Have you ever acted rashly, reacting to a situation without thinking about the consequences of your words or actions?
Okay, trick question. Of course you have. So have I. So has everyone. And sometimes, we wish we could take it all back.
I imagine Peter felt much the same way as he stood warming himself in the high priest’s courtyard. Here’s John’s account of what happened to Peter as Jesus was being interrogated:
The servants and the guards had made a fire because it was cold. They were standing around it, warming themselves. Peter joined them there, standing by the fire and warming himself. … Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing with the guards, warming himself. They asked, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” Peter denied it, saying, “I’m not.” A servant of the high priest, a relative of the one whose ear Peter had cut off, said to him, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Peter denied it again, and immediately a rooster crowed. (John 18:18, 25-27, CEB)
The night was cold; the servants and guards made a charcoal fire to keep warm. Peter had a dilemma. He must have been cold too, and the glowing charcoal must have looked inviting. But it was dangerous for him to be there, and he wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible. Should he hang back, or would that be even more conspicuous? He decided to join them. Maybe nobody would pay attention to him in the dim red glow. Maybe he could just blend in.
Not a chance. Again, the gospel accounts differ slightly in their descriptions of who asked Peter what. But we probably shouldn’t imagine something like an inquisition, in which he is confronted by a string of people one at a time. People are abuzz about Jesus, gossiping, holding forth with their opinions.
But Peter doesn’t stay inconspicuous for long. Though John doesn’t mention it, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that people began to suspect Peter of being a Galilean. According to Matthew, it was Peter’s accent that gave him away (Matt 26:73). He was marked as being from Galilee, and therefore likely to be a disciple of Jesus. He was on the spot; his denial became more agitated.
Then John gives us the fitting climax: Peter is confronted by someone who had been in the garden, who had seen him with Jesus. Moreover, the person was related to Malchus, the man whose ear Peter had cut off.
There must have been some chaos in the garden when Peter started brandishing that sword. And the light in the high priest’s courtyard could not have been very bright. Surely Peter’s accuser could have been mistaken.
But the traumatic event may have been burned into the person’s memory, and the question was far from idle. Peter, who had followed Jesus out of loyalty, was forced into betrayal. He was forced to lie once more to save his own skin, in stark contrast to the way Jesus had been struck in the face for telling the truth (John 18:22-23).
And immediately, as the final denial escaped Peter’s lips, a rooster crowed, just as Jesus had predicted. If we add Luke’s account to this sad tale, Jesus is at that moment being led away through the courtyard. He turns and looks at Peter. And suddenly, Peter remembers how Jesus had predicted that he would deny him in just this way; he runs out of the courtyard and dissolves into bitter tears (Luke 22:60-62).
That’s not, of course, the end of the story. Unlike Judas, Peter would eventually be restored to fellowship with his resurrected Lord. He would not wear the badge of “betrayer” forever. That, plus the fact that Jesus knew Peter’s failure in advance and still loved him, should give us hope.
But we can also learn from Peter’s mistakes. What goes around comes around. Lies are like that. Sin is like that.
We need to heed what Jesus has told us, and think before we lash out.