A Fresh Start
Week of July 23, 2017
The Point: We fail; Jesus restores.
Peter Denies Jesus: John 18:15-18, 25-27.
 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest,  but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in.  The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”  Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.  Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.”  One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”  Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed. [ESV]
“[18:15-18] The soldiers who arrested Jesus took Him directly to the palace of Annas. Annas had been high priest from AD 6 to 15, when he was deposed by the Romans. In the following years, various members of his family held the office, including at present his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Most Jews considered Annas the legitimate high priest, although the acting office-bearer had to sit at formal tribunals. Jesus was not alone at this hearing, since Peter and another disciple had followed Him to the high priest’s residence. This other disciple is traditionally considered to be the apostle John, who out of modesty declines to name himself. Being known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door [15-16]. This situation was fraught with tension, with Jesus brought bound to the hostile court, John’s having gone in with Him, but Peter’s being left outside the door. John, seeing this, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in . As Peter entered the compound, the young woman at the door spoke to him, asking whether he like the other disciple was a follower of Jesus. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” . This was only a casual remark; her acknowledgment that John was a disciple indicates her lack of violent hostility. Her question was, moreover, cast with the expectation of a negative answer: “You’re not one of those disciples, are you?” Peter would have had to contradict the gatekeeper to state the truth, so the easiest answer for him, a stranger seeking permission to enter, was to agree. This he did, saying I am not. Peter, despite the humble station of the questioner and her unthreatening manner of speech, immediately abandoned his fidelity to Christ. Peter might have looked upon his first denial as a necessary rite of admission to the courtyard. But once uttered, it was easy to repeat and hard to correct. This shows why it is always important for Christians to be up-front about our faith in Jesus, instead of giving an initial worldly impression that will be difficult to change later. Having identified himself as a stranger to Jesus, Peter had no reason to avoid keeping company with the others, so he joined a group of servants and officials of the high priest who were warming themselves at a charcoal fire [18:18]. So it is with Christians today. In order to maintain a public denial of Christ, we will have to blend in with the unbelieving world. There was no doubt a great deal of mocking of Jesus at this fire, so Peter’s denial had placed him in a situation in which it was all the more difficult to be faithful to his Lord. How do we explain Peter’s denial of Jesus? First, we note that Peter was there only because he had followed Jesus when all the others (except John) had scattered. The only reason that Peter was exposed to this trial was his love and devotion for Jesus and his courage in following the arresting soldiers. What steps led to Peter’s rapid downfall in denying his Master? First, we remember his overconfidence, which Jesus had checked back in the upper room [John 13:38]. Mark’s Gospel makes this problem even clearer, reporting that Peter boastfully compared himself with his fellow disciples: Even though they all fall away, I will not …. If I must die with you, I will not deny you [Mark 14:29-31]. This reminds us not to treat lightly those trials that we have not yet faced. Peter miscalculated his strength of will and courage, and therefore he trusted himself instead of reposing in God’s strength and faithfulness. This leads to the second step in Peter’s fall, namely, that he failed to pray when Jesus urged him to do so. An overconfident, self-reliant spirit will never be active in prayer. The irony here that the person we think would least need to pray, namely, Jesus, was in fact the One most fervent in prayer. If there was someone who needed prayer, it would be Peter. Yet Peter is sleeping in the Garden while the Lord is pouring out His soul before His heavenly Father. How like Peter we are, and how often we fail the Lord because of it. Third, we are told that when Peter came to the high priest’s house, he followed Jesus at a distance [Luke 22:54]. This can be understood in Peter’s case, given the danger and Jesus’ stated desire to protect His disciples. In our case, however, following Jesus at a distance is the cause of many spiritual failures. Those who follow Jesus at a distance open themselves to worldly influences, deny themselves the grace they need, and expose themselves to the danger of falling into Peter’s potentially damning sin of denying Jesus before the world.
[18:25-27] As John presents the dreadful events of that fateful night, the greater atrocity took place outside in the courtyard. There, Jesus’ closest disciple, Simon Peter, was awkwardly standing in the company of those who would persecute his Lord. We observed Peter’s weakness in his first denial to the humble servant girl, but how much clearer does his weakness appear at the fireside denials! To his previous self-confidence and self-reliant neglect of prayer, we now add the toxic ingredient of the fear of man. Peter’s second denial was given in answer to a direct question. Matthew’s Gospel says that the servants recognized Peter’s Galilean accent, so now they suspected him of being with Jesus [Matt. 26:73]. Peter denied Jesus again: I am not, he insisted. One of the officials then looked into Peter’s face in the poor light of the charcoal fire. This was one of those who had been present in the garden and who was a relative of Malchus, whom Peter had struck with a sword. Here is a truly menacing query, which Peter forcefully denied, saying, I do not know this man of whom you speak [Mark 14:71]. Having yielded himself to the first, lesser temptation, how vulnerable Peter was in the second and third greater ones, especially having placed himself in such wicked company.” [Phillips, pp. 499-509].
