Peter Denies Jesus – Matthew 26:69-75

In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed three times, committing himself to the will of the Father, while the most faithful of his disciples fell asleep three times. After Jesus is arrested, he stands before the high priest and declares that he is the Messiah, the one expected from Daniel 7:14. Peter, on the other hand, cannot stand before a young slave girl and declare his loyalty to Jesus.  Peter denies Jesus three times on the very night he swore to die with Jesus.

Peter Denies Jesus

When Jesus predicted all the disciples would fall away, Peter twice declared he would never disown Jesus (Matthew 26:31-35). Jesus had already told the disciples that one of them would betray him (26:23-25).

Peter is undoubtedly offended. He has been faithful to Jesus from the beginning and is willing to go to prison and die with Jesus. In Matthew 26:35, Peter uses a strong negative. He will certainly NOT deny his Lord. The verb (ἀπαρνέομαι) can have the sense of denying a fact, but it is used for repudiating something, such as turning from idols (Isa 31:7, casting away an idol).  

Despite the strong declaration of loyalty to Jesus, Jesus says Peter will deny Jesus three times before dawn that very day! For Romans, the rooster crowed three times during the night (12:30, 1:30, and 2:30 AM).

Despite this bold declaration of loyalty, he quickly denies Jesus three times (26:69-7). Peter is wavering between cowardice and courage, not yet denying, yet not standing next to Jesus at the trial either.

First, while Peter waits outside, “a single young girl” approaches him and says, perhaps innocently, that Peter was with “Jesus of Galilee” (26:69-70). The girl’s age is not specific, but the wording implies she is a child. Since she is a serving girl, she is perhaps no older than a teen. Her question includes a hint of superiority. Peter’s denial is “to all of them,” indicating that more than just the young girl is listening. 

Second, as Peter goes further outside, another servant girl tells some bystanders that Peter was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Peter denied this with an oath (26:71-72). He leaves the courtyard, maybe thinking that sitting in the dark would prevent people from recognizing him. Another girl talks to him, this time stating to those around the entrance to the house Peter was with Jesus. He denies it with an oath this time. Oaths were considered binding; he claims what he says is the truth in powerful language. In Matthew 5:33, Jesus tells his disciples not to swear oaths; if one does swear an oath, it is “from the evil one” (5:37). 

Third, bystanders approach Peter and ask him once again if he is a follower of Jesus, and he denies it for the third time with an oath and a curse (26:73-74a). The bystanders have evidence: Peter’s accent gives him away as a Galilean. Those from Galilee were said to have a vulgar accent. His third denial is the strongest. He not only swears an oath but also “invokes a curse” (καταθεματίζω). Even though the word is not in the middle voice, most translations add the words “on himself.” It is not that he swears at the bystanders (like modern “cursing at someone”). Mark used a slightly different word (ἀναθεματίζω). In both cases, this is the act of cursing yourself if what you say is not true. For example, in Acts 23, ἀναθεματίζω used to intensify an oath, something like “may we be cursed (by God) if we do not kill Paul by tomorrow.” 

Just as Peter makes this third and strongest denial, he hears the crowing of the rooster, and he realizes what he has done (26:74b-75). Now Peter remembers the words of Jesus, that he would deny the Lord three times, and he realized that he had in fact, fulfilled that prophecy. These three denials match the three times that Peter failed to stay awake and pray with Jesus. Now he has lied and cursed himself. He has fallen into that temptation that the Lord had predicted. 

Matthew reports that Peter went out and “wept bitterly.” Peter is not named again in the gospel. Peter has “gone out” three times, further away from where Jesus is and further into the darkness.

Is “weeping bitterly” a sign Peter repented? Most readers understand this bitter weeping as indicating that he realized his sin and truly repented. However, the word “repent” does not appear here (although it does for Judas!) Matthew moves Peter further outside into the darkness with each denial.

A common theme in Matthew is that not all disciples are true disciples. In Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Similarly, Matthew 8:12 says, “while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the conclusion to the wedding banquet parable, one guest is found without wedding garments and is cast out “into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:1-12).

At this point, Peter knows he has ultimately denied the Lord and has no hope of reconciliation. If he has rejected association with Jesus and Jesus is about to die, there will be no opportunity for him to beg for forgiveness or to die along with Jesus (as he had recently boasted). Only after the resurrection does Peter realize the Lord has forgiven his denial. John records his “restoration,” and Luke tells us that Peter is the first to enter the tomb and discover the empty grave clothes. The book of Acts demonstrates that Peter was truly repentant and restored as the leader of Jesus’s disciples.

Peter After the Book of Acts

James Dunn titled his chapter on Peter in his book on the apostolic period “The Voiceless Peter” (Beginning at Jerusalem, chapter, 35).  His point is that the book of Acts has little to say about Peter after chapter 12 and that there is very little (if any) historically reliable data which allows us to know much at all about Peter.  Dunn does not accept 1 Peter as coming from a historical Peter, although he discusses the locations from 1 Peter 1:1 as possible locations for Peter to have ministered and he uses the reference to Babylon in 5:13 as a int that Peter was in fact in Rome in the early 60’s.

