Peter’s Denial, Salvation, and the Cross

Consider how Christ looked on Peter, once he had denied Jesus. Was it a repelling look, a look of rejection? No. It was a look such as a mother gives her child when the child is in danger due to its own indiscretion. Since she cannot approach and snatch the child from danger, she catches him off guard with a reproachful but saving look. Was Peter in danger, then? Alas, we do not understand how serious it is for one to betray his friend. But in the passion of anger or hurt the injured friend cannot see that it is the denier who is in danger. Yet the Saviour saw clearly that it was Peter who was in danger, not him, and that it was Peter who needed saving. The Saviour of the world did not make the mistake of regarding his cause as lost because Peter did not hurry to help him. Rather, the Saviour saw Peter as lost if he did not hurry to save him.

Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847)

The story of Jesus’ suffering and death is an easy one to get back to front. The cross of Jesus out-foxed pretty much everyone. That is because it is really two stories at the same time. It is the human drama of a popular preacher harried to a cruel cross by his jealous detractors. The more important story is the narrative of divine rescue at the heart of that human history. These two views of the story are there in the Gospels themselves. We could call these two stories Peter’s view of the cross and Jesus’ view of the cross.

The Cross from Peter’s Perspective

That Satan, the invisible puller of strings—or his puppet, Judas—didn’t ‘get’ God’s purpose, is as obvious as it is unsurprising. They would not have played along. But Peter was not the betrayer of Jesus, only his denier. But even he could not see God at work. Until later. The trail of divinely laid breadcrumbs leading to the cross was an open secret, there for those with eyes to see. But no-one followed. I mean, really followed. Peter got as close as anyone dared. But even he and Jesus’ other closest students didn’t grasp that God’s way of salvation lay along Jesus’ path of suffering, sacrifice and death. Saving through his death, not saving him from it.

When his Lord and friend is led away, Peter follows as closely as he can, wracked with guilt. His guilt was compounded by the sudden realisation that he was powerless in the face of the rapidly escalating crisis. Jesus had predicted Peter’s denial, but when push came to shove, Peter still denied his Lord. His guilt was compounded by his earlier vow to stay true: ‘I will lay down my life for you’ (John 13.37). But even defiant courage failed him. His guilt was deepened by repeated denials, his failure at each of three opportunities. He lied to save his skin. It was a guilt hammered home by the painful echo of Jesus’ numerically precise prediction: you will deny me three times before morning cockcrow (John 13.38). The final blow was the immediacy of the alarm call: ‘at once a cock crowed.’ (John 18.27)

Peter was among those who followed at closest distance. But in the moment of danger, at the final crisis, he did not deny himself or set aside his need for self-protection. He could not deny himself and confess Jesus. Instead, he confessed falsehoods and denied his friend at a charcoal fire. 

As Kierkegaard says, we hardly know what it is to betray a friend in this way. But we do understand Peter—he is weak; we would be weak. He is human; we are human. It is the how people act, it is the way of the world. It is not commendable, admirable or good behaviour. But we see Peter, then look in the mirror only to catch a glimpse of his image. And we wonder: could Peter have followed Jesus if he only he had been a little braver or held his nerve a little better? Maybe that is the problem. We need to be braver and more courageous. 

The Cross from the Divine Perspective

The other way through Peter’s story is the view from the trail of the divinely laid breadcrumbs. It’s a trail that starts right back in Israel’s story, of course, with Passover lambs and daubed blood and divine judgment diverted. And with the suffering servant ‘pouring out his soul to death and bearing the sins of many’ (Isaiah 53.12).

From this alternative divine perspective Peter could never follow Jesus, he could never save Jesus from the cross and laying down his life would have been a fruitless gesture. Jesus told him as much: ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now…’ (John 13.36). 

The loneliness of Jesus’ path to the cross is made up of the human story of unjust trials, execution by the authorities and abandonment by his followers. But Jesus’ aloneness on this journey, his social isolation we might say—that he was abandoned even by his powerless followers—has a flip side: the saving uniqueness of Christ: he carried his own cross (John 19.17). Only Jesus can walk this way. Only this lamb can take away the sins of the world. Only this perfect life and obedient death can save Peter. Or me. Or you. Or anyone.

The contrast between the human ‘take’ on the cross and God’s story becomes plain in the two occasions when Jesus rebukes Peter in John 13. Each involves a question where the emphasis makes the meaning. 

At the start of the chapter, as his Master and Lord kneels, half-dressed, and makes to wash Peter’s feet, Peter objects: ‘Do you wash my feet?’ That is proper humility, but misses the point entirely. ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share in me.’ Jesus’ rebuke takes us far beyond status issues and into the story from God’s perspective. Peter’s next demand, that Jesus washes ‘also my hands and my head’ (John 13.5-11), shows Peter persisted in missing the point. He is stuck in his own narrative.

At the end of chapter 13, Jesus tells Peter that he cannot follow him now. Peter says defiantly: ‘I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus’ question turns the tables: ‘Will you lay down your life for me?’ In that question lies the heart of the whole matter. 

From the perspective of the human drama, Peter does nothing for Jesus. But the symphony of God’s grace is playing a different tune. On the cross Jesus will lay down his life to rescue Peter.  As Kierkegaard put it: The Saviour saw clearly that it was Peter who was in danger, not him, and that it was Peter who needed saving. From the perspective of the divine drama, it matters not that Peter can do nothing for Jesus. What matters is that Jesus does everything for Peter.


So, is Peter exonerated in all this? 

In John 21 Peter comes splashing through the shallows of the sea of Galilee heading towards the risen Lord Jesus on the shore. Then he sees it. The whiff of another charcoal fire built at Jesus’ feet. Just as deliberately as the fire is placed there, Jesus asks Peter three times: ‘Do you love me?’ Peter’s pain is real as Jesus restores and commissions him to feed his sheep. 

The time had come for Peter to follow Jesus. Eventually to death. Because now Peter has had his eyes opened to God’s purpose. He has the crescendo of the divine symphony irresistibly ringing in his ears. The cross and resurrection are God’s work of salvation. We have a share in Jesus and with this tune in our ears we rise and follow him—even as those who let him down.

Photo by Kurt Liebhaeuser on Unsplash