Peter, The Born Leader

Luke 22:31-34, 54-62 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” 33 But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” 54 Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. 55 But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. 56 A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.” 57 But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said. 58 A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. 59 About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” 60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 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.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.

True story. It was late December a few years ago when I threw my skis in the car and drove to my winter wonderland. A foot of snow had just dropped out of the sky and nothing – not icy roads, not a busy Christmas schedule, and definitely not a little bit of cold – was going to stop me from hitting the trails. Cross-country skiing was and still is my favorite sport. The pure speed, the power, and the silent beauty of the sport just pull me. At any rate, as so often happens after a big snowstorm temperatures plunged to below zero. And I thought I’d be ok so I skied out of the chalet and down a rather large hill. On the way down, I felt the expected bite of the wind and experienced the bone chilling cold.

I’ll never forget what happened next. My body shut down. I only understood this later, but what actually happened is that the extreme cold sent my body into survival mode. The blood left my brain, my arms, and my legs. It all went to the core of my body. The result was devastating. I suddenly couldn’t think straight and my body fell apart. I couldn’t move my arms and my legs fell out from under me. I was forced to fall into the snow unmoving. I lay there – I’m not sure how long – fuzzily conscious of the fact that no one was going to come along and save me (Too cold to ski for everyone else!) and that although I didn’t feel cold my body was dying. It was that dramatic. I was alone in the woods in sub-zero temperatures and I was freezing to death cold minute by cold minute. I had totally overestimated my ability to ski in cold temperatures.

Overestimating ourselves is a big problem for our physical lives. In the same way, overestimating ourselves is a big problem for our spiritual lives. That’s why Luke introduces us to a man who overestimated his spiritual strength. He dripped overconfidence even during a desperate, cold spiritual winter. The man’s name was Peter. And this sure was a cold, cold spiritual time. Satan was trying to take out the whole kingdom of God. That much became clear. Satan was thinking, “I’m not just going to take out Christ. I’m going to take out each one of his disciples too starting with Peter.” So he makes his play for Peter. He goes to God and he gets permission to go after him. We know this because Jesus actually reports this directly to Peter. He says, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.” (v. 31)

Jesus deeply is concerned. You can almost feel his concern bleeding off the page. He doubles Peter’s name. He says, “Simon, Simon.” This was moving for Jesus. It was emotional. That’s why he doubles up on Peter’s name in the moment. Not only does he double Peter’s name, he also drops Peter’s nickname, Peter, so that he can call him Simon – his given name. That’s sort of equivalent to my mom sitting me down and saying to me, “Jonathan Herbert…” so I can grasp that what she is about to say she really means. That she truly wants me to tune it and get it. That’s what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is deeply concerned and he wants Peter to be concerned too. He wants him prepped and ready for the spiritual sifting that Satan was going to lay on him.

But Peter just can’t grasp it. He had no idea how much potential he had for falling. He thought he’d be just fine so he blows Jesus off. He said, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (v. 33) He believed that. Deep down truly and sincerely Peter believed that. He believed he had it in him. He believed he was powerful. He believed he was strong. And he was so ingrained in that belief that not even Jesus’ solemn, emotional moment with him can’t shake him out of it. It didn’t strike a chord that Jesus had called him by his given name. It didn’t get past Peter’s spiritual overconfidence that Jesus was emotional about this coming attack. Peter blows it all off. He basically says, “Lord, I’ve got this. I’m ready to go all ten yards. Don’t worry about it.” He totally overestimates himself.

So Jesus just comes out with it. He had to. He couldn’t have Peter ignoring his warning, and spewing out false bravado about himself. So Jesus comes back to Peter with pure straight talk. “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (v. 34) Do you see what Jesus is doing here for Peter? He’s lobbing at him the spiritual equivalent of a fat pitch. He’s telling him what’s going to happen before it happens. He’s giving him every opportunity to avoid, to stop, to break free, to beat the coming sin, and to have victory. And he does this just hours before it’s all going to go down. Jesus gave Peter every spiritual advantage for the coming fight. It’s like he put a parka, gloves, and an awesome winter hat on him before he lets him ski out of the chalet.

But even with all these helps, Peter almost immediately falls into a thousand spiritual pieces. The next time we see Peter, we already see him starting to fall apart. Jesus gets arrested and Peter follows – we’re told – “at a distance.” Why was he so far off? Why was he being so careful? Already, his fears are overcoming him. Next he cozies up to a fire outside the house of the high priest. As he stares into the glowing embers, a servant girl sees him and says, “This man was with him.” Think about that. It was a servant girl! The person with the smallest voice and the least amount of real power is the one speaking. And despite the fact that Jesus had tossed him a fat pitch – he had told him this was going to happen – bam! Down he goes. He says, “Woman, I don’t know him.” So much for being willing to go to prison and die for Jesus. And then it’s just like dominoes after that.  He becomes more adamant and the sin comes easier.  His final denial goes like this: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Down, down he falls into the depths of denial.

