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Failure Isn't Final: A Study of the Denial of Peter- Matthew 26:1-75

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Introduction: Brokenness Leads to Service for God

Those of us who are familiar with the Watergate era probably know the name Chuck Colson well. He was an American attorney and political advisor who served as Special Counsel to President Richard M. Nixon. He also was known as the President's hatchet man. He ended up going to prison after pleading guilty during the Watergate scandal and served seven months in Alabama's Maxwell Prison. Further, many may also remember his famous conversion to Christ and his later founding of the organization: Prison Fellowship. In an article about Colson, Stuart Strachan Jr. wrote this about him:

Sometimes God takes our greatest failures and turns them into our greatest successes. Charles “Chuck” Colson had risen the ladder of national political success at breakneck speed. After a tour in the Marines, Colson served in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ran a political campaign, and joined a law firm before becoming special counsel to the President (Richard Nixon) in 1969, at the ripe old age of 38. And then it all came crashing down, as Colson was sent to prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. As one pastor put it, Colson’s (former) career was over, but his calling was just beginning.

While in prison, Colson converted to Christianity and began working alongside his fellow prisoners. His passion for his faith and his fellow prisoners birthed Prison Fellowship. Seeing firsthand the injustices in the American prison system, Colson fought for the rights of the incarcerated, including widespread penal justice reform. But that isn’t all. Prison Fellowship has created a number of programs to help inmates, including training to experience healing and wholeness, with the intention of lowering the rate of recidivism (returning to prison). Today, Prison Fellowship serves in all 50 states in the U.S., impacting more than 1,000 prisons and over 365,000 incarcerated men and women each year.

In his 1983 book Loving God, Colson shares the realization that his legacy came not from his successes, but from his failures:

“The real legacy of my life was my biggest failure – that I was an ex-convict. My great humiliation – being sent to prison – was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory.”

Sometimes God has to take us and allow our pride and arrogance to get us into trouble. He has to let us come to the end of ourselves and our abilities to get us to the point where we no longer rely on our strength but allow Him to empower us and cling to His abilities. Chuck Colson experienced this in his life. However, many years before Mr. Colson came on the scene, there was the apostle Peter.

Just who was this man whom the Lord ultimately used greatly for His glory? Peter, also known as Simon Peter or Cephas, was one of the 12 apostles that our Lord Jesus Christ chose while on this earth. And after the resurrection of Christ, he became one of the most influential Christian leaders of the 1st century. Many scholars even say that, though he didn't write any of the four gospels, the gospel of Mark actually records Peter’s own account of Jesus’ ministry through his companion, John Mark.

He was a fisherman by trade, along with his brother Andrew, who also was a follower of Jesus Christ. In the gospels, Peter is always seen as impetuous. He acted first and thought later, such as the time he cut the right ear off of the high priest's servant, Malchus as Malchus and others were coming to arrest Jesus (John 18:10) He was probably just swinging at the person nearest to him which, unfortunately for Malcus, was him.

Just how did impetuous Peter become one of the great leaders of the 1st-century Christian movement? I think A.W. Tozer said it best when he gave us this piece of advice:

“It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply." God actually rises up storms of conflict in relationships at times in order to accomplish that deeper work in our character."

That is exactly what happened to Peter. First God broke him, then he put him back together again and used him greatly. And the major incident that led to this brokenness was Peter's 3-time denial of his Lord when Christ was in the midst of the trial that would ultimately lead to his death on the cross.

Let's look at this incident a little more carefully and find out what we can learn from the failure of Peter and how Jesus reacted to this betrayal on the part of one of his closest disciples.

I. The Story of Peter's Denial

The story of Peter's denial can be found in all 4 gospels of the New Testament. It begins just after the time in the Upper Room where the Last Supper of our Lord with his 12 disciples took place.

Zechariah the prophet had predicted the desertion of Christ by all of the apostles which came at Jesus' arrest. And Jesus quotes him before the incident takes place. The prophet said, some 500 or so years before the birth of Christ, these words:

"Awake, sword, against my Shepherd, against the man who is close to me!' declares the Lord Almighty. "Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones." (Zechariah 13:7)

Now here is one of the accounts in the New Testament where we see Jesus apply this prophecy to Himself. It is found in Mark 14:26-31. Mark says this:

"And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, And the sheep will be scattered.' “But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be.” Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that today, even this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” But he spoke more vehemently, “If I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And they all said likewise."

