by Rev. Fr. K. K. John
Peter’s denial is prominent theme for Good Friday meditation. It appears in many prayers, especially during Holy Week. Some people are heavily biased against Peter because bishop of Rome, Pope, claims authority over all bishops in the name of Peter, which is an apple of discord from second century. Patriarch of Antioch with whom Malankara is associated evolved similar strategy as Pope of Rome. All the apostles worked in unison accepting Peter as their Head, (Semavoon Reeso d’sleehe). Rome and Antioch elevate Apostle Peter to justify claim of monarchial authority over other bishops, which other Churches disagree. In India, without a ray of hope, to get out of the century-old muddle, to the utter dismay of all genuine faithful on both sides, one faction elevates apostle Thomas to claim independence and the other elevates Peter to claim superiority of Antioch as though the former bartered St Thomas and the latter bartered St Peter. But the fact is; apostles hate these squabbles, as these are handiworks of egocentrics. Church oneness is contingent on the unity of its doctrines, not on territorial jurisdiction or who is under whom. Parish is not a branch of the whole church but whole in itself. Every church with a bishop as its head is independent and when they come together in unity of doctrine and mind the wholeness is perfected. Again, administrative arrangements are not doctrinal matters. Therefore one bishop exercising monarchial authority over another bishop is basically unchristian. Equally unchristian is the attitude to drag the apostles’ prerogatives to substantiate ones position. Primacy of honor when bishops come together was never been a problem but what they envisage is monarchial authority, which Peter never exercised over other apostles.
Most Orthodox theologians fail to do justice when interpreting Peter’s denial. Peter is, it appears, “more sinned against than sinning!” Everyone rushes to substantiate self-position rather than to fairly analyze the subject. “No man has ever been so unjustly treated as Peter by preachers and commentators. Always what is stressed is his failure and his shame. His failure could have happened only to a man of superlative courage. We must remember how Peter loved Jesus. The others had abandoned Jesus; Peter alone stood by him. He loved Jesus so much that he could not leave him… Peter redeemed himself. It was not the real Peter who cracked beneath the tension and denied his Lord. And that is just what Jesus could see,” William Barclay, page 231-232. “For a moment his will was too weak but his heart was always right,” page 151.
All four Gospels record this incident. Some people consider denial of Peter is no less severe than Judas’ betrayal. Abandonment when help is most needed tantamount to betrayal, which guilt all apostles equally share. But Jesus did not view the abandonment by apostles, denial by Peter and betrayal by Judas in the same vein. About disciples he said, ‘all would desert.’ Of Peter, ‘strengthen your brethren when you return’ and of Judas, ‘son of perdition, better if he were not born.’ So Jesus made clear difference. Peter and Judas, both were prominent disciples. Peter was in the inner circle and head of the apostles. Judas was treasurer. Peter’s denial was not preconceived but betrayal of Judas was. Peter fell for a moment but Judas calculated and planned the treachery. Peter’s denial was not for personal gains but Judas had inner motive. Jesus permitted Satan to sift Peter for a purpose but Judas willfully turned surreptitious. Peter felt severe remorse, bitterly wept and returned. Jesus reinstated Peter without punishing for his failure because Jesus knew better the strength and weakness of Peter. Judas felt remorse but had no courage to face Jesus because his motive was defiled. He drowned in his sense of guilt, lost hope and in utter imbroglio punished himself ending his life. His tragic fate should be an eye-opener to all who despise God and live in deceit.
How we know Peter denied? Mark’s Gospel is first written Gospel. Mathew and Luke borrowed material from Mark. Mark was the trusted disciple of Peter. Gospel of Mark is the preaching material of Peter, says Papias, the first century father. It may be reckoned that some Protestant theologians think that Mathew’s Gospel was first written in AD 37 (Scofield Bible). But the Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians disagree. They place it after AD 70. Peter himself advised Mark to write about his shameful failure in a freaky moment and how the Lord in His unfathomable mercy forgave him. Had Peter not asked Mark to write his failure, probably world would never have known it, says Barclay. This stands out as an edifice of Peter’s trustworthiness and humility. Impartial reader is taken by surprise about his frankness and courage rather than his failure for even in the midst of utter failure his deep love for the Lord is immeasurably manifest.
