Peter makes a mess of things
Have you ever asked yourself why there is so much narrative in the Bible. When we open our Bibles we find details about a whole wide range of different individuals who lived a long time ago and in cultures that can seem very different from our own? Some of you might appreciate these records because you like history and the Bible certainly is jam-packed full of history. But is that the only reason those stories are told – to entertain us and to divert us for a few moments?
Well the answer is of course that there are lessons for us to learn from the real life experiences of these men and women of the past. The apostle Paul put it like this in writing to the Romans – he was referring to the OT but his words are equally applicable to the NT as well:
Rom.15:4 "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."
So if we are to read our Bibles properly and benefit from them as God intends we cannot simply be content with knowing the stories we must understand the lessons and the warnings they have for us too.
This morning we are going to take a closer look at the sorry experience of the apostle Peter. We are not going to sit in judgment on him and imagine then that we have done what we ought to do but we are going to try to identify some of the mistakes Peter made so that we might avoid them. We’re not going to make the mistake of thinking that what happened to Peter was so unique that we have nothing to learn practically for ourselves from him.
The details of Peter’s test and his abject failure were indeed historically unique but the general principles are not. Peter was a real Christian man who was confronted by a serious test and he failed dismally. Genuine Christians down through the centuries have faced their own tests in their own unique circumstances and sometimes they have failed dismally too.
If you are a real Christian (or if you become one) do not imagine that you will sail through life without being tested or tempted – you will and that is a certainty. What is yet uncertain is how you will fare when such tests and temptations come your way. If we can learn from Peter’s case and put into practise those lessons then we will be spared similar spectacular and distressing falls.
We will begin by looking at what happened that fateful night when Jesus was arrested and taken off to the house of the High Priest for questioning.
It hadn’t taken the disciples long to realise when they fled leaving Jesus alone in the garden with the arresting party that they weren’t being followed and that the crowd was only seriously interested in Jesus.
Peter decided that he did not have to keep on running and turned back to follow the crowd back in to Jerusalem to see how the events would all pan out, what the end of it all would be.
This decision doubtless took a degree of courage and also serves to demonstrate the genuine affection and concern that Peter had for his Master. In other words Peter was a true Christian man. What follows will show us the depths to which a genuine Christian may yet fall.
This should come as a stern warning to us who are Christians not to think too highly of ourselves, not to imagine that such falls are only for others and never for a real Christian. In many ways Peter was a more experienced Christian than we are, a more privileged man than us. Just think for a moment Peter was one of the 12 but more than that he was, along with James and John, one of the three disciples closest to Jesus, indeed Peter’s name was always the first on the list of the apostles. Peter’s CV was to this point in time very impressive. Not only had he served Jesus for three years during that time he had witnessed so much – he had been present with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and he had been specially enabled by the Father to identify Jesus as the Messiah.
If such a one as Peter could stumble so badly then let us be very careful that we don’t sit in judgment on him imagining ourselves to be incapable of such things. Paul wrote to the Corinthians warning them against just such an attitude of invincibility:
1Cor.10:12 "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall."
This is not to say that we are doomed to inevitably fail as Peter did – but we must take heed of the warnings of Scripture.
So Peter followed the crowd back to the High Priest’s house. The house was a grand one – the complex was entered through an impressive gate that gave onto an inner courtyard which was surrounded by the house itself. Peter entered that courtyard and there he found some of those who had successfully completed their night time mission to arrest Jesus settling down around a fire. It was a cool night and Peter sat with them facing the fire.
Peter is Challenged and Misses his Opportunities
A servant woman, perhaps the same one who had let him in at the gate, now came and looked closely at him in the firelight and she is sure she recognises him. She probably hadn’t been out in the garden with the crowd but maybe she’d seen Peter standing alongside Jesus as he taught in the Temple in the preceding days. She speaks out to those who are nearby:
v.56 "This man also was with him."
If Peter had had any doubts about the wisdom of following Jesus into the High Priest’s house before he had them no longer – he was convinced he was in a mess. Just a short while before he’d been declaring that he was willing to go to prison or even die for Jesus, he’d backed that up by taking up a sword against overwhelming odds, but now with a simple remark from a relatively unimportant person, he crumbles.
v.57 "Woman, I do not know him." was all he could think of saying. All he wanted to do was put an end to such an unhelpful discussion.
Peter bottled it. But before we judge harshly have we never bottled it? A wonderful opportunity is given to us to speak of the Lord we know and love and we don’t speak of him, of what he has done for us, of our hopes that are all bound up in him.
When that happens to you, you regret it and you think over and over what you might have said – but you fear the opportunity has gone forever. But God gives other opportunities!
Peter had another opportunity too! A little later someone else saw him and this time spoke directly to him:
v.58 "You also are one of them."
Again Peter responded in the same way, a second failure:
v.58 "Man, I am not."
And then things calmed down for a while. As the minutes ticked by Peter thought he was getting away with it but after an hour his world came crashing down. Around that fire Peter had been talking and he had an accent he couldn’t hide. He spoke like a northerner because that’s what he was.
Yet another speaks out:
v.59 "Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean."
Again Peter denies it all. This time he does so with cursing and swearing – anything will do to try to convince them to leave him alone:
v.60 "Man, I do not know what you are talking about."
While Peter was still speaking a couple of highly significant things happened:
vv.60-61 "And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter."
The cock crowed – it was actually the second time but its first crowing had not had any effect upon Peter – but this time it did!
