Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Warnings of Spiritual Disaster (John 18:15-18, 25-27)

Audio (Poor sound quality due to technical difficulties)

The famous English military and political leader Oliver Cromwell is remembered by many for his great successes, and by others for his great failures. It is almost universally agreed, however, that Cromwell was not a handsome man, nor did he claim to be. When Sir Peter Lely was commissioned to paint a portrait of Cromwell, he reportedly told the painter, “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”[1]

The Bible often portrays men and women in this same way: “warts and all.” Their heroic deeds are portrayed with honesty alongside of their disastrous failures. Of course, one of the most obvious examples of this is found in Simon Peter. Ask the average Christian what he or she knows of the Apostle Peter and you will not often hear them mention his powerful preaching in the early chapters of Acts, or his brilliant New Testament epistles. You will hear of of his denials of the Lord Jesus. Peter’s story, like those of so many others in Scripture, encourages us that our God uses ordinary men and women to accomplish extraordinary things in the world. Like Peter, we are all flawed and imperfect. So, as we read of his failures here, we are able to identify some warnings that, if heeded, may safeguard us from spiritual disaster. There are at least six of them that I hope to draw from our text.

The first of these warnings is this:
I.  Don’t follow Jesus from a distance (v15).

When I first began to drive, I was pulled over by a police officer one afternoon. He asked, “Do you know why I stopped you?” I hate that question. I knew I wasn’t speeding, I hadn’t crossed the center line, I’d signaled for my turns and lane changes. But, I’d been so paranoid about the police car behind me that I had failed to pay attention to how close I was to the car in front of me. I had not left one car length for every ten miles per hour. I learned a valuable lesson that day – it is dangerous to follow another car too closely. But in my spiritual life, the even more valuable lesson I have learned is that it is disastrous to follow Jesus too distantly.

Following Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter abandoned the Lord Jesus and fled along with the rest of the disciples (Matt 26:56). After the passage of some time, for reasons unknown to us, Peter decided to follow Jesus to the place of His interrogation at the High Priest’s residence. Verse 15 says that he was accompanied by “another disciple.” We will discover later that this is John’s way of obliquely referring to himself. But what John doesn’t tell us here is how Peter followed Jesus. The other Gospel writers are careful to disclose it though. Matthew 26:58 says that “Peter was following [Jesus] at a distance.” Luke 22:54 and Mark 14:54 say the exact same thing.

Throughout the Gospels, there is a recurring theme of following Jesus. His first call to His disciples was for them to come and follow Him. Jesus never glossed over or minimized the costs and risks involved in following Him. Following Jesus is dangerous business – potentially deadly, even. So there are always going to be those who follow, but not too closely; not so closely that they risk personal danger or inconvenience; not so closely as to be considered a fanatic or anything. There is a safe distance kept – from intimate prayer, from regular study of the Bible, from faithful church attendance, from opportunities to serve. They follow just close enough to be considered a follower by other followers, but far enough away to not be implicated by the world. If you are following Christ from a distance today, heed the warning of Peter’s example and close the gap. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” There may be danger, but it is better to face danger alongside of Jesus than to enjoy ease from a distance. When you follow Jesus, danger will come but disaster doesn’t have to. Don’t follow Jesus from a distance. 

Now we immediately find the second warning:
II. Don’t be ashamed of who you are (vv16-17).

Once upon a time in America, being a Christian was so culturally prized that even the non-Christians claimed to be Christians. Today, the tide has shifted and the cultural pressures are such that Christians find themselves often embarrassed, intimidated, or ashamed to claim their faith openly. But, when we look at the history of Christianity and the state of the global Church, we find that being a Christian has rarely been popular. Yet to such a culture, the followers of Christ are called to be vocal witnesses for Him. In our text, Peter had the opportunity to do that, and failed. 

