Was Peter’s denial an act of cowardice? I have my doubts.

“I tell you Peter, before the rooster crows today, You will deny three times that you know me.”
— Luke 22:34

Wow. Talk about your proverbial slap in the face. Here is Peter, the unquestioned leader of the disciples, the outspoken one, the man known as “the rock” – and Jesus is basically telling him, “You’ll turn tail and run when the heat comes down.” Man, that had to hurt.

Here’s what I want to know … why did Peter deny Jesus?

An easy answer would be that Peter was simply afraid. And who could blame him? After witnessing the unbearable thrashing and thinking about the horrible death his Lord was about to suffer, it’s not a stretch to think that Peter would say, “Nope. Don’t want no part of that.”

Applied to most people, the fear theory makes a lot of sense. Heck, it would make sense for me. I’d be more scared than a cat at the Westminster Dog Show. But I have a very hard time believing the fear theory applies to Peter.

First-century fishing vessel

A first-century fishing vessel.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Peter was a fisherman. First-century fishermen lived a rough life, mainly because of the intense physical rigors of their job. And professional fishing was not for the faint of heart. The sea of Galilee was (and is) prone to ferocious storms that rose up out of nowhere and could easily capsize the small, 20-to-30-foot boats they used. As a result, fishermen tended to be a gruff, unkempt bunch, full of vigor and prone to boisterous tempers (sound a bit like Peter?). This is likely why James and his brother John, also fishermen, were called the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). In short, a fisherman like Peter would have been considered the ultimate “man’s man” in his day.

Walk on water

Would a coward even get out of the boat?

The New Testament presents plenty of evidence of Peter’s bravery. When Jesus walks on water in Matthew 14, Peter is right there with Him. And while it’s easy to concentrate on the part where Peter loses faith and starts to sink, the truth is that he was the only disciple who had the courage to step out of the boat in the first place! And in the Garden of Gesthemane, when Roman soldiers come to take Jesus away, Peter grabs a sword and cuts off the right ear of the high priest’s servant (John 18:10). Does that strike you as the act of a coward?

So the question remains – if it wasn’t fear, then what was it that caused Peter to deny his Lord?

This is purely speculation on my part, but I have to wonder if it wasn’t because Peter actually thought he could save Jesus.

Jesus was very clear with the disciples about the fate that would befall Him. The 13th through the 17th chapters of John, often called “The Farewell Discourse,” tell us that Jesus leaves no doubt about what would happen. He would be betrayed. He would suffer. And He would die a gruesome death. Wouldn’t it make sense that the disciples, whose lives have been profoundly changed as a result of their three-year journey with Jesus, would find themselves in a state of denial? Peter seems the most defiant of all, declaring, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33).

Here’s what I think might have happened.

After Jesus’ capture, Peter begins hatching a plot to save Him … to bust Him out of prison and run. To do that, Peter himself must remain free. Admitting he knows Jesus would mean he would be captured, and a jailbird can’t pull off a daring rescue mission. So as one bystander after another claims, “Hey, this guy is one of His followers,” Peter mumbles, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Finally, after the third denial, the bible says Jesus looks Peter squarely in the eye – at that moment, Peter remembers Jesus’ earlier prediction. As the bible says, he goes outside and weeps bitterly.

Was it shame? Maybe. Or maybe it was the realization … Peter couldn’t save Jesus. It was over. Jesus was going to die, and there wasn’t a thing that he – the roughest, toughest hombre of all the disciples – could do about it.

Again, I’m speculating. I’m not a learned bible scholar or a theologian. I’m just musing about what makes sense to me. And let’s face it – doesn’t hatching a plot to save Jesus just seem like a “Peter” thing to do?

I find it incredibly interesting that in Mark 16, when Mary Magdalene and Mary (the mother of James) goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away, Jesus says this to them:

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Jesus mentions Peter by name. Why? Is it because He knows Peter is devastated at his inability to stop the crucifixion?

I don’t know. Perhaps we’ll never know. But it sure makes me think … and thinking about God’s word is never a bad thing.


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  1. Nathan Sleyster

    April 18, 2014 at 12:52 am

    Great insight. I always just thought of Peter’s denial as being the fear of man. It’s something I know well. We are often more concerned about what people think about us than we are about what God thinks about us. Jesus was condemned, a convicted “criminal” and it’s hard to associate one’s self with a criminal. They evoke shame and can damage the reputation. It’s pretty easy to demonstrate the fear of man. Each time I witness to someone, I feel that fear. It is very real and can immobilize you.

    I often imagine that Peter felt that same fear seeing Jesus humbled, humiliated and beaten. I think there’s a big difference between the fear of man and other fears. Christians are willing to do all kinds of stuff that brings fear. We fly, rock climb, bungee jump, climb tall ladders, etc, but we don’t share our faith with the lost. Peter was a sailor and a fisherman, so he faced the fear of the ocean all the time. But the fear of man is a different animal. It’s extremely powerful. Proverbs 29:25.

    Not to take away from your argument. I like your thoughts, just wanted to share mine.

    • lccmusicman@msn.com

      April 18, 2014 at 11:29 am

      Thanks Nate. Always live to hear your thoughts. What you say makes a lot of sense, too. You’re right … we’ll do almost anything to avoid humiliation, no matter how brave we are. And perhaps I should have said that Peter was not a man who lacked courage, as opposed to being a man without fear. There’s a difference, with courage being the capacity to overcome fear. I think it might be more accurate to say that Peter’s penchant for spontaneous action made it APPEAR that he was fearless. At any rate, I find it both fun and edifying to think about bible characters in this way. Who were they? What made them tick? Thanks again for adding your thoughts!

  2. I’d never thought of the ” rescue mission” idea, but it seems to make a lot of sense. Peter did take a big risk staying near Jesus after Jesus was taken. I think it would be rather easy for the servant of the high priest to recognize the guy who’d lopped his ear off, and Peter would certainly stand out in a crowd. On a side note, can you imagine Jesus standing before the the high priest, chief priests, elders, and teachers of the Law ( Mark 14:53-65). The high priest asks, ” Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”.(NIV) “I am,” said Jesus. A two-word response that probably angered them more than we can understand. These leaders would have been very aware of the life of Moses. In Exodus 3:11-14, God has a chat with Moses. Who did God say He was? “I AM”!

    • lccmusicman@msn.com

      April 18, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Excellent point about Peter staying near Jesus, as well as the high priest’s servant. The servant was probably quite conflicted emotionally. On one hand, Peter had attacked him. On the other hand, Jesus, the man on trial had immediately healed him. It makes me wonder what was going through his mind. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Nathan Sleyster

    April 19, 2014 at 2:32 am

    I can honestly say that I have no courage without the Holy Spirit. I’m a complete wimp. Yet here is a guy who had the courage to walk on water and cut off a guy’s ear for Jesus. And did he even have the Spirit with him? When the Spirit comes (after Jesus ascends) isn’t that the first time the Spirit comes to be with men? It’s tough to imagine being without the Spirit, but it definitely gives Peter a good excuse for denying Jesus. You’re right, Bob, he was probably completely overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do but to try and save Jesus. How ironic, hmm?

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