There’s something we all have in common this morning. It’s not that we’re all Christians, I imagine there are some non-Christians here, and I’m thankful for that, and you’re welcome to return again next week. It’s not that we all like the same things. We don’t have everything in common. Actually, if you think about it, many of us don’t have much in common at all.
But I’d bet if I were to privately interview each one of you, and if I could earn your trust, and if you would be open and vulnerable, I bet you would be able to tell me about your own failures.
There are some of you who might tell me about a business failure, or a financial failure. I’m sure others would open up about relational failure: failed marriages that ended in divorce. Failed relationships that have resulted in estranged family members. Many parents feel the sting of failure as their kids run headlong into folly. For many of you, this is not hypothetical at all, and I am sure that some of you carry the weight of failure around in your heart. For the most part, you are able to cope, but from time to time, if you reflect on your failure - as a husband, as a wife, as a father, as a mother, as a friend, as a daughter, as a son, as a teacher, as a employer - it’s hard to not feel sick, discouraged, and useless.
And, interrelated, is the experience of spiritual failure. Not only failing people, but failing the Lord. Giving into temptation. Sludging through the muck of depression. Feeling overcome by anxiety or fear or discouragement. Our failures make us feel weak, and our weaknesses make us feel like failures.
I’m sure you know failure. What I’m not sure about is whether you know how to deal with failure. Many people don’t. They live gagged by failure. Their joy has been suffocated. The chains of regret chafe against them every day. They can’t move forward into fresh seasons of obedience because they live every moment with the label “failure” slapped upon their forehead.
I wonder if that’s you this morning. Either living with the lingering stench of past failure, or in the nagging slog of current failure, or in the crippling fear of future failure - you have a hard time living with the reality (or possibility) of failure. I think this is near and dear to each one of us.
Have you failed? Are you failing at a responsibility God has given you right now? This morning we will study the infamous account of Peter’s dramatic failure. In our text this morning, Peter fails Jesus spectacularly. But that’s not the end of Peter’s story. In a very real sense, this is where it all begins.
May God use a story of failure to teach us how to avoid spiritual failure, and how to recover from spiritual failure. Mark 14:66-72
I want to give you this text like a biblical counselor - I’ve arranged my headings in the form of questions - questions that I would like to ask you if you and I were sitting across the table from one another. 1) Do you know what spiritual strength really is? 2) Do you understand the subtle destructiveness of sin? 3) Do you understand the value of failure? 4) Do you know how to redeem your failures?
First of all, let’s talk about spiritual strength. Do you know what spiritual strength really is? What does it mean to be spiritually strong? Are you spiritually strong? Would you call yourself spiritually strong? What would be signs of spiritual strength?
It is so easy to confuse spiritual strength with other things we admire. And when we confuse these things, we end up thinking we are more spiritually strong than we actually are.
Is knowledge spiritual strength? Of the 12 disciples, if we had to guess who had the firmest grasp on who Jesus actually was, we might say it was Peter. Peter was the first disciple Jesus called. Peter is always listed first in the list of the disciples. He saw his own family healed early in the ministry. Peter was invited in to see Jairus’ daughter resurrected from the dead. And he, most famously, is the one who, when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” In 8:29 it was Peter who declared “You are the Christ!” and not only that, Peter got to see Jesus transfigured and reveal his divinity. He had the ability to articulate the truth about the nature of Christ, he had the opportunity to learn from him firsthand, he had the experience of seeing miracles - does this mean that he’s spiritually strong?
No. Our text this morning demonstrates that all the knowledge about Christ in the world does not necessarily make one strong. Having a MDiv does not protect anyone from moral failure. Learning Greek does not protect from spiritual catastrophe. A seminary degree can’t change a heart. More classes and more information may not give you any spiritual strength.
Learning is absolutely essential to maturity. God says in Hosea, “My people fail for lack of knowledge” - you need knowledge of God. You need to study him deeply. That’s partially why we’re here. That’s partially why I’m preaching, right now. But knowledge is not everything, and alone, it does not make anyone spiritually strong. Knowledge is not spiritual strength.
What about passion? Peter was a passionate man, demonstrated in so many ways. He was the one who got out of the boat to walk on water with Jesus. He was the one who volunteered to die for Jesus if necessary. But passion doesn’t mean strength. Young people, think about this - just because someone is very passionate about something doesn’t mean they’re right, and doesn’t mean they’re spiritually mature. Cult leaders are passionate.
And if you’re passionate about serving the Lord, I’m thankful, but understand - passion does not equate to spiritual strength.
What about influence? Is influence spiritual strength? Peter had that. I think one of the most obvious demonstrations of Peter’s influence was in 14:31 where Peter says, “‘If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Mark includes: “ And they all said the same.” Every glimpse we get into Peter’s life we see that he is a huge personality, a passionate man. And people follow passion. Outside of Jesus, he was most certainly the most vocal leader of the 12.
