The Fourth Station: Peter Denies Jesus
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Why did Peter deny Jesus? He was one of the first to follow Jesus, leaving so much behind to walk the uncertain road of discipleship. He had seen mighty wonders as his Master healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. Peter had witnessed the miracle of the transfiguration. And he had even walked on water for a few brief moments. So why did Peter, of all people, deny Jesus?
Because he was afraid.
Fear. Fear can startle us in the middle of the night and keep us awake for hours. It prevents us from reaching for our dreams or from reaching out to others in love. Fear cripples our souls and binds our hearts. It locks us in prison and throws away the key.
Fear. What power it can have over us! Fear leads us to do what we would otherwise never do, and it keeps us from doing that which we know to be right. When we’re afraid, we can forget our commitments, our values, our loves. In fearful moments, all we think of is how to protect ourselves, perhaps at any cost. In fear we can strike out thoughtlessly against a perceived enemy. In fear we run away rather than standing for what we believe. Fear causes our adrenaline to race and compromises our judgment.
Peter was afraid, understandably so. All that he had hoped seemed to be crumbling before him. The one he believed to be the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, was now arrested. Jesus’ death seemed certain, and with his death the end of Peter’s reason for living.
Moreover, seeing his powerful Master so helpless must have confused Peter. Why didn’t Jesus call down a legion of angels? Why did the one with the power to still the storm not use that power now? And if Jesus was helpless to defend himself, what did that mean for Peter? How could he escape a fate like that of Jesus . . . arrest, abuse, and finally execution?
In confused fear, Peter did what only hours before he swore he would never do, denying his Master. The one who promised to go to prison and even to die with Jesus was now scurrying to protect himself. So he denied his Lord, not once, but three times, just as Jesus had promised. Fear had overtaken Peter’s consciousness and conscience.
I can understand what this might have been like for Peter because I have experienced the blinding blast of fear. It happened about twelve years ago at Disneyland, of all places. I was at the Magic Kingdom with my wife and two small children. My son was about four at the time and my daughter only two. While we were finishing up lunch, Kara was playing in the area right around our table on an outdoor patio. All of sudden she was gone. My wife and I jumped up and looked all around. The patio was crowded with people, but not Kara. I told Linda to look nearby while I would fan out to see if she had wandered farther away. After about five minutes, we still couldn’t find her.
At that point Nathan thought he would be helpful. “Kara went back to the river to see the ducks,” he suggested. I had just checked the lake, with no sign of Kara. Without knowing it, Nathan had expressed one of my fears precisely. Kara had gone to the lake to see the ducks and had wandered in over her head and drowned. This was not an impossible scenario.
Linda and I told the Disneyland officials that Kara was lost and they sprang into immediate action. Soon, dozens of employees had joined us in the search for our daughter. I remember running, literally, in larger and larger circles away from our lunch spot, all along calling for Kara. I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. All that mattered was finding my daughter . . . alive. Terrible thoughts entered my head, pictures of drowning, kidnapping, and so forth. I tried to blot them out of my mind, but couldn’t keep them from spilling back in. Of course I was praying, consistently, with ever increasing desperation. In my panic, I found it hard to think straight or to pray reasonably. It was as if my logical faculties had been strangled by the crushing grip of fear.
After about fifteen minutes, which felt like fifteen hours, I saw a Disneyland official carrying Kara back to our lunch spot. It turned out that a man near our table had been watching Kara play. He mistakenly thought she was part of another family. When that family left without her, he feared they had forgotten her. So he picked up Kara and went running off to find the other family. When he finally caught up with them, about ten minutes later, he was horrified to learn that she was not their child. So he immediately ran to bring Kara back, overflowing with apologies. Those moments holding Kara still are some of the most precious of my life. (At that point my adrenaline stopped pumping, and I was utterly exhausted. Kara, utterly unconcerned, just wanted to go on the Dumbo ride.)
If Peter felt anything like what I felt that fateful day, then I can understand why he denied Jesus. In saying this I’m not excusing his behavior. Not by a long shot. What Peter did was wrong. But I am saying that I can understand what he might have been feeling, and why he did something that he later found so horrifying and inexcusable. Fear has to power to make all of us do or say that which we later regret.
Though you and I might never deny Jesus in such a blatant way as Peter did, I would suggest that we might indeed deny him in less obvious ways, also because of fear. Have you ever sensed that the Lord was urging you to do something for his sake, but then you chickened out because you were afraid? Have you known what it’s like to downplay the significance of your faith in some conversation because your were afraid of what people might think of you? Have you ever let fear keep you from experiencing the fullness of life in Christ? I know I have, too many times to count.
What is the antidote to such fear? It’s trusting God. It’s believing the Word of Christ. It’s experiencing the perfect love of God that casts out fear (1 John 4:18). We don’t conquer fear through rationalization and mind-control. Rather, we overcome fear by leaning more fully into the strong arms of God, and knowing that e will never let us go.
Forgive me, dear Lord, when I let fear get in the way of my relationship with you. Forgive me for all the times I’ve fallen short in my discipleship because I’ve been afraid. Forgive me for failing to trust you when you’ve proven yourself to be so utterly worthy of trust.
Help me, Lord, not to be like Peter in this story. When hard times come, help me to trust you more. When my adrenaline starts to pound, clouding my mind and suffocating my heart, help me to receive your peace. When I’m tempted to deny you, either in words or deeds, or by failing to speak or act, help me to trust and obey. May I live my whole life in honor of you!