A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Speak
“But Peter followed him from a distance up to the court of the High Priest and going in he sat with the subordinates to witness the end.”
“And Peter, from a distance, followed him as far as the courtyard of the High Priest and he was sitting with the subordinates and warming himself by the fire.”
“And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down in the midst of them.”
“The servants and the subordinates were standing around a charcoal fire they had made because it was cold and they were warming themselves. And Peter was also in that place and warming himself.”
Probably the obvious question to ask is with whom did Peter sit? Matthew and Mark speak of subordinates and John adds servants, but the question is, who are these people gathered in the middle of the night in Caiaphas’ court. Luke implies that these were amongst those who arrested Jesus, leading some English translations to render these verses as Peter sitting with the “guards.” Yet, the cohort (the official soldiers from the Temple) seems to have either departed or faded into the background for a variety of reasons, leaving us more likely with the rabble-rousers that made up the mob that accompanied the Cohort from the temple. Needless to say that this crowd is not a casual crowd and they are anything but neutral to the events that are transpiring.
Often this courtyard scene with Peter’s denial is portrayed as if Peter is being asked innocent questions about his association with Jesus and that his denials are out of an unfounded fear of what might happen. I don’t think that is what is implied here, though. These questions come from a very hostile crowd that is wanting to see blood — thus, while we still might speak of Peter’s cowardice to follow Jesus even to prison or death (Luke 22:33), prison or death most certainly would have been the end of this night for Peter had he spoken boldly of his connection with Jesus. Peter had escaped capture in the garden just hours earlier (if that long!), it is sure that this escape was fresh in his mind and he knew the climate of the people with whom he would be mixing in Caiaphas’ courtyard. Danger was all around.
It should be noted that some English versions translate Peter as standing by the fire while the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) portray him as sitting. This objection, if it be a real objection, can be answered in two ways. The simplest way is to recognize that Peter first approaches the fire standing up and remains standing so long as those around him are standing. Then, as Caiaphas takes his position for the trial, people settle down and sit. Peter, not wanting to stand out chooses to sit as well. The second way — if it be a way at all — is to note that the word that John uses, i¢sthmi (histami), can simply mean to be located in a particular spot (standing or sitting). Thus, there is no real contradiction between John’s account and the account of the other four evangelists.
While these questions may be curious, there are two clauses in these verses that are very striking. The first is how Mark refers to the fire around which Peter and the subordinates are gathered. Instead of using the ordinary word for “fire,” which in Greek is pu◊r (pur), he chooses to use the word, fw◊ß (phos) — “light.” One might be tempted to dismiss this as a curiosity, that perhaps Mark was simply looking for a different word to use for variety until one points out that this is the only time Mark uses the term fw◊ß (phos) in his entire Gospel. Furthermore, this is the only occurrence in the Greek New Testament where the term fw◊ß (phos) is used to refer to a fire.
One still might be tempted to suggest that Mark is just referring to the light that is emitted from a fire to foreshadow the fact that Peter would be recognized by those around him. Of course, this is presuming that this fire is the only source of light in the courtyard, which seems to be an odd assumption as oil lamps likely would have filled the space with light. A better answer is to recall that Mark is traditionally understood to have served as Peter’s scribe in Jerusalem, and thus this gospel was written under Peter’s oversight. Thus, there seems to be the suggestion here that the one thing Peter does not intend to do (at least initially) is to hide. His presence by the fire, in other words, is not just to warm himself (though that is one of the reasons), but is also to be present “in the light” and not in the midst of shadows. Of course, Peter’s nerve is lost as the proceedings go on and he realizes that he is noticed, but it is likely that at least at first, Peter’s intent was to be visible.
The second thing of particular interest is Matthew’s statement that Peter followed to see “the end.” The end of what? If Matthew is referring to “the end” of Jesus’ life, could it have been that Peter expected Jesus to be tried and executed even before dawn? Could Matthew have been speaking of “the end” with respect to their pilgrimage from the Sea of Galilee to Caiaphas’ courts? This latter explanation seems to be a better answer to the question. And, while likely not “the end” as Peter anticipated at the time, it indeed was the end — the end of Peter being only a follower and time for Peter to stand up and lead — though that final aspect would not be fulfilled until Pentecost. Solomon writes that to all things there is a season — for Peter (and for the other 10 who remained faithful), the time of following Jesus as he walked and taught in this earth had come to an end. Soon, the time would be for him to speak — and speak boldly he would.