Peter’s Fall and Restoration
“And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.” — Luke xxii. 61, 62.
PETER’S fall, as we noticed in our reading, is four times recorded, at considerable length; but it is not once excused. There is not, in any one of the records, a single word said by way of palliation of his great guilt. John pictures Peter’s sin in colours of an almost neutral tint, yet he does not lessen its gravity.
Why, think you, is this sad record thus given four times? Is it nob in order that we should give it fourfold attention? It deserves this special mention, first, because it must have greatly increased the grief of the Lord Jesus Christ to know that, while he was enduring untold indignities on his people’s behalf, his most prominent disciple was denying him, with oaths and curses, down at the lower end of the hall. Surely, this must have cut him to the quick. I cannot imagine that any of the tortures that he endured from his enemies could have caused him so much pain as this wicked denial by one of his closest friends. Let your pity and love to Jesus flow in deep and broad streams while you behold him that ate bread with him thus lifting up his heel against him, and even declaring that he knows not the man. Blessed Master, there is not one tint of all the colours of grief that is lacking in the picture of thy passion! It is not possible to depict sufferings more acute and intense than were thine when thou didst die, “the Just for the unjust,” to bring us to God.
But, next, I think that Peter’s fall and restoration are thus fully recorded to set forth the greatness of our Redeemer’s saving power in the immediate prospect of his cruel death upon the cross. Is it not wonderful to think that, before he dies, he restores this great backslider, — I had almost said, “this open apostate,” for so he was according to his own language, though he was not so in heart? I can, in imagination, see poor Peter bending before the cross of Calvary, and looking up, through tears of grief and joy, as he mourns his great guilt, and sees it all forgiven. Then comes the dying thief, to represent another class of characters who bring great glory to our dying Lord. Peter is the backslider restored; the dying thief is the sinner saved at the eleventh hour. He was on the very brink of hell, yet the Master stretched out his hand to rescue him, saying, “To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” I cannot imagine two incidents revealing greater grace than these two, which so richly adorn and embellish the cross. As captives chained to the wheels of the returning conqueror’s chariot make his triumphal procession the more illustrious, so is Christ upon the cross the more manifestly triumphant in his infinite grace as he leads the restored Peter back to his apostleship, and takes the penitent thief, plucked from perdition, up with himself into the Paradise of God.
Moreover, do you not think that there is, in this fourfold record, an instinctive lesson for us concerning the frailty of the best of men? Holy Scripture does not tell us much even about the best of men who lived in the olden times; its history of the saints is somewhat scanty, but it is particular in recording their faults, as if its special purpose was to remind us that the best of men are but men at the best. This Peter, who seemed to lead the van, was yet so frail and fallible — so far from being the first infallible Bishop of Rome — that he even denied his Lord and Master. That is about the only point, so far as I can see, in which the Pope of Rome is like Peter, for he, too, has great presumption, and he can, with his bulls and his curses, go about as far as Peter did in denying his Lord. Peter’s fall seems to say to every one of us, “You, too, are weak; you, too, will fall if you are left to yourself. Therefore, trust him wholly to your Master, but never trust in yourself. Look away to, and rely not upon your own experience, or the firmness of your own resolutions; for you will assuredly fall, as Peter did, unless the almighty hand of Christ shall hold you up.”
These lessons might profit us even if we learned no others; but I think we may find some more as I now proceed to speak to you, first, concerning Peter’s fall; next, concerning the means of his recovery; thirdly, concerning the signs of his restoration; and, afterwards, if we have time for them, I hope to make a few general remarks upon the whole incident of Peter’s fall and restoration.
I. First, then, concerning PETER’S FALL.
It was a very sad fall, because it was the fall of one of the most favoured of Christ’s disciples. We know that there is such a thing as election, and that there is such a thing as election out of election; and, in the case of Christ’s disciples, the principle was carried still further, for there were some who were the elect out of the elect of the elect. Christ had many disciples, yet he said to the apostles, “I have chosen you twelve.” Out of those twelve; he had evidently specially chosen three, — Peter, and James, and John, who were privileged to be with him on various occasions when all others were shut out. Peter had been especially favoured, so that probably not even John surpassed him in the honour which his Master had put upon him. After his declaration concerning Christ’s Messiahship and Deity, Jesus said to him, “Blessed, art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” So, you see, that he was a highly favoured man; and for him to deny his Master, was a very terrible sin. The higher our privilege, dear friends, the greater is our responsibility; the nobler our vocation is, the more horrible is our sin when we fall into it.
