Mark 14:66-72 “While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. ‘You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,’ she said. But he denied it. ‘I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,’ he said, and went out into the entryway. When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, ‘This fellow is one of them.’ Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, ‘Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.’ He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’ Immediately the cock crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: ‘Before the cock crows twice you will disown me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.”
Our Lord Jesus has been brought to the Sanhedrin to be tried for blasphemy. While that trial is taking place Peter is waiting outside the chief priest’s house in the courtyard. Jesus’ examination is his final and climactic encounter with hostile authorities, while Peter’s interrogation in the courtyard is his first. Our Lord openly acknowledges his identity as the Son of God and so is condemned, mocked and beaten up. Peter denies before the chief priest’s servant girls that he did not even know Jesus. Peter’s trial is a parody of our Lord’s, his threefold denial matching his threefold failure to watch with Jesus in Gethsemane. Tribulation comes into Peter’s life and the word once received with joy which had displayed such early virility, begins to wilt.
1. WHAT LED PETER INTO THIS GREAT FALL?
What was it that led Peter into this particular temptation? How did the apostle fall into this form of ungodliness, so explicit an act of denial? In other words it is made very plain that these things don’t just happen to the believer simply out of the blue. They are the culmination of a long process. Let us look at the process for a moment. What is the basic problem in Peter’s life that leads him to deny specifically any connection with Christ and leads him to adopt a blatantly worldly lifestyle making him swear and give the impression that he had no time at all for the Christian faith?
i] Peter was in the grip of Satan.
The most fundamental fact about Peter at this moment is this, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat” (Lk. 22:31). Satan once asked to have Job and was granted first some authority over his possessions and his family, and later authority over his health. Authority over his life itself was refused him. Satan was chained to Jehovah in all his actions. In this hour of darkness in the courtyard Satan has got Peter in his riddle and is sifting him. Peter is a disciple, a follower of the Lord Jesus, a born-again man, a gifted apostle in the church of Christ, and Satan has him.
Into evangelical Christianity has come two-tier religion. There are those who are ordinary believers and those again it is said who claim to have had a second blessing, those whom the apostle refers to ironically as the ‘super-Christians’ – the ‘hyper-apostles’! That emphasis has permeated evangelical Christianity and marginalized those who challenge it. “One can be a more than ordinary Christian,” it says. The danger of this attitude is that it tolerates substantial ungodliness and unrighteousness in nominally religious people, acknowledging them to be true sons of God and heirs of heaven, possessers of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins, but, this theology says, they are simply strangers to the second blessing. For that blessing to come to them their faith must be exercised. God is helpless to bestow it until they are stirred to agonize for it. That is a very popular theology today.
It is a dangerous delusion to give assurance to those whose godless lives are denying the Lord. Of course in the Christian church there are novices, those who recently have come to faith in Christ and are taking their first faltering steps on the way. There are also mature Christians full of faith and the Holy Spirit who have walked with God for a long time through many seasons of adversity and blessing. The child in Christ and the man in Christ – there is such a distinction, but not on super-Christians and hyper spirituality and virtual perfection in holiness. We see nowhere in God’s word where that is a possibility before we see him. There are no descriptions and no definitions given to us in the Scripture by which we can identify such people or know that we ourselves have at last attained this hyper status.
The Bible is more challenging. The Bible can intimidate and frighten. The Bible alerts us to danger and makes us whisper, “Lord, is it I?” The Bible says that it is possible for our profession of faith to be no more than that of a stony ground hearer, initially enthusiastic at the first hearing of the good news of Jesus, but when troubles and trials come we can give up entirely and think our experiment with Jesus Christ is over and that he was found wanting. The Bible says more, that a true believer can become luke-warm, neither cold nor hot. A true believer can leave his first love. Are we aware of that kind of structure? Here is an ordinary believer who has become an extraordinary man in Christ, pervaded in heart, soul, mind and body with the Holy Spirit, and then there can come a time of declension into his life, a loss of ardour for the Lord, a drifting away from fellowship with him and fellow believers. He is entering the dark night of the soul, as Peter was by the fire in the courtyard, or like Lot, whose lingering outside of Sodom ended in his family entering that Vanity Fair and taking on too many of its values and enthusiasm, or like David lingering on the roof of his palace and becoming a peeping Tom. This is what Peter was on that dark cold night, a disciple in a satanic riddle, buffeted and shaken violently to the core of his being by the devil.
