1. The Denials (verses 69-75)
2. Some Lessons
Lesson #1: No sin is to big to be forgiven.
Lesson #2: No sin is to small to be ignored.
In our exposition of the gospel of Matthew, we come now to the last seven verses of chapter 26. These verses record for us Peter's denials. This is a significant event in the passion narrative. Every single one of the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) contain these things. And the question that needs to be asked at the outset is this, "Why did the gospel writers include this story? Why didn't they leave this story out? What might we miss if the story wasn't included in the Bible?" (In fact, this is always a good question to ask when studying the Bible. Each passage of Scripture has it's purpose. To think about its absence is a good way to figure out its purpose).
This story is not a flattering story at all. In fact, it's sort of a sad story. Jesus had invested three years of His life into 12 disciples. They were men who walked with Jesus and talked with Jesus. They were men who pledged their allegiance to Jesus (Matt. 26:35). And yet, not one of them remained faithful to Him. They all fell away from following Him (Matt. 26:31). So, why would the gospel writers all include this story?
I believe that the primary purpose of this story was to make clear that Jesus endured the cross in His own power. He didn't have anybody else supporting Him. None of His disciples were of any help at all. If anything, they were a distraction to Him. This story helps to illustrate that Jesus endured the cross all alone.
In the athletic world, there is much discussion about "home field advantage." It is believe by many that the home team generally plays better at home than on the road. The reason is quite simple. Though your lungs are crying for more air, though your legs are sore from cramps, though your throat is parched with thirst, the roar of the crowd will help you play on, ignoring the screams of your body. Some would even argue that playing at home is worth another player on the field.
But when Jesus died upon the cross, He had no "home field advantage." When Jesus was standing firm in His trial, He had no disciples cheering Him on, encouraging Him to be "faithful unto death" (Rev. 2:10). No. Jesus died alone. Deserted and abandoned by all.
Though Jerusalem was rightly His own city, He faced a hostile crowd. When Pilate offered to set Jesus free, the crowd shouted "Let Him be crucified" (Matt. 27:32). When Pilate offered a second time to set Jesus free, the crowd shouted, "all the more saying, 'Let Him be crucified!'" (Matt. 27:23). On top of a hostile crowd, His own disciples deserted Him. His most intimate earthly friends didn't stand with Him in His hour of greatest need. This included Peter, the most outspokenly loyal of all of His disciples. Remember, Peter was the one who said, "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You" (Matt. 26:35).
We can't look to a courageous disciple, who helped Jesus endure. It wasn't the encouraging word that helped Him to continue on in His obedience to the Father. It was Jesus Christ, who accomplished our redemption all by Himself. Nobody else can take any credit for any of our redemption, except for Jesus Christ.
The great works of the world have always been done by many people. Consider the pyramids. They were built by thousands of slaves over many, many years. Consider our sky-scrapers. They weren't built by a single person. It took teams of people and massive machinery over many years. But, Jesus did His work all alone. Nobody was supporting Him. Nobody was helping Him. Peter's denials help to show how abandoned Jesus was in this world. Let's pick up the context of our text by beginning in Matthew 26:31.
Then Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, 'I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.' But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee." But Peter answered and said to Him, "Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away." Jesus said to him, "Truly I say to you that this very night, before a cock crows, you shall deny Me three times." Peter said to Him, "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You." All the disciples said the same thing too.
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a certain servant-girl came to him and said, "You too were with Jesus the Galilean." But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you are talking about." And when he had gone out to the gateway, another servant-girl saw him and said to those who were there, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth." And again he denied it with an oath, "I do not know the man." And a little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Surely you too are one of them; for the way you talk gives you away." Then he began to curse and swear, "I do not know the man!" And immediately a cock crowed. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, "Before a cock crows, you will deny Me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.
Jesus knew that He would face the cross all alone. It didn't come as any surprise that His disciples had deserted Him. It was written in the Old Testament that it would take place, "Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered." In the case of Peter, Jesus knew some exact particulars in the way in which Peter would deny Him. Jesus said that "before a cock crows, you shall deny Me three times" (Matt. 26:34). This is exactly what took place. Peter denied Jesus three times. And so, Jesus faced the cross "All Alone," without any help from His disciples.
