Peter: Saint and Sinner

Matthew 26:31-35
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, April 28, 1996
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew

Jesus' chief apostle, Simon Peter, was a man of many contradictions. He was a weak man, as implied by his name, Simon, which means weak, wavering, and mushy. He had enough faith in Jesus to walk boldly on the water, but when he saw the wind and waves, he began to drown and Jesus called him "Mr. Little Faith" because he doubted Jesus and his word. Simon Peter was the first to confess by divine revelation that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16), but immediately after his confession, he tried to prevent Jesus from doing his work as the Messiah who would die on the cross. He became an adversary, speaking for the devil, and Jesus had to rebuke him (Matt. 16:23). On the Mount of Transfiguration he spoke many things when he saw the glory of Jesus, and yet the gospel writers told us he did not know what he was talking about. In Gethsemane Jesus asked him to watch and pray, and yet he slept. At the Last Supper he refused to let Jesus wash his feet, but then he changed his mind and demanded that Jesus wash his whole body. Peter promised to follow Jesus all the way to prison and death, yet he denied him three times later that night.

How Jesus could choose such an emotional, impetuous, contradictory person to be his chief apostle? In choosing of Simon, and, in fact, in the choosing of us, we see the inscrutable wisdom of God. St. Paul spoke about such divine choosing in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him."

Just like each one of us, Peter failed many times. He was foolish, independent, and self-confident. He contradicted Jesus Christ himself. When we look at Peter, we must ask: Would Peter persevere to the very end, or would he fall away forever, like Judas, who betrayed Jesus? But we must remember that Jesus chose him. Jesus changed his name from Simon to Peter, which meant rock. Peter was a rock man. Jesus preserved him, and therefore, Peter persevered to the very end. Peter fell often, but he never fell finally. Why? He was chosen by God unto eternal salvation.

Peter's life demonstrates the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which we read about in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 17:

"They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and the of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves."

Love: Context of Failure

What is the context for this great failure of Peter? In John 13 we are told that Jesus loved his disciples and in the upper room he demonstrated to them the full extent of his love. He loved them eis telos --unto the very end. He particularly demonstrated his unfailing love in the Holy Communion. As he gave them the bread he said, "Take, eat, this is my body given for you" and when he gave them the cup he said, "Drink, all of you, the blood of the new covenant." In other words, the sins of the disciples would be forgiven because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and they would receive eternal life through him.

The Father loved these disciples from all eternity and chose them to salvation. The Son loved them from all eternity and would die for them. The Spirit of God loved them from all eternity and would regenerate them, indwell them, and guide them to the very end. This Holy Communion demonstrated the full extent of Christ's love for the eleven of the disciples. It was his assurance that they would be saved and persevere in spite of their sinful contradictions. At this Lord's Supper the disciples ate and declared their loyalty to Jesus.

Jesus Gives Bad News

While they were eating, Jesus dropped a bombshell. He had already shocked the disciples earlier in the dinner when he said that one of them would betray him. Now Jesus surprised them further. In verse 31 we read, "Jesus told them, 'This very night you will all fall away on account of me.'" What a shock to these disciples! They had just finished eating the covenant meal, which was a declaration of their love for Jesus Christ. But Jesus was saying that every one of them would be offended at him, run away from him, and fail him--every one! He emphasized that all of them would cease to be disciples that night.

What is a disciple? They are those who deny themselves, take up their crosses daily, and follow Jesus all the way to death. Disciples hate their own lives. Disciples follow Jesus all the way--from the upper room to the Mount of Olives to Gethsemane to Caiaphas' house to Pilate's place of judgment and, finally, to Golgotha to be killed. Disciples are to stand with Jesus and confess to the enemies of Jesus--Caiaphas, the elders, the authorities, the Sanhedrin, Pilate--that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Disciples were to boldly confess that Jesus is very God and very man, the Savior of the world. Disciples were to affirm that Jesus was not a blasphemer, but rather, the way, the truth and the life. Disciples were to proclaim that Jesus is the King of the world, the Holy One of God. They would say, "Yes, we are Jesus' disciples. Yes, we lived with him, ate with him, slept with him, walked with him, and celebrated Holy Communion with him. As disciples, then, we stand with him now. Go ahead--arrest us, try us, and crucify us also. We are sinners but Jesus is without sin. He is our Savior." The nature of a disciple is to do these things.

