The Gospel of Luke – Peter’s Denial

The arrest of Jesus leads into three successive and connected scenes: Peter’s denial (vv. 54-62), the mocking of Jesus (vv. 63-65), and the trial before the religious authorities (vv. 66-71). What is interesting is that in the midst of the Passion narrative of Jesus, there is the scene in all four gospels that concentrate on Peter and his response.  Luke’s account is unique in the following respects: sequence – in that the denials occur in the courtyard before the mocking and interrogation; structure – Luke does not connect the denial as a caused by the trial; and detail – such as the servant girl sitting at the fireside where there is light to clearly recognize Peter  – and most vividly, it is Luke that reports Jesus looked Peter “dead in the eye,” bringing the full gravitas of the denials to Peter.

Culpepper (p.439) notes that failure comes in many forms – but that we can never fail God without also failing ourselves.  Conversely, in some sense when we fail ourselves we always fail God.  The call to faith, as Peter learns, can at times call us to reverse our natural impulse to self-preservation, security, etc., and to stretch to a high calling of faithfulness and commitment to others.  Failure can also be calculated as was Judas’ or can be spontaneous as was Peter’s. What is the difference in the failure? Where Judas contemplated his commitments and intentions, Peter did not.  Even as faithful as Peter’s intention, the failure to reflect and contemplate upon those commitments and intention was a failure that eroded the very intention.  In Luke’s hands, Peter’s failure becomes a lesson in discipleship and the need for accompanying intentionality.

Peter’s Denial

Luke 22:54 After arresting him they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest; Peter was following at a distance. 55 They lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat around it, and Peter sat down with them. 56 When a maid saw him seated in the light, she looked intently at him and said, “This man too was with him.” 57 But he denied it saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58 A short while later someone else saw him and said, “You too are one of them”; but Peter answered, “My friend, I am not.” 59 About an hour later, still another insisted, “Assuredly, this man too was with him, for he also is a Galilean.” 60 But Peter said, “My friend, I do not know what you are talking about.” Just as he was saying this, the cock crowed, 61 and the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 He went out and began to weep bitterly. 63 The men who held Jesus in custody were ridiculing and beating him. 64 They blindfolded him and questioned him, saying, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” 65 And they reviled him in saying many other things against him.

Commentary

The scene shifts. Those arresting Jesus bring him to the house of the high priest (22:54-65). Here he will be interrogated and beaten throughout the night (22:63-65). These scenes of a clandestine and violent arrest, of nighttime torture and interrogation have been repeated over and over in the history of Christian martyrdom, including our day.

In the Lucan narrative, Peter’s denials are not intertwined with that of the trial.  While the Markan intertwining has more of a dramatic effect, the impact of Peter’s actions are no less impacting: Peter’s table boast (22:33) and his cowardice/fear (see note 22:62). Jesus’ prophecy is coming true.  What is unique to Luke’s is Jesus’ words that Peter would be reconciled and would return to heal his brothers (22:32).

Peter had followed Jesus to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house and mingled with the crowd around a fire built to cheat the cold night air (22:54-62). But Peter’s attempt to merge with the crowd fails; a maid recognizes him in the light of the fire: “This man too was with him.” Peter vigorously denies that he even knows Jesus. But a little later the danger comes again as another person recognizes him, then “an hour later,” another who catches Peter’s Galilean accent. Each time Peter, the leader of the twelve, denies that he ever heard of Jesus.

The first readers of this gospel, for whom Peter was still a fresh memory and the ancestor of their faith, must have found this scene painful. Luke adds a touch of exquisite drama and deep compassion. Unlike the other passion stories, the evangelist has staged this scene so that Peter and Jesus are within sight of each other: the warming fire and the knot of soldiers torturing Jesus are in the same courtyard. As the cock crows–the very signal that Jesus had foretold to Peter (22:34), Jesus turns and looks at his disciple. That gaze penetrates Peter’s heart; he remembers Jesus’ words, words warning of failure – and hopefully the promise of forgiveness – as he leaves the courtyard weeping in remorse.

Notes

22: 54 house of the high priest: Matthew and John identify the high priest as Caiaphas

22:61 the Lord turned and looked at Peter: Only Luke records this moment.

the word of the Lord: Only Luke uses this phrase, giving a special prophetic coloration to the incident.  This and many other of the Lord’s prophetic words are coming to a time of fulfillment.

22:62 weep bitterly: the grief (lype) is a word with the connotation and connection to the results of fear or cowardice

Sources:

  • Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1994) 2 Volumes
  • R. Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995)
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997)
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 336-85.
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989)
  • Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
  • Donald Senior, The Passion of Jesus Christ, an unpublished booklet
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

Over the years I have compiled notes, documents, and items of interest about Scripture. Mostly for my own use and in teaching Bible studies in Catholic parishes.  The idea was possible to make something that is approachable, more than “Bible 101″ yet not too overwhelming, yet with notes for people that want more – and hopefully even if a person feels “stretched” by the content, it is not too much.  I have come to realize I have developed a little library – and so I thought I would share some.

When I began to compile I made no attempt to be careful about sourcing, copying entire passages, footnoting, or the even the modicum of appropriate credit – and so there is likely a lot of content that is not my own. My apologies to all.

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