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Matthew 26:31-35, 69-75

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Peter showed some bravery in the Garden, as we will read in the account of the Lord’s arrest, and loyalty and fortitude in following the Lord to the high priest’s palace.  “But he found out that it may be more difficult to act rightly in small things than to brace oneself for an act of heroism.” [Plummer, 383]

v.31     The citation is from Zech. 13:7 which, in context, predicts that the suffering of the Messiah will have devastating consequences for his people as well.

v.32     This is a new note, not yet brought up in the Lord’s predictions of his death and resurrection: a cryptic suggestion that he would see his disciples again after his resurrection.

v.33     Characteristically Peter speaks first and boasts of his own indestructible loyalty to the Lord.  The others were thinking it, but Peter said it.

v.34     Matthew’s omission of “twice” with reference to the cock-crow – before the cock crows “twice” is what we read in Mark – “is typical of his tendency to leave out unnecessary narrative details.” [France, 371]

v.69     The word the NIV translates “servant girl” is actually the diminutive form of the word for girl or servant girl.  A point is being made: Peter, the grown man and leader of the Lord’s band is cowering before a little girl.  It is not a man; it is a woman; not a woman but a girl; not a free girl but a slave girl before whom Peter quails.

v.72     A lie can seldom stand alone; it needs to be backed up with further lies and deceits.  Now Peter used an oath in precisely that way that Jesus had forbidden his followers in the Sermon on the Mount (5:33-37).

v.73     A Galilean accent was conspicuous and was ridiculed by Judeans of the time; something like a hillbilly accent might be in an American city today.

v.74     “on himself” are not in Matthew’s Greek and the verb “to curse” used here does not elsewhere in the NT mean “to curse oneself” unless that meaning is specifically indicated with additional words.  So the question is: did Peter call down curses on himself – that is, inviting God to punish him if he was not telling the truth – or on the Lord Jesus.  The latter, of course, would have been the most emphatic way to prove to these people that he had no loyalty to Jesus.  Later, Christians would be required to do this to prove that they had left the Christian sect and should not be punished as members of it.  No better public demonstration of disloyalty to Jesus could be found than requiring people publicly to curse him.

As one commentator graphically puts it, “In order to save his skin he howls with the wolfpack” [Gerhardsson in Hagner, ii, 807]

In Holy Scripture the Lord teaches us the great truths and lessons of our faith in various ways.  There are passages of straightforward exposition and 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 those same truths are likewise taught in the historical narratives that make up such a large part of the Bible.  That is why there is so much history in the Bible – history of God’s people as a whole and history of individuals – a concentration on real history and the story of real human life quite unlike anything you find in other great religious books.  There is nothing like this, say, in the Koran.  Because God is sovereign and rules history, because it is his will that comes to pass in the events of every life and of nations and peoples together, he has made it so that accounts of the past teach us his ways and his truth.

And so it is here.  How like the Bible that one of its great heroes, the Apostle Peter, should be displayed to us as such a coward.  We might well have supposed that, at the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, when Peter was such an honored and revered name in the church, it would have been thought unwise or unkind to tell the embarrassing story of his fall.  But tell it Matthew did, as did the other three Gospel writers.

In the Old Testament we are given account after account of great men of faith succumbing to temptations of various kinds and committing terrible sins.  Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses had this gloomy weakness in common.  David, the man after God’s own heart, was turned by his temptations into a cheap oriental despot who did the most impure and cruel things to satisfy his lusts and then his fears.  And now in the New Testament we learn that this same melancholy reality will mark the life of God’s people in the new epoch.  And, as before, we learn this lesson in flesh and blood.  We have the account of Peter; actually we have Peter twice, here and then, later, after Pentecost, when he threw the entire gospel mission to the Gentiles into confusion and doubt by his cowardice in Antioch.

That the falls of Peter should be recorded in Holy Scripture surely indicates that there are lessons here of great importance.  The Lord does not sully the reputation of his children and his servants for nothing.  The account of Peter’s fall is not history for history’s sake.  Mathew makes a point of reminding us of that fact when he adds in v. 35: “And all the other disciples said the same.” Peter wasn’t the only one to boast of his loyalty to Christ and he wasn’t the only one to cut and run that night for fear of man. Peter represented the entire band, he stands for every Christian in what he was about to do.  Earlier in this Gospel, the Lord had said “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.”  And here Peter not only did not acknowledge the Lord, but publicly and violently disowned him. Peter, this representative Christian, did this terrible, cowardly thing.

