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Jesus had just told His disciples (John 13:33) that He would be leaving shortly, and that they would not be able to come with Him. John 13:36 says,
36 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “Where I go you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.”
There were many things that Jesus did not tell His disciples ahead of time. Or if He did tell them, He used vague language so that they would not understand His meaning. He continues to do this even with us today. We often chafe at this, but when we look at the situation with Jesus’ disciples, we can see why Jesus did this.
It would have frightened or discouraged the disciples if they had known that Jesus would be crucified, instead of being crowned King of Judah. In the early days of their discipleship, they were too immature spiritually to handle such truth—even if they knew that He would be raised from the dead on the third day.
Jesus began to speak of these things earlier, but He used language that the disciples did not know how to interpret. It is the same with all who hear God’s voice even today. For this reason, we must recognize the difference between the word and our understanding of it. The word is sure, but our understanding can be quite partial—or even wrong. If our understanding fails, it does not mean that the word of God has failed.
We see clearly from Jesus’ example that there is a time for every revelation. God often reveals things long in advance in order to give us a long-term vision. We usually give it an imminent fulfillment, and then, invariably, the word seems to fail. When it is ultimately fulfilled, it happens in an entirely different manner than we expected.
So also, we see that Jesus revealed to all that He was going to ascend, or return to His Father, but no one suspected the manner in which He would depart. The Jews thought He intended to preach to “the Dispersion” in other nations. Some thought He would commit suicide. The disciples simply did not know, and perhaps they did not question Him until the Last Supper.
Peter was finally bold enough to ask Him, “Lord, where are You going?” To ask that question shows not only their lack of knowledge but also their hesitancy or fear of asking. Yet the time had not yet come to give Peter a plain answer. He would know when the time came, for he was one of the witnesses of Christ’s ascension.
The most intriguing detail for us today is “you will follow later.” Was He speaking only of following Him to death by crucifixion? Peter was later crucified upside down in Rome, shortly after his wife was executed (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. III, xxx). It was also about the same time that Paul was beheaded.
But was Jesus referring to Peter’s manner of death? Peter had asked where Jesus was going, and this question, in turn, was asked when Jesus spoke about His ascension. So did Jesus suggest that Peter would later ascend to the Father?
The language is deliberately obscure, leaving room for more than one meaning. Yet it appears that Jesus was referring ultimately to our own ascension, when the sons of God are presented to the Father on the eighth day of Tabernacles in the future. Recall that the first day of Tabernacles prophesies the birth of the sons of God; the middle of the feast prophesies His coming; and the eighth day of the feast prophesies the presentation of the sons.
Hence, Jesus was saying that Peter would ascend to the Father sometime after Jesus had ascended. We can see this as a prophecy for all of the sons of God at the appointed time.
John 13:37, 38 says,
37 Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.”
Peter’s appeal was based on his view that Jesus was going to escape from Judea and perhaps preach in a foreign land. Peter was willing to go with Him, even if it meant laying down his life.
Jesus did not answer Peter’s question, nor did He tell Peter why he could not go with Him. He simply told Peter that he was not yet mature enough to lay down his life for Jesus. Peter was a believer, and he had good intentions, but he did not truly know himself, because his devotion was still untested.
Most of us are in the same position. We probably have more confidence in our devotion than is warranted. We do not really know unless we face death with a level of faith that exceeds our natural fear.
This is why God engineers real-life situations that test our hearts in various ways. Failure is not meant to destroy us or even to discourage us, but is meant to give us a reality check. God knows our capabilities and our weaknesses, but we do not know until we are tested. That is the purpose of the wilderness. It is our time to grow and mature spiritually as we hear His voice, follow His leading, and receive the law written on our hearts through experience.
Matthew put Jesus’ words in a longer context, saying in Matthew 26:30-35,
30 After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, “I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.” 32 But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” 33 But Peter said to Him, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” 35 Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.” All the disciples said the same thing too.
It appears also that this discussion took place while walking to the Mount of Olives, shortly after Christ had instructed them in regard to Communion. Communion is a common union and essentially a pledge to Christ and to one another. Jesus instituted this New Covenant ceremony while knowing that the disciples would soon be “scattered.” So disunity was coming quickly. But Jesus also knew that the disciples would continue to mature and that they would regain proper unity after witnessing His resurrection.
Luke adds another detail, telling us in Luke 22:31-34,
31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; 32 but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33 But he said to Him, “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!” 34 And He said, “I say to you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.”
Jesus discerned that Satan had appealed to God to put Peter to the test, much like he did with Job. In Job 1:8-12 God set forth Job as a prime example of a true believer. Satan suggested that Job’s faith or devotion was based on God’s favor and blessings and that Job would fall away if tested properly. God then gave Satan permission to put Job’s faith to the test.
Jesus discerned that Satan had made the same sort of appeal in regard to Peter. Jesus also knew that Peter was weak and would deny Him three times. But instead of condemning Peter, Jesus prayed that he would emerge from this test stronger and would then be able to strengthen his fellow disciples.
Like we see in Matthew’s account, Mark 14:26, 27 indicates that this conversation actually took place after they had gone out to the Mount of Olives, whereas John’s account seems to indicate that it took place early into the Last Supper. But John does not give us any specific timing in regard to that discussion. Furthermore, his gospel itself does not follow strict chronology. Instead, he arranges events and pieces them together in terms of the eight signs. So when piecing the events together chronologically, we must receive help from the other gospels.
At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, and soon thereafter Judas leaves.
Jesus then took communion with the eleven disciples in a bond of fellowship. Yet Jesus knew that when the soldiers came to arrest Him, the disciples would be scattered. He discerned that Satan had appealed to the Father to put Peter to the test, and, as with Job, his request was granted. Satan was to test Peter at the trial itself, when he was recognized as being one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter’s third denial occurred just before the night watchman blew the bugle, which was called the “cock” (KJV) or “rooster” (NASB). The denial probably took place just before the bugle sounded at the fourth watch of the night (3:00 a.m.).
On the way to the Mount of Olives, Jesus told the disciples that He was soon to leave them and that they could not go with Him. Matthew 26:30-36 puts this conversation between the time they left the house (vs. 30) until the time they arrived at Gethsemane (vs. 36).
In this conversation Peter assumed that He was telling them that He would be arrested and imprisoned, for he had no revelation about Christ’s coming ascension. So he boldly claimed that he was ready to go to prison with Jesus, and even to die for Him. Peter did not know how weak he still was, but God used Satan to give him a reality check.
Following Peter’s example, all of the disciples agreed that they would be willing to go to prison and even to die for Jesus. None of them, however, had been tested in this way, nor did they realize that the time of testing was nearly upon them.
When the group arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus separated Himself from the disciples and prayed fervently, knowing that the hour of His own testing had arrived. The soldiers soon arrived, led by the betrayer, whom Jesus called “friend” (Matt. 26:50). This was to fulfill Zech. 13:6, 7,
6 And one will say to him, “What are these wounds between your arms?” Then he will say, “Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.” 7 Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man, My Associate,” declares the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered….”
Jesus was arrested, Peter tried to defend him with a sword (Matt. 26:51), Jesus told him to stop, and then “all the disciples left Him and fled” (Matt. 26:56).
The great Test had begun.