Often referenced and sermonized, but rarely explained, the events of Peter’s denial and reinstatement are quite puzzling. I would offer an alternative explanation. Peter denied Jesus because of his sympathy with zealotry (which was common in Judaism at the time). Zealotry is confidence in the strength of man concerning the redemption of the world. Thus when Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer and die, Peter rebuked him, saying, “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Mt. 16:22). Peter had in mind a zealot, insurgent Messiah, who would usher in the age to come by the strength of the flesh. Jesus called such beliefs “the things of man” (Mt. 16:23).
Peter then denied Jesus because he had been arrested (like the other failed zealot messiahs), and it was dangerous to be associated with an insurgent (not to mention embarrassing). After being raised, Jesus appeared to the disciples by the sea, performing the miraculous catch of fish (Jn. 21:6)—interpretation: the Jewish messianic kingdom comes by the miraculous power of God, not by the strength of man (cf. Lk. 17:20-37; Mt. 24:3-28). Jesus then calls Peter to “feed” and “tend” the sheep (Jn. 21:15-17). And finally Jesus calls him to forsake his confidence in the flesh completely unto martyrdom (v. 18)—“Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (v. 19).
To the zealot, God is glorified through the strength, glory, and accomplishment of men (a depraved tendency that runs through Jew and Gentile alike). But in truth God is glorified through self-sacrificial love in hope of the miraculous Day of God. A cursory reading and 1 & 2 Peter reveals that Peter learned the lesson: “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you . . . And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:1-4). Throughout history, Gentiles have commonly spiritualized the Jewish messianic kingdom AND fallen into zealotry (cf. Christendom), but Jesus’ command remains true for Jew and Gentile alike, “Follow me!” (Jn. 21:19).