John 18.15-18, 25-27. Peter’s denial. Two disciples follow Jesus and the crowd from the Mount of Olives. We know that one of them is Peter…John tells us that. The other is most likely John himself. We’re not sure about John’s relationship to the high priest, but apparently he has enough pull to get Peter in. From the response of the slave-girl when she asks, “You are not also one of this Man’s disciples, are you?”, John’s relationship to Jesus as one of His disciples, seems to be well-known, at least to the help. Now it’s difficult to know what the slave-girl’s opinion was of Jesus…but we can take a guess. The way the question is framed, a negative response is assumed. In other words, she expects Peter to say “no”. Maybe because she assumes Jesus is a criminal based on the soldiers accompanying Him, or maybe she has bought into the negative propaganda of the religious elite. Either way, she doesn’t expect Peter to claim allegiance to Jesus…and Peter does not disappoint.
In stark contrast to the “I AM” of Jesus, Peter simply answers, “I am not.” But that one simple phrase speaks volumes. Peter, the first of the disciples to identify Jesus as the Christ of God, arguably the chief disciple, the one who was willing to take on a cohort of Roman soldiers with little more than a pocketknife, the Rock who would become a pillar of the church…gets rocked, and is seemingly cowed by a servant-girl.
As the scene continues to unfold, Peter is warming himself by the fire with a group of slaves and soldiers, when the question comes up for the second time, “You are not also one of His disciples, are you?” Again, a negative response is assumed. And Peter again responds, “I am not.” Starting to see a pattern here?
And before Peter can make a break for it, one of Malchus’ relatives, Peter’s victim in the garden, recognizes him. “Did I not see you in the garden with Him?” For the third time, Peter denies knowing Jesus, and immediately a rooster crows. And Jesus’ prediction in the upper room becomes a shocking and painful reality.
So the obvious question is, “Why does Peter deny Jesus?” And although, “Because Jesus said he would” is technically a correct answer, let’s dig a little deeper to see if we can identify what brings Peter to this disastrous outcome.
First off, it’s been a hard day for Peter…first Jesus informs him that Satan has demanded permission to sift him like wheat, then he’s told that he would deny his Master, he’s rebuked for trying to “save” Jesus from washing his feet, he’s told that Jesus is going to betrayed and murdered and then told that he is to follow Jesus’ example, and then he’s rebuked again when he attempts to defend Jesus in the garden… his expectations have not only been unmet, they’ve been utterly destroyed. You see, Peter was looking for Messiah. But he was expecting a Warrior-King who would overthrow the power of Rome and establish the messianic kingdom. He wasn’t looking for the Suffering Servant coming to die; he was looking for the White Horse Rider of Revelation 19 riding out to crush His enemies. And although Jesus has worked to correct Peter’s expectations, he has simply refused to let go of his version of Messiah – footwashing, talk of “laying down His life”, allowing Himself to be arrested and coming to the defense of those who were taking Him… Peter was ready to fight for Him. He was willing to die for Him. If Peter were asked, “Whom do you seek?” The answer would have been clear… “The bloody Warrior-King of Psalm 2 and 110 who would demolish His enemies and crush the head of the serpent!” He was looking for a Messiah who acted, well, more like him. And this Jesus wasn’t it.
So I’m not sure that Peter’s denials are based purely on his fear of death. First of all, last week Peter was ready to give his life for the cause. Even though Jesus flattened His enemies with a Word, 200 to 1 is still pretty long odds, so when he draws his sword (maybe dagger), he was prepared to die. And secondly, John goes into the courtyard of the high priest with Jesus and he sends for Peter. John isn’t “captured”, so Peter could see that John, a known associate of Jesus, is safe. It doesn’t appear that at this point he has any reason to fear for his life.
But if it isn’t fear of death, what is it? A couple of options come to mind…maybe Peter thinks he is on the wrong side, maybe he’s beginning to doubt, maybe it’s the pain of unmet expectations. The rules have changed. Winning now looks like losing. How conflicted he must have been. A Jew who grew up believing that winning looks like winning. No one told him that the rules changed. He could very well be embarrassed and ashamed of his association with this “Criminal”, this “Want-to-be-Messiah”. Maybe it comes down to the fact that it’s easier to pick a side and go all-in, knowing that the consequence is imminent death than it is to say “Yes” hour after hour, day after day, year after year…the grueling task of “laying down your life”.
As I reflected on this passage, I wondered why John includes this episode with Peter. Peter had to be one of his closest friends, his brother-in-arms, his travelling buddy, a fellow disciple of Jesus…and yet John calls him out. And it couldn’t have been easy for John. How does this fit with John’s purpose of writing so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that by believing we may have life in His name? Simply put: We all need Jesus. Peter needed a Savior…not the Jesus he wanted, but he needed Jesus because only Jesus can save.
We are all deniers. Since the garden, it’s been hardwired into our DNA. But Jesus came to bring restoration and healing. He came to make all things new, but even in that process we are prone to lash out when our expectations are unmet, when Jesus doesn’t conform to our image of Him.
Peter was looking for the Jesus whom he thought could save him…but that Jesus couldn’t. Only Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, the I AM, the Word made flesh could truly save. And He’s the only One who can truly save us today. Granted that salvation doesn’t always look like we may want it to, but we must trust that we have a loving and benevolent Creator and Savior who is in the process of reconciling the world to Himself and conforming us to His image. That is often a painful process, but well worth it in the end.
We see Peter’s response to his expectations, but what about you? Think about an expectation, a hope, a desire in your life that currently isn’t being met. What’s your response? What does your denial look like? Anger? Frustration? Depression? Escape? Apathy? My prayer for all of us is that in the face of unmet expectations, we would be able to die to them, lay down our lives, and embrace Jesus for who He is an not who we want him to be.
Until next time…stay salty.