101. Peter's Denial (Luke 22:54-62)

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Gospel Parallels §241

James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Second Denial of Saint Peter' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Second Denial of Saint Peter' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"54  Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. 55  But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. 56  A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, 'This man was with him.' 57  But he denied it. 'Woman, I don't know him,' he said. 58  A little later someone else saw him and said, 'You also are one of them.' 'Man, I am not!' Peter replied. 59  About an hour later another asserted, 'Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.' 60  Peter replied, 'Man, I don't know what you're talking about!' Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61  The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: 'Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.' 62  And he went outside and wept bitterly." (Luke 22:54-62, NIV)

Jesus has just been arrested by temple troops in the Garden of Gethsemane and his disciples have fled for their lives. Peter, who cut an ear off the high priest's representative, has violently resisted. And troops try to seize a young man with Jesus' party -- who escapes naked into the night, his garment left in the hands of his captors (Mark 14:52). It is a fearful and dangerous night, unsafe for Jesus and his disciples.

The High Priest's House (Luke 22:54a)

Location of the high priest's house
Location of the high priest's house. (larger map)

"Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest." (Luke 22:54a)

The high priest's temple troops have accomplished the arrest and the high priest wants a chance to interrogate the prisoner. The Apostle John, who knows some members of the high priest's family, fills us in on some details:

"They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year." (John 18:12b-13)

John's mention of "the high priest that year" gives us a clue about the state of the high priesthood. Rather than being selected for life as before, since Herod the Great, secular rulers have taken upon themselves the prerogative of selecting the high priest who serves for a year at a time. Generally, these are selected from a small group of highly placed priestly families from the party of the Sadducees. Annas, who had been high priest from 7 to 15 AD, holds the real power, son-in-law Caiaphas, only the title.1073 Only after Annas interrogates Jesus (John 18:19-23), does he send him off to Caiaphas (John 18:24).

Following at a Distance (Luke 22:54b)

But Luke's account doesn't focus on what is going on inside the mansion, but rather outside in the courtyard. Luke records:

"Peter followed at a distance." (Luke 22:54b)

In the word "followed," Luke uses the characteristic Greek word akoloutheō, "to follow as a disciple." The verb is in the imperfect tense, suggesting that Peter continues to follow at a distance as Jesus was marched to the high priest's house. Peter puts himself in danger because he is a disciple. He has been following Jesus for three years and he isn't stopping now.

But that "following" is qualified. The adverb translated "at a distance" (NIV) or "afar off" (KJV) is the Greek adverb makrothen, "from far away, from a distance."1074 Yes, he follows, but he doesn't follow up close for fear of arrest. For the moment he is a "closet disciple," afraid to disclose his true identity.

Sound familiar? Not a few Christians do such a good job at blending into their surroundings that their co-workers and friends may not know that they are believers for months or years. They follow, but at a distance.

Peter in the High Priest's Courtyard (Luke 22:55)

"But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them." (Luke 22:55)

The pronouns "they" and "them" in verse 55 probably refer to the temple soldiers who have just arrested Jesus. Presumably, the elders and chief priest's officers have gone inside where the interrogation is going on.

The word translated "courtyard" (NIV) or "hall" (KJV) is the Greek noun aulē, "an area open to the sky, frequently surrounded by buildings, and in some cases partially by walls, enclosed open space, courtyard."1075 We know from John's Gospel that the courtyard is not open to the public. Entrance is restricted by a gatekeeper.

"Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in." (John 18:15-16)

There in the high priest's courtyard, surrounded by temple soldiers, Peter sits. The verb in Luke's account is in the imperfect tense, suggesting continued action in the past. Peter is sitting with them for some time. That in itself is a courageous act. If he is recognized as a disciple -- particularly, as the disciple who has drawn blood resisting them in the Garden -- he is likely to be arrested. It is a precarious place in which to be.

Peter is courageous and bold -- he wants to be near his Lord in his hour of need. But Peter is terrified, also. He is in danger and knows it. And as he sits near the fire, he begins to wonder what might happen. As long shadows dance in the firelight, Peter's fears continue to grow. What if I'm recognized? How can I hide when it becomes light? What should I do if I'm identified by someone who was there?

