In his book The Six Trials of Jesus, John Lawrence posits that when you take the gospel narrative as a whole from all 4 gospels, Jesus was put on trial six times in the span of about 4 hours: the trial before Annas, twice before the Sanhedrin, once before Herod and twice before Pilate (not in that order). Most authorities agree this was the case. In Luke 22.54-62, Luke takes us to the first trial before Annas (Lawrence says this is the first trial). But instead of focusing on Jesus in that trial, Luke has a different focus: Peter. Again, Lawrence offers that Peter did not deny Jesus three times but he denies Jesus a total of eight times during the course of the night. Each gospel writer is content to merely record three in their gospel inasmuch as Jesus prophesies a threefold denial (Luke 22.34). Says Lawrence, “It took only three [denials] to fulfill the prediction of Christ, and to record more than this would only be adding insult to an already pathetic situation.” And that is what we find in Luke; he records three of Peter’s denials.
The First Denial
Jesus has been arrested and is being led away to the house of the high priest (v.54a). There seems to be difficulty concerning the high priesthood – was Annas or Caiaphas high priest. From what we gather, Annas was supposed to be the high priest (a life-long position, similar to our Supreme Court justices) but because of Roman interference, Caiaphas, Annas’ son-in-law, was in the position by Roman nomination. Hence, it would seem they exercised chief authority jointly in the Jewish councils as well as the high priest’s palace.
Meanwhile, while Jesus stands before Annas (for more detail on this trial, see John 18.19-24), Peter is “following at a distance” (v.54b). In Matthew’s account, we get the motive for Peter’s continued pursuit of Jesus, even after capture: “to see the end” (Matt 26.58b). Probably sorrow filled and anxious, Peter is able to procur entrance into the courtyard. But, tragically, his pursuit is not coupled with the same zeal and boldness he has shown earlier in the evening (Luke 22.33) or with prayer for guidance or divine aid. Rather, drawing near to fire for it is cold (John 18.18), he takes his seat “among them” (v.55). Peter mingles with those who are not disciples of Jesus; indeed, the followers of the Lord have scattered and Peter sits down with the enemy, as it were.
All four gospel writers tell us that the first challenge came from a slave girl. She was “looking at him closely” or “stared at him” (NRSV). This captures exactly what was happening – this girl was closely scrutenizing Peter, as if he looked familiar or had some distinguishing characteristic which she recognized. Curious, did Peter know he was under the hot stare of this slave girl. Did his face become flush or perspiration break forth on his brow? Did the tension build between the two? At best we can only speculate. But then it hits her. “This man was also with him” (v.56). By him she means, of course, Jesus. And now, Peter, here is your time to “shine for Jesus” we might say. Here is his opportunity to “be a light in a dark world,” again, as we might say. Bear your testimony, testify, tell what Jesus has done for you, and all those other Christian-ese terms we have come up with.
In one sense, this is an indictment of how we today have cluttered up a simple concept of confessing Christ before men. In another sense, this is a reminder of just how much like Peter we are at times. Peter’s response (and ours) should have been something akin to what Jesus says when questioned: “You have said so.” Instead, he caves, denying that he has ever known Jesus. The force of the language used is such that Peter is saying he has not known nor knows Jesus. He is saying has had nothing to do with Jesus.
The Second Denial
Some time passes. It does not appear that in Luke’s account Peter leaves the fire. Some unidentified person now points Peter out again as someone who had been one of those who followed with Jesus. And again, his response should have, “Right, you say it yourself.” But instead, Peter denies yet again. Taking the complete gospel narrative, it would seem this denial comes after a few other denials previous. Lawrence has this as the sixth denial out of eight. Nevertheless, Peter addresses this man (“Man” and “woman” in this context is merely a way of addressing someone politely, similar to our modern “Sir” or “Madam”) and says, “I am not” one of the followers of Jesus.
The Third Denial
More time passes, Luke says “about an hour” and someone else identifies Peter as a follower of Jesus. But this time it is because “he is a Galilean.” How did he know that? Scholars suggest that Peter had an accent. Mind you, Peter is from up north around the Sea of Galilee while Jerusalem is in the south in the land of Israel. Further, Peter is a fisherman whereas these are “city-folk” in Jerusalem. So Peter probably had a slight variation in his speech pattern. It is no different than today. Americans speak English but we can recognize a northeast accent or southern accent. So here is Peter with his northern fisherman accent which gives him away. This stranger concludes this Galilean fellow must have been with Jesus. He “insists” upon this fact (v.59).
Peter’s way of denying this time is slightly different. Previously, its been “I don’t know” and “I’m not one of them (the disciples).” Now its this answer of increduity: “What are you talking about?” I can almost picture a half-hearted laugh from Peter – “You gotta be kidding me. Me with him? Yeah, right.” How many Christians, with a little laugh, do the same thing? “Me? A Christian? Yeah, right. What are you talking about?”
Several things happen now “immediately” following this. As the words are coming out of his mouth, Peter hears a rooster crow. Imagine, mid-sentence, a rooster crows. Surprise and shame probably sweep over Peter. But that’s not all. Jesus, seemingly in transit from one high priest to another, turns inn Peter’s direction and they lock eyes. Perhaps this last denial of Peter’s reached the ears of the Lord. Perhaps He just knew. Either case, Jesus and his old friend make eye contact. In an instant, the words of Jesus rush through Peter, piercing his mind: “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” The words of Jesus coupled with the look from Jesus is unbearable for Peter. He flees the scene, devastated and broken, weeping bitterly. I believe that word “bitterly” points out that Peter really did not want to fail here when he does he is deeply grieved because of it. Peter, the “rock” of the Twelve, has fallen.