Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
April 21, 2013
66 And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67 and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus. 68 But he denied it, saying, I neither know nor understand what you mean. And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. 69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, This man is one of them. 70 But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean. 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, I do not know this man of whom you speak. 72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times. And he broke down and wept.
-- Mark 14:66-72, ESV
One of the reasons I have such confidence in the Bible as a holy book is that it is such an honest book. It does not sugarcoat nor sweep under the rug the sins of even its greatest heroes. The very people God chose and used to propagate the faith sometimes turned their backs on Him in crucial and sinful situations.
Sarah and Abraham played pimp and john when trying to help God out with Hagar. Moses played God when drawing water out of the rock. David committed adultery and murder in one fell swoop. Solomon on several occasions let his passion for the sexual overshadow his penchant for the spiritual. Elijah tried to hide his pride in self-pity and learned he was not the only one, but one of thousands who were truly committed to God. The names don’t get any bigger in the Old Testament. Neither do the sins.
The same can be said of New Testament saints. Paul was a terrorist and a murderer, though it should be pointed out that it was before he was a believer. The beloved John and his brother, James, while walking with Jesus, once wanted to use miraculous powers to destroy the entire city of Samaria. And Simon Peter, well, he may have taken the cake when it comes to dishonoring the Lord. Just as Jesus forewarned on the night of His betrayal, arrest, and trial, somewhere between midnight and the morning, Simon Peter disowned and denied the Lord Jesus Christ, not once, not twice, but three times.
All four Gospels record Peter’s fall. Mark’s account, no doubt drawn from Peter’s own personal recollection, begins with a prelude in 14:54 then tells the tale in 14:66-72. Saint Peter, esteemed by many as the greatest New Testament saint, fell like Humpty Dumpty. Could God put him back together again?
A Classic Case of Backsliding
What we have here is a classic case of backsliding. In order to backslide, you have to slide back from standing for someone or something. Simon Peter had clearly taken his stand with and for Jesus. Peter was the first to confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Peter was the first and only one out of the boat when Jesus walked on the water. Peter was a member of Christ’s “inner circle” (Peter, James, and John) and along with John was one of only two willing to follow Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard during His trial. The latter proved to be an impetuous leap that led to his lapse, but give Peter credit for a curious courage nonetheless. Give Peter credit for having genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And realize that only those who have been credited with faith can draw a debit of backsliding.
A young man who confesses faith in Jesus as a lad in vacation Bible school, who then abandons the Lord and the church as a youth to live a life of selfish and sinful pleasure is not backslidden. He is lost. A young girl who comes to Jesus as a teenager and attends church through high school, only to drop out in college to live an unbelieving life and marry an unbeliever, then another, then another, is not backslidden. She is lost. The tragedy of the American church today is that we claim we have millions of backslidden members, when in fact we have millions of lost church members. You cannot slide back from where you never really stood.
However, those who have a genuine covenant relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ can cave to pressure and fall temporarily into a state of sin that denies their gospel profession, either in word or in deed. That’s what Abraham, Moses, David, John, and Peter have in common. They did not live lives of terrible sin, they temporarily abandoned their faith to commit terrible sin. And this, sadly and soberly, can happen to any of us who genuinely name the name of Christ.
Peter did not live a lifestyle of denying the Lord. Before and after this unfortunate incident, Peter was loud and proud in his proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He backslid, a sin for which there is grace for those with faith. Lest we cheapen grace, however, let us note the sinful causes and serious consequences of slip-sliding and backsliding away.
Heat from the Pressure Cooker of Life
We know that the explosives that terrorists used to kill innocent people in the bombing at the Boston Marathon were made out of pressure cookers. Pressure cookers are supposed to be good things, used to make good food. But the essence of sin is abusing an object God made for good and using it for evil purposes. God created the world for His glory and our good. But today our world has turned into a pressure cooker. It is meant for good, it still yields so much good, but when pressure is exerted or interpreted in the wrong way, evil breaks out and even Christians can be caught up in it.
In the Upper Room, Simon Peter boldly confessed Christ and bragged he would never deny Him, even unto death. However, when Peter stepped out of the Upper Room out into the “real” world, he was permeated by pressure. And, the pressure got to him. Jesus was not so popular in the courtyard of the religious rulers, nor in the marketplace of Roman ideology, nor in so many places then, and now. By association, His followers were and are not popular, either. So, in the pressure cooker of popular mores and opinion, Peter peeled and squealed that he didn’t even know Jesus.
