Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake.” Jesus answered him, “Will you lay down your life for My sake? Most assuredly, I say to you, the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times. (John 13:37–38)
Peter’s denial of Christ, like his life, is painted in dramatic and graphic reality. We look at the apostle and, if we’re honest, wonder how this great man could have allowed himself to be caught up in fear. We expect more from the Peter ‘we know’ – after all, He walked on water, was the first of the disciples to recognise that Jesus was the Son of God, and boldly lopped off the ear of one the servants when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. In these verses, we see the ‘larger than life’ character we come to expect whenever we find him in the unfolding events of the early church. Yet this bold, brave, impulsive, and endearingly simple man is seen denying Jesus three times, just as He predicted.
Denying Jesus is something every believer faces, even if we don’t realise it.
This incident in Peter’s life always has me thinking about the ‘demise’ of the reputation and career of one of our cricketing ‘greats’ who shall remain nameless out of respect for one who was, despite his sin, a godly man who deserves respect. When the story of match fixing and bribery broke, South Africa went into overdrive. He was condemned, vilified, and publically castigated. Supporters turned on him, friends abandoned him, and his team mates rejected him. While I don’t for one moment suggest that what he did was right, I recall the quiet lesson that God spoke into my heart – the only different between my sin and his was that his was made public. The same applies to Peter denying Christ. The only difference between his denial and ours is that his has been recorded for public record.
The harsh reality of our Christian life is that we will, at some point, fall. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the great men and women of God will be spared this truth, and neither will the ‘ordinary’ man. It’s a weakness that is common to all. We expect our leaders and those in the public eye to be strong, godly ambassadors of Christ. In short, because we look to them for teaching, guidance, and direction, we expect them to somehow be perfect. Much of the time, while they may well have sinned and fallen short of the glory expected of them, we’re disappointed because we feel they let us down. This is often the human response to Peter’s denying Christ – how could he, when he lived, walked, talked, and learned with Jesus daily? How could he, when he was granted spiritual insight and boldness, and was selected by God to start the church?
And of all things, how could Peter allow himself – he’d been warned by Jesus, after all – fall into the temptation of denying Christ? We forget all the Bible ‘greats’ who fell into weakness. Abraham tried to fulfil God’s promises by making his own son with a slave. Moses possessed a fiery temper which made him murderer and which denied him access to the promised land he’d given his life to reach. David committed both adultery and murder. Like Peter’s fall, each of these is recorded in great, graphic detail in the Bible, but it doesn’t diminish them. Somehow, denying Jesus ‘in the flesh’ stands out there as the worst possible sin. While I don’t for a moment defend it, if we’re going to pass judgement we must include ourselves. The truth is that we are all guilty of denying Jesus. The only difference is that we’re not recorded in the Bible when we do so, and our failure may not even be seen by others.
Denying Jesus does not have to be a loud, public spectacle with witnesses. In fact, most of the time, it’s the little things that often even go unnoticed by ourselves. The principle is the same as that of grieving the Holy Spirit. While this claim may offend some among us, we need to consider the implications of our actions with a heart tuned to the heart of God. Consider the times we were prompted to speak and held back. Or the times when we saw someone being ill-treated or persecuted and did nothing. Perhaps we were prompted to give to a beggar and ignored them. Or we might have been told to pray for someone and didn’t.
We’re all guilty of these. It could be fear, self-interest, the fact that we had a bad month financially, or because we’re too stressed, busy, or tired to set aside time to pray. Whatever the reason, and however valid it might be, the fact of the matter is that we go about our lives with love and commitment to God and yet are still denying Jesus without even realising it. Matthew 25:40 says, And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ Denying others when prompted to do so is denying Jesus. He makes this very clear – so clear that when we read Peter’s story we should see ourselves in the main role. Peter is, in every way, the type of the ‘common man’ – a simple, uneducated fishermen transformed by the grace of God. Peter is each of us, if we will only face our failings and allow God to do His work.