Saint Peter and the KeysAny “quest” for the historical Peter will be complicated by the fact that so much tradition surrounds Peter.  It is difficult know when a later generation was recalling a real event or creating an event in order to give Peter more weight as the leader of the Church.  One example is the elevation of Peter in Matthew 16:13-20.  “Upon this rock I will build my church” seems to be a clear statement that Peter is the foundation for the church.  For many scholars, this text suspicious since it is only found in Matthew and sounds a bit too much like Matthew was reflecting the current state of the church at the time he was writing rather than something that Jesus actually said.  For example, Dunn thinks that Matthew did in fact give Peter a great of significance, but this may be rooted in the memory of Peter functioning as a foundational figure in the church.

It is however clear that Peter was a follower of Jesus from the beginning.  Jesus chose him as a leader of the twelve because he understood who Jesus was most fully.  Peter is at the head of every list of the disciples and there is no question that the gospels see him as the chief of the apostles.  The only exception to this might be John, which features the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” probably John himself.

The center of the three synoptic gospels is the confession of Peter, his statement that Jesus is in fact God’s messiah, God’s son.  In each gospel this is the climax of the first half of the book, as Jesus teaches the crowds who he is, after the confession of Peter there is far more training of the disciples personally, and several predictions that Jesus will suffer at the hands of the elders and priests and be crucified.  After Jesus announces that he will suffer and die, Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him that he will not die – often this is described as a failure on Peter’s part.

But Peter is not “succumbing to the flesh” (as John MacArthur says in Twelve Ordinary Men, 37), but he is making a thoughtful statement about who Jesus is (and he gets it correct), but misunderstands what Jesus will do in Jerusalem. MacArthur is better later in the text (page 45) when he contrasts Peter’s  confession with his rebuke, the harshest endured by any person in the gospels (Get thee behind me, Satan!)  But he is not rejected as the leader of the disciples, nor does the rebuke seem to change the relationship of Peter and Jesus.  Peter’s lack of understanding is an opportunity for Satan to tempt Jesus.

The confession and rebuke therefore stand out as an example of Peter’s boldness and initiative – he is the one who must stand up for the rest and speak on their behalf because that is the place to which God has called him.

Obviously his denial is a spectacular failure, but at least he is in the position to make that kind of failure.

Acts 12:17 – Where Does Peter Go?

After he is miraculously released from prison, Peter goes to the home of Mary and her son John Mark. This seems to have been a larger home where people have gather to pray for him. While Peter had no problems getting out of the prison, he has some (humorous) trouble getting into the house where Christians are praying for him! (For this story as Greco-Roman Comedy, see J. Albert Harrill, “The Dramatic Function Of The Running Slave Rhoda (Acts 12.13-16) : A Piece Of Greco-Roman Comedy.” New Testament Studies 46.1 (2000): 150-157.)

No, not this one.

No, not this one.

Peter reports to this group what has happened (12:16-17). The scene inside the house is of chaos. Everyone is asking the same question: How did Peter get out of prison? Did he deny the Lord (again)?  He explains to the group how the Lord rescued him. Peter tells the group to report to James what had happened. This request is unexpected at this point in Acts. The reader is not aware that James, the Lord’s brother is a believer. James will, however, become one of the major leaders of the Jerusalem church by Acts 15.

Jesus’ brothers did not believe he was the messiah during his ministry, but after the resurrection at least James and Jude come to understand what Jesus was. Paul reports a tradition 1 Cor 15:3-5 that Jesus appeared his brother James at some point.  This may be a kind of commissioning to ministry since the other two named people on this list (Peter and Paul) are commissioned to a particular ministry. In church history, James has a reputation for being an extremely zealous Jewish believer and a leader among the Pharisees and priests who accepted Jesus (cf. Acts 21:18-25).

After asking for the group to inform James, Peter goes “to another place” (v. 17). This is rather non-specific way to conclude a series of stories about Peter, almost like “riding off into the sunset” at the end of an old movie. There are several possibilities for understanding the phase. First, it might mean Peter simply went to another location in Jerusalem. If he remained in Mary’s home, she could have been in danger for harboring a fugitive. Second, Peter may have left the region, out of Herod Agrippa’s jurisdiction, Keener suggests out of Palestine (2:1952). Third, a traditional view is Peter began travelling as a missionary like Paul will in the next chapter. This might take him as far as Corinth (1 Cor 9:5), Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1) and possibly Rome. This tradition comes from Eusebius (H.E. 2.14.5). But since he is in Jerusalem in Acts 15, he does not seem to have gone far. Perhaps he only returned to the coastal plain and Caesarea, within easy travel of Jerusalem and later made Pauline-like missionary tours.

Fourth, some scholars see this as an indication of a shift in leadership in the Jerusalem community from Peter to James. Luke does have a tendency to briefly introduce characters who will be important later in the story, so there may be simply literary device like foreshadowing. It is fascinating to observe Peter’s absence from the book of Acts after this point, in contrast to James’ importance in chapters 15 and 21. James is not an apostle, but he does seem to be the leader of the Jerusalem community from this point forward.

