Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 33: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 26:69-75; MARK 14:66-72;
69. Now Peter was sitting without in the court. And a maid cam to him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus the Galilean. 70. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest. 71. And as he was going out into the porch, another maid saw him, and said to those who were there, This man also was with Jesus the Nazarene. 72. And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man. 73. After a little came those who were standing by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thou are convicted by thy speech. 74. Then he began to curse and to swear, that he did not know the man. And immediately the cock crew. 75. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, who had told him, Before the cock crow, thou wilt thrice deny me. And he went out, and wept bitterly.
66. And while Peter was below in the court, one of the maids of the high priest came; 67. And when she saw peter warming himself, she looked at him, and said, Thou also wast with Jesus the Nazarene. 68. But he denied, saying, I know him not, 234 nor do I understand what thou sayest. And he went out into the porch, and the cock crew. 69. And the maid, when she saw him again, began to say to those that stood by, This is one of them 70. But he denied it again. And a little after, those that stood by said again to Peter, Surely thou art one of them; for thou art also a Galilean, and thy speech agreeth with it. 71. But he began to curse and to swear, (saying) I know not that man of whom you speak. 72. And the second time the cock crew; and Peter remembered the word which Jesus had spoken to him, Before the cock crow twice, thou wilt thrice deny me; and he began to weep. 235
55. And when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the hall, and had sat down together, Peter also sat down and amongst them. 56. And when a certain maid saw him sitting near the fire, she fixed her eyes upon him, and said, This man also was with him. 57. But he denied him, saying, Woman, I do not know him. 58. And after a little while, another person, seeing him, said, Thou also wast one of them. But Peter said, Man, I am not. 59. And after the lapse of about an hour, another affirmed, saying, Undoubtedly this man was also with him; for he is a Galilean. 60. And Peter said, Man, I know not what thou sayest. And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crew. 61. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he said to him, Before the cock crow, thou wilt thrice deny me. 62. And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.
Peter’s fall, which is here related, is a bright mirror of our weakness. In his repentance, also, a striking instance of the goodness and mercy of God is held out to us. This narrative, therefore, which relates to a single individual, contains a doctrine which may be applied to the whole Church, and which indeed is highly useful, both to instruct those who are standing to cherish anxiety and fear, and to comfort those who have fallen, by holding out to them the hope of pardon. And first it ought to be observed, that Peter acted inconsiderately, when he entered into the hall of the high priest. It was his duty, no doubt, to follow his Master; but having been warned that he would revolt, he ought rather to have concealed himself in some corner, so as not to expose himself to an occasion of sinning. Thus it frequently happens that believers, under an appearance of virtue, throw themselves within the reach of temptation.
It is therefore our duty to pray to the Lord to restrain and keep us by his Spirit, lest, going beyond our measure, we be immediately punished. We ought also to pray, whenever we commence any undertaking, that he may not permit us to fail in the midst of our efforts, or at the beginning of the work, but may supply us with strength from heaven till the end. Conviction of our weakness ought not, indeed, to be a reason for indolence, to prevent us from going wherever God calls us; but it ought to restrain our rashness, that we may not attempt any thing beyond our calling; and it ought also to stimulate us to prayer, that God, who has given us grace to begin well, may also continue to give us grace to persevere.
Matthew 26:69. A maid came to him. Here we see that there is no necessity for a severe contest, or for many forces or implements of war, to overpower a man; for any man, who is not supported by the hand of God, will instantly fall by a slight gale or the rustling of a falling leaf. Peter undoubtedly was not less courageous than any of us, and he had already given no ordinary proof of his valor, though it was exercised in a rash and improper manner; and yet he does not wait until he is dragged before the tribunal of the high priest, or until his enemies attempt to put him to death by violence, but, terrified by a woman’s voice, immediately denies his Master. And yet but lately he thought himself a valiant soldier even to death. Let us therefore remember that our strength is so far from being sufficient to resist powerful attacks, that it will give way, when there is the mere shadow of a battle. But in this way God gives us the just reward of our treachery, when he disarms and strips us of all power, so that, when we have thrown off the fear of him, we tremble for a mere nothing. For if a deep fear of God had dwelt in Peter’s heart, it would have been an invincible fortress; but now, naked and defenseless, he trembles while he is still far from danger.
