When Christians Fail

He is following at a distance. The blood on his hands has now dried while his heart still pumps wildly. Why did he react so brutally and cut off that soldier’s ear? Was Jesus upset at him? More perplexing was how Jesus healed the soldier with just one touch. His teacher showed kindness that trumped his own by far. And now? The Lord is arrested. The disciples are all confused. On the run. Scattered.

From cheers in the markets and spotlights in the streets, Peter is now following secretly and in the dark. Jesus is in trouble and Peter knows what that means for all his followers. It’s all happening so fast! The chill in the air barely keeps his adrenaline at bay. No matter the cost, he must see Jesus’ arrest and questioning for himself. He cautiously sits before the fire in the courtyard. The flames warm his hands while his thoughts are stuck on Christ. From this spot he can see and hear his teacher.

Slowly, people begin to recognize his features. Peter’s shocked eyes make him obviously uneasy. He’s just feet away from where Annas the priest is questioning Jesus in plain sight. Peter has earned the public label of Christian from all his appearances with his teacher. And yet today, he wants to be incognito. He is more interested in what is happening to Christ than to be recognized as an infamous disciple. Caught in the grievous moment, Peter denies to all who he is. After the third time, the prophesized rooster crows, and Peter’s crumbling soul is met by the gentle eyes of Jesus.

Peter blew it. Big time. His exuberant declaration to die with Christ from a few days before became but a fearful skeleton of dispersed words in the cold wind hung in front of the meek, courtyard fire. The rooster’s crowing must have sent sharp chills down his cowered spine. The signals of betrayal synchronized with the sounds of the bird. Hands tied and eyes opened, Jesus’ heart was surely pierced by a dagger of sorrowful noises. And at once, all seemed lost! But was it really?

The Peter in Me

Reading through the gospels and getting to know the disciples, there is something about Peter that either irks me to no end or endears him to me all at once. He’s both likable and annoying. Childlike and mature. Up and down. In and out. On fire and in hiding. Walking on the water, sinking the next moment. Failing and being restored. Preaching and cursing. Following and denying.

Perhaps the reason I am drawn to Peter’s character is because I can easily read myself into his persona. I relate too much with his many failures recorded in the scriptures. Like an open book, Peter’s words and actions are documented for me to take note of and grow. Peter, the “rock” upon which Jesus would build his church, was this impulsive, outgoing, daring, loud-mouth disciple. His life story is relatable in our 21st century. Sure, it takes some good Middle Eastern imagination to understand his 1st-century surroundings, but the lessons he embodies transcend cultural or historical barriers. The Lord allowed Peter’s life to be picked apart—his ups and downs, but especially his lows—because so many of his faithful followers would experience similar trials and sufferings in the years to come.

The scene by the fire in the courtyard provides rich lessons to learn about personal failures and responses to sin. What did Peter need the most at that moment? What would you need if you were in Peter’s shoes? For that matter, how do you respond to a fellow believer caught in sin?

The Pain of Isolation

One of the most painful realities of Peter’s dark moment is the absence of his best friends. Peter was wandering in the dark alone, no friends by his side. Where are these faithful men on this incredibly conflicting, shocking, brutal night? The Scripture is mostly silent on where they could be—except for John 18:15 that mentions “another disciple who went with Jesus into the high priest’s court.” Peter was then left truly alone. The danger of Jesus’ arrest scattered everyone in all directions: discouraged, confused, shaken.

Peter’s trial found him vulnerable and weak. Had he had the group of disciples with him, perhaps John would have confronted him after the first denial. Certainly, someone would have had the courage to grab Peter and speak truth into his ears. Peter would later taste the gift of genuine friendship when Paul would “oppose him to his face because he stood condemned” while on the mission field (Galatians 2:11-13). But for this evening, Peter was exposed and defenseless to his demise.