The eleven disciples ate the covenant meal and pledged to be true followers of Christ to the very end. But Jesus predicted that even that night they would cease to be disciples. They would run from him like people run from fire. Every one would fall away. Their actions remind me of people who come to church and are received as members. They all confess, but many fall away and are never seen in the church again. It is easy to speak, but the issue is performance.

The Bad News Confirmed

Jesus not only dropped a bombshell, but then he confirmed it with a citation from the Old Testament. He cited a prophecy from Zechariah 13:17, "For it is written: 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'" It stands written! The abandonment of the disciples was not an accident of history. It was the decree of God. This tells us that God is absolutely in control of all events. God the Father himself would strike the good shepherd. He would not spare his own Son, but would give him up in behalf of the salvation of his elect. Through the death of Jesus a fountain would be opened for the cleansing of the sin of all his people, as we read in Zechariah 13:1. There could be no fountain unless the shepherd is stricken and smitten by God the Father himself.

So Jesus said the sheep of the flock would be scattered. The Eleven were sheep in God's flock, and yet they would run away. But God was in control. These events were divinely decreed. As we read in Isaiah 53, the Lord laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all, and it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer. God's justice would be satisfied, and his Righteous Servant would justify many.

Jesus Encourages the Disciples

After shocking his disciples by telling them of their impending failure, Jesus encouraged them. In verse 32 he said "But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." Can you imagine the comfort in that statement? But Peter did not hear it, because he was not listening. Many people will not listen to the word of God, and therefore, they miss out on God's comfort. Here we see Jesus, after surprising his disciples with a prediction of their failure, giving them good news: He would be raised up and would go ahead of them into Galilee. In other words, he would gather his scattered sheep and would continue to be their shepherd.

The scattering would not be permanent. The Lord who crushed Jesus in death would also raise him up as the shepherd of his sheep. Jesus was telling his disciples, "Don't be discouraged. Yes, I will be smitten and you will all be scattered. But I will be raised up, and you will all be gathered once again. I will be your shepherd, and you shall be my sheep."

Peter Contradicts Jesus

How did Peter react? He was not paying attention to Jesus' encouraging words. He was still thinking about "all of you would fall away." So he contradicted Jesus' prophecy, which is the very word of God, and said, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will."

What arrogance! Peter used the term ego , I, to emphasize that even if all the others fell away, he, Simon, would never fall away! Peter spoke as a fool. He who trusts in himself, Proverbs says, is a fool. This showed Peter's arrogance. He was not listening to Jesus and refused to believe in the absolute authority of Jesus' prophecy. He set himself above Scripture and above the words of Jesus. He did not remember Jesus saying in John 15, "Without me you can do nothing. Abide in me and my word abide in you."

In effect Peter was saying, "Jesus, I know Matthew the publican. I know John and James. I know my own brother Andrew, the one who introduced me to you. They all are weak and, as you say, they all may run away. But I will never run away. Simon the son of Jonas will never fail. You can count on me. I am loyal to you, and love you more than all of these weak and miserable men." You see, Peter did not have any use for his fellow disciples, the church. He was an independent man who delighted in individualism.

Not only that, in all four gospels we read that Peter continued by telling Jesus that he was ready to go with him to prison and to death. Then Peter went further, and in John 13:37 he said, "I will lay down my life for you." Peter said he was ready to die huper sou -- "in your place"--in behalf of Christ!

Oh, the depth of human depravity as seen in Peter! We read in Jeremiah 17:9 that "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" and we know that only the Lord can understand corrupt human hearts. Peter was assuring Jesus that he would die in his place so that he would not have to die. He was telling him that he, Peter, would negotiate with the authorities and convince them to kill him, not Jesus. Peter thought that Jesus could go free. Oh, how much human arrogance, self-confidence, foolish talk, and smoke of pride billowed from the mouth of this saint and sinner, Peter!