70. But he denied before them all. This circumstance aggravates the criminality of Peter, that, in denying his Master, he did not even dread a multitude of witnesses. 236 And the Spirit intended expressly to state this, that even the presence of men may excite us to hold fast the confession of faith. For if we deny Christ before the weak, they are shaken by our example, and give way; and thus we destroy as many souls as we can; but if, in presence of those who wickedly despise God and oppose the Gospel, we withhold from Christ the testimony which is due to him, we expose his sacred name to the ridicule of all. In short, as a bold and open confession edifies all the godly, 237 and puts unbelievers to shame, so apostasy draws along with it the public ruin of faith in the Church, and the reproach of sound doctrine. The more eminent a man is, therefore, he ought to be the more careful to be on his guard; for his elevation makes it impossible for him to fall from it without doing greater harm.
I know not what thou sayest. The form of denial, which is here set down, shows sufficiently that the wretched sophists, who endeavor to escape by ambiguous expressions, which they turn to a. variety of meanings, when they are called to give an account of their faith, gain nothing by their dexterity in fraud. Peter does not absolutely deny the whole doctrine of the Gospel; he only denies that he knew the man; but, because in the person of Christ he indirectly buries the light of the promised redemption, he is charged with base and shameful treachery. But lately he had heard from the mouth of the Lord, that the confession of faith is a sacrifice acceptable to God; and therefore a mode of denying, which withholds from God his lawful worship, and from Christ the honor that is due to him, admits of no excuse. Let us therefore hold:, that as soon as we depart from a plain and candid profession of Christ, we deprive him of the testimony to which he has a lawful claim.
71. Another maid saw him. From the words of Mark we are rather led to conjecture that it was the same maid; at least he doesn’t state that it was a different maid from the former one. But there is no contradiction here; for it is probable that the statement which proceeded from one maid, flew from the lips of one to those of another, so that the first maid pointed him out to many persons and at several times, and others joined her in asserting that he was the person, and in spreading the discovery of him more widely. John even relates (joh 18:25) that, at the second time, the question was put to Peter, not by a maid, but by a multitude of men; from which it is evident that the word, which had been pronounced by the maid, was caught by the men standing by, who attacked Peter.
There is another difference between Mark and the other three Evangelists; for he mentions that the cock crew twice, while they say that the cock crew not until after Peter had thrice denied our Lord. But this difficulty is easily obviated; for Mark says nothing that is inconsistent with the narrative of the other Evangelists, but explains more fully what they pass by in silence. Indeed, I have no doubt that, when Christ said to Peter, before the cock crow, he meant the cock-crowing, 238 which includes many crowings; for cocks do not merely crow once, but repeat their crowings many times; and yet all the crowings of a single watch are called but one cock-crowing. So then, Matthew, Luke, and John, say that Peter thrice denied our Lord before the cock-crowing was ended. Mark states more distinctly one circumstance, that within a short space of time Peter was brought even to the third denial, and that, though he had been warned by the first crowing, he did not repent. None of us will say that profane historians are inconsistent with each other, when some one of them relates what the others have not touched; and, therefore, though Mark’s narrative is different, still it does not contradict the others.
72. And the second time he denied with an oath. It deserves attention, that Peter, after finding that he could not escape by a simple denial, doubles his crime by adding an oath; and a little after, when he is still more vehemently pressed, he proceeds even to cursing. Hence we infer that a sinner, after having once fallen, is always hurried on from bad to worse; so that those who begin with ordinary offenses afterwards rush headlong into the basest crimes, from which at first they would have recoiled with horror. And this is the just vengeance of God, after we have deprived ourselves of the assistance of the Holy Spirit, to allow Satan a violent exercise of power over us, that, having subdued and made us his slaves, he may drive us wherever he pleases. But this happens chiefly in a denial of the faith; for when a man, through fear of the cross, has turned aside from a pure profession of the gospel, if he perceive that his enemies are not yet satisfied, will proceed farther, and what he had not ventured fully to acknowledge he denies flatly with an oath, and without any ambiguity of words.
We ought also to observe, that almost in a single moment Peter thrice gave way; for this shows how unsteady we are, and how liable to fall, whenever Satan drives us. Certainly we shall never cease to fall, if the Lord do not stretch out his hand to uphold us. When the rigor of the grace of Christ was extinguished in Peter, whoever might afterwards meet hit and interrogate him about Christ, he would have been ready to deny a hundred or a thousand times. Although, then, it was very base in him to fall thrice, yet the Lord spared him by restraining the tongues of enemies from making additional attacks upon him. Thus, also, it is every day necessary for the Lord to bridle Satan, lest he overwhelm us with innumerable temptations; for though he does not cease to employ many instruments in assailing us, were it not that the Lord, paying regard to our weakness, restrains the violence of his rage, we would have to contend against a prodigious amount of temptations. In this respect, therefore, we ought to praise the mercy of the Lord, who does not permit our enemy to make advances against us, almost the hundredth part of what he would desire.
