There are many directions I'd like to go with Peter's story. I think it's awfully sad that the disciple who trusted Jesus enough to recognize him as the Messiah and to trust him to walk on water gets such a bad reputation. But what I really want to focus on is how I think the whole denial story paints Peter as something he absolutely wasn't - a coward. I want to make a case for Peter's bravery, but even more than that, I want to make the case that the underlying issue with Peter's betrayal was much deeper than momentary fear. While there may have been some fear involved in Peter's denial of Christ, I think it's fairly clear that fear for his own wellbeing was not Peter's primary problem. So why do most of us think Peter was filled with fear? I think the fear narrative is easy for us to latch on to for a number of reasons, but most of all because if we say Peter's problem was fear, we in the West can subsequently disassociate ourselves from being in Peter's shoes. How often have we felt genuine fear for our lives because of our Christian beliefs? Almost every one of us would have to say "never." And so we never have to identify with a traitorous Peter who feared for his life. But as I will argue, Peter's reason for denying Christ should make us much more introspective about the ways we are constantly tempted to deny Christ in like manner. So let me make my case now for why I don't think Peter was a coward who feared for his life.
Peter's declaration in Matthew 16 that he will not allow Christ to suffer insinuates quite a bit and will pair well with exhibit 3. Peter strongly declares that he will not allow Jesus to suffer and die. Peter is not ignorant to the types of people Jesus is coming up against, namely the religious leaders, but potentially Rome as well. It seems that most Jews, and probably even the disciples, believed Jesus was bringing an earthly kingdom and intended to overthrow Rome. Jesus always talked about the Kingdom, and behind closed doors he made even stronger claims to his disciples about his lordship, deity, and rule. To protect the lead figure of a messianic revolution would have certainly meant that for Peter to keep his word, he was willing to knowingly put his life in danger. Simply continuing to follow Jesus each day put Peter's life in danger.
John gives us the familiar story of Lazarus in chapter 11 of his book. While most focus on the resurrection of Lazarus, the beginning of the chapter paints another interesting picture. The place where Lazarus resides is a location in which the religious leaders had just tried to stone Jesus in John 10. In chapter 11, Thomas even says to his fellow disciples that if they follow Jesus to Lazarus's tomb, they're all going to die. With this very real concern for their lives, the disciples - including Peter (and Judas) - decided to accompany Jesus on his journey.
In Luke 22 and John 18 we see the famous incident where Peter cuts off Malchus's ear. There are a number of interesting things to note in this encounter.
1) We know that in Jesus's group of at least 11 disciples, there were only 2 swords. Peter had one of those swords. Remember that when Jesus asked if anyone was going out to get swords, nobody did, as they found there were already two swords among them. That means Peter was packing, and he may have been packing for quite some time - not just on that night. Peter seemed ready to put his money where his mouth was.
2) Jesus and the disciples were confronted by a sizeable group of enemies, including a commander with a detachment of soldiers - trained killers with weapons. Despite being outnumbered both quantitatively and qualitatively, Peter drew his sword to fight in defense of Jesus.
3) Many seem to get distracted by the fact that Peter only sliced off Malchus's ear. That seems harmless enough. But think about what this means. The most natural swings for swords are up to down or side to side. Peter was probably swinging for the fences, and if he would have sliced at Malchus up to down, cutting off his ear would have meant his sword continued into Malchus's neck or shoulder, doing serious damage. Swinging side to side, with Malchus probably not being a stationary target means Peter was probably trying to cut off Malchus's head, with Malchus successfully side ducking under the sword with all but his ear. Peter was almost certainly trying to decapitate Malchus. He was trying to murder the High Priest's servant in front of a larger group of trained killers and religious officials. Such an act in and of itself was life-threatening for Peter.
Peter was one of only two disciples (John likely the other one) who followed Jesus beyond his arrest in the garden. He did this knowing that Jesus was now in serious trouble and that any association with him could get Peter in the same trouble. These same two also raced to the tomb of Christ despite the potential for death. Don't forget that the disciples were in hiding, fearing for their lives, and did not yet have an understanding of the resurrection's implications. To run to the tomb of their assassinated messiah where there were supposed to be Roman guards was quite dangerous.
While it seems pretty clear that Peter exhibited some fear in his betrayal of Christ, I hope it is just as clear that Peter's modus operandi was not a fear of death. At least four times, and probably more of which we're unaware, Peter accompanied Jesus on a very dangerous path, even performing actions like violently confronting a group consisting of trained soldiers, which almost certainly assured his death. So when a little servant girl came up to him and asked about his allegiance, what in Peter had changed to give him enough fear to deny Christ?
