise itself as merely clarifying the kind of Christian you are for the sake of your witness. You may know what another person thinks evangelical Christians are like, and so you are quick to tell them that you’re not like those evangelicals. You are different.
There can be a place for clarifications like that. But I think sometimes, when talking with non-Christians, we want to do more. We don’t just want to assure them that we’re not like their caricatured ideas of Christians, or not like some well-known hypocritical Christians. I think that sometimes, the truth is that we don’t want them to think we’re like anything they might dislike in genuine Christians.
And so while what we say is that we don’t hold that view or that political position like some Christians do, what we want people to hear is “Don’t worry, I don’t take the whole Jesus thing that seriously. I’m not that weird. I’m really just like you.” We may not be speaking real denial of our discipleship. But part of us is hoping that they hear a denial of our discipleship.
Or sometimes we deny our relationship to Jesus by fragmenting our lives. We have certain areas of life where we own our faith. And other areas where we are someone else. The anonymity of modern life – the fact that we can become anonymous be simply taking a short drive to another part of town – or even more easily, by hopping onto the internet – that makes this kind of fragmentation even more possible. Peter was happy to be a disciple in the upper room with Jesus, but in the high priest’s courtyard, he preferred to be an anonymous unbeliever, so he could live as one who was not a disciple. Do you have secret parts of your life where you do the same thing? Places you go? Corners of your life you keep hidden? Dark backroads of the internet where you can be anonymous, and in that anonymous state, you can deny the pledge you have made to follow Christ, in your words or your actions?
Our denial could take any of those forms and more.
But as you see yourself in one or more of those patterns, here is the second question: Do you see how your denial is motivated by irrational fears?
We talked about irrational fear two weeks ago when Peter tried to seize control of the situation when Jesus was being arrested, by drawing his sword when he feared that Jesus was no longer in control of things. In that sermon I quoted Marilyn Robinson, who cited Leviticus 26:36, where God describes the condition of the faithless as those who are consumed by irrational fears. God says “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.” [Leviticus 26:36-37a]
As I said, we considered those words two weeks ago, and so I was struck to see that when discussing the denial of Peter here at the trial of Jesus, John Calvin alludes to the very same passage.
Calvin comments on how Peter shows the faithless tendency of reacting with irrational alarm when there is no real threat, and how we do the very same thing. He writes: “Even when Satan makes no attacks, we contrive for ourselves idle alarms which disturb us before the time.” He goes on: “The voice of a feeble woman terrified Peter: and what is the case with us? Do we not continue to tremble at the rustling of a falling leaf? A false appearance of danger, which is still distant, made Peter tremble: and are we not every day led away from Christ by childish absurdities?” [Calvin, 199]
What are you afraid of? What childish absurdities lead you away from Christ?
Is it a fear of rejection? A fear of hardship for the sake of the gospel? A fear of being looked down on? A fear of trying to live without some aspect of your secret life?
What is the fear that drives your denial?
What we learn from Peter is that we too can be tempted to deny our relationship to Jesus. But such denials are not the result of faith, but of fear.
And yet, such denials are a real possibility for real believers.
Peter was, after all, a believer. There is no doubt of that. But even he, out of faithless fear, could deny his relationship to Jesus.
Where do you see that pattern in your life?
Identifying the pattern of fearful denial is what we learn from considering Peter.
WHAT WE LEARN FROM THE OTHER NINE OR TEN DISCIPLES
But that brings us to our second question.
Because actually, we can do worse than Peter. At least Peter shows up, and tries to follow his Lord. Peter follows Jesus to the high priest’s courtyard.
But where is Andrew? Where is James, the son of Zebedee? Where is Philip? Where is Bartholomew? Where is Thomas, or Mathew, or James the Son of Alpheus, or Simon the Zealot or Thaddeus? Where are the other disciples?
As John Chrysostom points out, we tend to miss the fact that Peter came as far as the high priest’s courtyard, when the other disciples had already retreated. [Homily LXXXIII.3, p.308]
Now, there is some question as to whether the unnamed disciples in verse fifteen is the Apostle John. Judas, of course, has rejected Jesus completely at this point. But that means that there are still nine or ten other disciples who are nowhere to be seen. What are we to learn from them? What are we to learn from the nine or ten other disciples who are absent?
