John 13:38 — ‘till thou hast denied me thrice’ – Peter’s Necessary Witness of the Atonement — LeGrand Baker

Jesus’s words to Peter were both a prophecy and a command. The prophecy is almost always cited to Peter’s discredit, but the command, which is very much to Peter’s credit, is almost always overlooked.

The prophecy, ‘till thou hast denied me thrice,’ was about law, not the Law of Moses, but the heavenly law that requires two witnesses. Only in the Gospel of John are we given enough information to know what was really happening. The other gospels leave the story almost completely untold. They are:

33 Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.
34 Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.
35 Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples (Matt 26:33-35).

29 But Peter said unto him, Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.
30 And Jesus saith unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.
31 But he spake the more vehemently, If I should die with thee, I will not deny thee in any wise. Likewise also said they all (Mark 14:29-31).

31 And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:
32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.
33 And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death.
34 And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me (Luke 22:31-34).

John tells the story very differently from that. The background he provides is about Jesus triumphal Atonement. Jesus teaches the apostles, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him. … yet a little while I am with you. … love one another …. Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards.” Here is the full story:

31 Therefore, when he [Judas] was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
32 If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him.
33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.
34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
36 Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards.
37 Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
38 Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.

And that is where the story ends in this chapterright in the middle of Jesus’s words to Peter. So if we also stop reading or thinking where the chapter ends, we hear Jesus virtually mocking Peter’s avowal of discipleship. But if we read it without the chapter break we get an entirely different perspective.

Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards.

Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.

Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (John 13:34-38, 14:1-3).

Jesus was not chiding Peter, but rather giving him instructions. Now the question is, what was the purpose of the instructions?

Legal contracts require the signatures of the contractual parties and the confirming signatures of witnesses. In the Church, ordinances often require two witnesses to affirm they were performed correctly. In the eternal economy of the heaven, contracts are between Heavenly Father and ourselves. The Savior’s Atonement is the fulfillment and validation of the Father’s covenant. The terms are that the Savior’s Atonement has the power to cleanse us, and it is left to us to repent and accept that cleansing. Moroni explained that very clearly.

33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot Moroni 10:33).

The Savior’s Atonement is the ordinance and signature that validates the Father’s part of the covenant. Like other ordinances, witnesses were required to affirm that it was performed fully and according to eternal law. Only Jesus’s apostles could qualify to be those witnesses.

The validating ordinance on the Savior’s part are usually described as his sacrifice at Gethsemane, and his death on the cross. That view skips over the trial and beating administered by the Romans. However, the scriptures do not skip over it, but include it as part of the Savior’s Atoning sacrifice.

Isaiah describes the whole of the Savior’s redeeming sacrifice, from the garden, through the beating, to the cross.

3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:3-12).

Abinadi quoted that passage and then explained what Isaiah meant and how the Savior would fulfill that prophecy. He began by explaining to Alma that Jehovah, the God whom Alma worshiped, and Jesus the Messiah are the same God. He does that by reviewing Isaiah prophecy and showing that Jesus would accomplish the Atonement and thereby the mortal Jesus would keep the covenants that had been made by the premortal Jehovah, long before the world was.

1 And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself [Jehovah] shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.
2 And because he [Jehovah] dwelleth in flesh [Jesus] he [Jesus] shall be called the Son of God [the Son of Elohim], and having subjected the flesh [Jesus] to the will of the Father [Jehovah], being the Father [Jehovah] and the Son [Jesus]—
3 The Father [Jehovah], because he [first as Jehovah and then again as Jesus] was conceived by the power of God [Elohim]; and the Son [Jesus], because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father [Jehovah] and Son [Jesus]—
4 And they [Jehovah-Jesus] are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.
5 And thus the flesh [Jesus] becoming subject to the Spirit [Jehovah], or the Son [Jesus] to the Father [Jehovah], being one God [Jehovah-Jesus], suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself [Jesus] to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people.
6 And after all this, after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he [Jesus] shall be led, yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he [Jesus] opened not his mouth.
7 Yea, even so he [Jesus] shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh [Jesus] becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son [Jesus] being swallowed up in the will of the Father [Jehovah] (Mosiah 15:1-7).