But his ability to influence others was not a symbol of his spiritual strength. His ability to influence others did not prevent his devastating failure.
It’s easy to think that influential and persuasive people must be spiritually strong. It’s easy to be wooed by their personalities and their gifts. We are easily drawn toward celebrities and names. Churches without discernment can assume that passion and influence must be good indicators of maturity. It’s not always the case.
Peter appeared strong to so many, that they were willing to follow him. But Peter was not spiritually strong.
What about confidence? Certainly confidence is strength, isn’t it? Peter was so confident. Peter was the one who offered to declare who Jesus really was - “the Christ.” Peter was confident to offer to make tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. He spoke up more than anyone, he offered his thoughts more than anyone. He was so confident that at times he was willing to contradict and even argue with Jesus about certain issues.
Is confidence strength? Again, no, it’s not. In fact, self-confidence is a ministry killer. Self-confidence - that is, the belief that we have what it takes, that we are strong enough, that we are good enough - it is confidence in our abilities to do what God has called us - in God’s economy, self-confidence is a liability.
So what is spiritual strength? According to Jesus, it is a poverty of spirit, a recognition of internal spiritual bankruptcy, a refusal to put any confidence in the flesh, it is a rejection of self-reliance, it is a recognition of one’s own need, and it is a constant and active dependence upon God.
Paul exhibits true spiritual strength when he says, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). According to Peter - much later in life -, we are to “serve by the strength that God supplies.”
Peter, at this point, though he knew a lot, though he was influential, and though he appeared to be passionate and confident - he was not yet spiritually mature, because he had not come to see the depths of his own weakness, and so he had not learned to be dependent.
Suppose you’re in a rushing river, being pulled under. You’re pumping your arms and legs to stay afloat. It’s insufficient, and you’re going down, but it’s all you’ve got. And imagine a fully inflated life preserver is thrown to you. If you want to embrace the strength of the life preserver, you have to give up your own strength to preserve yourself. All your strength should be aimed at grabbing hold of the strength of the life preserver.
Listen, until you come to see your own strength as insufficient, you will always hold onto it, and you will never reach out to Christ. And so long as we’re looking to ourselves, we will be trapped in the limits of our own abilities.
True spiritual strength, we learn from Peter, is not merely knowing more, or being passionate, or influencing people, or self-confidence. True spiritual strength is knowing deep down our own weakness, putting no confidence in ourselves at all, and looking to Christ each day for help.
Do we understand the subtle destructiveness of pride?
To see this most clearly, we have to go back a little bit. I want you to see a progression of sin.
First, his pride sounded like commitment. If you remember 14:27, Jesus told the disciples, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter disagreed with Jesus. Peter thought Jesus was right about a lot of things, but not this thing. “Jesus, you’re great on the doctrine of God, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of end times, but you’re weak on the doctrine of ME. V 29: “Peter said, ‘Even though they all fall away, I will not.’” Jesus says, “Yes, you will this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” All the disciples agreed with Peter because it sounded so good. No one confronted him on it.
It sounded like brave and courageous commitment. It was sinful pride. Maybe the way we talk about our commitment is from pride rather than love?
Second, pride led him to prayerlessness. Fast forward a bit later, Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane praying, and Peter’s there but he keeps falling asleep. He sleeps through the prayer time. Just as Jesus finishes praying Judas with the guards and the Sanhedrin come.
If he hadn’t been prideful, he would have been praying. Prideful people don’t pray. Only humble people pray. But Peter didn’t pray.
Here’s the interesting thing: if one of you said, “Eric, we need to talk. I need to confess some sin to you.” And we went into my office after the service and you said, “I’ve been committing a great sin. I am ashamed to admit it, but my conscience won’t let me live like this any longer. I have not been praying like I should.” If you did that, I would probably melt in relief. We don’t typically think of prayerlessness as an egregious sin. But guess what: pride is the father of all sin, but pride is married to prayerlessness - and prayerlessness is the mother of all egregious sins.
Because now, let’s look at our text: Third, His pride left him unprepared. Now in our text, a servant girl seems to recognize him. V 66: “And as Peter was below in the courtyard,” Jesus had been taken up to the high priest’s house, up a hill, Peter stayed below, “one of the servant girls of the high priest came,” John includes some interesting details. First, John and Peter apparently had regathered at this point, and second, that John was known by the high priest’s family and was able to get he and Peter into the courtyard. This girl’s job was to keep watch at the door. Peter comes in “and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him” Luke says, “looked closely” like she’s staring and thinking, “I recognize this guy.” “and said, ‘You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” It’s not a question. It’s not a threat. Although the way she says it “the Nazarene, Jesus” could be derogatory.
