Mark 14:66-72. The wobbly rock.

And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same. (Mark 14:27-31).

And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:37-38).

And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. (Mark 14:53-54).

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the cock crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:66-72).

  1. Why did Peter flee, and why did he then follow, even at a distance?

  2. Did Peter overreact to the first question of the servant girl?

  3. As Mark gives us the account, why is Peter’s second denial worse than the first?

  4. Why does Peter break down in tears?

  5. We know that all things work together for good for those who are called according to God’s purpose. How did this experience work for Peter’s good?

  6. Why does Mark tell this story in dribs and drabs, interwoven with Jesus’ trial?


  1. Why did Peter flee, and why did he then follow, even at a distance?

Jesus said that the sheep would be scattered when the shepherd was struck. Peter fled for the reason Jesus gave. For the last three years, Peter has followed Jesus, building his hopes on this man as the glorious victorious Messiah. Now his Messiah has just let himself be taken captive, offering no resistance and even forbidding others to resist on his behalf. Peter saw Jesus taken captive, and he ran into the darkness. Peter has just had a crushing shock. The man he had trusted as Messiah has been arrested, and worse, he has meekly accepted arrest and has gone with his enemies, in their power, without a fight. Peter had thought that Jesus was invincible, but now he has seen him suffer indignity and apparent defeat. Why didn’t Jesus call on God to strike his enemies down? He didn’t even allow Peter to defend him- why not? Peter couldn’t understand it, and he fled with the others. This wasn’t part of his plan- everything seemed to be falling apart, and so he panicked. It wouldn’t have been too hard for him to get away. The soldiers were only really after Jesus; they wouldn’t waste time chasing the others as long as they had the main prize secure.

Peter had been so full of self confidence and even full of scorn for the others. See his statement in the first quote above? “Even though they all fall away, I will not”. He thought that he was a better man than the rest- he was stronger and braver and more steadfast. Even if the others all ran away, he would stand with Jesus until they pried his sword from his cold dead hands.

But he has already slept in the garden along with the others, failing to stand by Jesus in his hour of need. Why would things be any different at Jesus’ arrest? Peter failed, along with the others, to stand by Jesus when Jesus seemed to accept defeat willingly. Rather than be arrested along with his master, Peter ran.

But then he seems to have found his nerve again. He stopped running, and returned to the scene of the arrest. The Mount of Olives would be dark, but the soldiers were carrying torches. Peter could have seen the torchlight procession winding its way back down into the city, and could have followed them, slipping through the streets after them until they reached their destination. The procession went to the house of the chief priest, where the Sanhedrin was already gathered, summoned together out of hours for a highly irregular urgent meeting to try Jesus. Peter trailed them, and after they had gone inside, he snuck in after them. As far as we know, of all the disciples, only Peter and John took this risk- the bravest and the most loved of the Twelve. Peter is taking a considerable personal risk to do this.

Has he now re-gathered his tattered hopes in Jesus as a mighty king? Is he hoping that this apparent weakness of Jesus is only a temporary thing, and that he will suddenly cast it off like Samson in his final hour? Is this all part of the plan- did Jesus only go along with the capture because he wanted to stand in the midst of the Sanhedrin so that he can destroy them all at a stroke?

We can’t be sure what is in Peter’s head. Maybe his hopes are all dead, and he just follows out of a flickering remnant of love and loyalty. Maybe he is curious. Maybe he thinks that he can act as a witness at the trial. Or maybe he still harbours a hope against hope that Jesus will turn it all around and emerge triumphant.

He is in the courtyard, and he can see the trial taking place. He can see Jesus, and Jesus- if he turns his head- can see Peter. But Peter doesn’t see Jesus about to reveal his glory and strike down the wicked rulers of Israel. He sees Jesus with a bag over his head, getting punched silly. If he was hoping that all his hopes would be fulfilled, then he is bitterly disappointed. All he sees is that Jesus is definitely not the Messiah he thought he was.


