January 19, 2009
After Jesus’ arrest, Peter went from boldly proclaiming his devotion to openly denying Christ. When faced with a hard situation, he took the easy way out—which he quickly regretted. When we similarly fail to guard our souls, moments of victory can easily turn into defeat. In the end, Peter’s time of brokenness strengthened him, and he became a powerful voice for the Gospel. Alistair Begg reminds us that in Christ, failure is never final.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, thank you, Bob. It is a great privilege to be here. And I think… Incidentally, do you understand what it costs me to get up early this morning and leave the seven-degree weather of Cleveland? Seven degrees, and come down to this place? I mean, goodness gracious. I couldn’t get on the plane fast enough, I can’t tell you. They didn’t even deice it. I think the pilot was as keen to get out of the place as I was. I figured, “Well, we’ll get there one way or another.” Anyway, I just feel incredibly overdressed. Is anyone else wearing a tie? In the entire place? Is there anyone wearing a tie? You are? Yeah, well, you’re on your own now, bud. That’s a Baptist.
Well, can I invite you to turn to your Bible? And the subject that was assigned to me for this evening is the denial of Peter, and the verses that were given to me are John 13:36–38. But that actually is not the description of the denial of Peter. It’s only the announcement of the fact of Peter’s denial. So that left me with the dilemma, “Do they actually want me to expound these three verses here, or do they want me to speak on Peter’s denial?” So I decided the latter. So we’ll read from 13, and then we’ll read from 18. In 13, Jesus announces it, and in 18, it actually transpires.
So, John 13:36:
“Simon Peter asked him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’
“Jesus replied, ‘Where I[’m] going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.’
“Peter asked, ‘Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’
“Then Jesus answered, ‘Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the [cock] crows, you will disown me three times!’”
And then we go to 18:15:
“Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
“‘You are not one of his disciples, are you?’ the girl at the door asked Peter.
“He replied, ‘I am not.’
“It was cold, and the servants and officials stood [round] a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.”
“As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, ‘You’re not one of his disciples, are you?’
“He denied it, saying, ‘I am not.’
“One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off,” who would obviously be in the know, “challenged him, ‘Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a [cock] began to crow.”
Well, just a prayer together.
We use an old Anglican prayer to help us:
Lord, what we do not know, teach us. What we do not have, give us. What we are not, please make us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, in turning to these passages of the New Testament, we find our focus on an area surrounding the death of Jesus which is surely one of the most touching and one of the most challenging aspects of all that happens in that surrounding activity. In fact, I think that if we are not moved by what we read, then there is something wrong with our hearts. And if, when we read this, we feel ourselves to be removed from the possibility of such a declension in our own lives, then I would have to say that there’s something wrong with our heads.
Assuming that neither is the case, we will come to this. I mentioned that I left the frozen wastelands behind to come here. And in the early days, back in ’83 and ’84, when I first moved to America and to this church, the youth group used to invite me to come skiing with them. And I wasn’t very good. In fact, I was dreadful. And as time has gone by, they’ve just stopped inviting me, because, frankly, it’s so horribly embarrassing that they keep getting asked, “Who’s the old guy lying on his back?” And so they’ve decided to do me a favor and leave me.
But on one of these occasions, after I had developed a measure of proficiency in a leisure pursuit which moves between being exhilarating and excruciating, and often in the face of just a hundred yards or so—on one of these occasions, I met a fellow who was off the beaten track. Actually, he was in the woods. Actually, he appeared to be examining the bark of a tree very, very closely. I have it vividly in my mind. It’s hard to imagine his position, it’s definitely hard to describe it, and it’s very difficult to know how somebody actually manages to get themselves in that spot.
As I was swishing along and discovered him, my offer of assistance was politely declined. He indicated to me that despite all appearances to the contrary, in fact, he was in total control of the circumstances. Well, I completed my run, and I was in the position of authority in the chair going up, and as I made my way up on the chairlift, I looked down to see the same chap. He’d only moved about three hundred feet from where I’d left him. At this point, he had one ski on and the other ski off. He was partly hopping and partly sliding on his rear end, and he was using the one remaining ski pole that he had in his possession to try and grab hold of anything that would prevent him from careening down into total oblivion. But the remarkable thing was that from his point of view, there was really no problem.
