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At the Last Supper, when Jesus spoke of his coming betrayal and death, he said to Peter:
“‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you [Greek plural “all of you”–meaning all of the disciples] as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’
But he replied, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’
Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me’…
…Then seizing him [Jesus], they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, ‘This man was with him.’
But he denied it, ‘Woman, I don’t know him,’ he said.
A little later someone else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them.’
‘Man, I am not!’ Peter replied.
About an hour later another asserted, ‘Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.’
Peter replied, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ 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.”
(Luke 22:31-34, 54-62)
At the most crucial moment, when it mattered the most, complete failure. Complete and total cataclysmic failure.
For Peter, there was no rationalizing or excusing it away. He had completely, inarguably and red-handedly failed his Lord. What could he possibly do? What could he possibly say?
All he could do was weep bitterly.
Interestingly, in Luke’s account of the Last Supper we read that, immediately prior to the Lord predicting Peter’s cataclysmic failure of denying him three times, “…a dispute arose among them as to which of them [the disciples] was considered to be the greatest” (Luke 22:24).
It would likely be a safe speculation to assume Peter was one of the front-runners in this dispute. After all, he was the only one of the disciples who got out of the boat and walked on water (Matthew 14:22-33). He was one of the privileged three whom Jesus led up a mountain to witness his Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, 1 Peter 1:16-18). Again, when Jesus put everyone else out of the room, he was only one of four other people whom Jesus allowed in to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:35-43). Furthermore, when Jesus posed the all-important question of his identity, it was Peter alone who spoke up and was publicly commended and blessed by Jesus for getting the right answer. If I had to cast a vote for “The Greatest Disciple Award”, it would definitely be Peter…and perhaps he thought so too.
Perhaps these events played around in Peter’s mind and puffed him up into fantasizing that he was of more noble character than the average man and greater in spirit than the average believer. Perhaps in his deception and pride he lost touch with his own humanness, his sinfulness and his susceptibility to temptation just like every other person (See: 1 Corinthians 10:12-13, Luke 22:40).
When Peter denied Jesus, his prideful deception was shattered. He was starkly confronted with his own human impotence and brought back to the reality of who he actually was as a fallen man.
Though in the fullness of his own human strength and bravery he had previously declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Matthew 26:35), when his life was potentially endangered, he failed and desperately tried to save it, even to the point of calling down curses upon himself (Matthew 26:74), which he knew was a very serious spiritual matter before God.
After Peter’s major failure, we can only imagine the things that went through his mind. Perhaps he felt like he had once for all ruined his life and failed his God. Perhaps he felt there was no redemption for him, no reinstatement awaiting him and no possible hope for his future. Perhaps he felt his failure was the conclusion of the matter and he had lost his spiritual race. Perhaps self-condemnation and despair came over him in the midst of his overwhelming grief. Perhaps he even thought all was lost and was tempted to put an end to himself as Judas did. We read that he even separated himself from the rest of the disciples (Mark 16:7, John 20:1-2), perhaps because he was too ashamed or no longer felt worthy to be called a disciple.
We can only speculate about these things, and while the Bible doesn’t make us privy to Peter’s thoughts, it does tell us the end of the story.
Peter’s denials were a very significant and pivotal point in his spiritual life. It was at this point that we see a sudden, dramatic change in his character. This point is where the Holy Spirit revealed his true nature as a man, and that was impotence.
Human ability, in its fullest capacity, is wholly incapable of fulfilling the spiritual demands of God. Man needs an ability outside of the origin of himself and more powerful than his own human capacity, and that is the Holy Spirit.
Peter was humbled when he realized this fundamental truth about his own human nature. Humility is the byproduct of understanding our own humanness.
“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” (Romans 7:18)
Up until the night of Jesus’ death, Peter thought he could live a spiritual life in his own human power. He had no doubt that he was humanly capable of laying down his life for Jesus. This perception, or rather, deception, changed through his major failure.
But after Peter was humbled and acknowledged not only his sins but also his human impotence, he became the perfect empty vessel which the Holy Spirit could fill to do God’s work. The was the cause of the dramatic change we see in Peter after this point. It was the end of himself and the beginning of God’s power.
His human failure revealed his essential need for supernatural, spiritual empowerment. (Just like a parent with a child, sometimes God will allow us to fail because it is the only way we can learn our lesson.)
Peter’s undying love for Jesus remained steadfast, although everything else of his life had fallen apart. I find this quite an amazing testimony of Peter’s faith in God’s unconditional love because most of us are prone to doubt God’s forgiveness and love for us in the midst of great personal failure. However, Peter knew Jesus so closely and intimately that he knew it was God’s character to receive back and not to reject his stumbling children. Like a Father helping his child learn how to walk, he knows that falling is just part of the process in learning how to stand. Consistent with his steadfast love, Jesus not only forgave Peter but also reinstated him and, amazingly, even commissioned him to serve him (John 21:15-19)!
