Haven’t you noticed that a person’s greatest strength is often their greatest weakness? No one illustrates this better than the brave and confident apostle Peter. His Achilles heel was fear of man.
On the night of Jesus’s arrest, the eager, impetuous, quick, ready, brave disciple thrice denied having anything to do with Christ. Simon Peter was over-confident in his own ability to remain steadfast under temptation. After all, he was the favoured disciple that had been praised for his bold declaration that Christ was the Son of God: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17).
But even after Jesus’s repeated warnings, Simon Peter proved to be weak and cowardly in the face of pressure. In his self-confidence, he succumbed to fear of man. His betrayal of Jesus was brutal.
At first, his denial to the servant girl was evasive: “I don’t know what you’re talking about” (Matt 26:70). Later, he cursed and swore to convince them that he was not a disciple of Jesus: “I don’t even know the man!” (Matt 26:72; Mark 14:71; John 18:26-27).
‘The man’ he hung out to dry was his friend, the same Lord and Master that Peter had eagerly confessed as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Luke 22:54-62). Imagine the hurt and pain of Jesus, who, at that moment, was being beaten and mocked within hearing distance of his disciple and friend. Peter, one of the three most favoured disciples, fell spectacularly just two or three hours after his bold declarations of loyalty:
“I will never disown you!”
“Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:
“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Matt 26:31-35).
Most of us would prefer to gloss over Peter’s denials and focus on his restoration in John 21, when the risen Christ re-instated Peter as shepherd of his flock, to feed and care for his sheep and lambs. After all, didn’t Peter repent and become the fearless leader of the church in Rome, a bold evangelist, the author of two New Testament letters, and a brave martyr of the faith in 64AD? Isn’t that the bottom line of Peter’s legacy and the focus of his funeral eulogy? Isn’t that the inspirational story we enjoy so much?
But the New Testament writers don’t allow us to gloss over his fall that quickly! Peter’s detailed denials are recorded in all four of the gospels, because there are warnings embedded in them for every Christian.
The flesh is weak.
Firstly, the gospel writers made sure that future readers would be under no illusions about Christianity’s historical heroes. Even the best men and women are frail, weak and fallible, in desperate need of grace and redemption. Actually, the Bible is littered with failed and fallen saints, as if to make the point that it’s foolish to put any human being on a pedestal. Even Peter fell to temptation on the very night that Jesus forewarned him on the Mount of Olives (Matt 26:30). The only real human hero is Jesus.
In Gethsemane, Jesus again warned the sleepy Peter: “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt 26:40-41). Peter’s fall into fear and sin was aggravated by the fact that Jesus had forewarned him of his weakness.
We need to remember Jesus’s warnings for ourselves: Watch and pray. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Fear of man.
Secondly, fear of man was the reason why Peter denied Jesus.
The first time he was asked about his relationship with Jesus, Peter tried to dodge the servant’s question and avoid creating a scene (Matt 26:70). Then his denial progressed to cowardly betrayal. That’s how sin progresses when we fear man more than God.
And fear of man is the reason why so many of us disown Jesus and his ways when the pressure is on. We are tempted to be silent or evasive for fear of what friends will say behind our backs if we admit that we believe in Jesus and his Word. We are scared of being the butt of a joke; or being scoffed at; or cancelled on social media, because we dare to lift our head above the ‘offence’ parapet by saying something unpopular and counter-cultural. We are afraid of what people can say or do to us.
Years later, Peter committed exactly the same sin in Galatia when, for fear of the Judaizers, he denied the power of the gospel to demolish the barrier between Jews and Gentiles (Gal 2:12-14). It was fear of man all over again. Fear of man is every Christian’s Achilles heel. It is what makes us weak in our time of testing.
The blindness of self-confidence.
Thirdly, Peter’s confidence in himself blinded him to the dangerous threat of Satan. Luke describes how at the Last Supper, Jesus forewarned Peter of his dangerous adversary: “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith would not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).
One cannot help thinking of Satan’s part in Judas’s temptation (John 13:27).
If Peter had understood how weak he truly was, he would have relied on God, not himself. He would have watched and prayed in the Garden, as Jesus had asked him to. But because he was self-confident, Satan caught him off guard.
Just imagine how painful it must have been for Peter to hear the rooster crow, and to see the bloodied face of his Lord turning and looking straight at him (Luke 22:34; 60-62). He was instantly convicted of his sin and the terrible pain he had caused Jesus. “Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him:
“Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.”
Before the rooster crows.
Peter’s painful season of sifting warns us to have no grand delusions about ourselves and our strength to resist temptation. As a much older, humbler man, the Apostle warned scattered Christians in the first century that there is a real Satan who is still our adversary. He likened the devil to a roaring lion that seeks to devour God’s people. For this reason, Peter still urges us today to stay alert and sober minded, ready to resist Satan, standing steadfast in the faith and committed to prayer (1 Peter 5:8-9; 1 Peter 1:13; 1 Peter 4:7). Before the rooster crows, we must put our confidence in God alone, for “let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12).
“It is the Lord!”
But, by God’s grace, Satan did not have the final say in Peter’s life. My favourite scene in the whole Bible is the breakfast on the beach after Christ’s resurrection (John 21:7-13). His disciples had gone back to fishing and caught nothing all night. Then the miraculous catch of fish! And then John and Simon Peter recognized their Lord standing on the shore!
“It is the Lord!” exclaimed John.
“As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread” (John 21:7-13).
Spontaneous, eager, impulsive Peter doesn’t think twice about jumping in the Sea of Tiberius in his underwear! His exuberance is palpable. In this beach scene, Jesus completely removed the shame of Peter’s denial. Three times Peter had disowned Jesus. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and commissioned him to be the shepherd of God’s people:
“Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17).
Peter’s repentance was the beginning of his transformation. His sifting by Satan did not destroy him, but became a defining moment in his life. It purified his faith, exposed his fear of man and humbled his heart. His identity changed from impetuous Simon, to Peter the ‘rock’. His career changed from fisherman to fearless evangelist and protective shepherd. The elderly man who authored 1 and 2 Peter was indeed a courageous shepherd of Christ’s church amidst Nero’s terrible reign of terror against Christians.
Jesus’s first words to Simon Peter were “Come, follow me” (Mark 1:17). His last words to him were “You must follow me” (John 21:22). Even though Peter stumbled, he turned back to Christ and was restored, whereas Judas kept walking on the path to destruction.
Peter’s trajectory gives every weak and fearful Christian hope that we are never beyond redemption. Although we may sin, backslide and even fall dramatically, we can still choose to turn back and follow Christ. Every day of our lives, the Holy Spirit is there to help us choose Peter’s trajectory of repentance, forgiveness and eternal life, rather than Judas’s trajectory of hypocrisy, deceit and death. This is the difference between the two disciples who betrayed Jesus—Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter. Which trajectory are you on?