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.
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.