Peter’s Tears

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Abstract: Peter’s denial of Christ is one of only about two dozen events reported in all four gospels. Three of the accounts conclude by Peter’s weeping. This paper examines the antecedents, possible motivations, and long-term consequences of this crisis in Peter’s life as recorded in the scriptural text and considers its application for all disciples of the Savior.

Of the hundreds of individual incidents reported in the four gospels, Peter’s denial of Christ is one of only about two dozen included in all four gospels and the one event by which Peter is perhaps best known by the Christian world generally. Three of the gospel writers conclude their accounts of this tragedy with Peter’s weeping; Matthew and Luke add that on this occasion Peter wept “bitterly.”1 A review of this crisis in Peter’s life sheds light on what caused this “rock” (Mark 3:16) to shed tears so freely and poignantly at the end of the Savior’s mortal life. Peter’s experience also provides insight into our own human struggles to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32).

The immediate series of events that culminates in Peter’s weeping begins at the Mount of Olives, where Jesus and the apostles retire after the Last Supper. In this sacred refuge, Christ informs his most trusted and loyal disciples, “All ye shall be [Page 24]offended because of me this night,” prefiguring his crucifixion. He also prophesies of his eventual resurrection, promising that he will “go before” his apostles into Galilee. In response, Peter insists that while others might abandon the Master, he would not. Christ counters with the famous prophecy and mild rebuke, “Verily I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” Peter persists in his declaration of loyalty, now joined by the other apostles, to which Christ simply, and knowingly, demurs (Matthew 26:31–35).

Following this exchange, the Savior and his apostles walk to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ’s atoning sacrifice begins. His suffering continues throughout the night, during which he endures a series of judicial proceedings and public humiliations culminating with his crucifixion on Golgotha. It is during his trial at the palace of Caiaphas, the high priest, that Christ‘s earlier forebodings come to pass regarding Peter and the other disciples.

Accompanying Caiaphas in this act of judgment are the scribes and elders, “and all the council,” the formal juridical authority of the Jews at Jerusalem. Matthew’s account of the trial has a singular concern: to challenge the validity of the council’s proceedings. He indicts the council on the legitimacy of the witnesses they call to testify against Jesus. Specifically, Matthew states that the council “sought false witnesses against Jesus, to put him to death; but found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none.” There is biting double irony in this observation: not only does the council fail to find any true witnesses against the Savior, they cannot, at least initially, find any false ones either. This absurdity is so astounding that Matthew repeats the fact in order to underscore the trial’s illegitimacy. Finally, however, “two false witnesses” come forward and provide a statement which Caiaphas uses to condemn Jesus. This judgment prompts the council to sentence Jesus to death. Imposition of the sentence begins with [Page 25]his receiving public scorn by way of spitting and flogging and culminates in his crucifixion, a horrible and humiliating form of death reserved for the worst criminals (Matthew 26:57–68).

During the trial, which Peter watches from a distance, he is approached three times regarding his acquaintance with Jesus: (1) by a “damsel” as he “sat without in the palace,” (2) by a “maid” after he retreats to the porch of the palace, and (3) by a group “that stood by,” who claim that Peter’s speech betrays his likely acquaintance with Jesus. Peter denies all three accusations, each more emphatically than the previous. According to Matthew, “immediately” after Peter’s third and most adamant denial “the cock crew.” Matthew’s account concludes: “And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:69–75).

Passionate weeping of this kind often has multiple causes, and frequently the biblical narrative can be understood simultaneously on more than one level. So, it should be no surprise that there could have been a number of reasons for Peter’s bitter tears.

The most immediate reason for Peter’s weeping may have resulted from his denial of Christ, not once but three times. It should be noted that Peter did not deny Christ’s divinity, only his acquaintance with him. Being “offended because of” his master was completely inconsistent with Peter’s customary character. Throughout Christ’s ministry, Peter had been one of his most loyal and intimate followers, receiving and bearing witness of his divinity on numerous occasions and being present for most of his teachings, miracles, and acts of service. Hence his sorrow may have been motivated partly by the profound disappointment he felt for his uncharacteristic behavior on this occasion.

