And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple: that disciple was known unto the high priest, and went in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest. But Peter stood at the door without. Then went out that other disciple, which was known unto the high priest, and spake unto her that kept the door, and brought in Peter. Then saith the damsel that kept the door unto Peter, Art not thou also one of this man’s disciples? He saith, I am not. And the servants and officers stood there, who had made a fire of coals; for it was cold: and they warmed themselves: and Peter stood with them, and warmed himself. The high priest then asked Jesus of his disciples, and of his doctrine. Jesus answered him, I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing. Why askest thou me? ask them which heard me, what I have said unto them: behold, they know what I said. And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so? Jesus answered him, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me? Now Annas had sent him bound unto Caiaphas the high priest. And Simon Peter stood and warmed himself. They said therefore unto him, Art not thou also one of his disciples? He denied it, and said, I am not. One of the servants of the high priest, being his kinsman whose ear Peter cut off, saith, Did not I see thee in the garden with him? Peter then denied again: and immediately the cock crew.
In this section we have two narratives enfolded together in a very striking way. The apostle Peter’s great failure, his denial of his Lord, and our Lord’s trial— His mock trial—before the high priest, Caiaphas.
First, we are concerned with the apostle Peter. What a wonderful man Peter was! As we read all that the Word tells us of him, and then add some few instances that have come down to us through what seems to be reliable church history, we cannot help but be filled with admiration for this bold, energetic man who loved his Lord so loyally and yet who failed so terribly at times, but who eventually became the most outstanding of all the apostles until Saul of Tarsus was converted and given his special ministry to the Gentiles.
We last considered the scene in the garden, closing with the arrest of our blessed Lord and His being taken away to Annas and Caiaphas. The Lord Jesus had foretold that Peter would forsake Him, but Peter declared, “Although all [men forsake thee], yet will not I” (Mark 14:29; see also Matt. 26:33). But Jesus said to him, “Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not… The cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:31-32, 34).
This is a very interesting statement: “Satan hath desired [it is literally, demanded^ to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.” Satan, then, is the sifter of God’s wheat. In other words, when some of God’s children need to have the chaff and the wheat separated, the Lord turns them over temporarily to Satan. You remember in 1 Corinthians 5 we read of a man who was delivered “unto Satan, for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). This man, a professing Christian, had failed so terribly and had brought such grief and dishonor upon the name of the Lord that the Spirit, through the apostle Paul, commanded the church at Corinth to refuse to have any further Christian fellowship with him. They were to put him back into the world from which he once professed to be separated, and there he would be in Satan’s realm, who would put him through a course of trouble and sorrow. We know what the result was: the man broke down before God and confessed his sin and failure. He no more thought himself worthy of Christian fellowship and would not have come back had not the people of God been careful to show him special grace and favor. Paul wrote again urging them to this in 2 Corinthians 2:4-11.
We have often heard people ask, “Why does God not kill the Devil?” Well, God has use for him. When God no longer has use for him, He will do away with him in the lake of fire. But until that time, God not only makes the wrath of man to praise Him, but there is a certain sense in which He even makes Satan to serve His purpose. When He sees pride and self-sufficiency in believers, He permits Satan to sift them, even to causing some grievous fall that they may be awakened and brought to their senses. Jeremiah says, “Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee” (Jer. 2:19). God allowed Israel to fall so grievously that they would realize as never before how far from Him they had wandered and how they needed to get right.
And so in Peter’s case the Lord permitted the failure to take place that he might be corrected, and He has related it here that it might be a warning and an encouragement for us at the same time.
We read, “And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple: that disciple was known unto the high priest [This ‘other disciple’ is undoubtedly John himself. He used this expression as a means of keeping himself in the background.], “and went in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest. But Peter stood at the door without” (John 18:15-16a). There he was in the place of danger. If he had been inside with John and Jesus, he would have been safe. How was it he chose to stay there instead of definitely identifying himself with Christ? Backsliding is never a matter of a moment. Sometimes one whom we have esteemed as a Christian seems to suddenly fall into some grievous sin. We throw up our hands and say, “What a shame, that that one should have suddenly stumbled so terribly!” We are wrong in thinking of it in that way. It is never sudden. Backsliding is always a gradual declension.