Secondly, Peter’s fall was especially sad because he had been faithfully warned concerning it. Our Lord had said to the eleven, “All ye shall be offended because of me this night;” and then, when Peter declared that he would not be offended, our Lord plainly foretold his triple denial. When Jesus, after the first part of his agony in the garden, came back to the three specially favoured disciples, and found them all asleep, he said to Peter, “Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour? Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation.” So that Peter knew the danger to which he was exposed; he was not, as some inexperienced persons are, surprised on a sudden, — carried off their feet by a fierce tornado of temptation. If he did not watch and pray, he ought to have done so, for he had been expressly warned, ay, and told that, in that very night, not only would he be in danger, but that he would actually fall into the snare which Satan, the great fowler, was setting for him. After that warning, he was not like a bird caught in a trap which it has not seen, but like one that flies boldly into the snare. Solomon says, in the Proverbs, “Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird;” yet Peter ran into it in spite of all the warning that he had received. This made his sin all the greater; and if any of you sin against the light, your sin will be all the more gross and aggravated.
Further, the guilt of Peter’s sin is enhanced by the fact that it came so soon after his protestation of fidelity to his Master. He had said to Jesus, “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.” Now, mark, that declaration was made in the evening; and the sun had not risen, — the cock had not crowed, — before he had thrice denied his Master. It may have been quite late in the evening when he uttered his boastful declaration, and the night had only darkened down to midnight, or an hour or two after, before he had, with oaths and curses, denied that he even knew his Lord. Ah, brethren! if we eat our words so soon as that, — if we go home from this house of prayer, and fall into sin, or if to-morrow, while yet the sacred bread of the communion table is scarcely digested, we shall so act as practically to deny Christ, — it will be a very terrible thing. It would have been bad enough if Peter had sinned thus twenty years after making his profession of love to Christ; but to deny his Lord an hour or two after such a vehement declaration, — this was wicked indeed.
Observe also that Peter’s sin had degrees in it. This makes it the more interesting to us, especially if we have ourselves gone any part of the same evil way; for, the first time he denied his Master, it was not in the same style aa the third time. Being let into the high priest’s palace, the damsel who opened the door looked him in the face; and, afterwards, when Peter was sitting with the servants and officers round about the fire, this somewhat busy lady came up to him, and, gazing into his face, said, “Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee.” Peter made a kind of evasive answer; there was a sort of subterfuge in it: “I know not what thou sayest;” as much as if he had said, “I do not understand you.” This was really a denial of Christ, but he had so worded it as to quiet his conscience to some extent; he had not positively, in so many words, denied his Master. He was trying to do a little dodging, as some people nowadays do; and he thought, perhaps, that he might be able to draw back from the position into which he had been led by his curiosity. There was no oath the first time, no cursing, but a simple evasive answer’; — really, in God’s sight, a denial of his Lord, yet not so pronounced as it afterwards became.
The second time, he seems to have got up from where he sat by the fire; he was evidently not comfortable there, and he had gone out to the porch, a good way off from the rest; and then, still wanting to see the end of the matter, he had come back. He did not press his way into the inner circle around the fire, and sit there; but he stood, and leaned forward just to warm his hands, and then it was that this woman, noticing how restless he had been, came up with a companion of hers, and, looking at him, began to say to the other woman, “I know that he is one of them, I am sure that he is;” and then, she and the other both broke out saying, “You were with him; we are sure you were with him;” and the men joined in the cry, perhaps most of them said, “Oh, yes! he is one of them;” and then Peter “denied with an oath, I do not know the man.” Oh, how dreadful for him to call Christ “the man,” when he had boldly declared that he was the Son of God! What a terrible fall was this!
