Peter is one of my favorite characters in the bible. He’s brave, impulsive, and sometimes super dumb. He’s known for putting his foot in his mouth (see Mark 9:5-6), losing his cool (see Mark 14:47), and literally being called Satan by Jesus (see Mark 8:33). It goes without saying that all of those stories have more going on than meets the eye, and I would encourage anyone who is curious about them to read the whole book of Mark and not just those verses I referenced, but overall I think it’s fair to say that Peter was about as subtle and intelligent as Kanye sharing his views on the relative artistic qualities of 2009 music videos.
But not all of Peter’s failures are fun. Check out what he did the day before Jesus died:
Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:56-62 ESV)
What was Peter’s Deal? How does someone go, in a matter of hours (at most), from a fanatic who is willing to pull a sword on an angry mob armed with swords and clubs to defend Jesus (John 18:10), to a weeping man who won’t admit to a servant girl that he even knows Jesus?
I’m talking about the famous (and in my opinion, often misunderstood) story of how Peter, the unofficial/de facto leader of the twelve disciples, denied that he knew Jesus three times in a row, in the midst of Jesus’ greatest need. If you haven’t read it, go find/google a bible, and read John 18 and/or Luke 22 and/or Mark 14 and/or Matthew 26. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Welcome back! I can’t believe you read all four of those long chapters in zero minutes!
It’s all too common to hear this passage explained as Peter being a wuss who is afraid for his life, giving in to peer pressure, or being embarrassed of being a Christian. I’m of the opinion that those are inaccurate and unfair explanations that don’t give nearly enough credit to Peter’s character as demonstrated in the rest of the story. I think that if we want to really understand what was going on with Peter that night, we have to start farther back.
Peter Grew Up Waiting for a Hero
Peter was born in Bethsaida, which is a small town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, not the similarly-named video game studio that brought you Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls. Because Bethsaida had its own Jewish temple, or synagogue, with the usual attached Torah (what Christians call the “old testament”) school for boys. This is extremely significant, because knowing that Peter grew up with that type of education allows us to get an idea of what the adult Peter probably believed.
The Jewish people in the first century, through centuries of studying the law and the prophets (what we call the Old Testament, or the harder-to-read half of the bible) had developed an incredibly high level of expectation around the coming of a heroic figured called “the messiah”.
Going to Torah school, which Peter most certainly did, would have involved some study of the law and prophets, which in turn would have led to him developing a profound sense of hope and expectation that the Messiah was coming to save his people.
In order to really understand what that meant to Peter, we need to get ourselves into a first-century Jewish context, because their concept of a savior/messiah is not the same as the modern Christian-based one. In modern Western culture we talk about the messiah in terms of God coming to the world to save sinners from their sin. If you’ve ever gone to Sunday school, or accidentally turned on the Angel network, you’ve probably heard something like that before. This is not the way the Jewish people would have explained their version of the messiah. What they were anticipating, was someone sent by God to save the Jewish people from those who enslaved them and to reestablish Israel as a powerful, influential nation. Their expectation of the messiah was that he would be a nationalistic, probably militaristic leader who would rescue Israel from the powerful nations who they were constantly in subjugation to. This is the promise that they were waiting to see fulfilled. They were waiting for a messiah who would show up, kick the bad guys’ butts (at the time of Jesus, it was Rome), and establish Israel once again.
So when Peter meets Jesus, decides to follow him, and eventually recognizes him as this messiah he has been waiting for, he is coming at it from completely the wrong angle. He got the who of the Messiah right, but not how the Messiah was going to accomplish his goals. He’s like someone watching Star Wars Episode IV, but expecting Obi Wan to saber-chop Darth Vader to death when they finally meet.
So with that in mind, the story continues, and we see that…
Peter was dedicated to following the Messiah
Peter ends up being the first of Jesus’ followers to identify him as the Messiah. Jesus asks the group of disciples what the word on the street is regarding his identity. They respond “people have been saying you’re J the B (that’s how I say John the Baptist. It’s easier. It’s fun. Look, I don’t have to parenthetically justify myself to you!), Elijah, Jeremiah…” Jesus says “that’s great, but who do you guys say that I am?” And Peter responds on behalf of the whole group.
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16 ESV)
Peter says it straight up. You are the Christ. You are the son of God. You are the messiah that we have all been waiting for! Think about the significance of that moment. Peter had spent his entire life learning about this long-awaited messiah, and now he is claiming that he has come. Clearly Peter believed that Jesus was the son of God, and the messiah. Clearly he was dedicated to him, and was following him. In fact, a few chapters later, Jesus predicts that everyone is going to fall away when he gets arrested, and Peter tells him “no way, even if everyone else leaves you — even if I have to die — I won’t abandon you.”
That’s why, on the night that Jesus gets betrayed and abandoned, Peter was probably having the worst night of his life, because…
Peter saw Jesus acting very un-messiah-like
In the Garden of Gethsemane (which, in a pretty sweet metaphor, means “olive press”), Jesus is breaking down. He knows that he’s getting ready to suffer and die, and he is in agony, completely breaking down.
Think about how that looked to Peter, based on his expectations of the messiah. The messiah, in agony? Breaking down? Crying out for help? That’s not how the messiah is supposed to act! He’s supposed to be the powerful military leader who can take on Rome. What do you do when your lifelong, carefully constructed view of your leader is crumbling before your eyes?
Then, in the midst of this confusion and turmoil, the bad-guy disciple Judas shows up with a crowd of Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus. As Jesus is in the process of being arrested, Peter does exactly what he would expect his messiah would want him to do.
Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:10-11 ESV)
Try to imagine the confusion that must have been going on in Peter’s head at this point. Peter had spent his entire life anxiously hoping for a messiah to come who could take on Rome, and here is Rome, taking the messiah prisoner. Peter pulls out his sword and strikes out in ear-chopping defense of Jesus. Then, shockingly, Jesus tells him to put it away, and actually heals the bad guy. So Peter, mouth probably hanging to the floor, puts his sword away, and watches the messiah get taken away in whatever they used for handcuffs in the first century.
With all of that in mind, of course Peter does what Jesus had predicted, and denies him hours later.
Peter had been willing to stand up, sword-to-ear style, for the messiah that he wanted, but when he saw Jesus showing him the counter-cultural, expectation-defying, radical plan of victory that God had planned all along, he broke. “I do not know him.” Is what he said, and on some level, I think he was right. His notion of who Jesus was limited by his own cultural/familial/societal expectations, so the question for us, is…
Are you giving Jesus a fair chance?
I think this is a valid questions whether or not you would consider yourself a Christian. I think a lot of the time, folks who don’t believe in Jesus, or hate the very idea of him, are hating a Jesus that isn’t anything like the one we see in the bible. Thanks to bad representation by Christians, the media, and our culture in general, we constantly misunderstood Jesus just the same way that Peter did. It’s probably worthwhile for us to take a second to think about what we think Jesus is like, and more importantly, why? Is he the messiah that our whack, jacked up Christian culture taught us to expect? That our parents taught us to expect? Or the one that the bible describes?
The good news is, that wasn’t the ending of the story for Peter. Jesus, in classic Jesus style, gave Peter full forgiveness and another chance to follow him. That story is in John 21. That story will show you that Jesus is the kind of dude who will come and have breakfast with you after you just stabbed him in the back, and will even give you some pointers to improve your fishing.