I do not think we ought to ignore that possibility for a moment. We are properly concerned about the dangers of two-tier Christianity for the devilish false assurance it gives to the ungodly who once made a religious decision. Let us resist that pastoral minefield with all our heart and voice, but there can be certain periods in our lives as Christians when it is patently obvious that Satan is in the driving seat. I am not talking about hours, tragic as those may be. I speak of wintry seasons when lessons are forgotten and our good is turned to evil. In such passages of time Satan has us. The uppermost affections and enthusiasms in our lives are from the pit not from heaven.
Satan does not have us in the way God has us. Satan cannot pluck us out of our Father’s hand, but do you realise where lay the real security of Peter alone in the Garden by the fire that night? It is this, in these words of Jesus, “I have prayed for you that your faith does not fail.” Peter is being kept by a great faithful High Priest who ever lives to make intercession for his own, and so can save to the uttermost all who come to God by him even while Peter’s temporary lifestyle in its tone and direction was placarding the very contrary reality, that Satan had got him.
That is analysed by the word of God in a number of instances. There was, for example a time when the Lord turned to Peter and said to him, “Get thee behind me Satan.” As Peter used his friendship and Jesus’ love for him to turn away his Master from the cross he was the unwitting tool of Satan. The devil was using him to the embarrassment of our Lord and to the peril of the church. Peter had become Satanic in his hot emotions that cried for one thing, “I must protect my best friend from his own suicidal plans.” Or again you remember how David once confessed “we were overwhelmed by sins” (Psa. 65:3). They prevailed against him day by day. It was a dark period in the life of the people of God. These things are certainly more in your face in an entire congregation’s declension. Are there not professing churches of which even charity says that Satan has got them?
I am asking you to make a place in your theological universe for the real solemn possibility that we, as God’s own people, can enter a time when Satan’s devices get to work on us, and Satan has us. We cannot understand the appalling depths to which Peter sank without that factor. The apostle goes so low that he denies any connection with Christ. He even begins to curse and swear and hurl anathemas from the pit of hell to anyone who dares to suggest that he has anything to do with the Nazarene. That, in all its horror, can become a possibility for a Christian. Maybe it is rare. Pray God it may be rare for you, your church and the whole circle amongst whom you are walking to heaven, but I am saying that it can be possible. There are many temptations on the road that leads from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. There can be this dark abyss, and God permitted Peter to enter it, and all four evangelists to chronicle the event, and we are being reminded that, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (I Cor. 10:11&12).
Today the Captain of our salvation who is bringing us to glory is issuing to us this tremendously solemn and unmistakable warning, “Watch your step! Look out for the abyss into which you can fall and where other men of more eminent gifts and experience have denied me with profanities and cursing and swearing.” So the first reason that Peter fell was that Satan had hold of him.
ii] Peter was driven by the fear of men.
We see Peter in a particular context; in a certain company he fell. He was not with the twelve when this happened. Peter, I think, had a certain kind of temperament; he hated to be ill thought of. Whatever the company was he wanted to be on good terms, to be able to establish a rapport soon so that he would feel at home. He found it difficult to be the odd man out, and so he struck up conversations and established a spirit of approachability in whatever company he was. He couldn’t tolerate men’s contempt; he wanted to be well considered. It is very elementary, and yet it led to his downfall. What if the people in the courtyard were right in judging that he was a companion of Jesus of Nazareth? There was no word of threat to any but the Lord. Surely at last the great perspective for us as Christians is a concern to do what is well-pleasing in the Lord’s sight. In other words, what is the answer to the fear of men? It is surely to concentrate on what is pleasing to God; that is to be our obsession and exclusive preoccupation.