We obviously can't know what was going on in Peter's heart and mind, but it should be clear that Peter was not a betrayer primarily out of concern for himself. His eyes were almost always focused on Christ. In John 6, when many disciples deserted Jesus because Jesus said strange things about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, Peter declared his allegiance and that Christ was the "Holy one of God." Peter was the first to declare Christ the Messiah. He didn't want Jesus to suffer. He defended Jesus in the garden. He fixed his eyes on Jesus and walked on water. Peter followed his savior to his trial. Peter was one of the first two disciples to race to Jesus's tomb, presumably while his safety was still a concern as Rome's wrath would likely extend to Christ's followers. Peter was absolutely focused on Jesus, not simply in word, but in action.
The arrest of Jesus, however, seems to have marred the image of the one Peter thought he followed. If Peter thought of the Messiah as establishing an earthly kingdom, of overthrowing Rome and of being a powerful Son of God, then what Peter was seeing in Christ's weakness couldn't be excused. If Jesus came to overthrow Rome, why did he have Peter put his sword away? Why was he submitting to the kangaroo court of the religious leaders? Jesus had always escaped the leaders before, presumably in order to build a larger following until he could make his move. But to now willingly be recognized as a criminal and to refuse resistance seemed pointless and suicidal. It must have destroyed Peter's hopes and dreams and undermined his assurance of who Jesus truly was. Like so many other "messiah's" before him, maybe Jesus wasn't who Peter thought he was. Peter's denial, then, was likely not primarily the denial of a coward who was trying to save his own skin. It was the denial of a broken man disillusioned by the image of who his savior appeared to be in contrast to all that Peter envisioned his savior should be. Peter's fear wasn't that his body would be harmed or destroyed. Peter already proved his willingness to sacrifice himself. Rather, Peter was disillusioned because it appeared that his dreams and ideals were being destroyed. Draft dodgers and deserters are cowards, and Peter was neither of those. He was willing to stand with Jesus even unto death. Instead, Peter retreated. He recognized that both the commander and the ideal he had been fighting for were killed and he had nothing left to fight for.
It is important to understand at this point that Peter and Judas weren't all that different in their betrayals of Christ. Jesus says that Peter was being influenced by Satan and Luke tells us that Judas was influenced by Satan. Judas, at least in some traditions, betrayed Jesus because he thought that creating a confrontation would force Christ to stop beating around the bush and finally bring his Kingdom with force. Judas was likely hoping a confrontation with Jesus would cause him to move forward with a confrontation with Rome. It was only when Judas saw that Jesus was arrested and condemned (Mt. 27) that he realized what his betrayal had done. Peter seemed to have the same nationalistic mindset, the same proclivity to using force, and it was the undermining of his nationalistic ideal which likely brought about his willingness to deny Jesus. We can even see Peter's (and the other disciples') continued misunderstanding of Christ's Kingdom post-resurrection as they ask Jesus in Acts 1:6 if he will finally restore Israel now that he had resurrected. The only major distinction between Judas and Peter is in their final responses to their realization of what they had done in their betrayal. While Judas's eyes looked to himself, his own guilt, and the tragedy of the outcome he brought about, Peter's eyes looked once again to the Messiah he loved so much. While Peter fell often, it was always momentary and it always caused him to bring his eyes back to rest upon Jesus. Peter truly, deeply loved Jesus, and it was his love for his savior which was stronger than any ideal or desire he held.
If we couch Peter's betrayal in light of the evidence, I think we all - especially those of us in the non-persecuted West - can find ourselves identifying with Peter much more easily. We may not often face physical danger for following Christ, but how often will our lives find our ideologies challenged by him? What will we do with Jesus when he shows himself to be someone who we have not envisioned him to be? What will we do with Jesus when he takes comfortability off the table and replaces it with suffering and cross? What will we do when we discover that the shaping of our national kingdom doesn't align with the vision of what God wants his Kingdom to be? What will we do when Jesus has us put our "swords" away when we would instead desire to hack our enemies to pieces and use coercive measures to force conformity and obedience? God's ways are not our ways, and every now and then we get glimpses of this truth. When God graciously allows us to hear the rooster crow and we recognize our denial of him in our words and deeds, this is a mercy of God.
Most of us deny Christ daily. So often we find that God's vision does not comport with ours. But like Peter, we must choose how we handle our betrayal. Will we, like Peter, weep and repent over our overzealous attempts to bring our kingdom over Christ's Kingdom? Will we weep and repent for our failure to trust Christ in his wisdom? Will we weep and repent for our refusal to sacrifice our means for God's means? Will we use our failings to once again focus our eyes on Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith? Or will we, like Judas, seek to force our savior's hand to bow to our agenda? We must pray that our love for the savior is greater than our love for our personal ideals, lest we become Judas instead of Peter.