Isn’t it amazing how smug you can be on the chair, safe above the circumstances? Anyone who skis knows that within a matter of moments, you may be the next person eating the snow. And it’s probably not a good idea to suggest that you won’t be.
Now, I mention that because it must be with a similar sense of empathy, a similar recognition of personal frailty, that we come to these verses, which describe for us perhaps the classic denial of Jesus that is recorded in all of Holy Scripture. These verses serve like a lighthouse on a rocky coastline, insofar as they both warn of danger, and at the same time they provide for us, they signal to us, that help is available.
My task as assigned is straightforward: it is to read the text, to seek to explain it as best as I’m enabled, to apply it in accord with the rest of the Scriptures, and then to stop. So I have three questions that I want to ask. Incidentally, my part is to speak; your part is to listen. If you finish your part before I finish my part, then I hope you’ll wait for me.
First question is this: What took Peter into that courtyard? What took Peter into the courtyard?
Now, in actual fact, there is nothing in the account which John provides which allows us to pinpoint with any accuracy Peter’s motivation. We can’t go and find a verse, and it says, “And he went in there simply because of this.” There is one little hint in Matthew, to which we’ll come, but by and large, we’re left simply with the record as it’s given to us, in order that we might put the pieces together as best as we can in a way that is both accurate, true to Scripture, and is free from dogmatism.
I remember, as a youth in Yorkshire—and we have a gentleman here from Yorkshire, one of your pastors, who I was so delighted to meet, Pastor King—but I remember speaking as a teenager, and giving a talk on Peter, and pointing out that the first words that Jesus said to Peter were “Follow me.” If you track his entire career and go to the end, the last words he says to Peter are “Follow me.” And I said, “So he really hadn’t made much progress, had he?” And then I said, “And you will notice that it says in the record that when he denied Jesus, that he ‘followed him,’” in the King James Version, “‘afar off.’” And then I gave this talk about the dangers in following Jesus afar off, and the only way you can do this is if you’re up close. And poor old Peter took a real hammering from me that evening. And afterwards, an older gentleman, and a wiser gentleman, came to me and said, “Now listen here, lad. Peter may have been following afar off, but at least he was following. Let’s have credit where credit’s due.” That’s a Yorkshire accent, kind of. Mr. King will clarify it later in the morning, tomorrow morning. But the fact is, we do need to recognize these things.
So, I said there were three questions, but here are some more questions. There are three big ones and a few small ones. What was it that led him to the courtyard? Number one: Was it simply curiosity? Was it simply curiosity? That is certainly part of it. Because if you go to Matthew chapter 26, and Matthew’s record, verse 58, it tells us that he went in there because he was concerned to see the outcome of things. He wanted to find out how this story was going to end. Doubtless he was trying to put together all that he had known of Jesus, all that he had learned of him, and so there was a measure of curiosity.
Was it out of a sense of loyalty? Out of a sense of loyalty. For certainly, of all the things that marked Peter, he was loyal. That’s why in 13:37, which we read, he says to Jesus, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” It’s amazing, isn’t it, how forceful Peter is in his affirmations? He’s prepared to say, even in front of his friends, even in front of the rest of the disciples, “Listen, Jesus. Even if the whole shooting match packs up on you, even if all of these fellows go, I’m your man. I’ll be with you to the end.” And the loyalty of Peter towards Jesus is clear; it’s on the surface of the text. He wasn’t voicing hollow rhetoric. He was actually expressing the conviction of his heart. It’s important to notice that, because we might, some of us, want to say, “Well, the reason that somebody would be involved in a dreadful denial is because their loyalty was now long in the past, or they had drifted away, or whatever it might be.” No, there is a measure of curiosity. There is a measure of loyalty.
There is also, thirdly, a measure of bravery. Was it not something of bravery that led him there? We might criticize him for wielding his sword in the garden, but we ought to acknowledge that at least he did something. At least he jumped to the defense, albeit in a way that Jesus didn’t appreciate. But he was there, he was brave, he was willing to stand up against phenomenal odds.