Three of the gospels report the literal fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. John tells us “Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him (John 19:1, see Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15). The Law of Moses required that such a whipping must not exceed forty stripes, but Roman law had no such limitations. Their barbed whips could strip all the muscle from the ribs of their victim’s back and dig deeper into his lungs.

Three of the apostles were witnesses at Jesus coronation on the Mount of Transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-18). Those same three were witnesses that Jesus had suffered at Gethsemane. Many were witnesses of his death on the cross. Inasmuch as the mock trial and brutal whipping were part of his atoning sacrifice, then that would also require witnesses. The people in the mob would not do. As in Gethsemane, the witnesses had to be the apostles. Those witnesses were Peter, the chief apostle, and John the Beloved. John tells us how that was accomplished.

15 And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple [John]: that disciple was known unto the high priest, and went in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest
16 But Peter stood at the door without. Then went out that other disciple [John], which was known unto the high priest, and spake unto her that kept the door, and brought in Peter.

John could be at the trial without any questions, but Peter could not. He got in with John’s help, but his duty was to stay and witness the whole horrible trial. Even when his presence was challenged he had to remain and see it through. As one reads the accounts of his ordeal from that perspective, one does not see a cowardly Peter, but a Peter in agony. He had demonstrated he was willing to die to protect Jesus, but Jesus told him that this time he must only watch.

15 And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple [John]: that disciple was known unto the high priest, and went in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest.
16 But Peter stood at the door without. Then went out that other disciple, which was known unto the high priest, and spake unto her that kept the door, and brought in Peter.
17 Then saith the damsel that kept the door unto Peter, Art not thou also one of this man’s disciples? He saith, I am not.
18 And the servants and officers stood there, who had made a fire of coals; for it was cold: and they warmed themselves: and Peter stood with them, and warmed himself.
………………….
25 And Simon Peter stood and warmed himself. They said therefore unto him, Art not thou also one of his disciples? He denied it, and said, I am not.
26 One of the servants of the high priest, being his kinsman whose ear Peter cut off, saith, Did not I see thee in the garden with him?
27 Peter then denied again: and immediately the cock crew (John 18:15-27).

Peter had fulfilled his assignment and remained until the cock crowed, now he could bear it no longer.

75 And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly (Matthew 26:75, Mark 14:72, Luke 22:62).

The Inspired Version adds one more detail to describe Peter’s pain. “And he went out, and fell upon his face, and wept bitterly (JST Mark 14:82)

In a speech delivered at BYU, Apostle Spencer W.Kimball, reviewed Peter’s story. He asked,

Does this portray cowardice? Quite a bold assertion for a timid one. Remember that Peter never denied the divinity of Christ. He only denied his association or acquaintance with the Christ, which is quite a different matter. ….

Peter followed the Savior to his trial and sat in the outer court. ….

Even now he did not desert his Master but followed sorrowfully behind the jeering crowd. He would remain to the end. He likely heard every accusation, saw every indignity heaped upon his Lord, felt all the injustice of the mock trial, and noted the perfidy of false witnesses perjuring their souls. He saw them foully expectorate in the face of the Holy One; he saw them buffet, strike, slap, and taunt him. He observed the Lord making no resistance, calling for no protective legions of angels, asking for no mercy. {1}

Peter fulfilled his assignment as apostle and witness. He and John could not be with the Savior during his suffering in the Garden, but he could witness the blood and agony of Jesus’s countenance. He and John were at the trial and saw Jesus whipped and crowned. John and, no doubt Peter, were also at the cross. Then, again, it was Peter and John who were first to witness the resurrection.

Their apostolic testimonies stand as an eternal legal witness to the reality and validity of the Savior’s Atonement.
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FOOTNOTE

{1} Spencer W. Kimball, “Peter, My Brother,” BYU Speeches of the Year, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1971), 1-8. The full text of the speech is on BYU website, and one can listen to it on the LDS Church website.

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