Peter’s Restoration: John 21:15-19.
 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” [ESV]
“[21:15-17]. Part of what makes the gospel such good news is that sinners can not only be forgiven but also be restored. We would be hard-pressed to commit a sin as grievous as Peter did when he denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. Therefore, Peter’s restoration encourages us that we may be restored not only to salvation but also to usefulness to Christ. In the first half of John 21, Jesus met the disciples along the shore of the Sea of Galilee after filling their net with fish. Jesus awaited them beside a charcoal fire where a meal was cooling [21:9]. Learning that it was Jesus, Peter flung himself into the waters and eagerly propelled himself into the Lord’s presence. We can imagine that after the meal began, however, Peter might have become uneasy. He would have looked at the charcoal fire, his mind suddenly turning to another charcoal fire that had burned outside the high priest’s residence on the night of Jesus’ arrest when he denied Jesus three times. It seems likely that Jesus had arranged for this similar fire to await Peter beside the Sea of Galilee. Taking His own place where the temple guards had sat, Jesus looked at Peter once more, asking three times whether he loved Him, one question for each of Peter’s denials. How do we understand Jesus’ questions? First, we should note that Jesus began not only by asking whether Peter loved Him, but by specifying, Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? [21:15]. We remember that earlier on the night of Peter’s denials, Jesus had warned that all the disciples would fall away after His arrest, but that the disciples should await Him in Galilee after His resurrection [Matt. 26:31-32]. Peter insisted that he would remain true even if the other disciples did not: Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away [Matt. 26:33]. Now, here they were in Galilee, and Peter had fallen away. “Do you still think that you love me more than the others do?” Jesus inquired. Peter’s answer revealed his chastened spirit: Yes, Lord, you know that I love you [John 21:15]. Jesus then asked Peter twice more: Simon, son of John, do you love me? [21:16-17]. Peter repeated his first answer: Yes, Lord; you know that I love you [21:16]. For his third answer, he said, Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you [21:17]. By inquiring about Peter’s love three times, Jesus was doing the serious work of bringing His disciple to a true repentance. We can be sure that this was painful for Peter. We can imagine that with each question, his mind would have remembered each of the three times he had denied his Lord. John notes that Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ [21:17]. This grief was a necessary part of the Lord’s work of prompting repentance for the sake of true restoration. With Jesus homing in on the full extent of his betrayal, Peter could answer only by appealing to the Lord’s omniscience. If Peter loved the Lord, then Jesus would know it because the Lord had Himself instilled the love that Peter needed: Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you [21:17]. Peter shows that only a genuine believer can take solace in the Lord’s true knowledge of our hearts. We can see Jesus’ purpose in bringing Peter to repentance not only in matching his three questions to Peter’s three denials, but also in Jesus’ form of address. In John’s Gospel, ever since this disciple’s calling to follow Jesus, he had been known as Peter, which means “the Rock” [John 1:42]. This name refers to Peter’s confession of faith, which was an example of the Great Confession on which Jesus would build His church [see Matt. 16:16-18]. Now, Jesus reverts to Peter’s former name, referring to him as Simon, son of John [John 21:15]. This amounts to a temporary deposing of Peter from his office. Before there could be thought of restoring Peter to his calling as an apostle, they must first retrace the steps by which Peter could be considered even a Christian. So it is for us all: more basic than our calling to service is our calling to salvation through a loving faith in Christ. Jesus had already forgiven Peter his sin, promising peace to Peter and the others on the night of His resurrection. So why did Jesus need to drive Peter to so painful a repentance? There are three answers, the first of which was for the sake of Peter’s own conscience. Until Jesus had addressed Peter’s great sin, the matter must continually hang over the disciple’s spirit. Jesus, in His kindness, demands a thorough healing of sin so as to gain a true peace. Jesus’ kindness is seen in that at each of Peter’s steps of recalling his denial, Jesus assured him not only of forgiveness but of full restoration. It would have been cruel had Jesus left Peter in doubt as to His acceptance, but Jesus did not leave any doubt. In the light of Christ’s super-abounding grace, Peter was not cast down by his sin but lifted up in the amazing divine love that saved him. This example encourages Christians to seriously examine our sins before God’s presence in prayer. In this way, we will grow in grace through repentance and by recalling the unfailing love that freely suffered death for our redemption. Only against the true depth of our guilt may we measure the height of God’s love for us and glory in the cross of Christ as we ought. The second reason that Peter needed to be brought to a detailed repentance was to ensure that he learned the lesson from his failure. Beneath Peter’s sin in denying Jesus was a dangerous self-confidence. Peter had boasted of laying down his life for Jesus [John 13:37], when Peter really needed Jesus to lay down His life for him. Indeed, it is evident that the reason Jesus permitted Peter to fall, praying for his faith to be restored but handing him over to his sin [Luke 