Peter fails Jesus at a crucial moment
- Describe what happened in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house in Jerusalem.
- How did Peter react when he realized he had betrayed Jesus?
- Do leaders have a greater responsibility to be courageous and lead by example?
In brief: Jesus told Peter he would deny knowing him. Peter emphatically rejected this, but when a servant of the High Priest recognized Peter, he swore he did not know Jesus. Then he remembered what Jesus had said.
Jesus predicts Peter will betray him
Peter is the most lovable and human of the disciples, as this story shows, but he has flaws as well. Perhaps that is why Jesus chose him to lead the early Church.
At the Last Supper or just afterwards, Jesus told Peter that he would pretend he did not know Jesus – not once, but three times. Peter was astounded and hurt. He was the acknowledged leader of Jesus’ disciples, and told Jesus he was ready to die for him. Sadly, the exact opposite would happen:
- Peter, though he would one day die for Jesus, was not spiritually ready to do so
- Jesus in the coming hours would lay down his life for Peter.
Jesus’ statement was a terrible blow to Peter, and this may be the reason why he remained silent through the rest of the Last Supper, and only regained his confidence when he defended Jesus against the soldiers who came to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
See blue text at bottom of page for Gospel passages
The maidservant questions Peter
After his arrest, Jesus was taken to the High Priest’s house. There was some difficulty about which High Priest is meant here, since both are mentioned by the evangelists. It is quite possible that Caiaphas and Annas lived in adjoining houses in the wealthy Upper City of Jerusalem – or even in the same house. The buildings were closely packed and small, which is why many priests maintained second homes in the surrounding countryside.
It is a wonder that an outsider like Peter was there in the courtyard at all, especially as entry was limited: not just anyone could go into the courtyard.
How did he get in? According to John’s gospel, Peter had another unnamed disciple with him, one who knew the High Priest. This man was known to the woman who had custody of the main door, a sort of concierge. She recognized the unnamed disciple and let him and Peter come in as far as the central courtyard.
There were other people there gathered around an open fire. It was between seasons, so the night was cold.
The hearing that was going on inside the mansion/house took some time. In the meantime people waited.
As they stood around the fire the portress/concierge looked more closely at Peter and listened to his Galilean accent. She was curious. She decided she had seen him before, possibly with Jesus, and questioned him. He, taken off guard, responded. No, he did not know Jesus, he said.
Fire in a brazier, night timeAs soon as the words were out, Peter regretted them. Jesus’ prophetic warning, made so recently, had come true. Peter had denied his Lord.
Confused by his own cowardice, Peter fell silent. He waited. The danger seemed to have passed.
But now someone else took up the questioning, and they were more insistent. Again Peter responded, this time more emphatically. He did not know Jesus, had never heard of him.
Luke writes of Peter denying that he even knew Jesus, a description that makes the denial even worse.
See green text at bottom of page for Gospel passages
The cock crows
According to people who have lived in Jerusalem, roosters crow three times during the night: first, about half an hour after midnight, second, about an hour later, and a third time about an hour later than this.
Suddenly he heard the sound of a rooster crowing, and he remembered Jesus’ words – and his own brash confidence. He realised that
- inside the house Jesus was being jeered at for making a claim to be the Messiah
- outside in the courtyard Jesus’ prophetic words had just been fulfilled.
Peter was distraught. He withdrew and wept bitter tears of remorse.
These tears were a turning point for him, as he acknowledged his own failings and repented for what he had done. This story of Peter’s denial undoubtedly offered encouragement to the early Christians, who were frequently challenged to acknowledge their own Christian beliefs. As we are today.
See redtext at bottom of page for Gospel passages
Peter’s fault in denying Jesus is no greater than that of the other disciples who abandoned Jesus – or is it? Do leaders have a greater responsibility to be courageous and lead by example? Peter (and the evangelists who tell his story) seem to think so. Peter, ‘the rock’, had been unable to face the prospect of torture and death, even though he had promised loudly to do so. His failure and his subsequent repentance give all of us hope.
What happened next? See Jesus, Pontius Pilate and Herod
What the Gospels say
1 Prediction of Peter’s denial: Read the blue text
2 The maidservant questions Peter: Read the green text
3 The cock crows: Read the red text
Mark 14:26-31, 66-72
26 And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” 30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said vehemently, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.
66 And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came; 67 and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him, and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway. 69 And the maid saw him, and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. And after a little while again the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”
72 And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Matthew 26:31-35, 69-75
31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 33 Peter declared to him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” 35 Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him, and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” 71 And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 And again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74 Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.”
And immediately the cock crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Luke 22:31-34, 54-62
31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” 33 And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” 34 He said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.”
54 Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance; 55 and when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. 56 Then a maid, seeing him as he sat in the light and gazing at him, said, “This man also was with him.” 57 But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58 And a little later some one else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” 59 And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” 60 But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying.”
And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61 And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And he went out and wept bitterly.
John 13:36-38, 18:15-18
36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.” 37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.
15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, 16 while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in. 17 The maid who kept the door said to Peter, “Are not you also one of this man’s disciples?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves; Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.