It is a harsh, embarrassing, and humiliating thing to get an “F” on an assignment. I’m happy to say that those times were few and far between for me but when they came I always knew that I was the one responsible for the grade. I had not studied and was not prepared.
We all face times of failure in life. You may miss the game winning play, you might mess up an important presentation, you may miscalculate the costs of something that results in a serious business loss, you may volunteer for some task that you are sure you are equal to and then painfully discover that the task overwhelms you. These failures are part of life. None of us can attain perfection.
The most devastating failures are character failures. This is when we fail others, we fail ourselves, or we fail the Lord. It may have been a failure to tell the truth, a failure to support a friend who needs you, or failure to carry through on a commitment. You may fail in your parental responsibilities (by being absent or too indulgent), or in your marriage (because you are too busy with other things). These failures haunt us because we know they did not have to happen. They are our fault.
This morning we will cringe as we look at the account of Peter’s denial. We are saddened that one who made such great boasts of loyalty could suddenly become so hostile. What makes this account most painful is that we see ourselves in Peter.
The fact that the Bible records this failure of Peter is one more piece of evidence that the Bible is an accurate record of what happened in history. If the account was made up the authors would not have included such a story about one of the principal characters.
54 Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance.
As human beings, for some reason we immediately zero in on the faults and weaknesses of people. We see the blemish, the limp, the misstatement, the failure. Peter is no exception. Before we look at the denial, notice something else. While the other disciples ran away to hide, Peter (probably with John), followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest. The Gospel of John tells us John knew the High Priest and talked the servant girl at the door into letting Peter enter.
We have to do some work and compare the different gospels to understand the chronology of what took place after Jesus was arrested. It is likely that the High Priest Caiaphas and the former High Priest Annas lived in the same complex. Caiaphas was the son in law of Annas. Annas was deposed by the Romans in 15 AD but still carried a great deal of power among the Jews. The chronology suggests that Jesus first appeared before Annas and then was taken to Caiaphas and then in the morning to Pilate, Herod, and then back to Pilate again.
A trial at the home of the High Priest appears to be unprecedented. Normally the trial would take place before the Sanhedrin in a large hall in the temple area. Most likely the meeting (it was illegal to have a trial at night) took place here because they wanted to avoid the potential riot that would take place with a more public trial. Jesus was convicted before most people had awakened and learned that Jesus had been arrested.
The house likely surrounded a large courtyard. Peter would have warmed himself in this courtyard.
55 But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. 56 A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”
57 But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.
58 A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”
“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.
59 About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”
60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Peter was a stranger to the crowd that had gathered. The servant girl that let Peter in at the door appears to have been the first to question to Peter. First Peter tried to just pass off the comment by not really answering the question (we all do this). When she pressed him Peter proclaimed strongly that he did not know Jesus. He used the kind of strong words a teacher might use to kick someone out of a classroom or a parent might use to show their child they were serious about some issue.
Later someone else recognized Peter as a disciple. Again he denied being a disciple. About an hour later Peter was confronted again. Matthew says,
73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.” 74 Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man! (Matthew 26:73-74)
It had been a long night. The pressure was intense. The threat was real. Peter chose to protect himself rather than profess His faith. In that situation how many of us would do the same?
What is sobering is the realization that we sometimes deny Christ by our words or by our silence even when there is little pressure and no threat. Here’s a question to ask is: “Would anyone even have recognized us as one of the followers of Christ?” Is our faith so private that there is no chance we would be recognized as one of His followers outside of the church?
There are a number of reasons we deny Jesus
- We are physically afraid.
- We want to be popular with others more than we want to be faithful to Him. In other words we want others (sometimes our own children) to like us.
- We love the world (and our place in it) more than we love Him.
Chuck Swindoll suggests we ask ourselves some honest questions:
- What are the denials in my life?
- How have I betrayed my Lord?
- Am I warming myself at some fire of compromise?
- Am I lurking in the shadows of silence?
The real test of the depth of our faith is not how we act before a friend of the cross, but what we do and say before the enemies of the cross.
Luke tells us
Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Did you ever do something really bad only to turn around and see that your mom or dad was watching you? I had an experience once when my friends and I for some reasons threw some crab apples into a large pool that was fenced in at a house near our home. I don’t remember why we did something so destructive. What I do remember is the neighbor coming to the back door of our house to tell my parents what had happened. They were embarrassed because of me and I was ashamed.
Maybe you remember the look of disappointment, hurt, or even fear in the eyes of your child; the tears of a spouse; the look of disbelief in the eye of your employer; or the look of hurt or betrayal in the eye of a friend.
The details are unimportant. What matters is the reality of regret. The sting of regret eats away at you. You let yourself down and it eats you up.
Peter saw the eyes of Jesus. We are not sure how he saw His eyes.
- The trial may have been taking place in the courtyard
- Jesus was moving from the meeting with Annas to the meeting with Caiaphas
- Peter was able to see Jesus through a window.
It doesn’t matter how he saw His eyes . . . what matters is that he did. He saw the regret and knew that he let his Master down.
It would be a staggering thing to realize how many people are going through life feeling very inadequate because of past failures in their lives. The scars of regret remain fresh and painful even if the failure took place a long time ago. People feel like “damaged goods”.