22:31-34], was the benefit to Peter upon his repentance. The third reason why Peter needed to repent thoroughly was for the sake of his future calling as an apostle. What authority could Peter wield in the matter of faith in Christ if his failure on the night of Jesus’ arrest remained hanging over his head? This explains why Peter’s repentance must take place in the presence of several other future apostles. His sin pertained to his public office in the church and thus demanded a public repentance and a public restoration by Christ. As Jesus secured Peter’s repentance with three demands to affirm his love, He also restored Peter with three commissions to the pastoral office. When Peter first answered, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you, Jesus answered, Feed my lambs [21:15]. When Peter affirmed his love a second time, Jesus said, Tend my sheep [21:16]. Finally, when Peter answered Jesus’ question by asserting Christ’s knowledge of his love, Jesus concluded, Feed my sheep [21:17]. In His abounding grace, Jesus did not say, “All right, Peter, you are forgiven. But of course, I can never use you in a place of leadership again.” That might be the way we would reason about Peter, but it is not how Jesus responded. Instead, Jesus publicly restored Peter to his calling as a shepherd over the flock of God. Here we see the two dimensions of the pastoral calling. Like the apostles before them, pastors today are called to the work of feeding the flock of God with the spiritual nourishment of God’s Word and also of shepherding and leading the flock through pastoral care. Jesus specified the feeding of His sheep first and last to Peter. This tells us that a pastor’s primary responsibility is to feed the flock of Christ. How are Christ’s sheep to be fed? The Bible’s answer: by teaching and preaching the Word of God. To be called by Christ to the pastoral office is therefore to be gifted and prepared to preach and teach the Scriptures with fidelity and power. Called to this work, a faithful pastor must devote a significant portion of his working time to the prayerful preparation of his teaching so as to most wholesomely feed the beloved sheep who belong to Jesus. A final point seen in Jesus’ restoration of Peter is the primacy of love for those who lead Christ’s flock. Indeed, the fact that Jesus confronted Peter over the matter of his love shows the importance of love for the whole of the Christian life. Love for Christ is preeminently necessary for the shepherds of Christ’s flock. It is only love for Christ and His church that empowers us to continue serving Christ’s flock when the church fails us.”
[21:18-19] The experience of one Christian may vary considerably from that of another, but all Christians share a common calling, which Jesus spoke to Peter: Follow me [21:19]. According to the New Testament, following Jesus includes two dimensions: a lifestyle of learning from Jesus through His Word, and a willing embrace of cross-bearing self-denial. First, to follow Jesus is to abide in His Word so as to grow in our knowledge of His teaching and experience of his life. If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free [John 8:31-32]. A life of following Jesus is therefore one of daily, prayerful devotion to His Word, as His Spirit shines in our hearts to illumine the pages of Holy Scripture. Second, following Jesus requires a Christian to deny himself and take up his cross. This was Jesus’ clearest explanation of discipleship: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it [Luke 9:23-24]. Christian self-denial begins with the renunciation of any righteousness of our own before God. Christians renounce our pride and humble ourselves before God, seeking His saving mercy through the grace of Christ. Christians turn from sin and earnestly seek God’s grace to live a new and holy life that pleases God. Self-denial further requires us to be willing to accept any calling of Christ or any change that is God’s will for our lives. Finally, Christian self-denial will require followers of Jesus to actively embrace crosses that will be painful and cause suffering. True cross-bearing, like Christ’s, is voluntary and intentional, freely accepting worldly scorn and even persecution for the sake of Christ. Do self-denial and cross-bearing seem unappealing? Yet those who take up the cross are drawn into an ever-deepening fellowship with Jesus, a holy communion that is worth more than all the treasures of the world. It is the cross-bearing Christian, the believer who actively embraces a countercultural, Christ-following lifestyle, who learns the reality of Psalm 16:11: You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” [Phillips, pp. 703-724].
Questions for Discussion:
- How do we explain Peter’s denial of Jesus? What steps led to Peter’s rapid downfall in denying his Master? What do we learn from Peter about our denying our Lord, either by our words or by our silence? Why is it dangerous for us to follow Jesus but only at a distance?
- How do we understand Jesus’ questions to Peter as they sat by the charcoal fire? Why does Jesus focus on love? Why is sincere repentance necessary for true restoration? What is the significance of Jesus’ three commands to Peter?
- What does it mean to follow Jesus? What two dimensions are included in being a follower of Jesus? Pray for a daily increase in your commitment to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
- Pray for strength and courage not to deny our Lord, especially in the hostile world in which we live. Rejoice in our Master’s love and mercy in His restoring fallen sinners like us to fellowship with Him and service to Him.
John, vol. 5, James Boice, Baker.
The Gospel According to John, D. A. Carson, Eerdmans.
The Gospel According to John, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.
John, vol. 2, Richard Phillips, REC, P&R Publishing.