The Training of the Twelve

SECTION III. PETER AND JOHN

John xviii. 15-18.

     Though all the disciples, without exception, forsook Jesus at the moment of His apprehension, two of them soon recovered their courage sufficiently to return from flight, and follow after their Master as He was being led away to judgment. One of these was Simon Peter, ever original both in good and in evil, who, we are told, followed Jesus "afar off unto the high priest's palace, to see the end."[27.11 The other, according to the general, and we think correct, opinion of interpreters, was John. He is indeed not named, but merely described as another, or rather the other, disciple; but as John himself is our informant, the fact is almost certain evidence that he is the person alluded to. "The other disciple," who "was known unto the high priest, and went in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest,"[27.12 is the well-known unnamed one who so often meets us in the fourth Gospel. Had the man whose conduct was so outstanding been any other than the evangelist, he would certainly not have remained nameless in a narrative so minutely exact, that even the name of the servant whose ear Peter cut off is not deemed too insignificant to be recorded.[27.13

     These two disciples, though very different in character, seem to have had a friendship for each other. On various occasions besides the present we find their names associated in a manner suggestive of a special attachment. At the supper-table, when the announcement concerning the traitor had been made, Peter gave the disciple whom Jesus loved a sign that he should ask who it should be of whom He spake. Three times in the interval between the resurrection and the ascension the two brethren were linked together as companions. They ran together to the sepulchre on the resurrection morning. They talked together confidentially concerning the stranger who appeared at early dawn on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when they were out on their last fishing expedition, the disciple whom Jesus loved, on recognizing the Risen One, saying unto Peter, "It is the Lord." They walked together shortly after on the shore, following Jesus,--Peter by commandment, John by the voluntary impulse of his own loving heart. An intimacy cemented by such sacred associations was likely to be permanent, and we find the two disciples still companions after they had entered on the duties of the apostleship. They went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer; and, having got into trouble through the healing of the lame man at the temple gate, they appeared together before the ecclesiastical tribunal, to be tried by the very same men, Annas and Caiaphas, who had sat in judgment upon their Lord, companions now at the bar, as they had been before in the palace, of the high priest.

     Such a friendship between the two disciples as these facts point to, is by no means surprising. As belonging to the inner circle of three whom Jesus honored with His confidence on special occasions, they had opportunities for becoming intimate, and were placed in circumstances tending to unite them in the closest bonds of spiritual brotherhood. And, notwithstanding their characteristic differences, they were fitted to be special friends. They were both men of marked originality and force of character, and they would find in each other more sources of interest than in the more commonplace members of the apostolic band. Their very peculiarities, too, far from keeping them apart, would rather draw them together. They were so constituted that each would find in the otter the complement of himself. Peter was masculine, John was feminine, in temperament; Peter was the man of action, John the man of thought and feeling; Peter's part was to be a leader and a champion, John's was to cling, and trust, and be loved; Peter was the hero, and John the admirer of heroism.

     In their respective behavior at this crisis, the two friends were at once like and unlike each other. They were like in this, that they both manifested a generous solicitude about the fate of their Master. While the rest retired altogether from the scene, they followed to see the end. The common action proceeded in both probably from the same motives. What these motives were we are not told, but it is not difficult to guess. A certain influence may be assigned, in the first place, to natural activity of spirit. It was not in the nature either of Peter or of John to be listless and passive while such grave events were going on. They could not sit at home doing nothing while their Lord was being tried, sentenced, and treated as a malefactor. If they cannot prevent, they will at least witness, His last sufferings. The same irrepressible energy of mind which, three days after, made these two disciples run to see the empty grave, now impels them to turn their steps towards the judgment-hall to witness the transactions there.