It is also significant there is no effort to replace James the son of Zebedee after he is killed.  On the one hand, it is at least 13 years after the resurrection, so the pool of individuals who could be witnesses from John the Baptist through the resurrection is diminishing. Even James the brother of Jesus does not qualify as a witness under those requirements!

All this seems to point toward a dramatic shift in the Luke’s story. He is concluding the first major movement of the book and preparing for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles in chapter 13.


Acts 12:12-17 – Praying for Peter

Peter PrisonPeter’s rescue from prison is one of several miraculous escape stories in Acts. Dunn points out that this sort of story is almost a distinct genre in ancient literature (Beginning from Jerusalem, 408). There are several of these sorts of stories in Acts.  Luke tells the story with intentional humor (Peter has to be roused by the angel, Rhoda plays the dizzy serving girl, etc.) But there is more going on in the story than an amusing anecdote about Peter escaping prison and execution at the hand of Herod Agrippa.

While Peter is in prison, people were gathered at Mary’s home praying. Mary is the mother of John Mark, and her home appears to be the location of a house church. Her husband is not mentioned so she may be another wealthy widow who supports a local church (like Tabitha, for example). John Mark may have some role as a leader in the church along with Peter. The evening that Peter is rescued, this community is gathered to pray.

What Luke does not tell us is what were they praying for. It is possible that this is simply a meeting of a house church for a prayer time. It is the Passover, so it is possible that these Jewish believers gathered at Mary’s house to share a Passover meal and then spend time in prayer after the meal. But given the context it is reasonable to assume that they were praying for Peter.

However, if they were praying for his release, then their response to Peter’s escape from prison is unusual. When Peter knocks at the door the servant Rhoda is so overjoyed that Peter is at the door she forgets to let him in to the house! When she reports that Peter is at the door the people gathered to pray think that she is “out of her mind” (μαίνομαι, literally, “you’re crazy”). They even suggest that she has seen “Peter’s angel.” Neither response sounds like they expected God to answer a prayer to rescue Peter.

No. Not Her.

No. Not Her.

John Polhill thinks that this might be a reference to the Jewish belief in guardian angels, or perhaps spirits of the recent dead who lurk for a time after death. Polhill cites Tobit 5:4-16, although this is not exactly the same sort of situation (Acts, 282) . Even when Peter finally gets into the house, the whole group is amazed by this escape. If they were praying for escape, they seem rather surprised by it.

It is more likely that the gathered church was praying that Peter would actually die for his faith and not deny Christ. It must have been well known by this point that Peter and the twelve all once denied Christ. Peter’s denial was most spectacular, denying his association with Jesus three times soon after he declared his loyalty to Jesus.  With the apostle James dead, perhaps this group is worried that Peter will not be able to withstand the pressure and he will deny that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead. A denial of this sort would be a disaster for the Jewish Church in Jerusalem.

This story underscores the importance of fa faithful witness in Acts. The gathered believers want Peter to be that faithful witness, willing to continue to declare his faith even if he pays with his life. Peter is a changed man after the resurrection and he has already stood up to the Sanhedrin on several occasions.

This story demonstrates that faithful witness may be required not simply to live for Christ, but also to die for him.

Acts 12 and Luke’s Literary Style

Luke IconIf Luke has been tracking the story of the movement of the Spirit to the “fringes” of Judaism, then we might wonder what the point of chapter 12 is in that development. It is possible to see persecution from Herod (Agrippa I) as a demonstration of how far out of step the leadership of Israel was with the movement of the Holy Spirit. Herod was considered to be the best of his line with respect to Jewish roots. But as we shall see, he was quite Roman in his thinking. With this story, we have in many ways crossed the line to “outsiders,” and it is therefore quite surprising to find the “King of the Jews” on the outside of the growing movement of the Spirit.

Luke collected a number of stories about Peter into a mini-collection (9:32-12:25). In the first of these stories, Peter is something like the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha in that he goes to the boundaries of the nation and finds faithful people even there. In this finals story concerning Peter, he is back in Jerusalem at a time of persecution. Because the death of Herod Agrippa is well know from Josephus, we can date the events of this chapter fairly precisely to A.D. 43-44, some 14 years after Pentecost.

There are several Lukan literary features in this chapter. He introduces two key characters (John Mark and James) by simply mentioning them, knowing he will pick up both characters again in the following chapters. In addition, there are several stories of imprisonment for preaching the gospel, followed by a miraculous escape (twice for Peter, later with Paul in Philippi and Jerusalem, the shipwreck in chapter 27 may also be a miraculous escape story.) Finally, Acts 11:19-29 and 12:25 form a frame around this passage; this may be significant since Luke tells a very brief story of Saul’s involvement with the Antioch church and the growing importance of the ministry in that city.

Acts 12 is more here than an entertaining incident in the life of Peter: it anticipates a major transition in the book, from Peter to Paul.