Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Honesty of Peter

66 And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67 and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. 69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” 72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Mark 14:66-72

The account of Peter’s denial is recorded in all four gospels (Matthew 26:69-27, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, and John 18:15-18 & 25-27).  The entire world can read and know Peter’s great sin.  The Scripture did not even try to smooth it up.  All four gospels did not provide excuses as to why Peter did what he did.  There is no understandable psychological reasoning written to ease Peter’s burden.  The four gospels told it as is.  The gospel of Mark, however, stands out from among the four in its reporting that the rooster crowed twice instead of only one.  A small detail that the other three gospels did not deem important.  Before we venture into the event of Peter’s denial, let us figure out Mark for a moment.

According to tradition and the study of the gospels, particularly of the synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke borrowed a lot of materials from Mark.  We know that the synoptic gospels bear a striking resemblance to each other.  It is believed that the gospel of Mark was the first gospel being circulated among believers.  The most common and widely accepted scenario was that Matthew and Luke read Mark’s writing and borrowed a lot of Mark’s writing into their gospels.  But from where did Mark get his source?  We should also ask, who is Mark?

Mark is an interesting fellow.  Theologians have attempted to figure out the identity of Mark from the clues in the Scripture.  From what they gathered, they believed that Mark here is actually John Mark as recognized in several verses in the book of Acts.  Let me quote those verses here in order to paint a picture of who this Mark is.

12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.  (Acts 12:12-14)

This is the first time the name John Mark appeared in the Bible.  The event was when an angel of God broke Peter out of prison.  Apparently Peter knew the family quite well, and thus it is safe to assume that Peter also knew John Mark.  The second time the name John Mark appeared was in Acts 12:25:

25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.

Acts 13:5 followed Paul and Barnabas’s ministry together with John Mark and recorded:

When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.

Then Acts 13:13-14 recorded the mysterious incident where John Mark left Paul and Barnabas:

13 Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, 14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down.

John Mark’s act caused a great divide between Barnabas and Paul:

37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.  (Acts 15:37-40)

Pay attention to the shift from “John called Mark” to “John” and then to “Mark.”  Paul revealed that Mark was the cousin of Barnabas in Colossians 4:10 saying:

10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him),

Paul considered Mark as his fellow worker in Philemon 24: “24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.  Paul also mentioned Mark in his very last epistle to Timothy:

Do your best to come to me soon. 10 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.  (2 Timothy 4:9-1)

Paul considered Mark’s work very valuable as he had helped Paul in his ministry.  Not only that Mark had a good relationship with Paul, he also had a special relationship with Peter.  1 Peter 5:13 recorded:

13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.

Peter even considered Mark his son.  According to tradition, Mark has been known as Peter’s closest associate and interpreter.  Being trained by Paul and Barnabas in the service of the Lord, Mark proved to be a very faithful servant of Christ.  Apparently Mark got his data regarding the ministry of Jesus Christ from Peter, who was one of the “eyewitnesses since the beginning.”[1]  Papias,[2] Bishop of Hierapolis, who lived in the 60-130 AD, gave one of the earliest accounts of the gospel of Mark by citing John the Elder:

The Elder used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai (notes of self-contained teaching), but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia of the Lord. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything.[3]

Now that we have a little bit of background information on Mark, let us shift our attention back to the denial of Peter as revealed in the Scripture.

What’s interesting for me is that, if we reconstruct the event, we will reasonably find that Peter and Jesus were the only main important figures that knew exactly what happened that night.  There were nobody else that could clearly identify Peter when the event happened.  Besides, there were many conversations going on in the courtyard at that time that probably were more interesting and significant given the fact that Jesus was quite famous than Peter’s denial.  Why is this interesting for me?  Because only two people who could leak Peter’s denial to the gospel writer(s) in great detail, one is Jesus and the other is Peter.  But it doesn’t seem likely for Jesus to leak this information.  Jesus had a purpose to proclaim the message of the Kingdom.  And after His resurrection He had a short time on earth to get His disciples back into their feet.  And especially, He had one extremely important purpose to build Peter up instead of tearing him down.  Leaking the information at that time to the other disciples might devastate Peter further, and that’s not what Jesus would wish at the moment, I believe.  The only other person that could have leaked the information was Peter himself.

As a very close associate and interpreter of Peter, Mark was privy to the information that only Peter and Jesus knew.  But, given the state of human psychology, normally it would be highly unlikely for Peter to freely share his failure and greatest sin.  Human sinful nature would prohibit Peter from disclosing such sensitive information.  The risk was great.  Peter was the leader of the newly founded Christianity after Jesus was taken up to heaven.  This kind of information could easily tarnish his reputation.  Upon knowing his secret denial, people would undermine him.  Peter could have just kept his secret for himself (and God of course).  Besides, he had no obligation to share it with the world.  When Jesus reinstated Peter in John 21:15-19, Jesus too did not reveal his denial to that small group of fishermen.  Why then would Peter open that Pandora box to Mark, and then to the world?  This is most interesting to me.

This mystery is difficult for me to understand.  Because what Peter did was the exact opposite of what we normally do.  In this world we hide our weaknesses and shortcomings.  We do not want the world to know them.  Because those hidden secrets could bring us down.  They would bring humiliation and terrifying consequences to our life.  So we bury them deep, hundreds of miles under the earth.  We hope nobody would ever find it.  And we quickly confront our own conscience to make peace with it.  We can come up with millions of excuses in order to appease the hot flare of the accusing conscience.  With each excuse we attempt to convince our conscience that it is okay.  With it we kill our conscience little by little.  Peter almost settled down with his appeased conscience when Jesus suddenly popped the question “Do you love me?”  Peter’s conscience was revived with each question.  The third was the question that broke his heart.  Peter could not lie to himself anymore.  He could not make it okay by his excuses.  Only the offended party could forgive.

