Gospel of John (16) — Learning From Peter’s Failure

            This morning, we continue in our study of the gospel of John.  In just a little bit, we’ll be in John chapter 18.

            But, before we get to that text, I’d like for you to think of a time in your life when you really messed up bad.  A time when you messed up so bad, it’s embarrassing for you to even admit it.    A time when you messed up so bad that it still causes you pain to think about what you did.  And you think, “How in the world could I have done something so stupid?”

            Back in 1979, Stephen Pile wrote an entire book about that sort of thing. He called it, “The Book of Heroic Failures” and it contains a lot of stories about humiliating events.  One of my favorites is a story of something that supposedly happened in 1978 during a fireman’s strike that was going on in England.

            Since all of the professional firefighters were on the picket lines, the British army was called in to take over their emergency calls., along with all of the other “side-duties” that fire-fighters are often expected to do.  One day, the soldiers were called out by an elderly lady in South London who wanted them to retrieve her cat that was stuck up a tree.

            Well, the soldiers got there quickly, and they very carefully rescued the cat out of the tree.  The woman was so grateful for what they had done that she invited them all in for a cup of tea.  But, then afterward, as the soldiers drove off, no doubt distracted by all the fond farewells and enthusiastic arm waving, they accidentally ran over the cat and killed it.

            And I think that qualifies as messing up really bad.  But I’m sure you can think of your own stories.  

  • Times when you tried to do what was right but you failed miserably. 
  • Or times when you got angry and did or said something extremely foolish in your anger. 
  • Or times when you failed God and you did something that you know God didn’t want you to do. 
  • Or, maybe there were times when you didn’t do something that you should have done.  Times when you didn’t stand up for someone else, and you let them get ridiculed or bullied.  And you just kept quiet, to save your own neck.

            In spite of our best intentions, we all fail.  We all do things that cause us embarrassment or shame.

            This morning, I want us to take a look at the actions of Peter on the night of Jesus’ arrest.  And I hope that by looking at his experience of failure, we can find some lessons that will help us deal with — or maybe even prevent — making the same mistakes.

            We pick up in our story after Jesus and his disciples left the upper room and headed to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Our video begins with John 18, verse 1, if you’d like to follow along.


            Matthew tells us in his account that when Jesus was arrested, “all the disciples left him and fled.” (Matthew 26:56).   But there were at least two of them who began to follow Jesus and the soldiers from a distance.  One of these disciples was Peter and the other is identified only as “another disciple” who was known to the high priest in some way so that he was able to get both himself and Peter into the courtyard.

            Most scholars believe that this other disciple was the apostle John, and I am inclined to agree with them.  But Peter is the one who is the focal point of our story.  It’s ironic that Peter about to undergo a trial of his own at the very same time that Jesus was being tried by the high priest.  

            Incidentally, speaking of Jesus’ trials, the one that took place in Annas’ house was just the first of six trials that night — and every one of them was illegal according to Jewish law.  Charles Swindoll has listed 18 ways the Jews broke their own laws in the way they conducted Jesus’ trials. For example:

  • No trials were supposed to occur during the nighttime hours — specifically, they were not allowed to take place before the morning sacrifice. But Jesus’ trials did.
  • Trials were not allowed to be held during religious festivals, but Jesus’ trial was held during the Passover.
  • All trials were to be public.  Secret trials were forbidden.  But, each of Jesus’ six trials was private.  Only his sentencing was public.
  • All trials were to be held in the Hall of Judgment in the temple area.  None of Jesus’ trials were held there.
  • An accused person could not be forced to testify against himself.  But the Sanhedrin convicted Jesus based on his own words.
  • Someone was always required to speak on behalf of the accused.  But no one spoke up for Jesus.
  • The high priest was not supposed to participate in the questioning of an accused, but both Annas and Caiaphas interrogated Jesus.

            Now, I mention all of this to stress the fact that Jesus went willingly to the cross.  He knew that a group of witnesses would either exonerate him of all charges or cancel the false testimony of the religious leaders.  But Jesus didn’t make any effort to try to escape conviction and execution.  He accepted his destiny back in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “Not my will, but thine be done.”  

