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Peter Denied Jesus - the tragic events of Luke 22:54-62

Updated: May 14, 2021

We don't know how we will respond to crisis until we face it.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 22:54-62

Our passage covers the worst moment of Peter's life: his fear overwhelming his commitment to Jesus. His earlier brash statement of faith was quickly forgotten when faced with the threat of punishment. How steadfast are we in our public commitment to Jesus? Or are we in need for forgiveness and restoration for our own failures and denials?

She said, “This man was with him too.” But he denied it: “Woman, I don’t know him.” Luke 22:56

Warning: A Very Serious Topic on Mother's Day

As we would expect with any passage covering the final days of Jesus' earthly life, it's extremely serious. It's also Mother's Day (Happy Mother's Day!), which also makes me want to celebrate families and the women who shaped us. We want to strike a balance between the joy of the calendar holiday and the gravity of this amazing passage.


[Also -- you might have noticed the longer-than-usual read time. Don't worry about that! I've included a longer-than-usual closing section that you don't have to read.]


Your Worst Moment (-or- Your "Mom Fail" Moment)

Today's passage covers Peter's worst moment (memorialized for everyone to read for the rest of human history). We've all had some really bad moments, and you might find an opportunity to share yours.


But let's link this to Mother's Day. To make the opening discussion easier, instead of sharing our "worst" moment, let's remember our "most embarrassing" moment (preferably one that you can now look back on and laugh about). Particularly, if you're a mom, what has been your worst "mom fail"? Something like:

  • You forgot your kid's birthday.

  • You forgot to order the pizza for your kid's party.

  • You lost your kid at the store.

  • You made your kid be late to the big game.

If you're not a mom, or if nothing is coming to mind, perhaps you might take a trip down the memory lane of Southwest Airline's "Wanna Get Away?" commercials. I forgot how much they made me laugh. The guest who gets caught snooping in the medicine cabinet. The patron who sneezes on the meticulous "sand painting". Here's a short compilation:


You might remember when we studied Proverbs 31 (the woman of noble character) last year that there weren't many safe or appropriate mom memes or mom jokes online.

So, we made our own. Many of the so-called "mom fail" pages I found on the internet were filled with things that I did not find funny or appropriate, so don't rely on them.


Here's a funny one that might make you feel better about yourself: this classic fail at the end of a church's performance of the Hallelujah Chorus. (I post it because members of the church have since reported how good came out of this very embarrassing moment.)

If you're a musician, this is the greatest one of them all. It's just audio -- only a black screen. At the end of the Hallelujah Chorus (about 0:16 seconds in), the organist hit the wrong button. Every musician's heart in the world will immediately break for that organist. (Big kudos to the choir and organist for keeping it together.)


The point? When we remember something that mortifyingly embarrassed us, maybe it will help our hearts go out to Peter just a little bit as we read his story today. Don't kick him when he's down -- instead, thank God that we don't have to be remembered by our worst moments. Forgiveness and restoration is available to us in Jesus.


Your Most Hated Characters Who Sold Out Their Friends (-or- Mama warned you about him)

Here's another idea. In our passage, Peter denies knowing Jesus out of self-preservation. Words that come to mind for this are "treachery" and "backstabber" and "betrayal". Frankly, that's happened to all of us from someone we thought was a friend (even if it wasn't remotely as serious as what Peter did to Jesus!). Hang on to your more serious, personal examples, and start with make-believe characters in books and movies. It seems like every book or movie has some character that betrays a friend either out of fear (like Peter) or for money (like Judas in last week's passage). Those characters are the worst!


Here are some of my "favorites" (if that's the word for this):

  • Lando Calrissian (The Empire Strikes Back). May the Fourth be with you. Lando sold out his friends in hopes of saving his own neck. Trivia: this is the very first movie I saw in the theater. My mom sat with me in the foyer for most of the runtime.

  • Cypher (The Matrix) sold out his crew both because he thinks they're going to be captured and killed and also because he's tired of running. Trivia: this is the first movie Shelly and I watched multiple times together in a theater.

  • Severus Snape (Harry Potter) (spoilers) did the ultimate rope-a-dope by making us think he was betraying Harry while he was actually betraying Voldemort the whole time. Trivia: I never saw a Harry Potter movie in the theater.

Here's a few more:

  • Edmund Pevensie (Narnia) would do anything for another Turkish Delight.

  • Fernand Mondego (Count of Monte Cristo) falsely accused his best friend of treason in order to get the girl.

  • Literally any character in a Shakespeare play.