Verse 15 says that the “other disciple” who was with Peter was known to the high priest. We have already said that this “other disciple” is John. John never refers to himself by name in this Gospel. He typically calls himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” In John 20, “the other disciple” and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” are used interchangeably to refer to the same individual. So, how did John know the high priest and his servants? It is at least plausible that John knew them from his father’s business. Before following Jesus, John worked in his father’s fishing enterprise, which was prominent enough to support the labor of hired servants. If, by virtue of his reputation as a leading fisherman, John’s father was the supplier of fish to the high priest’s home, it stands to reason that his father may have sent John to make deliveries. Whatever the case, he was known well enough to gain entrance to the courtyard, and to secure admission for Peter as well.

In verse 17, the girl who kept watch over the gate says to Peter as he enters, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” There may be a heavy dose of cynicism here, but it is not necessary to assume that there was hostility in her words. After all, she already knew John to be a follower of Jesus. Her question to Peter seems to be something along the lines of, “Oh no! Not another one!” If John could be known as a follower of Jesus in that courtyard without fear, then Peter could as well. But Peter wasn’t willing to be identified as a follower of Jesus. When asked if he was one of Christ’s disciples, he said, “I am not.”
All around us every day is a world filled with people who want to know, who need to know, whether or not you are a follower of Jesus. Sometimes they will come out and ask you, and other times they merely leave the door open for you to acknowledge it. Opportunities abound. Jesus was not ashamed to be identified with you when He bore your sins on the cross, so we must not be ashamed of who we are as followers of Christ when we bear scorn for Him in the world. Heed the warning of Peter: Don’t be ashamed of who you are.

We come to the third warning:
III. Don’t be too cozy with the world (vv18, 25).

In John 17, Jesus prayed for His followers, whom He said were “in the world.” He said that we have been “sent into the world,” and prayed that we would not be “taken out of the world.” But He also said very clearly in that prayer that His followers are not “of the world.” The Apostle John heard Jesus pray that prayer and it stuck with him. In his first epistle, John warns, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn 2:15-17). In the same letter, John says that the world does not know us because it did not know Christ, and he warns us to not be surprised if the world hates us (3:1, 13).

Throughout the New Testament, the world is described as being under the domain of the enemy, the devil. Those who are of the world walk in accordance with his purposes, at odds with the will and purposes of God, and at war with Jesus Christ. We see the world represented in the latter chapters of the Gospels by those forces which conspire to put the Lord Jesus to death. And sadly, here in our text, we find Peter alongside of them, warming himself by the charcoal fire that they have kindled in the courtyard. It is stated twice, in verses 18 and 25. Peter comes alongside of the enemies of Christ for warmth and comfort.  

The fires of this world are cozy and inviting. There’s warm companionship to be enjoyed by those fires, and a circle that will always be willing to widen to make room for you, as long as you don’t try to speak for Christ around that fire. As the circle of these officers widened to make room for Peter, they asked him, “You are not also one of His disciples, are you?” We can see Peter in our mind’s eye, jostling himself into their circle, as he says yet a second time, “I am not.” Had he told the truth, that circle would have shut on him as quickly as it had opened, and he would have been left out, cold, alone, isolated and outnumbered.

This is where Christians will often find ourselves standing, and a place that we must not be afraid to stand! The writer of Hebrews points us to Moses, who enjoyed all of the privileges that this world has to offer, but who by faith chose to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season (Heb 11:25). That fire that the world tends will provide warmth for a season, but that fire will die out, to be replaced by the fire of God’s judgment. There is no blessing of God found around the fires of this world. Peter knew the Psalms, and surely he knew the first words of the first Psalm: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicket, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” But here he was standing in the midst of them, warming himself by their fire.

We must heed the warning we see in Peter’s example. We are in the world, but not of it, and we find no comfort in the warmth of this world’s fires. We are in the world to be a witness for Christ to it. But if we become too cozy around the world’s fires, we will face a great temptation to be silent and even to deny the Lord, as Peter did.

We come to the fourth warning now:
IV. Don’t be afraid of confession.