            As you think about what happened to Jesus, let me ask you this — have you ever had a time in your life when you were treated unfairly?  Maybe somebody accused you of doing something you didn’t do.  Or maybe someone slandered you falsely…or talked about you behind your back?  

            A few weeks ago, I learned that someone has been spreading a lie about me – accusing me of doing something absolutely terrible.  An action so bad that, if it were true, I could be thrown into jail for it.  But I didn’t do it.  I would never even think about doing it.  And I had to spend some time prayer asking God how to respond to this accusation.  Do I stand up for myself and defend my integrity?  Or do I let my life stand as its own witness?

            Maybe you’ve experienced something similar.  If so, you need to know that Jesus understands what you’re going through.  He truly is, as the Hebrew writer put it, “a high priest who is [able] to sympathize with our weaknesses…one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15).  Jesus knows how to respond to people when they’re being unfair, so when you’re going through situations like that, look to him.  Talk with him.

            But, back to our text, I think it’s interesting that John goes back and forth between Jesus standing trial and Peter out in the courtyard.  And I think he did that on purpose, to help us to understand that it was for the sins of people like Peter — and you and me — that Jesus was willing to die.  In the end, Jesus was victorious over his trials that night, but Peter was not.  Peter failed miserably.  

            And as we read John’s account, we see that Peter’s humiliating failure didn’t happen all at once.  Rather, it was a gradual transition from being tempted to sinning terribly.  In fact, his actions that night remind me of what the Psalmist described in Psalm 1:1 where he wrote, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.”

            And if you look at the text, you’ll see what I mean. It started when Peter walked into the high priest’s courtyard.  Then, he got a little closer and he was standing with the sinners…standing around the fire…and before long, he was sitting right there in their midst. 

            And I mention this to remind us that sin usually happens gradually.  We don’t usually start out with big failures.  We almost always begin in situations where we know there will be temptation, which leads us to little sins…which leads us to bigger sins.  And, before we know it, we’ve done something absolutely shameful.   That’s the way it was with Peter that night.

            It all started at the gate of the courtyard.  “Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door.” (John 18:15-16)

            And there’s this servant girl at the gate keeping people out.  I kinda picture her like a bouncer at the club who keeps all the riffraff out.  John gets in but Peter gets stopped at the door, so John has to go back and say, “It’s OK, he’s with me.”

            And the girl says to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” (John 18:17).   Now, what I find interesting here is that, by the way she worded that question, she apparently knew that John was a disciple of Jesus.  He didn’t keep it a secret.  She knew John was a follower and so she asked Peter, “Are you also one of his disciples?”

            To which Peter responded, “No, I’m not.”  I’m not sure why he was hesitant to admit it to this girl, but he probably figured it was just easier that way.  Let’s not get into any discussions.  Let’s just ignore it and go on.  I just want to hide over in the corner.

            But now, Peter had a problem. By saying that to the gatekeeper, he had portrayed himself as an innocent bystander.  And so, when the next question came, it was a little more difficult for him to reverse the course he had already taken.

            Peter went into the courtyard and just tried to blend in with the crowd.  I would imagine he didn’t say anything and just tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.  But it was hard to blend in because he was someone new, somebody different.  And so, people noticed, and they wondered.  And again, someone asked, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” (John 18:25).

            This time, it wasn’t just one person.  There were others.  One by one, they began to ask Peter, “You’re NOT…are you?”  “Are you?”  And, again, Peter denied by saying — and this time, I think it was a little more emphaticly — “No, I’m not.”

            The third question came from one of Malchus’ relatives.  Remember Malchus, the servant of the high priest whose ear Peter cut off in the garden?   He took a closer look at Peter’s face and he said, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” (John 18:26)  He was certain he recognized Peter.

            The other gospel writers tell us that some of the other bystanders took up the discussion and started to challenge Peter.  Mark tells us that one of them said, Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” (Mark 14:70).   In other words, Peter was recognized as being from Galilee because of his accent.

