Baked into our evangelical consciousness is a particular understanding of Peter around the night of Jesus' Crucifixion: Peter denied Jesus three times because he was afraid he too might be captured, tortured and crucified.
The motivation most commonly ascribed for this denial? Fear.
It's interesting, though. The Bible doesn't actually say what Peter's motivations are. Somewhere along the way (after the probably million or so sermons we've heard on the topic), most of us have adopted this subtext for the story... we've given Peter a motivation for denying Jesus that isn't actually clear in the Biblical text.
Just a quick review of the facts of the case through the events described in Matthew:
- Jesus tells Peter he will deny him
- Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane.
- The disciples flee the scene of the arrest.
- Jesus is brought to the High Priest with the scribes and elders and Peter is watching from a distance, waiting to see what's going down.
- Peter's approached by various people, and on three separate occasions, he denies knowing Jesus
- The rooster crows and Peter remembers what Jesus said, runs away and weeps bitterly
But no where in the Bible does it say WHY Peter denied Jesus. Only that he does. There's nothing saying what's going on in his head...we've (collectively) ascribed the reasons why.
I want to suggest that there might be another motivation. Is it more plausible? Perhaps. It's at least worth thinking about.
One could argue that if Peter denies Jesus primarily because he's afraid, he's a bit cowardly. Willing to ditch his friend in his greatest hour of need.
But what do we know about Peter? We know that when scads of people leave, he's one of the ones who stays: "Where else would we go? For you have the words of life." He is the one who first proclaims, and boldly so, that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God." He's the one that gets out of the boat and walks on water to join Jesus (if that's not staring death in the face, I don't know what is).
When Jesus is talking about dying, Peter is the one on in Matthew 16 to take him aside and tell to pipe down on that dying talk. He's continually loud and boisterous and courageous and when his Master is surrounded in the Garden of Gethsemane, how does he respond? He takes his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest's servant. We could call Peter bold. We could call him brash. Impulsive. Fool-hearty even. But few would call him cowardly.
When we start digging into the text and what Jerusalem and Israel was like at the time...let's just say that everyone was expecting Jesus to be a physical King. The rulers were petrified of a rebellion and knew what Rome did to aspiring revolutionaries. They knew what happened in Sepphoris 35 years before (3,000 Jews crucified in one day because of a Jewish revolt not far from Nazareth) and the Maccabean revolt is etched into their cultural memory.
When we hear even what the disciples are saying to Jesus and among themselves, it seems fairly clear they are thinking Jesus is the promised King that will restore Israel: they're expecting him to lead a violent overthrow of Roman occupation.
Peter, in the garden, seeing that Jesus is about to be arrested, takes his sword and cuts off the ear of the servant...clearly ready and equipped for an actual fight.
So here is Peter in the courtyard, waiting to see what happens with these Jewish rulers. And I can't help but wonder if Peter, the courageous man who has stared death in the face before, is wanting to rescue Jesus. I wonder if his fear isn't in being arrested, tortured and killed...but being caught before he can mount an attempt to jail-break his leader. After all, he's already told Jesus that this death that awaits him will never happen. The night of the last supper, he's boldly declared, "Even If I have to die with you, I won't deny you!"
The denial, then, wouldn't necessarily be because he's afraid of death. The lie about knowing Jesus could be an attempt to keep from getting caught so that he could intervene on his behalf (which just...I don't know...sounds so much like what the Peter we read about would do). It's hard for Jesus to be the physical King that restores Israel if he's dead and buried!
We don't know why Peter was in the courtyard. Would it be stupid to try to rescue Jesus? Absolutely. But it does sound a little like Peter. We don't know why he denied Jesus...only that he did. We don't know why he wept bitterly when he remembered the words of Jesus. Were they tears of embarrassment and shame for denying Jesus out of fear of death or pain? Or were they tears for realizing he still didn't see what Jesus was doing and here he was trying to circumvent what has happening? That he had failed his mission and perhaps found himself on the wrong side of history.
The fact of the matter is that we just don't know.
Would it be understandable for Peter to have denied Jesus because he was scared of what would happen to him? Sure. Is it more likely that's what was happening here? Maybe. After all, we do know he backed down from eating unclean foods when men from James came to visit a few years later.
But it's at least worth considering the whole of who the Gospels show Peter to be and how that might color how we think of him in these moments.
It's worth considering because if that's what happened with Peter...how often does that happen with us? Because it sounds a lot like our story. How often are we so willing to take the matters of the Kingdom into our own hands, to take the baton from Jesus and say, "Alright. I got it from here." How often do we want the Kingdom to come, but in ways that are different than that of King Jesus? How often do we get frustrated or don't see what God is doing or simply try to circumvent what God is doing so it fits within our own expectations?
That sounds like us...and it sounds a bit like Peter.