Denial

Do you recognize that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you you have been deserted by someone whom you should have been able to depend on? The focus of Matthew’s account in 26:69–75, is not Peter, nor the feelings of Jesus, but his actual isolation.

Your Lord was isolated for your sake. Three times Peter disowned his Lord. Peter had been the most vocal in protesting his commitment to Jesus. The denial is even worse than the desertion as the disciples fled. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. “The story is told with a vivid simplicity, in three escalating scenes. The pressure builds as the first challenge comes from a single servant girl, the second from another girl now appealing to the bystanders, and the third from a group of those bystanders coming at him together. And Peter’s response escalates accordingly: first comes an evasive denial, then a direct denial on oath, and finally a much stronger response which… is probably to be understood as actually uttering a curse against Jesus.: (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 1032) (The number of people in the courtyard and the likelihood of several taking part in the conversation helps explain the different emphases of the several gospels.) First questioned by a servant girl, Peter claimed not to know what she was talking about. When confronted with his association with Jesus a second time, Peter took an oath and protested that he did not know the man. The third time he again denied any knowledge of or association with Jesus, and supplemented that with oaths, possibly self-maledictory, possibly curses directed at Christ. Because of your union with Christ, your disobedience has the effect of denying him. It is a contradiction of what it means to be in Christ.

Peter’s denial isolated the Lord. Look at Peter, but recognize that his function here serves to further isolate Jesus. The One who had been deserted by his followers, who had been betrayed by one of the twelve, now has the last one, the disciple who dared to tag along to the courtyard of the priest, swear that he doesn’t even know Jesus. In a few hours Jesus will be hanging on the cross and crying out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46. But now, as he is mocked by the Sanhedrin, his own disciple is isolating him. The pain of this is increased because this is Peter, Peter, who had made the great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” This is the Peter who had vowed to stand by his Lord to the point of death. Peter’s oath further isolates the Savior. Plenty of false swearing had polluted the night as the Sanhedrin had tired to get false testimony against Jesus, Matthew 26:59,60. Jesus, placed under oath by the high priest, had sworn that he was the Son of Man, who would sit at the right hand of the Mighty One, and who would come on the clouds of heaven. But out in the courtyard the profane swearing of a Galilean fisherman is denying any knowledge of the Son of Man. In order to be your Savior Jesus has to go through his suffering alone.

Trust the Lord whom Peter denied. The cockcrow calls Peter to repentance. At the third denial the rooster crowed. Suddenly Peter remembered Jesus’ word of earlier in the evening. Peter’s sorrow is sorrow of true repentance. It is not just the grief that comes from getting caught. It contrasts with the regret of Judas, recorded in the following verses. Matthew has just recorded the mocking denial of any prophetic function of Jesus (Matthew 26:67,68). Jesus refuses to assert his prophetic abilities before his mockers. But in that context his prophecy of Peter’s denial rings true and powerfully summons Peter to repentance. Luke records the look that Jesus gave Peter at this point. Matthew focuses on the word that Jesus had earlier spoken, but which the cockcrow suddenly recalled to Peter’s mind. The word of your Savior continues to summon you to repentance. It points you to the futility of trusting your own strength or ability. The account of Peter’s denial, instead of being quietly ignored, is recorded in Scripture, probably partly because Peter admitted his sin to the church.

You are forgiven because your Lord suffered in your place. Matthew records that Peter went out and wept bitterly. Peter was seeking solitude in his repentance. Are there sins that are so deep, so ugly, that you find you dare not talk to anyone else about them? Confess them to your Lord. And do seek the help of fellow believers. There is genuine repentance here. Perhaps his going out serves to isolate the Savior even from this early fruit of his suffering. His work would purchase forgiveness for Peter, but not yet would he be able to see the fruit of his suffering. First the isolation and suffering had to be complete. First Jesus had to die. Then, after his resurrection, he could and would restore the forgiven Peter. “Do we profess to have a hope in Christ? Let us mark the weakness of a believer, and the steps that lead to a fall.—Have we unhappily backslidden, and left our first love? Let us remember that the Savior of Peter still lives. There is mercy for us as well as for him. But we must repent, and seek that mercy, if we would find it. Let us turn unto God, and He will turn to us. His compassions fail not.” (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Vol. 1, p. 378) Have you suffered betrayal? Your great High Priest knows your grief. He will never abandon you. The isolation and suffering of the Savior that night was not just because of Peter’s denial. It was because of each of your sins and mine, actions, words, and thoughts, which, perhaps not explicitly, but certainly in effect, proclaim, I have nothing to do with Jesus. He bore the guilt of all of our denials and betrayals. But the isolation and suffering is not the last word. The Savior who suffered and died alone rose again, and rose as the firstfruits of your salvation. Peter who had betrayed him stood forgiven among the disciples to whom he gave the great commission. You and I stand among those called to serve and glorify him with our words and lives.

You may be abandoned and betrayed at times. You may even have, like Peter, grieved your Lord deeply. But because your Lord was isolated by the denial of Peter (and your and my sins), you will never be abandoned by him.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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