An Ego Challenge
“Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
The difference between Judas and Peter is the difference between deception and weakness. Treachery is not the same as timidity. Contempt for Jesus is not the same as false confidence in one’s ability to stand for Jesus. Both lead to sin, but being hateful is different from being hurtful. Judas wanted to expose Jesus as a fraud, but Peter wanted to be faithful to Jesus. Judas was filled with regret, but Peter was filled with repentance. We are meant to see ourselves in Peter, but no one was ever meant to identify with Judas.
A crowing rooster should remind us not only of Peter’s denials, but of how much we are like Peter. As one writer said, “All disciples can profit by a careful study of how the ‘Rock’ turned to ‘sand’ in his most critical test.” Peter makes me nervous. Comparing myself to him is like standing too close to the edge of Niagara Falls. Peter’s ego drove him to the edge and he fell. If the representative disciple, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, could fall like that, so can I. The nature of Peter’s experience is too close to our own to be ignored. His vulnerability to sin reminds us of our own. We find it easy, all too easy, to identity with him. We share his pride, practice his brand of foolishness, and experience his lack of courage and faithfulness.
Peter’s pride was embarrassingly transparent. Not to himself of course, but to all of us who hear him brag. He illustrates the Proverb: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). When Jesus said, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me,” Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33). It is this bold and brash claim made by the impetuous, outspoken Peter that gets our attention. There is nothing humble about the rhetoric of self-confidence. Peter’s chest-thumping one-upmanship is like the pre-game hype before the big game. We instinctively ask, “How could Peter say such a thing?” With the rest of the disciples standing right there, Peter’s single comment turned loyalty to Jesus into a competition with himself as the self-proclaimed winner (see Galatians 6:4). Pride is insidious because it often separates us from reality and from others, without knowing it.
What do you think would have happened if John had pulled Peter aside and said, “Will you get a grip? Listen to yourself! Where do you get off claiming to be better than the rest of us?” We don’t read that John or any of the other disciples said anything to Peter. The reason we are seldom confronted about our pride is because pride, although so obvious to others, is such a tough sin to expose to the proud. Pride is a form of self-deception and when we deceive ourselves it is almost impossible for us to see the truth. Like Peter, we believe our own self-talk. What Peter felt was courage and loyalty for the Master, was really only self-centered pride! What sounded so bold and spiritual quickly turned into denials and curses. When prides runs its course, it leaves us as it left Peter disillusioned and frustrated.
Peter’s courage depended upon an ego challenge rather than a spiritual challenge. I believe under certain conditions Peter would have made good on his claim to lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:37). The evidence for this can be seen in the garden of Gethsemane. When Peter was confronted, he reacted by fighting back. As you might expect, if only two disciples were armed one of them would have had to be Peter (Luke 22:38). Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Immediately, Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Why was Peter willing to risk his life in hand-to-hand combat in the garden, but afraid to admit to a servant girl that he knew Jesus? This doesn’t appear to make sense until one realizes the nature of the conflicting challenges.
In the garden it was a challenge to Peter’s bravery, his willingness to fight and his readiness to put his life on the line for the cause. Peter was up to the ego challenge. But alone in the high priest’s courtyard, with no surrounding audience, Peter was unwilling to admit that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. He was all set to man-up for the ego challenge, but he shriveled up when it came to the witness challenge. When his own ego was not in question and his macho image was not threatened, Peter found it easy to deny that he ever knew Jesus. The servant girl got from Peter what an armed Centurion would have been unable to extract – a denial! She made it easy for him, “You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” (John 18:17). It is not too difficult to imagine Peter writing this servant girl off as inconsequential. She didn’t matter. She didn’t deserve the truth. Some people might chalk this up to a low rung denial, made necessary by the climb up the corporate ladder of success. Does a two word deflection, “Not me,” constitute a denial? Note that Peter was not asked if he believed in Jesus. He was asked if he was “one of his disciples.” Dale Bruner writes, “We may not think that we are denying or disowning Christ when we deny or disassociate ourselves from his always problematic Church, but Peter’s experience teaches us to think again.”
In a sanctuary, surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, we are brave souls, but put us in a university classroom or in an office or at a social gathering, and it’s easy to see how denial happens. “Surely you don’t believe in this Jesus stuff, do you?” The world expects our agreement and it’s easier to go along than to take a stand. We may dodge and deflect, but in the end the right word for it is denial.
What if Peter had not made his proud boast after Jesus had warned the disciples that they were all going to fall away? What if he had said, “Lord, we don’t want to fall away! How can we remain strong?” We have a good indication of how Jesus would have answered that question from his response to the exhausted disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. He encouraged them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matthew 26:41). If the disciples had returned to the upper room and spent the night in prayer, they would have been more united than isolated. Instead of falling away they might have waited on God. Sadly, it wasn’t until after the cross that they returned to the upper room.
Upper Room Reflection
Can you see yourself in Peter’s reaction?
What is deceptive about the ego challenge?
Where are you most vulnerable to deflection and denial?
How would it have made a difference if the disciples had returned to the upper room and prayed?