Jesus had warned Peter that Satan wanted to sift him as wheat. This sifting came when he least expected it, but it cut straight to heart of who Peter was and of his faith. We need to understand that the devil hasn’t changed one bit. Why should he change something that’s working very well? His greatest desire is have people denying Jesus. Every denial, no matter how small, is a victory to the enemy of God. Every denial is in effect saying that what Jesus did on the cross has no real relevance in our lives. We cannot take hold of the grace and the blessings and deny the authority of Him who purchased them for us. The devil will sift us, just as he did Peter, and we need to take hold of this truth to empower us to recognise what we are accomplishing for Satan when we are denying Jesus.
What we also don’t realise is that denying Jesus has consequences. We can see that from Peter’s story. He goes from ‘hero to zero’ in an instant, a broken man. Facing his failure wasn’t simply a ‘sorry’ moment. It crushed his spirit and tore down his pride. He acknowledged that without Jesus at his side, all his boldness was simply bluster, that he lacked the spiritual maturity and conviction to stand when it mattered most – not just for Jesus but also for himself. In denying Jesus, Peter denied himself – his faith, his conviction and his purpose.
What saved Peter was his brokenness and his honesty. He recognised his failure and had the courage to face it. Had he continued in his bluster and bold arrogance, Simon would never have become Peter, he would never have come to the place of relying completely and utterly on God, and he would never have been able to take up his purpose as an apostle with the humility and obedience he lives in for the remainder of his life. Denying Jesus might have been the end of Peter but for the grace which brought him to a place where he allowed it to confront him with its truth. Because he did, God was able to use his denying Jesus to accomplish a work of transformation. God used it as way to deal with his pride and ‘make him over’ as the man he was intended to be.
What a wonderful encouragement to us all. Instead of ignoring those moments, we should ask God to reveal when we are denying Jesus, even in the little things. If we don’t, they compound. They blind us spiritually, a gradual process that works hand in hand with the ascension of pride in our hearts. If we cannot see our faults, that’s pride. If we won’t acknowledge our failures, that’s pride. And Proverbs reminds us that pride always comes before a fall. The section in Matthew shows us very clearly what the spiritual path is for those who live their lives denying Jesus. At the end, we may find ourselves with the goats, not the sheep. Pride creates a perception of life that is self-serving and not real. We can easily convince ourselves that we’re living for Christ, that our moments of denying Jesus are ‘little ones’ only and don’t matter in the bigger scheme of things. But to God, sin is sin. Peter’s sin was no greater than our own. It was simply made public.
We can learn of another wonderful gift in Peter’s fall – the gift of grace. When we are open and honest, when we acknowledge our failure and bring it before God with humble hearts in our brokenness, when we recognise our condition and our desperate need of His power, God releases His restoring grace. There is no sin that He is not willing to forgive, even that of denying Jesus. The Jews denied Jesus as a nation, yet He forgave them on the cross, even in His agony and suffering, and the Bible reminds us that God will yet be gracious to His people and turn their hearts back to Him. We are even part of that promise – the Gentiles are brought in to stir the Jews to jealousy and reveal the fullness of God so that they, too, will be saved. We serve a loving God who is merciful and quick to forgive if we come in the right attitude. But we need to be willing to listen to His voice and to obey the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Most of all, we need to continually ask for humble hearts and teachable hearts, and the courage to face our weaknesses in absolute honesty, relying on His grace and strength alone. Only then can we be transformed into the bold, dynamic, vibrant servants of God so desperately needed in our failing world.
Thank You, Lord, for Your grace. Open our hearts and minds to Your voice. Help us to see ourselves in the light of Your truth, to recognise those moments where we deny Jesus through commission or omission. Prompt us to see our pride and our presumption, and grant us humble and contrite hearts, even broken hearts, if that’s what it takes to place our lives fully in Your hands.