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Peter does a 180

It is curious how quickly Peter changed from the brave (if brash) swordsman in Gethsemane to the frightened denier.

Peter denied Jesus 3 times despite being warned in advance:

Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. (Matt. 26:34)

After the denial:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly. (Matt. 26:75)

How this passage is normally read

Jesus' statement to Peter is almost always taken as a prophecy, in response to Peter's claim that he would never abandon Jesus. That's a pretty straightforward interpretation of both Jesus' statement and Peter's actions thereafter.

Another possibility

I'm intrigued by another possibility. Not saying it's true, just asking if it's possible/likely. Could Jesus have been instructing Peter to deny Him, to protect Peter from getting arrested himself?

My initial reaction is no, of course that's not right, the statement "thou shalt deny" is indicative, not imperative. But...statements like "thou shalt love the Lord thy God" & "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" are also indicative.

Peter wept bitterly afterwards. On the customary interpretation, this is because he felt terrible for doing what he had said he would never do - he had been put to the ultimate test, and he had failed. On the other hand, if he denied Jesus because Jesus told him to, he wept bitterly because he had just obeyed the hardest commandment he'd ever been given.

This probably isn't a popular interpretation. But my question isn't about popularity; rather, what does the text say?

The question

What evidence works in favor/against each of these possibilities? Which is more likely correct?

A. Jesus prophesied Peter would deny Him so Peter would remember later and his grief would produce transformative repentance.

B. Jesus instructed Peter to deny Him in order to protect Peter from his own impulsiveness.

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  • 1
    B makes no sense at all, from any perspective that I can think of. Which is almost certainly the reason for it not being a widespread interpretation.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 14 at 21:11
  • @NigelJ thank you; would you be up for elaborating upon your response as an answer? If the answer is obvious (and it might be!), I would find a brief argument in favor of A more helpful than a vote to close the question. I'm also open to suggestions if you believe the question can be improved. Mar 14 at 21:47
  • @HoldT Perhaps we should remember that the disciples expected Christ to be a conqueror. When Peter announced that "he would never fall away" (Matt. 26:33), he expected that Jesus would put up a fight while being arrested, which He did not. This had to have instilled profound disillusion among the disciples. Nonetheless, note how the angel addresses them later: "But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee..." (emphasis added). Peter is differentiated from the disciples, likely because of his denials. It is also why Christ admonished him in Jn. 12:15ff.
    – Xeno
    Apr 28 at 17:36
  • @Xeno good contextual observation about the conquering Messiah expectation, thanks. Apr 28 at 18:41
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This is what in theological circles is known as either a "novel" idea or and "innovative" interpretation. Let us examine the facts.

Grammar

The four evangelists use a slightly different word to describe what Peter did, ie deny Jesus:

  • Matthew 26:34 - ἀπαρνήσῃ = future indicative
  • Mark 14:30, 72 - ἀπαρνήσῃ = future indicative
  • Luke 22:34, 61 - ἀπαρνήσῃ = future indicative
  • John 13:38 - ἀρνήσῃ = future indicative (Different form of the verb)

While it is true that sometimes the Greek uses the future indicative for the imperative, this is not uniformly done.

Reactions

Whether Jesus intended his comment as a prophecy or a command can be gauged by the reactions of both Peter and Jesus, and to a lesser extent, some of the others. We observe the following facts:

  1. Jesus' prediction that Peter would deny Him was part of a general prediction that all the disciples would dessert Him. The only reason Peter was singled out was because Peter gave the greatest assurance that he would not dessert Jesus.
  2. Further, Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial was also in the context of Jesus' revelation that Peter would be subject of a special attack, but that Jesus had prayed for Peter to protect him from that attack (Luke 22:31-34)
  3. In all but Luke's account, Jesus prefaces His prediction with ἀμὴν λέγω σοι (Matt & Mark) or ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι (John); this formula, "Truly I tell you" is only ever uttered by Jesus (quite often) when Jesus is about to state an important truth or prophecy, never as a command.
  4. Peter did not simply deny Jesus, he went further. His Galilean accent betrayed his origin and so, to disguise his identity, he began cursing a swearing (Mark 14:71)
  5. Whatever sanitized motives may be attributed to Peter for denying his Lord, the other disciples, especially John who was with Peter, did not need to resort to this to avoid being arrested.
  6. The most touching moment of Peter's self-induced ordeal occurs after his third denial as recorded by Luke 22:60-62, when " ... 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.” And he went outside and wept bitterly." If the Lord had wanted Peter to do this, he might have been proud that he had done the Lord's will, but he had not.
  7. Peter denied Jesus three times and following the resurrection, Jesus arranged a private conversation with Peter where Jesus asked three times if Peter loved Him. Three times, Peter affirms that he loved Jesus. The restoration was complete and Peter went on to become a significant leader and evangelist beginning only a few weeks later at Pentecost. This was the gentlest rebuke possible.