In verse 69, we find Peter, "sitting outside in the courtyard." As we mentioned a few weeks ago, Peter was in the courtyard of the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, where the religious trial of Jesus was taking place. Caiaphas was the highest Jewish political figure in the land. You might think about his house like the White House. It was also quit appropriate for a trial to be held here, for the house of the high priest was a common public gathering place. In the days of Jesus, large houses would often be arranged in a circle, surrounding a courtyard. Their yard would be in the middle of their house, rather than in front or in back. The house of Caiaphas was large enough for the Sandhedrin, and quite a few other observers, to assemble in it. As Peter was observing this trial from afar, we read that "a certain servant-girl came to him and said, 'You too were with Jesus the Galilean'" (verse 69).
Have you ever seen somebody that you recognize, but can't quite put your finger on how you know them? This happened to me this week, when I was purchasing a sandwich at Subway. I was in line telling the sandwich artists what to put on my sandwich, when I looked back in line a few people and saw an older woman that I recognized. We made eye-contact and smiled at each other, acknowledging that we knew each other. And then I went back to looking at the status of my sandwich, thinking to myself, "Where have I seen that woman before? I think that she is a member of another church that we fellowship with. I think that I've seen here a few times at that church. But, I'm not quite sure." I looked back again, trying to figure out who it was and how I knew her. And then, she began to make conversation with me! She commented something about how it was nice to get the rain this week. I said smiling, "Yes, it is," all the while thinking in my mind, "Now, who is she?" I purchased my sandwich and on my way out I waved to her. But, my mind was still in a state of confusion as I left the Subway restaurant. It wasn't until I was in my car, several blocks down the road when I realized who exactly it was. It wasn't in a church setting, it was the International Students organization that we are involved with.
Perhaps it was the same way with this servant girl. In Luke, we find out that Peter was standing near a fire that had been kindled in the middle of the courtyard (Luke 22:55), which means that it was a chilly evening. Others were huddled around this fire, including this servant girl. As they carried on their small chit-chat, she may have been thinking to herself, "That man looks familiar. Where have I seen him before? Does he live in our neighborhood? Have I seen him down by the market? Perhaps I saw him in the temple. Yeah, that's it! I remember, I saw him in the temple. And He was with Jesus. In fact, as I remember, I think that I saw him walking into the temple about the same time that Jesus came. I think that he is one of the disciples of Jesus." And then she said, "You too were with Jesus the Galilean." We don't know the tone with which she asked this question. But, I suspect that it wasn't seeking to accuse him, it was just trying to figure out where she had seen him before.
Peter didn't want to hear this question. He wanted to remain incognito. He wanted to blend into the background. He wanted to be a wall flower. But now, Peter had to deal with his relationship with Jesus. Remember that, at this very moment, the Sanhedrin was attempting to find guilt with Jesus. They were looking for all types of witnesses, in hopes of finding a false witness. If Peter would come out and say that he was one of Jesus' disciples, he would be dragged into the middle of the court and asked to give testimony about Jesus. Would it come out that Peter was actually one of the disciples of Jesus, Peter may well have been crucified along with him. So Peter knows what is at stake: His very life! To say that He was one of Jesus' disciples was to put his own life at stake. And so Peter responded in a way that saved his life. Peter denied having any relationship with Jesus saying, "I do not know what you are talking about" (verse 70). This is exactly what Jesus predicted that he would do.
Notice that this denial came in the presence of several others who were warming themselves by the fire also. Verse 70 says that Peter denied it "before them all." Apparently, when this servant girl asked this question, there were others around who perked up. "Could that be? A disciple of Jesus? Here? It looks like they all fled!" They may well have made a commotion, "Hey, we have one of His disciples over here. Why don't you question him!" And so Peter denied his connection with Jesus before them all. In so doing, He lied.
Of course Peter knew Jesus. Peter was among the first of the disciples to be called (Matt. 4:18). Peter was with Jesus and saw him perform many miracles, including the healing of his mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14-17). In fact, Peter was one of the three closest disciples of Jesus, who had the opportunity of experiencing more of Jesus than the other disciples. He, along with James and John were allowed to witness the resurrection of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:37). He, along with James and John were privileged to see the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-13) and were called to join Jesus in more intimate prayer (Matt. 26:36-46). But, Peter denied all of this. In so doing, he denied the very One whom he had promised never to deny.
After this encounter, Peter was on the move. He knew that those around the fire were on to suspecting him. Perhaps they would have questioned him about these things. It would have been difficult for Peter to make up an entire story about what he had been doing the last three years. I can imagine the conversation going like this...