     Besides activity of mind, we perceive in the conduct of the two disciples a certain spirit of daring at work. We learn from the Acts of the Apostles, that when Peter and John appeared before the council in Jerusalem, the rulers were struck with their boldness. Their boldness then was only what was to be expected from men who had behaved as they did at this crisis. By that time, it is true, they had, in common with all their brethren, experienced a great spiritual change; but yet we cannot fail to recognize the identity of the characters. The apostles had but grown to such spiritual manhood as they gave promise of in the days of their discipleship. For it was a brave thing in them to follow, even at a distance, the band which had taken Jesus a prisoner. The rudiments at least of the martyr character were in men who could do that. Mere cowards would not have acted so. They would have eagerly availed themselves of the virtual sanction given by Jesus to flight, comforting their hearts with the thought that, in consulting for their safety, they were but doing the duty enjoined on them.

     But the conduct of the two brethren sprang, we believe, mainly from their ardent love to Jesus. When the first paroxysm of fear was past, solicitude for personal safety gave place to generous concern about the fate of one whom they really loved more than life. The love of Christ constrained them to think not of themselves, but of Him whose hour of sorrow was come. First they slacken their pace, then they halt, then they look round; and as they see the armed band nearing the city, they are cut to the heart, and they say within themselves, "We cannot leave our dear Master in His time of peril; we must see the issue of this painful business." And so with anguished spirit they set out towards Jerusalem, Peter first, and John after him.

     The two brethren, companions thus far, diverged widely on arriving at the scene of trial and suffering. John clung to his beloved Lord to the last. He was present, it would appear, at the various examinations to which Jesus was subjected, and heard with his own ears the judicial process of which he has given so interesting an account in his Gospel. When the iniquitous sentence was executed, he was a spectator. He took his stand by the foot of the cross, where he could see all, and not only be seen, but even be spoken to, by his dying Master. There he saw, among other things, the strange phenomenon of blood and water flowing from the spear-wound in the Saviour's side, which he so carefully records in his narrative. There he heard Christ's dying words, and among them those addressed to Mary of Nazareth and himself: to her, "Woman, behold thy son;" to him, "Behold thy mother."

     John was thus persistently faithful throughout. And Peter, what of him? Alas! what need to tell the familiar story of his deplorable weakness in the hall or inner court of the high priest's palace? how, having obtained an entrance through the street door by the intercession of his brother disciple, he first denied to the portress his connection with Jesus; then repeated his denial to other parties, with the addition of a solemn oath; then, irritated by the repetition of the charge, and perhaps by the consciousness of guilt, a third time declared, not with a solemn oath, but with the degrading accompaniment of profane swearing, "I know not the man;" then, finally, hearing the cock crow, and catching Jesus' eye, and remembering the words, "Before the cock crow thou shalt deny me thrice," went out to the street and wept bitterly!

     What became of Peter after this melancholy exhibition we are not informed. In all probability he retired to his lodging, humbled, dispirited, crushed, there to remain overwhelmed with grief and shame, till he was roused from stupor by the stirring tidings of the resurrection morn.

     This difference in conduct between the two disciples corresponded to a difference in their characters. Each acted according to his nature. It is true, indeed, that the circumstances were not the same for both parties, being favorable for one, unfavorable for the other. John had the advantage of a friend at court, being somehow known to the high priest. This circumstance gained him admission into the chamber of judgment, and gave him security against all personal risk. Peter, on the other hand, not only had no friends at court, but might not unnaturally fear the presence there of personal foes. He had made himself obnoxious by his rash act in the garden, and might be apprehensive of getting into trouble in consequence. That such fears would not have been altogether groundless, we learn from the fact stated by John, that one of the persons who charged Peter with being a disciple of Jesus was a kinsman of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, and that he brought his charge against the disciple in this form: "Did I not see thee in the garden with Him?" It is therefore every way likely that the consciousness of having committed an offence which might be resented, made Peter anxious to escape identification as one of Christ's disciples. His unseasonable courage in the garden helped to make him a coward in the palace-yard.

