By J.R. Miller
Matthew 26:31-35; 69-75
As Jesus walked with his disciples from the upper room on the way to Gethsemane, He warned them of the peril into which they were about to enter. "This very night you will all fall away on account of of Me." Their trial would be very great. He quoted from an Old Testament prophet a word which described the situation as it was about to be: "I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad" (see Zech. 13:7). He knew what was coming. He would be smitten. He was the Shepherd and had kept His sheep in safe protection thus far. Now He was to be smitten--and they would be exposed to the power of their enemies and His.
Yet even in the shadows of the gathering night, He saw the breaking of the morning. "But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee." He was to be killed--but He would be raised again from the dead. He was not to be finally torn away from them. Death would not be defeat to Him. He was to lie in the grave--but He would come again and lead them once more, away beyond the grave. Hope never failed in the heart of Christ. He was never discouraged.
Peter was always the first of the disciples to speak. The most holy occasion could not awe nor quiet him. He had heard the Master's warning--but he resented it. There was no need to fear for him, whatever others might do. "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." His self-confidence was very strong. It was not possible, he said, for him to be untrue to his Lord. It was Peter's rash boldness that made him weak. Jesus repeated His warning, making it personal. "Truly I say unto you, that this night, before the rooster crows, you shall deny Me three times." Still Peter resented the warning. "Peter said unto Him: Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." We would say that such solemn words spoken by the Master could never be forgotten to commit such a sin against his Master that same night. Yet the fact that Peter actually denied Him with such positiveness, and so repeatedly, shows how terrible the temptation was--and how weak the strongest friend of Christ is in such an hour.
Gethsemane came next, with its hour of anguish. Then came the arrest, on the edge of the Garden, when Jesus was betrayed by one of His disciples and led away to the palace of the high priest. It was far on in the night. "Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard." There are several steps leading to Peter's present position in the courtyard, that we must recall in order to understand his denial. It began farther back. Earlier in the evening he disregarded, even resented, the warning that he would deny his Lord that night. That was a serious mistake. We would better listen when God speaks to us in this way. Peter was not a hypocrite. He was sincere, he loved Christ--but he was too self-confident. He lacked that distrust of self which should lead the best and holiest to know that only in Christ are they safe. Peter was weak that night--because he sought no Divine help.
Next we find him sleeping--when he ought to have been watching. That hour in the Garden was given in order that the disciples might be prepared for temptation. Peter did not improve it and was found unready. He failed in love's duty to the Master. Next was his rashness in drawing his sword. This act made him liable to arrest and led him to try to hide his identity and his connection with Christ, lest he might be seized by the officers. Again we find him following Jesus "afar off." This showed timidity and failing faith. His courage was slipping. Following at a distance is always perilous. It shows a weakening love and a trembling loyalty. It is in itself a partial denial. The only really safe place--is close up to Christ.
Another fatal step was taken by Peter when he went in and sat down among the servants in the court. He was in bad company. He had seated himself among Christ's enemies. His object was to conceal his discipleship. He wanted to be thought one of their company when he sat down among mockers and revilers. He hoped thus to escape detection. Thus he acted denial before he spoke it. Had he been altogether loyal and faithful, he would have kept out of such company and as near his Master as possible. The only true and safe thing to do when among Christ's enemies, is to take one's right place quietly and firmly at the beginning. Starting wrong puts one in a false position, in which it is almost impossible to be faithful afterward. Peter was in a bad place for a disciple when "sitting out in the courtyard." He was ready to fall. We must guard against taking the steps that lead to denial of Christ.
