THE THREE DENIALS OF CHRIST
15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 17 The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man's disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
18 Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.”
26 One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.
— John 18:15-18, 25-27, ESV
If you go to Jerusalem today, you can visit a spot that has been excavated to reveal some old stones that form steps to a courtyard. It is believed this is the spot where the high priest presided over the first trial of Christ, the religious trial. Jesus, John, and Simon Peter would have walked those steps.
Next to the steps now stands a church, St. Peter’s Church. On top of the church is a small but beautiful golden dome. Upon the dome rests a cross Upon the cross rests a rooster.
The rooster represents failure, a failure committed at the highest level of Christian commitment, a failure any one of us who claim to be followers of Christ can commit. We need to understand how it happened, why it happened, and what we can do to make sure the rooster never crows over us.
The text tells the story of a series of fumbles made by the quarterback of the Apostles. You know him as Simon Bar-Jonah, nicknamed “Peter,” or “The Rock” by Jesus. The Rock crumbled at the first trial of Christ and all four Gospels record it as he falls apart.
While the Jesus was boldly taking His stand as the great, “I Am,” Simon Peter said three times, “I am not.”
Simon Peter denied he even knew the Lord Jesus Christ, three times. Jesus had predicted it (ref. John 13:36-38). John the Apostle witnessed it. We know John to be “the beloved disciple” and “the other disciple” in his Gospel, a tip to his humility, which Peter lacked in many instances, especially this one. John (along with older brother, James) came from a Galilean family of wealth (they owned or employed servants) and connection (they were “known to the high priest”). John had no fear of entering into the court of the high priest to witness the trial; however, the much poorer and less politically connected Simon Peter clearly did.
So, as he followed John into the courtyard of the high priest, then lagged behind. Simon Peter was asked by “the servant girl,” the doorkeeper, if he was a disciple of Jesus, a Christian. Peter said, “I am not.” This must have been hard for the usually bold and brash Simon Peter. But once you sin in a certain area of your life, repeating the sin is not quite as difficult. The second and third denials flow fairly easily from the first.
Simon committed the first sin to get into the courtyard, then the second sin to stay comfortable while he was there. It was probably before 6:00 a.m. in the chilly April air of Jerusalem. Peter snuggled up to a charcoal fire. In the dawn light and without a flame to illuminate, it was hard to recognize one fellow around the fire from the next. But there was something faintly familiar in the face of the newcomer in the circle. Someone asked Simon the same question as before, asked if he was a disciple, a Jesus follower, a Christian. Peter bore false witness the second time and said, “I am not.”
While the first two denials were senseless and weak, the third denial was at least a little more understandable. One of the men in the fire circle was a kinsman of Malchus, the militia man whose ear Peter had cut off during the arrest of Christ. The man was probably militia, too, present at the arrest, and thought he recognized Simon Peter as the one who had whipped out the dagger. Acknowledging his identity as the friend of Jesus who took a stab at Malchus could have cost Peter dearly, so for the third time he denied he even knew the Lord, this time vehemently.
After the Rock sank as low as he could go, the rooster crowed.
The world we live in is two. Saint Augustine captured this thought in his classic book which explains Christians live in the “City of God,” the kingdom of God, once they come to Christ, but also remain in the city of man, this present world, and have to cope with its opportunities, temptations, and snares. John Stott wrote the great homiletics book “Between Two Worlds,” to help preachers grasp the task of taking God’s perfect, holy word into the hearts and minds of Christians who live it in this imperfect, sinful world. We live in both worlds, but can only make our true home in one.
That night in Jerusalem, Simon Peter found himself caught between the two. He did know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and his highest commitment was to the kingdom of God. But, when people and places of the present world confronted him, Peter was willing to deny being a Christian, in order to enjoy some of the places, perks, and protections of this present world.
Simon Peter denied the Lord to get into a worldly place. “This is My Father’s world,” the hymn says, but there are some places the Father says not to go, and it’s been this way since the Garden. Jesus did not want His disciples in front of the high priest, the Roman Praetorius, or the cross. These were things Jesus had to do alone. John followed anyway out of deep love. Peter followed out of curiosity, and curiosity can kill the cat. This time it caused the Rock to deny the Lord, the first time.
Simon Peter denied the Lord to enjoy worldly comforts. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a heater when it is cold, driving a car instead of walking, or making good money from a good job. It is wrong, however, if you have to deny the Lord and turn your back on the church to get them. A charcoal fire on an early April morning can be a good thing, but not if you have to slide back to warm up, which Peter did, now for the second time.
Simon Peter denied the Lord to escape worldly persecution. Who can blame him? Pharisaical law, under which militia men served, was “eye for eye.” If he admitted it was him who struck Malchus, Malchus’ relative would have no doubt struck Simon Peter. This is a tough one, but Simon Peter eventually got it right. In thirty years more he would die for his faith, as did so many of the Apostles and early Christians. Christians die every day, still. But not on this day, not Simon Peter, who rather denied he knew the Lord for the third time.
Then, after three dances with this present world, the music stopped, the rooster crowed, and Peter was left alone with a guilt no follower of Christ wants to carry.
I think the rooster still crows for Christians who go places the Lord does not want us to go, engage in pleasures forbidden by the word of God, or cower down to peer pressure when an opportunity arises to bear witness for the gospel. You know where those places are, you know what those pleasures are, and you know exactly what God wants you to do. Yet sometimes, like Simon Peter, we deny the Lord and go there, we do it, and we try to hide it.
Here are the three lessons we need to learn from Peter’s pitiful performance. We need to live in the world, but not be of the world, until we get to a better world.
First of all, the world we live in is full of temptations to sin, to deny the Lord, to backslide. If we find ourselves in places we ought not to be, then chances are we are going to do what we are not supposed to do. Any one of us can stumble and fall. We are not better or stronger than Simon Peter, or King David, or others who have denied the Lord for a moment or season. By the way, it is always just a moment or season, for a lifetime of backsliding in no longer backsliding, it is false profession, lostness, and damnation apart from true repentance and faith.
Secondly, the world we live in is full of joy, God-given joy, to be enjoyed in God-given ways and means. Find your greatest satisfaction in knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Savor the word of God and learn to love to obey it. Take the love, romance, vocation, recreation, food, drink, and the many other things God gives and thank Him for it. If you can’t thank Him for it, don’t do it. If you sin, the excitement will wear off far faster than the guilt. Look what Simon Peter put up with. To this day, the Gospels keep telling his story and there is a steeple in Jerusalem that bears his shame.
Thirdly and finally, the world we are going to is a better place. Delay sinful gratification and wait upon the glory of the Lord. Don’t be a coward. Be willing to even die for the Lord if necessary. While Peter was cooling his heels in the courtyard, Jesus was inside, getting Himself crucified, so we can live with Him in this infinitely better world, which is coming sooner than we think. Consider the price you pay to be faithful to Christ small change compared to the price Jesus paid to save you and prepare for you a better world.
So while you are still in this one, don’t let the rooster crow over you.