All four Evangelists devote a large portion of their Gospels to the Passion of our Lord, and all four give what appears to be a disproportionate amount of space to the story of St. Peter’s denials of Jesus Christ. Peter’s importance, as the rock on which Christ built His Church, is undoubtedly one reason for this. So too the moral lessons of his fall and rise.
We suspect that in later years the remorseful Peter told and retold the story to assuage in some manner the sorrow he felt for his shameful cowardice. Few incidents are better authenticated in the early Christian tradition, as the Evangelist St. Mark was a disciple of St. Peter, and St. John a close friend and an eyewitness of the event.
Peter’s character shines through many incidents in the Gospel narrative. He boldly asks Christ to bid him walk on the waters. At Christ’s command he does, but almost immediately he loses courage, doubts the power that sustains him, and begins to sink (Matt. 14:28–32). At the sad moment when Jesus’ disciples leave Him and He asks the chosen Twelve if they too are deserting, it is Peter who rises to the occasion and speaks for all in those immortal words: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of everlasting life, and we have come to believe and to know that thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (John 6:69–70).
And when Christ asks His Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” it is Peter again who is spokesman. “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” Christ forthwith makes Peter the foundation stone of His Church and delivers to Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:16–20).
Jesus chose twelve Apostles, and from the twelve He chose three — Peter, James, and John — to be His most intimate friends. They alone witnessed the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:51), the transfiguration on the Mount (Matt. 17:1), and the agony in the garden (Matt. 26:37). When Jesus foretold His Passion, Peter had the effrontery to take Him aside and chide Him about it, telling Him that all this would never be. Peter was put in his place — and quickly. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said to him, “thou art a scandal to me” (Matt. 16:23).
Our Lord’s Warning to Peter
Jesus sends him and his friend John to prepare the Paschal meal, at which Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. When Jesus rebukes him, Peter goes all out, as usual, by telling our Lord to wash not only his feet but his hands and his head (John 13:9). During that Last Supper, our Lord gives him an assurance that he will need, and will heed, later on: “Simon, Simon,” Jesus says, “behold, Satan has desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee that thy faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31–32).
But Peter feels no need of help. He is quite confident of his own powers and loyalty. “Lord,” he says, “with thee I am ready to go both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). And when Jesus foretells that all of them will be scandalized in Him this very night, it is boastful, self-confident Peter who declares, “Even though all shall be scandalized, yet not I” (Mark 14:29).
Then it is that Jesus gives him a solemn warning of what is to come. “I tell thee, Peter,” Jesus says, “a cock will not crow this day, until thou hast thrice denied that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:34). Peter hears but does not heed. He leads the others in loud boasts that he would die with Jesus rather than deny Him. And the boasts continue until Jesus changes the subject.
At the Garden Gethsemane
Peter’s troubles began at the Garden of Gethsemane. When Jesus was arrested, he and all the other Apostles fled, as our Lord had predicted. But it was not long before Peter and another Apostle recovered their courage and followed after the detachment that was leading Jesus a prisoner to the palace of the high priest. St. John tells us that “Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest” (John 18:15).
Who was this other disciple? We must confess that we do not have a certain answer to that question. From earliest times, however, it has been thought that it was St. John himself. John seems to be giving an indication that he knew what happened because he was there. As we have said, he often referred to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Here he leaves out the words “whom Jesus loved” because they are not relevant to the events.
As the procession, with Jesus in the middle, marched through the great gate into the courtyard of the palace, St. John joined the last few stragglers and entered with them. No doubt the officers of the guard were relaxed and careless, now that they had Jesus securely in their possession, and without trouble from His followers. John had no intention of abandoning Peter, but he thought it prudent to enter and have a look around before bringing him in. He had to be particularly careful because, at Gethsemane, Peter had struck and injured a servant of the high priest.
Assuring himself that there was no immediate danger, and probably fearing that if he did not get Peter into the courtyard, he would do something rash, John returned to the entrance and spoke to the portress. It is likely that the great gate had been closed and barred and that the portress watched the street from a window near a small door that she opened to admit those who had a right to enter. The portress evidently knew John, because she made no difficulty about admitting Peter, who had been standing in the street outside.
The First Denial
Peter slipped quietly through the arched vestibule into the open courtyard and looked about him. In the middle of the courtyard a group of servants and retainers huddled around a fire. In April, the days are usually warm, but the nights can be quite chilly, especially in the hilly country around Jerusalem. Peter evidently thought that his best course was to assume an air of nonchalance and to mingle with the servants as if he were one of them. He crouched over the fire and warmed himself. Mark, whose information came directly from Peter, mentions twice that Peter warmed himself, as if to insinuate that he was just a little too thoughtful of his own comfort at such a time.
Peter had not been quite as successful in avoiding attention as he had thought and hoped. The portress could not see him very clearly in the shadows of the entrance, but what she saw aroused her suspicions. She left the door in the care of another, approached the fire, and looked closely at Peter, whose features and garb were now clearly revealed in the light of the glowing embers.
What the portress saw strengthened her suspicions, and going directly up to Peter, she said: “Art thou also one of this man’s disciples?” Peter replied quickly and nervously, “I am not” (John 18:17). But the servant girl was not to be placated. She could see without difficulty that he was a Galilean and in all probability a fisherman, and so a likely disciple of Jesus. Instead of questioning Peter, she accused him directly this time: “Thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth.” Now he tried to give an evasive answer. He pleaded ignorance: “I neither know nor understand what thou art saying” (Mark 14:67–68). Peter knew and understood, but he lacked the courage to stand up to the maidservant and declare openly that he was a disciple of Jesus. He was guilty of a lack of moral courage. If the servants of the high priest had attacked him, he probably would have given a good account of himself.
