From a literary perspective, one of the unique aspects of the New Testament is its frank portrayal of the phenomenal failures of many of its authors and main subjects. This is nowhere more apparent than in the lives of the twelve disciples, and one of the clearest examples is in Peter’s denials of Jesus.
The Bible is not a touched-up document designed to make its human authors look good—and that’s because God is its true Author, its ultimate Subject. And God has a purpose in telling the story the way He did: to reveal Himself as a God of grace. Scripture tells us of the failures of the saints to encourage us—because we will surely fail too. It reminds us that even in our failures, God forgives, and God restores.
As we consider Peter’s failure as recorded in the Gospel accounts, we ought to face our own failures that haven’t yet been dealt with and take the opportunity to bring them before God. If we acknowledge them and repent, God will sanctify us through them and draw us nearer to Him in deeper dependence. There, we’ll have opportunity to realize that if dependence is God’s goal, then weakness is to our advantage.
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. (Luke 22:54–55)
In the Gospels, we often see Peter bouncing between faith and failure. He is the type to take one bold step forward and then two steps back. Earlier on, he had stepped onto the waves with Jesus, but then he had sunk when he’d seen the wind (Matt. 14:28–31). He had confessed that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:15–16), but then he had received a severe rebuke for audaciously resisting God’s plan (Matt 16:21–23). It was Peter who had defended Jesus with a sword in the garden of Gethsemane—before Jesus had commanded him to stop (John 18:10–11). Now, though all the other disciples had “left him and fled” (Mark 14:50), Peter stepped forward, setting himself apart from the others by “following at a distance.”
There was a measure of bravery and bravado in this. Peter had told Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). Now he was making his effort to do so. Perhaps he was motivated by a measure of curiosity—a need to “see the end” (Matt. 26:58) to which His Master would come. There was likely also a measure of loyalty, as Peter had expressed before: “Even though they all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29). And there was almost certainly a measure of love. Peter couldn’t leave Jesus now. He couldn’t desert Him absolutely. He loved Jesus so much that he put himself in a place of considerable risk. He seemed to be the bravest of all of them in that evening hour.
And yet, nevertheless, it is at this point that Peter crumbled.
Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:56–62)
Confronted in the courtyard, Peter denied Jesus—not just once but three times. Jesus had predicted this would happen, and Peter had assured the Lord he would never do such a thing (Luke 22:34). How are we to explain such a collapse?
Ultimately, it would seem that Peter’s sense of self-preservation won out over his love for Jesus. He loved Jesus very much. He loved Him enough to follow Him into danger. But in that critical moment, he loved himself—his safety, his comfort, perhaps his reputation—too much to face the consequences of what selfless devotion to Jesus might mean.
If dependence is God’s goal, then weakness is to our advantage.
Did Peter really think that he knew himself and his moral liabilities better than Jesus did? Apparently, he hadn’t fully come to terms with the warning of the prophet Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). He knew that verse, presumably. He had understood its teaching. He had heard Jesus teach that the heart is where your treasure is (Matt. 6:19–21). But somehow or another, he hadn’t fully understood the potential for deceit within his heart. He hadn’t truly reckoned with his own weakness.
Though the text doesn’t tell us so, we can imagine that with each denial, the Mr. Fix-It in Peter said, Maybe I’ll get another chance at this. I’ll do it right the next time. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t make a quiet escape the first time the servant girl challenged him. And yet, when the moment came again, he denied Jesus again—and again a third time, even with a curse (Matt. 26:74; Mark 14:71). And then, when the rooster crowed as the Lord had predicted, the weight of his denials came crashing down on Peter.
Was there ever a day of Peter’s life when he didn’t remember this pivotal event? Can you imagine him preaching in the streets of Jerusalem, passing by on the street outside this courtyard again, and remembering that night, in that place, after all those firm affirmations, crumbling under the inquiry of a young house servant? This was not a passing moment in his life. It was the kind of failure that sticks to you.
The Lord Sanctifies
And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. (Luke 22:61)
What did Peter see in the eyes of Christ when he met His gaze? This was, after all, the same Jesus who had told that fantastic story about the prodigal son who deserved to be cast out but who received abundant mercy (Luke 15:11–32). This was the Jesus to whom sinners drew near, the Jesus about whom the Pharisees muttered. He was the Lord of grace, of kindness, of forgiveness, of love. When the Lord looked across at Peter, was there condemnation in His eyes?
It’s hard to imagine there was. Given all that Christ was and is, it’s far easier to believe that His look toward Peter was full of loving compassion, causing him to remember what He had predicted and to weep bitterly.
Not too long after the events of this scene, Peter would be found proclaiming the Gospel on the streets of Jerusalem (Acts 2:14–36). How was he restored to such boldness? Some time would pass, surely. And yes, forgiveness would be won at Calvary, and the resurrection would bring unparalleled joy. Jesus would restore and affirm him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:15–19). Peter would be filled by the Spirit along with the other apostles in Jerusalem. These things doubtlessly made Peter’s new and effective boldness possible.
But there is one more key.
It seems likely that Peter’s usefulness for God was forged on that dark night of failure, when he finally realized what he was apart from Christ. Up to that point, Peter continued to try and be self-sufficient: “I can fix this! I can do this! Even if they all go, I’m your man!” But when Peter’s gaze met Christ’s and he realized the depths to which relying on his own strength had sunk him, then he was emptied in order that he might be filled; he was broken in order that he might be mended; he was brought to tears in order that he might know the joy of forgiveness.
In Romans 2, in a very different kind of context, the apostle Paul points out that the kindness of God leads people to repentance (Rom. 2:4). When we finally understand that what we deserve is judgment but that God in Christ offers us mercy, then we may turn from sin and find shelter in the arms of our Savior. This gift of grace and mercy is almost unfathomable.
Any attempts to explain Christian usefulness that fail to account for brokenness, failure, tears, regret, and disappointment haven’t grasped God’s mercy toward man. The world says, “Go out and show them how joyful you are. Go and show them how full you are. Go and show them how strong you are.” God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Failure Is Never Final
In Peter’s unique experience we find a model for facing our deepest failures. His example teaches us that we ought not to run from or ignore our collapses, since they are actually opportunities to repent of self-sufficiency and to depend on God’s grace—to show that we are weak but that He is strong.
In the Lord, failure is never final. The tears that Peter shed were more than matched by God’s grace. If we could talk with him, he would probably tell us, “That moment was painful. I am ashamed of all that happened there. Yet I can see that God allowed me to walk that road for a reason. Because of it, I experienced the joy of His forgiveness and was able to write to other believers not as a self-aggrandizing know-it-all but as a sinner saved by grace.”
When the Evil One reminds you of your most abject failures, the antidote is not to parade your credentials. It’s not to devote yourself to new boldness in following Jesus. And it’s certainly not to make your own effort to get back on your feet and stand with Christ. Rather, consider the approach of the hymn writer:
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end to all my sin.
When you encounter failure, as we all inevitably must, look to the Savior, just as Peter did. Consider His mercy. Then go forth with confidence, trusting “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
This article was adapted from the sermons “Jesus Denied” and “Peter’s Denial” by Alistair Begg.