            You see, most people from Peter’s neck of the woods pronounced some words differently that the people in Jerusalem did…and these native Judeans were able to pick up on that.  It would be like if you were to hear somebody talking who claimed to be from Alabama, but they said, “Pahk the cah in the yahd.”  Chances are pretty good you would know that somebody’s not telling the truth!

            It was at this point that Peter completely lost it.  Once again, he denied that he even knew Jesus.  Matthew tells us that he began to curse” and “swear (Matthew 26:74).  which doesn’t mean that Peter let loose a bunch of four-letter words.  Rather, it means that he put himself under a curse in order to emphasize his statement.  It would be like Peter saying, “May lightning strike me dead if I’m lying — I don’t know Jesus!  I swear on my grandmother’s grave!”  As I said earlier, there’s a sense in which Peter was on trial, and so he put himself under an oath to convince his accusers that he was telling the truth.

            But it was at that exact moment that the rooster began to crow just as Jesus had predicted.  Luke tells us that at the very moment that the rooster was crowing, Jesus was led out of the high priest’s house and he looked at Peter (Luke 22:61).  Jesus made eye contact in a way that let Peter know that Jesus knew exactly what he had just done.  Talk about humiliation!

            We’re not told what kind of look it was that Jesus gave Peter, so it makes me wonder.  Was it a look of surprise?  Not likely.  Remember, Jesus told Peter this was going to happen.

            Was it a look of anger and rejection?  A look of judgment?”  An “I told you so” sort of look?  I don’t think that’s likely either.  It’s easier for me to imagine that it was a look of disappointment, but I don’t think that’s what it was either.

            I think what Peter saw in the eyes of Jesus was love and grace.  He saw a Savior who was on his way to the cross to die for Peter’s failures.  But, whatever the look was, it was a look that made Peter very aware of the sin he had just committed, and he went off into the night ashamed and weeping bitterly.

            So, what do we learn from all of this?  What was it that led Peter to his humiliating failure that night?  I see two main factors.

1.         First of all, there was Peter’s over-confidence.

            If we look back to Luke 22, we see a conversation that Jesus had back with Peter in the upper room just a few hours earlier.

            Beginning in verse 31, Jesus said, “‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.  And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.’ 

            “Peter said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.’

            “Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.’” (Luke 22:31-34)

            In Matthew 26, Peter went so far as to say, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Matthew 26:33)

            Peter decided to follow Jesus that night when he should have heeded Jesus’ warnings about his over-confident nature.  Jesus had told the soldiers who came to arrest him to let his disciples go.  And, Peter should have gone at that point, but he didn’t.  Jesus had told Peter to “watch and pray” so he would not fall into temptation.  Jesus had told him his spirit was willing — but his flesh too weak to handle what was to come. 

            But over-confident Peter thought, “Not me. I know what Jesus said, but I can handle this.  I’ll only go so far and it won’t hurt anything.”  But, of course, we know what happened.  Peter was over-confident.

            Now, don’t misunderstand me. Confidence can be a good thing. It can positively affect everything you do — your conduct, your ability to learn, your growth, your choice of friends, your choice of a mate.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that a positive self-image is necessary for a successful life.  But, while it is good to have confidence, it is dangerous to be OVER-confident.

            Paul Powell has written, “If self-confidence is the first step to SUCCESS, overconfidence is the first step to FAILURE.”  And if we want to avoid Peter’s kind of mistake, we need to understand that the kind of pride and arrogance that keeps people from recognizing and acknowledging their weaknesses has been the downfall of many folks.

            We’re familiar with Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Paul said essentially the same thing in I Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”

            And I think this is important is because I don’t know many Christians who fall into sin by saying, “I know this is a powerful temptation, and I know I’m going to give in to it, but I don’t care, I’m going to do it anyway.”  No, what usually happens is they believe that they are the exception.  They’ll say, “I know most people who go here or do this eventually end up doing something wrong.  But I’m different.  This won’t affect me.  I can resist the temptation.  I’ll never make that mistake.”

            But, of course, most of the time, they’re not different.  And they don’t resist.  And they sin because they put themselves in a situation where they were over-confident and thought they could handle it.