But he went down to defeat before the verbal onslaught of a servant girl. He who had boasted that he would go with Christ to prison and to death, that he would be true to Him even if all others failed Him, and who had drawn a sword in His defense at Gethsemane, now denied that he had ever heard of Him.
The Second Denial
There was a lapse of time between Peter’s first and second denials; St. John narrates the story of Christ’s appearance before Annas between the two. Peter had a little time to reflect. He felt uneasy. Perhaps he had made a mistake by his bravado in joining the group around the fire. As quietly and unobtrusively as possible, he went out to the vaulted vestibule leading to the outer gate. He felt that he could pass unnoticed here in the shadows and at a little distance from both the entrance gate and the group around the fire.
As he took up his new position, the sound of an early cockcrow could be heard clearly. But it meant nothing to Peter at the moment. It was only afterward that he recalled it. Now he was too occupied with his own predicament, keeping a careful watch for any threat to himself.
The threat was not long in materializing, and again it took the shape of a maidservant. As likely as not, the portress was dissatisfied with Peter’s answers and had acquainted other servants with her suspicions of this man whom she had admitted. Seeing him nearby, several approached Peter, and one of the maids said to the others: “This is one of them” (Mark 14:69).
Some of the men who had joined the group made the same accusation, but Peter repeated his denials. Somewhat frightened now, he retreated toward the fire in the middle of the courtyard, denying with increasing emphasis that he was a disciple of Jesus, or that he even knew Him. For a second time, Peter went down before a verbal attack.
The Third Denial
For some reason, Peter was given about one hour’s respite after his second denial. It would seem that attention was concentrated elsewhere during this period, probably on the trial of Christ before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Peter had undoubtedly been torn between a desire to escape and a desire to see the fate that awaited his Master. His anxiety about Jesus overcame his fear, and he stayed on, as St. Matthew says, “to see the end” (26:58).
With the conclusion of the trial, some of the servants and retainers gathered around the fire again to warm themselves. To Peter’s chagrin, one of them was a relative of Malchus, the servant of the high priest whose ear he had cut off in the scuffle in the garden. Some of the other servants again asked Peter if he were not a disciple of Jesus, and he denied it.
The relative of Malchus looked closely at Peter now and said ominously: “Did I not see thee in the garden with him?” (John 18:26). Peter was shaken, and had good reason to be. Already in trouble as a possible disciple of Jesus, he was now recognized as one of those present at His arrest, possibly as the one who had attacked a servant of the high priest. Peter now multiplied his denials, and in his confusion and fear he probably spoke with an even broader Galilean accent than usual.
Evidently the Jerusalem Jews identified Christ’s followers as Galileans, because Peter was now accused of being a disciple for this reason. Peter felt cornered, surrounded by a hostile group pressing him with their accusations. A simple denial did not seem to be enough, so Peter began, as Mark says, “to curse and to swear, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about’ ” (14:71). This is an awful climax to Peter’s denials. He calls down a curse on himself if he is not telling the truth; he calls God to witness that he is telling the truth. And the “truth” in this case is that he, Peter, favored Apostle and friend of Jesus Christ, is not a disciple of Jesus and, in fact, does not even know “this man.” Yet, even in the depths of his abasement and in the vehemence of his denials, Peter seems unable to mention his Master’s name. He can only speak of him as “this man.”
Peter’s recovery was as sudden as his downfall. Even as the words of denial were passing from his lips, a cock crowed. This time the sound got through to Peter’s mind. He lapsed silent in a moment of reflection. He recalled Christ’s prophecy: “Before a cock crows, thou wilt deny me thrice” (John 13:38; Luke 22:34).
Almost simultaneously occurred one of the most beautiful incidents related in the Gospel narratives. Just at this moment, Jesus was being led across the courtyard to prison. As St. Luke says simply, “The Lord turned and looked upon Peter” (22:61). That look must have been one of compassionate reproach. Peter realized the full malice of what he had done and was overwhelmed with shame and sorrow. He could no longer trust himself to remain “to see the end.” Anyway, the tears he could not restrain would betray him. The last we hear of St. Peter in the Gospel accounts of the Passion of our Lord is that “Peter went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62).
A New Man in Christ
St. Peter is one of the most human and lovable characters portrayed in the pages of sacred history. He was a man of ardor, impetuosity, and enthusiasm. He was candid, loyal, warm-hearted, and generous. He was outgoing, rough-spoken, friendly, and eager to be popular. But there were times when Peter was talkative, timid, vacillating, weak, and presumptuous. When he appears again in the Gospels, after the resurrection of Christ, and in the Acts of the Apostles, there is a notable change for the better in his character. Yet, even much later, the old Peter showed through on occasion.
At Antioch, St. Paul withstood him to his face for his failure to act according to his principles. Out of human respect and fear of the Jewish element in the Church, Peter had stopped eating with Gentile Christians, to the scandal of many (Gal. 2:11–14). Whatever St. Peter’s faults, they were more than offset by his intense personal love of Jesus Christ and by his long and fruitful apostolic ministry as the Vicar of Christ on earth. And all this was climaxed on that day in A.D. 67 when, on the Vatican Hill in Rome, he bore witness to his Divine Master by being crucified, head downward, at his own request, because in his humility he felt unworthy to die exactly as Christ had died on Calvary.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Fr. Gorman’s The Last Hours of Jesus: From Gethsemane to Golgotha, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.