This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.
We had a small crowd last night (due to half the city still being without power), but we continued our trek through the gospel of John, studying the account of Peter’s denial of Christ from John 18:15-27. It’s a familiar story, and one that we often deride Peter for – after all, how can he deny knowing Christ three times after being told that he was going to do so? Yet, while we rain down the judgment on Peter, we miss the fact that our own failings are eerily similar. We’ve all been paralyzed by fear in our Christian walk from time to time. I shared a story last night about how, on the day our senior pastor resigned, I felt an unusual urge to put my hand on his shoulder and pray for him before he got up to preach. I didn’t, due to a silly fear of whether anyone would think it were strange. I knew full well what I should have done, but fear kept me from actually following through with it. I’m sure you’ve been down the same road. The question thus is, since we’ve all been (and likely will be) in the same boat as Peter, what do we learn from his great mistake?
The first thing that we should notice is his commitment to Christ. Yes, you heard me right. One of the things that makes it easy for us to slam Peter is the “otherness” of his actions. “I never would flat out deny that I know Christ,” we think. Immediately, we feel a little safer in our faith. At least we’re trying to follow Christ, Peter was denying that he even knew him to begin with! In our zeal for self-assurance we often miss the fact that Peter was even there to screw up to begin with. After the garden, 9 of the 11 remaining disciples bolt, not to be heard from until the resurrection. Only Peter and John are described by Scripture as sticking around, following Christ’s trial and travels from a distance (and in John’s case, from the foot of the cross). Peter didn’t run away, and he was at least halfway committed to sticking by his master. Here, we find him able to view and hear Jesus’ interrogation from the courtyard (see Luke 22:60-62). So, when we’re tempted to think that our intention to follow Christ safeguards us from Peter’s mistake, we make a very dangerous and false assumption. Peter was halfway committed to following Christ.
The problem is that half a commitment is no commitment at all. Peter was willing to follow from a distance, but when the time came to identify with Christ on a personal level he suddenly was a stranger. Because of fear about how those around him would react (reasonable fear, considering one of his questioners was related to the guy whose ear Peter had hacked off a couple hours earlier), he denied that Jesus meant anything to him. Are we not often in the same boat? Sure, we don’t care if anyone knows that we go to church (and for those of you out there who are with me in the ministry, we sure don’t mind the cultural respect that being a member of the clergy still somehow retains), but when people’s eyes turn angry and suspicious toward Christ and his teachings we often quietly backpedal away – sometimes verbally, sometimes by simply trying to fit in by ignoring the commands we’ve received from our savior.
The denial that we see from Peter is so common to us. It happens despite our best intentions, it starts out slow and easy and can quickly build into an ugly crescendo. Take this example as an opportunity to examine your own life. In what areas has fear stopped you from doing the things you know Christ is calling you to do? At what level of your Christian commitment does fear often derail you? Realize that these failings are no less serious than Peter’s betrayal in the courtyard, but also realize that Peter’s story does not end here. Christ brings him back and restores him by his mercy and grace, and that same grace is extended to us. Our standing before God is not dependant on how well we perform under pressure, but it is completely dependant on the finished work of Christ on the cross, and as such unchangeable. Guard your heart against making Peter’s mistake, and if you do find yourself weeping under the gaze of Christ, broken because of your betrayal, cling to the grace and mercy that Jesus gave to Peter – and freely gives today.