There are many other problems in the Christian church derived simply from this fear of what the world around us will think. We are afraid of how our brethren in the ministry will judge us. How will people in the congregation respond if we speak the truth as it is found in the Bible? So we retreat and compromise. There are far too many lived simply in that context, as if there were no eye upon them by the eyes of men. We Christians have to deliberately take our lives right out of that context and place them before the only eyes that matter. It is only if we are driven by Satan that our obsession is with the world or our fellow Christians. There comes a time in the every Christian life when a deliberate decision must be taken as to whether I am going to act as the world wants me to act or whether I am going to act as God wants me to act. Am I going to behave as the denomination wants me to behave or am I going to behave as God would have me act?
It happened to Martin Luther as he was meeting constant frustration in his attempts to call back the professing church to its biblical calling. The sale of indulgences was the catalyst that brought matters to a head. Deliverance from purgatory could come for yourself or your family if you bought a scrap of paper, so the wandering indulgence sellers preached. Luther resisted this wickedness with all his might and finally was brought to a church court and asked whether he would comply with the teaching of the Roman church. He replied, “Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.” Luther feared God more than he feared men. Peter, alas, at this time in his life, did not.
iii] Peter was self-confident.
Peter had such conviction that he was a strong man who could take any strain and stress. Our Lord had warned him explicitly of the danger that lay ahead but the words meant nothing to Peter. He said dismissively, “Although all should forsake you I shall never forsake you. I will go with you to prison and death.” There was no consciousness of his own infirmities; no awareness of the power, pressure and subtlety of temptation; no respect for the wiles and persistence of the devil. Peter was convinced that he would stand if everyone else ran off. Had he not been given such heavenly insight and seen such glory? He was sure that he would remain close to Christ.
To challenge the emphasis on self is an enormous task. It is flying in the face of both popular culture and popular religion. Focusing upon self and enlarging self appeals to man’s sinful nature. Men love to esteem self, to boast of the integrity of self, to read religious self-help books, to sing of how much self loves Jesus, to attend a church service that is dedicated to the improvement of self, and to follow Bible teachers and evangelists who make self feel very spiritual. To question the self emphasis is like pulling a bone away from a dog. There’s a whole lot of growling going on.
But did the Saviour warn Peter about self? Had he not told Peter that before the cock would crow he would deny Jesus three times? What was Peter’s response? Peter was offended. Perhaps we ourselves today are feeling this same kind of thing. It is unimaginable to us that on any day in any context we would ever deny our Christian commitment with cursing and profanity. Yet it seems to me that God is saying, “Reckon on it as a possibility.” This is not a warning for the whole church at large but it is a possibility for you as Mr. Christian. When you begin to measure yourself and take stock of your life then do not ever let confidence in yourself grow to these proportions that you will think, “I’m OK; I will never backslide; I will never deny him; I will never betray him.” It is almost the primary rule in this war of ours that a Christian is governed by an awareness of his own infirmities. Without Christ we can do nothing, and nothing means nothing. Peter’s tragedy was that he went forth one day in a spirit of self-confidence and down he fell.
Consider how speedily one thing followed another, the warning, the blessings in the Upper Room, the sleeping in Gethsemane, the arrest and the cursing and denial in the courtyard. It was not that Peter ought to beware that in some distant future, in a different part of the world, out of his ordinary plan of duties that he would be faced with new temptations and be capable of caving in and falling in an unusual way. Let me be careful today! Let me have no confidence in myself today. If my Lord says to me very plainly that before the cock crows twice I shall deny him thrice then let me take those words to heart, not brush them aside with a breezy comment that I will cope, and that Jesus is needlessly worrying over me.
