Aren’t you sometimes relieved you weren’t alive when the Bible was being written? If I had been, I would have been the best bad example they ever had! Just think about all of those believers who fell and then had their names live in infamy in the pages of the best-selling book of all time. Thank God the Bible offers hope to those who have fallen. It does not leave us without a way out and it certainly doesn’t leave us hopeless.
I’m very thankful that the Bible paints its heroes, warts and all! The Bible lets us see the men and women of faith in its pages for exactly who they were: people who struggled against the same weaknesses and temptations as we do, but who recovered from the sins and disgraces through God’s abundant grace. There are dozens of examples, but probably the one that causes my heart to break the most is Peter in the high priest’s court after Jesus was arrested.
An interesting thing about Peter’s denials is that they are woven through the trials of Jesus. During the middle of the night, which was actually early Friday morning after the Passover feast in the upper room, the leaders of Israel with the Roman soldiers came to the Garden of Gethsemane and arrested Jesus which occurred after the Lord had told Peter he would deny Him three times that very night before the rooster crowed. That’s how the account of the Peter’s denials begins; they tied Jesus up and led Him away. The first place they took Him was to the house of Annas. There they made an attempt to come up with an indictment that would stick, a crime that He had committed that could justify His execution.
Following that, there was a trial before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, and then finally after dawn, there was a third trial in the daylight, which was the only time they could have a legal trial according to Jewish law. It was between those first two trials in the middle of the night that Peter’s denials are woven.
John 18:12 tells us,
So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. (ESV)
Understand that once they arrested Jesus, all of the Apostles ran away, including Peter and John (who was with him), though they were following at a distance so no one could see them. Matthew’s account tells us this in Matthew 27:56,
But all of this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled. Then all the disciples left him and fled. (ESV)
Now, let me set the scene so that you are not confused between the renderings of this event by the four apostles. When taken all together, we can see what and where everything, including Peter’s denials, occurred.
Jesus was tied up as prisoner and led away to the house of Annas, who was in real power. Annas was the former high priest and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, was the current high priest. The soldiers took Jesus first to Annas because he was the puppet-master at this point. He really called the shots, and they needed to come up with some sort of charge that would stick.
It was early on Friday morning, still dark out, when He was taken to the house of Annas, who would have lived in the same palace compound as his son-in-law, Caiaphas. I make this distinction because Matthew’s account says they took him to Caiaphas, leaving out the previous meeting with Annas, and Mark and Luke only say “high priest.” Only John mentions the first meeting with Annas, and since, as we will see soon, John was there with Peter in the court, we understand how he came to know of the exact location of Jesus’ first stop. Jesus’ first trial, then, was in front of Annas and only when the former high priest was finished questioning Jesus did he send him to Caiaphas. (John 18:24)
(The other three didn’t mention a change in venue because, as I said, Annas and Caiaphas lived in the same compound. They simply would have taken Jesus from one area to another while in the same location.)
In John’s gospel, 18:15-18, we can read Peter’s first denial which occurred while Jesus was being questioned by Annas. Peter entered the court undetected, but he could only have entered if he was with someone who had connections with the court. That someone was John. Peter and John were in the courtyard, trying to stay close to Jesus but also remain unidentified. The girl who first saw and recognized him was most likely the girl who opened and closed the gate of the court, letting people in and out.
Peter was warming himself by the fire with the other guards when the girl asked him if he was one of Jesus’ disciples. He would have been able to hear what was going on in Annas’ house; he would have heard the screaming while Jesus was being questioned. He may have even been thinking of what he might say or do if he were called before Annas himself. He may have thought he was ready.
But then, out of the blue, a simple servant girl asked him if he was with Jesus, and he crumbled. No Jesus to support him, no miracles, only him, and he was a coward. He told her that he didn’t know Him.
In John’s gospel we then read the account of Annas questioning Jesus and then eventually having Him transported across the courtyard to Caiaphas’ palace. There Jesus would again be questioned before the Sanhedrin. It was during this time when Jesus was in the courtyard between Annas’ house and Caiphas’ house that the next two denials occur. John is kinder to Peter than Matthew was in these last two denials. John just says that Peter denied knowing Jesus. Matthew gives us a little more.
Matthew 26:72 says this of Peter’s second denial,
And again he denied it with an oath. (ESV)
Peter was swearing that he did not know Jesus.
In verse 74, it gets even worse with the third denial,
Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man!” (ESV)
Basically, Peter began to curse wildly at the accusation, claiming not to know Jesus. It was then that the rooster crowed.
Everything had occurred just as Jesus said it would, and once the rooster crowed, the most compelling sentence in regards to this story is recounted in Luke’s gospel. Luke 22:60-61 reads,
But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord. (ESV)
We really can shudder at this, can’t we? It’s just a heartbreaking moment. Peter crumbled and was swearing repeatedly that he didn’t even know Jesus, and right in the middle of his tirade he looked up and Jesus looked at him—eye to eye. Can you even imagine the agony this man must have felt at that very moment? Can you imagine our agony if in the midst of sin, which is really denying Christ’s power and lordship, we looked up and Jesus was looking right at us?
