It was the moment of truth. In the heat of his denial, Peter was oblivious to the shuffle of feet as Christ was being led out into the courtyard, and certainly he was not prepared for the excruciation of the next moment. Dr. Luke tells us:
Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. 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. The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. (Luke 22:61)
Christ paused and looked right into the soul of Peter, and the tears coursed down that disciple’s face like rain down a rock.
Peter, so filled with presumption just a few hours earlier that he had declared he would die for the Master, had now denied him. Worse, it was not a silent default. And worse yet, it happened not once but three times!
No one would have predicted Peter’s plunge. The great apostle had failed precisely at the point of his greatest human strength. This natural extrovert and naturally brave man could not bear the ridicule of the crowd. The shock and strain of seeing evil in apparent triumph over good had shaken his faith, and the censure and estrangement of those around the fire were too much. Our greatest human strengths (no matter what they are) will never be adequate for following Christ. What is your greatest natural strength? A winning personality … charm … discipline … speaking ability … intelligence … wealth … attractive or impressive appearance … aggressiveness … position? Christ can use all these things, but if we suppose we will be able to follow and serve him because of our natural gifts, we had better prepare ourselves for a plunge like Peter’s. Natural devotion and natural strength will always deny Jesus somewhere or sometime.
No one will ever know the terrible anguish of soul that Peter went through then—the nauseous darkness and confusion of those seventy-two hours of the grave. Something died inside Peter that night! Simon the natural man with all his self-assured presumption was about to die. Peter was beginning to know himself. He was defeated and disconsolate that night, but God was not through with him! As we will see in our study of John 21, our Savior restored Peter over breakfast beside the Sea of Galilee.
Later, we see Peter as a changed man! On the Day of Pentecost his life displayed the overflowing sufficiency of the Holy Spirit, as we see in his blistering sermon in Acts 2: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (v. 23). And before the cynical and sophisticated Caiaphas, who had ordered Christ’s death, Peter said:
“Then know this, you and everyone else in Israel: it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you completely healed. He is the ‘stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given by men by which we must be saved.” When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:10–13)
Peter had become a rock! He was stronger after his plunge than he had ever been! Immediately after Peter’s restoration our Lord prophesied of Peter’s death:
“I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands [a phrase that C. K. Barrett believes refers to crucifixion2], and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. (John 21:18–19)
Our Lord’s words are not entirely clear except that at Peter’s death he would be a feeble man dependent on the help of others. The traditional view is that Peter was crucified upside-down in Rome because he claimed he was not worthy to be crucified upright, and in that dramatically weakened state Peter was a remarkable demonstration of Christ’s power. The rope that is broken is strongest after it is spliced, not because it was broken, but because a skillful hand has strengthened it.
“We may be stronger for our sins, not because sin strengthens, for it weakens, but because God restores.”3
What happened to Peter happened to some degree or in some way to all the apostles, and happens to all who follow Christ today. Paul was one of the greatest minds the church has ever produced. He was the mastermind of the evangelization of Asia Minor. He was the missionary general of the early church. Yet he was not by nature bold.
“Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words will be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). But he ascended to the heights of boldness. Acts 14 records his being dragged out of the city of Lystra, stoned, and left for dead and how as the disciples were standing about mourning over him, he popped open an eye and said, “Let’s get going!” And they did—right back into Lystra! We also have his emboldened defense before King Agrippa in Acts 26.
But he [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will rather boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
Paul understood the source of his power as found in Colossians 2:9–10: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ.” The great J. B. Lightfoot said: “Your fullness comes from his fullness; his pleroma is transfused into you by virtue of your incorporation in him.”4 His fullness becomes our fullness!
That is exactly what happened to Peter. Second Peter 1:4 says, “He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature.” It was the life of Christ in him.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Our sufficiency comes from Christ! If we ask him, he will give his power to us. In Luke 11:13 Jesus says, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Peter had been impulsively confident, but now his confidence was richer and deeper because of the fullness of Christ.
High among the indispensable truths of practical Christianity is this: God is constantly at work to show us that even those things we count as our greatest natural strengths are, by his standards, really weaknesses.
When this principle is put to work, our strengths are enhanced and ennobled just like Peter’s. But perhaps even more glorious, our weaknesses become occasions for his power!
Our shyness, an occasion for his boldness;
our weakness of speech, an occasion for his
articulation; our lack of imagination, for his
creativity; our ignorance, for his instruction;
our insecurity, for his assurance.
Second Corinthians 4:7 says: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” May we lay our lives before him with all our strengths and all his fullness to work in and through us.