     Making all due allowance for the effect of circumstances, however, we think that the difference in the behavior of the two disciples was mainly due to a difference in the men themselves. Though he had been guilty of no imprudence in the garden, Peter, we fear, would have denied Jesus in the hall; and, on the other hand, supposing John had been placed in Peter's position, we do not believe that he would have committed Peter's sin. Peter's disposition laid him open to temptation, while John's, on the other hand, was a protection against temptation. Peter was frank and familiar, John was dignified and reserved; Peter's tendency was to be on hail fellow-well-met terms with everybody, John could keep his own place and make other people keep theirs. It is easy to see what an important effect this distinction would have on the conduct of parties placed in Peter's position. Suppose John in Peter's place, and let us see how he might have acted. Certain persons about the court, possessing neither authority nor influence, interrogate him about his connection with Jesus. He is neither afraid nor ashamed to acknowledge his Lord, but nevertheless he turns away and gives the interrogators no answer. They have no right to question him. The spirit which prompts their questions is one with which he has no sympathy, and he feels that it will serve no good purpose to confess his discipleship to such people. Therefore, like his Master when confronted with the false witnesses, he holds his peace, and withdraws from company with which he has nothing in common, and for which he has no respect.

     To protect himself from inconvenient interrogation by such dignified reserve, is beyond Peter's capacity. He cannot keep people who are not fit company for him at their distance; he is too frank, too familiar, too sensitive to public opinion, without respect to its quality. If a servant-maid ask him a question about his relation to the Prisoner at the bar, he cannot brush past her as if he heard her not. He must give her an answer; and as he feels instinctively that the animus of the question is against his Master, his answer must needs be a lie. Then, unwarned by this encounter of the danger arising from too close contact with the hangers-on about the palace, the foolish disciple must involve himself more inextricably into the net, by mingling jauntily with the servants and officers gathered around the fire which has been kindled on the pavement of the open court. Of course he has no chance of escape here; he is like a poor fly caught in a spider's web. If these men, with the insolent tone of court menials, charge him with being a follower of the man whom their masters have now got into their power, he can do nothing else than blunder out a mean, base denial. Poor Peter is manifestly not equal to the situation. It would have been wiser in him to have staid at home, restraining his curiosity to see the end. But he, like most men, was to learn wisdom only by bitter experience.

     The contrast we have drawn between the characters of the two disciples suggests the thought, What a different thing growth in grace may be for different Christians! Neither John nor Peter was mature as yet, but immaturity showed itself in them in opposite ways. Peter's weakness lay in the direction of indiscriminate cordiality. His tendency was to be friends with everybody. John, on the other hand, was in no danger of being on familiar terms with all and sundry. It was rather too easy for him to make a difference between friends and foes. He could take a side, and keep it; he could even hate with fanatical intensity, as well as love with beautiful womanly devotion. Witness his proposal to call down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritan villages! That was a proposal which Peter could not have made; it was not in his nature to be so truculent against any human being. So far, his good nature was a thing to be commended, if in other respects it laid him open to temptation. The faults of the two brethren being so opposite, growth in grace would naturally assume two opposite forms in their respective experiences. In Peter it would take the form of concentration; in John, of expansion. Peter would become less charitable; John would become more charitable. Peter would advance from indiscriminate goodwill to a moral decidedness which should distinguish between friends and foes, the Church and the world; John's progress, on the other hand, would consist in ceasing to be a bigot, and in becoming imbued with the genial, humane, sympathetic spirit of his Lord. Peter, in his mature state, would care much less for the opinions and feelings of men than he did at the present time; John, again, would care much more.

     We add a word on the question, Was it right or was it wrong in these two disciples to follow their Lord to the place of judgment? In our view it was neither right nor wrong in itself. It was right for one who was able to do it without spiritual harm; wrong for one who had reason to believe that, by doing it, he was exposing himself to harm. The latter was Peter's case, as the former seems to have been John's. Peter had been plainly warned of his weakness; and, had he laid the warning to heart, he would have avoided the scene of temptation. By disregarding the warning, he wilfully rushed into the tempter's arms, and of course he caught a fall. His fall reads a lesson to all who, without seeking counsel of God or disregarding counsel given, enter on undertakings beyond their strength.


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