And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
The third thing we can say in Peter’s defense is that Peter clearly loved Jesus. That is the only possible reason why he followed him. Like Mary, who is soon to be seen in the garden by the tomb weeping because she loved and missed the Master, Peter did not want to be far from his Lord. True, he wanted “to see the outcome.” But this was not idle curiosity. He must have thought that he would never be able to live with himself unless he saw this through and knew for certain what would become of Jesus. Peter failed in circumstances into which he would not even have come had he not loved Jesus greatly.
Yet Peter did fail, and his failure is a lesson for us. Peter was the apparent leader of the disciples. If this had been Nicodemus, we would not be surprised, for Nicodemus had always been afraid of what other people might think. If this had been the rich young ruler, we would not be surprised, for we know that he loved his possessions above everything. We would not be surprised if this had been one who never confessed Jesus openly. Yet this was not Nicodemus or the rich young ruler or some other weak follower. This was Peter! And he fell with such slight provocation! He collapsed before the question of a mere servant girl. If Peter could do that, if he could deny Jesus, so can we. What happened to Peter can happen to the strongest of us, and it may even be the strongest who are in the greatest danger.
Why did Peter fall? This is an old, old story, of course. Most of the commentators write about it. Thousands of sermons have been preached on what happened. The steps of Peter’s fall are obvious to anyone who cares enough to study Peter’s life. Why should we review it all again, then? Obviously, because we do not learn from Peter’s story. Someone has said, the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.
There were several steps in Peter’s fall.
1. Peter did not believe Jesus’ warning. Even worse, Peter had contradicted Jesus openly. Jesus had predicted the disciples’ failure, even referring to Zechariah, who had written: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” (Matthew 26:31, Zechariah 13:7)
He declared, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me” But Peter had replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (v. 33). And when Jesus repeated his warning in even stronger terms (“I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times”), Peter came back with: “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (v. 35). He was telling Jesus that he was mistaken, that he was out-and-out wrong. What a foolish thing to do! How absurd to contradict openly the only person who has never been mistaken, never spoken wrongly, and never told even a single little lie. Human beings are frequently wrong in their perceptions. Jesus is never wrong, never confused or mistaken. Nevertheless, Peter did not believe JesusWarning.
Why are we so much like Peter? Why do we not believe Jesus when he says, “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matthew 26:41) or “Apart from me you can do nothing”(John 15:5)? When Jesus said “nothing” he meant nothing, and nothing, as Martin Luther said, is not a small something. If we believe Jesus when he says these things, we will not be as self-confident as we usually are. We will stay close to Jesus and look to him for direction and strength when temptation comes.