Or was it simply bravado? Was it simply blustering? For certainly his statements are—when you read them carefully—they have a tinge of that, don’t they? The kind of fellow that you went to school with who always had the answer to all the questions, and always he was going to score the touchdown, he was going to score the try: “Leave it to me. I’ll take care of it. Give me the ball.” Peter is that kind of fellow.
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I[’ve] prayed for you, Simon.” And notice he calls him “Simon,” his old name, which means “shaky.” His new name was Rock. But before he was Rocky, he was Shaky. And he calls him “Shaky, Shaky.” Right? “Simon, Simon”—“Shaky Man, Shaky Man”—“Satan has desired to sift you as wheat. But I’ve prayed for you, Shaky, that your faith may not fail. And when you’ve turned back, strengthen your brothers.” But listen: he says, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
You know, Jesus ought to just give him a belt round the ear at this point and say, “Look, how many times am I gonna tell you stuff, and then you come back and just say dumb stuff after I’ve told you what’s going to happen?” But Jesus is gracious. He’s not like your pastor; he’s a gracious soul. Kindly. He’s a gentle shepherd. He’s not like me. And so he says, “[Listen,] I tell you, Peter, before the [cock] crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”
There is a measure of bravado about this character Peter. And I think we have to say that there may be something of presumption that marks him too. Curiosity, loyalty, bravery, bravado, presumption. Mark 14:29. You needn’t turn to it; I’ll tell you what it says. In fact, I’ve quoted it already. “‘You will all fall away,’ Jesus told them.” Fairly straightforward, isn’t it? Which part is hard to understand? Then he quotes the Old Testament: “‘“I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.’ Peter declared, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’” Peter, are you listening, or…? You’re developing a horrible track record of doing this.
Curiosity, loyalty, bravery, bravado, presumption. Or was it love? Was it love? No, surely Peter loved Jesus. Loved him passionately. Loved him as the one who had touched his life and changed it. Loved him as the one who’d called him out of the boat and said, “Yes, you can walk on the water, Peter. Come to me.” And certainly, if we knew nothing other than what is given to us at the end of it all, when the love of Jesus is expressed towards Peter in his restoration, then we realize that what is happening here is that the love of Peter for Jesus, the loyalty of Peter for Jesus, his bravery and his curiosity, are all wrapped up in the fact that his love is tested in the crucible of loneliness and of isolation and of fear.
You see, it’s really not too difficult to be affirming our convictions concerning Jesus as long as we’re in the company of others who do. It’s relatively easy to march when the band is playing and when the crowd is in step with one another. But it is a different day, isn’t it, when we’re isolated, when we’re alone, when we’re in a context that is threatening towards us?
Well, what led him to the courtyard? A multitude of complex factors, embodied in the enigma of his personality.
Secondly, what led to his defeat? What led to his defeat? I’ll give you a number of observations that are in ascending order of importance. What led to his defeat?
First of all, he took the easy route. He took the easy route. Remember, he had been given the affirmation of Jesus after Jesus had inquired, “Who do you folks say that I am?” and the various explanations had been given, and then eventually Peter comes out with it, and he says, “You know, you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” How can somebody who gets a gold star at that point get such a horrible F at this point? How do you move from an A to an F so easily? How do you go from “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and listen as Jesus says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father has revealed it to you,” and here somebody says to him, “You have the same accent as Jesus of Nazareth. Are you sure that you are not along with him?” And he says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What was he doing there? He was going for immediate gratification. He was taking the easy way out. The hard way would have been to say, “Yes, I actually am with Jesus.” But in a moment, he couldn’t, and he didn’t. And chameleon-like in his response, he must even have surprised himself. Have you never done that? Where you are surprised, shocked, even by your own words? Even by your own response? Called into ministry, equipped by God’s Spirit, raised to a position of usefulness, and all of a sudden, in a moment, taking the easy road out.
He told a lie. Before he realized it, he was settling for the comfort of the moment. There’s a principle here; it runs the whole way through the Bible, doesn’t it? Moses chose “to suffer affliction with the people of God [rather] than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.” He could have gone for the easy way out. David went for the easy way out with Bathsheba. Joseph took the hard road with Potiphar’s wife. He could have gone for immediate gratification too.
