Simon Peter pretends he doesn’t know Jesus.

Mark 14.66-72 • Matthew 26.69-75 • Luke 22.54-62 • John 18.15-18, 25-27

Earlier that night, during dinner, Jesus told his students they weren’t gonna follow him much longer; they’d scatter. At this point Jesus’s best student, Simon Peter, got up and foolhardily claimed this prediction didn’t apply to him. He wouldn’t scatter. He’d never lose heart. He’d stick with Jesus, fight his arrest, and die for him if he had to. Mk 14.26-31

And y’know, Peter wasn’t kidding. I’ve heard way too many sermons which mock Peter for this, who claim he was all talk. Thing is, he really wasn’t. When Jesus was arrested, Peter was packing a mákhaira/“machete” (KJV “sword”) and used it. Slashed the ear right off one of the slaves in the mob. You don’t start swinging a long knife at a mob unless you’re willing to risk life and limb. Peter really was ready to fight to the death for Jesus.

I already wrote about that bit, y’know. First Jesus healed the slave, then rebuked Peter: Having a weapon was only gonna get Peter killed. Jesus could stop his arrest at any time, but that wouldn’t fulfill the scriptures. Peter thought he was doing God’s will, but he was in fact stumbling—just like Jesus predicted. He was tripping over Jesus. Peter expected Jesus to do one thing; Jesus did just the opposite, and voluntarily went with the mob to die.

That sort of turn of events would knock the zeal right out of anyone. You know how Peter later kept saying he didn’t know Jesus? At the time, he really didn’t. Thought he did; totally got him wrong. We all do, sometimes. But Peter was having that crisis of faith Christians invariably go through, made a thousand times worse by knowing his master wasn’t gonna make it through his passion alive—and Peter may not have been 100 percent certain about any of the resurrection stuff Jesus had previously talked about. Mt 17.22-23, 20.17-19 Not anymore.

Even so, Peter didn’t scatter. He followed Jesus to the head priest’s house, where Jesus had his unofficial trial-before-the-trial before the head of the senate. Didn’t go in; only the eyewitness who informed the gospel of John did. (Maybe John himself; we don’t know.) Peter simply waited in the courtyard… and when the slaves began to recognize him, he panicked.

To the scriptures:

Mark 14.66-72 KWL
66 While Simon Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the head priest’s slavewomen came.
67 Recognizing Peter as he warmed himself, she told him, “And you’re with the Nazarene, Jesus.”
68 He denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you’re saying.”
He left, going into the foyer. A rooster crowed.
69 The slavewoman who saw him began to tell the bystanders again: “He’s from them.”
70 Peter denied it again.
In a little while the bystanders told Peter, “You’re really from them: You’re Galilean.”
71 Peter began to curse, to swear, “I don’t know this person you’re talking about!”
72 Immediately a second rooster crowed, and Peter remembered the word Jesus told him:
“Before two rooster crows, three times you’ll renounce me.” Mk 14.30
Pride broken, he was mourning.
Matthew 26.69-75 KWL
69 Simon Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard.
A slavewoman came to him, saying, “And you’re with Jesus the Galilean.”
70 He denied it before everyone, saying, “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
71 Upon going out to the gate, another person saw him.
He told those there: “He was with Jesus the Nazarene.”
72 Peter again denied it, with an oath: “I don’t know the person.”
73 In a little while, those who came to stand there told Peter, “And you’re really from them.
For your speech makes you obvious.”
74 Then Peter began to curse himself, to swear, “I don’t know this person!”
Immediately a rooster crowed, 75 and Peter remembered Jesus’s word he’d said:
“Before a rooster crows, three times you’ll renounce me.” Mt 26.34
Going outside, he mourned bitterly.
Luke 22.54-62 KWL
54 They arrested him, led him away, and brought him to the head priest’s house.
Simon Peter was following at a distance.
55 A fire was kindled in the middle of the courtyard.
People were sitting together, and Peter sat among them.
56 A certain slavewoman sitting by the fire, recognizing him,
staring at him, said, “This man was also with him.”
57 He denied it, saying, “I don’t know him, ma’am.”
58 After a brief time another, on seeing him, said, “You’re also from him.”
Peter said, “Sir, I’m not.”
59 About an hour later, a certain other person leaned on him,
saying, “In fact this man was also with him, for he’s Galilean.”
60 Peter said, “Sir, I don’t know what you’re saying.”
Right as he was still speaking, a rooster crowed.
61 Turning, the Master stared at Peter, and Peter was reminded of the word Jesus told him:
“Before a rooster crows today, three times you’ll renounce me.” Lk 22.34
62 Going outside, he mourned bitterly.
John 18.15-18, 25-27 KWL
15 Simon Peter and another student followed Jesus.
That student was known by the head priest.
He went in, with Jesus, to the head priest’s courtyard. 16 Peter stood at the door outside.
So the other student, known to the head priest, came out and spoke to the doorman, who brought Peter in.
17 The doorman, a slavewoman, told Peter, “Aren’t you also one of this person’s students?”
Peter said, “I’m not.”
18 The slaves and servants stationed there had made a charcoal fire; it was cold.
They warmed themselves. Peter was also with them, standing and warming.