Thus, I see no evidence that Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial was anything other than just that - a prediction of a fall from grace.

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  • Thank you. I asked this question of some friends a few years ago and they looked at me like I'd proposed worshipping Jupiter or something. Thanks for taking on the question and providing a thorough response. Although I could argue #2 multiple ways, I find #3 & #4 to be particularly compelling. Mar 23 at 2:55
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As an answer, Option B is untenable as a solution because it requires Christ to have commanded Peter to lie. Peter could in no honest way claim to not know Jesus, even if by command. Jesus, for His part, could in no way command Peter to deny Him without realizing doing so would require Peter to lie in order for his obedience to be secured.

The question then is, did Jesus command Peter to lie? The testimony of the Holy Scriptures, from Peter's own quill, is that "no deceit was found in [Christ's] mouth (1 Peter 2:22). It is clear then that only Option A can be considered correct.

See: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Peter%202%3A22&version=ESV

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  • Good, sound observation, thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Apr 29 at 0:49
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Even though the idea that Jesus was trying to protect Peter holds a certain charm, there doesn’t seem to be evidence for it in the text besides Jesus’s statement that he would keep his disciples safe (Jn 17:12). On the contrary, one detail from the account of Jesus’ post resurrection appearance at the sea of Galilee supports the traditional interpretation.

Several parallels can be drawn between aspects of that appearance and Peter’s journey as a disciple as a whole. The miraculous catch of fish at the beginning of the account recalls the events that surround Peter’s first calling (Jn 21:6 and Lk 5:5-6). Later, Jesus’ thrice repeated question of Peter’s love also recalls Peter’s three denials.

Toward the end of that account, Jesus words about the way Peter will die may also be a reference to those denials. The words “where you do not want to go” could be a direct reference to the reason Peter denied Jesus, which is that he did not want to be bound and taken away as Jesus was:

  • Truly, truly I tell you, when you were younger, you used to put on your belt and walk wherever you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will put your belt on you, and bring you where you do not want to go. (Jn 21:18)

Another consideration is that Peter’s denials are consistent with his past behavior. Specifically, the account of Peter’s walking on water comes to mind:

  • Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” (Mt 14:29-30)

Peter is someone who does not shy away from taking risks for Jesus’ sake. Thus the risks that he takes are also a reflection of the love that he has for Jesus - getting out of the boat to walk to Jesus, cutting the servant’s ear when Jesus was arrested, and following Jesus after he was arrested. But Peter’s trust and his courage are not always equal to his love, and thus he wavers. When Jesus asks him, “Will you lay down your life for me?” perhaps Jesus is questioning whether Peter could follow through with his noble intention:

  • Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” Jesus replied, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.” (Jn 13:36-38)

Perhaps the words "you cannot follow me now, but you will follow later" are also a reference to Peter's future death, when he will finally be able to lay down his life for Jesus. One final thought on this question is that the trials and failings that Peter and the other disciples experienced may have served God's purpose: to help humble and empty them so that they could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

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  • Thank you Nhi, I like your style and your penetrating thoughts.
    – Ruminator
    Apr 29 at 0:48
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    @Ruminator Thank you for those kind words.
    – Nhi
    May 11 at 23:55
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The answers I glanced at were thoughtful and insightful. My whole hermeneutic pushes different buttons in me.

My basic hermeneutic is that each and every Koine Greek character inscribed on papyrus by the authors of the NT was intended to show, that by "fulfilling," typologically, metaphorically and Platonically, every aspect of the Tanach and other then extant Jewish scripture, prove that Jesus was indeed "the Hope of Israel." The fourth canonical gospel makes this intention explicit:

[Jhn 20:30-31 NKJV] 30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.