Don’t let’s kid ourselves. All hell is unleashed against us in the battle for our souls, and any one of us is a nanosecond away from this kind of declension. Let none of us ever think that because we’ve been able to affirm all of these great truths concerning Jesus that we ourselves are somehow or another incapable of capitulating in a moment like this.
The second thing we would say—and I think it’s accurate to say—is that he panicked. He panicked. He must have panicked. It’s only hours since his great statements of loyalty. It’s only hours since he either, as the commentators say, was phenomenally accurate with that sword or was pretty hopeless with the sword. I mean, if he was trying to take the guy’s ear off, this guy is a swordman. If he was trying to put it right down the middle of his cranium, this guy is not that good. We’ll have to wait till heaven, ask him, “Were you trying to take his ear off, or what were you doing?” Knowing Peter, he’s gonna go, “Oh, yeah, I was trying to take his ear off. Yeah, of course, yeah. Yeah. I mean, none of those guys, they couldn’t take an ear off. No, no, no. No. No. I knew Jesus didn’t want me to hit him right dead in the center of the head. I just took a… I took an ear off.”
How can you be so bold as to step forward in that moment and then get bowled over by a servant girl’s question? The suddenness of it. The out-of-left-fieldness of it. The piercing gaze of someone who knows, and you know that she knows.
Incidentally, remember what Jesus had said to the disciples. He said, “Watch and pray, that [you] enter not into temptation.” I don’t have time to work it out, but there is a direct correlation between prayerlessness and panic. I mean, you’ve got it, don’t you, in Philippians 4:
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say you: Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, with prayer and supplication, let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds,
and so on. And remember, Jesus went away, and he came back, and they were asleep. He went away, and came back, and they were asleep. And he went away, and came back, and they were asleep. Prayerlessness and panic.
Thirdly, his defeat was found in the fact that he took the easy route, that he clearly panicked, and thirdly, that he didn’t know himself. He didn’t know himself. It’s the Scottish poet Robert Burns who in one of his poems says, “Would to God the gift be gie us, to see ourselves as others see us.” In other words, “I wish we could actually see ourselves as we’re seen.” And that, incidentally, is the benefit of a band of brothers. That, incidentally, is one of the great benefits of Christian fellowship, isn’t it? Where we have relationships with one another, and people to whom we are prepared to listen, and people to whom we are ultimately accountable.
And Peter had that. Somehow or another, he was off on his own now. And it’s clear that he had not come to terms with what is true of all people, not least of all Peter—namely, Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things.” That’s why the Scriptures say all the time that we must guard our hearts, because our hearts are deceitful above all things. And he clearly had not come to terms with all that was particular and peculiar in him. Because when you read the record of the Gospels and you put together an Identi-Kit picture of Peter, you realize that he was impulsive, that he was impetuous, that he was shaky, that he was easily excited. That’s why we have this on-and-off thing all the time.
I’m looking for a verse now. I’m not gonna tell you where it is, ’cause I’m not sure if it’s here. But if I find it, then I’ll tell you it’s here. Yeah, it’s there! Yeah! Matthew 14:25: “During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they said, ‘Oh, Jesus, how nice of you to come walking on the lake!’” “Oh,” you say, “I gotta get an NIV. That’s not what it says in mine.” No: “When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.’” What’s up with these guys? I mean, imagine your schoolteacher comes out of the darkness. You don’t go, “It’s a ghost,” do you? I mean, you’ve been in her class for fifteen months!
“But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It[’s me]. Don’t be afraid.’”
Now here comes their reply: “Lord, if it’s you…”
“What! I just told you it’s me! What are you on about? What do you mean, if it’s me?”
“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Okay, we need a spokesman. Fellas, anybody want to say anything? Yeah, Peter?”
