How do you react when you hear of a famous Christian person involved in some scandal or some serious error? How do you react to temptation when it comes your way? How should you react? What precautions can you take before temptation comes? Well, the Bible gives us some character studies that help us answer these questions.
In the Old Testament David is a prime example of someone failing in the face of temptation and who teaches us lessons. David, called “a man after the [Lord’s] own heart”, was on one occasion both an adulterer and a murderer of his lover’s husband.
In the New Testament Peter, our subject for this morning, is another example of someone giving into temptation. The good news, however, is that both David and Peter in the end repented. They confessed and sought forgiveness for their sins. Psalm 51 is a statement, we are told, of David's repentance. Men like David and Peter never pretended that what they did was right and good (as happens with some people today). They genuinely repented. They were not just sorry that they were in a mess. They were sorry for offending God and the damage done to others.
Is there is anyone here this morning like David or Peter? You know there is something you have done that is seriously wrong. If so, go home and pray Psalm 51 on your own. And remember God's promise. If you confess your sins, he will forgive your sins through Christ and his death on the Cross where he bore your sins. And he will give you new strength and power by his Holy Spirit. Perhaps you need to do that for the first time, if you have never yet turned to Christ. This, then, is our subject for this morning - falling away through temptation.
Our title is Jesus' Prediction, for our passage tells of Jesus predicting Peter’s temptation to deny him and his giving in to that temptation. But, first, by way of introduction let me remind you of the context of our passage.
Jesus had entered Jerusalem for the last time; and we celebrate that entry on Palm Sunday. He then visited the Temple and drove out the money exchangers. These were crooked bankers who would have been making profits at the expense of the poor! So what is new? Jesus then healed, taught and publicly denounced the religious leaders for their false teaching. And he spoke about the future judgment that was soon coming on Jerusalem. We can now see with hindsight how true that was. For in AD 70 the Romans sacked the city. But Jesus also spoke about an ultimate judgment whose date no one knows and which he illustrated by the very powerful parable of the Sheep and the Goats. He was insistent that a public profession of faith, however sound or orthodox, without the practical fruit of some good works is worthless. Then Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover meal together. And during that time Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper (or Holy Communion). And at the end of all that, we read verse 30 of chapter 26:
"When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives."
So that brings us to our passage for this morning. And I simply want to ask two questions for headings: first, WHY DO GOOD PEOPLE DO BAD THINGS? Secondly,WHAT CAN HELP IN TIMES OF TESTING?
So, first,WHY DO GOOD PEOPLE DO BAD THINGS?
Let's just read this passage again, verses 31-35:
"Then Jesus told them, 'This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered." But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.' Peter replied, 'Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.' 'I tell you the truth,' Jesus answered, 'this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.' But Peter declared, 'Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.' And all the other disciples said the same."
As we will learn later in this series, Jesus was so right. Peter did deny Jesus. But why? Let me give you five factors or reasons.
First, he hadn’t come to terms with the reality and danger of temptation and he was off his guard. In spite of the kaleidoscope of events they had been going through, the disciples now would have been feeling more relaxed. The hymn (or song) they had just sung probably was the last of the collection of Psalms traditionally used at the Passover – namely Psalms 112-118. These Psalms were used to celebrate God's past deliverances, especially the Exodus from Egypt. The disciples, therefore, were probably singing words from Psalm 118 such as these:
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. … In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free. The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies” (1,5-7).
Judas, who was not to disown but to betray and deliver Jesus up to be crucified, was now no longer with them. And encouraged by these words, they were having a more relaxing, after dinner walk, in the cool of the night, to the Mount of Olives. Things would have seemed better now to the disciples who at this stage did not seem properly to understand Jesus’ teaching. Their main concern now probably was a good night's sleep in Gethesemane. During festival seasons the Mount of Olives may have been a bit like a huge camping ground. Vast crowds, you see, came to town for the Passover. Perhaps between one and two hundred thousand people - much bigger than the crowds at St James' Park or at yesterday’s crowd at the Stadium of Light. So many then slept out in the open on places like the Mount of Olives. And the Mount of Olives is a pleasant place.
My wife and I visited it this past summer when at the Anglican GAFCON conference; and we saw Gethsemane and that famous olive tree from the time of Jesus. The walk from the upper room down to the Kidron Valley and up the other side to the Mount of Olives (which is more a decent hill than a mountain) was not far. In distance it was longer but, if you forgive the analogy, something like walking from Fenwicks in Northumberland St, down to the river Tyne, across the swing Bridge and up to Tesco's in Gateshead. So it was during this walk, it seems, that Jesus has this conversation with Peter and the other disciples. And in the conversation he makes predictions about Peter and the others falling away. Peter, however, couldn't imagine ever "falling away" or "disowning" Christ. He was unaware of the reality and danger of temptation. But Peter's failure to realize the danger was the start of his downward slide. His troubles started on this journey. Peter gave in later, during the trial of Jesus and the servants questioning him, because he hadn’t sorted things out now in his mind. You see, if you haven't got your ideas sorted out clearly before an actual temptation comes, it is much harder resisting when it does come.
Yesterday some of us were at the formal opening of Foundation for Life in Newcastle. I may say, it is remarkable what people have achieved – and a number from this church - in such a short time. Foundation for Life is concerned with the dreadful escalation of abortions in the UK and provides professional advice and scanning services.