It wasn't much longer before Jesus was proven to be correct. It happened in the Garden of Gethsemene, where Jesus and 11 of His disciples had gone and the Lord was praying. Judas, the disciple of Jesus who betrayed Him, lead a large multitude with swords and clubs who had come from the chief priests and the elders of the people (Matthew 26:47). Ultimately, Jesus was taken and verse 52 of Matthew 26 ends with these haunting words:

"Then all of the disciples forsook Him and fled."

Jesus was taken before the Sanhedrin for a sham of a trial. In the meantime, Peter followed Him at a distance to the High Priest's courtyard. He went and sat with the servants to see how things would turn out (Matthew 26:57-58).

Now, let's allow Matthew himself to tell the rest of the story about Peter's denial. The gospel account tells us:

"Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, “You also were with Jesus of Galilee.”But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you are saying.”And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth.”But again he denied with an oath, “I do not know the Man!” And a little later those who stood by came up and said to Peter, “Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you.”Then he began to curse and swear, saying, “I do not know the Man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him. “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” So he went out and wept bitterly." (26:69-74).

For full disclosure, some scholars tell us that the rooster crow was not an actual bird. “Cock’s crow” was a technical term in Jewish law. It was a time of day prior to dawn that marks the end of the night. The same scholars would also say that roosters weren't allowed in Jerusalem. But, no matter what one believes about this event, it happened and Peter realized the Lord's prediction of his failure.

II. The Lord's Personal Restoration of Peter

Peter must have thought at the time that his failure was final. He must have felt that he could never be forgiven for such an utter abandonment of his Lord at a time when Jesus really needed him. How could he do such a horrible thing? However, Jesus wasn't finished with this humbled apostle. Not by a long shot! On the Sunday morning when Jesus had risen from the grave, the women had been given the good news: He was alive! They hurried from the grave. And they were entrusted with a message to take back:

"Go tell the disciples and Peter (Mark 16:7).

And later the Lord personally restored Peter to a place of fellowship with Him and service to Jesus' Kingdom. This is found in John 21:15-17. It tells us:

"So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep."

For every time that Peter had denied his Lord, Jesus asked Peter to proclaim his love. Gotquestions.org reveals a play on words in the original Greek language found in John 21. It tells us this:

"There is also an interesting contrast when you look at the Greek words for “love” used in John 21:15–17. When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” in John 21:15–16, He used the Greek word agape, which refers to unconditional love. Both times, Peter responded with “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” using the Greek word phileo, which refers more to a brotherly/friendship type of love. It seems that Jesus is trying to get Peter to understand that he must love Jesus unconditionally in order to be the leader God is calling him to be. The third time Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” in John 21:17, He uses the word phileo, and Peter again responds with “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you,” again using phileo. The point in the different Greek words for “love” seems to be that Jesus was stretching Peter to move him from phileo love to agape or unconditional love."

Well, it worked! Peter later preached the first sermon at Pentecost after the giving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:14-36). He preached boldly, where once he fearfully denied His Lord.

One could argue that he had a slight relapse from the incident that we read about in Galatians 2:11-13. To be sure, he didn't deny his Lord ever again. However, Peter, who had been eating with Gentile believers, prior to this incident, refused to eat with them when followers of James came to visit. Here is what Paul says:

“ Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision."

Peter, once again let fear overcome him. However, it is a certainty that the Lord, as well as Paul, dealt with this fear. Though it isn't recorded in Scripture, tradition says that Peter, when he was being martyred for his faith in Christ later in life, was going to be crucified, just like Jesus had been. He rather requested and was granted that he be crucified upside down. This was because he didn't feel worthy to die the same way that his Lord had died years earlier. Peter, in the end, showed great courage and great faith. Further, God used Him greatly for His glory during his life.

Conclusion

To wrap all of this up, we should thank God that He doesn't deal with us as our sins deserve but, for those who have faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, He deals with us as sons and daughters of the living God (Hebrews 12:7-11). He disciplines and corrects us so that we might learn to be more like Christ.

Jesus could have given up on Peter at any time if He had treated Him with pure justice and not with grace. But because of the Lord's persistence, Peter became all that God intended for him to be and was an integral part of the spreading of the Lord's kingdom message. And he will continue to be a central figure in His kingdom for all of eternity.

What about you? What have you done that you think God cannot forgive? Are you convinced that our Lord can never use you again? Be assured that, as a believer, God isn't finished with you yet. If He were, you would not still be here on this earth. He would have already taken you to heaven. God can use you, just as He did Peter if you acknowledge the Lord's discipline in your life and turn to Him after you have failed. Please remember, that failure is not fatal, nor is it final for those in Christ.

Jesus can take a mess, and make it into a message for His glory. Praise the Lord for His mercy and His grace!

© 2022 Jeff Shirley