READ : Mark 14:70-72
But again he denied it. And after a little while again the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Mark 14:70-72 rsv
We’ve been thinking in these recent programs about persons who encountered Jesus of Nazareth and the effects that had upon their lives. For the last of these in Mark’s gospel, it’s fitting to think about Simon Peter, the great apostle, and what happened in his life because of his association with Jesus. We remember how he was called by the Lord from his fishing trade by the Sea of Galilee. We rejoice in his great confession of faith in Jesus, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” We think of how he was a leader in the apostolic group, usually the first among them to speak, prominent both in his devotion and at times in his dullness of mind and heart. But the true revelation of his character and the transforming influence of Jesus upon his life are best seen in the closing chapters of the gospel, in connection with the Lord’s passion and resurrection.
What I’m going to read now represents the low point of Peter’s entire life, his denial of Jesus. Listen. This is from Mark 14, beginning at verse 66:
And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came; and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him, and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway. And the maid saw him, and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while again the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself, and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
This denial of Jesus by Peter reads in the Gospel according to Mark like a drama in three acts. In the first, Jesus predicts what is going to happen. After the Last Supper, when Jesus and His followers had gone out to the Mount of Olives, He said to them, “You will all become deserters, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered. But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28). The Lord is speaking here about the sufferings which lie just ahead for Him, His arrest, His shamefully unjust trial, His sufferings at the hands of the soldiers, the agony of crucifixion. He as the shepherd will be smitten and His flock will be scattered.
As Jesus speaks about that, He doesn’t single out any disciple for special responsibility and blame. He says, “You shall all become deserters.” When their Lord and Master is taken, they will all scatter as frightened, unattended sheep. But He will not reject them as a result of that. He will still go before them to Galilee, still lead them as their faithful shepherd. But that will only happen after He has been raised from the dead. In the time when they are apart from Him, without His leadership, they will only flounder and fail.
Peter objects to this prophecy of Jesus. He doesn’t argue that the others will not deny the Lord. In fact, he concedes that they may well do so. But not he. “Even though all become deserters,” he insists, “I will not.” We can’t escape the impression that Peter sees himself as more courageous, more loyal than the rest. In the matter of staying with Jesus, come what may, he stands head and shoulders above His brethren. Or so he thinks.
But even after Jesus repeated the prophecy, Peter maintained that even if he should have to suffer death with Christ, this is certain: “He will not deny the Lord.” And, following Peter’s lead, all the rest made the same affirmation.
Here the stage is set for the action to follow. Jesus has prophesied Peter’s denial; Peter insists that will never happen. The Lord knows what is ahead; Peter thinks he knows better. Once again, this fisherman disciple is contradicting his master. “No, Lord,” he says (a peculiar combination of words!), “It will not be as you have said.” Peter has set himself up for a fall.
THE WAY OF HELP
In the next act, described in Mark 14:32 ff. Peter, along with James and John, is invited to be with Jesus when He withdraws from the others in Gethsemane. Then when the Lord goes apart to pray, Peter is asked to stay near by and watch with Jesus. The Lord is needing his support, wanting him to fulfill the ministry of a caring friend. But while Jesus is praying in great agony, His sweat falling to the ground as great drops of blood, Peter falls asleep. Jesus, returning, asks him about this, “Simon, are you sleeping? Were you not able to stay awake to keep a vigil for one hour?”
Then comes a charge, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial, or into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.” This is our great defense against temptation, what keeps us from coming under its power. We keep on watching. We keep on praying. We stay vigilant and we stay dependent. Our problem usually is that though we are willing to stand up for Jesus, as Peter surely was, we want to, we intend to, we are sure we will but, contrary to Peter’s self awareness and often to ours, we are still woefully weak.
Peter doesn’t heed the call, doesn’t stay awake. He doesn’t pray. He rather goes back to sleep. The intensity is building now. The Lord asks for support from Peter and doesn’t get it, gives him a loving warning which Peter doesn’t heed. The Lord is disappointed, left alone. For his part, Peter seems to have no awareness of his spiritual peril. Anxious, confused, depressed perhaps, he seeks refuge in sleep. The Master’s need and the Master’s word are forgotten. Peter is becoming acutely vulnerable.
