Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Sifting Simon — Part V

April 8th, 2019, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Just before the brief intermission, our curtain closed on ACT I, the scene set in the Garden of Gethsemane, with an illegal arrest in the darkness, and with an illegal binding of a person before he is convicted of a crime. The words of Christ Himself made special note of the darkness in Luke 22:53-54a:  “’When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.’  Then they seized Him and led Him away….”  Those acts will be just the first two of many illegal actions which will be perpetrated against Christ during His Passion. The obviousness of such actions will add to the Sifting of Simon. Having drawn his sword against the servant of the High Priest is frightening enough under the Law, but having that Law administered by the Lawless, by wanton disregard for God’s own Law, is even more intimidating.

Cutting off the ear of a slave of the high priest would also have been traumatic for Peter, as it opened him to more fear, to accusation of a crime, i.e. damaging property which belonged to the high priest. It put the spotlight on Peter, increasing his visibility and vulnerability, at least to a minimal “ear for an ear” sentence for his crime under the Torah:

Exo 21:24 “… eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot….”
Lev 24:20 “… fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured.”
Deu 19:21 “Your eye shall not pity; it shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”


Christ’s intervention to quickly heal Malchus’ ear essentially removed one important piece of evidence of Peter’s “crime,” although eye witnesses remain and will soon become a problem for Peter. But there is yet another piece of evidence against Peter. Both Matthew, and to a greater extent John, tell us that Christ commanded the sword, now bloodied, be returned to its sheath. And Peter will be carrying that bloody sword and sheath right into the Courtyard where the Temple Guard will be warming themselves. Peter’s weaknesses have only begun to be sifted, and the latest to have been revealed include impatience, not waiting on the Lord, aggression, unjust use of a weapon, hostility, assault. Peter seems to have a knack for making the situation worse; indeed, that manifests some of what Sifting might be about. The question begins to be, when we are sifted, can we recognize the signs of Sifting, and make an adequate defense?


In Mark 14:50 and Matthew 26:56 all the disciples “forsook Him and fled.”  Perhaps one might stretch a point, having heard in Christ’s words “… let these men go,” a kind of permission to leave? Perhaps the fleeing disciples could have argued within themselves and with each other that those words of Christ to the arresting guards sounded like a suggestion for them to flee. If so, then, of course they were allowed to flee! Or perhaps Christ’s voiced expectation that they will all be scattered even seems to give them permission to run? Or might they just own up to having been very scared?  In Matthew 26:31 we read: “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.’”  See also Mark 14:27.

We are not told which Apostle carries the undrawn sword, one who may be sensing that the real reason to carry the sword was never to protect Christ, or to attack another, but rather to be armed themselves protectively? Is the ‘why?” of taking swords to the Garden as straightforward as Jesus, one more time, not losing His Faithful Disciples whom the Father has given to Him? Which Apostle would have taken on that responsibility? Although we don’t know, if I were to guess, I might think James, the brother of John, rounding out the three who so often were witnesses to Christ’s miracles, the one who would die first, and by a sword. But nothing like this had ever happened to them before, and likely the disciples did not know what to do. Scattering sheep shred their own support network; it becomes, almost, “every man for himself.” If Peter also ran, and it seems he did (Mark 14:50 states that they “all” fled), he must have returned soon after, to be able to follow “at a distance.”  Does that “distance” imply lack of courage or conviction? disorientation? resignation? Or is following at all manifesting Peter’s love of Christ and not being able to bear the separation? Did both John and Peter follow Christ to the High Priest’s Courtyard but, since John was a faster runner than Peter, just got there first?  (John 20:4)

Further intimidation of Peter

There are three specific events after Peter arrives at the High Priest’s Courtyard which sift him further, and during which he eventually yields his three denials: 1) Physical abuse of Christ while Peter is enclosed in the Courtyard with the guards, 2) the search for two corroborating witnesses and a surprising irony, 3) voluntary self-incrimination by Christ in a forbidden proceeding. The denial is not the story, but it is the interweaving within the story. While there is a basic consistency among the Four Gospels, there is also variation in the order in which events are described. It seems like this may be simply a function of the writer trying to tell two stories simultaneously, that of Peter and that of Christ. Mark and Matthew have most of Peter’s words occurring after the blasphemy judgment.  Luke tells Peter’s story and then removes him from the scene before the finality of the High Priest’s dialogue. John somewhat interlaces Peter’s denials with other elements of the trial.  While more difficult to relate, it may be a more accurate portrayal of the interlaced order of events that John experienced being present.