[Isa 29:18 NKJV] 18 In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, And the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness.

This is the design of the gospel. Paul says the same:

[Rom 10:5-11 NKJV] 5 For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, "The man who does those things shall live by them." 6 But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' " (that is, to bring Christ down [from above]) 7 or, " 'Who will descend into the abyss?' " (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame."

Notice these "then you will know" prophecies:

[Isa 49:23 NKJV] 23 Kings shall be your foster fathers, And their queens your nursing mothers; They shall bow down to you with [their] faces to the earth, And lick up the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I [am] the LORD, For they shall not be ashamed who wait for Me."

[Eze 20:38 NKJV] 38 "I will purge the rebels from among you, and those who transgress against Me; I will bring them out of the country where they dwell, but they shall not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I [am] the LORD.

[Zec 2:9, 11 NKJV] 9 "For surely I will shake My hand against them, and they shall become spoil for their servants. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me. ... 11 "Many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and they shall become My people. And I will dwell in your midst. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you.

[Zec 4:9 NKJV] 9 "The hands of Zerubbabel Have laid the foundation of this temple; His hands shall also finish [it]. Then you will know That the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you.

[Jhn 8:28 NKJV] 28 Then Jesus said to them, "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [He], and [that] I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.

So in my hermeneutic, when trying to understand the NT, I always resort to the OT, and ask myself, "Of what OT passage is this overtly or "as a shadow" is this passage the fulfillment?"

Paul said that the sabbath, the holy days, etc. were all "fulfilled" by Christ and they, in themselves, exist only now for us to ponder and see Christ. Moses didn't give the bread from heaven, Jesus is the Bread from Heaven!

Many of the fulfillments are identified in the NT and are quite remarkable, such as this:

[Jhn 3:14-15 NKJV] 14 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

Nice! Great fit!

Some seem soooo contrived as to be potentially embarrassing:

[Mat 2:23 NKJV] 23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

The only relationship this passage bears with the passage it "fulfills" is the general "shape" of the events, and by the thin thread of the commonality of the Hebrew root of "Nazareth" with the Hebrew root of the word "Nazirite." Jesus was accused of being a "winebibber" because he attended parties and had a glass.

My point is that we have to locate the OT (or other extant Jewish source) background of each and every passage to really understand the prophetic significance of a passage. That is, in a very, very real sense, the NT scriptures' raison d'etre.

End of introduction. Here's the background:

[Zec 13:7 KJV] 7 Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man [that is] my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones.

And here is the fulfillment:

[Mat 26:31 KJV] 31 Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.

Matthew has done his job. NO ONE should doubt Matthew's objective in writing this "fulfillment." He even says, "for it is written." "That it might be fulfilled" and "for it is written" are billboards, calling one's attention that he wants the reader to see the intertextuality and accept it as "proof" that Jesus was the Hope of Israel, the Son of God and the Savior of the Jewish People. Matthew, like all the apostles, were blindsided by the idea that the objective was much larger than the regeneration of the covenantally dead diaspora of Israel. That would be introduced by Peter but elaborated as seven "secrets" by Paul.

It wasn't described by Matthew as a command but rather as a divinely declared inevitability. The Messiah's sheep would be scattered as the Messiah was smitten.

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There is no way understand what Jesus says as instruction for Peter to lie. In addition to the sin of instructing Peter to lie, Jesus would have lied:

While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. (John 17:12 ESV)

Only Judas would be lost; neither Peter or any of the others were in danger while Jesus was present.

The Good Shepherd Discourse

1 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10)

The hired hand flees and sheep will be lost, but the Good Shepherd goes before His sheep and lays His life down for them. The safety of the sheep is assured by the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd in Action
In the arrest scene, Jesus shows Himself to be the Good Shepherd:

8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” 9 This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” 10 Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.) 11 So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
(John 18)

In Peter's presence, Jesus commands the arresting party to let everyone else go free. They obey Jesus in spite of Peter's hostile action. If Peter was in any danger of being arrested, it was at the moment he did something for which he deserved to be arrested. Yet, he was allowed to go free: just as Jesus taught in the Good Shepherd Discourse and stated in His prayer.

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Did Peter do a 180?

First, we need to find out: Why did our Lord Jesus Christ say what He said to Peter?