Now with Peter, his backsliding really began immediately following one of his greatest experiences. Often when God has dealt with us in some special way, it proves to be the time of the greatest danger. Sometimes with a servant of God when the Lord gives him special victory and uses him in an unusual way for the salvation of souls, that is the time when he is in the greatest peril. There is the danger of spiritual pride, the danger of self-occupation, the danger, in other words, of confidence in the flesh.
In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew we hear the Lord saying, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” (v. 13). They answer, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias” (v. 14). Jesus then said, “But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (vv. 15-16).
That was a wonderful confession. Up to that moment no one else had ever made such a fervent and complete confession. The Savior turns to Peter and says, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (v. 17). If Christ is ever made known to any human soul as the Son of the living God, it is not simply through the intellect. It must be a divine revelation. That is why you cannot convince men of the Deity of Christ by argument. You may marshal Scripture after Scripture and down all their objections, and yet if the Spirit of God does not reveal the Deity of God, people will go away just as unbelieving as before. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to make the truth real to the hearts and consciences of men. So the Lord Jesus says, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”
Then the Lord said, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock [the great truth that Christ is the Son of the living God] I will build my church” (v. 18). Now do not misunderstand the Lord there. Strange that anybody would think that our Lord meant He would found His church on a mere man. Not Peter, but Christ is the “Rock.” Peter agrees with this, for in his first epistle he speaks of Christ as the living stone, and of himself and all believers as living stones who have come to Christ and are built upon Him.
And so the Lord says, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 19). That was a wonderful honor, which many have misunderstood. You have often seen pictures—have you not?—of Peter with a key at the gate of heaven. But Jesus did not give Peter the keys of heaven. Jesus gave to Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is not heaven, it is that sphere on earth where Christ is owned as Lord. On Pentecost Peter used the keys to open the door of the kingdom of heaven to the Jews. In the house of Cornelius he used them to open the door to the Gentiles.
In Matthew 18 we learn that all the disciples were given the power of binding and loosing. That is, they were authorized to go to men in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and say, “If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are loosed from your sin, and if not, your sin remains upon you.” That commission is given to all of Christ’s servants.
That was indeed a wonderful revelation which the Father gave to Peter, and the Lord recognized it in a very special way. But it is a remarkable fact that in the same sixteenth chapter of Matthew you hear the Lord say a little later to that very man, Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan:… for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (v. 23). He had been telling them of His coming trial and crucifixion, and Peter turned to Him and dared to counsel the Son of God, as though he were wiser than He. He said, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee” (v. 22). And Jesus said, “Get thee behind Me, Satan.” What does this mean? Why, Peter was so carried away, so lifted up and self-exalted, he became spiritually proud and dared to rebuke the One whom but a short time before he had confessed as the Son of God.
Suppose the Lord had acted on that, and said, “Well, I won’t go out and die.” What a condition Peter would have been in! Jesus realized it was the Devil speaking through Peter. We trace the record of Peter from that time on, and find that every time he opens his mouth he says the wrong thing. It was on the Mount of Transfiguration that he said, “Let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias” (Matt. 17:4; see also Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33). And God then said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (Matt. 17:5; see also Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Then when Jesus said to His disciples, “All ye shall be offended because of me” (Matt. 26:31; see also Mark 14:27). Peter said, “[Oh, no, Lord, not I.] Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” (Matt. 26:33; see also Mark 14:29). This man did not really know his own weakness. He loved his Lord and meant to be true to Him. But he failed his Master in the garden. He slept when he should have prayed. He used the sword in fleshly energy when he should have been quiet. He followed afar off when he should have been close to the Lord. Backsliding always begins with neglect of prayer. If you want to be kept from backsliding, then you want to be sure you spend much time in secret with God.
