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Peter's Denial

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Dec 19, 1999

Matthew 26:69-75

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 26, the 69th verse of that chapter, as we come now to the end of this passage, which we have said all along is preparatory to the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every event recorded by Matthew, in Matthew, chapter 26 prepares us for what we are going to see in Matthew, chapter 27 on the day of our Lord’s crucifixion. It sets the stage and such is the case with the passage we are studying today.

Let me just say as you are turning to the end of Matthew 26, you can’t understand the passage which is before us now if you don’t remember what we learned in Matthew 26, verses 30 through 35. If you’d look at those verses just briefly, I’ll remind you. You remember that after the institution of the Lord’s Supper and after the disciples had left the upper room and made their way out to the Mount of Olives, that Jesus had turned to the disciples in verse 31 and said: “You will all fall away because of Me this night.” And then He gave them scriptural proof for that particular reality. And you will remember that the disciples and particularly Peter argued with the Lord Jesus Christ, contending with Him, suggesting that He was mistaken. In verse 33, Peter’s answer is recorded for us. He says, “Even though all may fall away because of you.” In other words, even though these guys may fall away, I’ll never fall away. And so the Lord Jesus gently, but firmly, reiterates. In fact He specifies with Peter. He says, Peter, let me tell you something. Before the sun rises, you’re going to deny me three times. And Peter’s response is recorded in verse 35. “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.” And then we’re told by Matthew all the disciples said the same thing, too.

Now remembering that is crucial for your understanding of what the Lord lays before us in verses 69 through 75 because there is recorded the sad, but true story of the triple denial of Jesus by His disciple, Peter. And this is God’s holy word. Let’s attend to it.

Matthew 26:69-75

“Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a certain servant girl came to him and said, ‘You too were with Jesus the Galilean.’ But he denied it before them all, saying, ‘I do not know what you are talking about.’ And when he had gone out to the gateway, another servant girl saw him and said to those who where there. This man was with Jesus of Nazareth. And again he denied it with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ And a little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Surely you too are one of them; for the way you talk gives you away.’ Then he began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know the man!’ And immediately a cock crowed. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, ‘Before a cock crows, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.”

Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we bow before You, and we marvel at the suffering of our Lord and the infidelity of His disciples; but we recognize in this a word for us, for it is the weakness of our flesh to which Your word of truth is addressed. We pray this day as we read this word, as we comprehend a passage which is very familiar to so many of us that you would speak directly to our hearts, applying Your word by the work of the Holy Spirit to our own situation, to our own attitude. May our hearts be open for its rebuke and comfort. And O Lord, if any comes this day, without a love for the Lord Jesus Christ, without a saving relationship by faith with Him who is the Messiah, the Son of God, we pray that the very display of His suffering and His love, would be used by You to draw them to Christ. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

It’s been particularly helpful to me, and I might also add that it’s been particularly convicting for me as I have worked through the preparation for this series to sense the jarring juxtaposition between these passages about the suffering and soon the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. And this particular season of the year, I like to write my sermons with hymns and songs playing in the background. And about the middle of November I’ve got carols going pretty steadily, and to feel the juxtaposition between these happy songs about the glorious birth of our Savior and this vision of the humiliation of our Savior is stirring. And it’s been convicting. And it reminds us again why it’s so important to work through books of the Bible in the way that God has given them.

You know, what preacher in his right mind would preach on Matthew 26 and 27 during Christmas? And yet that very process of working through this book has allowed us to see something that we might not see if we were simply attending to the major themes of the season, or to the things which sentiment brings to mind. For by working through Matthew 26 at this time we are being forced to reckon with the fact that the Savior who was born at the announcement of angels, came to die, and not only to die but to die in the most horrendous isolation and in the context of the betrayal of his dearest friends.

And it helps us to look at that child in the manger in a way that we would never look at Him to remember precisely those things. We would be bereft of those glorious coincidences between His death and His birth if we only work through the themes and topics of the season. And so today we come face to face with a passage which speaks of our weakness in sin, and it speaks of the agony of our Savior. But thank God it also speaks in an inexpressible and quite a unique way of the love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I’d like to look at it with you twice. I’d like to go over the same verses two times from different perspectives.

