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 can visualize it something like this. Peter was brought into the courtyard of the high priest by a disciple who knew the high priest, probably John. As Peter came in he was recognized by the girl who kept the door, and although she didn’t object to Peter’s presence initially, she most likely followed him into the courtyard where he had stopped to warm himself at a fire that was there. She asked her question at that point. John does not actually say that she asked her question at the door, only that it was asked by the girl who was “at the door” (v. 17). After this various questions were asked by different people, at the fire and near the outer gateway, leading to Peter’s second denial. Things seem to have settled down then, but sometime after this (Luke says, “about an hour later”), as the trial was drawing to a close, those who were in the courtyard accosted Peter again, among them the relative of the man Peter had attacked, who asked, “Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove” (John 18:26).
To all these questions Peter replied with increasingly strong denials: “I don’t know what you’re talking about” (Matthew 26:70), “I don’t know the man” (Matthew 26:72, 74), “I don’t know this man you’re talking about” (Mark 14:71); and to the question, “You also are one of them” (Luke 22:58) the answer was, “I am not” (Luke 22:58; John 18:17, 25). Matthew and Mark say that Peter’s later denials were with oaths and cursings.
Each of the gospels records that at Peter’s third denial a rooster crowed, to which Luke adds, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61). Presumably Jesus looked at Peter through a window of the upper chamber where the trial was held, or as he was being led through the high priest’s courtyard to a place of confinement. The first three gospels say that at that point Peter recognized what he had done and rushed out and wept (Matthew 26:75; Mark 14:72: Luke 22:62). Matthew and Luke add “bitterly.”
Peters’ denial of Jesus was a terrible failure and a great sin. It was even a frightening sin in light of what Paul wrote to Timothy: “If we endure, we will also reign with him; if we disown him, he will also disown us” (2 Timothy 2:12). But although it was indeed terrible and great and frightening, it was nevertheless made by a courageous man who genuinely loved Jesus.
What can we say in Peter’s defense? First, Peter had tried to defend his master in the garden. It was an act of the flesh, of course, and Peter was mistaken about what needed to be done. Jesus corrected him by asking, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way” (Matthew 26:53, 54). Still it was a strong act. Peter had told Jesus that he was willing to die for him, and when he had a chance to prove it he drew his sword and attacked the man who was leading the arresting column. Would we have been so courageous? Would we have been as bold?
Second, Peter followed Jesus at a distance. Critics have pointed out that it was “at a distance” (Matthew 26:58), not at his side. And some have suggested that it was motivated by mere curiosity since he “wanted to see the outcome.” But Peter was at least following when the other disciples (except possibly John) had fled. Since the disciples had been spending each night of the Passover week in Bethany, we are probably correct in thinking that they proceeded up and over the Mount of Olives to Bethany where they hoped to regroup by morning. That was the precise opposite direction from Jerusalem. Yet Peter followed the arresting party not only to Jerusalem, but even into the courtyard of the high priest. Peter did not fail because he was a coward but because he was a very brave man.