“Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, ‘You also are not one of this man's disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.” (John 18:15-18)
The four Gospels paint for us a portrait of Simon Peter as a brash, out-spoken fisherman that has an abundance of self-confidence. He has spoken boldly of his willingness to “go to prison and even death” for his loyalty to Jesus. He had sought to defend Jesus with a sword when they came to arrest Him in the garden, cutting off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. He had not fled, while others had. He appeared to be a devoted and courageous disciple of His Master.
Yet, Jesus had prophetically warned Peter that, “the rooster will not crow until you have denied me three times” (John 13:38). But it appears that Peter seems to have dismissed this, like most of us he had “selective hearing,” and apparently these words of Jesus never fully registered with him. Regardless, Peter and John had followed the band of soldiers that lead Jesus away to the court of the high priest.
Because of his connections John was able to enter into the courtyard, while Peter waited outside. John was granted permission to bring his fellow disciple into the courtyard, and it is there that Peter’s “trial” begins. Jesus is tried before the Sanhedrin council, the most powerful men in all of Israel. Peter is tried around a charcoal fire by servants, the most powerless in all of Israel.
The Bible here at this point in the story is showing us the contrast between Jesus and Peter. This is why it “shifts” back and forth between what is taking place in the court of the high priest, and what is taking place around the “charcoal fire.” Jesus is boldly speaking to the high priest, Annas, the father-in-law of the Roman appointed high priest (and not acknowledged by the Jews as the rightful holder of the title), Caiaphas. Jesus is even struck by one of the officers for the manner in which He spoke to Annas.
By contrast, Peter “wilts” before a servant girl, who has no power or authority. Peter, who had proclaimed his boldness hours earlier, was like the “Cowardly Lion” from The Wizard of Oz. His denial of being one of Jesus’ disciples was a response to what appears may have been a simple inquiry, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
The story continues: “Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, ‘You also are not one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed. (John 18:25-27)
Peter denies being a disciple, and even being present in the garden with Jesus. The other Gospel writers provide addition details to this incident. Matthew tells us, “he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ’I do not know the man’” (Matthew 26:74). Mark also makes mention of this. Mark and Luke also mention that Peter was recognized as being a Galilean (the inhabitants of that region had a particular accent). I also want to point out that Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that after the rooster crowed, Peter remembering the words of Jesus, “wept bitterly.”
Bear in mind, we know of Peter’s denial, not because of the eyewitness testimony of the other disciples, but because Peter himself confessed it. It is his testimony that provides us with all of these details concerning his failure.
Allow me to point out that John in writing his Gospel provides us with a detail that might appear to be insignificant, but in reality serves as a “touchstone” in his recording of the event. That detail is the “charcoal fire.” Why does he find it important to tell us that Peter’s denial took place around a charcoal fire? Is it just a superfluous detail? Or is it there to call our attention to something?
Another Charcoal Fire
The story of Peter’s denial would be a sad one, if the story ended there. It would be not unlike the sad story of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, and later was remorseful for what he had done. But the story of Judas ends tragically with his suicide. While the story of Peter ends redemptively.
In the story of Peter, we come to another “charcoal fire.” This one on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This fire was not one kindled by servants, but by the resurrected King. This fire was not in the courtyard where Jesus’ enemies gathered. This fire was on the shore where Jesus’ friends gathered. This fire was not for warming sinful hands; this fire was to feed the hungry. This fire was not in the shadows of the night, but in the bright sun of the morning.
“Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (John 21:4-14)
Let me make note of the fact that only John’s Gospel records these events. John provides us with what might be called the “epilogue” to the story of Peter’s denial. He brings together the “loose ends” and allows us to be witnesses of Peter’s restoration. While the other Gospels make us aware that Peter was forgiven, John takes it a step further. In this last chapter of his Gospel, John shows Jesus confronting and commissioning Peter.
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15-19)
Allow me to call the reader’s attention once again to where this dialogue is taking place. It is around a charcoal fire. It was around a charcoal fire that Peter had denied Jesus three times. Here it is around a charcoal fire that he affirms his love for Jesus three times. Around the first charcoal fire he was confronted with his own sinful weakness. Around the second charcoal fire he was confronted with the power of God’s grace.
It is here around this second charcoal fire that Peter is restored and re-commissioned. Prior to this I believe Peter knew he had been forgiven by Jesus. The Gospel of Mark, (which is Peter’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ ministry, recorded by Mark) points out that when the women arrive at the empty tomb of Jesus, the angel tells them to “go tell His disciples and Peter.” Why was Peter singled out? Because it was Peter who had denied Him, and Jesus wanted Peter, in particular, to that He was going before him to Galilee and would meet him there (Mark 16:7).
But knowing that one has been forgiven is not the same as being restored. If I loan you my car and you bring it back wrecked, I will forgive you. (Because that’s what the Bible says I am to do.) But that does not mean I will trust you with my car again. Restoration would be me once again entrusting you with the keys to my car.
Peter was given the “keys to the Kingdom” by Jesus at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:19). I think Peter may very well have thought that his denial of Jesus cost him the keys. But Peter here, around the charcoal fire, is once again entrusted by Jesus with the keys.
Do You Love Me?
More is going on around this charcoal fire than may be readily apparent. Yes, it is a re-commissioning of Peter. But that is not all that is happening. Jesus is searching the heart of His disciple.
He asks Peter a probing question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” What Jesus was asking in reference to “more than these” has puzzled Bible commentators. Was He referring to the nets, the boats, his fishing equipment? The tools of his profession? Was Jesus asking him if he loved Him more than the other disciples did?
Regardless of what Jesus was making direct reference to, the question of “do you love me?” confronts Peter with a challenge. Jesus is using the Greek word for “love”- Agape. This was the word referring to the highest level of love. It was distinguished from other Greek words that we translate as the English word, “love.” This word “agape” can be defined in a variety of ways, but all point to this level of love being the highest, the maximum, the greatest. Jesus is asking Peter, “do you love me with the highest level of love?”
Now the “pre-denial” Simon Peter would have no problem answering that. He would have quickly blurted out in the affirmative his “agape” love for Jesus. He was a man confident of his devotion to Jesus. But now, after he has been confronted by his own failure, he is not so quick to respond with a resounding “YES.” Instead, he responds with this answer, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” But he does not use the same word for “love” as Jesus. He uses a word that is often translated as “brotherly love.” He uses the Greek word “phileo” – a lower level of love.
Jesus asks him a second time, “do you love (agape) me?” and Peter responds once again with, “Yes Lord; you know that I love (phileo) you?”
Finally, Jesus asks Peter a third time, “do you love me?” But here Jesus uses the word “phileo” instead of “agape.” Here John tells us that Peter was “grieved” and responded with the words, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.” He knew that he could not “bluff” Jesus, from whom nothing was hidden.
What is going on here? What is taking place in this interaction between Jesus and Peter?
I believe we see a “new” Simon Peter, one who has been humbled, one who is less self-assured, one who is well aware of his weakness. He is a man who is no longer “shooting off his mouth” about his commitment and dedication. He does not want to “write a check” that he is not sure can be “cashed.” He is not certain that he is able to walk out agape love, though he would desire to, he will only affirm his phileo love.
He now recognizes that Jesus knows his heart better than he does himself. He is a man living in greater reality about himself and his need for God’s grace. He is now a man who can be used by God in a greater capacity because of his brokenness.