From The Second Half of the Cross
“Being confident of this very thing, that he who hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6)
One of the lessons we can learn from the life of Peter is that while Jesus is hanging on the cross, Peter’s self-reliance in his own abilities to serve Jesus were nailed to the cross as well. Peter has the courage to face the mob in the Garden of Gethsemane, and is willing to fight using physical force to protect Jesus, because an unruly mob of common folk is on his own social peer level. Peter is comfortable and self-confident in a good brawl with fists, clubs, and swords (Jn 18:10). Peter is not afraid of this motley group accompanying Judas to arrest Jesus.
But later Peter painfully discovers in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest, that he is overawed and intimidated by the surroundings of these powerful and important men. Peter bitterly discovers that he cannot even muster the courage to acknowledge Jesus to people standing around a fire in the courtyard, even though only hours before he was willing to fight to the death to save Jesus.
With all of the previous trust and responsibility that Jesus had placed in Peter, at the critical moment Peter’s own strength failed him. In this first real test on his own, in the stress of the situation, Peter momentarily forgot all about resting and relying upon the Holy Spirit for spiritual wisdom, direction, and strength.
Yet this bitter defeat of Peter’s came as no surprise to Jesus. Jesus knows about the power of the cross to transform human nature from self-led to Spirit-led, because Jesus Christ created people. Jesus knew that Peter’s self-confidence had to be put to death on the cross in order for the power of God to work through Peter. Jesus knew that Peter had to experience the bitter defeat of relying upon his own abilities, in Peter’s first introduction into individual spiritual combat. Peter had to learn this lesson in the courtyard of Caiaphas the High Priest, where it really did not matter, so that he would not similarly fail later when it did matter in front of the entire assembled body of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:5-22).
In Matthew 26:33 Peter says: “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.” Here Peter is separating himself from the other disciples, as if he is above them in terms of fidelity and commitment. These words coming out of Peter’s mouth reveal an elevated opinion of himself, exclusive and special above everyone else. Peter has unwittingly set himself up for his personal fall.
To be of any use in the kingdom of Jesus Christ, Peter has to be a vessel empty of self so that he can be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. As Peter (probably) looks from afar at Jesus hanging on the cross, Peter experiences the crushing defeat of human self-effort to live for God. But the part that died within Peter is the part that is supposed to die when we look at Jesus on the cross.
The part of our spiritual make-up that has to be crucified when we look at the cross is our self-in-control nature. The whole of Peter did not die on account of the crucifixion of Jesus. The better part of Peter, humbled and stripped of pride, survived to go on to faithfully and correctly serve God for the remainder of his life.
After the utter failure in the courtyard of Caiaphas, Peter went out and wept bitterly, because his way did not work. Peter believed he had failed Jesus, because he was not aware of another option. Peter could not clearly see the upcoming resurrection three days later. Peter was partially unaware of God’s alternate, higher way. Like the other apostles, Peter did not fully understand the words of Jesus regarding His crucifixion and resurrection, as they traveled toward Jerusalem for the last time (Mk. 10:32-34; Lk. 18:31-33).
Peter wept bitterly over the failure of his own way to commendably protect Jesus, according to the natural realm of thinking, because at that point in his Christian career Peter was ignorant of God’s ways regarding the cross applied to Peter’s life. How could Peter know this fully ahead of time? The events of the cross and the resurrection were occurring in real time in-the-moment. After the resurrection it all made sense in hindsight. Peter’s well-intentioned, self-generated plan to physically protect Jesus from harm, otherwise commendable in every way, had to give place to the higher ways of God in Peter’s life from this critical time forward.
Even though Jesus told the disciples upfront what was about to happen in the coming few weeks ahead, Peter could not see beyond his own ideas and plan. The exceedingly good news here is that the faithfulness and loving kindness of God toward Peter and all of the disciples transcended far above whatever they were thinking as they viewed, from afar, Jesus hanging on the cross on Calvary Hill. God’s ways, in this matter of the cross, were not only higher but infinitely better beyond reckoning.
We see the new, transformed Peter on the day of Pentecost, when Peter is among the other disciples in the upper room, as they are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin speaking with other tongues. Peter stands up physically and spiritually, and steps into the destiny of his life, as he boldly addresses the people and proclaims the gospel message that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
Weeks later, before the Sanhedrin, after the crippled man is miraculously healed at the gate of the temple, Peter speaks with such clarity, power, and conviction to the rich and powerful men assembled there, the very people he used to be in terror of, that even these members of the Sanhedrin were impressed with the courage and boldness of Peter and John.
In the beautiful and instructive example of this life-changing transformation in Peter, we see the contrast between our ways and God’s ways. In his own strength, Peter cannot marshal enough courage during the intimidating circumstances of Jesus’ midnight trial, to acknowledge his relationship with Jesus to even an informal group of common people gathered around a small fire in the courtyard of Caiaphas. Peter is experiencing what Christians today popularly call an “Ishmael”…the ill-fated doom of all self-generated plans that proceed without the advance council or participation of God. This is better articulated in another common saying: “Whatever man does without God will fail miserably, or succeed even more miserably.”
But then watch what God does next in this divinely salvaged story of Peter’s fall and recovery. After the events of the resurrection of Jesus and the Day of Pentecost, Peter is now fully restored and correctly following the leading of the Holy Spirit as he was trained. As Peter and John are walking into the temple early in the morning to pray for the strength and inspiration to fulfill their new responsibilities as leaders of the new Christian church, they perceive through the Spirit that God intends to heal the crippled man asking for alms.
Through a cascade of quickly unfolding events, this time engineered by Jesus Christ, Peter shortly finds himself not being challenged by a small group of common people standing around a fire in the courtyard of Caiaphas, but instead ably defending himself before the entire assembled body of the all-powerful, ruling Sanhedrin council. In this second challenge arranged and empowered exclusively by the Holy Spirit, and not by his earlier inadequate self-effort in the courtyard, Peter successfully comes through this time with incredible Holy Spirit boldness in acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah.