Gospel of John: Peter’s Sifting


John could more feel than see Peter beside him as they stumbled to their feet. Jesus stood calm and motionless as Judas stopped before them, the soldiers and armed men crowded throughout the grove, the other disciples struggling and shouting in the cohort’s collective grip. 

Jesus’s eyes swept over Judas, then moved to the captain of the cohort.

“Whom do you seek?”

Somehow, though he spoke calmly and quietly, his voice moved like an invisible sea, filling the grove, welling up and over all the men to the farthest reach of their gathered array. Hundreds of men, struggling, shouting, rattling their weapons, stilled. It was so quiet, John could hear his own breath, and the pounding of his heart.

Nothing moved, no one spoke, until finally the captain answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus again moved his eyes over Judas, then answered with the same quiet authority, “I am.”

John could not help but stare at Judas in puzzlement. Judas, however, carefully avoided looking at any of the others, but only passed his gaze from Jesus to the captain and back, his hands held close to his chest, his fingers working themselves restlessly together and apart, together and apart.

They all waited for the captain’s response, but when none came, Jesus again spoke.

 “I am.”

His answer was simple, straightforward, his arms hung loosely by his sides, his expression remained open. Yet his voice held such power—the might of a sovereign—that the captain, Judas, and the soldiers nearest them stepped back, bewildered and overcome. Not expecting it, and standing as they were so close together, those behind them stumbled and a ripple of floundering and careening slowly spread until nearly all of the armed men and guards had fallen clumsily to the ground.

Jesus watched in silence, his disciples flailing as they too fell, still in the clench of soldiers’ hands. Finally, he spoke with command,

“Whom do you seek?”

Angry and humiliated, the captain had already pulled himself back up and bit out, “Jesus of Nazareth!” His eyes flashed at Jesus, but also flicked uncertainly at Thomas, whom they had all nicknamed “The Twin” early on for his uncanny resemblance to the rabbi. Thomas had used the confusion to move close to the Master. John had also moved in, as had James his brother. A few others had broken free and were even now pushing and shoving their way forward.

Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Peter move furtively towards one of the nearer temple servants, Malchus, a man enslaved to the high priest, whom they had often seen lurking whenever Jesus was teaching in the Court of the Women, or Solomon’s golden colonnade. Peter had, as was his wont, secretly hidden not one, but two illegal weapons in his cloak, artfully covered by his prayer shawl. Now, John saw, his hand was tightening on the pommel of his short blade, half unsheathed.

The captain’s words snapped Judas out of his trance, and he called out “Greetings, Rabbi!” as though he had only just arrived, even with his face pale and clearly perspiring. As he talked he moved closer, and now was inserting himself between Thomas and Jesus, nodding and smiling ingratiatingly to those disciples standing around the Master, then kissing Jesus on the cheek.

The rabbi turned his attention to Judas, reproach in his voice but love in his eyes, “Judas,” he said softly, “Are you handing over the Son of Humanity with a kiss?” Judas’s face hardened, his eyes darkened, and his mouth became a thin line, but before he could answer Jesus leaned his head close to the betrayer’s and murmured so low John almost missed the words,

“My friend.”

Judas sucked in his breath as Jesus continued, “Concerning this you come. Then you are carrying it out,” his voice was resigned, meant only for Judas. But Judas was already looking meaningfully at the captain of the guard and turning to kiss Jesus again.

Now the betrayer pulled quickly away with a sharp nod, while at the same time Jesus turned to the captain, speaking with the iron force of an army general, “I said to you all that I am, so if you seek me, let these go,” and Jesus gestured towards his disciples, bringing out both his hands, palms open, prophetically. Later, as John remembered that night, he recognized Jesus had prophesied his protection of them, that he would lose none of those whom the Father had given him. Except for the betrayer.

