Peter’s Denial – Prediction or Command?

NOTE: Because we are all currently studing this part of the New Testiment in Gospel Doctrine class, I have re-posted it.

When discussing the final days of Jesus Christ’s mortal ministry, we often reference the fact that nearly everyone left Him. As Elder Jeffery R. Holland noted, “Thus, of divine necessity, the supporting circle around Jesus gets smaller and smaller and smaller, giving significance to Matthew’s words: “All the disciples [left] him, and fled. (Matthew 26:56)”  “None Were with Him,” (April 5, 2009)


When we consider a prime example of betrayal, we talk first of Judas but a close second has to be Peter. After all, Peter said he would never deny Christ (Matthew 26:31, 33) only to do so, as prophesied, three times. (Matthew 26:69–75) At the very least, we use the scripture to show how spiritually clueless the remaining apostles were.

In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.”

There is another theory to the “why” of Peter’s denial. In order to protect the Chief Apostle, Christ himself commanded Peter to deny knowing Him. When we read the account in Matthew, what we perceive as a prophecy could, in fact, be a command.

One of the first to teach this alternative interpretation was a modern-day president of the Twelve Apostles, Spencer W. Kimball. In a talk given at BYU, President Kimball explained that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge Peter. It was Peter who quickly drew his sword and cut off an ear of the soldier only to be stopped by the Savior. It was Peter more times than not, who over reached in his zeal. President Kimball asserts that the denial was out of character for the Chief Apostle:

“If Peter was cowardly, how brave he became in so short a time. If he was weak and vacillating, how strong and positive he became in weeks and months. If he was unkind, how tender and sympathetic he became almost immediately.” Spencer W. Kimball, Peter, My Brother, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year (July 13, 1971), 5.

Andrew Skinner, a BYU professor and one of my favorite scholars agreed with President Kimball and explains:

“In sum, it is apparent that Jesus knew of Peter’s fearlessness in defending him. He had seen several manifestations of Peter’s unswerving, almost reckless, commitment to prevent any physical harm to the Savior. And this was something Jesus knew could get Peter into trouble if it were not tempered. It would put the chief apostle in grave physical danger. Therefore, it is possible that when Jesus told Peter he would deny him thrice before the cock crowed twice, it was not a prediction—it was a command.”

Bro. Skinner furthered the investigation by showing that this alternative theory can be grammatically supported by the Greek translation. He explains:

“This is, in fact, a possible reading of the Synoptic texts, according to the grammatical rules of Koine Greek, which is the language in which early manuscripts of the New Testament were written. In their accounts of this episode, Matthew (26:34, 75), Mark (14:30, 72), and Luke (22:34, 61) all use the same verb and verb form, aparn¯se, which can be read either as an indicative future tense or as an imperative (command) tense.” Andrew C. Skinner, Golgotha (2004), 47.

If this alternative theory were true, why would Peter weep so bitterly at the last denial?  (Matt 26:75) Could it be that what was asked of him, the command given him, was the hardest, most bitter of all commands the Savior gave to him and that it was finally done? Could it be the enormity of what had just transpired and what was yet to come? A realization that his Savior, his Brother, his Friend would no longer be with him?

We don’t really know which interpretation is accurate and scriptures don’t seem to give too many more clues. What really happened? Why did Peter do what he did? As Elder Holland explained, “We don’t know all that was going on here, nor do we know of protective counsel which the Savior may have given to His Apostles privately, but we do know Jesus was aware that even these precious ones would not stand with Him in the end, and He had warned Peter accordingly.” “None Were with Him,”, (April 5, 2009)

All these questions will have to be answered in another time, in another place.

NOTE: As with everything on this blog, the thoughts and insights are mine and mine alone.

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12 Responses to Peter’s Denial – Prediction or Command?

  1. Troy says:

    Received this via email:

    I really enjoy reading what you post on Facebook…[and I hesitate] to contradict you…But here is an interesting article by President Hinkley (when he was a counselor):

    http://lds.org/new-era/1982/04/and-peter-went-out-and-wept-bitterly?lang=eng&query=deny+savior

    I think what Peter did was in fulfillment of prophecy. The Savior had to be alone. I don’t think he was a wimp, he did great things. But I don’t think the Savior could have said to himself “I see Peter over there denying me because he has to, but I know in his heart he is only following directions and he is still by my side.”

    Anyway, my $0.02 – the Church is True either way. Go Cougars.

    • Troy says:

      No problem at all. There are two different “interpretations” of the event. Though I certainly lean one way, I don’t “know” which one is the accurate one. Someday we may find that it is a combination of both or something completely different.

      This is a great talk by Pres. Hinckley but I don’t believe he is making any “doctrinal statement”. He is teaching a principle using the story of Peter; the interpretation that Peter denied Christ not because he was commanded but simply because he was spiritually weak or unprepared.

      It is one of those instances where we have seemingly contradictory teachings from men who we accept as “prophets.” That is why I quoted Elder Holland on this topic. Again, he said the following with a footnote referring to Pres. Kimball’s talk.

