Theme: God redeems our failures
This week’s lessons show us ways to walk faithfully with God
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
We will miss a great deal about Peter’s denial of Jesus unless we see it in its context. For Matthew’s arrangement of material is never arbitrary, as we have seen many times already. In the case of this account, there are two matters of context worth noting.
First, Peter’s denial of Jesus stands in contrast to the story of Jesus’ trial by the Sanhedrin that precedes it (vv. 57-67). Both are interrogation stories. In the first, Jesus is questioned by the high priests who are his enemies. In the second, Peter is questioned by the high priest’s servants. In both stories the speakers affirm the truthfulness of what they are saying by oaths. But Jesus’ oath is a proper oath, confirming his true and bold confession, while Peter’s oath is a lie. By taking his stand Jesus stands for his people and is condemned to death for doing so. By repudiating Jesus, Peter escapes unscathed.
Herman Ridderbos points to these parallels, saying, “The juxtaposition of these two stories forms powerful proof that no one other than Jesus, not even Peter, could do the work of the Lord’s Suffering Servant…. Jesus alone could be faithful; and he won the victory.”1
The second half of the context is the account of the Judas’ remorse and suicide that follows Peter’s denial (Matthew 27:1-10). It is easy to miss this contrast because of the break between chapters 26 and 27. Both men failed badly and fell. But Peter was a believer whose fall was temporary, while the fall of Judas was permanent. Peter is in heaven. Judas is in hell.
There is no question that the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus is a true account, for no Christian writer would record such a damaging story about the Church’s chief apostle, unless it were true. Still, there are problems matching Matthew’s account to what the other writers tell us. Their accounts are in Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:56-62 and John 18:15-18, 25-27.
Matthew says that Peter was first accosted in the courtyard by a servant girl who charged that he had been with Jesus of Galilee (Matthew 26:69). After his denial another girl said to those who were standing in the gateway, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth” (v. 71). Finally, “after a little while” some of those who were standing around said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away” (v. 73). Mark’s account is similar to Matthew’s, varying only in the precise wording of the accusations, and Luke is not far off, though he says that the first accusation came from a servant girl as Peter was sitting by the fire (Luke 22:56) and that the second and third questions came later from unnamed individuals (vv. 58,59).
The biggest problems are with John who reports that the first question was asked by a servant girl as Peter was coming in the door (John 18:17), that the second was while he was warming himself by the fire (v. 25), and that the third was from one of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off. This man demanded, “Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove” (v. 26).
A great deal of ingenuity has gone into attempts at harmonizing these records, including a heroic effort by Harold Lindsell in The Battle for the Bible in which he defends the inerrancy of the accounts by distinguishing six different accusations.2 But this attempt has problems of its own since it tends to overlook Jesus’ warning that Peter would deny his Lord not six but three times (Matthew 26:34). Actually, the entire effort is unnecessary. It is a tempest in a teapot. A lot of people were milling around; many things must have been said. And besides, all this transpired in the middle of the night over the course of several hours.
1 H. N. Ridderbos, Matthew, trans. Ray Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 506.
2 Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 174-176.
How did the oaths sworn by Peter and Jesus differ?
What is the difference between the failure of Judas and the failure of Peter?
Read the accounts of Peter’s denial in all four gospels (Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:56; John 18:15-18, 25-27). According to Dr. Boice, how do we explain the differences in each of the four accounts?