Jesus: Denied
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Jesus: Denied

Luke 22:54  (ID: 2353)

When all the disciples deserted Jesus and fled, Peter remained at a distance, watching. Earlier, he had told Jesus that he would never desert Him—yet when he was questioned under pressure, he denied Him. Alistair Begg points out that Peter’s bitter disappointment under Jesus’ gaze may have been the first time he had seen himself clearly. Having recognized his weakness, he could now be made strong; having faced his sorrow, he could know the joy of forgiveness.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Luke, Volume 13

The Day Jesus Died Luke 22:39–23:56 Series ID: 14215

Sermon Transcript: Print

We’re going to read from the Bible in Luke’s Gospel, once again, as we did this morning, from Luke chapter 22, and we’re going to read the section that follows on from where we were in the morning hour, reading from verse 54:

“Then seizing him”—that is, Jesus—“they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, ‘This man was with him.’

“But he denied it. ‘Woman, I don’t know him,’ he said.

“A little later someone else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them.’

“‘Man, I am not!’ Peter replied.

“About an hour later another asserted, ‘Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.’

“Peter replied, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Just as he was speaking, the [cock] crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the [cock] crows today, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly.”

Now, as we spend some moments looking at that passage of Scripture, let’s ask God to help us as we do:

Father, once again, in the evening hour, as we open our Bibles, we come on bended knee to you, the living God, the author of all truth. And we come humbly to ask that you will help us to do what we’re unable to do by ourselves: speak about or listen to or understand and obey and apply the Word to our lives. So come, we pray, Holy Spirit, and speak into our lives. For the glory of Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.

Between Faith and Failure

True to form, Peter bounces between faith and failure. Those of us who’ve been going through Luke’s Gospel have seen the occasions in which Peter has taken one step forward and then at least one back, and sometimes two steps back. Although it isn’t in the Lukan record here, John, in his Gospel, tells us that in the incident with the sword and the fellow’s ear, which we were thinking about earlier in the day, Peter is actually the one who was responsible for that.[1] He was the one who had been so quick to respond and had lopped off the poor fellow’s ear. Mark tells us—and it’s not recorded here—Mark tells us in his record of the events that when this little scenario had come to a conclusion, there was a wholesale defection on the part of the disciples. He gives it to us just in a phrase: “[They all] deserted him and fled.”[2] Luke tells us, as you can see in the verse before you, that Peter—verse 54—“followed at a distance.” So when everybody else drifted off, “What are we going to do now?” they must’ve said. “They’ve taken Jesus. They’re not looking for us. Perhaps they will look for us. Our leader is gone. We may as well go.” But, says Luke in this wonderful little sentence, “Peter followed at a distance.”

I wonder why. I remember years ago, when I was still a teenager, speaking at a youth meeting somewhere and lambasting Peter for the fact that he “followed at a distance.” And in my youthful exuberance, I was pointing out—in my ignorance as well—that if he’d really been true blue, he would have followed up close. “But look at this poor soul,” I said. “He followed only at a distance.” And an elderly gentleman came to me afterwards and said, “Don’t you think it would be worthwhile giving credit where credit is due?” And he went on to point out that while the rest of them buzzed off, he might [not] have been all that close, but at least he was there, and at least he was following. And so I acknowledged that—I don’t think particularly graciously, but I acknowledged it. I’ve never forgotten it. And so, isn’t it wonderful that Peter was following here at a distance?

Was this bravado, or was it bravery? Look at verse 33: “Lord, I[’m] ready to go with you to prison and to death.”[3] That was Peter. Did he simply feel that he was forced now to follow through on that kind of amazing statement—that he’d really put his head on the line, hadn’t he? “I’m ready to go with you to danger and death—whatever happens, Jesus: prison, whatever it may be.” And in one sense, by wielding the sword, he’s already given testimony to that, hasn’t he? The people came with swords and clubs, and Peter steps up and hauls out a sword and immediately gets into it with all the accuracy of a fisherman, not the accuracy of a soldier. If he was going for his head, it was a disaster. If he was going for his ear, it was pretty clever. But the fact is that he was involved at least in saying, “I’m with you, Jesus. I’m prepared to take on the crowd.” There was a measure of bravery in it. I think there was some bravado too.

