Between the garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha, the Lord Jesus watched as the world turned against him. His own disciple betrayed him, the Jewish people rejected him, and the Roman authorities condemned him. But perhaps the most painful moment of all was when Peter, the great rock among the twelve, said three times over, “I never knew him.”
“You are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” a servant girl had asked. “I am not,” Peter replied (John 18:17). “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” the crowd around the fire inquired. “I am not,” he said again (John 18:25). “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” a servant of the high priest wondered. And once more he shook his head (John 18:26–27).
Hours earlier, Peter had told Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). But when the time came to stand by his Lord, he only laid down a lie.
Loved to the End
Jesus, of course, knew. In response to Peter’s bravado, he said, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times” (John 13:38). And what did Jesus do with the knowledge of his own apostle’s faithlessness? The apostle John tells us:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)
As Jesus looked at Peter on that fateful Thursday night, and as he saw the three denials hiding in his heart, he did not despise him, condemn him, or forsake him. Instead, he loved him — to the end.
He saw the feet that would soon flee from him for safety, and he washed them (John 13:2–11). He heard the tongue that would disown the name disciple, and he listened patiently (John 13:6–10, 36–38). He looked upon the heart ready to quail before a servant girl, and he spoke comfort over it (John 14:1, 27; 16:33). He saw the man who would renounce his only hope, and he prayed for him (John 17:1–19).
And then, while Peter denied Jesus, Jesus died for Peter. The righteous for the unrighteous. The Christ for the coward. The faithful for the faithless.
The faithful love Jesus felt for Peter is the same kind of faithful love he feels for his people today. Unlike so much of our love, Jesus’s love is not based on an idealistic vision of us, or a one-sided view of our strengths. His love is, rather, what theologian J.I. Packer calls “utterly realistic.” Packer writes,
There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love for me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. (Knowing God, 42)
Many of us regularly discover darkness in ourselves that we never knew existed. We surprise ourselves with our folly. We dismay ourselves with sins we thought were dead and gone. We confound ourselves with our little faith — indeed, at times, our faithlessness.
At every turn, however, Jesus is not surprised, not dismayed, not confounded. His eyes have already searched our souls’ blackest rooms, just as they had Peter’s. And, having seen all, he goes on loving us to the end.
In that love, he forgives us of our faithlessness. And in that love, he begins to make us faithful.
A few days after Jesus died and rose again, he appeared to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and directed his attention to Peter. There, he undid Peter’s denials by allowing the disciple to affirm, three times, his love for his Lord (John 21:15–17).
Then Jesus says,
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. (John 21:18)
The apostle John adds, “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (John 21:19).
The day is coming, in other words, when Peter would finally fulfill the words he spoke on the night he renounced his Lord: “I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). In that day, Peter would do what he could not do before, and choose death over denial. And all because Jesus would not only forgive Peter’s faithlessness, but would gradually, lovingly heal it.
Growing in Faithfulness
The healing, of course, did not happen in a day. We may recall that, years later, Peter collapsed once again before the fear of man (Galatians 2:11–14). His faithfulness to Jesus was a lifelong pursuit, with much faithlessness forgiven along the way.
So it is with all of us. The Christian life is about growing in faithfulness to our Lord — even as we seek forgiveness from him every day for our failure to follow him as faithfully as we ought. Every day, he forgives us. Every day, he loves us. And over time, he shapes us into the image of his faithfulness.