It is not difficult to come to Christian worship and confess Christ, sing songs about Him, hear sermons, and take communion. There is no pressure in here. But out there, the pressure will come. The temptations will come. The opportunities will come to take your stand for the Lord Jesus Christ, or slide away from Him. What will we do? What did Simon Peter do, or not?
Peter’s case of backsliding came when Peter did not listen carefully enough to God’s word. Jesus had told them all plainly what He was going to to (get arrested, crucified, and resurrected), why He was doing it (to accomplish God’s plan of salvation), and where they should go until it was accomplished (get out of here and go to Galilee). And, although the precise theology and practicality of the Holy Spirit is complex at this part of the biblical narrative, I do not think Simon Peter was led by the Spirit to stay in Jerusalem, go into the courtyard, blow an opportunity to witness, and deny the Lord. Listening intently and regularly to God’s word and seeking to be led by God’s Spirit is the surest way to keep from backsliding away from the Lord.
But Simon Peter was dull of hearing and headstrong. So, he denied the Lord three times. So, he slid back in the worst possible way. Will God forgive him? Will God restore Him and use him again in gospel ministry? Will God love him and live with him forever? You know the answers to those questions. But do you also know the dire consequences and deadly results of a Christian’s backsliding into sin?
Terminal Consequences of Temporary Unbelief
By the time Mark’s Gospel was written, Simon Peter was well established as a great hero of the faith. And rightly so! We look at this part of his story as a warning concerning pressure and persecution, a humble confession of a great man, a sin washed away by the very blood Christ shed for Simon Peter and all who deny, yet believe, in Him. Backsliding is temporary and forgiveness is eternal. But are there any real time and space consequences for the sins of temporary unbelief?
Shame can remain with one through life. In many ways, the shame is worse than the sin. Jesus took care of the sin, but Peter still had to bear the shame. Imagine what it was like, as Luke’s account informs us, when Jesus turned around and stared right at Peter. We know “he broke down and wept.” I did some stupid and sinful things in my youth. Much worse than the sins and ensuing punishments was the look in my father’s eyes, a father who loved me and expected better things of me. Yes, faith forgives sins, but no sin of a faithful Christian is worth the shame of having to look into the Father’s eyes.
And, while true believers recover from backsliding, most unbelievers truly do not. I dare say there were dozens of people in that courtyard, maybe hundreds, who witnessed Peter’s bad witness. I dare say that most of them, if not all of them, went to Hell without salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. God is sovereign over all things, especially spiritual things, most notably the salvation of the elect. But we are responsible for the way we wield our God-given freedom of choice. And Christians are especially responsible for their witness for Christ, or lack thereof. What if Peter had spoken up for Jesus instead of against Him? What if Peter had been willing to be attacked or beaten because of His witness? If Peter, knowing where he is now, had it to do all over again, what would he do?
We were not there and we are not in Heaven, yet. We are here, now. Guard your heart. Immerse your mind with God’s word. Keep in step with the Holy Spirit. Keep in close communion with Christ and His church. Watch what you say and do. It does matter, for you, for others, for eternity.
Constant and Amazing Grace
John Newton, the famous saved slave trader, great pastor, author of great hymns including the greatest, “Amazing Grace,” had a familiar way of confessing Christ. He liked to say, “I am a great sinner, but Jesus Christ is a great Savior.” Newton knew what it was like to sin big. He also knew what it was like to experience the grace and forgiveness of the Lord. But even Newton never really got over what he had done to his many African captives, to their bodies, and to their souls.
Simon Peter was a champion, perhaps the champion for Jesus Christ. He denied Him three times, confessed his love for Him an equal three times after the resurrection, and after the ascension preached the gospel and planted churches for three decades. At his own execution by crucifixion, Peter requested an inverted cross, to gruesomely die upside down, because, I think, he was still haunted by what he had done in the courtyard that day.
Don’t backslide away from God, don’t sin in such a way it will scar your testimony and the conscience of watching unbelievers. I promise you on the authority of the word of God, it is just not worth it. Don’t do it, and don’t let the Father see you do it.
But if, and when, you do, remember what is constant and amazing in a true believer’s life. It is the grace of God, grace to keep you from backsliding, grace when you backslide. Remember that we are all great sinners and there is a great Savior. He loves even the backslider, He will forgive us and use us again, and if and when we backslide away, God will always welcome us home again.