As we look at verses 69 through 75 the first time, I want you to consider Peter and his performance here and to learn the lessons that flow from it. And then I want you to consider Christ Himself. And ask yourself how did Peter’s actions impact Him and how did He react to them and what are the lessons that flow there from?

I. We must never forget our weakness apart from the grace of God nor the exceeding sinfulness of sin.

So as we look at this passage today, first let’s focus on Peter and his actions and the lessons that flow from them. Friends we must never, ever forget our weakness apart from the grace of Christ, nor the exceeding sinfulness of sin. This passage records for us one of the saddest, one of the most brutal sins of all of our disciples’ experiences. Peter denies the Lord Jesus Christ three times, and his denial is all the more poignant in light of what Matthew has already told you in Matthew 26. Turn all the way back to verse 31 and let me just walk you through a few of the things that Matthew has told you. Matthew has already told you that Christ has predicted that His disciples will desert Him in verse 31. In verse 33 Peter has responded to the word of our Lord Jesus Christ with a very inappropriate and contradictory assertion. No, Jesus, you’re wrong. Then Matthew very patiently and carefully records for us in verse 34 Christ’s subsequent reiteration. He says, let Me say this one more time. And then He points it right at Peter, and He says, Peter, this is for you. Before the night is out you’re going to deny Me three times.

And then again Matthew records for us in verse 35 Peter’s arrogant and spontaneous and emphatic boast to the contrary. You’re wrong, Jesus, if I have to die with You, I’ll never deny You. And Matthew leaves that there. But look at verses 36 through 45. Matthew takes you right into the garden, and Peter is among those three disciples that Jesus calls out and says come with me and pray. And what do those three disciples do? They sleep; Jesus prays. He gets up, and He comes back to them. He says, friends, you have no idea what you’re getting ready to face this night. Please pray with Me. He goes back; He prays. He gets up again. He comes back and they’re asleep. He says, friends, you have no idea what you’re up against tonight. Please pray with Me. He goes back; He prays. He goes back and prays. He comes back again, and they’re still asleep, and our Savior says, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Behold the hand of the one who betrays Me is here. And so He gets them up from their sleep, and they’re prayerlessness, and Matthew shows you this and don’t forget that. We’ll come back to it in a few moments. So we see here in verses 36 through 45 Peter’s failure to pray, and his failure to prepare in Gethsemane.

And then Matthew in the passage we’ve just read, in verses 69 and in verse 71, makes it clear that Peter is not facing some high-powered government official who’s slamming him against the wall and demanding of him, are you one of the disciples, and if you are I’m going to kill you on the spot. Two servant girls sort of in passing, say, aren’t you one of His disciples? So Matthew highlights for you the apparent frailty of those by whom Peter felt so threatened. Remember this is the man who just a few moments before cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. Now he’s trembling as two servant girls ask him his identity.

And then finally, Matthew shows you in verse 69, 71 and 73 the apparent mildness of the threat that Peter perceived. There were apparently no bodily threats, there were no promises of Him being imprisoned, just inquiries. Yes, Peter was in a compromised, he was in a potentially dangerous situation. Nevertheless there were no overt threats. All of this provides the context of Peter’s denial. And in fact, all these things heighten the tremendous betrayal of Peter. Now let’s not forget that Peter had shown enough courage to at least follow the Lord Jesus at a distance. But, let’s also remember that when he got inside the gate of that courtyard, he was overcome with fear; and he denied Christ three times. Let’s walk through the passage so that you don’t miss anything that’s happening here. .

Now let me just say in passing, you know that this account is recorded in all four gospels. This reminds you of this being something that the Lord does not want us to forget as His people. It’s recorded in all four gospels. And you may also know if you’ve sat in on a religion class at university that there are some differences in these accounts. And I’m not going to go through those differences. Let me just say two things. First of all those differences actually corroborate and sweeten and deepen this particular story. If you are interested in issues of harmonization in this passage, I would be happy to talk with you about them at any time. I’m not going to talk about them now.

