All four Gospels report Peter’s denial of Jesus. And though Peter denied that he would ever deny Jesus (Matt. 26:35), Jesus had prophesied a threefold denial before the night was over (26:34).
It was the night of Jesus’ arrest on Passion Week. The disciples were at Gethsemane with Jesus, who had been praying in close proximity to Peter, James, and John (Matt. 26:36-44). Then the betrayer, Judas, arrived to fulfill his arrangement with the religious leaders (26:14-16, 45-46). He kissed Jesus, which signaled the arresting party to make their move (26:49-50). Peter intervened, drawing his sword and slicing off a man’s ear (26:51). Then Jesus told Peter, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (26:52).
Peter didn’t want the arrest to happen. On an earlier occasion, he had protested Jesus’ teachings about suffering in Jerusalem and being killed (Matt. 16:21). At that time Peter had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (16:22). And though Jesus had continued to teach about his coming suffering and death (17:22-23; 20:17-19), Peter had not accepted this as the Messiah’s work.
Peter believed a commonly-held view about the Messiah, that at his coming the Promised One would overthrow the political powers, liberate God’s people, establish the kingdom of God, vindicate the righteous, and pour out justice on God’s enemies. The idea of God’s Messiah having to suffer and die challenged this prevailing view. The Son of David would come to rule and reign, not die, right?
Back to Gethsemane. The thing Peter did not want to happen was happening before his very eyes. Authorities had seized his Messiah. God’s Promised One was being taken into custody. So Peter rushed to defend him. What a display of boldness and courage–and misunderstanding.
The scene became a moment of disillusionment for Peter, because Jesus looked at him and said, “Put your sword back into its place” (Matt. 26:52a). Jesus stopped Peter from stopping the arrest. The arrest must happen, that Scripture be fulfilled (26:54, 56). Peter had not yet embraced the role Jesus had come to embody: a Messiah who would reign and establish God’s kingdom but who must first suffer and die. “Put your sword back into its place” was a command that must have jarred the disciple. Jesus really planned to go through suffering and death! The Christ, whom Peter had followed for years and believed to be the Son of God, was seized as the disciples looked on.
This was a crucial moment in Peter’s life. His sword-swinging instinct may have shown boldness and resolve, but before the night was over, Peter would say of Jesus, “I do not know the man” (Matt. 26:72). He would deny Jesus not once, not twice, but three times (26:70, 72, 74), just as Jesus had said (26:34).
Jesus didn’t seem to be the Messiah whom Peter expected. Arrest didn’t look like triumph. Being taken into custody didn’t look like God’s kingdom coming. What a moment of disillusionment for Peter! If we see Peter’s boldness at Gethsemane and his cowardice at the high priest’s courtyard and then ask, What changed? What made him go from defending Jesus to denying Jesus? The narrative may give us the turning point in Matthew 26:52, when Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place.”