The Denials (Luke 22:56-60a)

And so Peter's courage and bravado give way to fear. Each of the Gospel writers tell of Peter's denial, and the accounts vary some. But let's look briefly at the denials according to Luke's account:

"A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, 'This man was with him.'
But he denied it. 'Woman, I don't know him,' he said.
A little later someone else saw him and said, 'You also are one of them.'
'Man, I am not!' Peter replied.
About an hour later another asserted, 'Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.'
Peter replied, 'Man, I don't know what you're talking about!'" (Luke 22:56-60a)

First Denial

The word rendered "servant girl" (NIV) or "maid" (KJV) is the Greek noun paidiskē, a diminutive of pais, "girl," and in the New Testament is always used of the slave class, "female slave."1076 The girl is looking curiously at him, and Peter can feel her stare. The phrase "looked closely" (NIV) or "earnestly looked" (KJV) is the Greek verb atenizō, "look intently at, stare at."1077

The girl accuses Peter, "This man was with him." Here again, the verb "was" is in the imperfect tense, meaning that Peter had been an habitual associate of Jesus'.

Immediately, Peter blurts out a denial. The word "denied" is Greek arneomai, "to state that something is not true, deny," and merges into the related meaning, "to disclaim association with a person or event, deny, repudiate, disown."1078 When Peter says, "I don't know him," it is expressed by the Greek verb which can cover all kinds of knowledge, from information to understanding to intimate acquaintance. Here is seems to be used in the sense of "be intimately acquainted with or stand in close relation to."1079

Second Denial

Some time elapses, and it seems like this long night will never end. Then a man accuses Peter of being "one of" them. This translates the Greek preposition ek, in the sense of "belong to someone or something."1080 Again, Peter denies it.

Third Denial

Along about morning, when the horizon starts to become light, another man says the same thing. "Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Peter's hillbilly Galilean accent can't be hidden. The verb used in the man's accusation for "asserted" (NIV) or "confidently" (KJV) is the fairly uncommon Greek verb diischurizomai, "to be emphatic or resolute about something, insist, maintain firmly,"1081 used here and in Acts 12:15; 15:2.

In the scope of a few hours, the courageous spokesman who has promised Jesus he will go to prison and death with him (Luke 22:33), is reduced to denying any relationship with the man he has followed for three years. He is in the vicinity of the Master, following "at a distance," but he has been compromised. He has been unfaithful to his closest friend.

Ways of Denying

Why does the story of Peter's denial strike such a chord in us? Why can we relate so easily to Peter? Probably because each of us has in some way been false to our friendship with Christ.

  1. By disassociating ourselves from our allegiance to Christ in the presence of belligerent unbelievers or vocal critics -- sometimes by open disavowal, but too often by our silence.
  2. By professing Jesus with our mouths, but excusing ourselves when we do things we know are contrary to Jesus' teachings. It is this kind of dual life that gives unbelievers the "hypocrite" excuse, and, like David with Bathsheba, "you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt" (2 Samuel 12:14).

The Holy Spirit within us is grieved, we feel guilty (so long as our conscience is not utterly calloused by repeated, flagrant sin), we are ashamed. When we are in this condition, we are out of fellowship with God and are subject to (1) the pounding of the enemy and (2) beating ourselves up. If Satan can't destroy our faith, he tries to destroy fellowship, joy, and hope, so that we live in misery, are ineffective, and are neutralized so far as furthering the Kingdom of God and diminishing Satan's sphere of influence.

Jesus Looks Straight at Peter (22:60b-61)

But then Jesus intervenes:

"Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: 'Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.'" (22:60b-61)

The Greek contains a word which the KJV version translates as "immediately," the adverb parachrēma, "pertaining to a point of time that is immediately subsequent to an action, at once, immediately."1082 While Peter is still mouthing his adamant denial, the rooster begins to crow1083 to herald the advent of morning. Cock-a-doodle-do!

At that moment Jesus is visible, turns (Greek strephō), and makes eye contact with Peter. The word translated "looked straight at" (NIV) or "looked upon" (KJV) is the Greek verb emblepō, "to look at something directly and therefore intently, look at, gaze on."1084

Peter is struck by the knowledge that Jesus knows what he has done. Jesus is aware -- Jesus who has predicted this very lapse. Instantly Peter remembers. The word "remembered" is Greek verb hypomimneskō, "to recollect for oneself, remember, think of."1085

Jesus had told him, "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times," and now it has happened, just as he said it would. The word used for "disown" (NIV) or "deny" (KJV) in verse 61 is slightly different than the word used in verse 57. Here the verb is prefixed by a preposition, aparneomai, and means "to refuse to recognize/acknowledge, deny."1086

Weeping Bitterly (22:62)

The result in Peter's heart is overwhelming grief.

