Jesus’ Love for Deniers

Peter had been following Christ as one of His disciples for years. From that early moment by the seashore when Christ first called Peter (Matt. 4:18-20), Peter had followed Jesus faithfully—until his moment of denial. Peter loved Jesus. He prided himself on the fact that he was committed to Christ. So what went wrong? How did Peter get to the point where he denied knowing his teacher, whom he loved?

Even before Peter commits the act of denial, Jesus demonstrates His tenderness by endeavoring to help Peter understand what was coming: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). How astonishing! Before Jesus predicts that Peter will deny Him and before the denial takes place, Jesus tells Peter He is praying Jesus lets Peter know that Satan and judgment won’t have the last word. Grace will have the last word.

Jesus not only foresees Peter’s denial, but He also foresees Peter’s restoration. He calmly refers to “when you have turned back.” Peter can’t even imagine that he will have to turn back from anything or that his faith will fail for any reason, so he ostentatiously proclaims, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death” (v. 33). Jesus predicts Peter’s failure, and Peter counters Jesus’ prediction with a promise of unwavering devotion. Jesus responds, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” (v. 34 NIV). Jesus’ statement is so devastatingly matter-of-fact. “No, Peter. You will not fight to the death. You will cower; you will deny. And the sound of a simple animal will be what brings you to your senses and to your knees.” 

We’d like to think that Peter had a moment of weakness, that somehow he forgot himself for just a second, that he was scared, that he wasn’t thinking straight. But perhaps the truth of the matter is that Peter was finally expressing what he had deeply feared or felt all along. Maybe he finally came clean with himself and those around him. His confession, “I don’t know him,” was true. Peter didn’t really know Jesus. He didn’t yet really know forgiveness; he didn’t really know grace. Peter was addicted to achieving. He loved to be the one right next to Jesus. He was outspoken in his devotion to Him. Peter was confident of his commitment to Christ. He didn’t really understand that Christ’s commitment to Peter was ultimately all that mattered. God’s covenant toward Peter is what kept Peter close, not his own willpower.. With the heat of shame burning in his face, Peter stood by the fire and called down curses just to prove to all those who could hear him that he was not a follower of Christ. Then the rooster called him out. And Peter went outside and wept bitterly.

Peter came to the end of himself. He came to the end of his own good opinion of himself. He came to the end of achieving. I am sure you have felt the bitterness of being disappointed with yourself. I know I have. Why would I do that? Why would I say that? Why would I react like that? are words to the tune of an old song we are all familiar with. Peter thought he was better, and we think we are better than that as well. But the truth is we are denying sinners in need of a faithful Savior. The astonishingly lovely fact is that we have access to that Faithful Savior. Our access—our acceptance by Him—isn’t based on our faithfulness; it’s based on His.

At this worst moment in Peter’s life, Jesus was right there: “Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:60–61 NIV).

What an absolute gut punch! Though Jesus knew Peter’s every fault, Jesus chose to look at him. Jesus doesn’t choose to ignore or to break the relationship. He reminds Peter that He sees, and I can’t imagine this look being anything but a look of love. Jesus isn’t surprised by Peter’s denial or sin. Jesus knew this was coming and had already told Peter He was praying for him. Christ’s look of love draws Peter. The same love that drew Peter from the Sea of Galilee and a life of fishing draws him yet again. But this time Peter knows that he has failed and that he will not follow Jesus “to prison or to death.” Peter runs. He weeps. He is undone.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Remember how Jesus referred Peter to a time “when you have turned back”? Jesus doesn’t leave Peter alone with his crushing disappointment. Jesus returns to his disciples, appearing to them on the beach and questioning Peter about his devotion to Christ (Jn. 21). 

There is a lot of speculation about why Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him and a lot of commentary about the different Greek words used in this back-and-forth conversation. The Lord has so plainly orchestrated Peter’s faith journey! The Gospels display many interesting patterns in the relationship between Peter and Jesus. Jesus initially called Peter by the sea after a fishing session, and Jesus calls him back here again by the sea after a fishing session. The only two times a charcoal fire is mentioned is the one when Peter is denying Jesus, and the breakfast fire, where Jesus is restoring Peter. Peter denies Jesus three times; Peter says He loves Christ three times. All these earlier interactions seem to lead to this important moment, though, when Jesus asks Peter for the third time, “Do you love me?” Peter is grieved, and he says this: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And there it is: Peter’s confession. In effect, Peter is saying, “You know everything! You know how weak I am. You know I denied You. You know I did the very thing I promised I wouldn’t do. But Lord, You also know I do love You. My love is feeble, but You know it is there.” This is what I want you all to see. Jesus does know. He knows the fickleness of our hearts. He knows we are fully committed to Him one day and then wonder if He even cares the next day, or maybe that happens minute to minute.

But look how Jesus responded to Peter! Jesus doesn’t tell Peter, “Listen, Peter, you made a huge mistake. I am going to need you to work on your devotion to Me before I am willing to use you.” No, Jesus just tells Peter to get to the work of loving his neighbor and taking care of those around him. 

Beloved, the level of your devotion isn’t what makes God faithful to you or makes Him keep loving you. He is and always will be a faithful God to His people. This issue is never first our love for Christ, but rather His love for us. His love causes love.

Adapted from He Loved Them by Jessica Thompson (© 2023). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.