THE SAD FULFILLMENT
Now for Act 3, the passage with which we began. When the servant girl says, “You also were with Jesus,” Peter gives ground for the first time. He tells a beginning lie. He says he wasn’t with Jesus, that he had nothing to do with Him. Perhaps we could say at this point that Peter felt he was simply being prudent, avoiding a public commotion, keeping his options open. Who could quarrel with that?
But we seldom can stop with one untruth, can we? Pressure inevitably comes again at the same point. The servant girl began to talk to some others. A wider circle of people became involved and curious. Now the possible difficulties loom larger to Peter. He has to say again, more loudly and vehemently this time, that he hasn’t been with Jesus.
Next, a group of the bystanders takes up the inquiry. They pursue the issue. “You are one of them,” they say, “Here’s the evidence: you’re from Galilee, right?”
Under this stepped-up attack, Peter is pushed to make even more vehement denials. He begins to swear. He even invokes curses on himself if what he says is not true. And then he lies again. He not only wasn’t with Jesus, he says; he doesn’t even know Him. “This Jesus,” Peter is saying in effect, “is nothing to me.” The denial, the renunciation, seems complete.
Just then the cock crowed again. The sound must have gone like an arrow to Peter’s heart. He remembered the words of his Master, the prophecy he had so stubbornly resisted, and he felt overwhelmed with shame. The big fisherman broke down and wept bitter tears. End of Act 3.
THE HAPPY ENDING
Happily, that’s not the end of the drama. The name of Peter appears once more in this gospel. It’s after that terrible day on Golgotha when he had watched his Master die. It’s after the time of desolation that followed. It’s after Easter morning and the thrilling news of resurrection. This is the word of the angel to the women who came to the tomb at dawn that day: “Do not be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Did you hear that? “Go, tell his disciples and Peter.” The Lord apparently wasn’t through with His fallen follower. In spite of all the falsehood, all the presumption and arrogance, all the insensitivity and even disobedience, Jesus still numbered Peter among His followers, still had a work for him to do. That was the thrilling message of Easter for the man who had denied his Lord, and for all of us. Later, as we learn from the Book of Acts and other parts of the New Testament, Peter became a bold preacher of the gospel, a faithful servant of Jesus, who eventually sealed his testimony with his life blood. That was the final, wonderful fruit of Simon Peter’s encounter with Jesus Christ.
What gives special power and poignancy to this account is the fact that it is recorded in Peter’s own memoirs. Biblical scholars uniformly believe that Mark’s gospel rests upon the reminiscences of this apostle Peter. Imagine it! This gospel that Simon Peter himself had so much to do with writing tells the whole story of his shameful failure!
Peter’s relating of it is in itself a beautiful expression of repentance. What a difference it made when he encountered Jesus of Nazareth. At first it led to commitment, then to a great confession of faith, but in the long run it led further, to depths of self discovery, to a shattering of pride, to new discoveries of the Lord’s marvelous grace.
And so here in Mark’s gospel, Peter tells his story so that no one who has failed the Lord terribly need feel there’s no hope for him or for her. Peter wanted everyone to know that the mercy of the Lord is very great and that He is able to transform the most dull, backward, stubborn, vain disciples and make them faithful witnesses to His saving power. Isn’t that a marvelous thing?
You may hear Christians telling of the wonderful changes Christ brings about in the lives of His people and in their lives. And they are speaking the truth. He really does that. But don’t get the impression that He brings about this transformation all at once. He imparts new life, yes. That happens in a moment, instantaneously. But the new birth isn’t the end of the story. As every new birth, it’s followed by a long and sometimes perplexing and painful process of growth.
Remember Peter. He was a true believer from the very start. But the Lord, even after three years, still had a lot of work to do on the life of this rugged follower of His. We probably still need some further remodeling, too, you and I. But the Lord’s patience and mercy are wonderfully great. Trust Him. Don’t feel because you’ve stumbled and fallen that you’re out of the running. Don’t feel because you’ve shamefully failed the Lord that He has counted you out. The risen Christ is offering you today forgiveness and a new start. He still has a work for you to do. Oh, believe that. Tell Him today that you’re sorry. Turn away from all that’s been wrong. But then trust Him for His cleansing and tell Him that you want to follow Him – all the way.
Prayer: Father, may everyone sharing in this program do just that: so meet the living Christ that life will be transformed. We pray it in Jesus’ name. Amen.