“There is a foe whose hidden power
The Christian well may fear;
More subtle far than all the world,
And to the heart more dear.
It is the power of selfishness,
The proud and wilful I;
So while my Lord will live in me,
That very self must die.”
So why did Peter fall as he did? Satan had hold of him; Peter was driven by the fear of man and he was overwhelmed with confidence in himself.
2. WHAT COULD HAVE PREVENTED PETER FROM DENYING HIS LORD?
The answer to that question is very simple. If Peter had heeded the words of Jesus he would not have fallen. If Peter had prayed and watched he would not have denied his Lord with oaths. Very often we get ourselves into all sorts of spiritual tangles and morasses and you would think that somehow it was all a mystery. We have lost our assurance and we don’t know why. We have lost our zeal, and vigour, and constancy, and faith, and hope, and vision. We have family and marital difficulties; we are not what once we were. All the burdens of following Christ now seem unsupportable; all our sufferings seem so unbearable, and temptation simply runs away with us. We are being driven by the winds of the world further from God. People going through an experience like this consider it a mystery, and at times it is exceedingly perplexing, but in how many instances is it directly attributable to the neglect of these exhortations, “Do God’s word! Watch! Pray!” The exhortations are so simple and understandable, and yet those directives go unheeded.
That’s a bit obvious? But that’s one reason why we need to attend to it. Hearing good preaching is not the issue in this town. It may be the issue elsewhere. Understanding what we are hearing is not the issue. It may be elsewhere but not here. Doing is the problem. Hearing the warnings, and knowing what course of action to take is not as important as doing what God says. Our Lord never asked his hearers, “Do you agree with me?” or “Does this sound reasonable to most of you?” or “Get my drift?” Jesus wanted more than mere agreement. Most of the time they called Jesus “Teacher,” but God’s great prophet is doing more than telling Peter what would happen. What Jesus was after was discipleship. Scripture doesn’t just want to be understood. It longs to be put into action, and so maybe that’s why we prefer to step back, ponder, think, consider, and reflect, while the Bible longs for us to get moving, get into the act, perform the text rather than just speak or hear it.
You ask people what they look for in a good sermon. “I like a sermon which helps me to think about things in a new way,” is a predominate response. “I like a sermon which engages my mind, which spurs my thinking and reflection.” We deceive ourselves into thinking that we have ‘done the faith’ when we have merely listened, reflected, pondered, agreed. In my experience what we profess is not as important as what we are enabled to perform. Beliefs must be embodied, enacted in order to be real. Sometimes I have heard people say of church on Sunday morning, “I think of church as a petrol station. I come here empty, and during the service I get filled so I can make it through he week.” See? It is passive and receptive, not active. It makes church into a place where we come, sit back and say, “OK preacher, do it to me, fill me up.” No. The test for true worship, the mark of a good church is not what we do here during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week. Yet here, as elsewhere, after all is said and done, more is being said than being done. So the sermon ends. The test for the sermon, the mark of whether or not this was a “good” sermon, a “good” service of worship, is about to come upon us. The issue is now before us, now for the final question: what will we do with that which we’ve said, sung, and heard? “Pastor, that was a wonderful sermon,” said the parishioner at the door after the service. “That remains to be seen,” said the preacher.
Our Lord sets the church an example. As the peril draws nearer he goes to God for strength in order that the will of God might be done through him. The disciples, much weaker, but more confident, they do not pray. Peter did not pray. When the temptation comes they simply cannot stand and they are driven along as chaff before the wind. Now is it unthinkable to you that there are Christians who do not pray? Is it unthinkable to you that there are ministers who don’t pray? I would think many Christians would say that yes it is unthinkable. Yet here is Peter, and he falls spectacularly, and you ask why he falls and the answer is because he did not do what the Lord said and he did not pray. There are no mysteries to Peter’s fall. There is no need for a complex psychological analysis. The whole problem began there. He did not go in weakness to the throne and ask for grace to help in time of need. He thought he could cope by himself, and out of that there came his fall. How often can we trace our spiritual lapses and calamities to the same particular failing and personal omission.