  1. Did Peter overreact to the first question of the servant girl?

Inside the High Priest’s house, there is a servant girl who thinks she recognises Peter. Jesus has been a prominent figure in Jerusalem over the last week. Lots of people have seen him in the Temple, and they will also have seen the same circle of men around him every day. Maybe this girl has been in the Temple and has seen Jesus with his followers, and thinks that she remembers Peter’s face. She looked at him- she needed to peer closely in the gloom and flickering firelight to be sure that it was him. But on inspection, she was convinced. She asks Peter whether he isn’t one of Jesus’ followers. We don’t know her tone of voice- whether she was accusing him, or was merely curious, even sympathetic. There is no direct threat in her words- and Mark hasn’t identified Peter as the man who pulled the sword on the high priest’s servant, so we are not meant to be thinking about his fear connected to that incident. There is no reason to assume that she was hostile. Jesus was popular among the people. Sure, he’s just been arrested, but everybody knows that the chief priests have it in for him. This girl could well just be asking an innocent question, ready to offer sympathy to the supporter of the unfairly treated rabbi.

Even if she is more hostile than that, asking the question with an accusatory edge to her voice and a pointed finger, there’s no immediate threat. She’s just a servant girl. If Peter is ready to lie to save his own skin, then he could have done a better job than he did. Peter could have acted casual, told her he’d come down from Galilee for the Passover, and had bumped into Jesus a few times up in the North. That would have been more believable, but Peter isn’t thinking straight. Peter’s world has fallen to pieces. He had known with utter certainty that Jesus was the Messiah. He has seen the man feed thousands of people, and walk on water, and speak with Moses and Elijah on the mountain. He has suppressed resolutely the idea that Jesus could suffer and die. But now he sees his Messiah helpless and beaten. He will feel sick to the pit of his stomach. He can’t think clearly. He doesn’t know what the outcome of the trial will be. He is no longer sure about anything. A servant girl asks him a question, and he jumps to the conclusion that she’s out to get him.

Peter denies in general terms- but this is not a sort of blustering “what a ridiculous thing to say”, as a man might give if he wanted to escape but not actually give a specific definite denial. There are not the weasel words of a politician asked whether he’d like to be party leader and giving a careful non-denial denial. Peter’s reply is more like a Sherman denial (when asked about his presidential ambitions, Sherman said, “If asked, I will not stand. If nominated, I will not campaign. If elected, I will not serve”). It is more definite than it sounds to our ears. “I neither know nor understand what you are saying” is a set form of legal denial common in Rabbinical law. You can read Jewish trial accounts, and the accuser might ask the defendant “Where is my ox?”, and the defendant will reply “I neither know nor understand what you are saying”. This should not be read as an attempt to fob the girl off without denying Jesus. There has been no formal accusation, but Peter is quick to deny what he hasn’t been accused of.

  1. As Mark gives us the account, why is Peter’s second denial worse than the first?

Peter then went out into the gateway, perhaps looking for somewhere where it was darker and where he could hope to be less conspicuous. Caiaphas’ home would be large and impressive- a fire in the centre of the courtyard might not shed much light into the doorways at the edges. The cock crows, which is the first warning for Peter. Mark wants us to remember Jesus’ prediction that Peter would fall away before Peter remembers it. We are supposed to hear the cock crow, and remember how Jesus said that Peter would fall away and how Peter was so sure that he wouldn’t. Judging by Peter’s actions, he appears not to be aware of it. But bear in mind that this is Peter’s own eyewitness account; so if Mark knows that the cock crowed, he has probably learned it from Peter. Peter had obviously clocked it- even if he was only half- aware of it. His second denial, even if in the same words as the first and no further, is more culpable.

The girl is now suspicious of Peter- perhaps his emphatic denial the first time around has aroused her suspicion. She passes close by him again, is again struck by the similarity between him and one of Jesus’ entourage, and this time she appeals to the crowd around them- “He is one of them, isn’t he? It’s not just me, is it? Haven’t you seen him with Jesus? And again, Peter denies it, perhaps in the same way as before. But his denial did him no good. The crowd were interested. They knew he was a Galilean because they could hear his Northern accent. Galileans had a distinctive sound to their speech, and Peter stood out a mile among the Judeans in the courtyard. One of the “Galilean jokes” of the day went:

A certain Galilean went around saying to people, “Who has amar? Who has amar?” They said to him, “You Galilean fool, do you mean amar for riding, amar for drinking, amar for clothing, or amar for slaughtering?” The joke being that he could have been saying the word for ass, for wine, for wool, or for lamb (hamar, hamar, amar, and immar respectively, and don’t ask me about pronunciation), but since Galileans can’t talk properly, although the fellow was desperate for whatever it was, nobody could know. It’s like our joke about the two Irish lumberjacks who saw a job vacancy advert pinned up on the wall that read, “Wanted: Tree-fellers”. Pat takes a squint at it and says to Mick, “Y’know, Mick, it’s a crying shame that there’s only the two of us. We could have gone for that job if only we had another one”.

