"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” - Matthew 16:19
Who would have ever imagined that when Jesus makes this statement to Peter, that he would later be a coward the moment when Jesus, who he is confessing his faith in, would be hung on a cross. Consider the significance of the reality of Peter’s weak and wavering faith in the Messiah.
After three years of walking with Jesus, hearing the messages of Jesus, and witnessing the miracles of Jesus, things for Jesus take a turn for the worse. Peter has assured Jesus that he will be strong and is willing to stand by Jesus even to the point of death, but all of the sudden when crap hits the fan, we realize that Peter is all talk. Luke records Peter’s timid, weak faith as Jesus is about die:
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.” - Luke 22:54-60
Consider the terrors in our own modern world when a group known as ISIS is becoming infamous for its brutal murder of Christians. When the Islamic State sent a message entitled, “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” the Christian men about to die chanted, “Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a testimony of faith that is unfathomable, these Christians when faced with the loss of their own life actually boldly professes the name of Christ.
Years ago, I remember being in high school and learning about the testimony of a teenage girl at Columbine High School, who when faced with death because of her faith, famously responded, “Yes.” The courage and the faith in the midst of this tragedy is incredible.
What would I do in a similar situation? I would hope that I would boldly proclaim and testify to the one true God. But the realist in me knows that I might more likely be stumbling and wavering in my faith instead of boldly proclaiming the truth. I might have second thoughts and care more about my safety than my own testimony.
In Luke 22, the man who has spent 3 years with Jesus and has watched him cure the blind and raise the dead, doesn’t respond like any of these martyrs. Instead Peter is a coward. He cares more about his own life than the truth. Consider this, if ISIS had been in Peter’s town, Peter may have not ended up chanting the name of Jesus and instead would have been one of the forgotten people who lied and walked the other way. Peter, the rock of the Church, wouldn’t have been beheaded by ISIS.
That’s crazy to me.
And this destroys Peter. In Luke it also records how Peter feels after denying Christ:
"And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.” - Luke 22:61-62
Peter knows what he’s done. He’s ashamed, embarrassed, and broken. Jesus gave him everything and he broke as soon as the pressure turned up. He talked a big game, but as soon as Jesus was being beaten, Peter only looked out for himself.
But Jesus doesn’t build His Church on Peter’s strength of faith. He builds it on the object of His faith. When Jesus says, “On this rock, I will build my Church,” Jesus is not referring to the man, he’s referring to the confession of faith, “You are the Christ.” This is what Jesus builds the Church on. The reality that Jesus is the messiah who rescues sinners. The Church is built upon Jesus Christ. And it is this faith that the martyrs throughout history have clung to and it’s this faith that rescues Peter despite his betrayal of Christ.
Most of us won’t face a situation like the Coptic Christians who were martyred or like Peter who denied Jesus. But just like Peter did at the crucifixion, every single day we make it a habit of denying Christ. In our weak and fumbling faith, we routinely decide to choose our own way over Christ. We adjust our behavior based on the approval of people instead of the will of God. We may not deny Christ when it’s a matter of life or death, but when much less is at stake, we are quick to give up the fight.
Peter would eventually be martyred. Eventually Peter’s faith and boldness does testify to the work of Jesus. While at Jesus’ death, Peter is an embarrassment to the people of God, by the time of Peter’s death, his own death would testify to the work of Jesus. Traditionally Peter is believed to be crucified upside-down as a martyr of Jesus.
I would suggest that the testimony of Peter’s death only happens because of the way the resurrected Jesus responds to Peter’s denial:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, 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. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” - John 21:15-19
It doesn’t matter how big or how little your denial of Jesus his, Jesus responds to you in the same way. In the midst of your embarrassment and shame, Jesus responds to your hurt by restoring you. Jesus repeatedly reminds you of his love for you and his desire to work in and through you. Three times Peter denied Jesus, three times Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” That denial certainly hurt Jesus, but he died for it. The weak faith of Peter certainly disappointed Jesus, but he gave his life to give Peter a victory in the fight he couldn’t win.
Jesus' grace and mercy and peace rescues us from the torment of our consciences as we look at what we’ve done. In our own denials of Jesus, we are beaten up knowing the hurt we’ve caused. But Jesus says calls us to him once again. Our own denials don’t stop the work of Christ, but instead the small, mustard seed of faith that clings to Christ alone gives us all the peace we need.