“I’ll say something. Yeah. Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward[s] Jesus.” You can just see him, can’t you? “Hey, hey! Look at me! Look at me, boys! I’m walking! Walking on the water…” Glug, glug, glug, glug, glug, glug! And “when he saw the wind, he was afraid.” What? The wind scared him. He’s walking on forty feet of water, and he’s scared by the wind! “And, beginning to sink, [he] cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ [And] immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”
We’ve got to know ourselves, don’t we? I mean, we’ve gotta figure out who we are and what we are. We’re not other people. God has established our own DNA. You don’t have anybody else’s DNA. You are your own weird person. You understand that? You are a complete individualistic weirdo, all of your own. Your wife knows that, if no one else knows it.
So that, for example, when the Scriptures say, when Paul writes and he says, “Let none of you think of himself more highly than he ought but instead think of himself with sober judgment,” let’s just be honest about things here. And if we’re not gonna be honest anywhere else, be honest in our own bedrooms. Be honest in our own cars. Be honest in the private place where there is just God and his all-seeing gaze and our lives an open book before him. There we may be as vulnerable as ever we choose to be. There we may be as honest as ever we might be. But there we must be. For remember what M’Cheyne said: what a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing else—no matter what anybody else says about us, and certainly it bears no resemblance to what we have to say about ourselves.
And Peter came crashing down in part because he didn’t know himself, or he forgot himself. And we might add to that and say that he thought he knew himself better than Christ did. That’s why he comes back with these statements. “You’re all going to fall away.” “No I’m not!” Right? He thought he knew better than Jesus. That seems to be almost a prerequisite for the disaster that we read here in 18, doesn’t it?
What led him into the courtyard? A multicomplex program of bits and pieces. What led to his downfall? These elements.
My third and final question is, then, what lessons can we learn? What lessons can we learn? Well, I’m sure there are more than these, but this will be, I think, suffice.
First of all—and the rest of the Bible bears this out; you know your Bibles, and therefore, you can affirm this: that moments or periods of victory and usefulness can so readily be the forerunners of defeat. Right? That moments, periods, of usefulness can so often be the forerunners of defeat.
You take, for example, all of the triumph of Elijah with the prophets of Baal—the remarkable circumstances where God shows himself strong, where Elijah is able to taunt the pagans concerning the absence of their deities’ intervention, and in a great triumph, God is seen to be Lord of all, and Elijah has had a huge part in that great triumph. And then you basically turn a page in your Bible, and where is he? Underneath a broom tree, depressed, fed up, starting to claim that he’s the only person that preaches the gospel in southern Florida. “I am the only one left. There’s nobody… Even I went to that Calvary Chapel thing. None of them are doing it either, Lord. None of them at all.”
Or you take Uzziah. Remember in Isaiah 6, it says, “In the year that King Uzziah died…” And remember the end of Uzziah? He lived in a little cottage in the corner of the property, because he had leprosy. And do you remember what the Chronicler says of Uzziah? It says that “he was gloriously helped until he became strong. But when he became strong, he grew proud to his own destruction.”
You see, what Peter needed was this encounter in the courtyard. God knew that. Because he was too big for his boots. Peter, in the economy of God, had a peculiar place. Remember, Jesus had said so: “After you got this sorted out, Peter, I want you to strengthen the brethren.” But he wasn’t going to be able to strengthen those brethren until first he had been broken himself.
We don’t actually lead from a position of fullness first. We lead from a position of brokenness—a brokenness which is addressed by the divine provision of God in the experience of brokenness.
Sir Malcolm Sargent was in the Royal Albert Hall in London on one occasion, listening to a fledgling soprano singing an aria from a wonderful piece of music. And the girl gave a flawless performance, and the response was stirring amongst the group. And the person who was sitting next to Sir Malcolm Sargent turned to him and said, “And what do you think of her?” And he said, “I think she will be terrific when something happens to break her heart.” “I think she will be terrific when something happens to break her heart.”
What we have to say, ultimately, you see, is that God was sovereignly in charge of the events in the courtyard. He was sovereignly in charge of the Evil One. The Evil One has no leash, save the leash given out to him by God in his sovereign power.
Moments or periods of victory and usefulness are often the forerunners for defeat. Secondly, we must learn to rely humbly upon the strength which Christ provides and never arrogantly on our own. You know, if God has gifted you, then it’s harder. People think if you don’t have gift, it’s harder. No. It’s harder if you have gift. Because unless that is constantly brought before God, unless we are constantly bowing before him and acknowledging the provision that he has made, we may actually start to believe in ourselves.
