Peter's Denial

Can we be full participants in the journey to the cross?

Rooster crowing
Photo by Sarah Halliday on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 20, 2022

View Bible Text

Commentary on John 18:12-27

We move headlong into the Passion Narrative in this third week in Lent. 

Note some preliminary matters before moving into the text.

The first is the relationship of John to the Synoptic Gospels. To this point, we have mainly emphasized the differences. For example, Jesus told an enigmatic story about sheep and the shepherd in chapter 13 and gave an interpretation, but not in the same way Jesus told parables in the Synoptics. Similarly, the “miracles” in John are signs pointing to who Jesus is and to the importance of believing in and following Jesus. This is very unlike the Synoptic portrayal of miracles.

In chapters 18-20, we find dramatic similarities with the Synoptics. Perhaps this is because the Passion Narratives are likely to be the first Jesus stories fixed in the Church’s oral tradition. John follows the same pattern as the other three while highlighting specific Johannine motifs. It may be helpful to point to the distinguishing features such as 1) Jesus is in control, 2) the Beloved Disciple is important, 3) the Romans are responsible for the sentencing.

A second is that we skipped five chapters (13:18-18:11) between the foot-washing and Peter’s denial of Jesus. Jesus’ Farewell Discourse stretches from 13:1-17:26. These chapters in John offer an account of Jesus’ love for his disciples and his care in preparing them for what was to come. 

Peter was the “glitch in the program” at the foot-washing last week. He did not want to participate; he was unwilling for Jesus to wash his feet. Then Jesus told Peter the consequences of not participating and, suddenly, Peter was all in, wanting his whole body washed. The initial hesitancy followed by outlandish enthusiasm should be in the back of our minds as we encounter this text.

Prior to our focal verses, Peter acted in his “all in” way by slicing off the soldier’s ear as Jesus is arrested (18:10). Peter defends Jesus from the arresting soldiers and police, emotionally and publicly. We are about to see, however, that Peter has become Jesus’ secret acquaintance. Perhaps the Farewell Discourse did not register in Peter’s understanding of what was about to take place.

Peter’s denial is told in an interrupted fashion that is like the Synoptics, especially Mark. Intercalation (“sandwich technique”) is the method of beginning a story, interrupting it with another story, then finishing the first story. We should be attentive to how each story affects the interpretation of the other when seeing this pattern. It is necessary to understand Peter’s question and answer session in relationship to the “sandwiched” pericope of Jesus’ question and answer session with Annas. 

Outline of “sandwiched” stories:

A1 verses 15-18 Peter questioned first time

B   verses 19-24 Annas questions Jesus

A2   verses 25-27 Peter question second and third times

Here is the plot line of Peter’s denial:

A1 verse 15

verse 15    The maid (also the gatekeeper): “Are you not one of the disciples of this man?

Peter: “I am not.” (Wording is as Jesus “I am” in verses 5, 6, and 8, except for the negation.

A2   verse 25-27

verse 25    They (slaves and assistants, see verse 18 for who is with Peter by the fire): “Are you not one of his disciples?”

Peter: Repudiating Jesus, “I am not.”

verse 26    A servant of the high priest and relative of the person Peter cut the ear off: “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?”

verse 27    Peter: Again, Peter refused to consent (not direct discourse)

We can now frame the pattern of question and answer with Jesus before Annas1

B   verses 19-24

verse 19    Annas questions Jesus about disciples and his teaching (not direct    discourse)

verses 20,21    Jesus: “I have spoken plainly in public to the world. Always, I taught in a synagogue and the temple where all the Jews gather, and I said nothing in secret. Why are you questioning me? Question the ones who heard what I said to them and who know those things.”

verse 22    A servant: (hits Jesus) “Is this how you talk to the High Priest?”

verse 23    Jesus: “If I spoke badly, testify about the bad thing. But if (I spoke) good, why did you hit me?”

Here are some insights to uncover:

  • Peter is abbreviated and inhibited in his interactions, but Jesus is clever and in charge, even changing the course of the conversation.
  • Jesus directs Annas to ask those who heard him speak to testify to what he has been teaching. Peter has an opportunity to testify to those gathered at the fire, but he does not.
  • Jesus has said nothing in secret, but Peter wants to remain a secret.

We can draw some implications for the preaching of Peter’s denial. Lent is about the passion, the suffering of Jesus. The passion in John is the mission of Jesus. Many of us retreat from suffering and may try to escape this interminable Lenten focus on Jesus’ suffering. 

This text gifts us with two visions of life lived in suffering. Peter retreats, hoping to hide his identity as a follower and to escape the fate that Jesus has anticipated. Denial and secrecy are Peter’s operational guides in suffering, but not for Jesus.

Jesus is open and fully participatory, claiming the suffering as his mission. Jesus is not a victim to the whims of Jews or Romans. Jesus has come for this very time of suffering. Suffering is for God’s glory and salvation of the world. From the beginning of John, Jesus has told everyone who will listen this truth.

Can we be full participants in the journey to the cross? Can we hold on for the end of this story?


  1.  There is confusion among scholars as to the questioner in this section. Was Caiaphas the High Priest or was Annas? Which one was questioning Jesus? Verse 13 specifies that they took Jesus first to Annas. The questioning of Jesus is by the High Priest and, at the conclusion, Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas “the High Priest.” This is a conundrum that cannot be solved in this space. I am choosing to call the questioner here “Annas” whether he was the historical High Priest.


Holy God,

We, like Peter, often turn our backs on you. Forgive us and show us a new way to live, walking boldly and passionately toward you. Amen.


What wondrous love is this   ELW 666
Guide me ever, great Redeemer ELW 618


Stay with us, Walter Pelz