Jesus came as a good shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep. Peter wanted to defy the eternal will of God and God's plan of salvation, and die in Christ's place. But I assure you, Peter's death would accomplish nothing. Peter could not even save himself by his death. Only the propitiatory, substitutionary death of the Son of God can save his elect.

Jesus Deflates Peter

In patience Jesus reiterated the bad news. He spoke with great emphasis--Amen, I say to you, meaning, truly, I am trying to tell you something. Jesus was saying, Listen, Peter, I am trying to tell you something that is very important. Get away from the smoke, the pride, the arrogance, the individualism and everything else. Come into reality. Be sober and vigilant. I am trying to tell you something. In verse 34 we read, "'I tell you the truth,' Jesus answered, 'this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.'"

How arrogant God's people can become! How proud swollen, unrealistic and steeped in fantasy! Jesus dealt with Peter's arrogance by informing him that that very night Peter would deny Jesus. Within three hours proud Peter would deny Jesus.

Have you had this happen? After all of their serious affirmations and vows of loyalty, "before the cock crows" many people deny Christ. The word in Greek means "to utterly deny," and such denial is a contradiction of discipleship. Discipleship means the affirmation of Jesus Christ and the denial of oneself. But here we see Peter contradicting the very principle of discipleship by affirming himself and denying Christ. He denied that he ever knew Jesus, ever followed him, ever ate with him, and ever confessed him as the Son of God. Peter denied that he had ever met Jesus. Why did he do it? He wanted to affirm himself and preserve his own life.

Aren't we like Peter? Why don't we want to witness? It is because we want to preserve our reputation and our life. But when Jesus warned Peter of his denial, Peter protested again, refusing to learn. He contradicted Jesus again and said, "I will never disown you." Never!

The Ministry of Satan

Every disciple said the same thing. But we need to understand that Satan was also ministering at this meal. In Luke 22:31 Jesus said, "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. . ." When Jesus repeats one's name it is pretty serious. Jesus was trying to tell Peter something very important: "Satan has asked to sift you. . ." The word "you" there means all of the disciples, not just Peter. "Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."

In the Greek it says, "Simon, Simon, look, behold: Satan has asked and received permission to sift you." Satan is the accuser of the brethren. He is ever present. He is in the church, and he wants to sift Jesus' disciples like wheat. But notice, he asked permission of God to do so.

We do not read of such a request in reference to Judas. We are told that Satan prompted him, entered into him and controlled him. No permission was sought because Judas was not an elect. He was a false disciple, and therefore Satan controlled him. But here Satan asked permission. That is wonderful to read because it tells us that Jesus Christ is in control. He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world. We belong to Jesus Christ.

In the story of Job, Satan also had to ask God's permission to touch Job, and God gave permission. Why? The ministry of Satan is necessary for every disciple, and therefore God grants Satan permission. God uses Satan's ministry. All Christians will be tested and sifted by him. Sifting involves being vigorously shaken, probably in a sieve, or being thrown up into the air to be blown away by the wind. But if you are wheat, you will not fall through the holes in the sieve or be blown away by the wind.

Satan was telling God and Jesus Christ that the eleven men whom they had chosen were all chaff, false, nothing. Satan even accused Simon, whom Jesus had called a rock, of not being a rock but of being the same old wishy-washy, mushy nothing of a person he was before he followed Jesus.

Jesus Prays for Peter

None of us can escape the ministry of Satan. He will expose our hypocrisy, our lies, our deceit, our foolishness, and our arrogance. But that is not the end of it. What else did Jesus say? "But I have prayed for you, Simon."

In John 17 we find the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, praying for his disciples. In verse 9 he said, "I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours." You see, we are God's and we are given to Christ as gifts that he may die in place of us. And in verse 11 Jesus prayed, "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name." In verse 12 he said, "While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by the name you gave me," and in verse 15 he prayed, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one."

In the Greek "I have prayed for you" means "I prayed for you personally." Let me assure you, Jesus Christ prays for every one of us. As High Priest he intercedes in behalf of us in heaven. Our names are inscribed in precious stones upon the breastpiece of this High Priest, as we read about in Exodus 28.

As disciples, Jesus loves us, died for us, and prays for us. We can rest in the intercessory prayer of Jesus because God always hears him. Because Jesus alone is without sin, he always prays in the will of God.

