Jesus’ Love for Deniers

Jessica Thompson
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You are probably familiar with the story of Peter denying Christ. But for those of you who need a refresher, let me set the scene. Peter had been following Christ as one of His disciples for years. He was one of the first Christ called to Himself: “As he was walking along the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter), and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. ‘Follow me,’ he told them, ‘and I will make you fish for people. ‘Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matt. 4:18-20). From that early moment by the seashore when Christ first called Peter, Peter had followed Jesus faithfully—until the moment we will look at now. Peter loved Jesus. He prided himself on the fact that he was committed to Christ. So what went wrong? How did Peter get to the point where he denied knowing his teacher, whom he loved? Let’s take a look at what led up to this moment.

The Last Supper

 Jesus had served His disciples Communion. He warned them about His body being broken and His blood being shed. He had washed His disciples’ feet, humbling Himself and attempting to prepare their hearts. Jesus had talked with them about what actually makes a human great—that serving and loving, giving and sacrificing, are what lay in store for those who choose His way. Jesus showed them the stark difference between what the world counts as strong and what would be required of them as followers of Christ.

“Grace will have the last word.”

The gospel of Luke narrates how Jesus turns His loving preparation to focus on Peter. Even before Peter commits the act of denial, Jesus demonstrates His tenderness by endeavoring to help Peter understand what was coming: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). How astonishing! Before Jesus predicts that Peter will deny Him and before the denial takes place, Jesus tells Peter He is praying Jesus lets Peter know that Satan and judgment won’t have the last word. Grace will have the last word.

Grace will have the last word.

Jesus not only foresees Peter’s denial, but He also foresees Peter’s restoration. He calmly refers to “when you have turned back.” Peter can’t even imagine that he will have to turn back from anything or that his faith will fail for any reason, so he ostentatiously proclaims, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death” (v. 33). Jesus predicts Peter’s failure, and Peter counters Jesus’ prediction with a promise of unwavering devotion. Jesus responds, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” (v. 34 NIV). Jesus’ statement is so devastatingly matter-of-fact. “No, Peter. You will not fight to the death. You will cower; you will deny. And the sound of a simple animal will be what brings you to your senses and to your knees.”

The Fire

The predicted denials come, to be sure:

Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:54-62 NIV)

We’d like to think that Peter had a moment of weakness, that somehow he forgot himself for just a second, that he was scared, that he wasn’t thinking straight. But perhaps the truth of the matter is that Peter was finally expressing what he had deeply feared or felt all along. Maybe he finally came clean with himself and those around him. His confession, “I don’t know him,” was true. Peter didn’t really know Jesus. He didn’t yet really know forgiveness; he didn’t really know grace. Peter was addicted to achieving. He loved to be the one right next to Jesus. He was outspoken in his devotion to Him. Peter was confident of his commitment to Christ. He didn’t really understand that Christ’s commitment to Peter was ultimately all that mattered. God’s covenant toward Peter is what kept Peter close, not his own willpower. Peter really didn’t know Jesus, but he was about to be introduced very soon. With the heat of shame burning in his face, Peter stood by the fire and called down curses just to prove to all those who could hear him that he was not a follower of Christ. Then the rooster called him out. And Peter went outside and wept bitterly.

“Peter came to the end of himself. He came to the end of his own good opinion of himself.”

Peter came to the end of himself. He came to the end of his own good opinion of himself. He came to the end of achieving. Later in life, Peter would have to repeatedly return to this death of self, but this first time was bitter indeed. I am sure you have felt the bitterness of being disappointed with yourself. I know I have. Why would I do that? Why would I say that? Why would I react like that? are words to the tune of an old song we are all familiar with. I really thought I was better than that. Peter thought he was better, and we think we are better than that as well. But the truth is we are denying sinners in need of a faithful Savior. The astonishingly lovely fact is that we have access to that Faithful Savior. Our access—our acceptance by Him—isn’t based on our faithfulness; it’s based on His.

The Look

At this worst moment in Peter’s life, Jesus was right there: “Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:60–61 NIV).

What an absolute gut punch! In the middle of Peter’s denial, Jesus turns and looks at Peter. Though Jesus knew Peter’s every fault, Jesus chooses to look at him. Jesus doesn’t choose to ignore or to break the relationship. He reminds Peter that He sees, and I can’t imagine this look being anything but a look of love. Jesus isn’t surprised by Peter’s denial or sin. Jesus knew this was coming and had already told Peter He was praying for him. Christ’s look of love draws Peter. The same love that drew Peter from the Sea of Galilee and a life of fishing draws him yet again. But this time Peter knows that he has failed and that he will not follow Jesus “to prison or to death.” Peter runs. He weeps. He is undone.

But this isn’t the end of the story.

The Restoration

Remember how Jesus referred Peter to a time “when you have turned back”? Jesus doesn’t leave Peter alone with his crushing disappointment with himself.

[Jesus] revealed himself in this way .. . When daybreak came, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not know it was Jesus. “Friends,” Jesus called to them, “you don’t have any fish, do you?” “No,” they answered. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat,” he told them, “and you’ll find some.” So they did, and they were unable to haul it in because of the large number of fish. The disciple, the one Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tied his outer clothing around him (for he had taken it off) and plunged into the sea. Since they were not far from land (about a hundred yards away), the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish. . . . “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus told them. . . . When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs,” he told him. A second time he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.” “Shepherd my sheep,” he told him. He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved that he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. ( John 21:1, 4-8, 12, 15-17)

There is a lot of speculation about why Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him and a lot of commentary about the different Greek words used in this back-and-forth conversation. The Lord has so plainly orchestrated Peter’s faith journey! The Gospels display many interesting patterns in the relationship between Peter and Jesus. Jesus initially called Peter by the sea after a fishing session, and Jesus calls him back here again by the sea after a fishing session. The only two times a charcoal fire is mentioned is the one when Peter is denying Jesus, and the breakfast fire, where Jesus is restoring Peter. Peter denies Jesus three times; Peter says He loves Christ three times. All these earlier interactions seem to lead to this important moment, though, when Jesus asks Peter for the third time, “Do you love me?” Peter is grieved, and he says this: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And there it is: Peter’s confession. In effect, Peter is saying, “You know everything! You know how weak I am. You know I denied You. You know I did the very thing I promised I wouldn’t do when I said, ‘If all fall away from You, I won’t. I will go to prison or even die for You.’ But Lord, You also know I do love You. My love is feeble, but You know it is there.” This is what I want you all to see. Jesus does know. He knows the fickleness of our hearts. He knows we are fully committed to Him one day and then wonder if He even cares the next day, or maybe that happens minute to minute.

“Denier, He cares for you and loves you and will use you to love others.”

But look how Jesus responded to Peter! Jesus doesn’t tell Peter, “Listen, Peter, you made a huge mistake. I am going to need you to work on your devotion to Me before I am willing to use you.” No, Jesus just tells Peter to get to the work of loving his neighbor and taking care of those around him: “The fact that Peter was clearly forgiven by Jesus and given new responsibilities, amounting to apostleship, despite his total denial of his Lord, can give genuine hope to Christians today who feel that they have denied Jesus and that this is unforgiveable. He calls only for our repentance and our love.”

Beloved, the level of your devotion isn’t what makes God faithful to you or makes Him keep loving you. He is and always will be a faithful God to His people. This issue is never first our love for Christ, but rather His love for us. His love causes love.

Denier, He cares for you and loves you and will use you to love others.

For Further Reading:

He Loved Them

by Jessica Thompson

Downcast, Dejected—even the Dead—find themselves in the wake of Jesus’ love. Just who exactly did Jesus love? Author Jessica...

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