Never, never trust your own judgment in anything. When common sense says that a course is right, lift your heart to God, for the path of faith and the path of blessing may be in a direction completely opposite to that which you call common sense. When voices tell you that action is urgent, that something must be done immediately, refer everything to the tribunal of heaven. Then if you are still in doubt, dare to stand still. If you are called on to act and you have not time to pray, don’t act. If you are called on to move in a certain direction and cannot wait until you have peace with God about it, don’t move. Be strong enough and brave enough to dare to stand and wait on God, for none of them that wait on him shall ever be ashamed. That is the only way to resist temptation. It seems to take us a long time to learn the lesson that neglect of prayer always leads to trouble, and destroys the spirit of discernment. Neglect of prayer always suggests pride in our own judgment, which is fatal.
The Lord speaks to Peter; the Lord tells Peter to pray; the Lord also tells Peter to watch. How do you watch? In the Garden it was for the advance of the enemy that might come upon our Lord while he was unprepared. Watch so that others might not be distracted from their duties. Peter had to watch by keeping an eye on himself. No man backslides from closeness to God into the abyss of profane denial at a moment. There is a process, and if you keep an eye on yourself then you can see the onset and progress of the process. Watch, lest you’re growing in self-confidence and not doing what the Lord is telling you. Watch, lest you are omitting prayer. Watch for every indication of declension. Watch for the first risings of backslidings and deal with them; nip them in the very bud. Watch!
Watch not only yourself but for the onset of temptation. Peter ought to have known at once that he was in danger. He was alone, in the company of the world, and a very hostile segment of the world at that. He ought to have seen the lights flashing and known that he was at risk. Peter was under pressure and so he ought to have been especially watchful. Have we the mentality that in any particular situation we are intent upon that? I find prayer unanswered, and the lights start flashing. I find myself suffering and lonely, and I see the lights flashing. I find myself in the company of the world on some occasion with hardly another Christina in the whole gathering and I want to be well thought of. I want to give the impression that I’m really not such a religious killjoy as people imagine – do I see again the lights flashing? I find myself alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex. Do I see the lights flashing. I find the in-group in school are beginning to tease and torment me about religion. Do I keep smiling and giving gentle answers? Do I see the lights flashing because I am watching. I am crying out to the Lord for preservation and deliverance and meekness and patience and wisdom.
Peter denied his Lord because Satan had him, he was afraid of men and he was full of self-confidence. Peter could have overcome the temptation if he had done what the Lord had told him, and if he had prayed and watched. One more thing; let us say something about Peter’s restoration.
3. HOW WAS PETER RESTORED?
Peter “broke down and wept” (v.72). The restoration of Peter is that of a deeply humbled and repentant man. Spiritual experience is intense. Peter broke down and wept. And this short sentence for ever settles the question of emotion in religion. When the Lord turned and looked upon Peter, and memory crushed into one vivid moment the guilt of those never-to-be-forgotten hours in the darkness by the fireside, what else could Peter do other than weep bitterly? Let memory so work on any of our lives today, and our past come before us, and is the word “bitterly” too strong to express the agony of God’s discovery of our own sins? Peter had much need to weep bitterly; and if there are no bitter tears in our religious life, it is not because we have less of Peter’s sin, but little of Peter’s grace.
It is vain to console ourselves by measuring, as we try to do, the small size of the slips we make as compared with his. There is such a thing in the world as a great sin, but there is no such thing as a small sin. The smallest sin is a fall, and a fall is a fall from God, and to fall from God is to fall the greatest height in the universe. The publicity of a sin has nothing to do with its size. Our fall last week, or yesterday, or to-day, was just as great, perhaps, as Peter’s fall, or David’s, or Noah’s, or Jacob’s, or the many private sins which history has made public examples, or the Bible has placed as beacons to all the race.