74. Then he began to curse and to swear. In this third denial, Peter’s unfaithfulness to his Master reached its utmost height. Not satisfied with swearing, he breaks out into cursing, by which he abandons his body and soul to destruction; for he prays that the curse of God may fall upon him, if he knows Christ. It is as much as if he had said, May I perish miserably, if I have any thing in common with the salvation of God! So much the more ought we to admire the goodness of Christ, who rescued his disciple from such fatal ruin, and healed him. Now this passage shows, that when a man falling through weakness of the flesh, denies the truth though he knows it, this does not amount to “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 12:31, 32.) Peter had unquestionably heard from the mouth of the Lord how detestable treachery it is to deny him before men; and what dreadful vengeance, before God and before his angels, (Mt 10:39 Lu 12:9) awaits those who, through a cowardly dread of the cross, abandon the confession of faith; and not without reason had he, a little before, preferred death and every kind of torment to denying Christ. Now, therefore, he throws himself down knowingly, and after previous warning; but afterwards he obtains pardon; from which it follows that he sinned through weakness and not through incurable malice. For he would willingly have rendered to Christ the duties of friendship which he owed him, had not fear extinguished the sparks of proper affection.
75. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus. To the voice of the cock, Luke informs us, there was also added the look of Christ; for previously — as we learn from Mark — he had paid no attention to the cock when crowing. He must, therefore, have received the look from Christ, in order that he might come to himself. We all have experience of the same thing in ourselves; for which of us does not pass by with indifference and with deaf ears — I do not say the varied and numerous songs of birds which however, excite us to glorify God — but even the voice of God, which is heard clearly and distinctly in the doctrine of the Law and of the Gospel? Nor is it for a single day only that our minds are held by such brutal stupidity, but it is perpetual until he who alone turns the hearts of men deigns to look upon us. It is proper to observe, however that this was no ordinary look, for he had formerly looked at Judas who, after all, became no better by it. But in looking at Peter, he added to his eyes the secret efficacy of the Spirit, and thus by the rays of his grace, penetrated into his heart. Let us therefore know, that whenever any one has fallen, his repentance will never begin, until the Lord has looked at him.
And he went out and wept bitterly. It is probable that Peter went out through fear, for he did not venture to weep in presence of witnesses; and here he gave another proof of his weakness. Hence we infer that he did not deserve pardon by satisfaction, but that he obtained it by the fatherly kindness of God. And by this example we are taught that we ought to entertain confident hope, though our repentance be lame; for God does not despise even weak repentance, provided that it be sincere. Yet Peter’s tears, which he shed in secret, testified before God and the angels that his repentance was true; for, having withdrawn from the eyes of men, he places before him God and the angels; and, therefore, those tears flow from the deep feelings of his heart. This deserves our attention; for we see many who shed tears purposely, so long as they are beheld by others, but who have no sooner retired than they have dry eyes. Now there is no room to doubt that tears, which do not flow on account of the judgment of God, are often drawn forth by ambition and hypocrisy.
But it may be asked, Is weeping requisite in true repentance? I reply, Believers often with dry eyes groan before the Lord without hypocrisy, and confess their fault to obtain pardon; but in more aggravated offenses they must be in no ordinary degree stupid and hardened, whose hearts are not pained by grief and sorrow, and who do not feel ashamed even so far as to shed tears. And, therefore Scripture, after having convicted men of their crimes, exhorts them to sackcloth and ashes, (Da 9:3; Jon 3:6; Mt 11:21.)
“Je ne le cognoy point.”
“Et s’estant jetté hors, pleura;” — “and he ran out and wept.”
“Qu’il n’a point craint de renier son Maistre, mesmement en la presence d tant de tesmoins;” — “that he did not fear to deny his Master, even in the presence of so many witnesses.”
“Tous enfans de Dieu;” — “all the children of God.”
“L’heure de la nuict en laquelle les coqs chantent;” — “the hour of the night in which cocks crow.”