Watchfulness, thirdly, and prayerfulness, as I’ve said, are tied to God’s purposes. That’s why Ephesians 6 says, “Be alert and always keep on praying.”
Fourthly, we learn that we are not to assume immunity from the sifting process. We are not to assume immunity from the sifting process. We daren’t say, “Well, this is not the kind of thing that could ever happen to me.” When Jesus says to Simon, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat,” the “you” there is in the plural. When he says, “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail,” the “you” there is in the singular. In other words, what he’s saying is that the activity of the Evil One is in relationship to all of his followers, in this instance: that all of the disciples, Satan has his gaze upon them, and he’s asked to sift them, to shake them up. The sifting process was the repeated swift, violent shaking of the wheat in a sieve in order that the chaff would rise to the surface and be thrown away. And so Satan has come to God in the same way as he came in relationship to Job, and he said, “Now, what I want to do is I want to take your boys, and I want to give them a jolly good shaking. I’m gonna just shake ’em up.” And that’s exactly what happens, of course.
And the application of the principle is clear, because the disciples are subjected to severe trial. Subjected to severe trial. That’s why most of them are gone: because the trial is so great. They were there with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, for fear that they would go the same way that Jesus had gone. They couldn’t face it.
The trials and testings which come to the people of God are only those which God allows. The trials and testings which come to the people of God are only those which God allows. God allowed Satan the liberty, but only within God-ordained limits. And we need always to remind this: that the Evil One has no free and unlimited ability to act against God’s own. The Evil One has no free and unlimited ability to act against us.
In Yorkshire, I used to deliver groceries after school from, like, a deli. And there were certain places that I didn’t like to go, and one was because there was just a horrible dog behind a gate. And it scared me to bits, and eventually I just started leaving the box of groceries on the curb and then ringing the doorbell and running away as fast as I could. And the lady didn’t like that, and so she phoned up to the owner and said, “You know, your boy is no good. He leaves the things.” And he came to me and he said, “Why are you not taking the lady’s groceries in?” And I said, “Well, because there’s a dog or a lion or something behind that thing. You know, if you want to go in there, you go ahead. I’m not…” He said, “Well, hey, hey, we’ll go together. Let’s go together.” And so we went, and as we pulled up and got to the gate, the thing started off—just, it sounded just unbelievably bad. And he opened the gate, and we walked in, and the dog made outrageous noises, and then I realized what the facts were: that the dog was attached to a stake in the middle of the grass; that the length of chain that it had, that attached to its collar, was such that you could safely walk up the garden path, because it could only get so far, and it couldn’t reach you, because it was chained.
And the fact of the matter is that at Calvary, Christ has chained the Evil One up. And he is not free to roam around and do his business amongst God’s people, save within the immensity of God’s providence—which, of course, can keep you up late at night trying to figure all of that stuff out. But it is an important lesson to learn. The trials and testings which come into our lives are only those which he allows. And if you think about it, it’s true concerning Peter. “Satan has desired to sift you as wheat. He’s going to. But I have prayed for you, Peter. I’ve prayed for you, Peter.”
Perhaps the final thing to say is that the lesson from this is that with God, failure is never final. With God, failure is never final. Because the tears that Peter shed are more than matched by the joy that he experienced in being restored to usefulness. Indeed, probably if we had the chance to talk with him, he would tell us, “As painful and as horrible as that was, and as ashamed as I am of that in my record, looking back, I can see that God, in the immensity of his love and interest in me, allowed me to walk down that road so that I might have the joy of that breakfast restoration meeting; so that I might have the opportunity to reaffirm my love for Jesus when he asked me three times, ‘Do you love me?’ and so on; and so that when I wrote to the scattered believers of my day, I didn’t write to them like a smart aleck. I didn’t write to them like a know-it-all. I didn’t write to them out of a sense of personal aggrandizement or self-focus. But I wrote to them as I should. I wrote to them as a sinner saved by grace. I wrote to them as a fellow journeyman on the path of life. And I wrote to them out of the awareness of the fact that when we think we stand, we’d better be careful, lest we fall.”
