The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Jesus Foretells Peter’s Denial
30 And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 33 Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” 35 Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same.
The Last Supper had just ended (verse 30).
Jesus had sent Judas away long before then and commemorated Passover with the remaining eleven apostles in instituting the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
Passover supper concluded with a hymn, a sung Psalm. John MacArthur tells us:
After the main meal of the lamb, the bitter herbs, and the sauce, the unleavened bread, they would take a cup, then they would sing the hallēl, which would be the latter part of the hallēl, Psalm 115 to 118. Then they would take the fourth and final cup, and then they would sing the final song, which was Psalm 136, called the great hallēl. And every verse in Psalm 136 ends with the same line, “For His mercy endureth forever – for His mercy endureth forever – for His mercy endureth forever” – every one of them. So they would have sung that.
Hallēl means ‘to praise’. Hallelujah is is the plural imperative of hallēl.
MacArthur describes the walk Jesus and the apostles took to the Mount of Olives. We often think they were alone in a quiet Jerusalem. However, as it was Passover, the streets were teeming with faithful Jews (emphases mine):
… the leaving was very significant. It was nearly midnight. They go out of this upper room, down the stairs, out into the street, and the city is alive as if it was midday. It is alive because it is Passover time. It is the time of the feast of unleavened bread, and there’s activity everywhere and people are hurrying around. Some are in the midst of eating their Passover meal. Remember, the Galileans and the Pharisees ate it late Thursday night. Some are still eating it, so the lamps are burning in the houses. Some are getting ready to have it the next day, the Judeans and the Sadducees, and so, they’re getting the preparations ready.
The temple gates will be thrown open at midnight for the special festival. And so people are surging toward the temple wanting to get in that place. Visitors are everywhere; people negotiating for a place to have the Passover the next day, who had come from out of town, animals being collected and carried all around to be sacrificed the next day. It’s alive, even though it’s night, and so they’re pushing their way, no doubt, through this kind of crowd at night, down the eastern slope of the temple mount. They’ve crossed the Kidron valley, where the little brook is running as full as it ever runs because of winter rain, and it’s even more full because of the blood of all the thousands of animals that have been slain, and the blood runs out the back of the temple, down the slope, into the stream to be carried away. And so the disciples, eleven of them now, and Jesus cross that in the dark, and they ascend the Mount of Olives, headed for a very familiar place that they have gone to many times called the Garden of Gethsemane, which means “olive press;” Mount of Olives, many olive trees, and a place called olive press.
People in the city didn’t have gardens in the city. There was no place for that. They had gardens out on the slopes around the city, and they would cultivate those, and those would be the gardens that belonged to the people that lived in the city. And Jesus went to a familiar place, and they were headed for that place, but it must have been up the slope a ways, and as they went up they needed to stop and rest – maybe in a similar place that they had stopped the night before when He gave them the great Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24 and 25 on His Second Coming.
Jesus had something important to tell the apostles. He told them they would ‘all fall away’ because of Him that night (verse 31). Some older translations, such as the Bible Matthew Henry used, say ‘shall be offended’. In modern English, the connotation is ‘to desert’.
To illustrate His point, He cited Zechariah 13:7. I’m going to highlight that below and give you subsequent verses to better put it into context:
7 “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who stands next to me,”
declares the Lord of hosts.
“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered;
I will turn my hand against the little ones.
8 In the whole land, declares the Lord,
two thirds shall be cut off and perish,
and one third shall be left alive.
9 And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call upon my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’;
and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
MacArthur explains Zechariah in the prophet’s context then in Jesus’s. Note that MacArthur is using another version of the Bible, but the words will make sense in the same way:
In Zechariah 13, Zechariah is talking about some false prophets who will be wounded in their idol houses. He’s talking about false prophets that God is going to come and wound in their idol houses. In other words, God is going to judge false prophets. And the prophet is speaking against those false prophets, who are worthy only of the judgment of God. And then he comes right behind that in verse 7 and says, “I will smite the shepherd and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.” And it might seem at first that he’s referring here to a false shepherd, that God is going to come down and smite a false shepherd – makes sense – and scatter all of the followers of that false shepherd. And we might think that, except for the clear interpretation of Christ, who says, “The smiting is Me, and the flock is you.” And so the smitten shepherd of Zechariah 13:7 has to be the Messiah, and the scattered flock has to be His people. And if you understand that, you understand the meaning of Zechariah 13:7, and it makes sense out of that passage, especially as you look a little closer to it.