And what we are to learn is that as a believer – as a follower of Christ – it is possible to do worse than Peter does here. It is possible – and common! – to not even get to the point that Peter got to. It is possible to simply retreat from our calling – to flee from following our Lord when things get dangerous or difficult.
To stay with Jesus after his arrest was to face danger and temptation – temptation to disown Jesus, as we have seen Peter face, and danger of facing real hostility from the authorities.
And so the other nine or ten disciples – from Andrew and Bartholomew to Thomas and Thaddaeus, simply abandon their calling to follow Jesus and retreat to safer ground. They run away from the challenges of following Jesus in a hostile world.
We might call it the Bartholomew Option: when the world gets hostile, when the world rejects Jesus, run and hide.
And this can be so tempting for us. Because it is easy to hold onto the faith when no one is there to challenge us. It is easy to profess Christ when it costs us nothing. It is easy to call ourselves disciples when we ignore Jesus’s calling to follow him while he steps willingly into hostile territory for the life of the world.
Peter may have denied his Lord. But he showed more faithfulness than Bartholomew did that night.
The other nine or ten disciples fled in fear. They withdrew from Jesus and Jesus’s mission in the world when it got dangerous.
We must acknowledge that this is a temptation to us as well. And we must see that the way of those nine or ten disciples who fled from the hostile world, while Peter went forward – the way of those men is not the way of faithful discipleship.
And yet … where do you see that pattern in your life?
Where are you tempted to flee from the world the Lord has sent you into, in order to avoid the consequences of discipleship?
Identifying the pattern of fearful flight from our calling is what we see in the disciples who are absent from these verses.
WHAT WE LEARN FROM THE UNNAMED DISCIPLE
Now, when we see texts like this that focus on these negative examples, it’s easy to get fairly pessimistic about the Christian life.
“Well,” we might find ourselves saying, “I guess that’s just the way things are. We’re all Peter. Or we’re all Bartholomew. We might as well just own our faithlessness, be honest about it, and leave it there.”
That can be a tempting response … because it lets us off the hook.
But … it’s not a good reading of the text. Because there is another disciple we find here. It’s the unnamed disciple.
For centuries commentators have debated whether this unnamed disciple is John or is someone else – maybe another disciple who was not one of the twelve. The truth is that we simply don’t know. But though he gets only a passing mention in verses fifteen and sixteen, his presence is striking.
Here is a disciple of Jesus who has not fled, like the others have. Here is a disciple who has come into the high priest’s chamber, like Peter did, but who does not deny Jesus like Peter does.
What made this disciple different?
Well … it wasn’t anything inherent in himself. In fact, John’s Gospel seems to go out of its way to say the opposite – to de-emphasize anything noteworthy about this man in himself.
The disciples as a whole struggled with relying on themselves. Thomas, in John 11, declared that he was ready to die with Jesus. But Thomas is now nowhere to be found. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, boasted in Matthew 20 that they were ready to drink the cup that Jesus would drink. James is now nowhere to be seen. And if the unnamed disciple is John, then John has made himself anonymous, seeming to dissociate the disciple’s faithfulness here from any such boasting. Peter boasted in John 13 that he would lay down his life for Jesus, but now he has denied him.
Each disciple who relied on himself has failed.
John Calvin looks at Peter’s denials and sees there a picture of what happens when we rely on ourselves.
He writes: “When [Peter] stumbles so shamefully at the first step, the foolishness of his boasting is exposed. He had boasted that he would prove to be a valiant champion, and able to meet death with firmness; and now, at the voice of a single maid, and that voice unaccompanied by threatening, he is confounded and throws down his arms. Such is a demonstration of the power of man. Certainly, all the strength that appears to be in men is smoke, which a breath immediately drives away. When we are out of the battle, we are too courageous; but experience shows that our lofty talk is foolish and groundless; […] A man, filled not with fortitude but with wind, promises that he will obtain an easy victory over the whole world; and yet, no sooner does he see the shadow of a thistle, than he immediately trembles. Let us therefore learn not to be brave in any other than the Lord.” [Calvin, 199-200]
And it seems that that is what we see in the unnamed disciple. The disciple is, after all, unnamed. He is associated with no boasting. Even if he once made boasts, by leaving the disciple anonymous here, John severs this disciple from any past claims of personal strength. This is something different. We are not seeing here a disciple who is fulfilling a boast, or who is so strong in himself. We instead see a disciple who has emptied himself. We instead see a disciple living in humble reliance on Christ.