            Jesus tried to warn Peter by saying to him, “You need to be careful because you’re going to deny me three times before dawn.”  But Peter apparently thought he knew himself better than Jesus did.

            We all need to be careful and recognize that the possibility of sin lies in all of our hearts.  We should never make the mistake of saying that we would never mess up like someone else has made.  We all have the potential for sin and we are in our greatest danger when, like Peter, we think otherwise.

            Instead of self-confidence, we all need CHRIST-confidence.  We need to realize that, just like Jesus said, “Apart from Me you can do NOTHING!” (John 15:5).   Whenever we forget that, we’re in trouble.  Anything good that comes OUT of us is not BECAUSE of us, but rather it is because of HIM being IN us.

2.      Which leads to a second thing that I think contributed to Peter’s failure that night—LACK OF PRAYER

            You see, one of the results of overconfidence is that it can lead us to neglect our prayer life — as it apparently Peter did that night in the garden.  Do you remember what happened?  Jesus asked Peter and the others to pray for him.  But instead the disciples fell asleep.  When Jesus found him napping, he spoke, but we’re told that he spoke specifically to Peter.  He said, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40).  “Peter, I thought you said I could count on you!  I thought you said you’d die for me!  You can’t even make it one hour.”

            Maybe Peter’s overconfidence made him think he didn’t need to pray — that he could relax…and rest.  Many times, we get to thinking we can go it alone without God’s help and that’s always a recipe for failure. I think that’s why in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”(Matthew 6:13)

            Jesus knows that every day, no matter how sheltered we are, we will face choices in which the wrong action is so seductive, so plausible, so pleasurable that it will take God’s help for us to reject it.  We need to realize that in these moments we could mess up and lose everything — our self-respect, our family, our health, our position. We need to understand that in order for us to fight the temptations that lead to those kinds of sins, we need God’s help.  That’s why the apostle Paul told us to pray without ceasing.

            We need to realize just how much we need to pray.  We need to fall on our knees for strength, for wisdom.  We need to run to God and ask for his help because we realize that we are no match for Satan.  Only God can give us the power to withstand his attacks and prayer is our power line.

            But, as I said, it is our overconfidence that causes us to neglect our prayer life.  If we feel like we can handle things on our way, we don’t feel the need to go to God in prayer.  But we need to recognize our inadequacy, and prayer is our confession of inadequacy.  It is a recognition of our limitations.  And, if we ever get to where we think we no longer need God’s help, we are headed for failure and shame.

            Like Peter, there are times we’ve all been over-confident and times when we haven’t prayed like we should.  And like Peter, we’ve all experienced those moments of failure.  What happened to Peter happens to every follower of Jesus at some point.

            Here’s the problem, though — we usually don’t notice it while it’s happening. I think we routinely deny Jesus.  Just like Peter did.  We just don’t realize it.

            And I think it’s because we hear this story about Peter and we think it’s just talking about a situation where somebody point-blank asks us, “Are you a follower of Jesus?”  And then we have to answer either, Yes or No.  But that doesn’t happen to us very often, does it?

            But let me tell you what does happen.  Every day, we face situations and we have to make decisions that put our relationship with Jesus to the test.  The circumstances we’re faced with and the decisions we have to make demand an answer from us  — Are we his disciples or not?

            And it’s usually not our words we answer with.  We answer this question by what we do, by the choices we make. We answer whether or not we are Jesus’ disciples by the lives we live.

            Would you pray with me?

            Father, I ask you to help us to see all the ways in our lives that we have been like Peter that night.  Show us the result of our over-confident, prayer-less actions. Show us how weak and foolish and faithless we have been at times. Show us the times we have compromised our faith by being silent about our walk with Jesus when we could have spoken up.  

            But Father, as we each remember those times, help us to see in your eyes, the forgiveness and love that Peter must have seen in Jesus’ eyes that night.  Thank you for sending your Son to die for our sins, those many occasions that we have let you down.

            And Father, from this day forward, we ask that you would protect us from the evil one.  Give us the power to resist Satan and to live boldly for you. We recognize that we are weak and helpless, and that we need your strength.  Help us to keep or eyes on you.

            In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.



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