A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on March 7, 2021.
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor. Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me” (Matthew 26:69-7:10).
Following the last Passover, and the first Eucharist, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn, likely one of the Hallel psalms, and then hiked up the Mount of Olives, arriving at the Garden of Gethsemane. Despite the abrupt departure of Judas Iscariot, it had likely been a joyous and worshipful evening. It was Israel’s high feast after all, a time of year rich with tradition and celebration. But in the garden, Jesus’ mood grew somber. He would later confess to being “sorrowful and troubled” (Matt. 26:37).
The weight of the moment would lead Jesus deeper into solitary, earnest prayer. But first, he tells his disciples what is to come, in fact on that very night: “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matt. 26:31). But that’s not all he tells them. He also tells them of the surety of his resurrection, but they aren’t listening. What Jesus has said seems incredulous, but Peter takes it as a personal challenge, saying, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt. 26:33). Such devotion seems worthy of reward, doesn’t it? But instead, Jesus tells Peter the unimaginable, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (Matt. 26:34).
Who doesn’t love to see death-defying resolve? When faced with an insurmountable challenge, we cheer for the one who will not give up. If you had been there that night and didn’t know the rest of the story, when Peter said, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matt. 26:35), you would have cheered him on. He is determined to be the last man standing. And so, we watch with anticipation. Is Jesus right, or will Peter’s will power stand strong? We get our glimpse in the garden: One hour into prayer and Peter is sound asleep, sleep so deep that Jesus must wake him three times. So much for Peter’s resolve.
It is fascinating how much confidence we put in the flesh, despite its consistent, losing record. As Jesus said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41), but it doesn’t keep us from thinking one day the flesh will have its day. It’s why the largest religion in the world is self-help reformation, despite ongoing evidence of its fallacy, and it is why Peter would rather argue with the Word of Christ than listen.
Confidence in the flesh can also lead to irrational acts of so-called religious devotion, like bringing a knife to a gang fight; or worse, wielding it wildly enough to maim one, leaving the rest ready to rumble. Perhaps it was in that moment that Peter came to his sobered senses, a fight or flight moment, and he wasn’t going to win the fight. Maybe the living Word was right. He was: “Then,” the Scripture says, “all the disciples left him and fled” (Matt. 26:56).
But we don’t lose track of Peter. Matthew helpfully provides several sightings of the disciple. First, after Jesus’ arrest, Peter is spotted following at a distance. He then finds a seat with the guards in Caiaphas’ courtyard, watching and listening to Jesus’ trial. But once the verdict is delivered and Jesus is sentenced to death, Peter too is exposed. Up to this point, Peter has avoided recognition, stealthily observing the unimaginable unfold. He may be hiding, but he has not been denying; that is, until one curious little girl comes along.
Have you noticed how much confidence you have in your flesh when you’re not in the heat of the moment? When you are “in control,” you would never think of sinning against the Lord. And then something happens, and as if a switch is flipped, you think things you would never think, you say things you would never say, you do things you would never do. And in that moment, you are reminded that your flesh is alive and well.
For Peter, the switch was an accusation: “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” The accusation is true, but Peter denies it. The one who that same night confidently pledged his allegiance to Jesus, even unto death, now doesn’t know him.
Of course, we thank God for second chances, and Peter gets his. Perhaps making his getaway, Peter is recognized again, ironically by another little girl who is not merely curious but observant, factually stating, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” That which was alleged by one is now confirmed by another, two witnesses of one disciple. But Peter is emphatic, swearing that he does not know “the man,” unwilling to even name the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:9).
At this point, it seems inevitable, doesn’t it? He has denied Jesus twice, and we anticipate a third. This time it is his accent. Better to be thought a disciple than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. But Peter will not be entrapped. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Peter is desperate, cursing either himself or more probably Jesus and denying “the man,” who would die for his sin upon the cross. Not once, not twice, but thrice Peter denied the Lord, just as he said he would do. And then the rooster crowed.
It really is hard to believe that earlier that same night Peter confidently pledged his allegiance to Jesus, even unto death. What changed? Peter went from watching Jesus preach, teach, and work miracles, actively serving as his disciple, to witnessing his swift trial and death sentence. Peter’s circumstances changed significantly, from follower to felon, once known as a disciple, now guilty by association. Sadly, circumstances lead many to question their faith or even deny the Lord, but the Christian life is not circumstantial.