I think it caught him off-guard. Because he was proud, he didn’t pray. He wasn’t on guard like Jesus told him to. And when the moment of temptation lept on him like a tiger, his knee-jerk reaction was to lie and distance himself from Jesus. His response is: “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” This is actually a legal formula of denial. A flat-out lie. The girl said, “You were with him.” And he says, “What are you talking about?” and he leaves her and walks to the gateway. He wants to get away from her.
Fourth His pride led to private compromise. Now, the girl can’t just let it go. She now begins to talk to the bystanders - you say, what bystanders are just hanging out at 2am in the high priest’s courtyard? These are likely the guards who arrested him. She says to them, not even speaking to Peter at this point, “This man is one of them.” Verse 70, “But again, he denied it.”
Now we sometimes think that this all happened in three consecutive moments. Luke makes it clear that all of this happened over the course of 2-3 hours. Verse 70 continues, “And after a little while” - no longer is Peter caught off guard, Peter is now aware of the situation, and he is now working on strengthening his lie: “the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” Galileans had a pretty strong and recognizable accent, and Peter couldn’t hide it in his denials. Peter is digging in.
Verse 71: “Be began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak.’” His initial lie is growing into a monster, and now he’s swearing and making oaths to defend his lie. The Greek behind that word for curse is “anathema” - it was used in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) to describe God’s curse upon the cities he would destroy. Peter is saying, “I am pronouncing a curse on myself if I am not telling the truth!”
The fifth stage of his pride was this: public, profound failure. At first he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” which wasn’t exactly an outright denial of Jesus himself. And then he said he denied being one of the twelve, a more specific lie. And then, he adds swearing and cursing and oath-making to his lying. In other words, this is serious stuff. This is bad.
He would rather lie, and curse, and swear - that be identified with Jesus. Peter had done a lot of bad things, nothing like this. Nothing this brazen and offensive. Nothing so outrightly and obviously sinful and wicked. But the capacity for it was there all along, in his pride, and he had no idea until it was exposed here at this moment.
I wonder if you see the subtle ways pride and self-confidence might be lulling you into prayerlessness, unpreparedness, and private compromise?
Or since pride is so often invisible to us, I wonder if we can reverse engineer: is there private compromise, that is the result of spiritual lethargy, that is growing from a total prayerlessness, that is rooted in self-confidence, that feels no need to pray?
Do you understand the value of failure?
Verse 72 says “And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.’” Luke includes the fascinating detail that right at the moment of the second crow, Luke 22:61 says, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered.” It’s probably at this point, by the third denial which would have been 2-3 hours after Jesus was taken into the mock trial, that now they were marching Jesus off again. At this point, Jesus had been up all night, his clothing would have been soaked with bloody sweat from the night before, his face was probably black and blue from slaps and punches in the face, and as they’re dragging him through - and just at that moment Peter’s been cursing and swearing - he hears a rooster crow, he looks up, and there are the eyes of his savior, bruised, bloody, filthy, exhausted, worn out, beaten up.
It crushed him. The end of verse 72 says, “And he broke down” the Greek is epiballo, which is an interesting word to use here, it can refer to putting on clothing, it can refer to throwing something down, it can refer to throwing oneself. What’s probable is that Peter fell to the ground, was beating the ground, covering his face - and it says, “he wept.” This is the complete disintegration of this man - he is in shambles. What have I done? Guilt like a tidal wave.
Have you been there? What have I done? How could I do such a thing? God could never love me now. My life is ruined, I am lost.
But in a very real sense, this is where Peter’s ministry begins. Do you realize that Peter would not be useful to Jesus if this failure had not happened?
Why? He would have remained proud. He would have remained prayerless. He would have thought himself to be prepared, even while he wasn’t. He would have justified small private compromises, and there’s high likelihood that a huge public failure was in his future.
A Christian who feels weak in himself is more self-aware than a Christian who feels strong in himself. Christian, your pride lies to you. It makes you believe things about yourself that are not true. You are like everyone else. You are mortal. You are fallen. You are susceptible. You are needy. Don’t let your pride convince you otherwise.
And Christian, I wonder if you’ve ever considered whether it’s right or wrong to feel weak? We sometimes think that since weakness feels bad, it must be bad. But what if feeling weak was actually a result of seeing ourselves more clearly? What if feeling weak was actually God’s grace blowing away the fog of pride you’ve been living in?
Failure brought his spiritual weakness to the surface. Failure forced him to deal with it. His failure helped him see himself for who he truly was: a weak sinner in need of a strong savior.
I have heard many times of a Christian caught in their sin say, “I thank God I was found out, because now I can be set free.” Yes. You will never be free from the sins you keep excusing.