We read that “Peter stood at the door without. Then went out that other disciple … and spake unto her that kept the door” (John 18:16). Now he is just inside on the porch. And the girl took a good look at Peter and said, “Art not thou also one of this man’s disciples? He saith, I am not” (v. 17). He never meant to say that, but when he thought of all the people looking on when this girl challenged him, suddenly his courage failed him and out came the lie—he who had said, “Though all men forsake Thee, yet will not I forsake Thee.” How good that God did not take him at his word! God knew Peter and allowed him to go down deeper yet.
The servants and the officials stood there who had made a fire of coals. Remember that fire of coals. When you come to Peter’s restoration it is at a fire of coals. And Peter stood with them—stood with the world, stood with the enemies of His Lord—and instead of speaking up for Christ, he was silent. And the high priest asked Jesus of His disciples and His doctrine. “Jesus answered him, I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing” (v. 20). Everything with Christ was like an open book. He had nothing to hide, nothing that could only be whispered in dark places, but everything was open and above board: “In secret have I said nothing.” “Why askest thou me? ask them which heard me, what I have said unto them: behold, they know what I said. And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so?” (vv. 21-22).
But on the part of the Lord Jesus there is no anger, no retaliation, but perfect lowliness. “Jesus answered him, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me? Now Annas had sent him bound unto Caiaphas the high priest. And Simon Peter stood and warmed himself. They said therefore unto him, Art not thou also one of his disciples?” (vv. 23-25). There was something strange about this man, Peter. He might be one of the company, but they felt that after all, there was something different about him. So they asked again, but “he denied it, and said, I am not.” What an opportunity! He could have said, “Yes, I am one of His, and if need be, I am ready to die for Him.” But he had not the courage for it now in the hour of testing. He denied and said, “I am not.”
Now there was another in the crowd who was particularly interested in Peter, for it was this man’s relative whose ear Peter had cut off in the Garden. Jesus had said when He took Peter, James, and John into the garden with Him, “Sit ye here, and watch and pray,” and He went on. Then He bowed before God in that time of agony. Then He came back and found them sleeping for sorrow. There they were prayerless when they should have been alert. Then when the Lord so quietly put Himself into the hands of the soldiers, Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. That was the activity of the flesh, and now that comes back to him. The relative of this man said, “Did I not see thee in the garden with him?” (v. 26). Now Peter is down to the very lowest depth the Lord will allow him to go. Three times he denied his Lord, and, as other Gospels tell us, even with oaths and curses (see Matt. 26:74; Mark 14:71).
But there is a great difference between a backslider and an apostate. A backslider is really a child of God who has failed and eventually the Lord will restore him. An apostate is one who is never reborn at all. Judas was an apostate; Peter was a backslider.
Oh, if there is any backslider reading this today, let me say to you that He who restored Peter is waiting to restore you. He says, “Turn, O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I am married unto you” (Jer. 3:14). If you confess your backsliding, you can be sure He will restore. He did it for Peter, He will do it for you.
In another gospel we are told that the Lord turned and looked on Peter, and Peter went out and wept bitterly. Those tears indicated the beginning of his restoration, and in the last chapter we shall see how wonderfully the Lord restored him.
Return, O wanderer, return,
And seek an injured Father’s face;
Those warm desires that in thee burn
Were kindled by reclaiming grace.
Return, O wanderer, return,
And seek a Father’s melting heart;
His pitying eyes thy grief discern,
His hand shall heal thine inward smart.
Return, O wanderer, return;
Thy Savior bids thy spirit live;
Go to His bleeding feet, and learn
How freely Jesus can forgive.
Return, O wanderer, return,
And wipe away the falling tear;
’Tis God who says, “No longer mourn”;
’Tis mercy’s voice invites thee near.