Last year, about this time, my family and I went through a season of visiting many doctors for many reasons, the most notable of which concerned my dad, who was then, and is now, battling stage four stomach cancer. While dad’s faith has been strong throughout the ups and downs of this process, and while there is much to learn and be encouraged by as one watches his prerogative of worship, submission, hopefulness, and trust, he is not without practical advice to give. I can remember being with him in the hospital shortly after his diagnosis and listening to him tell another brother-in-Christ that one of the takeaways that he wanted to pass on to others was simply this – be diligent with getting your check-ups. Just about any sphere of medical practice will agree with the statement – early detection is key. If you catch something in its initial stages you’re in a much better position to avoid a bigger problem later on. It can be like that spiritually-speaking as well.
Failure doesn’t usually just show up out of nowhere. There’s usually a declension before there’s a disaster. There’s usually a drifting before there is a demonstrative defeat. Before Lot was in the city gate of Sodom he pitched his tent towards the city. Before David sinned with Bathsheba, he was on his rooftop during the time in which kings went to war. And likewise with Peter, before there was the failure found in Luke 22:54-62; namely, the three increasingly vociferous denials of the Lord, there were the warning signs found in previous passages.
When, for instance, Jesus predicted that He would be killed and raised to life three days later, Peter took Him aside, rebuked Him, and said, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to you!” (Mt. 16:22). You know you’re not in a good place spiritually when you feel it’s your responsibility to correct Jesus. Peter’s ill-spoken rebuke earned him a heartier one of his own. Jesus said, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (vs.23). Though Peter was not possessed by Satan, his admonition nonetheless reflected Satanic thinking. And the tempter still had Peter, along with the other apostles, in his crosshairs. On the night that Jesus was to be betrayed, He spoke to Peter saying, “Indeed, Satan has asked for you [plural], that he may sift you as wheat but I have prayed for you…” (Lk. 22:31b-32a), but that wasn’t all Jesus said. He told Peter, “And when you have returned…” (v.32b emphasis added) which implied that Peter would fall. This was a moment where Peter’s impetuousness ought to have given way to caution and contrition, but instead he sought to correct what he perceived to be Jesus’ mis-assessment with his own overestimate: “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death” (vs.33).
Similarly in Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus predicted that all of His disciples would stumble in fulfillment of Zechariah 13:7, Peter said, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble” (Mt. 26:33). And then after Jesus predicted Peter’s denials (vs.34), Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” (vs.35). Pride is a precursor to failure – let him who stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12). Then, shortly before the moment of Jesus’ arrest, despite Jesus’ warnings, Peter is found repeatedly sleeping while he should have been praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:39,45), and when he awoke he hastily struck the high priest’s servant with the sword (Jn. 18:10).
So, by way of an abbreviated summary: Peter had an overestimation of his ability; on multiple occasions he heard Jesus speaking without really hearing what He said and rather than humble himself under Jesus’ word he was repeatedly quick to self-defend; and finally, he was slumbering when he should have been praying, slow to wait, and, at times, too quick to act. It was that declension that precedes the well known failure of Luke 22:54-62.
Now Peter’s story does not end with his failure – which is good news to all of us who are well aware of our past failures and present frailty. The control and compassion of Jesus within a passage like Luke 22:54-62 would be but a prelude to the pursuing grace illustrated in Mark 16:7 and the restoration and recommission Peter received in John 21. There is, then, good news for failures like Peter and us. But learning from Peter’s past could keep us from repeating it. You might say that the latter part of the story reminds us of the blessed reality of the second half of 1 John 2:1 – “if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” while the preventive instruction we receive by tracing the path to failure reminds us of the first half – “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin.” So, then, let us not only be comforted but instructed. If the ship of your life is drifting from the shore of obedience it’s often easier to get back while you are fifty feet away as opposed to when you are five hundred yards away. Early detection of spiritual declension is an important part of failure prevention. It doesn’t mean the tires of your spiritual life won’t get slow leaks that need to be continuously plugged, but it is a safeguard against a dangerous blowout.