25 Simon Peter was standing and warming.
They told him, “Aren’t you also one of his students?”
He denied it and said, “I’m not.”
26 One of the head priest’s slaves, a relative of Malchus whose ear Peter cut off,
said, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?”
27 Again Peter denied it. And immediately a rooster crowed.

The slavewoman who identified him.

In each of the gospels, Peter was identified by a paidíski, a word that literally means “young girl,” and that’s the way a lot of bibles translate it. But it’s what ancient Greek-speakers used to call their female slaves. Back in the United States’s slavery days we did the same thing: Male slaves were “boy,” females “girl,” regardless of how old they were, or how much respect they were properly due. It was meant to remind them of their low status. Racists still do it, hoping to humiliate by it.

So this “girl” wasn’t a girl, but a slave. Again, a lot of bibles tend to translate dúlos/“slave” as “servant” (KJV especially) ’cause under the Law, even under Greco-Roman practices, slaves were treated way better than Americans treated their slaves. Less like property; more like convicts. Not like employees or coworkers; we are still talking slavery. And no, they didn’t use the word to mean either slave or servant; they had other words for servants, like ypéritis Jn 18.18 —or a word we Christians are more familiar with, diákonos/“deacon.”

Much is made about how this “little girl” threw Peter into a panic, to point out how nervous Peter was, and how very easy it was to make him stumble. But she was no mere little girl. John describes her as i paidíski i thyrorós/“the slavewoman, the doorman”—a masculine title, ’cause usually men served as doorman, but a feminine article because she had this job. Maybe ’cause the usual doorman was part of the mob arresting Jesus, but regardless the butler, or even the head priest himself, trusted her enough to give her the job. Plus she had other slaves and servants assigned to her. So, a slave with authority, a leader of men: She was no insignificant slave.

And these were the people Peter hung out with as he waited for Jesus: Slaves and servants of the head priest. Turns out some of them were even members of the mob who arrested Jesus, as John mentioned: “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?”

So when the head slave, the person who can order all the other slaves to grab you and throw you out—or at least give you a serious beating first—says, “Hey waitaminnit, aren’t you…?” it’s pretty intimidating.

But maybe it wasn’t. Movies tend to overdramatize this incident, as if Peter feared for his life, as if there were Roman soldiers in the courtyard ready to pull their swords and behead him. But I suspect it far more likely he just wanted to wait for Jesus, and didn’t want their hassle, so he just told a little white lie to get ’em off his back.

But it escalated, as sins often do.

From feigning ignorance, to outright betrayal.

This is usually how we stumble into big sins: We think they’re only small sins. Peter didn’t initially think of this as a rejection of Jesus. He was just trying to cover his butt and pass unnoticed.

But the Galilean accent didn’t sound like the Judean accent, and Peter didn’t bother to fake a Judean one, so they immediately noticed the difference. Whether it’s for this reason, or because (as John tells it) someone who’d been to Jesus’s arrest identified him, Peter began to step up his denials.