Jesus knew beforehand what would happen and said in advance about Peter’s denial, Mat 26:34, Mark 14:30, Luke 22:34, and John 13:38. Circumstances vary. In Mathew and Mark, Jesus told how, he would suffer and die alone, all disciples would stumble, then the resurrection and his walk to Galilee, etc. Peter proclaimed his unflinching love. Then, Jesus said that he would deny him three times before rooster crows. In his human frailty, he did not know what he was talking about and yet he meant well. There was no guile in him. Mark says, rooster crowed twice, not thrice. In Luke, immediately after showing a great example of humility and service by washing the disciples’ feet Jesus bestowed the kingdom of God upon the disciples just as God the Father bestowed it upon Himself, assured eating and drinking at His table in the kingdom and promised twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel, 22:28-29. Sitting on thrones and judging are to not matters that take place in the present life but points to eschatology. Then Jesus told that Satan asked permission to sift Simon like wheat. Wheat is sifted with a winnowing fan, wheat collected and the tare discarded. Sifter employs violent force against which wheat is utterly vulnerable. That is, Peter was completely helpless momentarily. Like Job, he was temporarily given under spell of Satan. Jesus knew Peter could not do it alone. Jesus did not want to loose Peter; so prayed for Simon that he would not fail. Jesus asked Simon to strengthen the brethren when he returns. Without comprehending the full implication of what Jesus said, it was rather hid from him for a purpose, Simon made known his confidence and readiness to go with Jesus even to the point of death. It is then Jesus said that Peter would deny the same night. In John, immediately after the institution of Eucharist, Jesus asked Judas to quicken what he was doing (betrayal), told that His stay with them is short, He is glorified by the Father and commanded them to love one another. Peter asked where He was going in order to follow Him. Jesus answered he cannot follow Him right away but shall follow later. Here also without understanding the full picture Simon Peter commits to follow Jesus even at the cost of his life. That is when Jesus predicted Simon’s fall. Here, ‘follow’ indicates death that Simon will not die with Jesus but he would die a martyr later.
There are variations in details but contents are identical, (Mathew 26:57-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-71, John 18:12-27.) Jesus is led to Caiaphas’ courtyard. Peter followed and sat with servants outside the courtyard. He sat near fire for warming since it was cold. Servant girl identified Peter as Galilean, an associate of Jesus. First he said, “I do not know what you are saying” and walked away. To another girl he said, “I do not know the man.” Then those who stood nearby identified him. He said, “I do not know the man and began to curse and swear.” Truly, Peter did not rebuke the Lord. Immediately rooster crowed. Peter recollected the words of Jesus, went out and bitterly wept. In Luke, rooster crowed while he spoke and Jesus looked at Peter. “It was a convincing look. It was a chiding look. It was an expostulating look. It was a compassionate look. It was a directing look. It signified conveying of grace to Peter’s heart to enable him to repent. It was a look with divine grace that restored Peter,” Mathew Henry, Page 973. In John, another disciple, who was known to the High Priest, accompanied Peter. He talked to doorkeeper-girl to let Peter in. Denial took place at the residence of Annas. The servant is related to Malchus, whose ear Peter cut off. She reminisced having seen Peter in the garden. Peter denied. Immediately rooster crowed. There is no mention that Jesus looked or Peter wept.
What led Peter to deny Jesus? Cyril Remban of Malankara says; Peter had many flaws that led him to deny.
(1) He boasted due to self-righteousness,
(2) slept while Jesus prayed,
(3) revenged by smiting the soldier,
(4) did not go with Jesus instead, followed at a distance,
(5) sat among enemies,
(6) sought self-comfort while master was in trouble.
These assumptions are extraneous and outrageous, rendering no justice either to the occasion or to Peter.
1, Boasting involves a statement to self-exalt made knowingly about ones ability. Peter had high confidence about his loyalty to Jesus but that was in good faith. He thought no adverse situation was strong enough to shake his deep affection. That prompted declaring his unwavering support at all times and at all costs. At the most one could say he was over-confident. But Peter honestly believed what he said. He was never vindictive. There is no reason to doubt Peter’s integrity. Thus it was not boasting.
2, Regarding sleeping, again, it is highly extraneous to interpret as a deliberate failure when Jesus himself said, ‘flesh is weak.’ Other apostles also slept due to hectic activities, details of which we know little. They might have been over burdened without sleep for many emotionally charged nights.
3, Peter smote the servant with his sword. His heroic character and urge to defend his beloved master as if it were his duty is beyond reproach. An ordinary man when surrounded by enemies would not only breakdown but also would flee. Only an extraordinarily valorous could resist that too violently. Peter thought that he could do it all alone. Even when all others fled, he did not. Jesus said, “He who has no sword let him sell his garment and buy one.” Disciples replied that they had two swords. Jesus answered, “It is enough,” Luke 22:36-38. Was he inciting violence or was it an _expression of self-defense in danger? Probably Peter might have misread that his master would approve such a course. Jesus immediately corrected him and he never again repeated it. ‘Sword’ is usual usage familiar to easterners for self-defense.
