“Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (John 14:37)
All four Gospels share this exchange. Peter vowed to Jesus that he would go with him to prison and even death, rather than disown him. What a friend, right? Of course, we all know what happened just a few hours later. In what must have been the scariest moment of his life – and probably the most disappointing as well – Peter watched Jesus be lead away in chains and then tormented in every sense of the word. He no doubt felt the loss of every hope he had of seeing Israel restored to God’s favor and liberated from the tyranny of Roman rule.
What exactly was Peter getting at when he said, “Even if all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29)? Furthermore, what did Jesus mean when, later in John 21:15, he asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” Allow me to share what I felt the Lord laid on my heart a few weeks ago in regard to these scriptures.
There was something undone in Peter that had to be exposed and removed before he could effectively do what God had purposed him for. His question, “why can’t I follow you now?” was a foreshadowing of the hindrance God was about to uncover in his heart. When Peter told Jesus, “Even if all fall away, I will not,” what he was baring for all to see was the Pharisee within. Peter thought there was something in everyone else around him that he could never be guilty of. He thought his devotion to Jesus eclipsed that of his partners and friends. In essence, he thought he was incapable of falling in the same way everyone else was destined to do that night, per the prediction Jesus had made. Christ gently affirmed Peter’s eventual course, which Peter again refused to acknowledge his propensity toward.
Peter couldn’t avoid the falling away. He was destined for it. His weakness was about to be exposed. “Simon, Simon, 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” (Luke 22:31-32). How wonderful that Jesus knew his failure before it even occurred and had already interceded for him!
I can’t imagine how painful the next few days were. Peter had to live with the guilt of his betrayal while he mourned the loss of his best friend. They had met eye-to-eye as the rooster crowed. Peter had wept bitterly knowing that Jesus hadn’t missed the sign he’d spoken of. The guilt must have been very burdensome, because when the disciples saw Jesus on the shore of Galilee after the resurrection, Peter jumped overboard and swam to Jesus while the rest of them rowed the boat back in. He was miserable, I’m sure, until he could repent at Jesus’ feet. Later, they walked side by side and Jesus said, “Peter, do you love me more than these?” I never understood that question before, but now I think I do: Jesus was addressing the original thought in Peter’s heart, where Peter thought he loved Jesus more and that was why he believed himself utterly incapable of sinning in such a way.
Peter was hurt. Ashamed. Still comparing himself, as he nodded toward John and said, “What about him, Lord?” Jesus simply said, “Don’t worry about him. You follow me.”
I believe it’s true that many Christians are really good at watching their lives and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16), and that’s scriptural. Nothing wrong with that. But I think we can also become so focused on our own efforts and our perceived goodness that we look at others and think, “Oh, I would never do that.” This attitude can be a hindrance to our ministry to love others because it’s not humble, and just as surely as Peter had to get that out of his system before he could see thousands respond to the Gospel, we will also stumble on all the things we are certain will never trip us up, until we hang our heads in shame, seek forgiveness and walk in humility among the people God has called us to minister to.
We can take heart in the fact that Jesus is never disillusioned about us. He knows what we are capable of far better than we know ourselves and intercedes for us according to his foreknowledge. He’s never surprised. There’s incredible comfort in that!
Ultimately, we must acknowledge the truth of Galatians 5:17, that the spirit and the flesh are at war and we are fallible to our fleshly nature at any given moment that the Holy Spirit is not leading us. But thankfully, there is redemption written for every failure because Jesus was victorious. He prayed for us so that we can be strengthened in our areas of weakness. God loves the humble, and these failures bring us nearer to the heart of God rather than further away, if we are willing to be guilty before him, as Joshua was in Zechariah 3. There are so many tremendous examples of failure followed by God’s forgiveness and redemption. The Christian should be relieved to know this, as the Pharisee within must be removed before God can use us like He used Jesus. Lift your head, friend, redemption draws nigh!