Peter's Denial

In the garden, Jesus allows the Roman soldiers and temple police to arrest him (verse 12). 

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 23, 2014

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Commentary on John 18:12-27

In the garden, Jesus allows the Roman soldiers and temple police to arrest him (verse 12). 

The troops bring Jesus to the house of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest (verse 13). In a wonderful twist of irony the narrator recalls Caiaphas’ words — “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50) — to express the purpose of Jesus’ death — Jesus will gather the scattered children of God to God’s very self. A marvelous thread begins. The very ones who condemn Jesus unknowingly proclaim him.

Peter and another disciple follow Jesus and gain access to the court of the high priest along with Jesus (verse 15). What unfolds is reminiscent of a television drama in which the police hold a suspect in Interrogation Room A and his accomplice in Interrogation Room B. The scene shifts between the two interrogation rooms, one in the high priest’s house and the other in the courtyard. The tension builds as we wait to see who will be the first to succumb to pressure and turn on his friend. Whereas it doesn’t take Peter long to cave, Jesus never cracks. Peter’s denial contrasts Jesus’ faithfulness with Peter’s — and our — cowardice.

While the high priest, who is surrounded by the temple police, questions Jesus, a maid interrogates Peter! Pause there for a moment. Jesus faces the high priest backed by brute force. Torture is on everyone’s mind. Peter goes toe-to-toe with the maid who keeps the door. This isn’t even TSA at the airport.

The maid asks Peter if he is Jesus’ disciple. Whereas Jesus responded, “I AM” in the garden (18:4), Peter lies and answers, “I am not.” Peter then joins the very ones who came to the garden to seize Jesus as they warm themselves around a charcoal fire (verses 18-19). From the junior high kid who abandons a buddy to hang with the cool kids to the bystander who does not intervene to oppose abuse because to do so is just too dangerous, we all know what this is like.

The scene shifts to Jesus’ interrogation by the high priest (verses 19-24). Annas asks Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answers that he spoke openly in the world, taught in synagogues and in the Temple, and said nothing in secret. “Why do you ask me?” Jesus responds, ‘Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said” (18:21).

Jesus’ response highlights the devastating effects of Peter’s denial. Knowing all that is to happen to him, Jesus knows that his time of teaching is over. If people want to know the words of Jesus, they must ask those who heard them and know what Jesus said. The teaching of Jesus now rests in the hands of his disciples. Jesus’ teaching now rests in Peter’s hands and ours. And Peter has denied.

One of the temple police slaps Jesus. In response to being slapped, Jesus says that, if he has spoken blasphemy, the high priest should bring witnesses to testify to that fact. If Jesus spoke truthfully, he should not have been slapped. Here we see that Jesus is not guilty, a fact to be confirmed in Jesus’ trial before Pilate (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). More than not guilty, Jesus speaks the truth, unlike Peter who lied.

The scene returns to Peter, a disciple who has heard Jesus’ teaching. Still standing by the fire with those who came to seize Jesus, Peter is asked a second time if he is Jesus’ disciple. Peter denies Jesus a second time, saying, “I am not” (verse 25). Then, to make it impossible for Peter to deny his relationship with Jesus, a relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off in the garden (18:10) asks whether he saw Peter in the garden with Jesus. Peter denies a third time.

In this instance, Peter not only denies being Jesus’ disciple; Peter denies being in the garden. Peter denies any relationship with Jesus. Peter denies all links to the disciples. Peter denies what even Judas acknowledges — that he knows the garden, the disciples, and Jesus (18:2). “And at that moment the cock crowed” (18:27), and Jesus’ words to Peter come true. “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (13:38).

Jesus knows all that is to befall him; what Jesus said would happen does happen. The cockcrow confirms this. So, when Jesus tells the high priest, “Ask those who heard what I said to them” (18:21), Jesus knows that the time will come when those who heard Jesus will proclaim it. Jesus knows that betraying, denying disciples will speak Jesus’ teaching. Even more, failing disciples will be able to speak of Jesus’ unconditional love for them, and how Jesus made God known in that love, because, even as they denied, Jesus remained faithful.

This reading is not about Peter. And since it is not about Peter, it’s certainly not about us. As edifying as it is, don’t catalog all the ways we deny Jesus. Instead, proclaim Jesus’ faithfulness and confidence. Even as we deny Jesus, Jesus remains faithful to the God he calls Father and to the world he came to save. Jesus remains faithful to us even as we cave under pressure and deny Jesus and his teaching.

Even as we deny him, Jesus remains confident in us. Jesus, who knows all things, know that, after he has been lifted up from the earth and drawn all creation to himself, we will be emboldened by the power of his resurrection. Peter and all Jesus’ disciples will proclaim Jesus and his teaching. Jesus will give Peter the chance the next time Peter finds himself around a charcoal fire (21:9). Three times Jesus will ask Simon Peter if he loves him, once for each of Peter’s denials (21:15-17). And Peter will answer, “I do.” And so will we.



Holy God,
Patient and enduring, like Peter, who denied Jesus, we 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


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