"So, if you aren't on of His disciples, what do you do for a living?"
"I'm a fisherman!"
"Here? in Jerusalem?"
"No, I fish in Galilee."
"I thought that you said that you weren't from Galilee."
"No, I didn't say that. I said that I didn't know Jesus."
"Galilee is a small place. How is it that you don't know Jesus?"
"I don't know."
"I've heard that some of His disciples were simple fishermen. Do you know some of His followers?"
"I think so. But I'm not sure."
It would have been very difficult for Peter to cover up His knowledge of Jesus if he continued in conversation around the fire. So, he chose to split instead. So, in verse 71 we find out that Peter moves from inside the courtyard "to the gateway." This gateway was the entrance into the home of the high priest. As such, it was further away from the trial. I believe that Peter was seeking to remove himself a bit and hopefully come to a place where there wouldn't be any more confrontations.
But again we see another servant-girl who recognized him. How, we don't exactly know. This time, the confrontation was a bit more direct. Her comments weren't directed toward Peter, it was directed toward other people who were standing around. She said to them, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth" (verse 70).
Again, Peter did the same thing. He denied his Lord, saying, "I do not know the man." And yet, this time, it seems that his denial was a bit stronger than before. We are told in verse 72 that he said this "with an oath." In other words, Peter didn't simply say, "I do not know the man." He said something like, "I'm serious! I'm telling you the truth. I'm not lying! God is my witness! I do not know the man."
Again, the scene repeats itself in verse 73, "And a little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, 'Surely you too are one of them; for the way you talk gives you away.'"
Matthew said that this happened, "a little later." Luke is a bit more specific. He said that it was an hour later. So, don't think of these denials as happening one after another without giving Peter much time to think about it. An hour is a long time for Peter to think about what he have just said, how he lied, and how he had been unfaithful to his previous promises. But, I suspect that he didn't much think about his previous denials. He was busy talking to those who were around him. He was busy looking to see what was happening inside the courtyard.
The manner of his speech gave himself away. Across our country, we have various different accents. They speak differently in New York than they do in Chicago. They speak differently in Alabama than they do in California. It is easy to recognize a foreigner to our parts of the country. So also was it easy for these people in Jerusalem to recognize a Galilean accent. They said, "Your talk gives you away" (verse 73).
Again, Peter denies having any relationship with Jesus. And yet, what comes out of Peter's mouth is as strong a denial as he can make. Look at verse 74, "He began to curse and swear, 'I do not know the man!'" At this point, Peter is trying to make himself a believable as possible. Cursing and swearing in efforts to persuade those who were around him. I expect at this point that he raised his voice. Perhaps he was red in the face with intensity. He didn't want any to keep suspecting that he was with Jesus. "I swear to God. I am telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! May curses be upon my house if I'm not telling you the truth. I do not know the man!"
STRIKE THREE! THERE WAS NO JOY IN JERUSALEM, THE MIGHTY PETER HAD STRUCK OUT.
And then we read those infamous words, "And immediately a cock crowed" (verse 74). Just like Jesus had predicted (verse 34). In fact, it was the very crowing of the cock that brought into Peter's mind the words of Jesus, "Before a cock crows, you will deny Me three times" (verse 75). Luke tells us that Jesus "turned and looked at Peter" (Luke 22:61). Their eyes met. Their hearts broke. Here was the man who professed to be able to stand with Jesus even unto death, wilting at the questioning of a few servant girls. It was too much for him to take.
In verse 75 we read that Peter "went out and wept bitterly." He went out of the courtyard. He went out the home of Caiaphas. He went away from the crowds. I suspect that he found a place all alone and balled his eyes out at the evil of his deeds. He had abandoned Jesus. He had been unfaithful to His promises. He left Jesus all alone. And now, Peter was all alone.
Now, this would be a mighty sad story if we didn't know how things turned out. At the end of the gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus gathering His disciples (including Jesus) together and instructing them to "go ... and make disciples of all the nations" (Matt. 28:19). Though they all fell away from Jesus, they were all later restored unto the work of spreading the gospel throughout the world! Peter became the first great Christian evangelist. He became the rock of the church that Christ said that he would (Matt. 16:18).
It's here that we see a secondary purpose for this story being included in Matthew's gospel. To remind you, the primary purpose was to show how Jesus faced the cross alone. The secondary purpose was to put forth Peter as an example for us. He is a great encouragement to those who are discouraged with their sin. With this observation, I want to transition now into looking at ...