Was it just curiosity, or was it loyalty? It was curiosity. Matthew says in 26:58 that Peter had followed Jesus, and he “entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome.”[4] “Somehow or another,” he said, “I want to see how this thing finishes.” So there was a curiosity factor involved, and there was a loyalty factor involved also. Mark records how he said, “Jesus, I know that you are anticipating this great declension, but I need to tell you that if even all the rest of these fellows fall away, I won’t.”[5] And Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”[6] That’s a great expression of loyalty. So I think it’s a mixture of all of this. I think it’s bravado; I think it’s bravery, curiosity, loyalty.

Peter loved himself too much to face the consequences of what selfless devotion to Jesus would actually mean.

Do you think it’s love? It has to be love, doesn’t it? Certainly love—a love which drew Peter out and allowed him to venture in a way and to a place that none of the others did. Somehow or another, Peter loved Jesus so much that he just couldn’t walk away—at least not at this moment. He couldn’t leave him now. He couldn’t desert him absolutely. And whether it was immediate or he started on his way we have no record. Did he start to go away with the rest and then turn around and say, “Listen, you guys go ahead, but I can’t bail out at this point.” He loved Jesus so much that he put himself in the place of considerable risk. He was the bravest of all of them in that evening hour, and yet the record shows that even though he was the brashest, the bravest, even the bravest on that night stumbled and fell and was an abject failure. The Rock, if you like, crumbled at this point.

The Rock Crumbles

Now, this is familiar material for any of us who know our Bibles and know the Gospels. And my purpose this evening is to be brief and pointed. But the obvious question that we tackle each time we come to this section of the Bible and we think about from time to time as we see our lives reflected in it, I’m sure, is: How are we to explain this collapse? I mean, this is a significant fall from his affirmations, isn’t it? It wasn’t as if Peter had said, you know, “When the things fall apart, Jesus, don’t be looking for me,” and so, as it began to fall apart, he was able to say, “Well, I told you I wouldn’t be around if this happened.” No, he was the one who was saying, “When it all crumbles and falls, me—I who was ‘Shaky,’ the Rock, man!—I’m with you. I won’t crumble and fall.” But he did. Why? How?

Well, you know, ultimately, in a couple of sentences it is this (and I think you’ll agree; you’re thoughtful, and you can think it out): ultimately, self-preservation won out over loyalty to Jesus. He loved Jesus very much. He loved him a lot. He loved him enough to follow him. But he loved himself! And he loved being alive. And his love for himself finally outweighed his love for Jesus—at least in that moment. He loved himself too much to face the consequences of what selfless devotion to Jesus would actually mean.

Did he really think that he knew himself and his moral liabilities better than Jesus did? In verse 34, Jesus had said to them, “I tell you, Peter”—said to Peter directly—“I tell you … before the [cock] crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”[7] Did Peter think that he knew himself better than Christ? Do you think you know yourself better than Jesus knows you? Do you think when the Bible speaks to us about our imperfections and our inabilities and our potential for disaster and danger, that we can say, “Oh, yes, that’s a good word for somebody else along the row,” or “That must be something that is very fine for somebody else, but of course, I’m not like that at all”? We’d better beware of that kind of thinking.

You see, somewhere along the line, Peter hadn’t come to terms with what the psalmist said: that “the heart is deceitful above all things.”[8] Oh, he knew that verse, presumably. He had understood its teaching. He had heard Jesus speak about “your treasure” and “your heart” and so on,[9] but somehow or another, he hadn’t really fastened on it. He couldn’t have. Nor was he reckoning on his own personal weaknesses.

Do you think there’s a sense in which his bravado, his impulsiveness, and so on was just a cover for what he knew he was really like? It often is for some of us. So in seeking to deny the fact of the downside of our gifting, we try to make much of the other side of it. And we could make a long list of what Peter was like—the pluses and the minuses. He was impulsive, wasn’t he? He was impetuous. He was easily stirred. He was quick to be angry. He was shaky. He was volatile. And that’s just a few that I scribbled down. Did he really think that he knew himself better than Jesus?