We wouldn’t be surprised if Peter was another Judas and went out and hanged himself. But Peter is no Judas and his faith does not fail. Why? Luke tells us right there in verse 61; it was because Jesus looked at him.
B.B. Warfield once commented on this passage in a sermon,
“As our Savior was being tried and preparing to bear the sins of us all on the cross, He had time to give one glance to a faltering disciple and so save his soul in the saving of the world.” (B.B. Warfield (1851–1921), from his essay, “‘Miserable-Sinner Christianity’ in the Hands of the Rationalists,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 7, pp. 113-114)
The difference between Peter and Judas can be traced to that look; it was something about what the Savior did in His infinite mercy for Peter. You see, this is not a story of final failure, like with Judas; this is a story of final restoration.
It was Peter’s love for Christ that broke his heart at that moment and that breaks ours now at the thought of it, not the pain at what he had done. It’s not really our sins that make us weep. They have a part in it, to be sure, but for us and Peter it isn’t sin that brings weeping (the Greek means “sobbed out loud”). Peter wept because he saw the kind of Savior he had sinned against. He repented because when Jesus looked at him, he thought of the Word.
True repentance begins when the Spirit holds the Word up to us like a mirror and we look into that mirror. Our eyes are opened, and we suddenly realize what we’ve done. The difference between a remorse for being caught in sin and godly sorrow that leads to repentance is the renovation of life because we finally see, and what we see is the Word of God.
As Ligon Duncan said,
“Repentance isn’t just feeling badly about sin; it’s not just feeling badly about the consequences of sin or the embarrassment of sin. It is coming to see the sin for what it is and recognizing how ugly it is and turning from it and to God.” (“The Necessity of Repentance,” Sept. 18, 2011)
Jesus is the Word (John 1:1), and the Word looked straight into Peter’s eyes.
That was the difference between Peter and Judas. Jesus restored Peter with one look.
And then when Jesus was resurrected and with the apostles in Galilee, He fully restored all of them, most especially Peter. Jesus made a special point to single Peter out after the resurrection, restoring him to service.
On that first Resurrection Sunday, when the men from Emmaus returned to Jerusalem to tell of their encounter with the risen Lord, the eleven said to them in Luke 24:34,
“The Lord has risen indeed, and appeared to Simon!”
Also, at the tomb, the angel told the surprised women in Mark 16:6-7,
“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peterthat he is going before you to Galilee.”
“Go and tell the disciples” would have been enough, but knowing Peter’s colossal failure and the pain His apostle felt afterward in repentance, the Lord instructed the angel to add “and Peter”!
When we fail the Lord and then repent, He just keeps piling on His grace to reassure us of His forgiveness.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Peter’s restoration by God’s grace is Jesus’ restoration of Peter to His service. When Jesus appeared to the seven disciples, we read of the restoration in John 21:15-19. Here Jesus asked Peter to affirm his love for Him three times—one for each time Peter denied Him, and in this He was restoring His beloved to service. And look at what Peter goes on to do in the second chapter of Acts—he preaches the very first sermon of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
How glorious it is that Jesus said in Matthew 9:13,
For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
That call is to salvation and to His service. The truth is that if God didn’t use failing people, He wouldn’t use anybody! Such a comfort to sinners such as we are! He never loses His children. He will call us back, give us a look, remind us of His Word, and then He will use us to the advancement of His kingdom.
By the grace of our Lord, we are all unlikely heroes.
Editor’s note: The following is a guest-post by The Philippian Jailer, whom I referred to in my last post as “my friend, the Jailer”. Aside from being a dear friend and brother, the Jailer sometimes helps me with the technical side of blogging and social media. His family and mine go back a quarter century, and they are very dear to us. More immediately, the insights he shares below first appeared on his site after the Facebook interaction which prompted my last post. — Dr. Deb
Quick, how many books, sermons, Bible studies, blogs, and pithy social-network posts revolve around the concept of self-forgiveness? Any guesses? A quick Google search revealed 13,400,000 hits. Needless to say, it’s a hot topic for the church as well as for popular culture.
Now … how many verses in Scripture tell us to forgive ourselves? I’ll give you a hint: the answer rhymes with “hero”. That’s because self-forgiveness isn’t a Scriptural concept; it’s part of the Oprahization of modern Christianity.
Frankly, who really cares if I forgive myself?
Okay, now I’ve just offended (or terrified) several groups of people. But hear me out:
1. For those true followers of Christ who struggle with guilt over past sins … relax! Stop worrying about forgiving yourself. Instead, live in the joy of God’s amazing, transforming grace! “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) In other words, you’ve been forgiven by the Lord and King–the only being in the universe with the authority to truly and effectively forgive sins. So follow Him joyfully and gratefully, like one who’s redeemed from the grave! Jesus paid your entire debt; stop wasting the life He redeemed trying to charge yourself a meaningless surtax.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death … Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:1-2, 33-34)
2. For the true followers of Christ who struggle with guilt over current sins … er, don’t relax. We call that “conviction”. You’re supposed to feel guilty when you rebel against God. The Holy Spirit is trying to get through to you. Confess, repent, and seek the counsel and accountability of your fellow believers–the best of whom will not judge you, but will respect you more for the transparency and maturity you display by facing your sin directly and Scripturally. As I’ve mentioned once before:
Guilt, like pain, is unpleasant. If we are in great pain, we understandably want it to go away. We want relief quick! But pain also alerts us to some medical malady. If by treating the pain we mask the malady and leave it untreated, the results can be catastrophic. For this reason, those who suffer from leprosy and lose their nerve endings learn to very carefully monitor their extremities. Because they may not feel the pain of a simple cut, infection can set in before they realize they’ve been injured.