Lesson #1: No sin is to big to be forgiven.
If anyone had reason to quit, it was Peter. He could easily have said, "It's no use! It's over. It's done! I have denied Jesus. I have forsaken Jesus. Surely, He will never take me back!"
But, over the course of the next few days, Jesus was raised from the dead. When Peter heard the news, he ran to the tomb and entered in only to see the "linen wrappings" in the place where the body of Jesus had been placed (John 20:5). At that moment in time, Peter "believed" that Jesus was raised from the dead (John 20:8). Here is the key: Rather than deserting Jesus, Peter pursued Him. In pursuing him, he found himself forgiven and restored.
To be sure, Peter's sin was great! He had a great opportunity to give a good confession before men. He could have stood and said, "I am a follower of Jesus Christ!" In this way, he would have been like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to worship the image of king Nebuchadnezzar. But in the end, he denied God. But, as great as His sin was, so also was his repentance! And Jesus willingly received him again. This is Jesus Christ. He stands with open arms, willing to embrace all who would repent of their sins and bow the knee to Him. He is the father, who scans the horizon for the prodigal son to return. And when he does, Jesus runs after the sinner to embrace him with open arms.
Down through the ages, many of God's people have committed great sin and have found forgiveness. Moses was a murderer (Exodus 2). He found forgiveness. David was an adulterer and a murderer (1 Sam. 11). He found forgiveness. Manasseh was an idol worshiper, who led Israel into sin for 55 years (2 Chron. 33). He found forgivness. Nebuchadnezzar demanded that he be worshiped as God and attempted to kill God's righteous servants (Dan. 3). He found forgiveness (Dan. 4). During the days of Jesus scores of wicked people found forgiveness. Adulteress women found forgiveness (John 4, 8). Prostitutes found forgiveness (Luke 7). Greedy tax-collectors found forgiveness (Matthew 9:9). (Matthew, who wrote this gospel was one of them). Theives, who were dying for their crimes, found forgiveness (Luke 23). Paul was "a blasphemer and a persecutor [of the church] and a violent aggressor" (1 Tim. 1:13). He found forgiveness.
In the early church, there were many wicked people who found forgiveness. In the church in Corinth, the church was composed of former fornicators and idolators and adulterers and effeminate people and homosexual and thieves and covetous people and drunkards and revilers and swindlers (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Down through church history, there have been many converts who have lived absolutely wicked and rebellious lives, until the Lord opened their eyes to see the glories of the cross. Augustine was about as immoral as they come until he was converted. John Newton was a wicked slave trader until he was converted.
Perhaps you are here today, having forsook the Lord, thinking that your sin is simply too great to be forgiven. Perhaps you know somebody, (a family member or a neighbor), who is deep into sin. Perhaps you know the Lord, but have gone astray, pursuing your own lusts, even this week, or this month. Perhaps you have been cold and indifferent to Christ, not being verbal with your love for Him to others. Perhaps you have been silent at work when you ought to speak forth. This story of Peter denying the Lord is a hopeful story for all of us.
In fact, I believe that his life does encourage us greatly. If Peter can sin in this way and be restored, so can we. I remember when David was confessing his sin, he said, "Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You" (Ps. 51:12-13). When Peter was restored, he was an instrument used by the Lord to draw many people to Himself. On the day of Pentecost, some 3,000 Jews were converted. Peter wrote two letters, which have been included in our Bibles, and thus, have been read by billions of people! Indeed, when Peter was restored, "He taught transgressors the ways of the Lord." Peter's denials are a source of great hope for all of us! But, the denials of Jesus all bring a warning. ...
Lesson #2: No sin is to small to be ignored.
Perhaps you have asked yourself this question when thinking about Peter, "How could he have denied the Lord like this? He and Jesus were so close! He was so bold! How did this happen?" If you look back in Matthew's account, you will find that there are many clues along the way that would have helped you to see that Peter was prepared to fall. In this way, his fall becomes an example for us.
First of all, you need to realize that none of us ever sin an a vacuum. You show me a man who falls to immorality, and I'll show you a man who committed many other sins on his way to committing this sin. You show me married couple who divorces, and I'll show you a bunch of sins which led to their separation. You show me a man who commits perjury, and I'll show you a man trying to cover up a multitude of sins. This is how sin works. We sin a little. And then we sin a little more. And then we sin a little more. Until finally some catastrophic sin is committed. And we wonder, "Now, how did that happen?"