  • Wellington Yueh (Dune) would do anything to save his wife.

Here would be the point of this topic: what sticks out to you about that character? How do you feel about them? Did you ever hope they might have a redemption arc? (If they did, how did you respond to it?) How do you determine the difference between a character you hope is redeemed, and one you hope "gets what he deserves"?


Obviously, Judas is and always will be considered the arch-betrayer of Jesus, but what Peter did -- denying Jesus out of self-preservation -- is also pretty despicable. And yet, Peter's redemption arc is one of the most inspiring in history. Perhaps you will be encouraged to believe that anyone can be forgiven and restored.

 

This Week's Big Idea: When Christians Turn Their Back on Jesus

The definition of "apostate" is "someone who forsakes his religion". We have all read stories of people who once called themselves to be "Christian" and later denied Jesus. The Mother's Day connection is much more personal: some of you have children that you raised in church, made a profession of faith, and have since stopped going to church. What do we do with that?


Let me separate three different groups. The first group, "celebrities who have renounced their Christianity", gets the most attention online. That's also the least helpful to us. So a movie star went to Catholic school as a child. Well, a whole lot of people went to church as a child -- "going to church" used to be a normal thing. That doesn't mean really believed any of it. However, by all means pray for the celebrities who appear in those lists!


The second group, "former church leaders who have left the faith", is a much shorter list, and I think it's much more applicable to what we're studying this week. Anti-Christians really like to jump on these stories in order to discredit Christianity. Here are a few that have happened in the last couple of years:

  • Marty Sampson was a songwriter for Hillsong United and decided he could no longer believe in a God who sends people to hell.

  • Josh Harris was the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and an important pastor in the Covenant Life movement until he separated from his wife and renounced Christianity.

  • Audrey Assad was a CCM touring artist until she divorced her husband and said she was starting a new religion.

If you're someone who has followed that leader, that kind of announcement can be devastating. But Franklin Graham said well about this topic that our faith is supposed to be in Jesus, not some church leader or celebrity.


But it still begs the question: how can someone who was a Christian influencer turn his back on Jesus? How does that happen? Well, it's often complicated. Reading their statements, some of them aren't actually renouncing Jesus, they're renouncing "Christianity" (or I think they mean "their church"). In other words, they've gotten tired of the hypocrisy and backstabbing in organized Christianity, and they want out. (We can all sympathize with that, can't we?) But they picked a poor way to handle it.


Others of them seem truly to be rejecting the teachings of the Bible. Remember how last week I mentioned the verse in which Jesus warns Peter that Satan wanted to "sift the disciples like wheat" (Luke 22:31)? Do you think Satan has stopped going after Christian leaders in the centuries since?


Note: a Christian cannot lose his salvation. No human is so powerful as to snatch himself out of Jesus' hand (John 10:28-30). That option is off the table. (We covered that topic in depth when we went through Hebrews a few years ago, and one of these days I will get those studies online and put the links here.)


That means these leaders are either like Judas or they are like Peter.

  • Judas never really believed in Jesus. He was with the disciples, he learned the teachings, but he never believed, and so he betrayed Jesus.

  • Peter had a terribly low moment of doubt and fear, but that's all it was -- a low moment. Jesus restored him, and Peter became an invaluable church leader.

Jesus tells us that "by their fruit we will know them" (Matthew 7:15-20). In other words, we need to give them time (and we need to pray for them, just like we need to pray for those celebrities mentioned above!), and it will be revealed if they "come back".


The third group is much more personal: "people we know who have stopped going to church". The Mother's Day connection is that this might include family members. We know these people; we are personally invested in them. Sadly, the majority of this list is probably people who never actually made a personal profession of faith in Jesus. "Their faith" was really "their parent's faith". We should all know by now that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only thing that matters. But, what if you truly believe that this person made a credible personal confession of faith? Well, maybe they did! Maybe they're in a low moment, like Peter, or they have wandered far from God, like the prodigal son. Pray for them! Keep the lamp burning, as they say, and the door open for them to return.


The Importance of Grounding Your Children in the Faith

Moms and dads: your role in your children's grounding is critical. When celebrities and church leaders "leave" the faith, there is a common theme of reacting to cultural pressure. Look, the world doesn't like what the Bible has to say. The world is scandalized by the idea of a Savior for our sins and the idea that there is "right" and "wrong". If you talk about the Bible, someone is going to resist you. Are you ready for that?