After this, Peter gets up, and goes away from the fire altogether. It is a large place, so he still keeps within the enclosure, but he gets up into a corner where the light does not fall upon him, and there he remains for about an hour, not very easy, you may be sure. At last, he begins to talk to those round about him. He thought that they would not find him out now, because the firelight did not reach so far; but he did not remember that his tongue would tell tales, for those near him said, “Hark! that fellow has the brogue of Galilee, he is a Galilaean; and all the people that were with Jesus were Galilaeans. Depend upon it, he is one of them. We are sure that he is, for his speech betrays him.” The brusqueness of his countrified speech showed him up as being one of the fishers from the lake of Galilee; so now they come all round him, and they say to him, “We know that you are a disciple of Jesus.” Then there was the high priest’s servant, whose kinsman’s ear Peter had cut off; he said, “Did not I see thee in the garden with him? I carried a lantern, and. I know that you are the man that chopped my relation’s ear off; I am sure that you are.” Then Peter, worst of all, not only denied his Master, but, as if he knew that a true Christian would not swear, and therefore the way to prove that he was no Christian was to curse and swear, therefore he did it. He cursed and swore to convince them that he was not a disciple of Jesus Christ. Oh, but this was dreadful; this was terrible! No excuse is given for Peter in God’s Word, nor will we try to think of any; but we will, each one of us, pray, “Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.”
There is another aggravation of Peter’s sin which I must mention, that is, that all this was done very close to where his Lord and Master was suffering at that time. I think that this Tabernacle might very well picture the kind of place that palace was. Take away those galleries, and leave this upper portion; here is Christ, with the high priests, and all the rest of them, in this upper part. Perhaps it was not so much raised above the rest of the hall as this platform is; but, still, it was a raised place. And there were the servants sitting down below where they could see everything, and also be seen, in the open square with a big fire blazing up in the midst, and sending its volumes of smoke up to the midnight sky. And there is the Christ, his back turned towards Peter, but he is within hearing. Oh! methinks that fact alone ought to have checked Peter’s tongue, and inspired him with such love, and pity, and sympathy, that he would have found it impossible to deny his Master. And for you and me to sin in the very presence of the majesty of heaven, (and all sin does that,) is an enormous crime.
What was the reason why Peter thus sinned? I answer, first, that it was because of his fear of man. Bold Peter became an arrant coward. And, ah! how many have denied their Master because they have been afraid of a jest or a jeer! It was but a silly maid, and another gossip with her, and a few idle women and serving-men around the out-door fire, bub Peter was afraid of them, and therefore he was not afraid to deny his Master.
Perhaps the chief reason for Peter’s denial of his Lord was his confidence in himself. If Peter had felt himself to be weaker, he would really have been stronger; but, because he felt so strong in himself, therefore he proved to be weak as water, and so denied his Master.
We know, also, that it was caused by a want of watchfulness and prayer on the part of Peter. He was off his guard when he was sitting or standing comfortably by the fire, and therefore he fell so sadly. His fall was caused, I expect, by a general want of steadfastness in his character. He was impetuous, impulsive, quick, ready, brave, courageous; but, at the same time, he lacked backbone. He did, even after this, lack that essential element of a strong character, for Paul had to “withstand him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” But, in this time of testing, he manifested a sad want of solidity of character. He was carried away by surrounding circumstances; and when they happened to be against his Lord and Master, he was carried away with them. Those of you, who have abundance of life in you, and plenty of force of character, must mind that you have also the force of grace, lest your vivacity — the very thing which makes you to be leaders among us — should become your ruin in the time of trial. He is well kept whom God keeps, and he it is also who, with prayer and watchfulness, guards himself against all the dangers that surround him.
Thus I have tried to describe to you Peter’s fall.
II. Now, secondly, notice THE MEANS OF PETER’S RECOVERY They are worth notice.
The first means was, the crowing of the cock. It seemed strange that it should crow, the first time, before the period that was known among the Jews as “the cock-crowing.” That happened after Peter had denied his Master once, but he does not appear to have taken any notice of it, for he afterwards denied his Master again and yet again; and just as he was speaking the third time, while the words were in his mouth, shrill and clear over that palace wall came the clarion of the cock. Oh, that crow must have gone home to Peter’s heart! We cannot preach half such impressive sermons as that bird then delivered, for its message forced its way into Peter’s conscience. God has many ways of reaching man’s conscience. I have known him touch the conscience by very singular means, — by the observation of a little child, very frequently, — by the sudden death of a neighbour or a friend, — even by some sentence in a newspaper. There are many cocks that God can cause to crow when he bids them, and they startle the sinner as much as that one in Jerusalem startled Peter. But that was not enough, nor was it half enough, to bring him to repentance.