Matthew says he began to kata-thematídzein/“call down a curse upon” himself. Mt 26.74 Something along the lines of, “May God smite me with leprosy if I do know him.” Or something just as binding and horrible. Violating, of course, the command against taking the LORD’s name in vain. Now we’re not talking a little white lie anymore. Big huge lie. With oaths and curses and everything.

And it was only now Peter heard the rooster crow. Whether it was supposed to crow twice Mk 14.30 or the first time, Lk 22.34 Jesus promised him he’d renounce him three times. Mt 26.34 Peter may never have imagined these lies were renunciations—but that’s precisely what they were. There’s only one reason to claim we have no relationship with Jesus when we really do: We don’t truly believe him. We want something so much we’re willing to shove him away. He embarrasses us. We don’t want that relationship any more.

Bad enough Peter realized what he’d done, and finally did run away. Lk 22.62 But Jesus—though not in the courtyard, was in the building—and with that last renunciation, Jesus could actually turn and look at him, and watch his own prediction come true. Lk 22.61

The fact Peter mourned over this mikrós/“bitterly,” Mt 26.75 means he didn’t really mean it. He was furious at himself for it. Sick about it. Felt awful. You wouldn’t mourn like this if you really renounced Jesus; you’d be off someplace going, “Well, guess now that I’m not a Christian anymore I can go do [ickiest sin you’ve always wanted to try],” and it’s orgies and heroin from now on.

But possibly he did remember Jesus saying something about if we renounce him before others, Jesus would renounce us to the Father. Mt 10.33 If you pulled a stunt like Peter just did, and weren’t strong on grace, you might think you just condemned yourself to hell. As if Jesus didn’t know Peter didn’t mean it; as if Jesus is a legalist like one of us.

I’ll tell ya though, I’ve heard the sermons which claim this is precisely what just happened: Peter lost his salvation. Rubbish, but graceless people still teach Peter was doomed to hell till Jesus restored him with that whole “Simon, do you love me?” schtick. Jn 21.15-19 As if denial were an incantation that Jesus could only break with his counter-incantation of “Tend my sheep.”

Some of those Christians still haven’t forgiven Peter for it. Anti-Catholics especially. In denying Jesus, they insist Peter disqualified himself from leadership, which is why we see James leading the Jerusalem Council instead of Peter. Ac 15.13-21 Or the reason Paul was apostle to the gentiles instead of Peter. Or the reason Peter was crucified. They’re looking for any goofy reason why Jesus didn’t really mean it when he told Peter to pastor his sheep.

A lot of us have done far worse than Peter, for far more petty reasons. But Jesus can forgive us like he forgave Peter. Let’s just not be foolhardy and think, as Peter did, we know ourselves better than Jesus does.

Oh yeah: Jesus’s suffering.

Same as with Judas Iscariot, Jesus knew this was coming. Still sucks to watch it unfold right in front of you.

As far as sins go, this is just as bad as Judas turning him in. Yes, even in deed. Our culture doesn’t worry too much about swearing to God. Politicians do it all the time: Swear to God to defend the Constitution, then bend the Constitution like crazy for political gain. Swear under oath to tell the truth, then haggle over individual words and claim they didn’t really mean what they clearly stated.

But Peter’s culture, and the LORD himself, took these things with great seriousness. You don’t curse yourself unless you really do mean it. Peter didn’t—but did it anyway. That’s how much he thought of himself, and how little he thought of Jesus. Looking out for number one, folks.

Christians still do this. Whenever one of us falls under scandal, the rest of us are so quick to pretend we didn’t know ’em, never listened to ’em, didn’t follow ’em, always suspected they were nutty or hypocritical or heretic. All their so-called “friends” evaporate. And someday, when we mess up really badly, that’ll be us whose friends all disappear on us. Even our favorites. It’s gonna be awful.

But I hope not. Jesus doesn’t abandon us like that, and surely some of his followers are gonna practice his character when that day comes. Well, we’ll see.