Every sin that was ever done demands a bitter penitence. And if there is little emotion in a man’s religion, it is because there is little self-examination. Religion without emotion is religion without reflection. Let a man sit calmly down to think about his life. Let him think how God has dealt with him since ever he lisped God’s name. Let him add to that how he has dealt with God since ever he could sin. And as he turns over the secrets of his past, and forgotten sins come crowding one by one into his thoughts, can he help a strong emotion rising in his heart, and shedding itself in tears? Yes; religion without emotion is religion without reflection.
How did the Lord graciously reinstate this apostle? That he does so is a marvel of grace that a man who ignored the warnings and failed to watch and pray, who denied his Lord with such vehemence, should be restored and reemployed with a new commission. We all know the question that Jesus raised with Peter. “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?” It was not, “Peter, did you know what you did? Peter, are you sorry for what you did? Peter, are there more tears you can squeeze out of that stony heart of yours? Peter, do you know how much you’ve hurt me after I’d been so good to you? Peter, will you promise you’ll never deny me again?” No, it was none of those questions because any one of them would have plunged fragile Peter into another bout of bitter weeping. Who knows if we have repented enough, wept enough, have enough faith never to fall into that sin again?
It is one question that Peter is asked and it comes from an extraordinary sympathetic High Priest. “Peter, I have taken you through the deepest waters you will ever pass through. You have seen me nailed to a cross until I was dead. Peter do you love me? In spite of all I have asked you to endure do you still love me?” Our Lord is concerned about Peter loving him. He is not concerned at all about his love for Peter. He loves Peter with an unchangeable fervour and will love him like that to the end. “Do you love me, Peter, after all the darkness of the past days?”
It is the most important question to end an estrangement and obtain reconciliation. Think of a Christian woman who had developed an infatuation for a man in work and had a brief affair with him, but who now is overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. Her husband has discovered all this and she is driving home, fearful and anguished to see him. She has prepared a speech of apology to make to him. She gets out of the car, breathes heavily and lets herself into the house. He is there sitting in a chair in the main room alone and she goes up to him and attempts to stutter out her words of remorse, but he cuts her short, “Mary, do you love me more than him?” he asks. “O yes, Jim,” she says, “you know that I love you.” “Go and feed the kids they are ready for supper.” She begins again to speak her words of regret, but again he stops her short, “Mary, do you truly love me?” She says, “Yes Jim, you know that I love you.” Jim says, “then take care of our little flock.” The third time she attempts to apologize but for the third time he stops her short, “Mary, do you love me?” She was hurt that he had asked her a third time, “Do you love me?” and she said, “Jim you know everything about me. No one knows you like me. You know that I love you.” “Well, the kids know you are home and they are longing to see you. Get their supper ready.” There is restoration and the promise of renewed useful lives in that wonderful question.
Let me ask you, especially those of you who have sinned greater than Peter – and that means most of us. Do you love the Lord whose forgiveness is immeasurable who let himself be scourged and crucified in our place? Do you love the one who died in your place and has saved you from hell? All we can say is,
“Lord is it my chief complaint
That my love is cold and faint.
Yet I love Thee and adore,
O for grace to love Thee more.” (William Cowper, 1731-1800).
To that living Lord we now come, the one who knows everything about us. He has seen our hearts and read the file. How we need to come to him who came into the world to receive sinners. Do not allow self-recrimination to keep you away. The only way you can look at your past sins as a Christian is that they are all forgiven sins. So let us in the renewal of the warm affection of Jesus work for him, helping the lambs, feeding the sheep. The best shepherds are those who know their own hearts most intimately and are overwhelmed by the mercy of the great over-Shepherd.
8August 2005 GEOFF THOMAS