Physical Abuse of Christ

After arriving at the high priest’s courtyard, John notes that the guard brings Christ first to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas “who was high priest that year.” The background seems to be that the people still see Annas as the high priest, even though he was set aside by the Roman occupiers in favor of Caiaphas. John’s language assumes a bit of sarcasm, as if the office itself was suspect because of the Roman’s maneuvering. But we can note that when one of the guards strikes Christ with his hand, he says: “Is that how you answer the high priest?” indicating that, indeed, the guard also sees Annas as ‘still’ the high priest, and bringing Christ there first is more than a social call; it is a matter of precedence. (John too calls Annas “high priest.”) In Mark, the abuse is reported after the blasphemy declaration: “And some began to spit on Him, and to cover His face, and to strike Him, saying to Him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the guards received Him with blows.”  The abuse in Matthew also comes after the declaration of blasphemy: “Then they spat in His face, and struck Him; and some slapped Him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, You Christ! Who is it that struck You?'” Since Luke has Peter departing before the physical abuse is mentioned, it is not explicitly sifting of Peter, but the other three accounts are sufficient to indicate some physical abuse while Peter was nearby, and verbal abuse as well.

For Peter there is still more sifting — fear, revulsion, helplessness and the scandal of Christ’s being arrested and treated as a criminal, the Holy One of God.  And we might add ‘doubt’ to the list as well. Was there any moment when Peter began to think that Christ no longer had the powers displayed so often in His Ministry? Was his faith shaken too?

Peter is the Leader of the Disciples but, except for John, none accompanied him, or even followed him at a distance. The dangerous part for Peter is entering the Courtyard of the High Priest. In John’s Gospel, the author calls himself ‘another disciple;” however, there seems to be virtually no dispute that the other disciple is indeed John, and was known to the high priest, and even to the maid at the gate. Perhaps, with the imagery we have of John as a young man, he might have come and gone freely, without being seen as a threat. And perhaps that even dates back a few years earlier, to John’s following the Baptist before following Christ? However it was, Peter had to wait at the gate for John to be able to bring him in. And, in those moments, John reports that Peter makes his first denial, at the mere challenge of the maid who kept the gate: Was it from lack of courage or conviction? disorientation? lack of  alternatives?

The first denial, described by all four evangelists, involves an accusation by a woman, apparently a young woman of lowly stature, a maid. Since women couldn’t be witnesses under the Jewish Legal System at that time, perhaps Peter was not particularly intimidated by her accusation, and so rushed to denial.

The following biblical quotations contain the context of the First Denial:

Peter’s Denial
Carl Heinrich Bloch

Mark 14:53-54; 66-68a  “And they led Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes were assembled. And Peter had followed Him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, and warming himself at the fire. And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came; and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him, and said, ‘You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus’  But he denied it, saying, ‘I neither know nor understand what you mean.’ “

Matthew 26:57-58; 69-70:  “Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Ca’iaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter followed him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end. Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him, and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean.’  But he denied it before them all, saying, ‘I do not know what you mean.’”

Luke 22:54-57:  “Then they seized him and led Him away, bringing Him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance; and when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a maid, seeing him as he sat in the light and gazing at him, said, ‘This man also was with Him’  But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know Him.’”

John 18:15-18: “Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in. The maid who kept the door said to Peter, ‘Are not you also one of this man’s disciples?’ 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.”

In Sifting Simon Part VI, we will look at the search for two witnesses to agree in their testimony, and in Part VII at Christ’s own testimony. And we’ll look at the escalating of denial during the trial.


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