It’s often said that the hardest people to reach for Christ are our closest friends and our family. Many of us have found that to be true, but why is it? One reason, I think, is that these people know us too well. They have seen us at our worst, and they are privy to our most humiliating failures. Because of this, we cower in silence before them, and if we speak, their ears are often dull to our message. We get a glimpse of that sort of thing with Peter here.

As he is enjoying the warmth of the fire, its glow provides a clearer image of his face. Immediately he is recognized by one who says, “Did I not see you in the garden with Him?” John says that this one who questioned him was a relative of the one whose ear Peter had cut off. Remember from verse 10 that as the mob encroached upon Jesus, Peter took up his sword and struck off the ear of a servant named Malchus. Peter can only imagine that the man must be plotting revenge for Malchus. Maybe he will draw the sword on Peter; maybe he will hand him over so that justice could be served upon him. And to save his own skin, Peter denies his relationship with the Lord Jesus a third time.

The world will often throw our past sins into our faces. And the easy thing to do is to cower in silent embarrassment and shame. But the easy thing to do is seldom the right thing to do. We must not be afraid of confession. When our sins are presented to our faces, we must be bold enough to say, “Yes, I did that. That was me. I am a sinner, and that is why I need the Lord Jesus to be my Savior.” That is what Peter could have done here. He could have said, “Yes, I am the one who cut off Malchus’ ear, but I remind you that the Lord Jesus, whom I serve, has the power to heal Malchus’ ear and to forgive me of my sin. He has already rebuked me for my impulsive act, and I have repented of it.” That may not have earned him the forgiveness of the crowd. They might have still killed him, but it would be better to die with a testimony for Christ on our lips than live by denying Him.

Confession is never easy, but it’s always right. When others remind us of our failures, we must take responsibility for them, whatever the consequences, and use the opportunity to testify to the grace of the Lord Jesus. Spiritual disaster looms whenever we are afraid to say of ourselves what God Himself says of us: that we are sinners who desperately need a Savior. Heed Peter’s warning, and do not be afraid of confession.

Now, fifthly, we want to enlarge the view and see the bigger picture of what precipitated Peter’s failure, and find a warning in it:
V. Don’t overestimate yourself (v27).

Most of us grew up hearing encouragement from our parents, teachers, and others who told us that we can be anything we want to be and do whatever we set our minds to. A little bit of that kind of confidence is healthy I suppose. Too much of it can be disastrous, especially in our spiritual lives. Throughout the Gospels we find in Peter a man who was overly confident of his own abilities, his own strength, and his own commitment to Christ. John MacArthur says of Peter that he had “a habit of revving his mouth while his brain was in neutral,” and calls him “the apostle with the foot-shaped mouth.”[2]

Peter had boasted to Jesus, “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death” (Lk 22:33). He said, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away. … Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You” (Mt 26:35). And just hours before this incident in the courtyard, Peter had said, “I will lay down my life for You” (Jn 13:37). But it was after this final assertion that Jesus said to Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times” (13:38). And John tells us, after the third denial, “immediately a rooster crowed.” The Lord’s prediction came flooding back into his memory, and Luke 22:62 says that Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” This brazen man became a broken man as the fa├žade of his self-confidence came crumbling down.

The Proverbs say that pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling (16:18). In 1 Corinthians 10:12, Paul puts it this way: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that does not fall.” Some of my closest friends over the years have shipwrecked their ministries and their marriages by sins of pride, greed, and lust. Leaders I have respected have been exposed in scandals more times than I care to remember. And I have to confess to you, every time I learn of another one, there is this surge of self-righteousness rising up within me, screaming, “I’m so much better than those guys! I could never do that!” But then I remember, every single one of those guys thought the same thing. By watching others around me fail and fall, I have been reminded often that there is no depth of evil that could not overtake me at any moment if I were to rest in my own strength and forsake the grace and empowerment of the Lord Jesus and His Spirit. Every single one of us must heed Peter’s warning to never overestimate ourselves. We must remember what the Lord Jesus said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Let us learn from Peter’s example, lest we become yet another example ourselves.

All of this brings us to the final warning:
VI. Don’t underestimate Jesus (v27).