Peter has identified himself as a Galilean simply by speaking. And while there might have been lots of Galileans in Jerusalem at Passover time, there wouldn’t have been many- if any- in the High Priest’s household. If he’s there, then isn’t he likely to have come because he had been with Jesus? And in any case, any Galilean could be expected to support Jesus at least in general terms.


  1. Why does Peter break down in tears?

Then comes the third accusation. Peter’s denial didn’t deter them for long- they could see that he was uncomfortable, and wouldn’t leave him alone. They confidently challenge him- surely you are one of them, you’re from Galilee- all of you guys up there support this Jesus of Nazareth, don’t you? It’s as though Aston Villa have played Man City at Eastlands, and a Villa fan who was at the game has rather stupidly gone for a quick pint on his own in a pub in the wrong part of Manchester. When the City fans at the bar ask him whether he supports Villa, his claim- in broad Brummie- that “No, I’ve never really been that interested in the football, me” will do nothing to put them off. They will take it as read that he is a Villa fan, and he’ll be a lucky man if he can walk away and suffer nothing more than insults.

Peter is now in trouble. It is not just a single servant girl asking questions, but a suspicious crowd. Peter’s nerve breaks utterly at this point, and he begins issuing fevered denials in the strongest possible terms, invoking curses on himself if he should be lying. He can’t bring himself to take Jesus’ name on his lips- his “this man of whom you speak” implies that he cares nothing for Jesus and calls to mind Jesus’ own words in 8:38.

And then things happen quickly- the cock crows again. Reports of Palestinian cockerels’ habits over a 12 year period say that they crow first at about 12:30, and again at 1:30 and again at 2:30. The watch between 12 and 3 was called “cock-crow” because that was when they crowed. It must have been about an hour since Peter’s second denial. This is the second crowing, and Jesus had predicted three denials before the cock should crow twice. Mark says that it crowed immediately- as soon as the denial had left Peter’s lips. It is a sudden jarring reminder, and Peter suddenly recognises the exact correspondence between what has just happened and what Jesus said would happen. He remembers Jesus’ words to him, telling him that before the cock crows twice, he will have denied Jesus three times, and he breaks down in tears- in front of the crowd. He knows that he has failed. He still loves Jesus, even if his hopes have been ruined.

The denial calls to mind many of Jesus’ sayings- “whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). “Whoever is ashamed of me… indeed the son of Man will be ashamed of him” (Mark 8:38). Peter will have known those words. Denial of Jesus is a serious thing throughout the NT. Paul says “If we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12). John tells us that “No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 John 2:23). Jesus commends the church who “have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8). Peter himself accuses the crowd in Jerusalem of denial- “you denied the holy and righteous one, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you” (Acts 3:14). He also speaks about false teachers who “deny the Lord who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Pet 2:1). Peter knows how serious a thing it is to deny the Lord, even as soon as he has done it.

Maybe Peter is simply in despair at this point. He has nothing left. His Messianic hopes are gone, but so has everything he’d ever valued. His self-respect is gone. He’d taken pride in being stronger and braver and more resolute than all the others, but now he has denied Jesus, despite all the warnings, even the warnings given only to him and to nobody else.


  1. We know that all things work together for good for those who are called according to God’s purpose. How did this experience work for Peter’s good?

This is a turning point for Peter. The chickens come home to roost for him. He has gone for three years following Jesus on assumptions that were not exactly false, but which had a lot of falsehood mixed in with the truth. He was never expecting death and suffering and weakness to be part of the deal. He expected victory and strength. Perhaps he has never really thought of himself as weak before now. He is a natural leader. He is the first to do things- and even when he has failed, it is only because he tried to take on too much too soon.