Now, look at Zechariah 13:7 for just a moment, and I’ll show you some interesting things. It says, “Awake, o sword,” and this is God, Jehovah God speaking, “Awake, O sword, against My shepherd.” Now, that tells you right away that it’s not a false prophet. God is not slaying a false prophet whom He calls “My shepherd,” God’s personal representative. God says, “My sword will slay My shepherd” – “Awake, O sword, against My shepherd.” And then this most interesting phrase, “And against the man,” and he uses a Hebrew word here that is not the normal word, not the generic word, but means “mighty man” or “man of great strength.” So first of all, the shepherd to be slain is called “the shepherd of God, My shepherd, a mighty shepherd.” And then it says, “Who is My fellow.” Literally, “the mighty man of My union,” or “the mighty man equal to Me.” Marvelous statement, isn’t it? Who is equal to God? Christ. Who was God’s shepherd? Christ. Who is the mighty shepherd? Christ.
So clearly, Zechariah is turning a corner from the false, saying, “Yes, God will wound the false shepherd in the house of his idol, but God will also wound the true shepherd, and His sheep will be scattered as well.” And the end of the verse, “And I’ll turn My hand on the little ones,” there will be a remnant – there will be a remnant. What Zechariah was saying is the day is coming when God is going to smite His own shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the sheep are going to be scattered. Now, the sheep I believe Zechariah has in mind is the nation Israel. Israel went into chaos after the death of their Messiah. Seventy A.D., the city was destroyed, the temple and everything else, and they’re still in the same chaos resulting from the rejection of Messiah. But the disciples being scattered were sort of the first phase of the chaos that hit the nation Israel. So Zechariah sees God smiting the shepherd, the nation disintegrating, and the first phase of it the Lord applies to this group of His own disciples, who will be scattered.
Jesus then said that when He was raised, He would go before the apostles into Galilee (verse 32). He was not only telling them what would happen but also making sure they were not filled with despair. Matthew Henry explains the verse in light of Zechariah:
Though you will forsake me, I will not forsake you though you fall, I will take care you shall not fall finally: we shall have a meeting again in Galilee, I will go before you, as the shepherd before the sheep.” Some make the last words of that prophecy (Zechariah 13:7), a promise equivalent to this here and I will bring my hand again to the little ones. There is no bringing them back but by bringing his hand to them. Note, The captain of our salvation knows how to rally his troops, when, through their cowardice, they have been put into disorder.
Then Peter piped up with another grand pronouncement of his loyalty and fidelity (verse 33). He said his faith was so much deeper than everyone else’s that night. They might fall away but he would remain steadfast until the end.
But Jesus knew what was going to happen, and it was not as Peter imagined. Jesus told him that before the rooster crowed, Peter would deny knowing Him three times (verse 34).
If you’re familiar with cockerels, they start crowing very early, between midnight and three in the morning, known to the ancient Jews as the rooster crow. Therefore, Peter’s denials would come in relatively quick succession that night.
Peter, however, was adamant in his loyalty. The other apostles also pledged their fidelity (verse 35).
The rest of the chapter — indeed, the rest of Matthew’s Gospel — is in the three-year Lectionary.
However, let’s remind ourselves of how events unfolded.
Jesus asked Peter, James and John to wait for Him while He went off alone to pray (verse 36):
39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
What unspeakably deep sorrow He must have experienced at that moment.
Yet, when He returned, Peter, James and John were asleep:
40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?
Jesus’s next words were — and continue to be — pivotal:
41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The flesh is always weak. That has been an enduring fact starting with Original Sin.
Satan is always on hand to prey on our weakness. He doesn’t sleep. This is why we need to be alert, on guard against temptation.
Jesus went off to pray a second time. Even after his admonition about being watchful:
43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.
He went off a third time to pray. When He returned, the apostles were asleep.
Jesus told them to rest later (verse 45):
46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
This should have been enough to penetrate and concentrate their minds, but it wasn’t.
Jesus had not finished speaking when a crowd of high priests and scribes armed with swords and clubs appeared with Judas (verse 47):
48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” 49 And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.”[f] Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.
‘One of those’ with Jesus — Peter, as John 18:10 identifies him — drew his sword, but Jesus told him to put it away:
52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
He said He does not need earthly defence; He has His Father in heaven and legions of angels (verse 53).