Christians need to know what the Bible says and means. Christians need to know why what the world is saying (when it's contrary to the Bible) is wrong. And most importantly, Christians need to believe Bible truths for themselves. Christians need to have a personal commitment to follow Jesus. Otherwise, when the unbelieving world puts pressure on them, they are very likely to cave -- just like Peter did. (David is going to talk about this in his Mother's Day message.) We must teach our children our faith and then encourage them to make it their own.

Moms, you can be a real-world anchor for your kids (just as Paul was for Timothy) as they encounter the adversity and testing this world will give them. And when they fall, you can be the voice of Jesus to them, letting them know that they can be forgiven and restored. It might take years for them to return, but you must never give up hope.

 

Our Context in Luke

"Meanwhile, Inside the House"

Last week, we talked about Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The mob took Jesus to the high priest's house where He stood "trial", which is the setting of our passage this week.


The “whole” trial is actually rather complicated, and I went into much more detail about it when we covered the parallel passage in Matthew a few years ago:

After the nighttime arrest, according to John 18 Jesus was taken to

  1. A hearing before Annas. Annas was a former high priest and the father-in-law of the current high priest who still wielded considerable power. Then Matthew 26 tells us that Jesus was sent to

  2. A hearing before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Caiaphas was the current high priest. All of this is still taking place before dawn. Caiaphas declared that Jesus calling Himself the Son of God was blasphemy. But because capital crimes could only be sentenced during daylight, Matthew 27, Mark 14, and Luke 22 all mention

  3. A sentencing before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. This seems to be an echo of the earlier trial with the result that Jesus would be sent to Pilate. The Roman trial also had three stages. There was first in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 18,

  4. a hearing before Pilate. Pilate wanted nothing to do with this trial, so when he found out that Jesus was from Galilee, Luke 23 says Pilate sent Him on to

  5. a hearing before Herod Antipas. Herod was in town for the festival, and he wanted to meet Jesus, but when Jesus would not “play ball”, he sent Him back to Pilate for

  6. a final appearance before Pilate. This was the public trial during which Pilate sat on the judge’s bench and the Jewish leaders incited the crowd to call for Barabbas instead of Jesus. All of this takes place in about 12 hours. Can you imagine?

Our passage focuses on what happened outside Annas's house -- namely Peter, who followed at a distance, being confronted by others who were also gathered around the house. If you want to remember the shamockery of that trial and all the rules the Jews broke in order to condemn Jesus, please go to the lesson page linked above. I'd rather not take any more space for it here.

 

Part 1: Distance (Luke 22:54-55)

54 They seized him, led him away, and brought him into the high priest’s house. Meanwhile Peter was following at a distance. 55 They lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, and Peter sat among them.

Here's the map I used last week. Matthew specifically says that Peter went to the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas (26:57), while John 18:13 says that the mob first took Jesus to Caiaphas's father-in-law, Annas, the former high priest. That's actually pretty easy to reconcile. This was clearly a big house (more like a palace), so it was shared by multiple generations (as was common in Jerusalem). Annas questioned Jesus in one wing of the house while Caiaphas assembled a part of the Sanhedrin who would be inclined to condemn Jesus despite the lack of evidence (it only took 23 members to make a quorum). After Annas was done with Jesus, he sent him across the house to Caiaphas.


John 18 explains that another disciple went with Peter to the house -- a disciple who knew someone in Caiaphas's service who was willing to let him and Peter into the courtyard. This is what attracted initial attention to Peter. This was private property, and Peter was trespassing. Eventually, the servant girl who let him in would come to investigate. It is almost certain that some of the people with Peter around the fire were also in the Garden of Gethsemane (where Peter attracted attention to himself there by cutting off the poor guy's ear).


Peter was obviously trying to be discrete. He followed at a distance. He somehow joined the group without being recognized immediately. (They all seemed to know that they were in for a long night because they lit a fire and sat down.)


This is the living embodiment of the verse we mentioned last week: "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". Peter wanted to be with Jesus, but he was afraid. The thought experiment is the same for all of us: when Jesus is on trial in our culture (metaphorically speaking, of course), how close do we want to be to Him? How afraid would we be of being found out to follow Him? What would we be afraid to lose?