Think how many fellows, in the twenty-five and a half years that I’ve been here in America, whose ministries were profoundly useful have catapulted themselves into oblivion. And whatever the presenting symptom, I can tell you the underlying source in one word: pride. Pride. “It’ll never happen to me. I’ll never do that. These guys can all do that. You can understand why they do that. This, this, this, this.” No. So if you’re sitting here saying that, you are in the most vulnerable of positions.
And Peter, I think, would also be prepared to say that he is perhaps the classic New Testament illustration of the wonder of the psalmist’s words when he cries out and he says, “O Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, which of us could stand? But with you there is plenteous mercy.”
So when the Evil One comes and tempts us to despair and tells us of the guilt within, the antidote is not to parade your ministry credentials. The antidote is not to tell him that you’ve been far more devoted of late to a personal Bible study. The antidote is in none of those things.
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.
Because the sinless Savior died
[My guilty soul,] my sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me.
And no matter how long we live, our acceptance before God will always be the same: because of Christ, because of his merits, because of his righteousness. And that, then, becomes the impetus for us to say, “Lord, help me to give myself away to you. Help me to live for you. Help me to serve your people and to serve your kingdom in a way that is in keeping with your designs and your desires.” And then who knows what God may choose to do?
But let the warning ring: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he falls.” And let the assurance apply: God keeps no record of our sins. Otherwise, we would be in deep trouble.
We ought to really finish by singing, you know, the old children’s song, “Wide, Wide as the Ocean.” Did you ever sing that? We’re not gonna sing it, though, trust me. But we used to sing it at Scotland, and I sing it in my car to myself. And it just goes like this:
Wide, wide as the ocean
And high as the heavens above,
And deep, deep as the deepest sea
Is my Savior’s love.
And I, though so unworthy,
Still am a child of his care,
For his Word teaches me
That his love reaches me ev’rywhere.
If we had another study, we could say, “Well then, what in the world happened to Judas, in comparison to Peter?” But maybe you can come up with that sermon.
Let us pray:
Father, teach us, then, to despair of ourselves, as Peter did, and trust in Christ. I pray that you will look upon this company in your mercy tonight. And those of us who are on the threshold of declension, known only to you and to us, because of the ferocity of temptation that is coming our way—we ask you to help us, Lord, not to take the easy way out, not to kid ourselves, not to live as if somehow we know better than you.
And so we thank you for the story of Peter. We thank you. It makes us think of Andraé Crouch, when he wrote those words,
And if I never had a problem,
I’d never know that God could solve them,
I’d never know what faith in him could do.
And through it all,
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus.
And that’s Peter’s testimony, and that’s ours too. So then, help us so to look to Christ and to dig into his Word and to encourage one another that we may always be a help and not a hindrance to one another as we follow Christ and as we look for his return. And we pray in his precious name. Amen.
 See Matthew 4:18–19; Mark 1:16–17.
 See John 21:19, 22.
 Matthew 26:58 (KJV). See also Mark 14:54; Luke 22:54.
 Luke 22:31–32 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 22:33 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 22:34 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 14:27–29 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 14:28–29.
 Matthew 16:15–16 (paraphrased). See also Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20.
 Matthew 16:17 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 11:25 (KJV).
 See 2 Samuel 11:1–27.
 See Genesis 39:6–20.
 Matthew 26:41 (KJV).
 Philippians 4:4–7 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42.
 Robert Burns, “To a Louse” (1786). Paraphrased.
 See, for instance, Proverbs 4:23.
 Romans 12:3 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Kings 18:16–46.
 See 1 Kings 19:1–18.
 Isaiah 6:1 (NIV 1984).
 2 Chronicles 26:15–16 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 6:18 (NIV 1984).
 See John 20:19, 26.
 See John 21:15–23.
 See 1 Corinthians 10:12.
 Psalm 130:3–4 (paraphrased).
 Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 C. Austin Miles, “Wide, Wide as the Ocean” (1914). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Andraé Crouch, “Through It All” (1971). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2023, 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.