I wonder if any of you are in the pit of failure right now. Moral failure, spiritual failure. The good news is our God is the God of all mercy. He is the God of forgiveness. He is called the God of all grace. He comforts the downcast. He draws near to the brokenhearted. He forgives the humble and gives them pardon. If you’re a failure, and you know it, that’s because God is drawing you near to himself, and he wants to show you his marvelous grace.
Jesus is the Christ who died on the cross for sinners, rose from the dead, and is alive today. He forgives failures. He is gentle with the weak. He shows grace to the humble.
Do you know how to redeem your failures?
What’s interesting is that when you read Mark 14, you not only get a contrast of Jesus and Peter, you get a contrast between Judas and Peter. Both followed Jesus. Both learned from Jesus. And both failed Jesus in his hour of need. And actually, both regretted what they did. Matthew 27:3 describes how Judas changed his mind, returned the silver he had gotten, and then went and hanged himself.
Peter and Judas, by the end of Mark 14, are failures. Both will feel sorrow. Both will change their minds. But one will become a devoted and faithful preacher of the gospel, the other will succumb to despair. One will become an joyful and Christian man. The other will die in joyless misery. One will lay down his life in service to his Lord. The other will take his life in abject despair. What’s the difference? Their response to their failure.
Listen - Peter became a bold proclaimer of the gospel, a miracle worker by the power of the Spirit, he was an authority in the early church, he was the first missionary to the gentiles, in his old age he helped oversee churches, he wrote letters to encourage suffering Christians, was doggedly persistent in warning the church about false teachers - and eventually died as a martyr, unwilling to deny the Jesus he loved. What happened? And can it happen to you?
I believe some of you are holding back from confident, joyful, fruitful service because you feel like you’re a failure. You have skeletons in your closet, you have secret sins you’re ashamed of, you have past regrets you can’t get over, you have bad experiences you can’t get around.
How do you redeem your failure? The answer is this: go to Jesus. If you are a failure, you need to go immediately and directly to Jesus - and bring your failure with you. Bring it straight to Christ. And believe his word when he says, “Though your sins are great, they are forgiven.” Four reasons we learn from Peter’s failure.
Go to Jesus because he already knew. Christians, we believe something incredible about Jesus. Remember, Jesus predicts Peter’s betrayal exactly. He knows the future because he holds the future. Christian, your failures may have surprised your friends and family - but they didn’t surprise Jesus. He set his love upon you knowing all the ways you would fail him. He loved you knowing full well the ways you would fail him.
Go to Jesus because he’s on your side. Back in Luke’s account of Peter’s denial, he says that Satan demanded to sift him like wheat. There was a Satanic influence in Peter’s failure. But then Jesus says, “But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.” Think of this, in the Garden, one of the things Jesus was praying for was Peter’s faith. While Jesus was getting beat up, he was concerned about protecting Peter from apostasy. He would allow Peter to fail, but he would not allow Peter to fail completely.
Don’t you love that song we sing: “He will hold me fast”? When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast; When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast; I could never keep my hold through life's fearful path; For my love is often cold; He must hold me fast
Isn’t it incredible, that according to Hebrews 7:25, Jesus is praying for us right now? This is how he holds us fast. He never stops interceding for us. He’s on your side. Go to him now, go to him immediately, go to him repeatedly, go to him in your temptation, go to him in your weakness, and yes - go to him as a filthy sinner, go to him as a moral failure, go to him as you are.
Go to Jesus because he restores you completely. At the end of the gospel of John, we get this beautiful scene where the resurrected Christ meets with Peter again. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Three times - once for each betrayal. And Jesus reinstates Peter as a minister of the gospel - “Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Peter, in his abject failure, was restored by Jesus.
Fellowship with Jesus is restored immediately upon repentance.
Isn’t this a precious truth? You don’t need to beat yourself up long enough. You don’t need to mope around. I sometimes imagine that if Jesus were here, he’d grab some us by the chin, lift up our downcast faces, and say, “Look at me. You are forgiven. It’s done. I do not hold your sins against you! I do not count your failures! Stop acting like I am counting all your failures!”
Go to Jesus because he gives strength for future victory. Listen to Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:8 “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
This sentence is packed with superlatives. All grace. All sufficiency. In all things. At all times. Why? So that we may abound in every good work. Memorize that verse, live and breathe that verse, and never stop looking to Christ for the daily grace you need.
Church, we’ve all experienced failure. We might be in the middle of it. We might be on the brink of it. It might be in our past. Let’s make our church a place where failures can receive grace, forgiveness, and help in the name of Jesus Christ. One sure sign that we are growing in grace is that we are more free to confess our failures to one another, and more eager to help up our failing brothers and sisters.