We get an insight into the way Peter thought from some of his statements in Mark. When Jesus first predicted his death, it was Peter who was sure enough of himself to take Jesus to one side and attempt to put him straight on the matter. In the garden, when Jesus tells them all that they will fall away, Peter is sure that he is stronger than Jesus thinks and stronger than the others. Even when Jesus tells him specifically that he will certainly deny his master, Peter turns round and says “No I won’t”. Disciples did not usually contradict their rabbis, but Peter has that sort of self confidence. It isn’t that Peter was completely self-assured and had unshakeable trust in his own powers. Luke tells us that when he first met Jesus, he fell to his knees and confessed himself to be a sinful man, unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. But there seems to have been an element in his thinking that he is the one who won’t break, the one who can be depended upon. He is used to being strong and having the answers.

But he now realises that he is weak and pathetic. He sees that he can’t be trusted, he hasn’t got the strength and courage he thought would never leave him. He’ll never think that way again. He now knows that he needs mercy and compassion and strength from Jesus.

This is the foundation of Peter’s future usefulness. Before he could be filled with the Spirit of God, he had to be emptied of himself. Before he could be strong (and he was), he had to be broken. Before he could be filled with joy unspeakable, he had to weep bitterly. We won’t have quite the same experience, but God has not stopped working to that general pattern. Luther was asked what made a great theologian, and perhaps the questioner was expecting an answer like, “Constant and unwearying study of the scriptures” or, “Grasping the distinction between law and grace”. But Luther’s answer was, “suffering”. God breaks a man before remoulding him. God won’t use the proud. What Peter comes to understand is theological gold- weighty and precious.


  1. Why does Mark tell this story in dribs and drabs, interwoven with Jesus’ trial?

There are actually two trials going on in the High Priest’s house. Mark is contrasting Jesus’ trial before the court of the Sanhedrin with Peter’s trial before the crowd in the courtyard. There was a reference to Peter following Jesus in v 53, and now Mark comes back to that thread of the story. He is interweaving the accounts of Peter and Jesus, using a technique by now familiar to his readers, to underline the way that these stories fit together. He did the same thing in chapter 3:14-35, flicking between the disciples, Jesus’ family, and the scribes. He did it in 5:21-43, with Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman. Again, the same technique in 6:7-30, with the disciples, then Herod, then the disciples again. And very clearly in 11:12-21 with the fig tree and the Temple, using each story to interpret the other. These two accounts of two very different trials are contrasting examples of how to react under fire. Jesus is brave and faithful. Peter cracks and betrays.

The passage has already been contrasting Jesus and Peter. Jesus has been tested three times in prayer, and has come through his trial faithful and ready to face the trial by men. Peter slept three times while Jesus prayed (and even though they all slept, it is Peter who is singled out by Jesus as the sleeper in v37). Peter will now deny him three times, failing his trial before men.

Jesus faces a very formal trial, but one where none of the evidence adds up and the witnesses disagree. Peter faces a very informal real trial, but the evidence mounts up and is compelling, and all the witnesses- even his own accent- are saying the same thing. Jesus faces the most powerful Jewish rulers in Israel and remains calm and in control. Peter faces a servant girl and reacts with fear and panic. Jesus faces formal charges and refuses to deny them, though they are obviously false. Peter faces no formal accusation, but he denies it vehemently, even though it is obviously true. Jesus is mocked and commanded to prophesy, but even while the Sanhedrin mock him, he is shown to be a true prophet by the poultry in the courtyard.

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the readers have been supposed to watch the disciples, and especially Peter, grow in their understanding of who Jesus is. They have seen the disciples come to the point where they know that Jesus is the Messiah, and they have seen them fail to understand Jesus’ repeated references after that point to his impending death. The readers are supposed to learn from the short-sightedness of the Twelve. Here, we are supposed to see Peter broken, and learn to see the world the way he sees it now, not the way he saw it before. We are also supposed to see Jesus, accepting injustice and hardship for the sake of his people.

Peter despaired of himself, and found hope in Jesus and his promises. We should learn that that is exactly what we need too. We need to learn not to trust ourselves, but more than that, we need to look to Jesus as the one who alone can be trusted.

Judas and Peter both sin. What, if any, is the difference between apostasy and backsliding? God’s sovereign working? Scripture answers it on another level. Peter wept bitterly, and turned to Jesus for forgiveness. Judas had only regret, and no hope. Both men despaired- but Peter despaired of himself, and found hope in Jesus and his promises. Judas despaired of himself, and of God and of grace. Ps 130:3-5. When we sin like Peter, we need to repent like Peter too.

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