“And Peter remembered Jesus’ word when he said, ‘Before the rooster crows, three times you will disown me.’ And he went out and he wept bitterly.”
“And at once the rooster crowed a second time and Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, three times you will deny me.’ And he fell down and wept.”
“And the Lord shifted position to look directly at Peter and Peter remembered the word that the Lord had spoken to him that before the rooster crowed today, three times you will renounce me.’” And he went out and wept bitterly.”
Three of the four Gospel writers remind us of Jesus’ prophetic statement to Peter about the rooster crowing, but only Luke adds that at the point that Peter made his third denial, Jesus shifted his position to look in Peter’s direction. It is as if Jesus was saying, “Peter, is this how you wish to leave me?” It is an act of discipline, but an act of grace as well reminding Peter of the forgiveness that is to come on the other side of this very dark night. We are told nothing about the look — good or bad — it is simply left to us as a reminder of Jesus’ care for his disciples. Some have struggled with the idea of Jesus, on the other side of an angry mob of people, being aware of Peter’s location, let alone his denials, but that criticism forgets that Jesus is also God as well as man, with a perfect knowledge of all that must come to pass.
During what we refer to as Jesus’ Passion Week — the week between the Triumphal Entry and his Glorious Resurrection — Jesus told an interesting parable. He was giving what we refer to as the “Olivet Discourse,” a sermon largely looking toward both the fall of Jerusalem and the end of times when Jesus would return. As Jesus closes the sermon he does so with a parable about not knowing the day or the hour of his return (Mark 13:32-36) — that he might come during the evening, midnight, or when the rooster crows. Now, it must be stated that the context is a little different given that Jesus is speaking of his own return, but given that this is the only other time in the Bible that Jesus (or any Biblical writer) mentions a rooster (let alone a rooster crowing), it is worth drawing the connection — a connection based simply on the principle importance of being aware.
How important it is for us to keep alert and keep up our guard when sin comes crouching at our door (Genesis 4:7). How quick we are to drop that guard either when we are comfortable or when we, like Peter, feel threatened. The question that the parable asks, though, is what will we be found doing when the Master returns? In Peter’s case, when the Master gazed over in his direction, he was found denying and disowning his Lord. In our case, when our Lord looks down on our lives from his royal throne, what does he see us doing? And when he returns again, what will He find us engaged in? May the crowing of the rooster always be a reminder to us to be engaged in our Master’s business. When Peter heard the rooster crow this second time, he came to his senses and fled — doing the only thing humanly conceivable — he wept bitterly. Holy grief overwhelmed him, but in God’s grace, it did not consume him. There is a difference. May we recognize our sin for what it is and grieve accordingly, yet not end there, but turn to our God for grace. Beloved, he will give it.
“But Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. One of the slave-girls approached him saying, ‘You were also with Jesus the Galilean.’”
“And Peter was down in the courtyard and one of the slave-girls came and saw Peter warming himself. Looking at him intently she said, ‘You are with the Nazarine, Jesus.’”
“And a certain slave-girl saw him sitting towards the light and looking intently at him said, ‘This man was also with him!’”
“The slave-girl that was at the door said to Peter, ‘Aren’t you also from the disciples of this man?’ He said, ‘I am not.’”
This is the first of the challenges that leads to the first of Peter’s denials. Though John includes the challenge and the denial in the same verse, we will be focusing right now on the challenge. In the arrangement of the verses above, I have taken John 18:17 out of order not to imply a rearrangement of events, but to better group the discussions around the challenges to Peter. It seems, based on the accounts, that this first challenge takes place as Jesus is being questioned by Annas, so the rearrangement should not cause too much difficulty for us.
The same thing can be said of the slave-girl that questions Peter. Some would suggest that these are two separate denials — one taking place at the doorway when Peter comes in and one taking place at the fire where he is sitting. Yet, the only thing that the language of the doorway really implies is in connection to the slave-girl. She is not any slave-girl in general, but the slave-girl from the doorway — whom we see referred to in John 18:16 as “the doorkeeper.” Perhaps Peter’s appearance did not register with her right away or was not clear in the lower light by the doorway, but something also did not sit well with her and she followed him to the fire to confirm her suspicions.
This reading would be affirmed by the language of Mark and Luke who write of her “looking intently” at Peter. She wants to make clear her suspicions and will follow up with a question that is little more than a veiled accusation. Remember, this courtyard is hostile territory and the mob filling the court is out for blood. Thus, this question should not be seen as an innocent matter — she is making an accusation that could have cost Peter his life (a life he had earlier that evening promised to give, though it was not God’s time). How Peter responds next is inexcusable in many ways, but reasonable at least on human terms, but we get ahead of ourselves.
This is the first of the accusations or challenges — two more will come for Peter. Such is how Satan sifts Peter like wheat, but such is also how God teaches his own faith, trust, humility, and obedience. What Satan intends for evil; God intends for good. What an amazing God we serve.
“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.