So Jesus prayed for Peter, and for us, and God always hears his prayer. Like Peter, we will come out as wheat after all the sifting. The devil may say that we are chaff and nothing, but he will be proven false. Jesus said that, in spite of all their contradictions, failures, backslidings, and miserable conditions, by the ministry of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit his disciples shall be proven to be wheat.

The Holy Spirit also intercedes for us on earth, as we are told in Romans 8. Thus, we are very safe. God the Father is for us, God the Son is for us, and God the Holy Spirit is for us. We shall persevere to the very end.

Total Failure Impossible

What was the content of Jesus' prayer? He prayed "that your faith may not fail." The Greek word is eklipse. Jesus prayed that Peter's faith would not suffer a total eclipse. As disciples, we might have partial eclipses of faith, times when we demonstrate very little faith. There will be times when we doubt God. But Peter's faith in Jesus Christ did not suffer a total eclipse, and neither will ours. A total eclipse is impossible for the elect of God. Why? We did not produce this faith. We exercise faith in Christ, but that faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which he produces in every elect person who has been effectually called. There may be partial eclipses of our faith, and we may fall on board many times, but we shall never fall overboard. David sinned grievously and miserably, but God restored him, and we see him repenting. This is the story of every child of God.

Jesus told Peter, "When you have turned back," meaning when you are converted, "strengthen your brothers." What great encouragement for Peter! That meant he would be converted. When he was converted, what should he do? Restore and strengthen his brothers. Oh, what comforting words!

The disciples would not experience a total eclipse of faith. Why? They all ate the Lord's Supper--Christ's body, given for them--and drank the blood of the covenant, the blood shed for them. The disciples experienced the full extent of Christ's love in that upper room, and Jesus our High Priest prayed for them.

What comforting words for us! We are saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved. If the triune God is for us, let me ask you a question: Who in the world can be against us? We may stumble, we may fail, we may doubt, we may backslide, yet we are preserved by God. So shall we persevere to the very end.

In 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 we read of a man who was living with his father's wife. St. Paul instructed the Corinthians to expel him from the church and give him over to the ministry of Satan to deal with his sinful nature so that his spirit could be saved. God has a way of dealing with us, isn't that true? In 1 Corinthians 11 we read of people who were sinning and taking Holy Communion. And concerning that Paul wrote, "That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep," meaning they died. But we are told that those who were being so disciplined would not be condemned along with the world. What God may do to his children can be shocking, but the truth is, he is the Savior, and he will save them.

Jesus spoke of his disciples in John 10:28-29: "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all. No one can snatch them out of my Father's hand." A believer has great security.

Jesus' Words Are Fulfilled

In Matthew 26:56 we read, "Then all the disciples deserted him and fled." Yes, they ate the Holy Supper with Jesus. They expressed their loyalty and confessed that they were disciples. But then they stopped being disciples. The situation was getting too dangerous, so they ran. But let me tell you, they were kept safe. Jesus loved them to the very end and demonstrated it in the Holy Communion. He understood what was happening. He understood the corruption and failure of the human heart, but he loved these disciples. Knowing all these things, he loved them to the very end.

What else had Jesus said? When I have risen, I will go ahead of you. Yes, you will be scattered, but I will gather you. Once again I will be your shepherd. And not only that, he had told Peter when he was converted, he would strengthen the brothers who were weak. This was a comforting word from the lips of Jesus.

He also said he would pray for them, and because his prayer was always heard by the Father, they would be all right. Their faith would not fail. Remember how Jesus looked at Peter when Peter was denying him? Let me assure you, it was not a look of rebuke, but rather a look of pity, love, and mercy. How do we know that? Peter wept. That demonstrated genuine repentance. Judas could not do that, because genuine repentance itself is a gift of God. In the same way Jesus looks at us even when we are sinning. When we are denying him, he looks upon us in mercy, with pity and compassion.