Peter did this.  The same Peter who had confessed Christ as Lord at Caesarea Philippi, the same Peter who, according to the Lord’s own word, would become the rock on which the Lord Jesus would build his church.  Peter, who was by dint of character and personality a leader among the Lord’s disciples.  Peter was a believer as we are and a greater Christian man with a greater place in Christian history than we have. That his fall should be recorded in such detail indicates that there are great lessons here for us.  Clearly in this too he represents us.  What are those lessons?  Well there are many, but these are among them.

  •  First, Peter’s fall takes its place in the history of salvation as another in a long series of grand demonstration of the fact that salvation is by grace and is entirely God’s work and God’s gift to undeserving sinners.

Have you ever noticed the interesting and obviously very important fact that every time the Lord renews his covenant with his people, his people almost immediately and in some egregious way violate that covenant?  Every time the Lord formally extends his grace to his people, they almost immediately betray him.

The covenant had no sooner been made with Noah and his family than Noah got drunk and Ham treated his father with disrespect.  God had no sooner made his promise to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through him than Abraham was in Egypt lying about his wife Sarah and watching her be taken into the Pharaoh’s harem.  God was actually making his covenant with Israel at Sinai – delivering the stipulations of that covenant to Moses on the top of the mountain – when the Israelites were at the foot of the mountain dreaming up their scheme of making a golden calf.  The Lord had no sooner made his covenant with David and his house than David committed adultery and murder.

And now, in this same historical sequence, we have Peter’s betrayal following hard upon the renewal of the covenant a few hours before in the Upper Room.  The Lord’s Supper, the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace, had for the first time been eaten by the Lord and his disciples together, and now, before the ink was dry on the Lord’s renewal of his covenant with his people, Peter is lying and cursing and denying that he had ever met his Lord and Savior.  Peter is following in the footsteps of Adam and Noah and Abraham and David.

God’s covenant, his relationship with his people is made at his initiative – he brings us into relationship with him – but it requires that we respond in faith and obedience.  But, lest anyone think that our response is of equal importance, or that we are equal partners with God in our salvation, or that even we make some decisive contribution, we are reminded in the history of salvation over and over again that we are not God’s partners, but only the needy objects of his grace and mercy.  His covenant with us stands not because we are faithful to it but because, in spite of our unfaithfulness, he remains faithful.

That is taught in many ways in the Bible but no more powerfully than in these historical demonstrations of the continuing unworthiness of those with whom God makes his covenant.  He makes his covenant of love with us and then he must remain true to it when we fail to do so.  From first to last, in every link of the chain by which sinners are lifted up from earth to heaven, in the origin of salvation and in its application to the very end it is God’s grace and God’s faithfulness and God’s power.

Peter in his fall is a powerful reminder of this most important of all facts and it is ours to enter into his experience – for we have all copied Peter often enough – and to realize that as often as God has renewed his covenant with us it has been broken from our side, and yet, in spite of all our failures, it remains still.  We belong to him not because of our faith but in spite of our unbelief; not because of our loyalty to him but in defiance of our disloyalty. How great is the grace of God!

  •  Second, Peter’s fall is a great demonstration of the nature of the Christian life as an alternation of sin and forgiveness.

We are taught in many places of the Word of God that believers in God and Christ will remain sinful so long as they live in this world and that Christ, in the Gospel, offers them continuing forgiveness, but it is in these powerful demonstrations of their pathetic weakness that Christians realize what their lives are and will be while they walk through this world.  If anyone thought, when first he became a Christian, that he was finished with sin or that he could rest on that first forgiveness received when he first put his faith in Christ, he learns soon enough what powerful enemies remain lurking in his own heart. From Peter and others in Holy Writ and then, much more, from himself he learns how much of a sinner he remains and how unworthy a follower of Christ he continues to be and how seeking and finding forgiveness through Christ must and will remain the first part of his Christian life.

And so it was for Peter.  For hardly anyone reads this account of Peter’s temptation and fall who does not already know that Peter was forgiven this terrible sin and went on to live a Christian life and serve the Lord as one of his apostles and be, as the Lord had predicted, along with the others, the rock upon which the Christian church was built.  Indeed, that is the suggestion of v. 32 already.  The Lord would go on with his disciples after his resurrection, no matter that they scatter at his arrest. This is not the end of Peter’s Christian life, but nearer the beginning.  Indeed, in the Gospels we read that when the angel appeared to the women at the tomb Easter Sunday morning – just two days after Peter’s betrayal – he told them of the Lord’s resurrection and said, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter.”  Why would the Lord single Peter out among the twelve except that he wanted Peter to know that his sin was forgiven and that Christ still loved his impetuous disciple as much as ever. And, of course, we are told elsewhere in the New Testament that sometime on Easter Sunday the Lord made a point of finding Peter alone, no doubt to assure his broken-hearted disciple that he was forgiven and restored.  It was Peter’s privilege, after all he had done in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace, to see the risen Christ before any of the other members of the twelve.  Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall during that conversation?  For all his faults, Peter knew how to confess his sins.  Remember how, at the great catch of fish, he had fallen to his knees and cried out, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  And the Lord knew how to forgive sins.  What an encounter that must have been between penitent and Savior.