      “We don’t know all that was going on here, nor do we know of protective counsel which the Savior may have given to His Apostles privately, but we do know Jesus was aware that even these precious ones would not stand with Him in the end, and He had warned Peter accordingly.” “None Were with Him,”, (April 5, 2009)

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Ryan says:

    I agree with theses insights regarding Peter’s apparent denial. Again the full meaning of these experiences may not be revealed now, but the optimist in me wants to give people the benefit of the doubt. Especially for those that have shown consistency in their commitment and testimony. There are several times in the scriptures that there seems to be moments of weakness in great men or women.

    Here are some examples:
    1. Adam and Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-6)
    Adam and Eve “accepted a great challenge…. They chose wisely in accordance with the heavenly law of love for others” (Widtsoe, John A. “Was the “Fall’ Inevitable?” Evidences and Reconciliations, p. 194); see Moses 5:10-11.
    2. John the Baptist asking if we look for another besides Christ (Luke 7:19-20)
    “In reality, the imprisoned [John] was using this means to persuade his disciples to forsake him and follow Jesus.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1: 261.)
    3. Peter’s denial of Christ (Matt. 26:69–75)
    “Is it possible that there might have been some other reason for Peter’s triple denial? When the three apostles came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, they were again charged implicitly, “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9.) Could Peter have felt
    this was not the time to tell of Christ?” (“Peter, My Brother” Spencer W. Kimball, Speeches of the Year, Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1971)
    4. Christ asking “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42)
    “In His unspeakably wrenching and nature-shattering pain, Christ remained true” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Teaching, Preaching, Healing”, Ensign, Jan. 2003, 33)

    A casual reading of these scriptures might suggest that there was a moment of weakness. I would suggest that there is a context to these situations that we may not be aware of (as shown by the quotes).

  3. This is a fascinating scriptural conundrum. We discussed this in SS class two weeks ago. I lean toward the “President Hinckley” interpretative comments because of my background in English Literature: You don’t stray far from the text. But if we are reading sub-text, then why not “assume” that Peter’s denial of Christ was recorded because it does show man as “nothing” without the Lord’s help and presence in our lives, and the Holy Ghost which Peter had not yet received. And why not also “assume” that Peter’s denial was undoubtedly as different from Judas’ betrayal as black is from white and the Savior knew this. And why not “assume” that we shouldn’t “limit” the power of The Savior’s compassion and capacity for forgiveness of truly penitent Peter and penitent mankind which he is soon to demonstrate by the shedding of his precious blood. That speaks volumes to me as sub-text.
    .

    • Troy says:

      Great thoughts Jana. Thanks for the comment.

      What really causes me to lean toward President Kimball’s theory is the grammatical support that Andrew Skinner highlights:

      “[The gospel accounts]…use the same verb and verb form, aparn¯se, which can be read either as an indicative future tense or as an imperative (command) tense.”

      Further, I don’t think that President Hinckley is making any kind of statement as to which theory is accurate when he uses the “traditional” theory to teach another principle.

      Great stuff.

  4. Pam says:

    I am with you, I lean towards Pres Kimballs statement. That is what we taught in seminary. Peter had a great work to complete after the Savior left the earth. I really think he was commanded to deny Him. He was faithful and obedient. What a tough thing to be asked to do. Like you said either way the church is true. It also teaches us that we can all repent if our testimony does waiver. We have an awesome Gospel Doctrine teacher that brought up both points. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Troy says:

    This is from a FB post of a friend….goood thoughts.

    “Since the Gospel of Mark is considered the first written of the Synoptics, his version seems most important in this case, as Matthew and Luke borrow from Mark (and the gospel of Q). Mark was not an eyewitness of events, but rather a follower of Peter (and in the Peter vs. Paul fall-out seems to end on the Peter side). Therefore, we would expect Mark to portray Peter in the best possible light and the other synoptics to loosely follow suit. So did Peter sinfully deny or obediently deny? The gospel portraits of Peter for whatever he is, does not seem to paint him as a mouse. So why now, and all of a sudden? Remember, when all others had fled, he still follows the trial procession. On the other hand, given Mark’s relation to Peter, we would expect him to clearly vindicate Peter, if he in fact deserved it!”

  6. Pingback: Take the “Peter Deniel, Prophecy or Command” Poll. What do you think? « "The Things of My Soul"

  7. All of the “command” theories don’t look closely at Luke’s account, which says that after Peter had denied Christ three times that the “Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter *remembered* the word of the Lord, how he had said unto, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice” (Luke 22:61). If Peter had been commanded to deny Christ and he were merely following instructions, he would hardly need the glance of the Lord to “remember” what Christ had said earlier.

  8. Troy says:

    It has been a while, ok, a long time since I looked at this blog and your response what sitting in the cue. Sorry for the long, just two years, delay.

    Great point though I think those who lean towards the “command” theory would say that it is not a definitive indication one way or the other. How many times have we, upon completion of a project, looked back at or recalled not only the initial instructions given, but the entire, difficult task as well? In fact, he remembers the “word” or words of the Lord and “how” he said them. As if to say, “Remember how He lovingly and with concern for my safety, commanded me to deny Him. And look where we’re at now. This was the hardest thing He every commanded me to do.”

    Thanks for the comment.

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