What appeared to be cataclysmic failure in human eyes was the point of breakthrough in the eyes of God!
This broken, empty vessel was then filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2) and was used powerfully by God to do his work and to advance his kingdom, as we read throughout the book of Acts. Furthermore, in Acts 3, we observe Peter’s dramatic change in his perception of himself:
“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer–at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.
Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’
Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
While the beggar held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. When Peter saw this, he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus…” (Acts 3:1-13)
Here in Peter’s response to the stunned crowd, his changed heart was revealed, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). He says, “…Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?” (Acts 3:12). Peter knew full well that it was NOT his own power that healed the man, and he knew full well that it was NOT his own godliness that earned that gift of healing power from God.
Now that Peter was free of trying to live for God in the power of his own strength, and now that Peter was liberated from the deception that he, of his own virtue, had merited the miraculous power of God in his life (see also Galatians 3:2-5), he was truly a humble, empty vessel, finally useful to God. No longer ensnared by his own pride, he now gave all the glory unto God, to whom it was rightfully due.
The Word of God warns us, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
Much of popular Christian thought today is built upon the false philosophy that we are in control and masters of our own destiny, not God. Much teaching and preaching is centered upon what you can do for God rather than on what God has done for you. More often than not, we are trained to be impetuous spiritual entrepreneurs “for God” instead of being humble, surrendered, completely obedient servants of God. Far too much emphasis is placed upon us and not God. We are told to do things for God instead of to rest in what God has done for us.
Far from an inert, actionless, deedless life (see Philippians 2:12-13), Hebrews 4:1-13 shows us that the Christian’s life is to be a life of faith, lived out of a place of rest from our own human efforts. Philippians 3:1-4:1 and Galatians 2:20 teach us that wholly relinquishing our human striving is the prerequisite to laying hold of the Holy Spirit’s resurrection power in our lives.
These false teachings that emphasize that it is all up to man (with a little bit of God’s outside help) are very destructive because they put a tremendous amount of pressure upon us as humans and, ultimately, set us up for inevitable failure. They expect from us what only God, by his Holy Spirit, can do through us. They rob God of his glory and give it to man (See Isaiah 48:10-11).
Under these false philosophies, we are taught that the final reponsibility for our destiny rests upon our shoulders instead of God’s eternal promises to us such as Romans 8:29-30, Philippians 1:6 and 1 Corinthians 1:8-9.
But the Biblical fact is:
“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…” (Romans 8:29)
“All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16)
“The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me…” (Psalm 138:8)
“In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order the we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:11-12)
Once we accept the Biblical truth that God is the sovereign writer of our own destinies and not us, and once we acknowledge that he will keep his promises to perfect us into Christ’s likeness without fail, then we will find peace in him and in his love despite our own cataclysmic failures.
We must come to the realization that NOTHING IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS EVER BY WORKS, FOR WE ARE GOD’S WORKMANSHIP (Compare Ephesians 2:9 with Ephesians 2:10. Who is doing the work? Who is being worked upon?) We are not the potter; we are the clay. The clay was never meant to form itself into a vessel useful to God (it is completely incapable of doing so anyway!). It was only ever meant to yield to the Master Potter’s hands until it is formed into a vessel useful for himself.
Like Peter, God allows us to fail in our own human efforts so that we will realize and cry out for his Holy Spirit’s empowerment. He allows us to experience our own human impotence and incapabilities so that we will never depend upon them again. He allows us to fail when we blaze forward in our own pride, effort and presumption, for then we learn aright that when God works through us, all the glory belongs to him and not to us. (Sometimes the strongest and most humanly capable among us are the ones who need to experience the deepest failures in order to learn these things.)
Lastly, because we know this, we can have God’s comfort in our cataclysmic failures. Coming to the end of ourselves, the end of our own human power and the end of our own human capabilities, we are humbled and emptied of ourselves.
This point of being emptied of self is the point at which God can come and fill us with his Holy Spirit power, that we may live the true and truly humble and God-glorifying Christian life.
When we come to the end of ourselves we relinquish our control as master of our own destiny and surrender our destiny to God’s will, for like Peter, what else can we possibly do?
The end of ourself is God’s beginning.
My drawing shows a very strong man, symbolic of the full capacity of human power, brought to the end of himself and relinquishing control of his life to God. He is now an empty vessel, and the Holy Spirit has come to meet him in his emptiest place in order to fill him and use him for his kingdom.
Oh God, may it be so with all your people!
“For I [Paul] am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)