"And he went outside and wept bitterly." (22:62)

He goes to the gate, it is opened for him, and quietly he slips away. Away from Jesus' gaze. Away from the hour of shaking and sifting and temptation. Away.

The word translated "wept" is the common Greek verb klaiō, "to cry."1087 Peter weeps intensely. The word "bitterly" is the Greek adverb pikros. The adjective pikros originally meant "pointed, sharp," so the word carries the idea of sharpness, pain, severity.1088

Lessons for Disciples

This short scene in the high priest's courtyard offers a number of lessons for perceptive disciples:

  1. We must remain humble, not boastful, for the line between courage and cowardice can be a very thin line. Paul cautions us, "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
  2. Without the spiritual preparation of prayer, we are no match for the devil's sifting. We must live in constant prayer, depending upon the Lord for strength.
  3. Fear and faith cannot easily co-exist. When we start to give into our fears, we become subject to the deceiver, who would undermine our faith with his lies.
  4. Jesus looks upon his disciples when they fall into sin. And at that moment, we see in his eyes disappointment, rebuke, and love.

I've learned over the years that guilt can be a terrible taskmaster. But guilt itself cannot help us conquer sin. Guilt is the burglar alarm of our conscience, and while it can ring incessantly, it cannot heal.

Only the love of Jesus for us and our love for Jesus can heal us. A desire not to disappoint him and let him down is stronger than the fear of guilt. This is what the Apostle John meant when he said,

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:18)

As Jesus looks at Peter, he sees afresh the necessity of the cross that lies before him. His love determines to redeem from sin the Peters among his worldwide band of disciples -- by forgiving our offenses, taking our penalty, healing our sin-damaged souls, and restoring us to fellowship with God.

Jesus looks at Peter and knows that his life's work lies just ahead. His hour has come.


Father, I look at Peter and see myself. How I have failed you! How I have disappointed you! How I have grieved you -- not just once but again and again. Thank you for the costly cross. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your love for me and for the whole world. Thank you for Jesus. In his holy and precious name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: 'Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.' And he went outside and wept bitterly." (Luke 22:61-62)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. Does the clause, "Peter followed at a distance," reflect positively or negatively upon his character? Why is he there at all?
  2. Who is seated around the fire in the courtyard? (To whom does "they" refer in verse 55?) Was Peter's danger real or imagined? What evidence do you have to support your answer?
  3. Why do you think Peter's courage melts so quickly?
  4. What does Peter's denial consist of? Why is it so serious? In what ways do modern-day Christians deny Christ in similar way?
  5. What effect does it have on Peter when Jesus turns and establishes eye contact with him? What do you think is communicated in that look?
  6. Why does Peter weep bitterly?
  7. Only a few stories are told in all four Gospels. Why do you think Peter's denial is one of these? Why do you think Christians can relate so easily to this story?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[1073] Wayne O. McCready, "Priest, High," ISBE 3:962-963. David Miall Edwards, "Annas," ISBE 1:128.

[1074] Makrothen, BDAG 612.

[1075] Aulē, BDAG 150.

[1076] Paidiskē, BDAG 749-750.

[1077] Atenizō, BDAG 148.

[1078] Arneomai, BDAG 132-133.

[1079] Oida, BDAG 693-694.

[1080] Ek, BDAG 297, 4aγ.

[1081] Diischurizomai, BDAG 246.

[1082] Parachrēma, BDAG 773.

[1083] The Greek doesn't have a specific word here for a rooster's cry as we do in English. The term is the general phoneō, to produce a voiced sound or tone" (BDAG 1071). However, the Greek term alectōr, specifically refers to a male chicken, "cock, rooster" (BDAG 41).

[1084] Emblepō, BDAG 321-322.

[1085] Hypomimneskō, BDAG 1039.

[1086] Aparneomai, BDAG 97.

[1087] Though I would have expected this to be in the imperfect tense, "kept on crying," it is not. Rather it is in the Aorist tense, which expresses a punctiliar action in the past which isn't characterized as continuing on for some duration.

[1088] Pikros, BDAG 813. Wilhelm Michaelis, pikros, ktl., TDNT 6:122-127. Our term "picric acid" comes from this word meaning "bitter."

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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