Question: In Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus tells Peter that before the cock crows the next morning he will deny Him three times. Yet in Mark 14 Jesus as clearly tells Peter that the cock will crow twice before Peter denies his Lord. Isn’t that a clear contradiction?
Response: It’s an apparent contradiction—one of several which skeptics have exploited in attempting to discredit God’s Word. If we believe the Bible is inerrant, however, we’ll take the time to uncover the explanation and learn the lesson it provides.
In this case, the explanation is quite simple. Matthew:26:34 and John:13:38 say, “before the cock crow,” while Luke:22:34 uses the negative form, “the cock shall not crow.” Obviously Christ is not referring to a particular rooster crowing but to that time when roosters crow in the morning—i.e. “at the cockcrowing,” as Mark:13:35 puts it in referring to the time of day or night (“at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning”) when Christ might return. So he warns Peter that before the usual cockcrowing the next morning he will have denied his Lord three times. And all four Gospels agree that is what happened.
Mark doesn’t contradict the other Gospels, but provides a further detail. He quotes Christ more precisely—“before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice” (14:30)—then reveals (66-71) that a rooster (or perhaps several) crowed immediately after Peter denied Christ the first time. Luke provides more data: that “about the space of one hour" (22:59) elapsed between the second and third denials. The first “cockcrowing,” so long before the normal time and immediately after his first denial, should have brought Peter to repentance. Instead, though he had sworn he’d die for Christ, Peter denied his Lord twice more, the final time with extreme profanity (Mk 14:71). Immediately the normal chorus of crowing roosters began and Peter wept bitterly.
The lesson from these further details? We see God’s grace to peter, causing a premature cockcrowing immediately after his first denial to prevent him from going any further. And has He not done the same for each of us to call us back from the brink of shame and disaster?! Sometimes we have heeded, while at other times, like Peter, we have gone headlong until, overwhelmed by remorse, we have wept in repentance. May our hearts be more open, tender, and responsive in the future.