When the rooster crowed, Peter was no less a disciple, no less a child of God. He was also humbled, realizing that everything he had resolved resulted in failure. Remembering Jesus’ words, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times,” Peter was devastated.
The Scripture says that upon remembering Jesus’ words “he went out and wept bitterly,” a short description heavy with significance. Bitter are the tears that are shed when we are awakened to our sins. And yet, gracious is our Lord’s kindness which leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Peter weeps bitterly knowing his Lord was right. Such tears are akin to a lamentation, a soul-heavy grief. Sometimes there are no words to say, only weeping. While it may surprise some, the Bible actually helps us in our lamentation, giving us words for such grieving, expressing the agony of our sin.
Yet, despite such provision, we do not lament well. Why is this? Carl Trueman considers,
“Perhaps…[the Western church] has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing. A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party—a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is—or at least should be—all about health, wealth, and happiness corrupted the content of our worship? . . . In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of the expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?”
There is nothing embarrassing about weeping over sin. Would that God grant us the grace to lament our sin, to weep bitterly over it, like Peter.
In contrast to Peter and condemned by his conscience, Judas does not lament his sin, but he does change his mind. He does not return to the Lord in repentance, but he is remorseful. Perhaps witnessing Jesus’ sentencing by the Sanhedrin and delivery to the Roman governor sobered Judas. Whatever the case, he confesses, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood,” accompanying his word with deed. He returns the thirty pieces of silver.
Having told the truth and returned the bribe, he foolishly acts under the weight of his guilt: “he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” There were no bitter tears of repentance, only the hasty and irreversible act of a fool. Sadly, as Jesus said, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24).
You are not that man. No matter your past, no matter your sin, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ you have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of your trespasses, not based on what you have done but according to the riches of his grace (Eph. 1:7). You are not alone. In fact, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But the Good News is that we are justified as righteous before God by his grace as a gift, through our redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an atoning sacrifice by his blood, which we receive by faith (Rom. 3:24-25). Your story nor mine is found in the story of Judas but in the story of Peter, the one whom Christ delivered.
It may appear darkest just before dawn, but when the rooster grows it is morning. While the sun had not yet risen, the rooster’s crow awakened Peter to the reality of his fallen nature, evidenced in his denial of Jesus. “And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” But to remember the Word of Christ and lament is one thing, to wallow in guilt and self-pity is another. Like the rising sun that the rooster welcomes, God’s love and mercy to sinners like Peter, and you and me, never ends. Rightly did Jeremiah confess, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).
We do not hear of Peter again in Matthew’s narrative, except in the assembled eleven meeting with the resurrected Christ in Galilee. But in John’s Gospel we learn that after the crucifixion Peter was reunited with the other disciples and is one of the first to see the empty tomb (John 20:1-10). And it is on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias that Jesus confronts Peter. He has several questions for his disciple, beginning with: “do you love me more than these?” Jesus knows the answer, but Peter needs to say it: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” If love can be measured in passion, then Peter probably does love Jesus more than the other disciples, but that’s not the point. Jesus isn’t encouraging a comparison; he is helping him with a confession. And so he does, giving the commission: “Feed my lambs.”
A second time Jesus asks, “do you love me?” And a second time Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” receiving a second commission: “Tend my sheep.” But Jesus is not finished. There is a third question to be asked and a third confession to be made: “Do you love me?” Exasperated by the repetition, Peter declares, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:15-19). How many times must he confess his love for the Lord? How many times may we? Indeed, “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.” May we never grow weary of singing with the psalmist, “I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever” (Ps. 89:1).
Three times Peter denied his Lord, and three times the Lord reminded him of his love for the Lord. In Christ our identity rests not on our multitude of moral failures but upon the steadfast love and faithfulness of God in the finished work of our risen Lord. The rooster’s crow of our conviction is a divine mercy, revealing to us our sin, leading us to repentance, and restoring us to a right confession. So may our confession always be: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings On Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005), 159-60.