When Peter first met His resurrected Master, there was no mention of Peter apologizing to Jesus for his sin.  It was very likely that Peter had buried it deep within.  But thankfully Jesus brought it up.  Jesus is truly the Good Shepherd.  He seeks the lost.  Such offense can’t be resolved by sweeping it under the rug.  Peter had to acknowledge his sin and walk down the path of repentance.  Then and only then his conscience could find the equilibrium it desperately needed.  This is the key to the secret of Peter’s strength and courage.  And so, led by the Holy Spirit, Peter revealed his miserable failure to Mark.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit Mark wrote it for the whole world to see.

Peter’s honesty is what’s stunning.  The courage that he had to muster in order to open up to Mark without anything being concealed or excused was remarkable.  If we read all the four gospels on the account of Peter’s denial, there was no statement whatsoever that would lighten Peter’s burden.  The event was just told quite bluntly.  All four of them wrote it bluntly.  This can only mean that the source, Peter, told it bluntly.  What we can see from here is that when he revealed it to Mark, he was already at peace.  His past and sinful deed was forgiven, even by the Lord Himself.  There was no reason for Peter to hide it anymore.  Besides, there is a greater purpose to be served by revealing it to the world.

Peter knew full well the gravity of his denial.  Not long before entering Jerusalem, Jesus taught His disciples about what it takes to follow Him.

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  (Mark 8:34-38)

Matthew wrote it slightly differently within the context of fear:

32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.  (Matthew 10:32-33)

After his denial, Peter was at the edge of being denied by Jesus.  If Jesus denied Peter, then it would be the end of his life, even in the life to come.  The bottom line is, denying Jesus is a serious sin.  It is not something that we can take lightly.  So why such serious sin that had the potential to devastate Peter’s ministry was disclosed openly to the public?  I believe common sense and professional advisors would raise the red flag and strongly advise against such disclosure.

            In this day and age, when information contains so much power, either to build up or to tear down, politicians, celebrities, high profile public figures, work so hard as to carefully select which information about them can be disclosed and which should be kept hidden.  The negative information that carries the power to devastate one’s reputation is generally put in the top secret list.  When a high profile public figure reveals his darkest secret, it usually is either because he/she is caught right handed or such revelation will draw sympathy from the public.  If he is caught right handed, then he has no other option but to admit it.  If she can gain sympathy to help herself, then it was only reasonable to reveal it.  But Peter had none of those.  He was not caught right handed, except by Jesus.  Luke 22:61a reported the event immediately after Peter denied Jesus the third time: “61 And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.  But as we have known, Jesus did not tell it to anyone.  Nobody else knew except Peter himself.  And we know as well that this information would not help Peter gain sympathy.  So, when Peter chose to disclose it, there must be a greater reason beyond himself that he believed.

            As I reflect and imagine on what it must have been for Peter to process all this and then decided to come out clean, I struggle to understand what that greater reason might be.  Paul’s teaching in Romans 15:1-4 helps my understanding:

1 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Then I remember what Jesus said to Peter right before He predicted his denial:

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”  (Luke 22:31-32)

After Jesus reinstated Peter, and after the Holy Spirit was poured out on him, Peter became strong.  His strength was not meant only for himself.  But it was meant to help others, especially those who are weak.  So, in my reflection I realize that Peter’s greater reason to disclose his darkest secret was to strengthen others.  We are included in that “others.”  Just like Peter we too have the tendency to deny Jesus in order to save ourselves.  Our sinful nature often wins.  Our weak flesh overcomes our willing spirit.  Denying Jesus, as we have known, is a serious sin.  Our fear sometimes overtakes us and quickly devastates our courage to the point of us fleeing in the face of a challenge.  Rather than denying ourselves we choose to be ashamed of Jesus.  Without Peter’s event, we have no hope once we step into the path to deny of Jesus.  But Peter’s honesty in this matter provides us with the much needed hope and encouragement to get us to return to Christ.

            I thank Peter for his honesty.  I am grateful to Peter for his boldness to disclose the highly classified information that only he and Jesus knew.  I myself feel strengthened.  Peter truly fulfilled what Jesus told him to do.  Peter strengthens his brothers.  In Jesus’ hands that very event has been transformed from condemnation to glory.  All Christians can now return to Christ, walk the path of repentance, and be reinstated by Him once more.  Peter’s honest testimony has proved to be comforting to all his brothers and sisters even until today, and I believe it will continue to be a comfort for all believers until the end of time.  Such delicate secret had no power over Peter’s status, it did not humiliate Peter and it also did not help Peter to achieve the celebrity status.  It brought Peter to our level so we can relate to him because he shared our common failures.  Mark wrote Peter’s revelation with the readers in mind.  All the other three gospel writers too wrote this sensitive biography with the purpose to encourage believers anywhere and anytime to return to our Lord Jesus Christ.  If Peter could, so could we.  Because God’s grace is so great.  God loves Peter very much that He led him back to become a fisher of man.  God also loves us so much that He beautifully crafts Peter’s embarrassing event in order to give us hope and provide us the path to return to Him.  More importantly, He has given us His Son Jesus Christ to be sacrificed on the cross for our sake.  Now we are accepted eternally in the presence of the Holy God.  Amen and Amen!

[1] Cf. Luke 1:1-4:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
[2] Irenaeus, Polycarp’s disciple, identified Papias as “an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp.”  (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.33.4.  The original Greek is preserved apud Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.1.)
[3] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15.

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