(an excerpt from my book, At His Dusty Feet: Storied Moments from the Road to Golgotha)
After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.Matthew 26:30-35, 69-75 (NET)
Then Jesus said to them, “This night you will all fall away because of me, for it is written:
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I am raised, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter said to him, “If they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away!” Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, on this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will never deny you.” And all the disciples said the same thing
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A slave girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it in front of them all: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” When he went out to the gateway, another slave girl saw him and said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” He denied it again with an oath, “I do not know the man!” After a little while, those standing there came up to Peter and said, “You really are one of them too – even your accent gives you away!” At that he began to curse, and he swore with an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
As we have traveled these dusty roads together with Jesus, I have developed an affinity for Peter. His impetuous response to Jesus very much matches mine. As soon as we realized it was Jesus approaching the boat during the storm on the Sea of Galilee, I was as eager to step out onto the ocean waves as Peter. When Jesus asked the disciples, but who do you say that I am, I was a syllable behind Peter when he immediately replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (ESV). And only moments later, when Jesus says He will suffer and die, I share Peter’s concern and protectiveness when he rebukes Jesus without hesitation because he does not want to consider losing Jesus who has only just begun His ministry.
Peter’s passion for Jesus mirrors my own, and I recognize in him the wonder and excitement to be on this journey with the long-awaited, long-anticipated, and powerfully prophesied Messiah. For generations, families like Peter’s have longed for the Messiah’s arrival, and, now, at last, He is here and Peter is not only a part of the crowd that follows Him, Peter is one of the Twelve, and, even more, one of Jesus’ innermost circle of three.
He loves Jesus so deeply that when Jesus predicts His disciples will all fall away just hours from now, once again Peter is quick to respond, telling Jesus He is wrong. Peter believes even if all the others desert Jesus, he will never abandon his friend. Even when Jesus challenges Peter with the news of how Peter will deny even knowing Jesus before dawn, Peter swears he will die before he denies Jesus.
And that’s how it feels in those mountaintop moments with Jesus. When life is going well and our faith is steady and our circumstances require little more from us than the usual daily routine, we are faith-filled and sure-footed, we cannot imagine denying our love for or faith in Jesus. But when we’re in the valley? When life feels out of our control and unpredictable and our circumstances are more than we can bear without breaking down, or when we are afraid of what might happen to us or someone we love, faith can become shaky at best.
Even more of a challenge for me is exactly what happens to Peter. Having watched Jesus arrested and taken away, Peter is shaken. As always, in the moment he is the first to draw his sword and defend Jesus. But now that Jesus is gone, the disciples respond just as Jesus foretold — they scatter. Finding himself now alone, Peter follows Jesus at a distance, adrift in the night but vigilantly laying low. Despite his efforts to remain in the shadows, he is called out by a few different people: This man was with Jesus of Nazareth and You’re one of them, we can tell by your accent.
In the shadows, his doubts and fears grow, until, finally Peter panics. Each time he is called out and confronted, instinctively he denies he even knows Jesus. Each time, I cringe. I cringe for Peter, but also for me. Immediately I recall times I have left my faith out of the conversation or remained silent rather than admit I know Jesus or acknowledge I believe He is who He says He is and that I spend my time with Him. Without thinking, I deny Jesus with my silence. Although our denials differ, there is a fear, perhaps even self-preservation, at the core. What might happen if this person learns that I, too, am one of them?
Unfortunately for Peter, his denials are followed by the crow of the rooster announcing the arrival of dawn. And immediately Peter remembers. Immediately he hears Jesus’ words echoing through his mind: Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (ESV). And Peter weeps. He weeps because only hours before this moment he vehemently denied he would ever fall away.
As he disappears into the night, I watch him go and my heart aches for him. My own tears stream down my cheeks as once again I recognize myself in him, in his anguish over the loss of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but even more, the loss of Jesus in denying Him. Even so, I can’t help but consider the moment between Jesus and Peter earlier, when Jesus predicted this moment. As is always the case with Jesus, there was no condemnation in Him. In fact, once again, as always, Jesus’ eyes held nothing but compassion and love.
And that’s what’s so amazing, isn’t it? Even when we fall short, even when we are less than faithful, even when we deny Him in the ways we do, He still loves us. I want to call out to Peter and remind him of this truth. Beneath my feet, I can still see where Peter’s tears hit the ground, the dust dampened by his pain and denial. I stare into the darkness where Peter retreated into the garden where Jesus prayed earlier. I wonder if he is praying now, like Jesus did, or if it’s too soon for him still. Maybe he thinks he needs to be alone. Maybe he thinks that’s what he deserves because of what he’s done.
But that’s not how Jesus deals with us and I want to remind Peter of that truth. It’s a truth I know he knows after spending the past three years with Jesus, watching how He dealt with people. Jesus never deals harshly with us, no matter what we’ve done or how awful the thing we think we’ve done. If we turn back to Him, He is there. If we repent for our mistakes, even something as big as denying Him, He will forgive us. He will never stop loving us. Peter, I whisper into the darkness, He still loves you. Remember that, my friend. He still loves you and that’s what He’s about to prove. To you and to me.
Dear Jesus, You know all too well how often I deny You and let my fears or my desire to fit in and be accepted by the world influence my words as well as my deeds. But You are always willing to forgive me when I turn back to You. And You remind me that in those moments of panic, when I think it will be easier to deny You, if I pray, You will be my strength. Help me not to give in to the shadows of doubt, but to step into the Light of faith and truth.
Additional Scripture for Reflection
This post is an excerpt from my book, At His Dusty Feet: Storied Moments from the Road to Golgotha. As we head into what many refer to as Holy Week, the final week of Jesus’ life and ministry, my book invites you to experience these familiar stories in a new and different way, by being in those moments with Jesus and the disciples. The book is available as an ebook on Amazon (the included links are affiliate links; it does not change the price, but does provide me a small portion of any sale made by clicking through the link).