Sadly, there are many who don't wake up until they begin to feel the consequences of their larger sins. It's when the marriage begins to fall apart that he wonders how it happened. The answer is that it happened slowly, by making poor choices along the way. As Solomon says, it the "little foxes that are ruining the vineyard" (Song of Solomon 2:15).
With Peter, it was no different. His fall took many steps to get there. The first step he took was ...
Back in verse 33, Peter told Jesus, "Even though all may fall away become of you, I will never fall away." A few moments latter, he said essentially the same thing: "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You" (verse 35). Peter was over-confident. He didn't know the frailty of his flesh. He didn't understand the how little was his faith. Proverbs 16:18 says that "pride goes before destruction." This proverb certainly held true in Peter's life. He was confident that he would stand.
Regarding your sin, don't be so over-confident that you won't fall. It's the one who "thinks he stands" who is in special danger of falling. If you are facing some temptation and are banking on the fact that you will be able to endure it, you need to take heed "lest you fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).
Know where you are weak! Satan certainly knows where you are weak! Your flesh certainly knows where you are weak. Don't be so overconfident as to assume that you are strong enough to overcome. Such is a sure plan for failure.
2. Lack of prayer.
Remember what took place in the garden of Gethsemane? Jesus knew that He was about to suffer mightily upon the cross. He knew the danger approaching His soul. He turned to the only thing that He could do: pray. But, Peter was in the garden clueless. When Jesus told him to watch and pray, Peter snoozed.
You may be thinking, "but Peter didn't realize the gravity of the hour." Certainly he would have prayed if he had known of what he was facing. Oh, you give him too much credit. Before the garden, Jesus told Peter, "behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat" (Luke 22:31). If anything should have arrested Peter's attention, it should have been this! Satan, himself, seeking permission to sift you like wheat.
Have you ever seen boxers look each other in the eye before the fight attempting to intimidate each other? Have you ever heard their taunts? They say things such as, "I'm going to flatten your face like a pancake." "When I'm through with you, you'll be licking the ground." "I'm going to punch your nose right through to the other side of your head." What Satan was doing to Peter was not too much different. "Peter, I'm going to sift you like wheat!"
But, Peter didn't pray. He slept in his hour of greatest need. Regarding your sin, you need to "devote yourself to prayer" (Col. 4:2). Have you ever tried praying that the Lord would keep you from some particular sin? It's amazing how well such a prayer often works for me!
3. Distance from Jesus.
In verse 58 we read that "Peter also was following Him at a distance." It would have been entirely different for Peter had he stayed right close to Jesus the entire way. When Jesus walked down and up the Kidron valley, Peter should have stayed right with Jesus. When they walked through the streets to arrive at the home of Caiaphas, Peter should have been right there with them. When they walked into the courtyard, Peter should have followed right along with them. Would this have been danger in this? Certainly. But, the danger would have been for his life, but not a temptation to sin.
At some point, the Sanhedrin would have noticed him and said, "What are you doing here?" His close proximity to Jesus would have made it easy for him to have said, "I'm here because I'm a follower of Him. I go where He goes." It may have cost him his life, but it would have prevented his great sin!
The principle for us is the same. When you are close to Jesus, it is more difficult for you to sin. Drift from your Bible reading, drift from your praying, drift from your Christian radio and books, drift from church attendance, and you will find that your desires for God aren't quite as strong as they once were. Read your magazines, watch your television shows, pursue worldly pleasures, and you will easily forget the fight.
This is exactly what Peter did. He drifted from Jesus and spent his time with the godless around the fire pit. Spend your time with the world and life will look a bit different than it should. You will be open to a multitude of sins.
So, learn from Peter.
I close with the words to one of the songs we san in our worship service this morning. The lyrics pull together the two purposes of this passage for us: (1) to show that Jesus endured the cross alone; and (2) to provide Peter as one who sinned as was restored.
The Holy Heart was broken, sent from the Father's side.
The Son of God forsaken. The holy sacrifice.
For me He was forsaken, afflicted and alone.
My sin forever taken that I might live for Him.
The Holy Lamb was stricken, abandoned and alone.
He bore my sin upon Him, He bore it as His own.
And when my heart is broken, torn by my sin and pride;
The Son of God now risen will draw me to His side.
This sermon was delivered to Rock Valley Bible Church
on August 14, 2005 by Steve Brandon.
For more information see www.rvbc.cc.