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How do you respond to Matthew 26:36?
At the last supper Jesus said to Peter, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”
This is probably the most frequently quoted verse by defenders of the classical understanding of God’s foreknowledge against the open view. How, they ask, could Jesus have been certain Peter would deny him three times unless he possessed exhaustive definite foreknowledge of the future? The answer, I believe, is to be found in four simple observations.
First, consider that Peter was to be a foundational pillar in the Church that the Lord was establishing. To equip Peter for this role, the Lord needed to humble Peter and teach him the meaning of true, sacrificial love for the Shepherd and his flock. So God providentially arranges things so that Peter reveals his unloving, cowardly character three times with the ultimate goal of teaching him (not coincidentally) three times what the real meaning of love is: it is something which leads one to courageously sacrifice their life for another, just as Jesus did (see John 21:15–19).
Second, the crowing of the cock reveals no special foreknowledge on Jesus’ part but was simply a way of referring to the break of dawn (when cocks always crow). Perhaps some providential intervention was necessary to have the cock crow immediately after Peter’s third betrayal in order to drive home the point of Jesus’ prophecy (Matt. 26:74–75), but that is certainly an easy feat for the sovereign Lord of history.
Third, regarding Peter’s predicted denial, there is no reason to conclude that this was a “crystal ball” view into the future rather than a divine understanding of Peter’s present character. I suspect that anyone who knew Peter’s character perfectly could have predicted with certainty that under certain circumstances he would act cowardly. This doesn’t mean Peter’s character was settled from the moment of birth, only that as Peter freely made decisions throughout his life his character was solidified to the point where God could know it was certain that, under certain circumstances, Peter would deny Christ. Though Peter would not at this point be free to refrain from denying Christ, he is still morally responsible for doing so since it was his own free decisions that formed his character in this way in the first place.
Some have thought that Peter’s general bravado, and especially his cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave, reveals that his character was not solidified (and thus predictable) in a cowardly direction (Matt. 26:51–52). But the reason why Peter’s behavior appeared so brave when Jesus was about to be arrested and turned was so cowardly after Jesus was arrested is not hard to discern: in the latter situation, Jesus was no longer with him.
Recall that Peter held strongly to the customary Jewish view that the messiah would be a military figure who would free the Jews from the oppressive Romans. Peter undoubtedly believed up to the bitter end that Jesus would not allow himself to be arrested and crucified (cf. Matt. 16:21–23). Jesus’ arrest changed everything. Peter’s false expectations and hopes regarding what Jesus was to be, and what he would be alongside Jesus, fell apart. And nothing allows for one’s true character to shine forth like the crumbling of a personal dream. God perfectly knew Peter’s character and the effect Jesus’ arrest would have on him. He could thus accurately predict what his behavior would be in these circumstances.
Finally, little if any divine intervention would be necessary to ensure that three people would notice and question Peter about his relationship with the Lord. After all, Jesus and his disciples had been public figures for some time.
Jesus’ prediction, therefore, was rooted in God’s omniscient awareness about Peter’s true character and was given out of love for the purpose of transforming Peter into the type of Christ-like leader the Lord wanted him to be. We misunderstand it, I believe, if we read into it evidence that everything about the future is settled and thus that God knows it as such.
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