To have Christian friends encircling us in our weakest moments like walls around a fortress is to be warned of the devil’s arrows and encouraged to fight back. Failing Christians need to hear loving words salted with gospel truth echoing from the circles of blood-bought friends around them. Not being present in the struggling life of the ones we love in Christ is abandoning the posts of being our brothers’ keepers. Friends love their failing friends the best when they get into their faces with words of gospel truth and hearts of saving love.

Do you tend to distance yourself from your friends who are suffering or sinning? Do you allow yourself to be isolated and vulnerable? Have you asked your friends to get more (not less) into your face when you’re messing up?

The Self-harm of Sin

I believe the scene around the fire is one of Peter’s worst, most shameful moments in life. In between three crows, he manages to lie, deny, disappoint, hurt, hide, and fool just about everyone—except himself and Jesus. His personal failure was hidden to the outer world, but both he and Christ knew what was happening on the inside.

Unbeknownst to a watching crowd, Peter’s sins were tearing his soul apart. With each repetition of his sinful denial, he must have sunk even deeper. Have you ever felt that way? How deep can the pit be? Peter’s last recorded actions at the scene were: he “broke down” and “wept bitterly” (Mark 14:72, Luke 22:62, Matthew 26:75). Another man crying. A man who finally saw what he was not as he was reminded of what he should have been.

The grace of repentance is the splendor of the cross. Peter’s sins ended up in tearful repentance. A lesson in sanctification he so desperately needed. Words he threw out so carelessly about Jesus’ mission and death on the cross—“Lord, I will lay down my life for you! (John 13:37)—came back to shame him into utter brokenness. Peter must have seen his own grandiose pride and shrinking faith as the rooster carried his Lord’s awakening crows into his heart. Oh, how deeply he came to understand Jesus’ mission now when he clearly sees his wicked heart in need of his Savior’s cleansing blood!

Peter’s darkest episode exposed his prideful heart, but it also led him to the humblest of repentance. A man who finally saw who Jesus was and accepted what he didn’t deserve: a Savior and a changed heart. Peter’s broken grief was not in vain! As we fail and come to see our own darkness, let’s remember to call on Jesus: a broken heart and a contrite spirit the Lord never rejects (Psalm 51:17).

When in sin, do you tend to find someone to blame, or do you humbly ask Jesus to help you? Do you believe that when you call on Jesus regardless of your depraved state, he will be faithful and merciful to fully respond with his forgiveness and presence? With others, are you merciful to them in their moment of repentance?

The Gaze of the Lord

From all the responses Peter received that evening in the courtyard, Jesus’ silent look was the most impactful. Though he followed at a distance, Peter followed, nonetheless. It was a dangerous situation. Painful and cruel. Jesus was arrested and publicly humiliated—and the disciples were scattered. All except Peter and another nameless disciple following in hiding (Luke 22).

As Peter’s denials were in progress, Jesus’ proximity is strikingly comforting. Peter made sure he was close enough to his teacher to see and hear all the accusations and responses. Even during his most shameful walk with Jesus, Peter was not out of his Lord’s reach. The Bible notes that when Peter finished his last denial and the rooster sounded the alarm, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61). The eye contact pierced Peter with the truth of Jesus’ words and the price for his sins. Peter must have seen the long rope of denials tying his own Lord’s hands right there, in front of the high priest. The irony of the scene is impactful. Peter’s sins expose him to the very High Priest incarnated, Son of God now looking him straight in the eyes.

Notice how Peter did not weep immediately after the rooster crowed. Sin alone doesn’t call us to repentance. Peter’s heart broke when he was faced with the sovereign look of the Savior and his holy words. At his lowest moment, Jesus’ sight and words came back to rebuke Peter, not destroy him. Later we read how Jesus calls Peter again to a ministry of shepherding, fully loved and restored in Christ.

Peter’s experience teaches us that how people respond matters. All followers of Jesus need voices around them that would speak truth and love into their actions. When I’m more of a Peter in my faith, I need friends to expose my sinful heart and point me in the direction of Jesus’ forgiving, loving, holy eyes.

Editor's Note: This originally published at Prince on Preaching.