At the captain’s signal, scores of soldiers released their captives and rushed forward, clapping hands on Jesus everywhere they could get a purchase, pulling out chains to secure him as they jerked him ahead. Suddenly Simon the Zealot, enraged by the Roman cohort, bellowed out, “Sire, should we cut them down with a sword?” He had one already raised high, a rallying point wrested from a nearby temple guard. Several other disciples began grabbing at soldiers and wrestling for their daggers.

And almost instantly, from another part of the roiling mass, there came a shriek of pain and shouts of angry men. John gasped as he saw Peter thrust his blade up, triumphant, its metal glistening in the firelight, wetted with blood. And he recognized the voice of Malchus, continuing to howl. John was already running to the place, being bumped and pushed as others also forced their way through. When he broke into the opening Peter had created, he saw the temple servant had fallen to his knees, sobbing, hand pressed against his head and blood running profusely over his arm.

“No more of this!”

For the second time that night, Jesus’s voice arrested them all in mid-step. No one spoke, no one moved, as Jesus strode to the crumpled form of the stricken slave, crouched down beside him, and tenderly removed his hand from the place where Peter had brought his weapon down. With the utmost gentleness, Jesus picked up Malchus’s severed ear, brushed the dirt from it, and carefully placed it against the wounded man’s head, holding it there for a moment.

One by one, the disciples had now made their way through, until all of them (except the betrayer) were crowded over the rabbi, and Malchus. Jesus was looking at Malchus with compassion, but what he said was for Peter’s ears, “Return the sword to the sheath.” And Peter obeyed without a word, having already wiped the blade on the grass. He sheathed it and tucked it back into its hiding place inside his robe. All eyes were on the Healer, but John looked over to Peter, his heart heavy for his friend. It had been a long and arduous night for Simon the Rock. A long night.

Jesus again spoke, this time to them all, his voice soft, “The cup that the Father has given to me, shall I not drink?”


Simon, Simon

Each one of us must decide: will it be the sword or the cup? Will I resist God’s will or embrace God’s will? The cup usually involves suffering, but the suffering ultimately leads to glory.

All four gospels depict Peter as having been out of sync with Jesus’s intentions the whole evening. It had begun with Peter at first refusing to have his feet washed by the Master, then—still galled by the idea—demanding that Jesus wash the whole of him.

Later, when Jesus predicted their desertion, Peter had pushed himself forward with an avowal that he, he alone of all Jesus’s disciples and followers, would never desert their rabbi. Jesus had been kind, yet blunt. “You will deny me three times.” Peter had taken such umbrage! He doubled down on his oath declaring even if he must go to prison—no! Even if he must die, he would never, ever deny Jesus. It is no wonder the disciples had argued with each other almost constantly about who was first among them. The spirit of competition was always close to the surface with Peter.

And anyway, that had not been Jesus’s point. He had wanted them to know what would happen, so they would be reassured. They would desert him, and he would go to his death. But the point was that he would rise again! The point was, Jesus was going to rejoin them after his resurrection, in Galilee.

Peter missed that point entirely.

It was then Peter had pulled out his two hidden weapons and presented them. Jesus had been speaking about what lay ahead for them, as they spread the news of the kingdom. “The scripture must be fulfilled in me,” Jesus had said, but those were not the words that kept Peter’s attention. It was Jesus’s mention of a sword, the need to be prepared in Jesus’s absence.

Satan Demands Sifting

At one point Jesus had looked Peter directly in the eyes, yet called him by his given name, and not the affectionate moniker Jesus had conferred on him, his faith name, “The Rock.”

“Simon,” Jesus had said, slowly and with gravity, then repeated himself. That had gotten Peter’s attention!

Jesus had explained how Satan demanded to sift Peter like a winnower sifting wheat, blowing the chaff to the wind, and keeping the kernels. There would be a public display of Peter’s chaff, but Jesus was praying for him, so he could strengthen the rest of the disciples when his ordeal was over.

Little did Peter know, his chaff was already blowing everywhere that night.


[Peter cutting Malchus’s Ear | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

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