On the evening Jesus was betrayed, he shared a meal with his disciples, and Peter declared his total allegiance to Jesus. Jesus replied ‘truly I tell you, before the rooster crows you will deny me three times’ (John 13:38). After spending three years travelling, working and living alongside Jesus, the idea was unthinkable to Peter. But little did he know what the rest of the evening would have in store.
‘Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in. “You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter. He replied, “I am not.” It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself…
Simon Peter was still standing there warming himself. So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?” He denied it, saying, “I am not.” One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.’ (John 18:15-18, 25-27)
This story is a powerful example of how quickly one can oscillate from boldness to fear. One moment, Peter is declaring that he would follow Jesus wherever he went, even to death (John 13:37); and the next he’s denying him three times.
Each time he denies Jesus, he digs his heels in deeper. Imagine what the other disciple who was with him (presumably John) would have made of Peter’s first denial. Not only was he denying Jesus, he was in effect distancing himself from his friend.
Then once inside the courtyard, Peter denies knowing Jesus twice more; once to a number of servants and officials and finally to a relative of Malchus, the guy whose ear Peter had severed only a few hours earlier (John 18:10). This is an absurd denial – someone is hardly likely to forget the face of the man who disfigured his relative!
Imagine the combination of emotions that must have overcome Peter at the sound of the cockerel; the fear, the shame, the guilt – the realisation of what he had done.
This passage, however, tells only one half of Peter’s story, and if you had read John’s gospel to this point, you would be well aware of John’s ability to craft a brilliant story, in which no detail is unintentional. Here Peter stands in a cold courtyard, warming himself on a charcoal fire, with its characteristic, recognisable glow and aroma (John 18:18). There is only one other time in John’s gospel where a charcoal fire is mentioned – in John 21.
After the resurrection, the disciples were fishing, catching nothing at all. A figure stood on the side of the lake and advised them to throw down their nets on the other side. They obeyed, and caught an enormous load of fish. It clicked for Peter – he recognised this miracle. It was the same one Jesus had performed the day he had first called the disciples (Luke 5:1-11). He’d come full circle.
Rushing to the shore, Peter was hit with the familiar sight and smell of a charcoal fire (John 21:9). It was here, sitting by a fire, as he had done only a few days previously, that Peter received forgiveness and restoration. Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, contrasting his three denials. Then three times Jesus commissioned Peter to feed and care for his sheep (John 21:15-17). This must have been a deeply emotional moment for Peter, as he received forgiveness and assurance that God had a purpose and plan for his future.
The story of Peter is an encouraging one. It reminds us of both our propensity to fail and God’s willingness to forgive. It reminds us that our weaknesses don’t automatically disqualify us from being useful in the hand of God; there is grace, restoration, and a role for us to play in his plan.
Questions for Reflection
- Peter’s experience is not unique. Many of us have known times where we have made bold claims or statements of faith, only to then fall at the first hurdle. How have you known the forgiveness and restoration of God? Are there areas right now where you know you are denying him, and you need to experience His forgiveness?
- Peter’s failures did not automatically disqualify him from being useful in the purposes of God. Jesus not only forgave him, but re-commissioned him. Are there things God is calling you to do right now? What is holding you back, and what steps might you need to take in order to respond to his call?
Why not use the following to help you to pray today:
Lord Jesus, thank you for your constant faithfulness and willingness to forgive. Thank you that you have a plan and purpose for my life. Help me, in my moments of pressure or temptation, not to give into fear. And when I fail or deny you, help me to be quick to seek restoration, knowing that you promise to forgive me, because my sin has been paid for at the cross. I ask, too, that you speak to me about the mission you have prepared for me, and that you equip me to serve you with my passions and skills. Amen
If you find yourself with some extra time today, why not read the following passages and consider what they tell us about the changes that occurred in Peter’s life: Acts 2:1-41; 2 Peter 1:1-11.
Image: Campfire by Doug Beckers, used under CC