Here we have in a concentrated moment the entire Christian life, as it will be lived by every believer, every disciple of the Lord Jesus.  The Christian life is not first serving the Lord and keeping his commandments.  Before that it is receiving from his hand, over and over again, 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 and was a truer Christian when he was weeping bitterly after his fall than he was, in the Upper Room, confidently swearing his undying and unshakeable loyalty to the Lord.  For the Christian life is, at bottom, the daily awareness of our dependence upon the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ who gave himself to death for our sins.  The true Christian is the one who knows and feels his sin and is, therefore, always asking Christ to take it away.  Who is the true Christian — no matter how long he or she has followed Christ — the man or woman who is always saying and always saying sincerely: Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am a sinner.  That is why we can never remove the confession of sin from our Lord’s Day worship, and that is why we have you always say it in your own voice — those words sincerely meant make you a Christian and remake you a Christian every week!

Richard Hooker, the great Anglican theologian of the 17th century, imagined asking Peter about himself as he was, first in the Upper Room and then after his betrayal of the Lord and supposed that he would have replied,

“My eager protestations, made in the glory of my ghostly strength, I am ashamed of; but those crystal tears, wherewith my sin and weakness were bewailed, have procured my endless joy; my strength hath been my ruin, and my fall [has been] my [salvation].”  [Works, ii, 359]

But if the Christian life is a continuing experience of our sin and Christ’s forgiveness, might not someone conclude – as alas too many have through the ages – that since Christ will forgive all my sins, and since I can’t stop being a sinner, at least not in this life, I may as well live as I please.  Well, it is true that we must enter into Peter’s weakness and failure.  We must take that to ourselves as our own.  We must confess ourselves to be Peter in his cowardice and unfaithfulness.  We must seek forgiveness through Jesus.  But if we must enter into Peter’s fall, we must also enter into his tears.  If Peter here is every Christian, as he certainly is, then his tears are our tears as his sin was our sin.

And so Peter has one more lesson to teach us in his fall.

  • Third, we learn in Peter’s experience that we followers of Christ must resist temptation and must serve the Lord in faithfulness and obedience and that nothing less will do. It cannot be helped, it must be so.

Very shortly before Peter betrayed the Lord, Jesus had summoned his disciples to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”  We read that in v. 41 of this same chapter.  Peter obviously did not heed the warning or the exhortation.  He fell hard.  And of all men he should not have fallen.  He had accompanied the Lord through three years of his public ministry.  He had heard the Lord’s sermons and witnessed his miracles.  He had seen the Lord’s perfect life.  He had come himself to the conviction and had confessed it before others that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  But, still more, that very night, before he arrived in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace, Peter had been with the Lord in the Upper Room and at Gethsemane.  He had heard with his own ears the Master say that that very night one of his disciples would betray him and had been in the Garden when Judas did so.  He had witnessed the Lord’s agony in the Garden and his last miracle, restoring the ear of the servant of the high priest.  We could multiply this account of Peter’s advantages.

What is more, what really had Peter to fear.  Suppose he had admitted to the servant girl and the others standing around that night that he was indeed a follower of Jesus, what danger would that have posed?  What would he have suffered if he had not only admitted that he was Jesus’ follower but that he believed him to be the Messiah?  Perhaps some ridicule.  It is doubtful that his life would have been in any danger.  The priests and elders wouldn’t have bothered with a Galilean fisherman if the ringleader was disposed of.  There were known to be a number of Christ’s followers in Jerusalem that night and none of them came to harm.

Yet, in the hour of temptation, Peter, notwithstanding all of his advantages and in defiance of the absence of any real danger, did not watch and did not pray and completely collapsed under what amounted to very little pressure.  What a lesson for us who are likewise insufficiently watchful and who are far too little on our guard against the temptations of life.  If so privileged a saint fell so hard, how much more ought we to suspect ourselves and prepare ourselves to stand firm.  If Peter fell, how much more can we.