A related reason for Peter’s tears may have been regret for having earlier contradicted his Lord. Christ’s statement to [Page 26]Peter, “Thou shalt deny me,” came because Peter had objected to Christ’s observation that he and the other disciples would “be offended because of” him during his trial and its immediate aftermath. Though impetuous, Peter was not in the habit of contradicting his Master. He loved Jesus as few other mortals and was ever the loyal disciple. On this occasion, however, he expresses his loyalty in a way that reveals a degree of disrespect for Christ’s prophetic powers. Peter’s grief likely included total contrition for this excess.

A third possible reason for Peter’s tears is the realization that he had inadvertently fulfilled Christ’s prophecy that his disciples would soon “be offended because of” him. In order to avoid his accusers during the trial at Caiaphas’s palace, Peter gradually retreats from Jesus’s company and eventually flees the scene altogether. Earlier that night, Christ had two other occasions to chasten Peter for his lapses in courage and character. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ entrusts Peter, James, and John to watch with him during his suffering. Instead of keeping watch, they fall asleep, not once but twice, “for their eyes were heavy” (Matthew 26:37–44). Next, upon Christ’s arrest Peter attacks and “smote off [the] ear” of a servant of Caiaphas who had accompanied the arresting party. While healing the injury, Christ reminds Peter and the other disciples that the Son of God is in full control of the situation and that nothing would be done contrary to the will of His Father (Matthew 26:47–56). Thus on three successive occasions within a few hours of one another at the time of the Savior’s greatest need, Peter occasions a rebuke from his Master, whom he loves more than life itself. In all cases, Peter comes up short, consistently disappointing his Master. Realizing his persistent weakness may have added bitterness to Peter’s tears.

A fourth motivation for his sorrow could have come from the dilemma that Peter faces by accompanying Jesus to Caiaphas’s palace. When Peter is repeatedly accused of being [Page 27]Christ’s disciple, he perjures himself with the resulting denials. In actual fact, he was one of Jesus’s earliest and most loyal, ardent, and intimate disciples. During the Savior’s three-year ministry, Peter is hardly ever far from his side. He knows him and can testify of his divinity as well as any other mortal (Matthew 16:13–19). But had Peter not perjured himself in casual conversation during Jesus’s trial, he would likely have been brought before the council as a true witness. Then his testimony would have had not just mortal but eternal consequences. To the council’s pointed inquiry, Peter would have had either to deny Christ’s divine son-ship and messianic ministry, thereby perhaps committing the unpardonable sin, or to provide the council with reliable evidence to condemn Jesus in accordance with Jewish law. For Peter, these two options are completely untenable, so he may have knowingly chosen the least of the evils and declared simply, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:72, 74). The bitterness of his tears during the aftermath may have expressed (1) justifiable anger at Caiaphas and the council for condemning an innocent man, (2) frustration at his inability to rescue his Lord from unjust and illegal proceedings and the certainty of an ignominious death, and (3) the realization that he would now be without the constant companionship of his beloved Lord for the rest of his mortal life.

Peter has several reasons to weep bitterly at the conclusion of Christ’s trial, but all of them reflect a total commitment to the Son of God, to whom he had pledged complete loyalty, in spite of his human weakness and imperfection.

Peter learns much from these poignant experiences because throughout the rest of his ministry he never has to re-learn the lessons. For example, he likely realizes that his most admirable human qualities are no match for Christ’s divine qualities. Gifts of the Spirit like prophecy are far more powerful for eternal purposes than human virtues like loyalty and courage. [Page 28]So, while Peter’s character may have been worthy of emulation, the Savior’s spiritual capacities are of far greater value.

Peter also recognizes that his weakness in watching over, accompanying, and caring for his Lord in his hour of torment needs to be transformed into a virtue. Following his resurrection Jesus will no longer be constantly in their midst. Hence Peter and the other apostles will have to nurture the Saints as the Savior had done. Despite their human shortcomings, he and the other apostles have been ordained to the ministry. As they minister tirelessly to meet the needs of others and to establish the Kingdom of God, they are also expected to overcome the weaknesses that formerly limited their service. Doing so is not possible without considerable effort on their part as well as the blessings of their priesthood ordination and the influence of the Comforter, whom Christ promises to send in his absence (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).