Matt. 26:33-34 NKJV
33Peter answered and said to Him, "Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble." 34Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times."
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

What did Peter claim to Jesus? Peter said, "I will never be made to stumble". However, knowing Peter even better than he knew himself, what did Jesus reply? Jesus said, "before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times".

Because although Peter is one of the pillars of faith, was he perfect?

Matt. 14:29-31 NASB
29And He said, "Come!" And Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying, "Lord, save me!" 31Immediately Jesus reached out with His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"
(The New American Standard Bible. New York, New York: American Bible Society, 1991.)

What happened to Peter as he walked over the water toward Jesus? Matthew said, "he began to sink". How come? Matthew explained, "seeing the wind, he became frightened". When Jesus had rescued him, what did He say to Peter? Jesus said, "You of little faith". Hence, before denying Jesus, Peter was already shown to be lacking in faith.

What was another instance that showed this?

Matt. 16:21-23 NKJV
21From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. 22Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!" 23But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men."
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

How did Peter respond to hearing that Jesus needed to be killed and then raised on the third day? Peter said to Jesus, "this shall not happen to You". How did Jesus address Peter because of what he had said? Jesus said, "Get behind Me, Satan". Why did Jesus call Peter 'Satan'? Jesus explained to Peter, "you are not mindful of the things of God". But rather, what was Peter concerned with? Jesus concluded, "the things of men".

In fact, what did Peter return to after Jesus had died?

John 21:3-4, 15-17 Lamsa
3Simon Peter said to them, I am going to catch fish. They said to him, We also will come with you. So they went out and went up into the boat; and that night they caught nothing. 4When morning came, Jesus stood by the sea side; and the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
15When they had broken their fast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these things? He said to him, Yes, my Lord; you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, Feed my male lambs. 16He said to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me? He said to him, Yes, my Lord; you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep. 17He said to him again the third time, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me? It grieved Peter because he said to him the third time, Do you love me? So he said to him, My Lord, you understand well everything, you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, Feed my female lambs.
(Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text: George M. Lamsa’s Translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta. Philadelphia USA: A.J. Holman Co., 1968.)

Did Peter continue to watch over the flock after Jesus died? Peter said, "I am going to catch fish." Peter was formerly a fisherman and had returned to his profession.

Hence, when Jesus appeared to Peter, what did Jesus ask him? Jesus said, "do you love me more than these things?" How did Peter answer? Peter replied, "you know that I love you". However, was Jesus satisfied? John explained, "He said to him a second time, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?" When Jesus repeated the question a third time, how did Peter feel? John recounted, "It grieved Peter." Why, how should Peter have shown his love for Jesus? Jesus commanded, "Feed my sheep". Peter was among those who turned their backs on Christ's flock after Jesus died.

Even after Jesus had already ascended into heaven, was Peter then without his faults?

Gal. 2:11-14 WENT
11One day Peter came to the city of Antioch. Then I had to tell him face to face that he had done wrong. He really was wrong! 12Here is what happened. Peter ate with those who were not Jews. Then some men came whom James had sent. When they came he stopped eating with those who were not Jews. He was afraid of what the Jews might think. 13All the other Jewish Christians did the same as Peter did. They acted as if it was not right to eat with those who were not Jews. Even Barnabas did the same. 14But I saw they were not doing right. They were not obeying the true teaching of the good news. So I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew. But you live the way people do who are not Jews. How then can you force those who are not Jews to live the way the Jews do?"
(Worldwide English New Testament. SOON Educational Publications: Derby England, 1998.)

What did Peter do in the presence of his fellow Jewish Christians? Paul said, "he stopped eating with those who were not Jews". This refers to the Gentile brethren who had already become Christians.

What kind of message did this send to everybody? Paul explained, "as if it was not right to eat with those who were not Jews." Who imitated Peter? Paul said, "All the other Jewish Christians". Hence, there appeared to be disunity among the Christians.

However, was this in accordance to God's commandments? Paul said, "They were not obeying the true teaching." Hence, what did Paul do? Paul said, "I had to tell him face to face that he had done wrong." Hence, even after Christ ascended to heaven, Peter still was not a perfect disciple.

Thus, the foreknowledge that preceded Peter's denial of Jesus was merely a manifestation that Jesus truly knew Peter.

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