But, take notice: Peter’s tears teach us that Peter most certainly should not have done this.  What he did was inexcusable.  And even though we confess that he was, as we are, a sinner and would be a sinner to the end of his days, he needn’t have been this much a sinner or a sinner in this way.  And the proof of that are his bitter tears when he came to himself and realized what he had done. If Peter is every Christian in his failure, he is also every Christian in his bitter tears and his self-reproach and his shame.  If we cannot completely avoid sin, we also cannot avoid the shame of it and the horror of it and the revulsion from it in our hearts. There was certainly no acceptance of his failure on Peter’s part that night. There was no coming to terms with his weakness and cowardice and there was no comforting himself in the knowledge that Christ would forgive him.  He could not think of Christ’s forgiveness as he ran from that courtyard of shame that night. There were bitter tears of shame and a regret that, I assure you, did not disappear entirely from his heart until the moment he left this world.  He knew he never should have done what he did and he knew that he needn’t have done what he did.  He knew it immediately.  His conscience forced those facts upon his mind and would not give him rest.  If a Christian cannot be done with sin in this world, he also cannot be done with tears.  He cannot be indifferent to his failures.  Peter also teaches us this.  Other men in the Bible stood firm in the face of much sterner temptations – Joseph, Daniel, and Paul come immediately to mind – and Peter should have as well and no one knew that better than Peter himself.  What is more, Peter himself did not continue to stumble like this even when threatened far more seriously than he was that night.  That night in the courtyard of the high priest did not become the story of this man’s life. He fell once again as we know, and, strangely, then too there was little reason to do so.  But the story of his life from this point is primarily the story of courage not cowardice and of thankful service not bitter regret.  It is even the story of heroic self-sacrifice in the face of the most deadly danger.

Do you know the early Christian legend of Quo Vadis? The story, from the late second century, is almost certainly apocryphal.  It runs this way.  Peter had been preaching in Rome and growing opposition on the part of the authorities had made it unsafe.  This was the 60s of the first century, the reign of Nero, and the Christians, anxious to preserve the life of their great leader and, in him, their direct connection to Jesus himself, urged Peter to leave the city and find some place of safety.  Common sense seemed to them to dictate this tactical withdrawal so that his ministry could continue.  Peter reluctantly agreed, but as we was leaving the city he met the Lord Jesus himself coming the other way, entering Rome.  He asked the Lord, “Lord, where are you going?”  [In Latin “Where are you going?” is Quo vadis?]  The Lord replied, “I am coming to Rome to be crucified again.”  In other words, since Peter would not be crucified for Jesus’ sake, the Lord would have to be crucified again.  Peter came to himself, returned to the city, was arrested and crucified, upside down at his own request.  (That Peter was crucified in Rome in the 60s is certainly true; that he was crucified upside down at his own request, as a demonstration of the fact that he did not feel himself worthy to share the Lord’s fate, may be true.)

The Quo Vadis story is fanciful as you would immediately know if you read the work in which it is found, but it is worth pointing out that the legend, in a way, demeans Peter.  It assumes that at the end of his life he was still found doing the cowardly thing.  The evidence suggests otherwise: that Peter met his death with grace and aplomb.  He fell the night of the Savior’s betrayal, but he had never accepted his behavior as in any way possible to justify and had, by the practice of watching and praying against temptation grown stronger and stronger, until he reached that point when the old temptations to fear and cowardice scarcely troubled him any longer.

Here then in Peter’s fall we find an entire theology of the Christian life in flesh and blood.  That life is God’s gift in defiance of our ill-desert; it is a life of constant sinning on our part and of constant forgiving on God’s; but it is also a life, motivated by a profound even bitter discontent with anything less than what Christ deserves from us and by a determination to honor the Lord and be faithful to him, it is a life of growing up into righteousness and spiritual maturity.  Falling is forgiven, but it leads to standing in due time.  Peter’s bitter tears tell us that.

A 19th century English commentator, Isaac Williams, said this about the narrative of Peter’s fall.

“It is a matter worthy of the deepest consideration, that not only is so very little told us of the saints of God, but what is recorded is for the most part to their prejudice.  And this is the case even with regard to those who approached most nearly to the person of our blessed Lord…. Indeed we may humbly venture to think that this melancholy failure in one so eminent and favored was permitted to occur to afford us encouragement and hope in similar derelictions and temptations. And that as our Lord could not afford us an instance of human infirmity in himself, he has given it to us in the person of the most exalted of his pastors: that all may fear, and none may presume, and all may hope.”  [In Plummer, 383-384]

We should all fear our own great susceptibility to temptation, our own moral weakness; none of us should presume that we can stand when Peter fell; but, at the same time, we should all hope, not only that there is forgiveness with God but that these falls, in his grace and goodness, are the means by which we are brought at last to stand fast.  Is that not the Christian life in sum and is that not the Christian life you and I know we must live and you and I long to live?  And will not Christ be with us and for us as he was with and for Peter long ago?  See yourself in this weak man and see yourself forgiven and made strong as he was.