And Peter followed him afar off, even into the palace of the high priest: and he sat with the servants, and warmed himself at the fire.
I. LET US INQUIRE, IN THE OUTSET, CONCERNING THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS ACTION OF SIMON.
1. The facts are very simple. When Christ retrieved the folly which this impetuous disciple had committed, and healed the ear of Malchus, it does not appear that the magnanimity of the Master had any effect in mitigating the malignity of the mob. Simon's stroke with his unusual weapon, instead of checking those belligerent people bearing swords and staves, came very near exasperating them. He simply put himself and his friends to flight, and then the crowd had it all their own way. It is a mournful record to read: "They all forsook Him and fled." But now, after this sudden and useless panic, it appears that at least two of our Lord's followers rallied their courage a little. They turned upon their flying footsteps, and started after the melancholy train. These were Peter and John. And the whole force of the dramatic incident we are studying is disclosed in the contrast of their behaviour. John ran with a will. As in the race afterwards for Christ's sepulchre he easily distanced Peter (John 20:4), so now he arrived first in the palace. Moreover, he soon showed how brave he was, and how much in earnest to retrieve his temporary defection he was, by urging his way directly through all obstacles into the very apartment where Jesus had been taken for trial; he "went in with Jesus, but Peter stood at the door without" (John 18:15, 16).
2. The meaning of all this is what makes it so important. One has no need of being deceived ever as to the exact commencement of any defection from Christ. Backsliding is earliest in the "heart," then it shows itself in one's "ways" (Proverbs 14:14). Absalom was a rebel while as yet he made no overt attack on his father's throne. The younger son was a prodigal before he started for the far country. Peter was a renegade and a poltroon from the earliest instant in which, listless and halting, he had begun to follow Jesus only "afar off." For an analysis of his experience would have disclosed three bad elements.
1. There was petulance in it. Simon's self-love was wounded when Jesus administered the somewhat extensive rebuke he had received (Matthew 26:52-54). He felt himself aggrieved. His defection began with sullenness. We cannot doubt that his countenance fell; he wore an injured expression.
2. There was distrust in his experience. We have seen that there was some reason for all the disciples to apprehend violence, instantaneous and passionate. Peter was fully responsible for that. The immediate result of his rashness was danger rather than deliverance. But could not Jesus be relied upon for rescue? Was not John fully protected afterwards?
3. There was unbelief in his experience. This disciple evidently had become ashamed of his adhesion to Jesus as the Messiah. An omnipotent Son of God was in his estimation for the moment letting things go too far, when He suffered Himself to be apprehended by a rabble and maltreated in this way without a word. Perhaps Simon lost confidence in His cause. If the words of Matthew are to be taken literally (Matthew 26:58), this disciple did not follow Jesus, even afar off, so much from affection as from curiosity; he went into the palace not to see Jesus, but to "see the end."
II. Let us go a step farther now, AND INQUIRE CONCERNING THE RESULTS OF THIS BEHAVIOUR OF PETER.
1. It took him away from Christ's personal presence. There was always to this disciple a peculiar exhilaration and help in the companionship of his Divine Lord. Under the shining of His countenance he constantly grows humble, gentle, and affectionate. Just as Mercury, that feeblest of all the planets in our solar system, seems most brilliant when likeliest to disappear, because nearest the sun, so Simon actually appears at his best when he is the most outshone; and the moment he wanders, he wanes. Duty is to most of us what this personal leadership was to the disciples. If we follow our religious duties close up, they will bring us near Jesus.
2. Again, this behaviour separated Peter from the sympathy of Jesus' adherents. In union there is strength. Those disciples ought not to have allowed themselves to be scattered during the trials of that passover night. For together they would have helped each other very much. Now we do not know what became of any of them except John. If Peter had been sitting by John's side he certainly would have been safer. He was easily influenced, and the beloved disciple soon recovered his courage and loyalty. Whenever professed Christians are seen to be falling away from each other by following the Master afar off, there is reason for alarm in reference to their spiritual interests. Only sin is solitary, and only guilt loves to live alone. Hence there is vast wisdom in the ancient counsel that believers should not forsake the assembling of themselves together, as the manner of some is (Hebrews 10:25).
3. Moreover, this behaviour threw Peter hopelessly into the companionship of his enemies. Peter fell into bad company the instant he fell out of good.
III. IT IS TIME FOR US TO INQUIRE CONCERNING THE REAL CAUSE OF SIMON PETER'S DEFECTION THAT NIGHT.
1. It would not be enough to ascribe it just to a sudden fright of alarm.
2. It was because his piety, at that period of his history, was fashioned more by feeling than by principle. Peter's spirituality blew in a gusty sort of way because his theological groundwork was faulty. We remember more than one occasion when he deliberately interfered with our Lord's communication of the doctrine of the atonement. As a master, a teacher, a leader, he loved Jesus personally; there he rested. Jesus away, he failed. Soft gales do not always waft to the heaven; they the rather often aid in an unperceived drift towards the open sea. Simon loved to have all things beautiful and serene. He was the man who grew ecstatic on the mount of transfiguration, and proposed that Jesus should stay there. His sensibilities were so shocked at the thought of the Saviour's maltreatment, that he protested against the official act of sealing the covenant of redemption with blood. The words were characteristic: "This shall not be unto Thee" (Matthew 16:22). Now let it be remembered that for nobody is there any hope of standing firm under stress of opposition, if his piety has been nurtured only in tender hours of emotional enjoyment. Spiritual impulses will be dangerously irregular and intermittent unless they have the help of steady purpose underneath. Carpenters never cut ships' knees from tropical palms. The grand doctrines of the cross must be wrought into the very fibre of one's soul, as the granite soil and the winter tempests of the mountains are wrought into the gnarls of the oak which the shipwright loves. That is to say, Christian character is reared out of a determinate wrestle with sin.
IV. Finally, LET US INQUIRE CONCERNING THE ADMONITION WHICH IS SUGGESTED BY THIS BEHAVIOUR OF PETER.
1. How can this sin be repeated in our time? We follow Jesus afar off when we refuse to defend the doctrines of redemption before unbelievers who scoff at a blood atonement — when we allow the rules and institutions of the Christian Church to be derided or belittled in our hearing — when we neglect the ordinances of God's house and refuse the fixed practice of family devotion — when we strain Christian liberty to see how much of indulgence in worldliness an unattacked church membership will bear. There is no difficulty whatever in modern experience in the way of repeating Peter's wrong.
2. It is a better question to ask, How can this sin of following Christ afar off be avoided in our time? John, and not Peter, is our pattern. The way to escape the taunts of maidservants in the hall is to go right up the steps into the presence of Jesus. It touches us to the heart to read the words which show how well Simon understood all his cowardice and folly long years afterwards (1 Peter 5:6-10).
(C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And Peter followed him afar off, even into the palace of the high priest: and he sat with the servants, and warmed himself at the fire.