Peter also comes to understand that Christ would not be present to compensate for his unbridled passions (Alma 38:12). Thus Peter must overcome his human excesses or suffer their inevitable consequences. In relation to his attack on Caiaphas’s servant, for example, Peter comes to understand that force is not the way to minister the gospel, establish the Kingdom of God, or change lives for the better. At the very time that Peter sorrows for his persistent imperfections, Christ is providing the way through the atonement for him and the rest of mankind to overcome their natural inclinations and the temptations of the flesh.

Most importantly, Peter learns that his relationship with the Savior is the most important thing in his life and that this relationship – established by revelation, nurtured by spiritual experiences, confirmed by priesthood ordination, and preserved by covenant – transcends all of Peter’s human weaknesses and failings. As Jesus promised, he does “go before” his disciples and helps them accomplish everything that he charged [Page 29]them to do, including overcoming the world. To be sure, Peter’s shortcomings are a factor in the success of this undertaking, but neither Peter nor Christ intends to define their relationship in terms of them. These men have more important things to do than simply manage Peter’s weaknesses. They both know that Peter’s imperfections will be overcome in the course of magnifying his divine commission.

Peter’s subsequent ministry is as exemplary as that of any other disciple of Christ. He is among the first to bear personal witness of Christ’s resurrection (Luke 24:12, 34; John 20:2–10). He embraces Christ’s repeated charge, “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). He bears the first public witness of Christ’s divine ministry and performs the first public miracle by the power of his apostolic authority (Acts 2:14–27; 3:1-7). He successfully challenges the “men of Israel” to accept Christ as their savior and to be baptized (Acts 3:12–26). He testifies of Christ before Caiaphas, other Jewish leaders, and their families and respectfully declines their stern injunction to be silent about Jesus’s divinity (Acts 4:5–21). He purifies the Church of those who attempt to pervert its revealed practices (Acts 5:1–11). He is twice miraculously freed by an angel from unjust imprisonment (Acts 5:17–23; 12:1-11). He preaches the gospel and testifies of Christ throughout the Holy Land (Acts 5:14–25). He heals Aeneas and raises Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:32–43). And he introduces the gospel to the Gentiles in accordance with a divine vision (Acts 10:9–48). On none of these occasions does Peter exhibit the kinds of human weakness that characterized his behavior on the day that Christ died. This is not to say that he never again makes a mistake; but these experiences reveal the transforming capacity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, priesthood blessings, and righteous influences for all those who desire to achieve their divine potential. As Peter comes unto Christ he discovers his weakness (Ether 12:27). Through Peter’s persistence and the grace of God, his [Page 30]weakness is transformed until he exemplifies the qualities of a true witness and disciple of the Savior.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the Philosophy and the Scriptures Conference, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, April 7-9, 2011.

  1. Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:55–62; John 18:15–18, 25–27. LDS Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Gospels, Harmony of.” []
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About Steven L. Olsen

Steven L. Olsen received AM and PhD degrees in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1978 and 1985, respectively. For the past three decades he has filled various professional and administrative positions with the LDS Church History Department, Salt Lake City, including Senior Curator and Managing Director. Major projects completed under his leadership include the permanent exhibits, “A Covenant Restored: Historical Foundations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and “Presidents of the Church” at the Church History Museum; the historic site restorations, “Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith Farm and Sacred Grove” and “Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site” (western New York), “Historic Kirtland” and “John and Else Johnson Home” (northeast Ohio),” Cove Fort” and “Brigham Young Winter Home” (Utah); and the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

13 thoughts on “Peter’s Tears

  1. I am not well versed in the languages of the bible, but one of the phrases that Christ used “Verily I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” appears to have another possible intent. Could it be possible that knowing the difficulties that were coming, and the plan that He had for Peter, the Lord was commanding Peter to deny him?

  2. First, I agree with Britton that shalt is indeed a command, an imperative. Second this article omits the experience of Peter taking on a group of armed men that easily could have killed him; hours later we are to believe that he cowers before a damsel, a maid and a group of men? Third, nothing in the scriptural account ever hints a shred of cowardice. Peter denied knowing his savior because the Lord told him to.

  3. I would likewise concur with the conclusion of the previous two comments: the “thou shalt” deny is an imperative, not a prophetic phrase.