Now let’s look through this passage beginning in verse 69. Here Peter enters into the courtyard of Caiaphas, the priest. A servant girl sees him there. She is, John tells us, the portress; she’s the woman who is in charge of keeping the gate, checking who’s coming in and coming out and keeping out any undesirables. And she spots Peter as he comes through as she says, you know, I think I’ve seen that man before. And when she gets off of her watch, she makes her way into the courtyard, and she walks up to Peter and she says, and we know this from what the other gospels say, that she said something to this effect: Aren’t you one of His disciples, you know, Jesus of Galilee? And Peter denies it. He denies it, if you look at his language in verse 70, by using a form of words which would have been used by a defendant in court to deny any knowledge of a crime. He says, “I do not know what you are talking about.” That’s Peter’s first denial.

Then in verse 71, we see Peter, now nervous. He’s been spotted once, he’s very self-conscious, he’s frightened about what’s happening to Jesus, and he’s probably frightened that some of the friends or colleagues of Malchus, the high priest’s servant whose ear he had cut off, might spot him and inflict bodily harm on him. And so he begins to make his way out to the gate, and a second servant girl spots him. Maybe she’s the second portress, that is, she’s the one who’s going to keep the gate after the first servant girl is off duty. And the first servant girl has said to her, you know, there’s this man in there that looks an awful lot like one of the disciples. Take a look at him. And sure enough, she walks up to Peter in the presence of others, and she says to them, isn’t this one one of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth?

And again Peter, for a second time, denies his association with Jesus. Look closely at verse 72. Notice that Peter does not even use Jesus’ name. “I do not know the man.” Peter won’t even put the word – the word – the name of his Lord on his lips. “I do not know the man.” And notice that this time he swears an oath. Now Peter is not using foul language here. This is not cussing, as we would say. He swears an oath. In other words, he says something like this. I swear by God that I do not know this man. He makes some sort of an oath. Now that would not have been considered reverent, religious conduct by anybody to whom Peter would have been talking. That would have been the kind of words that you would have expected from someone that was not very religious. Peter was not at his best. But he wasn’t cussing or using vulgar or foul language in our sense of that term. He was using a religious oath inappropriately. And, he was attesting to a lie.

Now in verse 73 finally some bystanders come up to him, and they confront him, and they again suggest that he is one of Jesus’ disciples; and they indicate that his Galilean accent has given him away. You know, it’s like the southern boy in Washington - they spot him a mile away. And so Peter emphatically denies his association with Christ here. He vehemently denies it. He not only swears an oath, he goes on to call down a curse upon himself. When it says that he began to curse and swear; again, this is not Peter speaking in a vulgar way. This is Peter again swearing an oath and now adding to it something like this: May God strike me dead if I am one of the disciples of Jesus Christ. He is swearing an oath that he doesn’t know Christ and he is calling down God’s curse upon him in case of his falsehood.

At that very moment, verse 75, at that very moment, the moment that those words had left his tongue, a rooster crowed, and Peter remembered the prediction of Jesus earlier that evening; and he leaves, and he weeps. And I’d like to walk you through that passage now, looking at it regarding the lessons that we can learn about our weakness and the sinfulness of sin from Peter. And then I’d like to look at it from the standpoint of what we learn from Christ in this passage.

And there are three or four things that I’d like you to see regarding our weakness apart from the grace of God and the sinfulness of sin.

The first thing here is to consider our weakness. Peter is the man who had once said you are the Christ, the son of the living God. Now listen to his profession. “I do not know the man.” If you think that you can stand on your own, God has given you a divinely inspired account of an apostle chosen by the Lord Jesus Christ who had professed the good profession who now denies that he even know the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter’s profession in this passage is a standing warning to us of our weakness apart from the grace of Christ.

But this passage is also a picture of sin. It shows us what sin is. Sin is betrayal. To sin is to rebel and to betray God Himself. Yes, I know this is a peculiarly acute sin, but in the end this is a picture of all sin because God has created us all. We are all his creations, and when we sin we betray Him, the one who loves us and who made us. And that’s exactly what Peter does here. He betrays his Lord. And it’s a truly humbling picture to think of this disciple, who had been given so much by our Savior, turning on Him in this way. J.C. Ryle describes it. “It was a great sin. We see a man who had followed Christ for three years who had been forward in professing faith and love towards him, a man who had received boundless mercies and loving-kindnesses and had been treated by Christ as a familiar friend. We see this man denying three times in a row that he knows Jesus. It was a sin committed under circumstances of great aggravation. Peter had been warned plainly of his danger, and he had heard the warning. He had just been receiving the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper from Jesus himself. And he had just been loudly declaring that though he died with Jesus, he would not deny him. And it was a sin committed under apparently small provocation. Two women make the remark that he was with Jesus, and then those who stood by say surely you are one of them. No threat seems to have been used, no violence to have been done. But it was enough to overthrow Peter’s faith. He denies Him before them all. It’s a truly humbling sight to see an apostle of Christ crumble like that.”