Peter's denial was not premeditated, as was the betrayal by Judas. He was caught in the entanglement of circumstances. His first denial was partly owing to the suddenness of the assault and his previous false steps. He was not false at heart--but loved his Master even when denying Him. We must remember that when all the other disciples forsook Jesus, Peter was the only one, save John, who followed Him when in the hands of His enemies. True, he followed Him afar off, timidly--yet he followed. We must keep in mind his character also--impulsive, impetuous, always doing rash things--yet withal bold and loyal. These considerations palliate though they do not excuse Peter's denial. After all, this is one of the saddest chapters in the Bible. This favored disciple, at the twitting of a slave girl, denies his Lord; and then goes on denying Him, with increasing earnestness and with oaths and curses.
There are several things that made Peter's denial peculiarly sad and sinful. One was that he had received so many marks of special favor from his Master. He was not a disciple only--but an apostle. He was one of the three who had been chosen as the Master's particular friends. He has been honored, too, by the Lord on several occasions, even that very night in the Garden when he was chosen to be with Him. He had made the boldest confession of Christ and had also loudly professed his allegiance.
Another aggravation of Peter's denial--was that he had been so earnestly forewarned. Even that night he had been told that he would deny Christ--and he had utterly disregarded the Lord's words, declaring that he could not possibly do such a thing. No railroad engineer runs past a red light. Forewarning makes sin, worse because it leaves it inexcusable.
Another thing that made the sin worse--was that it was in the Lord's hour of sorest need that Peter had denied Him. If it had been on the Transfiguration Mount, or during the triumphal entry, it would not have been one-hundredth part so bad. But it was when Jesus was deserted and in the hands of the enemies. Was that a time for the bravest disciple, the most highly favored friend, the noblest confessor, to turn his back upon his Lord? When the shadow falls on your friend, when the tide turns against him, when others have forsaken him--is that the time for you, his long-time bosom companion, and the recipient of his favors, to turn coward and leave him alone? How much Peter might have comforted Jesus in His trial! Instead, however, the only words the Master heard from His friend's lips, as he stood amid enemies and revilers, were words of denial, which cut like sword-thrusts into His heart.
A simple lie becomes a lie sworn to, and then a lie sworn to with imprecations and curses. Simple denial is bad enough--but this apostle even went so far as to invoke curses upon himself if he were a disciple, if he even knew the man, and to utter oaths to emphasize his denial. How this aggravated his sin!
But how could an apostle who had been with Jesus so long, hearing and using only pure speech, curse and wear in this way? The answer is that it must have been an old habit with Simon the fisherman, which now cropped out in the excitement. This is a way old evil habits have. It is impossible to root them out--so that they will never give trouble again. They are like weeds; you may dig them out and think there is not a root left in the ground, and for a while none may be seen; but someday they will reappear. Bad habits of any kind formed in early life always leave weak points in the character. It is very easy to fall again in sudden temptation where one has fallen before. It is always easy to take old paths on which the feet were once accustomed to go. One who drank alcohol in is youth, though he becomes a total abstainer and is true for years--is never as safe at that point, as one who never acquired the habit. It is so with lying, swearing, obscenity, dishonesty and all vices.
At last Peter came to himself. "Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him... And he went out, and wept bitterly." The rooster crowed, and then Jesus turned and looked upon Peter (Luke 22:61), who, glancing up at that moment, caught his Lord's eye. The cock-crow and the Master's look, aroused him to a sense of what he had done. An incident, a remembering, a look, were the means by which the sinning apostle was brought to repentance. We can think of that look. Jesus was in the hands of mocking enemies, and while they were scoffing and beating Him, there fell on His ear the voice of His favored disciple, denying Him with curses and imprecations. Surely this was the bitterest drop in the bitter cup of that terrible night. What pain and sorrow there were in the look that fell upon Peter! But, thank God, the look broke his heart and saved him. He went out into the night--but not like Judas, to despair. He went out into the night--but the angel of mercy went with him and pointed him to hope. He wept bitterly--but the memory of that look--grieved, chiding--yet full of love--told him that he had not yet lost his place in the Master's heart. He repented of his sin and was saved to become one of the noblest of our Lord's apostles. So we may thank God for this sad story, because it shows us such a door of hope when we have sinned.