We’ve all been there. Either by getting caught up with the wrong crowd, or simply through our own weakness and misjudgement, we’ve made a terrible mistake. We said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing.
The moment it happened, our conscience was deeply pierced and we were confronted with shame, suffering terrible remorse. We might even ask “How could God still love me after I did that?!”
If only we could go back in time and make a different choice…
Well, if that sounds like you (it definitely sounds like me!), then you’re in good company. The two biggest pillars of the 1st Century church made many life-shattering, gut-wrenching mistakes.
Before his conversion, Paul’s mission in life was to arrest, persecute and kill Christians, which led him to label himself as “the chief of sinners” (cf. Acts 22:4-5; 26:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:15-16). That’s certainly not the ‘personal brand’ I aspire to! And yet, by God’s grace, Paul became the greatest Christian missionary who ever lived and wrote much of the New Testament. What a story of redemption!
We read about Peter’s biggest mistake in the Gospels – the denial of Jesus (cf. Matt. 26:58, 69-75; Mark 14:54, 66-72; Luke 22:54b-62; John 18:15-18; 25-27). While it seems far less spectacular than Paul’s story, to me it is far more relatable.
God is Gracious
They say the higher you go, the harder you fall. That was really true for Peter. The leader of the 12 Apostles, Peter had a pretty well developed self-image. Let’s just say he was no ‘shrinking violet’.
In the context of an argument about who would be the greatest in God’s Kingdom, Jesus confronted His disciples during the Last Supper with a shocking prophecy: they would all desert Him in His most vulnerable moment (cf. Matt. 26:31 & 56).
As was often the case (cf. Matt. 16:21-23; John 13:5-8), Peter thought he knew better than Jesus:
“'Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.' But (Peter) said to Him, 'Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!' And (Jesus) said, 'I say to you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.'” (Luke 22:31-34)
As prophesied, Peter did fall from the mountaintop of his inflated ego and had an almighty crash to earth. He denied Jesus three times, as we read in Luke’s account above (Luke 22:54-62).
Matthew and Mark add an even more damning detail. During Peter‘s third denial, he actually cursed Jesus (cf. Matt. 26:74; Mark 14:71-72). Imagine that. In the space of a few hours, Peter went from boasting about his willingness to die for Jesus, to cursing His name.
Sure, if we had been there we would have stood strong in the face of opposition and openly confessed our devotion and commitment to our Lord and Saviour, right? It’s a sobering thought.
While we may never be confronted with life-threatening opposition like Peter, or like our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters around the world, we do face moral dilemmas every day. Sometimes, with God’s help, we’re up for the challenge. At other times we may take the easy option and either keep our mouth shut or even deny our Lord, like Peter did. It’s then that the Lord graciously provides a ‘wake up call’ – the Rooster crows to get our attention and get our focus back on Him:
“The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord” (Luke 22:61a).
We shouldn’t assume Jesus’ look was one of anger or judgement. Jesus wasn’t surprised or personally offended by Peter’s denial. Jesus knew Peter would deny Him. He prophesied it! No, this was almost assuredly a look of compassion and sadness for Peter. Jesus knew how devastating the effect of his denial would be to Peter. It broke his heart:
“And (Peter) went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)
It’s the same with us. When we stumble and fall, Jesus hurts for us, not for Himself. He doesn’t look at us the way we look at others, through a self-centred prism of pride and piety which distorts our perception. Jesus looks through eyes of pure sacrificial love. His only concern is to graciously help us learn from our mistake and get us back on our feet to continue our walk with Him (cf. Isa. 40:11).
God is Sovereign
There’s a very important aspect to this we mustn’t miss. It was back in Luke 22:32. It’s easy to overlook. Jesus said “when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” There’s a critical phrase in Jesus’ statement: “when once”. Jesus didn’t say “if”. He said “when”.
There was never any doubt in Jesus’ mind that Peter would come through his trial with flying colours. Why? Because that’s how God ordained it. It was all part of His plan to grow and prepare Peter for service. Peter was never for a moment outside the loving protection of his Lord (cf. Psa. 121). Our difficulties and trials are also preordained to prepare us for service (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13).
Until we let go of our pride and self-righteousness, Jesus won’t use us for His kingdom work. No surgeon will ever pick up a dirty scalpel to make a potentially life-saving incision. Every surgical tool needs to be sterilised before it can serve its intended purpose, otherwise it’ll cause more harm than good. Just like the heat and pressure exerted by a surgeon’s autoclave, sometimes an instructive trial is required to purify and prepare us for Kingdom building service. During these times of testing, it’s important to remember that God disciplines those He loves (Heb. 12:6) and He does it so we can be blessed by being able to join Him in His work (cf. 1 Cor. 1:4-9).
Peter was indeed the beneficiary of God’s forgiveness. Immediately following His resurrection, Jesus made a personal 1:1 appearance to Peter (cf. Luke 24:33-34; 1 Cor. 15:5a) and within a couple of weeks Jesus graciously took Peter aside on that Galilean beach to reassure and redeem him. Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to reaffirm his love for Jesus, one for each of Peter’s denials. Jesus then gave Peter the greatest commission of his life – to feed and tend Jesus’ lambs and sheep (John 21:15-19). Even when we are faithless, God is always faithful (2 Tim. 2:13).
And so it was! Following Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8-11), it was through Peter’s humble, sacrificial and unwavering commitment for the Gospel that Jesus’ Church exploded onto the scene and grew exponentially in a matter of months (cf. Acts 2-12; 1 & 2 Peter).
So the next time you hear that rooster crow, don’t despair or consider throwing in the towel. Remember that it is through, and indeed because of our brokenness and failings that God is willing to use us for His Kingdom purposes.
Let’s not squander the investment He’s made in our training and development as His ambassadors on earth. Let’s put all those bumps, scrapes and bruises to good use as we look forward with much anticipation for the return of our Great Shepherd to lead us home. Then we can join Peter in praise for how God redeemed us, flaws and all, for His Kingdom.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith-more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire-may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 1:3-7)