The word “Gospel” means “Good News.” The Good News of Jesus Christ includes the bad news that we are fallen, frail, feeble creatures who are subject to frequent failure. We are inherently sinful. This bad news is what makes the Good News good! Because we are inherently sinful, we are desperately in need of a Savior, and Jesus has come to be the Savior we need! And just as surely as we must never overestimate ourselves, we must never, ever underestimate Him! You didn’t stop needing the Gospel once you came to faith in Christ. You need the Gospel every day that live as a follower of Jesus! Never underestimate Him, or your need for Him.

Peter learned the hard way not to underestimate Jesus. He underestimated Jesus’ word. Jesus said, “You will all fall away because of Me this night,” and Peter said, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (Mt 26:31-33). Jesus said, “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times,” and Peter said, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.” The crowing of the rooster after Peter’s third denial was an indictment against him that he had underestimated the word of the Lord. Friends, we must never do that! Every word that the Lord Jesus spoke, and by extension, every word of Scripture, is true and will come to pass just as the Lord promised it. His word is food for our souls, more important to our lives than the next meal we will eat. His words are the words of life, and we depend on them every day for strength, for comfort, for encouragement, for correction and conviction. Don’t ever underestimate His word!

Peter would later come to learn that we must also never underestimate Jesus’ love and grace. As Luke records, after his failure, Peter went out weeping bitterly. He had blown it and there was no way to change that. But Peter’s failure ultimately would not be final. With the warning of his impending denial, Jesus also told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:31-32). With the promise of Peter’s failure there is also a promise of his restoration. He will fail miserably, but he will be turned back to the Lord and restored to a place of usefulness for Christ.

John notes that the fire by which Peter warmed himself in the courtyard was a charcoal fire. That seems to be an unnecessary detail, does it not? They say that scent has a strong connection to memory, and most of us have experienced that. Charcoal fires have a unique scent. When I get a whiff of a charcoal fire, I can remember the old rusty black Weber grill that we had when I was a kid. The most interesting thing about this detail of the charcoal fire here is that the Greek word only occurs twice in the New Testament, both times in the Gospel of John. The first time is here in our text. The second time comes later, in John 21.

There, after the disheartened Peter has returned to his former career of fishing with a few of the other disciples, the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to them on the shore of Galilee. As they came ashore, they noticed a charcoal fire. Imagine the memories that flooded Peter’s mind as he smelled the aroma of that fire. But it was there, in the lingering scent of that fire on the shore, that Jesus restored and recommissioned Peter to His service. From that day forward, we see a transformed Peter in Scripture. No more the cowardly denier, this Peter became the bold preacher of the Gospel that we find in the book of Acts and the tender-hearted shepherd we find in his letters.

When you fail the Lord – not if, but when – don’t underestimate His love and grace. We may fail like Peter, but we can also be forgiven like Peter when we return to the Lord and seek restoration with Him. Our failures do not have to be final. Jesus comes to us in our brokenness with subtle reminders, like the scent of a charcoal fire, reminding us that our sins need not drive us away from Him. Rather, they must drive us to Him. He died for our sins so that we can be cleansed in His blood, made right and whole by His grace, reconciled by His love, and restored to His service.

Peter’s threefold denial of Christ can’t be erased from the pages of Scripture. God paints His people with a fair brush, warts and all. His failures will never be forgotten, nor will ours. But they can be forgiven as we turn to Him in repentance and faith. And we can be safeguarded against disastrous failure as we heed the examples we find in Scripture – examples like Peter. Remember the warnings: Don’t follow Christ from a distance; don’t be ashamed of who you are as His disciple; don’t be too cozy around the fires of this world’s pleasures; don’t be afraid to confess, to take responsibility, and to accept the consequences of your sins and failures; don’t overestimate your own strength, ability, or commitment to Christ; but most of all, don’t ever, ever underestimate His Word, His love, or His saving grace.

[1] Horace Walpole, Anectdotes of Painting in England (London: Alexander Murray, 1871), 226.
[2] John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2002), 31-32. 

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