As we continue our quest for authentic Christianity in light of the freedom to which we’ve been called, I want to share with you, beloved, an inspiring example of how law correlates to love and freedom. It’s an episode recorded for us in scripture from the Apostle Peter’s life. But the story actually begins with something Jesus has commanded of all of us. You may remember that, very early in His ministry, Jesus made a most profound statement, saying:
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.
(Matthew 10:32-33, NASB)
Now that sounds pretty “cut and dried” to me, doesn’t it you? It sounds very much like a law, or a rule, or a definite point of doctrine by which to live or die. It is simple. It is straight forward. There is nothing abstract or obscure about it; nothing to debate. Jesus said it, so that settles it, right? From this passage we learn that it is the Lord’s will that every disciple of Christ be ready and willing to confess his or her faith in Him before others; and to refuse to do so will result in Him refusing to confess that we belong to Him when it comes time for us to appear before the Father in the great judgment. The teaching is clear, immutable, and an essential element of the Christian faith.
But a couple of years after Jesus issued this edict, on the eve of His crucifixion, one of His closest disciples, the Apostle Peter, blatantly transgressed Jesus command that we must confess Him before men. As the story goes:
Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, “I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.” But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.’ But Peter said to Him, ‘Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.’ All the disciples said the same thing too.
(Matthew 26:31-35, NASB)
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a servant-girl came to him and said, ‘You too were with Jesus the Galilean.’ But he denied it before them all, saying, ‘I do not know what you are talking about.’ When he had gone out to the gateway, another servant-girl saw him and said to those who were there, ‘This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ And again he denied it with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ A little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Surely you too are one of them; for even the way you talk gives you away.’ Then he began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know the man!’ And immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, ‘Before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.
(Matthew 26:69-75, NASB)
Well, Peter really messed up, didn’t he? I mean, Peter “blew it” big time! He willingly, even willfully, transgressed the commandment of Christ—that those who belong to Him must confess Him before men. But Peter denied Him before men; not once, not twice, but three times that night. So, what is to be done with a lawbreaker like Peter?
I’m so glad the story doesn’t end there. After Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, He wanted to spend some time with His disciples before His ascension and enthronement. The beautiful resolution to Peter’s tragic story of denial is seen in these amazing verses:
After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way. Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will also come with you.’ They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing.
But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you do not have any fish, do you?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’ And He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.’ So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish.
So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.’ Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples ventured to question Him, ‘Who are You?’ knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise. This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.‘ He said to him, ‘Tend My lambs.’ He said to him again a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me? He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.‘ He said to him, ‘Shepherd My sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me?’ Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, ‘Do you love Me?’ And he said to Him, ‘Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.‘ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend My sheep.’
(John 21:1-17, NASB)
Three times Peter transgressed with will of God; he “broke the law” (if you will) with his repeated denials of Christ. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him. Three times Peter confessed his love for Christ. And, each time, Jesus reaffirmed Peter’s place in the kingdom by reiterating the mission to which He was assigning him. Though Peter had failed Him, God was not through with Peter; and He will never be through with us. Love triumphs over law!
I am struck by something else in Peter’s replies to Jesus’ inquiry. Each time, when asked if he loved Jesus, Peter states, “You know I love You!” In fact, the last time he goes so far as to say, “Lord, You know all things. You know that I love you.” Peter knew that Jesus knew the content of his heart. And Peter also knew that, even though he had transgressed the will of God by denying Christ, Jesus knew Peter loved Him.
This is, perhaps, the real difference between Peter, who denied Christ, and Judas who betrayed Christ. Peter loved Jesus. For Peter, it was all about Jesus. When Peter realized the gravity of his sin, the Bible says, “he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62, NASB). It broke Peter’s heart to know that he had let down his Lord in such fashion. But, even though Peter had failed, he did not give up because he knew that, ultimately, it wasn’t about him, or his personal code of honor, or even about what others might say or think of him. He was still in love with Jesus and that was all that really mattered.
When Judas realized the gravity of his sin, the Bible says, “he went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 25:5, NASB). We can only speculate as to what all might have been going on in Judas’ heart; but there seems to have been some kind of legalism there that made him think it necessary to atone for his grievous transgression with own blood. At any rate, Jesus called him, “the son of perdition” (John 17:12, NASB)—a word meaning: “utter disaster, ruin, destruction, or damnation; another word for hell” (Perdition, 2014).
On that night when Peter said that he would never deny Christ, but that he would even die with Him, I believe he truly meant it, don’t you? Yes, perhaps Peter was a little too full of himself. Perhaps he was speaking a little too much from his own ego, and not completely out of love for Christ; but, still, I believe he meant those words and that he was, indeed, ready to die for Christ if necessary. His statement reminds me of some of the courageous and bold words that have sprung forth from my mouth from time-to-time. But Peter and I have a similar problem. It is the same problem expressed by the Apostle Paul when he said:
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.