As John Chrysostom notes, by making that disciple anonymous, John sought to detract from any praise that he might receive as an individual – in himself. [Chrysostom, Homily LXXXIII.2 (p.308)]
And so, denying himself, relying on the Lord, what does this disciple then do?
Well, he is faithfully present in a space hostile to Jesus.
We should note a few things about how he does that.
First of all, the man is present in this hostile space because he has followed Jesus there. He has entered a space of danger. He has entered a space of temptation – as we see in the case of Peter. But he has entered it not for self-seeking reasons, but because that is where following Jesus has led him.
Second, the man lets it be known that he is a disciple of Jesus. The servant girl in verse seventeen seems to know, and so we can assume that others knew as well – maybe even the high priest.
Third, the man is simply faithfully present. He does not cower and deny, like Peter or the other disciples did. But he also does not aggressively seek conflict with those around him who are hostile to Jesus. And at the same time he also does not do anything particularly heroic. He preaches no sermon. He does not seek to join Jesus in being on trial himself. But he is there, and he lets it be known that he is a follower of Jesus, and he trusts the Lord, come what may. He trusts the Lord as to whether the testimony of his presence will bring danger upon him. He trusts the Lord as to whether the testimony of his presence will bring any fruit in others.
It reminds me of how Francis of Assisi directed some of his followers.
In Francis of Assisi’s day, in the 13th century, there were two common responses to the Muslim population bordering on Christian Europe. One was simply to ignore them so long as they ignored you. The other was to attack – to join the crusade and fight the Muslims.
But Francis gave his followers two different options. One, for those who were called to preaching, was to go among the Muslims as preachers. The other, Francis wrote, was for them to go and to live among the Muslims, and, he writes, for them “not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians.” [“The Earlier Rule” XVI.5 (p.74)]
That is what that unnamed disciple has done. And that is often what we are called to as well.
What are those places, what are those settings or those relationships, where you are tempted to distance yourself from Jesus, or you are tempted to simply retreat from the person or the place, but Christ has called you to simply be faithfully present – to be there, to be faithful in whatever you have been called to, and to let it be known that you are a disciple of Jesus?
Maybe it is a work environment where it seems like the Lord has called you to be salt and light, and you are tempted to get out, or tempted to deny your faith in some way, but your calling is to be there, to be loving and faithful, and to allow others to know that you do what you do because you follow Jesus.
Maybe it’s a difficult relationship with a non-Christian – maybe with a friend, a family member, a neighbor, or an acquaintance, and maybe you’re not sure what to do, and you find yourself wondering what good can even come of it, and one part of you wants to actively hide your faith, and another part of you wants to just retreat from the relationship, but the Lord has put you there and called you simply to love the other person, and let it be known that you follow Jesus.
Maybe it is some other way that you engage with the world. And maybe you are afraid of what it will do to your place there if they know that you are a disciple of Jesus. And so you want to either leave or separate your faith from your involvement there. But God has called you to be his witness, in quiet and ordinary ways.
Whatever the situation may be for you, the Lord calls us to be courageous … but not to rest in our own courage. He calls us to be strong … but not from our own strength. Instead, he calls us to rely not on ourselves, but on our Lord. Relying on him, we can enter hostile places and reach out to hostile people. Relying on him, we can be a faithful and humble witnesses to Jesus Christ.
WHAT WE LEARN FROM JESUS
So we see in this passage two negative examples, and one positive example. We see the nine or ten disciples who have fearfully fled from Jesus and their calling to follow him. We see Peter, who ventures further than so many others, but who falls into the pattern of fearful denial of Jesus. And we see the unnamed disciple, who, in faithful reliance on the Lord, follows the path of faithful presence to where Jesus leads him.
