We left Peter, no doubt chastened by the Lord’s having rejected his violent act, cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest with his sword as he had, though Luke does not mention that that act had been performed by Peter. But when the Lord was seized and the party of officials and soldiers began making their way back to the city, Peter followed at a distance.
As you may remember, the account of Peter’s denial is found in all four of the Gospels, but there are some interesting differences between the various accounts. Rather than spend time this morning considering those differences, I will say only that all of them contribute their share to the account of a somewhat complex series of events.
The impression is that the girl stared at Peter because she thought she recognized him and the longer she looked the surer she became that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. How she would have known that is not said, but perhaps she had listened to Jesus teaching in the temple and had seen his disciples around him. There was no great danger posed by a question from such a girl but Peter nevertheless took the easy way out and denied knowing Jesus.
Having once denied knowing Jesus it was natural to deny it again.
John tells us that this man was a relative of Malchus, the servant whose ear Peter had cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane. John tells us that this man had been in the Garden as well and recognized Peter from there. [18:26] What goes around comes around!
Peter, hemmed in by these accusations, did what people so often do when caught in a lie: he repeated it even more strenuously, backing it up, Mark and Matthew tells us, with a string of oaths. He did what the drug cheats in baseball are doing. You lie first, and then you lie more; then you lie still more confidently and with greater emphasis. You hope people will believe what you are saying because you say it so insistently.
The significance of the rooster’s crow was, of course, that Jesus had told Peter in the Upper Room that before the rooster crowed Peter would have denied him three times. [22:34]
“We do not know where Jesus was at this moment. He may have been in a gallery overlooking the courtyard, or in a room looking out on to it, or even in it, perhaps passing through on his way from Annas to Caiaphas. At any rate he was in some place from where he could see and perhaps hear Peter.
The shattering effect on a man who knew better doing what he had promised the Lord he would not do!
As we know very well from our reading of Holy Scripture, we are taught our faith and life in many different ways. There are passages of straightforward explanation, such as we find in Deuteronomy or Romans. Then those same truths are turned into prayers and hymns, such as we find in the Psalms, and into sermons, such as we find in the prophets. But that same faith and that same life are likewise taught in the history of God’s people, both as a whole and as individuals. That is why there is so much narrative in the Bible, unlike say, the Qur’ān. Because God is sovereign and works out his will in the experience of life, even every day events teach us the truth. How much more events that affect or are taken up into the turning points of history.
And so it is with temptation, the encouragements to sin that we find everywhere we turn in life. Even unbelievers, if they are thoughtful, recognize and fear the power of temptation. There is almost nothing a human being will not do, however bad, however harmful, however ugly, if only enough inducements are offered to him. Temptation! Oscar Wilde could jest “The best way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it” only because everyone understands the reality, the power, and the destructive effect of temptation in a human life. How much better we would be if we were not tempted to do what is wrong. One of the great mistakes of our modern public life as Americans is our unwillingness any longer to talk about the reality of temptation and its destructive effects. As if pornography, for example, were not a powerful temptation and as if it did not have the power to ruin the soul.
But how like the Bible to show us men surmounting temptation, as Joseph in Potiphar’s house, and even godly men succumbing to it, as David with Bathsheba and, here, Peter in the courtyard of the high priest. No one is a Christian for very long before he or she learns that a godly life is going to require learning to deal with temptation. And, as we are taught in various places what resisting temptation requires, so we are shown how to do it and how not to do it again and again in the Bible. Here is Peter succumbing to the Devil’s wiles and surely there is a lesson here. Martin Luther summed it up in his inimitable way in a letter to his organist friend, Matthias Weller:
“If you allow one thought to enter, and you pay attention to it, [the Devil] will force ten additional thoughts into your mind until at last he overpowers you. Therefore, the best thing you can do is to rap the Devil on the nose at the very start. Act like the man who, whenever his wife began to nag and snap at him, drew out his flute…and played merrily until she was exhausted and let him alone.”
This is the lesson that the great English Puritan, John Owen, more succinctly summarized as “Venture all on the first attempt.” The best way to defeat temptation is to never give it a toehold. Had Peter only had his wits about him, realized what he was being tempted to do, and answered the first girl’s question with “Yes, I am honored to have been his disciple for the past three years,” nothing would have happened to him and he would not have finished the night in an agony of shame and self-recrimination. But a lesson in resisting temptation is hardly all we have here.