 

Part 2: Denial (Luke 22:56-60)

56 When a servant saw him sitting in the light, and looked closely at him, she said, “This man was with him too.” 57 But he denied it: “Woman, I don’t know him.” 58 After a little while, someone else saw him and said, “You’re one of them too.” “Man, I am not!” Peter said. 59 About an hour later, another kept insisting, “This man was certainly with him, since he’s also a Galilean.” 60 But Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

John makes it clear that this happened over hours. The first denial happened while Jesus was in front of Annas, and the second and third while Jesus was in front of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. The tension must have been unbearable. Here's the Jesus of Nazareth depiction of these events:

The clip starts with a flashback to Peter telling Jesus that he was willing to die for Jesus, that he would never deny Jesus. (I guess they just wanted to make all of that clear.)


It's impossible to know if the first woman's statement ("this man was with him") was an accusation or an observation, but Peter reacts as if it's an accusation. It's likely that she was just saying this in earshot of Peter and one or two others because it's dropped until another person picks up the thread again later.


Let me correct myself -- Peter doesn't react, he overreacts. It's a servant girl -- the lowest of the low, someone who couldn't make any kind of accusation stick. But instead of ignoring her or doing the "you must be thinking of someone else" sorta-lie, he jumps straight to the self-preservation full-lie. He's not only not a follower, he doesn't even know Jesus.


And that begs the question (to me, at least): why did Peter even go? It's clear that Jesus was protecting His disciples by taking the attention of the mob Himself, so why would Peter put himself in danger? Yes, it happened because Jesus prophesied that it would happen, and that became Peter's redemption arc. But in the moment, I think Peter was simply being impetuous. (He had just told Jesus that he would die for Him, right?) We never, never want to deny Jesus as Peter did, but we also want to be wary of putting ourselves in danger needlessly. Peter's presence backfired in every way possible.


There are two more denials. The third accusation is even a bit meaningless -- being from Galilee didn't make one automatically a follower of Jesus! But Peter reacts as if he's been shot. In Matthew's and Mark's versions, Peter swears an oath (Matt 26:74, Mark 14:71). He would do anything to distance himself from Jesus!


[Aside: if you want to inject a little levity into the discussion, bring up accents. Peter's Galilean accent "gave him away" so to speak. How many of the people around you can you identify where they're from based on their accent? Maybe turn it into a brief contest.]


[Bonus aside: in John, the third accusation is from the relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off, and it's a more direct "Didn't I see you in the garden with Him?" Some have argued that either John or Luke must have been mistaken in their reporting. That's a lazy reaction. It makes complete sense that an accusation was long, complex, and maybe even made by multiple people at the same time. The point is that Peter issued three denials.]


So, let's talk about ourselves. How many of you have ever verbally denied being a Christian? Probably not many, if any of you. Why not? Well, because there's really not much of a threat to being called a Christian in America currently.

I wonder if any of us has a threshold of danger past which we would deny being a Christian. What if your boss said you would lose your job if you confessed to being a Christian? What if the authorities said you would be thrown in jail? What if you were threatened with execution? At what point do you think you would do what Peter did and save yourself? Or maybe save your family? Or your friends? We can all hope, like Peter did, that we would stand firm in the fire, but, like Peter found out, we can't know for certain until we're there.


[Sadly, Christians all over the world are being killed for acknowledging their faith in Christ (and our media ignores it). Boko Haram (the Islamist State in Africa) has killed tens of thousands of Christians in the past few years. The Vatican published a report sayings that 13 Christians are killed for their faith every day.]


But that begs the follow-up question: how many of us are denying Jesus by the way we live our lives? Are we trying to blend in to the crowd, like Peter did, so as not to attract attention to ourselves? Or are we too uncommitted to Jesus to do the hard work of being salt and light in a dying society? It's a very hard question, absolutely worth chewing on.

 

Part 3: Defeat (Luke 22:60-62)

Immediately, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. 61 Then the Lord turned and looked at Peter. So Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.

I wonder if it's sometimes a blessing to have your failure revealed to you quickly and clearly. Without the intervention of the rooster crowing, how long would Peter have tried to deny his denial?


So -- about this rooster. Luke is the only one to connect the third denial with the rooster. This could be as early as 3:00 am, when cocks initially crow in the March/April range.


Next -- about Jesus looking at Peter. When you watch the movies, they arrange it where Jesus is being transferred between trial locations when He passes by Peter. That certainly makes sense. But remember that houses in that day had open windows. It is absolutely possible that Peter had found a vantage point where he could see into the proceedings (and maybe even hear what was going on, adding to his fear and paranoia). And furthermore, as Peter got loud in the courtyard, people in the house could have heard him. Jesus could have been in front of His accusers, listening to His close friend deny Him just outside. Because of that, He would have known exactly where to look.