We see what we should do. And we see what we should not do.
But where does that really leave us?
Because the truth is that we may know we should be like the unnamed disciple … but we know we are more often like Peter or like the other disciples. What are we to do with that? How can we be transformed into those who are more faithful … and what are we to do about our past unfaithfulness?
And that brings us to our final point here: What we are to learn from Jesus.
What does Jesus teach us here?
We might start with Peter. Peter failed Jesus. Peter denied Jesus.
Which is what makes it so striking that when Jesus rose from the dead, Peter was the first of the men that Jesus went to go see. That’s what the Apostle Paul tells us in First Corinthians fifteen. There Paul gives a chronological list of those Jesus appeared to, and the first person Paul mentions that Jesus went to visit after his resurrection is Peter. Luke tells us the same thing [24:34]. [Buechner, 136]
Peter denied Jesus, but one of the first things Jesus did when he rose from the dead was to go see Peter. We don’t know what was said in that private conversation. But we do know two things about it. One is that Jesus was not done with Peter. Jesus, in his grace, restored Peter. The second thing we can know is that the grace that Jesus showed to Peter transformed him.
So first, we see that Peter was not cast out. Peter was instead forgiven. He was restored. He was shown grace. Peter’s sin was not the last word, but Jesus’s grace overcame Peter’s sin.
But Jesus’s grace didn’t just restore Peter. It transformed Peter. Peter was not the same afterwards. Peter became bold. This Peter, who on the day of Jesus’s arrest refused to admit to a powerless servant girl that he followed Jesus, on the day of Pentecost was ready to proclaim to a crowd of thousands that he was a follower of Jesus. This Peter who cowered in the courtyard of the high priest here in John 18, in Acts 4 was willing to stand before the high priest – before Annas and Caiaphas – and before the elders and the scribes, and to boldly proclaim to them that there was salvation in no other name but Jesus’s.
Grace restores us. But if we truly understand it, it does not leave us where we are. Because it doesn’t leave us relying on ourselves. Peter is no longer boasting in his own strength. He knows he relies on grace. And reliant on the grace of Christ, he was able to do what he had been unable to do before. He was able to proclaim his loyalty to Christ before the crowds. He was able to proclaim his loyalty to Christ before the high priest. And eventually, he was able to proclaim his loyalty to Jesus even when faced with his own death.
And what was true of Peter was true of the other ten disciples as well. For, Paul tells us, after Jesus visited Peter, he then visited the other disciples. And they too were restored. They too were changed. They too went out preaching.
The grace of Jesus restores us, and the grace of Jesus changes us.
If you want to follow Christ into difficulties – if you want to continue to own him as your Lord even in the midst of temptations to disown him, the answer is not to dig down into yourself. The answer is to lay hold of Christ’s grace even more. The answer is not to trust in your own strength. The answer is to trust in the strength of Christ.
He is able to restore us, even when we fail. He is able to make us faithful, even when our hearts may falter.
And so, let us own our past failures. Let us seek Christ’s restoring grace. And then, relying on his grace, let us not fearfully distance ourselves from Jesus. Let us not fearfully flee from the callings Christ has given us. But let us go out and do the difficult work Jesus has called us to do, clinging every moment to the grace he has shown us.
This sermon draws on material from:
Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 41-124. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. The Works of Saint Augustine. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2020.
Buechner, Fredrick. Peculiar Treasurers: A Biblical Who’s Who. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1979.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel According to John. Vol. 2. Translated by William Pringle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1847 (2005 Reprint).
Francis of Assisi. “The Earlier Rule” in Francis of Assisi: The Saint. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Vol 1. Edited by Regis Armstrong, et al. New York, NY: New City Press, 1999.
John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Gospel of St. John. Homily LXXXIII. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First Series, Volume 14.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 1996. [An important disclaimer: While I have drawn from this work in this sermon, I would not recommend this book for most readers. It contains disturbing content that many would find troubling, and caution and wisdom must be exercised by Christians in knowing what would be profitable for them to read and what they should personally avoid.]
Wright, N. T. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
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