That Peter’s humiliation should have been recorded in Holy Scripture is proof enough, if proof were needed, that there are lessons here of great importance for us, some of the most important lessons of all of human life. The Lord does not sully the reputation of his children and his servants for nothing. And there are great lessons here, some of the greatest lessons of them all. And they are not all about temptation and how to deal with it and how to resist it. In fact, here in Peter’s fall we are given in miniature a theology of the Christian life. It comes in at least three parts.
- First, Peter’s fall takes its place in the history of salvation as another grand demonstration that salvation is by grace, that it is entirely the gift of God to the undeserving.
Have you ever noticed the interesting fact — it can hardly be thought accidental — that every time in biblical history the Lord renewed his covenant with his people, his people in some way and virtually immediately broke that covenant once again. Every time the Lord extended his grace to his people in a formal way they betrayed his grace.
The covenant had no sooner been made with Noah and his family than Ham violated the sacred obligations of a son and dishonored his father and sinned against God. No sooner had the Lord made his great promise to Abraham that all the world would be blessed through him, then Abraham left the Promised Land, went to Egypt, lied about Sarah, as a result of that lie she was placed in Pharaoh’s harem, thus throwing the entire plan of God to save the world through Abraham and Sarah’s seed into jeopardy. Yahweh was actually in the very act of making his covenant with Israel at Sinai, with Moses having ascended to the summit of Mt. Sinai to receive the law, when the Israelites, at the foot of the mountain, dreamed up their scheme of making a gold calf. The Lord had no sooner made his covenant with David that there should never fail to be a king sitting on his throne, when David took another man’s wife and murdered her husband. The same thing happened again in Elijah and Elisha’s time, in the times of kings Hezekiah and Josiah, and again after the exile, as we read in Haggai.
And now, in the same historical sequence, we have Peter’s betrayal. The covenant had been renewed but a few hours before in the Upper Room in the first Lord’s Supper, and the events that were to take the Lord Jesus to the cross for the sins of his people were now set in motion, I say, the ink was barely dry on the renewed promise of salvation before Peter was lying, cursing, and denying that he had ever met Jesus of Nazareth. Peter’s betrayal is the more despicable for the timing of it, but it is also the more significant for the same reason. Peter is here following in Ham’s, in Abraham’s, in Israel’s, and in David’s footsteps, profoundly violating and betraying the salvation of God even at the moment it is being revealed!
And yet in all those cases and in this case, the Lord remained faithful to his covenant and accomplished his salvation as he had promised in defiance of the ill-desert and the betrayal of those who were being saved. His grace saves us no matter our failures and our betrayals. His covenant, his promise to save us stands not because of our faithfulness but in spite of our unfaithfulness. That is taught us, of course, in a great many ways in the Bible, but it is taught us powerfully, poignantly, and memorably in this repeated phenomenon in which a terrible betrayal of God’s grace follows immediately upon or even accompanies the revelation of that grace. Salvation, eternal life, is God’s gift to us, and the proof of that is that we not only have not earned it, we cannot earn it. Quite the contrary, even as that gift is being placed in our hands and hearts, we are finding ways to dishonor it and betray the one who gave it to us. But Peter has still more theology to teach us.
- Second, Peter’s fall is another great demonstration of the nature of the Christian life as an alteration of sin and forgiveness.
It is not the case that Christians are forgiven but once at the beginning, when first they place their trust in Jesus Christ. The new heart that Christ gives to those who trust in him compels men and women to live a new kind of life, but the remnants of the old nature conspire to prevent us from living that life fully, at least as long as we live in this world. And so it is that the faith and the repentance with which we begin as Christians must be practiced until our dying day. And we deal with the Lord about our sins not once, but times without number. And the forgiveness we were granted once we must be granted again and again. Our justification may be once for all in one respect but it is parceled out to us repeatedly in the experience of our life.
Peter’s bitter tears after he realized what he had done are the demonstration of this reality: a changed heart that wants to honor the Lord, powerful tendencies to sin that yet remain, and the struggle between the two that is the Christian life every single day. Christians obey under the impulse of that new nature and they disobey under the influence of the old. And so it is that they must be forgiven again and again.
We do not have the account of Peter’s forgiveness here, to be sure, but we have the account of his bitter sorrow and for any reader of the Bible those tears hold promise of both Peter’s forgiveness and his restoration. And, of course, as you know, we have the record of that later in this Gospel and elsewhere in the New Testament. In Luke 24:34 and then again in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15 we read that the Lord had made an appearance to Peter by himself before he appeared to the rest of the Twelve that resurrection Sunday night. Sometime during that first Easter Sunday He had found his wayward disciple. The Lord knew very well that it would be difficult for Peter to face him again, when the last time they had seen one another had been during Peter’s oath-filled tirade in the courtyard of the high priest. So the Lord found Peter and forgave him personally. Wouldn’t you have liked to have been able to listen in to that conversation!