Jesus turned and looked straight at him! Did he look down on the courtyard from one of the rooms of the house where he was being interrogated? Was he enjoying a little respite from the rough horseplay? Was the spittle of others still marking his face now swelling a little from the slaps and punches he’d been subjected to? Or was he being led across the courtyard just at that moment before being taken elsewhere for another hearing? It is quite possible that Jesus had heard everything that had gone on in the courtyard as one of his closest friends denied ever knowing him. What pain and what sadness that must have brought to Jesus!
As the crow crowed and Jesus looked into his eyes Peter suddenly remembered that Jesus had told him what was going to happen before it did.
vv.61-62 "And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times."
And now it had happened – he had denied his Master. It was dreadful, so dreadful that all Peter can do is to escape somewhere where he can cry his eyes out – and he does just that for we read:
v.62 "And he went out and wept bitterly."
Although Peter didn’t realise it at the time it was the beginning of his restitution! He had been brought face to face with his sin and he felt it keenly. These were not tears of remorse they were tears of repentance. Full restoration would have to wait yet a while but soon after the resurrection Jesus would meet with Peter having died for his sin and he wouldn’t rub his nose in it but asked only if Peter loved him before commissioning him to future service! But for the moment Peter is under the conviction of sin and the conviction of sin while salutary is nevertheless uncomfortable, and emotionally painful.
Well that is the sequence of events that took place in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, events which Peter found so traumatic. Now it is time for us to turn to think about some of the lessons we would do well to learn and put into practice.
Reasons why Peter Failed
Satan had desired to sift him – there is a spiritual dimension to what was going on and there is a spiritual dimension that affects us too. We are all in a spiritual battle as Christians and if we don’t realise it we will find ourselves fighting the wrong enemy with the wrong weapons and defeat will be inevitable in such circumstances
Jesus told Peter that he has prayed for him and had assured him of restoration after a fall
Peter fails to pray for himself and this makes his fall unavoidable
Peter was overly self-confident
In the face of warning Peter had insisted that whatever anyone else might do he was confident that he wouldn’t fail Jesus. He was ready for prison, he was ready for death, that’s what he thought but in reality he wasn’t even able to face an unnamed servant girl in his own strength for that strength completely let him down.
Peter was unduly affected by the fear of man
We assume Peter was afraid for his own physical safety – through history and right up to the present day persecution has often taken physical form with torture, imprisonment and various forms of deprivation being used to try to coerce people into abandoning their faith
He may also have not wanted to be seen as a member of a group whose leader had been arrested – perhaps we sometimes don’t want to be considered religious fanatics and so try to distance ourselves from some who are true brothers and sisters in Christ
The problem with the fear of man is that it offers allegiance to men which should only be offered to God himself. Whose approval do you value more than any other?
How Peter could have spared himself
Peter would not have fallen if he had taken a number of appropriate steps and adopted a different attitude.
Peter needed not only to hear truth but to obey it. And it really is no good for us to hear what the Bible has to say and even to believe that what the Bible says is true – what we must do is to do what the Bible calls upon us to do. How foolish we would be to say that Jesus is the Saviour of the World but then not go on to call upon him in order to be saved. All the devils in hell know that the Bible is true but it does them no good. And the Bible will only do you good when you move beyond merely approving of what it says to doing what it requires.
Peter needed to pray and so do we. Neglect of prayer will lead us into spiritual trouble – we may get on fine in the world and we may be well liked by those who belong to it but without prayer our spiritual life and liveliness will be in trouble; our zeal will flag, our love will grow cold, we will lack wisdom and we will become weak and timid with regards to matters of the faith.
Peter needed to watch. He needed to keep his eyes wide open so that he would notice the early stages of developing problems and nip them in the bud before they told on too strong a hold.
a. He needed to watch himself:
b. Was he becoming overly self-confident, trusting too much in his own strength and ability, his own cleverness and understanding?
c. Was he beginning to overlook or forget his own natural weaknesses? We all have our weak spots – what tempts and tests me may not be any problem to you and what worries you might not bother me in the slightest. But if I begin to act as though I have your character and do exactly what you do because you can do it with impunity I may run myself into circumstances that will simply overwhelm me.
d. Was he aware that he wasn’t finding the time to pray that perhaps he once had? Early in Jesus ministry the apostles observed Jesus at prayer and longed to pray like him – "Teach us to pray" they said to him. But in the garden Jesus turned again to prayer talking about it and doing it but they slept, Peter slept.
(We could add things to this list of things to watch out for: what about my love for God, for Jesus? Have I lost my first love? What about my enthusiasm and zeal? Am I becoming lukewarm, the kind of person that Jesus wants to spew out of his mouth? What about the my attitude to the Lord’s Day and public worship – once perhaps I was so careful but is the same true now? Holiness and living the life of sanctification were once so important to me but can that be said of me now or is the world having success in squeezing me into its mould?)
e. He needed to watch out for temptations and trials coming from the outside. How important to recognise temptation for what it is before we get drawn in and enmeshed in a downward spiral!
Peter failed and we are like him, guilty of the same sort of weaknesses, making the same type of mistakes. When we fail like him we ought to experience something of the same emotion that he felt as the Lord convicted him of sin. In Peter’s case it was a prelude to his restoration – may it be so in ours. But let us also try to learn from Peter’s sad experience and not to follow him on that downward path. Let us take our Bible reading seriously. Let us listen to the proclamation of God’s word seriously. Let us pray and let us keep a careful watch.
We will be saved not by our efforts – we will always be saved by grace if we are to be saved at all – but let us remember that Jesus wasn’t playing games when he came to earth, he wasn’t sharing a few thoughts that we might like to consider. He came to die for people like us out of love. He instructs us out of that same love and would spare us needless pain and sorrow.
Let us then press on to live for him, and the glory will be all his own.