Well, he didn’t. And that’s why the record makes clear what happened. You can cross-reference this by reading Mark and Matthew and John and so on, but it’s essentially exactly as Jesus said it would be. A servant girl sees him, looks at him closely in the darkness of the night, and nudges her neighbor, and says, “You know, that guy sitting over their by the fire—he was with him.” We’re not going to delay on this, but it struck me even just this afternoon. I said, “Why didn’t he bail out at that point? Why didn’t he just make a run for it after he messed up the first time?” You know, in that moment of panic—and it was presumably panic—the girl comes and says, “He’s one.” He could have said nothing. But no, blurts it out: “Not me!”

I wonder whether it wasn’t the Mr. Fix-It in Peter: “Maybe I’ll get a second chance at this. If I get a second chance at this, I’ll do it right the second time. That’ll be one for one. At least I’ll have evened it out.” And a little later, someone gave him a second chance: “You’re also one of them.” “No, I’m not!” he said. Now he’s done. He is done. And about an hour later, after he’s bouncing around—getting out of the firelight so that they can’t see his face; coming back in so that he can curiously see what is going on—and eventually, in verse 60: “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” And the Synoptics also point out that he added to this curses, which he called down upon himself: “If I’m a liar, may God strike me dead!” He may have even said, “May God strike you dead as well for such dreadful accusations.”[10]

And “just as he was speaking…” That’s the phrase there, in verse 60: “Just as he was speaking…” Or, if you like, “With the words still on his lips,” a number of things happened simultaneously. If you’re making a movie of this, this is a strategic moment in the movie, isn’t it? The soundtrack has to come in, and the cock crows as he’s speaking. And in the same instant, “the Lord turned” and caught the gaze of Peter. And the camera focuses on Peter, and the viewer realizes what’s going on in Peter’s mind: that Peter is remembering the word that the Lord had spoken to him. It dawns on him: “He said this would happen. It has happened.” And then “he went outside,” and he “wept bitterly.” What a moment!

You know one of my favorite songs; it comes to mind all the time, but I think it does fit here:

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, [and] some have changed,
Some [for good], [but] not for better,
[And] some have gone, and some remain.

All these places ha[ve] their moments.[11]

Do you think that Peter ever lived a day of his life when he didn’t remember this? Do you think he ever preached in the streets of Jerusalem, and his gaze caught the corner of the gable end of this house, and he realized that it was on that night, in that place, after all those firm affirmations that, beginning with the toppling tale and investigation of a servant maid, he finally crumbled—the Rock collapsed?

And there it is! End of the story.

The Weakness of Our Hearts

Now, I have a number of stones up here that I want to hand out to those of you without sin who would like to throw stones at the memory of Peter.[12] So who will be first to come and take a stone? Who has never denied Christ? Who has never, on a bus, preserved ourselves and our name and denied any real knowledge of this Jesus? Who, in a moment of passionate weakness, has gone for the easy throw with the girl rather than the difficult throw in allegiance to Christ? Yes, stand up and take a stone, won’t you?

That’s right. That’s exactly right. Because here, in this incident, we’re brought face-to-face not only with the declension of Peter but with the fact of our own personal weakness. Here in this incident, we are confronted with the fact that when we view our own personal weaknesses, if we’re honest, we know that it needs only the slightest pressure from temptation to bring us to our knees. “Oh, a little girl got him to say he didn’t know Jesus?” Steady now! Do you know the weakness of your heart? Even the slightest temptation may lay us low.