That is the Christian life; it is everyone’s Christian life. Paul said that it was his and we see it to have been Peter’s. Our sin and God’s forgiveness. Our failures and the Lord’s gentle restoration of us afterward.
The Christian life is not simply knowing about Christ and what he did and counting on his cross for your salvation. It is receiving from his hand, daily and especially every Lord’s Day, the forgiveness of our sins and the cleansing of our hearts. Augustine, in his great work The City of God (XIV, 13) makes bold to say that Peter was in a healthier condition when he was weeping bitterly at the end of his betrayal than he was when, in the Upper Room, he had confidently promised his undying and unshakeable loyalty to the Lord. For the Christian life is, at its bottom, and most essentially the daily experience of our dependence upon the forgiveness of God.
Richard Hooker, the great 17th century Anglican divine, imagined asking Peter about all of this after his betrayal and thought Peter would say something like this:
“My eager protestations, made in the glory of my ghostly strength, I am ashamed of; but those crystal tears, wherewith my sin and weakness was bewailed, have procured my endless joy; my strength hath been my ruin, and my fall [has been] my [salvation].” [Works, ii, 359]
Alexander Whyte puts this fundamental nature of the Christian life very beautifully.
“…we are always returning home from the far country and we are always saying, ‘Father, I have again sinned.’ And our Father is always saying over us, ‘Bring forth the best robe and put it on him.’
That is the Christian life, the Christian life as it is taught in the Bible and lived by the saints.
But we are not yet done with what Peter has to tell us about our Christian faith and life. The fact that we Christians continue to sin and continue to receive God’s forgiveness might lead someone — alas it has all too often led many someones — to think that since Christ will forgive my sins and since I cannot seem to stop sinning, I may as well relax and live as I please. I may as well not beat myself up for failing to do what I ought to do or for getting tired of attempting the very difficult thing of living a truly godly life. By no means are we to conclude any such thing.
- In the third place, Peter’s fall is a great reminder to us of our summons to live a righteous life to the glory of God.
It is obviously a matter of some importance and one we are not to overlook that shortly before Peter betrayed the Lord, shortly before he took counsel of his fears and did what he had promised the Lord that very night never to do, the Lord had told him, “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” Luke shortened the statement somewhat in 22:40 but the point is the same.
The Lord had given instructions to his disciples that they might not fall prey to temptation, that they might stand fast, but Peter, just moments later forgot the Lord’s warning, neglected his counsel and fell on his face.
Now consider this. We mentioned last time Judas’ advantages as one of the Lord’s inner circle. Well Peter had all of those and more. In addition to his being with the Lord as he taught, as he healed the sick, as he drove demons out of those who had been possessed, as he walked on the water and as he stilled the storm, Peter had himself walked on the water, he was one of three men who saw the Lord transfigured on the mountain in Galilee and had heard God’s voice speaking from heaven. It is not impossible that Peter, being one of the three men in the innermost circle of the Lord’s disciples, one of the men he had asked to accompany him deeper into the olive grove that night, I say it is not impossible that Peter had seen the angel who appeared to Jesus then. He knew of Christ’s power. Peter himself had been the first to confess that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.
But there is more. What really was the threat to Peter that night in the courtyard? Suppose he had admitted to knowing Jesus, even being his disciple. Suppose he had gone further and said to those gathered around the fire, let me tell you about this man and why I revere him so. What would have happened to Peter? Perhaps some ridicule, but we can’t even be sure of that. For all we know, some of those folks might have listened with real interest. The servant girl must have seen the Lord Jesus and heard him. Otherwise how would she have known that Peter was one of his disciples? Perhaps had Peter simply acknowledged his association with Jesus the rest of the night would have been spent explaining to these folks who Jesus was, what he had come to do, what he had seen the Lord do and heard the Lord say; spent the night answering questions as the people around the campfire peppered him with one after another. It certainly doesn’t appear that Peter’s life was in any danger. The most he might lose would be some of his reputation in the eyes of people whose opinion shouldn’t have mattered to him anyway. He was a Galilean after all. He knew well enough how little Judeans thought of Galileans.
So, no matter his privileges and no matter the absence of any real danger, Peter betrayed the Lord, for reasons he would probably have been hard-pressed to explain to himself later on, at least once he began thinking about what he had done and why. We just fall into temptation, you and I. We hardly even know what we are doing. His knowledge of the Lord, his experience of his divine majesty, even the comparative indifference of those with him around the fire were insufficient to keep him from a terrible act of personal betrayal. It is phenomenal how weak the human will can be where temptation is concerned.