Guilt plays a similar role with respect to sin. Its primary function is to alert us to a deeper problem. David needed to feel the guilt of his sin with Bethsheba. Denying it merely prolonged his rebellion. In the end, God used Nathan to apply the scalpel to David’s conscience, revealing David’s guilt and enabling him to repent.
3. For those who are more interested in “living victoriously” than taking up the cross and following Christ, pay attention! Self-forgiveness is self-delusion; it may help deliver “Your Best Life Now“, but it won’t save you from the judgment to come! This guilt of the unredeemed is not merely valid, but entirely necessary:
For him to feel no guilt is self-deception of the deadliest sort, since there is then nothing to chase him into the arms of Jesus. “… to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” (Titus 1:15) Guilt for the lost sinner is the smell of gangrene in the wound, warning the patient that his infection will claim his life if he does not seek aggressive treatment. To provide him superficial “healing” in the form of soothing words and psychological comfort is not ultimately to love him, but to watch him die of negligence.
The bottom line is this: the concept of self-forgiveness is not Biblical, but secular-humanist at its core, because it idolizes the self. If I have the power to condemn or forgive myself, then God is irrelevant to my salvation. Self-forgiveness is not merely unnecessary and redundant; it is foolish, delusional, and self-idolatry.
Not long ago I shared a quote on my Facebook page from a fairly well-known American pastor about being able to forgive one’s self. The quote was:
“‘I can’t forgive myself’ is another way of saying ‘Even though Jesus forgives me, there’s a god above Jesus whose opinion matters more—me.’”
On a cursory level, this seems perfectly true. However, then my friend, the Jailer, made some interesting observations about self-forgiveness on his blog that made me think deeper on the topic. (The Philippian Jailer, “Does God Want Me to Forgive Myself,” http://networkedblogs.com/NiedC)
Now, let me begin by saying that as a minister, I counsel quite often. In this counsel, as well as from personal experience, I know the necessity of letting go of the guilt from past mistakes. Often the burden of who we are and what we are capable of seems to completely negate any possibility of forgiveness. For this we look to the cross and try desperately to understand the concepts of justification and propitiation as they have been given to us by our Savior, Jesus Christ.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26)
Here is the issue, then, as I see it: The phrase, “Forgive yourself,” has become blurred by a worldview that puts self as center.
For example, when I counsel someone who is struggling with acknowledging Christ’s complete forgiveness of her transgressions, the problem is that for as long as she lives on this earth she will look in the mirror and see herself. She knows what she’s done. She knows the depths to which she has sunk. It is absolutely impossible for us to view ourselves as God views us once we’ve been justified by the blood of Jesus. We still sin. We still have sinned. We know this.
Consequently, my objective is always pointing her to God’s Word where the truth of what it means to be justified comes clear. From that we can hopefully move to accepting that we have a God who is that gracious and that merciful, and that the only way to live a joyful and purposeful Christian life is to know that we are justified, even though we can’t imagine why. We shouldn’t imagine why. There’s no reason other than God’s grace.
The problem is when someone begins to think that there ismore to it than that. The problem is if people look into the mirror and come to the point where they actually forgive themselves of their sins—deeds committed against the Lord of all creation.
Dictionary.com defines forgive as:
“To grant pardon or remission; to give up all claim on account of.”
According to the very definition of the word, I can’t forgive myself. It’s fully and completely out of the realm of my power. Only God can pardon me. Only He can justify me when I’ve done nothing to deserve that clean slate.
As believers then, we have to be supremely careful of throwing phrases around like, “Forgive yourself,” because although I know what I mean and another Christian might understand the context of those words, there’s a world out there that has no concept of answering to the Judge and Ruler of everything. When the world says to “Forgive yourself,” it literally means “Forgive yourself.” “Pardon yourself.”
“What you did is okay. You’re good. Forget it and move on.”
I know that not only can’t I pardon myself, but there is relevance in remembering my sin as I seek to live under no condemnation because of it. It is good for me to remember how precious is my Savior and how gracious is my God to forgive me, a sinner. There is a unique balance in remembering and not living under condemnation because of it, of course, but correct perspective in regards to me and my Lord is vital.
So, after some contemplation, study, prayer, and lack of sleep, I still agree with the pastor whose quote I posted, but in principle and context only. It’s the words that perhaps need to be altered. The issue for all of us who are sinners saved by grace is accepting the reality of the greatest of all gifts—justification—even if it defies all human reasoning.
Shouldn’t it defy all human reasoning?