    In addition to Peter’s defense of Jesus hours later, there is the Luke account wherein immediately prior to the “thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” injunction, the Savior tells Peter, “Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not….”

    When the foregoing is linked to the imperative that he deny knowing Him, it would appear that the Savior is effectively telling Peter that he will be the President of the Church, that Satan would therefore destroy him if possible; and that to preserve his life, it would be required that Peter deny knowing the Christ in the coming hours.

    President Kimball’s address, “Peter my Brother” calls attention to this: “Peter was under fire; all the hosts of hell were against him. The die had been cast for the Savior’s crucifixion. If Satan could destroy Simon now, what a victory he would score.”

    President Kimball continues, “Is it possible that there might have been some other reason for Peter’s triple denial?”

    I think Peter wept bitterly as obedience to the imperative to deny knowing the Savior was a hard thing for this man who courageously defended his Lord against the mob that dark evening on the Mount of Olives and who, in chapters 2 and 3 of Acts, stood forthrightly before the same crowd that had crucified Christ, boldly denouncing them.

    The denial was a task he obediently performed but it ran counter to his inclination and unflinching loyalty to the Master.

  4. I agree with both Britton and John. Who better selected to be a witness of the trial so as to be able to report on the events thereafter than Peter? No other apostle evidenced the same level of courage as did Peter. A dangerous assignment requiring the instruction to deny his relationship. How else were these events to be reported upon so that Matthew and others were able to record these historical events? I submit that Peter wept because of the injustice he experienced and his inability to intervene because he was commanded not to intervene.

  5. Well thought out article! I don’t disagree with anything in it but please allow me to add two probable factors:

    First, weeping bitterly for one’s errors is the most sincere form of confession and acknowledgment of wrongdoing. It is the first step towards repentance, and subsequent forgiveness. It is the deep agony expressed by Alma the younger when he was “racked with eternal torment” because of his sins (Alma 36:12).

    Second, we need to cut Peter and the other apostles a little slack because at that time they had not yet received the Gift of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost had previously fallen upon Peter when he told Jesus, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), but until after the resurrection of Jesus, Peter did not have the right to the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost (John 20:22). As Paul stated, “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Corinthians 12:3). At the Last Supper Jesus told His apostles that He was going to die. Later that night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, “they began to complain in their hearts, wondering if this be the Messiah” (JST Mark 14:36). This is a remarkable statement after they had been with Him for three years! All they had heard and seen in that time had not thoroughly convinced them. They still had in mind that the Messiah was to save Israel from the control of Rome, but now He tells them He is going to die? After they had received the Gift of the Holy Ghost there was never any doubt.

    The Gift of the Holy Ghost is an ordinance of the Melchizedek Priesthood and was taken away from the midst of Israel because of disobedience at Mt. Sinai. The Law of Moses was given then as a substitute for the Gift of the Holy Ghost (D&C 84:24–27). In Jewish tradition the Law of Moses was given on the day of Shavuot (Pentecost) and the Holy Ghost was at the time of the apostles made manifest again on that same day, after Jesus had fulfilled the Law of Moses (Acts 2:1–4; 3 Nephi 15:4–5). It was probably on the day of Pentecost when Jesus appeared to the Nephites and told them that in Him was the Law of Moses fulfilled.

  6. The concept that Jesus commanded Peter to deny Him is not supported in the context.

    “Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples.” (KJV Matthew 26:34–35)

    If Peter had taken it as a commandment he was refusing to obey it, as did the other apostles.

    “Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.” (KJV Matthew 26:74–75)

    Peter didn’t remember the Lord’s statement until after he had denied Him.

  7. I appreciate the interest of and comments from the readers of this article. I would like to respond in the following manner.
    1. Prophecy or command? While it is possible that Jesus intented his comment to Peter (Matthew 26:24) as a command, but Peter clearly took it as a prophecy. As Theodore observes, had Peter taken Jesus’ comment as a command, his response, “. . . yet will I not deny thee,” would have placed him in categorical rebellion of his Savior, an action that he had never done, before or afterwards. Similarly, the evangelist had Peter remembering the comment after, not before the cock crowed; hence he was not motivated by the comment as he denied knowing Jesus. Thirdly, Christ’s comment as a command does not logically follow the conversation at the end of the Last Supper. Christ had prophesied, “All ye shall be offended because of me this night” (Matt. 26:31), to which Peter protested his loyalty. Christ’s comment came in response. A further prophecy naturally follows, but a command does not.
    (note: I will add to this response later this evening)