And then in this passage we see a picture of how you descend into sin. Matthew paints it for us vividly. First, Peter is overconfident. He’s self-confident. You’re going to deny Me. No, I’m not. He’s overconfident. Then, he’s prayerless. In the garden, does he pray? No. In the garden, does he watch? No. Where he should have been vigilant, he was negligent. Where he should have been prayerful, he was prayerless. So first he’s overconfident, and then he’s underprepared. He’s underprepared by watchfulness, he’s underprepared in prayer. And then he’s compromised. Suddenly, he’s in the company of unbelievers, and they begin challenging him on his relationship to Christ and in the context of his overconfidence and his underpreparedness, what happens? He falls.

Don’t miss Matthew’s lesson to us all. Matthew is trying to get across a very important point to every believer that we must watch in prayer and be consciously dependent upon the grace of Christ or we will fall to sin. If Peter can fall, you and I can fall.

And in this passage we see the inseparable connection between the unhappiness of sin and sin for the Christian. You know there’s no Christian who can be glib about sin. There’s no Christian who can say, oh well, you know the Lord will forgive me of that. Peter’s reaction of his realization of what he had done is a picture of the true believer’s response to sin. The true believer is never glib about sin, because sin in Christian experience rings misery. The Christian can’t be happy in sin anymore because he knows what it is. It’s betrayal.

J.C. Ryle has some wise words for us. “Let no man flatter himself that he may sin with impunity because David committed adultery, or because Peter denied Christ. No doubt these holy men sinned greatly, but they did not continue in their sins. And they repented greatly, they mourned over their falls, they mourned over their falls, they loathed and abhorred their own wickedness.” The bitter tears of Peter, or the picture of a Christian soul recoiling at its own sin. The true Christian can never be glib about sin again.

Now this passage shows us our weakness, it shows the sinfulness of sin, it shows us the pathway to sin, it shows us the unhappiness of sin, but let me say this passage also is a glorious proof of the inspiration of scripture. Now you say what in the world are you talking about now? Well, let me tell you what I’m talking about. If you were making up the key story for the foundation of a religion, you would never tell a story about how the key spokesman for that religion was a miserable failure and betrayed his master in the hour of his need. You would never make that up. And you would never record it not once, not twice, not three times, but four times in every main witness to the life of Christ. And that’s what we find here. This is a full-wart’s biography of Peter. God’s going to show you the weakness of Christ’s disciples, and in the end you’re going to see the glory and the strength of Christ because of it. Because this religion is not about them, it’s about Him, and what He does for them and in them. And so we must never forget our weakness apart from the grace of God or the sinfulness of sin.

II. We must never forget the pain that we have cause/cause Christ, nor the greatness and constancy of His love.

But this passage also shows us something else. I asked you to look at it from the standpoint of Peter. What he did. Now I’d like you to focus on Christ, on how what Peter did impacted Him. On how He reacted to what Peter had done. And I’d like you to learn these lessons. I never, ever want you to forget the pain that Peter caused Christ. And subsequently, the pain that we cause Christ. And I never, ever want you to forget the greatness and constancy of Jesus’ love in spite of it. J.I. Packer once said that “the secret of soul-fatting Bible study is to ask not the question what does this verse say to me, but to ask rather what does this passage teach me about my God? I’d like to propose that we ask that question of this passage regarding Christ. And I’d like you to see two things.

First of all, I’d like you to focus on the suffering which Christ endured because of Peter and the cost to Christ because of Peter’s action. And then I’d like you to see the glorious love of Christ. Just two things.