The next thing that touched Peter, and the main thing, was, the look of Christ. It is not possible for any one of us to give such a look as that. It was such a look as Jehovah gave to the primeval darkness, when he said, “Let there be light,” and the darkness was dissipated by one glance of Jehovah’s eye. So the darkness, which the devil had cast over Peter’s soul, was made to fly by one flash from the eye of Jesus. There were volumes of meaning in that look. “Is that Peter, who declared that he would never deny me? Remember, Peter, what I said, and what you answered; and see which of us turns out to be right.” That look also said to Peter, “All these griefs, and all this shame that I am enduring, do not pierce me so keenly to the heart as your denial does.” Yet was it not also a look of inexpressible tenderness, as if the Master said by it, “I love you still, Peter; so come back to me, and I will yet restore you”? I think it was a heart-piercing look and a heart-healing look all in one, — a look which revealed to Peter the blackness of his sin, and also the tenderness of his Master’s heart towards him. That look did the work, that was the great means of Peter’s recovery; first, the crowing of the cock, or something in providence; and, then, the look of Christ, or, something of grace.
Then, what came in next was Peter’s remembrance of Christ’s word, for that look awakened his memory, and his memory reminded him of all that his Master had said to him, and of all the happy fellowship he had had with the dear Master, and what wonders he had seen him do. I daresay that Peter recollected how he had once walked upon the water, how he began to sink until Jesus stretched out his hand to save him. At any rate, memory did its work, for “Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him, Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. And when he thought thereon, he wept.” So those three things co-operated in producing Peter’s recovery.
But there was one thing, at the back of all these, which we must never forget; that is, the prayer of Christ for Peter. He said to him, “I have prayed for thee,” and the effect of that prayer was made apparent in the apostle’s restoration. That look was effectual upon Peter because the Lord Jesus had, in private, made prevalent intercession for him; so his faith was not to fail him, and he was to come out of the devil’s sieve, with not one particle of the genuine wheat that was in him fallen to the ground, but only the chaff taken away. That was the great means which Christ used for Peter’s recovery, and I beg you, dear friends, to emulate your Saviour’s example in this respect. Pray for the fallen, look lovingly and pitifully upon the fallen; for your very look may do them good. Speak to the fallen, seek to guide the fallen back to Christ; and who knows how many of them you may be helped to restore?
III. Now, in the third place, I am to speak very briefly upon THE SIGNS OF PETER’S RESTORATION. What are those signs?
First, he went out. There was something suggestive in that action of his. It might be very cold outside, but Peter left the warmth of the fire. His heart was hot within him, so he could stand the cold, and therefore he went out. It is always a sign of repentance in Christians who have fallen when they leave the company where they were led astray. If any of you were once professors of the faith, and you have turned aside through the evil associations that you have formed, cut yourselves loose from those associations at once. “Oh!” says someone, “but I might be a loser if I were to do so.” You cannot lose so much as you will do if you lose your soul: “Oh! but I do not see how I can escape.” You must find a way of escape somehow; you must do as Lot did. Though he had all his wealth in Sodom, he had to flee from it; and the message to you professors who are among the ungodly is, “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.” Thus Peter went out; and it was a wise thing for him to do.
He not only went out, but he wept. As he kept on turning over his sin, it appeared to him in all its blackest hue. We are told that he wept bitterly. Convulsive weeping came upon him; he could not bear himself, his very heart seemed as if it would flow away in rivers of repentant tears.
It is a blessed sign of the work of grace in the soul when the man, who has sinned, quits his evil companions, and mourns over his sin as one who is in bitterness for his firstborn. If any of you have sinned like Peter, go and weep like Peter. If you have fallen like Peter, then let your soul bitterly bewail your transgression. Many talk about the greatness of David’s sin; but, if they knew the depths of David’s repentance, and the heartbreak that came with it. they would not so glibly speak of it. There is a tradition that Peter never heard a cock crow, or thought of this incident, as long as he lived, without weeping; and although that is only a tradition, I can well believe it was the case, for that is just what would be likely to happen to a true penitent.
IV. Now I close with A FEW GENERAL REMARKS UPON THE INCIDENT.
My first remark is, — Christian, it is bad for you to be in evil company. It was bad for Peter to be among those who were standing or sitting round that fire. On a cold night, everyone likes a nice comfortable fire. Yes, but you had better suffer any discomfort and inconvenience rather than associate with wicked men. Peter was sitting in the seat of the scorner, so we do not wonder that, at last, he used the scorner’s language. Keep out of evil company if you possibly can do so. If you are obliged to go where bad language is used, do just as you do when you have to go out in a shower of rain; carry an umbrella to shield you from the rain, and go through it as quickly as ever you can. When, in your daily calling, you have to mix with ungodly men, carry the spirit of watchfulness and prayer with you, and slip away from their society as quickly as you can.