Consider again the phrase in verse 61: “The Lord … looked straight at Peter.” What do you think Peter saw in the eyes of Christ? Condemnation? I don’t think so. After all, Jesus was the one who had told that fantastic story about the boys that were so messed up. One was messed up at home; the other was messed up away from home.[13] Boy, I would’ve loved to have heard him tell that story! No wonder the sinners drew near to listen and the Pharisees muttered. It was all about grace. It was all about kindness. It was all about love. It was all about forgiveness. And how the listeners’ eyes must have widened as he went into the details, and the fellow went away from home, and he “[spent] his substance [in] riotous living,”[14] and “he began to be in want,”[15] and then there was a famine, and he got a job in a pigsty, and there he was in the pigsty, and he finally “came to himself”[16] and said, “I should go up home.”[17] And all the listeners are waiting to hear what’s going to happen when he gets back. And when he gets back, oh, “wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,”[18] he doesn’t get what he deserves. What he deserves is so obvious, and what he receives is mercy. It’s a great story. Jesus told that story. So do you think the Jesus that told that story looked across at Peter and condemned him with his gaze? Not for a moment. He looked into the eyes of Peter with compassion. And then Peter remembered, and then Peter “wept bitterly.”

In Romans 2, in a very different kind of context, Paul points out that the kindness of God leads people to repentance.[19] The kindness of God leads to repentance—when a man or woman understands that what we deserve is judgment and that God in Christ offers to us mercy. It is a wonderful story.

Forged by Failure

One final observation: You fast-forward a few chapters, you get into Luke’s second literary work, into the Acts of the Apostles, and he very quickly puts Peter before his readers again. And this time Peter is on the streets of Jerusalem. There he is, boldly proclaiming the gospel. There is Peter, we’re told, along with the others, filled with all of the fullness of God. And we look at him, and we say, “How is it that Peter was able to do what he did in light of all that he’d come through?” And the answer we often come to is “Well, there was Calvary, and then there was Pentecost, and without Pentecost and the filling of the Spirit, then it wouldn’t have been possible for Peter to do what he did.” And of course, that is absolutely true. But I’m not sure it’s the actual key to the issue.

I’m not convinced of this; it’s just an observation: Do you think it’s possible that the key to Peter’s usefulness for God ever afterwards was forged on this dark night of failure? That the reason that Peter was so phenomenally useful is because Peter realized on this night that he was a phenomenal failure? If you like, every attempt to this point on the part of Christ in the life of Peter to break this stallion had never actually come to fruition. I mean, it clearly hadn’t! He was still the same old rascal, still the same old guy: “I can fix this! I can do this! Even if they all go, I’m your man!” But now, in this moment, when his gaze meets Christ, then he is emptied in order that he might be filled; then he is broken in order that he might become strong; then he weeps in order that he might know the joy of forgiveness.

Don’t run from your failures. Acknowledge them. Give them over to God.

In my reading of Christian biography—it’s not vast, but I’ve read some books. And in my observation of those whom God has singularly used, any attempts to explain their usefulness which fail to take into account brokenness, failure, tears, regret, and disappointment fail to understand God’s methodology with man. And may I be so bold as to suggest that some of you young people here tonight will never really amount to very much for God until you gaze into the eyes of Christ in an acknowledgement of your own broken, wretched, prideful, sinful existence?

It’s the antithesis of what the world says. 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.” And the hymn writer says,

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright [design]
And works his sovereign will.[20]

Yes, I suggest to you that the key to Peter’s usefulness turned in the lock of his life on a dark night that he regretted for all the rest of his life. So don’t run from your failures. Acknowledge them. Give them over to God. Ask him to sanctify them to you and sanctify you in turn to others. If dependence is God’s objective, then weakness is actually an advantage.

[1] See John 18:10.

[2] Mark 14:50 (NIV 1984).

[3] Luke 22:33 (NIV 1984).

[4] Matthew 26:58 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.

[5] Mark 14:29 (paraphrased).

[6] Mark 14:31 (NIV 1984).

[7] Luke 22:34 (NIV 1984).

[8] Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV 1984).

[9] See Matthew 6:19–21.

[10] See Matthew 26:74; Mark 14:71.

[11] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “In My Life” (1965).

[12] See John 8:2–11.

[13] See Luke 15:11–32.

[14] Luke 15:13 (KJV).

[15] Luke 15:14 (KJV).

[16] Luke 15:17 (KJV).

[17] Luke 15:18 (paraphrased).

[18] Sheldon Harnick, “Miracle of Miracles” (1964).

[19] See Romans 2:4.

[20] William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.