There comes a point in life when we need to see the truth: that we are not good people; we have no hope of saving ourselves. However, we also need to see that Jesus came to give us a new beginning. His death on the cross gives us a chance to be whole, forgiven and healed. God’s grace is greater than our failures.
Peter ran out of the courtyard and wept. To his credit he did not isolate himself. We know this because he was with the disciples on Easter Sunday and ran with John to the tomb after the report that it was empty. There’s a good principle here . . . in the times of failure you need to turn to friends who will help you get back on your feet.
I’d love for this church to be place where people are helped up after they have fallen rather than being beat up. Let’s be a place that rejoices in forgiveness rather than rehearsing failures.
This would be a very depressing story if it ended here. After the resurrection Jesus came and talked with the disciples several times. On one occasion recorded by the gospel of John the disciples were out fishing. As they returned they saw Jesus on the beach. He has made them breakfast. It was during this breakfast that Jesus dealt the the “elephant in the room”; the betrayal of Peter.
Jesus could have rubbed Peter’s failure in his face but he doesn’t do that. Instead Jesus restored his disciple in love.
15 After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.
16 Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
17 A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.
Notice what Jesus does. Jesus first asked Peter if he loved him more than the other disciples. If you remember, Peter had made a great boast that even though others might desert Jesus, he would never do so. Now Peter confessed the only thing he knew to be true. He knew that he loved the Lord. Here we see that the arrogance of Peter has given way to the humility of one who has fallen and knows that his only hope is the grace of God.
Second, notice that Jesus asked Peter the question three different times. He was addressing the issue of the denials in a very subtle yet helpful manner. Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to affirm his love. It didn’t erase the denials but it helped the process of healing.
Third, notice that Jesus gave Peter a job to do. Peter had failed but he was not useless. Jesus wanted his disciple to build on the failure, to use what he had learned to help others move forward in the faith. This of course is what Peter did.
The message is clear: you may have messed up bad; you may have failed publicly or privately; you may feel that you are damaged goods. However, the Lord still wants to use you. He wants you to move forward rather than dwelling on the past failures. He wants you to serve with new focus and energy rather than give up.
I hope you have seen that this story of Jesus is a story that has implications for our lives. First, we see that we are presented every day with opportunities to proclaim Christ or deny Him.
This account challenges us to be faithful. It calls us to stand with Christ with our friends, our co-workers, our family members. Look at your life right now. Go through a list of your friends. Do they know you are a follower of Christ? Here’s a better question: What do these friends believe it means to be a Christ-follower because of what they see in you?
- Does it mean pretending to be one thing when you are really another
- Does it mean living your life with the same values as everyone else except that you sometimes go to church?
- Does it mean that you like religious music?
- Does it mean you have a lot of rules to obey?
- Or do they see that following Christ means having a new focus, a new passion for helping those who hurt, and a new joy that comes from walking with God every day?
Second, the passage reminds us that failure does not have to be final. I love the statement: “The Only Difference between a failure and a success is that the successful person got up the last time he or she failed.” Steve Brown wrote,
I heard a commencement speaker say once, “Failure is only in the dictionary of fools and cowards.” It was all I could do to keep from jumping up and interrupting his speech with, “That is the dumbest thing I have heard in all my life. That is Stupid! And I am angry that this college would invite you as the speaker.”…Failure is in everybody’s dictionary. (Living Free 63)
People fail! They have bad days, they have bad decades, they make bad choices, they say hurtful things, and they get discouraged. O.K., so you’ve failed. You can’t change that fact. What are you going to do now? Are you going to lick your wounds and hide or are you going to pick yourself up, learn from the failures, and get back to work?
Max Lucado summarizes it well.
I stand a few feet from a mirror and see the face of a man who failed . . . who failed his Maker. Again. I promised I wouldn’t, but I did. I was quiet when I should have been bold. I took a seat when I should have taken a stand.
If this were the first time, it would be different. But it isn’t. How many times can one fall and expect to be caught?
Your eyes look in the mirror and see a sinner, a failure, a promise-breaker. But by faith you look in the mirror and see a robed prodigal bearing the ring of grace on your finger and the kiss of your Father on your face.
Your eyes see your faults. Your faith sees your Savior.
Your eyes see your guilt. Your faith sees his blood.
Your eyes see your grave. Your faith sees a city whose builder and maker is God.
Yes, Peter denied the Lord. It was a horrible thing he did to His Lord. But don’t miss what God did with Peter. It was Peter who preached on the day of Pentecost and we are told about 3000 were added to that number that day. It was Peter who first brought the message of salvation to the Gentiles at the household of Cornelius. Peter wrote two letters and many people believe he was the source of much of the Gospel of Mark.
Peter learned from his failure. He denied Christ once but it didn’t happen again. The next time he was challenged to deny Christ he chose to stand with Jesus. He eventually was martyred because of his testimony.
The message we need to hear is this: Failure does not mean your life is over. Mourn over, confess and repent of your sin. Receive his forgiveness. Learn from your failures. And then get back to work. By God’s magnificent grace your present failure may become the very thing that helps you to grow to be a faithful and effective servant of Christ in the future. May God help us to this end!