First, let’s look at the suffering which Christ endured. Do you realize how Peter’s denials wounded the heart of the Savior? Luke tells us explicitly what Matthew hints at. Matthew not only tells us that Jesus predicted that Peter would deny Him, Luke tells us that Jesus knew that Peter was denying Him. He was conscious in this process of what Peter was doing. The wounds that Peter inflicted by that betrayal on Jesus at that moment, I propose to you were harder wounds than the wounds that the enemies of Jesus had inflicted. I say that because the Psalmist in Psalm 55, verses 12 through 14, a thousand years before this night said some very interesting words. Look what he says. The Psalmist says “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me, then I could bear it. Nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against Me. Then I could hide myself from him. But it is you, a man my equal, my companion, and my familiar friend, we who had sweet fellowship together and walked in the house of God in the throng.” And can you imagine the sense of isolation which must have flooded our Lord’s soul as He saw His disciple whom He had loved and had ministered to for three years, denying that he even knew Him while He was suffering for his sins.

And it’s not just the wounds to the heart of our Savior. You see, Peter’s denial wounds the reputation of Jesus, and it exposes Him to derision. And it gives an opportunity for His enemies to be cynical about Him. Can you imagine the hay that Jesus’ enemies could have made from this cowardly act of Peter’s denial. This irreverent and cowardly behavior of Peter gives an opportunity for the enemies of Jesus to reject and discount Him. They can say, well He must not have been much of a Messiah. Look at how His disciples crumbled in the face of a couple of servant girls asking Him questions. Some Messiah He is. All His disciples abandon Him. In the hour of His need, where were they? They were protecting their own hides. Jesus, in all of His ministry, was subjected to derision because of what Peter had done. And this adds to the agony of Christ in the hour of His death.

But that’s not the last word. No, the glorious love of Christ is displayed here in contrast to Peter’s failure in the midst of this sad scene. And I’d like to point you to one thing.

Remember how Christ displayed His love to Peter. First of all, He told him ahead of time that He was going to do this. And He did it because He loved Peter, and because He had plans for Peter, and because He was not going to let go of Peter even when Peter let go of Him. Jesus told Peter twice ahead of time that he would deny Him.

Secondly, Jesus did something extremely helpful, in fact, necessary for Peter. He told Peter something which indelibly linked the crowing of the rooster with the word of Jesus. Do you remember that Jesus told Peter that before the night was out, he would deny Him three times. Before the cock crew, he would deny Him three times. So that when that cock crowed, we read in Matthew, that Peter remembered the words of Jesus. Now why did He do that? Because Jesus had already implanted in his mind the connection between the crowing of that cock and His words. You know the early church fathers said that Peter, for the rest of his life, could not hear a cock crow without his tears welling in his eyes. Jesus had implanted the link of that illustration, and it was that which reminded Peter of the thing that he needed to remember, and that was the words of Jesus Christ. But that’s not all.

Jesus’ matchless love was displayed yet again. Turn in your Bibles to Luke 22, verse 61. And as you turn there listen to this quote from William Hendriksen: “From Luke 22:61, we gather that at the very moment when the rooster crowed, someone is looking into Peter’s eyes. Jesus. Jesus is looking at Peter. When the third denial rolls off of his lips, the Savior is looking at Peter. It’s Jesus. His face likely still covered with spittle and black and blue because of the blows He has received. It seems that the Master, His trial ended, is being led across the court to His prison cell from which in a few hours He will emerge to face the Sanhedrin at daybreak.”

B.B. Warfield says to us that “Our Savior, as He stood giving account in His trial, working for the saving of the world had time to turn a meaningful glance to His failing disciple. And so save Him in the saving of the world, because the Lord Jesus was not going to let go of Peter; though Peter had let go of Him.”

Now you’re sitting there at Christmas and you’re saying you need someone to love you. Well, let me propose that you need someone to love you like the Lord Jesus Christ. Someone with that kind of self-denying love, someone with that kind of commitment, someone to save your soul from your sin. Both from that which you hate and that which you love. Someone who will love you ferociously. And there’s only one who loves that way. And He stands before you with a bruised face, looking at His failed disciple. Do you know that glance? I do. May you in His grace know that glance today if you’ve never known it before. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we need the look of Christ that joins to our hearts the word of truth that brings us to repentance and faith who will not let His people go. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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