I have been meditating on the story of Peter’s denial of his relationship with Jesus in Matthew 26. It is a classic case of failure regarding a person’s confidence in his/her own ability to achieve moral excellence. In the end, such hubris is just that — an exaggerated sense of one’s own goodness.
What’s surprising in this case is not only that Peter was resolute in his commitment to stick with Jesus no matter what happened to him, but that he had seen such amazing things and made such a great confession earlier. How could it be that someone who had achieved so much could fall so far?
Of course Jesus knew that He himself was about to enter the most intense time of his life in terms of spiritual battle and that it would end in the reality of his own death. He knew too that His disciples would not be able to endure the heat of this fiery trial. He predicted correctly that all of them would desert Him. He knew this would be so because of what had been prophesied about this by Zachariah hundreds of years earlier. (But thankfully, He knew too, in this same context, that He would be reunited with them, after it was all over. Such was the nature of His grace that their failure would not be permanent.)
Peter protests that he would NEVER forsake the Lord — even on pain of death itself. But Jesus actually predicts that Peter’s denial would happen three times before the night was over and the morning rooster crowed.
Well, it’s not that Peter and the others didn’t make a noble attempt to stick with Jesus through the ordeal. But we have hints of desertion when it is evident that they weren’t even able to stay awake to support Jesus in prayer, during His own intense prayer battle. They were even still with Jesus in the Garden when the motley group of Jewish leaders arrived to “get him.” Peter even attempted a defence of Jesus by raising his sword and slicing wildly at the head of the servant of the high priest. But in the heat of the moment, it wasn’t long before “all the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56).
During the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas the high priest, we find Peter following at a distance eventually ending up in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, sitting among the some of the guards. As talk of death by crucifixion for Jesus became the focus of the trial’s conclusion, Peter, no doubt was getting very, very nervous. It was worse than being in a storm on the Lake of Galilee. A young woman recognized Peter as one who had been with Jesus and made mention of the fact. Soon another servant girl said the same thing. A little later some others suggested he was “one of them,” since his accent betrayed his Galilean origin. Each time Peter vehemently denied any association with Jesus. Twice he swore (once in God’s name) that he didn’t know the man.
On the occasion of his third denial, immediately a rooster crowed. Right away, Peter remembered the words of Jesus that before the rooster crowed, Peter would deny him three times. God used the voice of a rooster to bring deep remorse for Peter. We read that on hearing the rooster, he remembered the words of Jesus and went away crying bitterly.
None of us have to think too hard before we surely will remember a time when our best intentions to do the right ended in terrible failure. Such denial of what’s right and good, perhaps even to the point of dissociating ourselves with Christ or Christians in a critical moment, can easily happen to any one of us. We may have had wonderful experiences of God’s presence and reality in our lives, high points of communication with Christ, very real and beautiful answers to prayer. But there comes a time when, in the heat of spiritual battle, we disobey the Lord, or even deny that we ever knew Him.
If such a thing actually happened in the lives of the disciples, it shouldn’t surprise us that it will also happen in our lives. Such experiences demonstrate that we aren’t able to stand on our own in times of intense spiritual battle — that we don’t have what it takes to resist Satan in our own strength. The more confident we are in ourselves the more likely it is that we will inevitably fall.
The good news in this is that God knows such things will happen, that He predicts them, but that He also promises to meet us again on the other side of the trial. Peter’s failure was pretty bad alright, but even before it happened, Jesus said he would go ahead and meet them all again in Galilee. And from the story in John 21, we know that’s exactly what Jesus did. How good to know that He anticipates our terrible failures with the promise that He will meet us on the other side. That is my hope for my own failure to confess Christ at all times, and it is also my hope for those I know and love who have denied the Lord in a time of testing.