Growing up in the church, I’ve heard the story of the Jesus’ last days a bazillion times. My first church even did a passion play, starring my father as one of the 12 disciples. I was always grateful he didn’t play Judas the betrayer or Peter the denier, even though Peter had the most lines next to Jesus.
I remember thinking that Peter was just as bad as Judas for his famous denial of Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times! Little did I know that all the other apostles had scattered, save John. Peter, who had such little faith he couldn’t even walk on water, who always put his foot in his mouth, who was called “Satan” by Jesus Himself. That Peter!
I realize that Peter’s gotten a bum rap. Originally called Simon, his name was changed to “Petra” by Jesus (Petros, Petras, Peter, depends on your translation), which means “rock.” I can just imagine Jesus kissing Peter on the forehead as He declared, “And on this Petra, I will build my church!” Peter was the first to confess Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ and the only one of the disciples who dared to even jump out of the boat to meet his master as He walked upon the waves of the sea. He was the fisherman who was called from the water to become a disciple of this strange teacher called Jesus.
Part of the inner circle, Peter was privy to special moments of retreat and was even chosen to keep watch with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Even though he fell asleep, Peter was quick to defend Jesus; he sliced the ear off the high priest’s servant when the Jewish religious leaders came to arrest Jesus. (Although you’d figure the religious leaders would give Jesus a break after He miraculously healed the servant’s ear, wouldn’t you?) Scripture says it was Peter who followed the crowd that ushered the newly arrested Jesus to Caiphas, the high priest. And that’s when things get mucky for Peter.
As he watched Jesus being questioned before Caiphas, I imagine that Peter’s heart was breaking and his mind was racing. Hours earlier at the Last Supper, he swore that he would never, never, never forsake Christ, even if he had to die with Jesus. When Jesus knelt to wash his feet, Peter wanted his whole body washed so that he could be super-purified. What happened to his zeal, his proud confession of Christ, and his faith? Was he afraid he would be dragged before the high priest? Was he offended that he wasn’t allowed to defend his rabboni in the garden? Did he fear for his life, as many have suggested, or was something deeper happening inside Peter?
I don’t know why Peter told two servant girls and a group of peasants that he didn’t know Jesus. But I do know what happened when the rooster crowed and Peter realized his folly. Read this chilling line from Luke 22:61, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered…” Nothing like getting an “I-told-you-so” from Jesus, especially in such a tumultuous setting. Peter “went outside” and he wept bitterly. I imagine it was an anguishing, gasping, groaning cry in which Peter’s entire face was contorted as his body trembled with remorse. His shame overtook him and he disappears from the narrative altogether during the remainder of Jesus’ final hours.
I can just imagine Peter’s thought process before his negation. Jumbled and bewildered, he considered question after question. It might have been something like this—“I know all that Jesus was capable of—I saw Him speak to Moses and Elijah for crying out loud! He fed thousands and healed the sick and taught the people. How could He allow Himself to be arrested? Why wouldn’t He let me defend Him? Doesn’t He realize this isn’t part of the plan? Doesn’t He remember how He was honored as Messiah only four days ago? I don’t understand this at all! This doesn’t make any sense. Messiah came to deliver us, not this! Who will deliver Him? Look at Him up there; He won’t say a word. Why doesn’t He answer Caiphas? Tell him who You are, Jesus, tell him who You are! Why won’t You defend Yourself? What is wrong with You? Why should I defend You if You won’t defend Yourself? What if…I was wrong?” Then one, two, three; cockadoodle-doo; it’s over.
Despite Peter’s denial times three, the risen Savior doesn’t hold a grudge. When Jesus appears to the two Mary’s on the morning of His resurrection, He instructs the women to tell the disciples and Peter to meet Him in Galilee. The disciples and Peter. He called Peter by name, and not just any name—the one given to him by Jesus. The Gospel of Luke records that after the women told the disciples Jesus had risen, Peter ran to the tomb only to find it empty while John records a race of sorts between himself and Peter to the tomb. Poor, confused Peter is desperate to know that Jesus really is who He says He is—that He is Messiah.
A couple of days later Peter goes fishing with some of the other disciples. Despite spending all night trying, they catch nothing. Sound familiar? That’s when a man on the beach tells them to throw their nets over the side of their boat and try again—in the daylight. Every fisherman knows the fish come closer to the surface at night. Yet the nets are flooded with fish. With sudden recognition, John yells, “It is the Lord!” Immediately, Peter throws off his outer garments (his clothes) and swims ashore to Jesus (yes, Peter’s in his boxers before the Son of God). He puts on a good show bringing in the nets full of fish and eating breakfast with the gang.
At this point, he has seen Jesus two others times, but it is this third time that is most intimate. Jesus reinstates Peter turning this fisherman-turned-disciple-turned-fisherman into an apostle—a Rock who led the early church with fiery sermons, a writer who penned parts of the New Testament that we read today, and a man who was crucified for his faith. Tradition has it that Peter was asked to be hung upside down because he wasn’t worthy to be crucified in the same position as the Lord.
Wow. That Peter.
And here’s a confession:: While I’ve never denied Christ with my mouth, I’ve done it in my actions. Yet my heart can’t let go of Jesus. Every time I try to turn away, God lures me back with sweet words. I confess that I’ve tried to deny knowing Christ, just like Peter, and yet when He looks straight at my heart, I remember.