Matthew 26 ends with Peter’s three denials in the early hours of Good Friday morning:
Peter Denies Jesus
69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” 71 And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74 Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Parallel verses for today’s reading are found in Mark 14:26-31.
Parallel verses for Matthew 26:34 are found in Mark 14:30, Luke 22:34 and John 13:38. Note that the links I have supplied are all from my Forbidden Bible Verses series. This means they do not appear in the three-year Lectionary. More’s the pity, because they teach us a valuable lesson as Christians.
It is hard not to be suspicious of churchgoers who boast of their faith. A few have commented on this site. They make themselves sound better than everyone else, just as Peter attempted to elevate himself above the other apostles. Matthew Henry has this observation:
Note, It argues a great degree of self-conceit and self-confidence, to think ourselves either safe from the temptations, or free from the corruptions, that are common to men. We should rather say, If it be possible that others may be offended, there is danger that I may be so. But it is common for those who think too well of themselves, easily to admit suspicions of others. See Galatians 6:1.
Peter was so puffed up with himself because he was in his comfort zone. No doubt boastful churchgoers are also in their own bubble. They live in a safe place. They have a roof over their heads. They feel no outside threat. They have food, family and friends. They have a church and a congregation they love. Their needs are met, which gives them a prideful, false confidence about their faith. Henry warns us:
Note, 1. There is a proneness in good men to be over-confident of their own strength and stability. We are ready to think ourselves able to grapple with the strongest temptations, to go through the hardest and most hazardous services, and to bear the greatest afflictions for Christ but it is because we do not know ourselves. 2. Those often fall soonest and foulest that are most confident of themselves. Those are least safe that are most secure. Satan is most active to seduce such they are most off their guard, and God leaves them to themselves, to humble them. See 1 Corinthians 10:12.
We need to be careful in Christian witness when we talk about ourselves!
Even John MacArthur grapples with human weakness, so we should all pay attention to what he says on the matter:
As much as we would like to think of ourselves as strong Christians, the fact of the matter is that, in and of ourselves, we are weak. We would like to think that we could never be caught in a situation where we would deny the Lord, where we would deny His Word, where we would be ashamed to name His name or to be associated with Him. But the truth of the matter is from time to time, we do just exactly that. We are caught in an environment of unrighteousness, and we say nothing. There is a time to speak of Christ, and we do not speak. There is a time when someone would identify us as a Christian, and we shun such an identification for fear of social pressure or social ostracization. There are times when we should be bold for the cause of Christ, and we are anything but bold.
I remember when I was young I used to think about how it would be when in the future I went to serve the Lord, and should He call me to a very difficult place, I was faced with death or denial of Christ. I had read missionary stories about those people who affirmed their faith in Christ all the way to death, and I wondered whether I would do that, and I wanted so desperately to believe that I would. I really wanted to be able to say, “I’d do that – I’d name Christ right down the wire, and if they were going to burn me at the stake, I’d keep naming the name of Christ.” I wanted so much to be able to say that about myself, but I really had a lot of doubts. And what gives me the doubts, and did then and still does, is that there are times when I don’t even say what I ought to say in a situation far less intimidating than death. There are times when we just retreat from the identification with Christ that we should have. There are times when as disciples, we desert, we go AWOL, we defect for shame’s sake. We’d rather not be identified with Jesus Christ. We just don’t want to step out and stand firm.
America is the last bastion of Christianity, but the number of agnostics and atheists there is growing. It might become taboo one day to say one is a Christian, especially if one lives in a big city. It can affect the number of friends one has and even one’s employment.
There is a price to pay for Christianity, even when one lives in the West. I know. I have experienced it in the UK more often than not.
In closing, this is my final post on the Gospel of Matthew.
Let us recall how it ends. The Great Commission — which holds true for us — is Jesus’s command to the disciples after the Resurrection (Matthew 28:18-20). Note that He preceded them to Galilee (Matthew 28:16-17) as He said after the Last Supper (Matthew 26:32):
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
May God grant us His heavenly grace and may the Holy Spirit give us the fortitude to witness for the Gospel, through Jesus Christ our Lord, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.
Next week, I will begin a study of the Book of Acts. There we will see what happened to Peter and Paul in their respective ministries.
Next time: Acts 2:12-13