4, considering the height of hatred and concerted planning of priests and Pharisees to obliterate Jesus and his followers, following at a distance itself were immense risk. The risk was still higher because there were chances of identifying him as the one who smote the soldier. High Priest’s residence was closed and guarded. To enter into it itself was as good as entering into a lion’s den, says Barclay.
5, He was not a wavering but courageous and adventurous man. Jesus named him “Kepa-rock” not without sound reason.
6, Peter chose the best available alternative to witness the ordeal Lord endured. Superfluous assumptions would render great injustice to the whole text. Jesus knew Peter better than Peter knew himself.
Garden of Gethsemane was a private property where Jesus and the disciples had access. Jesus often relaxed and prayed in the night in this garden, which was known only to disciples. It is no way comparable with gardens of our times. Arrest took place in the night. Only source of light other than dim moonlight were lantern the soldiers carried, John 18:3.
Mark mentions a peculiar incident. This escalates the gruesomeness of situation. Certain young man (Mark, it is believed) followed him covered in linen cloth. Soldiers laid hold on him and he fled naked in the dark leaving the linen, v50-51. Thus the soldiers attempted to arrest the disciples also but they could not since the disciples fled away under cover of darkness. According to John, Jesus went ahead and offered himself saying, “Let these go their way,” v18: 8, to fulfill his saying, “Of those whom you have given me I have lost none,” v9. All disciples forsook and fled when Jesus was arrested, Mk 14:50. Peter did not because of his deep love for Jesus.
Denial of Peter was inevitable and preordained. It has a divine dimension. Christ was to suffer and die alone to fulfill the prophecy, Is 63:3, Zech 13:7. Jesus did not want apostles, especially Peter to boldly admit at that time that he knew Jesus or declare his discipleship. That would have got him arrested and tried because the soldiers were looking for him too. Pertinently, the first phase of Jesus’ trial was a query regarding his disciples, John 18:19. Jesus did not tell anything about the disciples. It was necessary to keep Peter out of the trial for him to lead future Church. “Jesus desired apostles to escape, lest, if they were arrested, they might be tempted to apostasy,” JR Dummelow, page 804. Why Jesus allowed Satan to sift Peter that led to denial? From the very first time Jesus met him Jesus groomed him to be the next leader. Some people say that all apostles were equals and nothing special about Peter. Jesus did not establish twelve churches on the twelve but one Church in which the twelve is identified with Peter. Jesus permitted Satan test him to teach humility, decisiveness and loyalty for leadership. Satan desired Peter to falter so that Jesus’ plan to establish the Church upon Peter-the rock would fail. Satan tests those who are devout, strong and honest. Satan tested Job because he was blameless and righteous. Satan tests those who are fervent in faith. Unbelievers are already with him! One who stands only could fall. So the very aspect that Satan asked permission from Jesus to test Peter is proof of his undisputable leadership, courage and honesty.
John after concluding his Gospel with 20 chapters, wrote 21st chapter exclusively to declare,
1, Resurrected Jesus was real, not mere vision, with body he ate and drank as normal as before, which was to falsify the Gnostic heresies,
2, There arose confusion among people about leadership. Paul traveled far and wide, wrote many epistles and converted many Gentiles. So did John. Some thought Paul; the others thought John and James as leaders. Jerusalem being the cradle of Christendom where birth, public ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, the first spreading of Gospel and emerging of the first Church took place and its bishop always enjoyed special honor. James presided the first apostolic synod in Jerusalem as bishop of the area. But he was never replacement to Peter. St Paul says that at the time of his conversion Peter, John and James were considered the pillars of the Church. Gospel of Thomas claims James was the first leader of the early Church. Nicene synod did not approve ‘Acts of Thomas’ or ‘Gospel of Thomas’ since they were of spurious origin, heretical and more fictional than historical. They are not acceptable to genuine readers. John chapter 21 set at rest the whole leadership issue, that Jesus appointed none else but Peter to shepherd the whole Church.
Regardless of arguments, Peter’s heroism is of unmatched excellence. Peter’s denial, repentance and reinstatement stand out the best example of human frailty, failure, true repentance, absolution and reinstatement. May his prayers be a strong hold to us.
Passion Week Supplement
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