(Romans 7:15-19, NASB)
Imagine that! Even people like Peter and Paul have had the same problem that I have, and that you have. Because we love the Lord, and because His word resides within our hearts, we want to please Him by always doing the right thing all the time; but we don’t. Jesus, while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to His betrayal and arrest put it this way when He said to His disciples: “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41, NASB). But the Apostle Paul also shares with us the answer to this dilemma, saying:
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
(Romans 8:1-4, NASB)
Paul understood what Peter came to understand, and what we need to understand— that law is weak. Whether we are talking about the Law of Moses, or the direct teachings of Jesus, or the doctrines set forth by the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, or any other moral code or religious law whatsoever, ALL law is weak. Why? Because as Jesus stated, and as Paul reiterates here, “the flesh is weak!” Law, all law, any law, is weak and powerless to save us; it can only kill us because we don’t keep it—“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NASB).
But, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” because, even though “on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:25, NASB), still, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, NASB). Why? Because we have been SET FREE! “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus [the Gospel] has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2, NASB).
The Apostle Peter made great claims, and I believe he meant them; but he found himself unable to live up to the commitments in his heart. He did not keep the law. Still, the love was there in Peter’s heart; and Jesus knew that. And the Lord also knew that Peter would not go on denying Him. Eventually, the day would come when Peter would, indeed, even be put to death for his faith in Christ.
Since Jesus died on the cross for us, we live under a radically new operating system—the new covenant. No longer are we controlled by, held accountable to, or judged by “the letter” of the law which “kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Now, we are controlled by love, held accountable by faith, and will be judged by the content of our hearts. But, rest assured, He who knows all things knows our hearts. As Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me,” (John 10:14, NASB). He knows all those who truly love Him and who belong to Him.
The story of Peter’s denials and redemption reminds me of an amazing prophecy that was first made by King David in the 32nd Psalm and reiterated by the Apostle Paul:
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.
(Romans 4:7-8, NASB)
Who are these people “whose sin the Lord will not take into account”? They are the ekklesia—the new covenant children of God—those who truly love Him; those who do not trust in their own works to save them, but “who believe in Him who justifies the ungodly,” and whose “faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5, NASB).
Unfortunately, there are many people—some affiliated with the ekklesia—who just don’t quite seem to “get it!” They simply don’t comprehend the difference between the old Mosaic covenant and the new covenant in Christ. They seem to think that Jesus came to add new law on top of old law and, if anything, to make our salvation even harder to attain. One man recently told me that Jesus didn’t really come to do away with the old Law of Moses, but to extend it; and that the new covenant was but an extension of the old. These people do not understand—perhaps they don’t really want to understand—the difference between “the letter” of the law which “kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6, NASB) and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” which “has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2, NASB).
It almost seems as if some people are simply incapable of living in freedom. They seem to need outward laws and constraints to rule them and by which to judge themselves and others; it seems to give them a sense of security. These people appear incapable of understanding that, if we are truly disciples of Christ, if our hearts truly belongs to the Lord—as Peter’s did—then, though we may fail Him, and we all do, still, Christ’s love will always be enough to draw us back into the way. His love will always be enough to control us.
Sadly, people who walk by law, not by love, have plagued the ekklesia from the earliest days of Christianity; even prompting the writing of several of our New Testament books. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to call some of them “false brethren” and had to strongly oppose them; he writes:
But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.
The bondage into which these false teachers wanted to bring them was that of bondage to law—elements of the Law of Moses in particular; but the principle extends to all religious law, rules, restrictions, and dogma predicated on the doctrines, traditions, private interpretations, and opinions of men.
While Christians are, indeed, called to stand united in the truth of God’s word as presented in scripture, problems often arise when human opinions enter the picture. Why is it that people seem bent on organizing—or perhaps we should say, “over-organizing”—Christianity for everybody else according to their own liking? Is it because they are unsure of their own relationship with Christ and lack the faith to trust that His grace is sufficient for them; therefore they feel like they have to be right about virtually everything, while also somehow managing to be good enough to merit God’s favor? So then, if someone happens to disagree with them on some point of doctrine, they go ballistic and argue, fuss, and fight to win their point and maintain their doctrinal position; lest they be found to be wrong about something and therefore, in their own minds, they jeopardize their salvation?
Or maybe, in some cases, that’s not it at all. Perhaps some people just enjoy the pomp and circumstance, the ceremonialism and ritual, the pageantry and decorum—not to mention the social clout and political power—that typically accompanies organized religion.
Whatever the case, Jesus scolded the religious leaders of His day for elevating their traditions to a level equaling, and even supplanting, the word of God, when He told them: “But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:6-9, NASB). Furthermore, the authentic children of God are admonished to “keep standing firm” and not allow themselves to be “subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, NASB). While the children of God will always seek to please Him by the choices we make and the way we live our lives, we must never allow anyone to convince us that commandment keeping, or our adherence to any particular ecclesiastical tradition, denominational doctrine, or religious rules and regulations will save us. Rather, we must continue to trust solely in the life-giving sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
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