My next remark is, that it is idle for a true disciple to try to disown his discipleship. Peter says, “I am not one of Christ’s disciples;” but, even by the firelight, he looks like one of them. He swears that he is not, and gets away up in the corner where there is no light; but, as soon as he begins talking, they say, “You are one of them,.” His very speech causes him. to be found out; and if you are a genuine Christian, you can no more hide yourself than can the violet in the grass, whose perfume tells the passer-by that it is there. There is something about you which will cause people to find you out. I should recommend those of you, who have believed in Christ, but have not joined the church, or made a confession of your faith, to do so speedily; because, whether you do so or nob, the ungodly will be down upon you. When once Christ sets the mark of his cross upon your forehead, all sorts of people will see it, and they will say, “You are one of Christ’s followers; your very speech betrays you. There is something about you, that is different from the rest of us, and which tells us that you have been with Jesus.” Do not try to hide this distinguishing mark if you have it; but even if you do, you will not be able to do so.
The next general remark is, — when you have to depict your own character, always use the black pencil. Never try to extenuate anything. We shall never have any biographies, written by uninspired men, after the fashion of these Bible biographies. I am sure that, if Peter had been the minister of a neighbouring Baptist Church, and had died, and I had been asked to write his memoir, I should not have mentioned his denial of his Lord; or if I had done so, I should have had his wife down on me, if she was alive; and, if not, all the members of the congregation would have said, “What a shame it was to say anything about that matter after the man was dead! Mr. Spurgeon has written a brother-minister’s memoir, and he has put in all the details of that sad incident, which ought to have been suppressed.” Very likely it ought to be, but it never is suppressed in the Bible narratives; we get all that happens recorded there. When Mark wrote, as we believe, under the guidance of Peter, he did not keep back anything, but put all down as black as it really was.
But, next, when you are writing a brother’s character, try to describe it as fairly as possible, for that is what John does in his description of Peter’s fall. It is very mildly drawn compared with Peter’s own account of it. We must never say what is false; but, when there has been something that is wrong, let us always put the kindest construction we possibly can upon it. There are always two ways of telling a tale, and they may both be true; the one is, to lay heavy stress upon all the faults; the other is, to do as John does, to mention them, but to say no more about them than he feels really obliged to say. Let us be truthful, but let it never seem as if we had any animus against the wrongdoer. The sacred writers often teach us this lesson; and, here, Peter gives the worst account of himself, and John gives a more favourable report concerning his erring brother.
Another remark I have to make is, — observe the power there is in people’s eyes. You must often have noticed this. What a power there was in that maid’s eyes when she gazed earnestly upon Peter! It was that earnest gaze of the girl that made Peter deny his Master. But, then, see the power for good that there was in Christ’s eyes. “The Lord turned, and looked upon Peter.” Eyes can say far more than lips can; often, there is more heart-affecting eloquence in the eye than there is in the tongue. Sometimes, you Christian people, members of the church, may be by the side of a man who utters a wrong word; but you need not tell him of it, just look at him, that will be enough. If an ungodly man shall even swear in your presence, do not give him a supercilious look, as much as to say, “O you wicked sinner, to do such a thing in the presence of such a holy man as I am!” But there is another kind of look, as if you felt so grieved, and wondered that he could so take in vain the name of the ever-blessed God; — that is the sort of look to give him. If the Lord will manage your eyes for you, you will find that they will be potent messengers of love for him. God give you to have those sanctified eyes, which can work wonders for him!
My last remark is this, — what a mercy it was that Christ did not treat Peter as Peter treated him! Peter said, “I know not the man.” Ah, me! but if the blessed, meek, and lowly One had said, “I know not the man,” it would have been all over with Peter. May God grant that Christ may not say of any one of us, at the last great day, “I know not the man”! He will say it of all who know him not, and whom he does not know; they are not acquainted with one another, and if they continue as they are, he will say, “Verily, I say unto you, I know you not.” Though he has eaten and drunk in your presence, and taught in your streets, yet will he say, “I know you not. Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity.” The mercy is, that he never said that to Peter; and he never will say that to you, or to me, if we come and cast ourselves in penitence at his feet, bemoaning our sin, and putting our trust in him alone. May God grant this blessing to each one of you, dear friends, for Jesus’ sake! Amen.