He does this despite the fact that he had been emotionally warned this was coming. He does this despite the fact that the least authoritative person in the whole place, a servant girl, had approached him. He does this despite the fact that he wasn’t sitting in a courtroom of his peers; he was sitting quietly by a fireside. Peter had been given every spiritual opportunity to stay strong. And, yet, he still falls.

And God allowed this to happen. He had given Satan permission to sift Peter. What was God up to? Why would he allow this? You know what the answer is? God was teaching Peter an important lesson he hadn’t yet learned about himself. It’s a truth that God’s prophets and prophets deal with all over the Scriptures. That’s why they tell us so many stories of people gone haywire. The Christian faith teaches that we each have a lost and fallen nature.

Peter wasn’t grasping this so God allows him to experience a devastating personal fall. He does this to kill off his inner cowboy, to burn down his spiritual bravado, and to show him his complete brokenness. That’s not a bad, wrong, or unchristian place to come to. It’s actually a mighty spiritual work of the Holy Spirit to bring someone to the point where they throw their hands in the air and say, “Clearly, I’m lost and only getting more lost.” You may even find it interesting to know that on more than one occasion Jesus points out that the people who think they have it best together are the ones farthest from him. At any rate, God was showing love to Peter by letting him experience his lostness.

He does this so that Peter can finally get Jesus. That’s always the goal. Understanding ourselves is only helpful in so far as it helps us understand Jesus. That’s why God never does this tough spiritual work apart from the gospel. The whole goal is that at the same time we stop overestimating ourselves, we never underestimate Jesus. Watch one of the most gorgeous spiritual encounters in history play out right in front of your eyes. 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.” (v. 60, 61)

Do you see that incredible juxtaposition? Do you see how they sit right next door to each other? Peter falls. Jesus looks. The rooster crows. Grace captures.  What do you think was in the look of Jesus? What was there that was so powerful for Peter that he runs off and weeps? How exactly were the corners of Jesus’ mouth turned? How did his eyes change shapes? What visual cues did Jesus send Peter to help him get grace? Because he did get it. You know which disciple sprinted into Jesus’ tomb the fastest when he heard the news that the body was gone - no hesitation? You know who jumped out of the boat the quickest when he realized it was Jesus standing on shore after the resurrection? You know who tradition holds to be the man who ends up dying a horrific martyr’s death for Jesus? Peter. What kind of love for lostness, what kind of determination to give grace in place of judgment was in the look of the Lord? And how exactly did this all come together in Peter’s heart?

When I was lying there on the snow literally freezing to death, I remember fuzzily thinking to myself, “I can just lay here and die or I can get up and try to get back to the chalet.” The fact that I’m here tells you that I chose the latter option. I didn’t have the strength to stand or ski so I crawled. I literally crawled back to the chalet. I’m not sure how long it took me. All I know is that it felt like and eternity. What I do remember is what it felt like to watch the doors close behind me as I crawled up next to the stove that was pouring out heat. I’ve never appreciated heat more than in that moment. It saved my life. Literally it did. It had taken me from death to life. The difference was that dramatic. Overestimating myself hadn’t allowed me to properly estimate the value of heat. Correctly estimating myself allowed me to properly estimate heat’s value. That moment gave me clarity about my relationship to heat.

That’s what Peter experienced. That moment gave Peter clarity about his relationship to Jesus. Understand what was going on here. The more darkness you believe you have, the more you believe Jesus is your only light. The more sin and weakness you see in yourself, the more grace you must believe Jesus has for you. There’s a direct relationship between the two. That’s how it works. Overestimating ourselves always means underestimating Jesus. Correctly estimating ourselves means we can correctly estimate Jesus. That’s what Jesus was communicating to Peter in his look. At the same moment that his lostness became so painfully clear, Jesus’ saving work became even clearer. At the same moment that Peter saw his fall clear as day, he saw what Jesus was doing about it as he marched off to Calvary. At the same moment that Peter denied Jesus, he came to understand that Jesus would never deny him. That, in fact, Peter’s denial was leading Jesus to make a claim on him with his blood. When Peter stopped overestimating himself, he began to correctly estimate Jesus. He estimated that Jesus wasn’t just some great teacher. That he wasn’t just a Rabbi or a wonderful miracle worker. Peter estimated that Jesus was the huge and perfect Savior he needed.

It’s always been this way in the Christian church. It’s always the people who best understand their sin, who best understand Jesus. Peter is just one example of this. He’s a person, a story, and a history who gets Jesus. If you want to see how well he gets Jesus just go ahead and read 1 Peter and 2 Peter. There are others too. I suppose I could take you on a biblical excursion or an escapade through Christian history to show you hundreds of examples. I suppose I could do that, but I doubt I have to. Because today the Holy Spirit used what was written about Peter. It was written down for us. That’s why it’s in there. To show us that we’re made of the same clay. To show us that we have the same Savior. To help us estimate ourselves so that we correctly estimate the hugeness of our Savior. Amen.

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