““Lord,” Peter asked, “why can’t I follow You now? I will lay down my life for You!”
Jesus replied, “Will you lay down your life for Me? I assure you: A rooster will not crow until you have denied Me three times.” (John 13:37–38 HCSB)
Jesus drops a bomb right in the midst of the disciples as he begins his last supper discourse. Peter—being the loyal, headstrong man that he is—vows to lay down his life for Jesus [which in due time, he certainly will].
What one expects at this point in the conversation is praise from Jesus combined with mild correction. Something like this: “I admire your loyalty, Peter, but you don’t understand what I’m going to go through, so be careful what you vow.” Instead it comes out like this: “A rooster will not crow until you have denied Me three times!”
I’m certain that this shocked not only Peter, but all of the rest of the disciples as well. “Deny you three times? We have followed you around for 3 1/2 years, not one of us will deny you three times, nor will we abandon you.”
They do, of course, abandon him to a man and Peter goes through the humiliation of denying Christ three times.
All of which reminds me of the story from the apocryphal Acts of Peter. Peter is fleeing from Rome as he faces likely crucifixion under the persecution of Nero. He meets the risen Christ who is going the opposite way, straight back into the city. Peter asks, “Quo vadis, domine? [Where are you going, Lord?] Christ’s reply is “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” From this encounter Peter gets the courage to return to Rome where he is eventually martyred by Nero. Christian tradition says that he was crucified upside down at his own request.
Henry Sienkiewicz will write a novel that he entitles: Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero. It is the first worldwide bestseller and one of my top 5 favorite novels. A must read.
Is the story true? I doubt it, but it does illumine Peter’s character: a man who had multiple failures, a man who was broken by his own pride and sin, a man upon whom Christ built the church.
I love Peter, and I love the story of his rash vow and Christ’s words. Why? Because Jesus, in his own extraordinary way, follows up his prophecy that Peter will deny him three times immediately with this little gem:
““Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also.You know the way to where I am going.””
(John 14:1–4 HCSB)
“You will deny me three times Peter [and all of the rest of you will desert me], but I am going away to prepare a place for you…so that where I am you may also be.”
That, dear reader, is the best example of grace that I can think of. The church was built by men who were broken sinners and who fled from Christ in his greatest hour of need. Men that were appallingly like me.