  8. Indeed, words, phrases, and events in the scriptures can have multiple meanings simultaneously. You will see that I made this point very clearly at the beginning of the article about Peter. In fact, I have an article coming out in an upcoming issue of Journal of the Book of Mormon and other Restoration Scriptures precisely about the meaning of ‘remember’ in the Book of Mormon. I also recognize the possibility that the Savior’s comment to Peter can be read as an imperative. You also notice that I said nothing in the article itself against the ‘imperative’ reading. It was only when several of the on-line comments criticized my treating the comment as prophecy that I pointed out some of the difficulties with the ‘imperative’ perspective, especially since their support of the ‘imperative’ hypothesis seemed to exclude the ‘prophetic’ hypothesis. That “shalt” may serve as an imperative is evident throughout the KJV, but equally evident is its use as a helping verb in the future tense of a prophetic utterance. So the question is, ‘is it one or the other, or both?’ Just because a word can have multiple meanings in a scriptural text does not mean that each usage employs all possible meanings simultaneously. That’s why systactical, logical, and structural analyses of language need to complement lexical studies.
    In my article, I offered logical and structural support for the ‘prophetic’ perspective. There may be weaknesses in this argument, but the fact that it does not support the ‘imperative’ perspective is not one of them.I look forward to a systematic exposition in a scholarly venue of the ‘imperative’ hypothesis, and if it excludes all other readings of Christ’s statement, then I hope that the author will account for James Talmage’s of this interchange between Christ and Peter (Jesus the Christ, 1976 edition, p. 631).
    Again, I do not claim that Christ’s comment could not have been an imperative, only that this reading presents some difficulties with the KJV text that cannot be ignored. When giving the initial paper at BYU and then while revising the article for publication, I repeatedly encountered the ‘imperative’ argument. Not being a scholar of biblical languages beyond a few undergraduate courses, I asked several BYU faculty members who are knowledgable of Greek, Hebrew and other biblical languages if they could direct me to published scholarship that develops the ‘imperativce’ thesis. Not one of them sent me a single title. So, while I do not reject it, I chose to omit it from my article. If I erred in doing so, I apologize; nevertheless, the on-line comments so far have not convinced me of my sin of omission.
    Lastly, I have to make a pointed comment at one of the prior responses. I challenge the commentator to find in my article the ‘f’ word (meaning ‘fear’) or the ‘c’ word (meaning ‘cowardice’) as I applied them to Peter’s character. I do not believe that of Peter and I said nothing of the kind. Please consider my article more carefully and provide in response either better support for or a more reasonable reassessment of your extreme mis-reading.

  9. “Second this article omits the experience of Peter taking on a group of armed men that easily could have killed him; hours later we are to believe that he cowers before a damsel, a maid and a group of men?”

    Or, Peter is trying to gain as much information as he can about Jesus’ plight, and having his cover blown imperils his efforts. Of course, one cannot rule out a simple case of his losing his nerve amidst the tension of uncertainty. The text also bears another important clue as to why this is not a command by Jesus. Swearing oaths had become somewhat frivolous and commonplace, yet Jesus had restored its gravity, insisting for instance that all communications be yea, nay, and here was Peter vehemently denying his identity with a false oath.

  10. The richness of Greek verb forms is useful here. The Greek text has απαρνησηι (aparnesei), which is future – you will deny – rather than the imperative of a command.

  11. More about Greek verbs. Sometimes future tense is used with an imperative meaning. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Exodus 21 contains the Ten Commandments, which certainly have an imperative force. In verse 9, “six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work”, the two verbs are future tense. Since the King James Bible translators rendered the future form of “deny” in Matthew 26:34 as “thou shalt deny” rather than “thou wilt deny” they likely had the imperative sense in mind. All the modern versions of the Bible I have checked that are not based on updates of the King James Version, render it “you will deny” and some include in a heading that here Jesus foretells or predicts Peter’s denial. So my previous comment about the specific form of the Greek verb here is not as helpful as one would like.

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