Obviously there is a warning here for us. If Peter should fall, despite all his advantages; if he should betray the Lord when proving loyal to him would likely have cost him nothing, how easy it must be for Christians to be unmanned by temptation and to fall prey to the Devil’s wiles. No wonder we are so often reminded to be alert, ready, and determined. “Let him who thinks he is standing take heed lest he fall.”
What Peter did he should not have done, his tears are proof of that, nor should we do as he did in any way, shape, or form. We may all remain sinners, as he did, but we needn’t do this, we needn’t fall in this way, and, in fact, in any particular instance of temptation we needn’t fall at all. And the proof of that is that though Peter stumbled again as do we all — we have the record of one of his later stumbles in Galatians chapter 2 (again due to his fear of men) — he never stumbled in this way again and finally became a master of putting to death the very temptation that undid him here. For the day was to come when Peter was faced with the choice of remaining faithful to the Lord — publicly and without qualification — or of losing his life for Christ’s sake. And Peter readily, without hesitation, gave up his life for the name of Christ his Savior. Peter’s bitter weeping is the index of his repentance and that repentance would lead him to live a godly and extraordinarily fruitful life for the rest of his life. Not without stumbles to be sure, but without anything like this ever again.
In the apocryphal Acts of Peter, a document scholars date to the later 2nd century, so more than a century after Peter’s death, a document full of unreliable history, we find the first mention of the famous Quo Vadis legend. According to legend, Peter had been preaching in Rome in the mid- 60s, that is, during the time of persecution of Christians by Nero, and the intensifying persecution had made the city unsafe for him. That much is true. But then we read that the believers urged him to leave so that he could continue his ministry elsewhere. Peter reluctantly agreed, but as he was leaving the city, he met the Lord Jesus entering Rome. He asked the Lord, “Where are you going?” [In Latin “where are you going?” is quo vadis?] Jesus replied that he was going to Rome to be crucified. In other words, since Peter was unwilling to be crucified for Jesus, the Lord would have to be crucified for him once again, doubtful theology to be sure. Peter, coming to his senses, returned to the city and soon thereafter was crucified himself, upside down at his own request because he felt himself unworthy to be crucified in the same way Jesus had been crucified. That latter detail is probably also historical. [Acts of Peter in NT Apocrypha, ii, 317-319]
But the story is complete fancy as you would immediately recognize if you read the work in which it is found. But it is worth pointing out that the legend, no doubt unintentionally, demeans Peter. For it assumes that at the end of his life he would still be inclined to do the cowardly thing. The evidence suggests that the very opposite was true and that Peter met his death heroically and with aplomb. He had fallen on that terrible night long before, he had betrayed the Lord, but he had never accepted his behavior as somehow excusable. He never thought that because he was eventually forgiven for that sin it didn’t matter that he had committed it. His bitter tears were evidence of that. So was his insistence that the account of his betrayal be included in the Gospel of Mark, the first Gospel to be written and long understood to be Peter’s gospel. Mark wrote it, but his was the story as Peter told it. The great man was unwilling to write his failure out of the gospel story and the record of his fall thus has shaped the way every Christian reads the story of our Savior’s crucifixion.
As for me I am very grateful that Peter was so humble a man as to insist that the account of his despicable behavior be included in the gospel narrative when, for any number of reasons, it might have been left out: to spare his feelings and to protect the reputation of the apostles, who, after all, were to be the foundation of the church in the new epoch. I learn here in a most human and convincing way, my own tendency to betray the Lord in matters small and large, my need of the Lord’s forgiveness and his readiness to extend it to me day after day so long as I live in this world. I am reminded of the summons to be holy and the bitter tears that must be my lot when I am not and, supremely, I am reminded of God’s grace and the triumph of that grace in a sinful life like mine.
And I am grateful that the Bible teaches these lessons to me relentlessly and in so many ways. I read them in the expositions of the Christian faith I find in the letters of Paul; I am given to pray them and sing them in the Psalms, but I also see them in flesh and blood, as we do here. That makes these great lessons all the more real when I can see them being worked out and coming to pass in the life of another human being. Why do we have this account? Because these are the things we absolutely have to know: salvation by grace, our own continuing sinfulness and the promise of God’s forgiveness, and the summons issued to us all to live a life worthy of the grace we have received.
I am like Peter in his inexcusable weakness, and you are too. There is no use denying it. But I want to be like Peter as well, and I’m sure you do too. If I must have his sin as I must, I want his bitter tears and I want his forgiveness; I want his life, growing in holiness as it did to the very end; and I want his end.