Either way, the point was that Peter immediately realized what he had done. Just a few hours earlier (Luke 22:34), Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times, which Peter categorically rejected. Peter remembered this and was wracked with guilt. The difference between his reaction and Judas's reaction was one of repentance. Judas might have regretted what he did ("I'm sorry it ended this way"), but Peter was broken by it ("I'm sorry for what I've become"). The note of weeping bitterly points to true grief and repentance.


Jesus made good on this when He encountered Peter post-resurrection. In John 21:15-19, Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to confess His faith, one for each time Peter denied his faith. It's a message of hope for all of us -- when we deny Jesus, He still loves us and is willing to forgive and restore us (when we repent).


There are many things we can do with this lesson. If we have denied Jesus, we can know that He will forgive us. If we have lived in such a way as not to call attention to our Christianity, we can know that we can change. If someone we know has denied Jesus, we don't have to give up on that person. If Jesus can restore Peter, He can restore anyone. It's a wonderful lesson.

 

Closing Thoughts: When Christians Have Denied Jesus in History

One of the Lifeway resources mentioned the Donatists, and that's like bacon to someone like me with a church history degree, so I couldn't help but include it in my post. There are actually two such events that are related to our passage this week, and they both had major effects on the early church. In fact, I would say that these two events were as important as any in the development of what became The Roman Catholic Church. I am always interested in understanding how doctrines develop (because it gives us a glimpse at our own potential future), and there are several key Roman Catholic beliefs that come directly out of these two controversies I describe below.


The Novatian Controversy

In 250, the new emperor Decius passed an edict requiring all inhabitants to make a sacrifice on behalf of the emperor; a number of Christian leaders refused and were executed (including the pope). But many priests and bishops did make the pagan sacrifice in order to save their necks (and still others purchased false certificates claiming they did). The surviving bishops elected a replacement pope who favored accepting everyone back into church membership who had "lapsed", but a vocal minority was convinced that these "lapsed" bishops were a stain on the church and could not be restored. They elected a rival pope, Novatian, and eventually formed their own schismatic church.


The argument of the Novatians was that the church must be preserved in its purity, and only God could forgive such a heinous sin as offering a pagan sacrifice. But the argument of the Catholics (the word "catholic" means "universal", and in this case represented the majority) was that salvation was impossible outside of the church, and so refusing to accept someone back was condemning them to hell. Further, God gave Peter and his successors (the popes) "the power of the keys", meaning that the pope could determine what was and was not forgivable, and so the Novatians' arguments were invalid.


The Donatist Controversy

In 303-305, the anti-Christian emperor Diocletian enacted a major crackdown on Christians in North Africa. Priests and bishops were allowed to live if they surrendered their copies of the Bible, and quite a few of them did. After the emperor died, the next emperor ended the persecution, and all of those priests and bishops tried to come back to their posts in the church. The famous leader Augustine (you should remember that name!) adopted the position that any of them could be welcomed back into the church just like any other backslider -- they just needed to do penance. Well, there was a group of Christians led by a bishop named Donatus who said that anyone who did surrender a Bible (or anything else) out of fear was a traditore -- a traitor heretic. Denying Jesus was an unforgivable offense for a church leader.


The emperor Constantine, who eventually made Christianity a recognized religion, ultimately sided with Augustine's position (even though he was gracious with the Donatists). The long-term result of the controversy was this: Augustine argued that the "Catholic" church was the true church, based on the authority given it by Peter, not based on the individual qualities of the priests and bishops. In a few generations, that became The Roman Catholic Church as we know it today.


What We Learned

Early in the church's history, under threat of imprisonment and execution, many church leaders denied Jesus just as Peter did in our passage. There were two primary reactions: such leaders could be forgiven and restored, just as Jesus restored Peter, and such leaders could not be forgiven and restored, because the church needed to be pure. Just that alone would be enough to help us realize the importance of Peter's experience in our passage.


But the outcome of the two controversies mentioned above became critical for the development of Roman Catholic theology. In the first, the doctrine developed that the pope indeed had the authority to forgive any sins. Alongside of this developed the idea that the pope needed to exercise that forgiveness because outside of the church there could be no salvation. In the second, the doctrine developed that the purity and power of the church was based on Jesus, not on the church leaders. That might not sound so bad, but it almost immediately grew to mean that the actions of the church had power in themselves not based on the people who administered them or who received them. That was the beginning of the sacramental system as it exists today, in which the "sacraments" of the church give grace to the participant regardless of their heart's condition.


Did you know how many directions Peter's experience in our passage was going to be taken in the years to follow? Church history is fun to study!

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