The Restoration of Peter

On Easter Sunday the angel told the women to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus was risen. Yes, Peter was a sinner, but he is also a saint. In 1 Corinthians 15:5 we read that after his resurrection Jesus appeared first to Peter and then to the Twelve. And finally, at a time of great restoration, Jesus met Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"

Peter had said that even if all others denied, forsook, and failed Jesus, he would not. Now Jesus was asking Peter if that was still true. "Do you truly love me more than these?" But Peter, now sober, did not make outlandish claims. God had put a sense of reality into his head. And finally, he was grieved because Jesus asked the question three times. The Lord Jesus as a good shepherd was bringing about proper repentance for Peter's denying him three times. So he asked, Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?

Peter responded, Yes, Lord, I do. More than any of these or anything else, I love you. You know that I love you. And Jesus told Peter, Yes, I know you love me and will be my true disciple. In fact, you will follow me to death. That is what discipleship means. Here in John 21 Jesus predicted St. Peter's martyrdom. And then he told him to feed his sheep. He reassured Peter that he did not make a mistake when he chose him to be the chief apostle.

From Failure to Success

Peter the failure was made into a success by the grace of God. On the day of Pentecost God poured down the Holy Spirit on Peter and the other disciples. They received great power, boldness, and enlightenment, and throughout the book of Acts you read about Peter standing up for God. He rejoiced when he was beaten. And tradition tells us that he faithfully suffered martyrdom for his Lord.

Peter and all the other disciples failed. They failed miserably at the crucial time. They failed right after expressing their covenant loyalty and right before the crucifixion of Jesus. Peter failed to watch with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He failed to pray in the garden. He failed to pay heed to Jesus' instructions to watch and pray, lest he enter into temptation. Yet Peter did not remain a failure. God enabled him to persevere. He was restored and made a success. He became wheat, not chaff. He became the rock man. The church was built upon this rock man and all the other apostles. As Jesus had predicted, he began to strengthen others after his conversion.

And this Peter is strengthening us even now. In 2 Peter 1:10 we read, "Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall." And in 1 Peter 5:8 he says, "Humble yourselves." What is he telling us? Peter is saying, Please, humble yourselves. I was arrogant and proud. I told Jesus that I loved him more than anybody else. I told him to count on me. I told him to forget about James and John and Matthew and even my own brother Andrew. I told Jesus they may fail you but I never would. But I was proud and arrogant. I did not know what I was talking about. I was individualistic, puffed up with pride, living in unreality. I did not pay any attention to Jesus and his words.

So here in 1 Peter 5:8, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter writes to the church, "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God." Then he writes, "Be self-controlled." Why? He was not. "Be self-controlled and alert . . " vigilant and sober. Why? He was not. Peter had been baptized in himself. He had contradicted Jesus Christ. So he says, "Be self-controlled and alert; your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour." This practical exhortation comes from the pen of St. Peter who experienced the vigorous shaking of Satan. And then he writes, "Resist him, standing firm in your faith."

Sinner or Saint?

Rejoice, all sinners who have trusted in Jesus Christ! You are saints of God. Weep, all sinners who have never trusted in Jesus Christ --weep and wail. I exhort you to repent and believe in this Jesus Christ who was stricken for the salvation of all who believe in him. He is the only Savior. My question is this: Is he your Savior?

Are you like Peter? You may have been a Christian for many years, but in your heart there is such arrogance that God cannot speak to you. God is speaking, but you cannot hear. No one can tell you anything. But be warned: You will be thrown up and down. You will be put in a sieve and vigorously shaken, and your pretension, pride and hypocrisy will be exposed.

What did the Holy Spirit counsel through Peter? Be self-controlled, be vigilant, and be real. Humble yourselves. Come away from smoke and fantasy, and face reality. Listen to the word of God and the Spirit of God. If you are an elect of God, God will preserve you and you will persevere. But as we read from the Westminster Confession of Faith, the process is not always pleasant. I urge you to humble yourself and ask God to have mercy on you. Ask God to forgive your arrogance, your self-importance, your know-it-all mentality that prevents you from receiving from the hand of God and his church.

And if you have never trusted in Jesus Christ for your salvation, I counsel you to weep, wail, repent, and trust in Jesus Christ and be saved. He who says, "Come to me . . . and I will give you rest," never lies. You will find rest for your soul in Christ. Amen.

Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew

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