So take abortion! Perhaps you have never thought through the rights and (mostly I’m sure) wrongs of abortion from a Biblical and Christian ethical position. If so, the chances are that if ever you have to be involved in an abortion decision, you will be tempted to go along with the current decadent culture when it says, “destroy an unborn child". We all, like Peter, need to be clear about possible temptations before they come. So why did Peter eventually disown Jesus? First, because he hadn't come to terms with the reality and danger of temptation before-hand.
Secondly, it was because he had too high an opinion of himself. He did not know himself or his weaknesses and how to combat them. He thought he was better than he was (and so did the other disciples). Peter thought he was above temptation. He said to Jesus:
"Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will."
It was clear, he didn’t really know himself. I can remember as a student, once being addressed by a Christian MP who was telling us of his meeting with Walt Disney. He said what impressed him about the Walt Disney was not what he had achieved or earnt but a plaque on his desk. On it were the two ancient Greek words, gnōthi seauton - "know yourself". Sadly this MP in later years was himself involved in a sordid divorce and then a financial scandal which meant he had to resign his seat. So did he really know himself? Or had he Peter’s problem of not really knowing his weaknesses? Not knowing the realities about your self is a major problem.
Thirdly, - and related – Peter, at this stage, did not seem to realize that there is a spiritual war going on. And it is an internal war. The Bible says it is a war of "the spirit" against "the sinful nature". Galatians 5.17 says:
"For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want."
But Peter seems to have been blissfully unaware of that struggle at this stage in his life. He thought he was OK. He didn’t realize he needed God’s grace and strength to say “No!” and that you positively need then to say “No!” Nor did he seem to realize, fourthly, that there is also an external spiritual war going on. You read about that in Ephesians 6.11-12:
“Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Peter, it seems, had yet to realize the reality of the Devil (the Greek word for the Hebrew word “Satan”). You say, "can you believe in the Devil in the 21st century?" I reply, "can you not believe in the Devil in the 21st century?" Jesus, and the Bible, teach that the evil in the world is not fully accounted for by the sum total of individual misdeeds. And even many non believers will agree with that. There is a super-plus of evil. But the Bible and Jesus say that that super-plus of evil is not an “it” - an impersonal force - but more a "he". And according to Luke (22.31) during this conversation with the disciples, Jesus said to Peter that "Satan has asked to sift you as wheat".
Peter, however, was not taking the necessary precautions against Satan. He certainly was not making use of the key spiritual weapon in confronting the Devil. Ephesians 6.17 says it is "the sword of the spirit which is the word of God." For, fifthly, Peter flatly rejected Christ's word. He denied the truth of Christ's prediction. He contradicted Christ and said he would not fall away and disown him. No wonder he was open to the devil’s attacks.
So these are five factors from Peter’s case as to why good people do bad things. One, they ignore the reality and danger of temptation. Two, they do not really know themselves and their weaknesses. Three, they fail to realize that there is a spiritual war going on, even when they are followers and believers in Christ. Four, they fail to realize that there is an external spiritual war going on and that the Devil is a real tempter. So as the apostle James says: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4.7). And, five, they ignore or deny God’s word.
Secondly, then, WHAT CAN HELP IN TIMES OF TESTING?
First, be the opposite of Peter at this stage in his life, in respect of those five factors and especially in not denying the reality and danger of temptation. You must recognize that you are, this side of heaven, still not perfect. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul writes about how the ancient Israelites fell away from God. As so often the temptations were to, one, sexual immorality; two, demanding God instantly or miraculously to solve all their problems God; and, three, "murmuring" or grumbling about life - that is believing the grass is greener elsewhere (back in Egypt or, today, in another job or family or church or school or university or hospital – or anywhere but where God is actually calling you to be).
Anyone tempted in these areas this morning? Well, the people of Israel suffered because of giving in to these sorts of temptations. But Paul then writes in 1 Corinthians 10.11-13:
“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
So, first, what can help in times of testing is to not to deny the reality or danger of temptation – be the opposite of Peter. And remember that God is faithful and will provide a way out.
Secondly, remember that God is also sovereign and in control and that God can use testing times to strengthen you, while the Devil wants to use them to trip you up. Jesus had already taught his disciples that God is amazingly in control in hard times - Matthew 10.29-31:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
And by implication Jesus was teaching God’s control now. But Peter was only half listening to what Jesus was saying. Jesus said (verse 31):
"This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”
Notice, it is not Matthew saying "it is written” - this scattering - to fulfil an Old Testament prophecy, as he regularly does. No! It is Jesus himself saying "it is written". That is significant. For Jesus is saying that what was going to happen is somehow all under God's sovereign control. It had been foreseen and foretold in Scripture. And God would turn the result of human sin to good. In Zechariah it is said that God would "refine [one third of those scattered] like silver and test them like gold". They would be all the better for their experience - however traumatic it was and even though the result of human sin.
So, what can help in times of testing? First, do not deny the problems. Secondly, remember God is in control. And, thirdly, remember the Resurrection.
Peter didn’t seem to hear Jesus’ remark about his resurrection in verse 32. But the fact that Christ is risen is so important in your fight against sin, the world and the devil. The Resurrection reminds you when confronted by temptation that Jesus Christ is not only stronger than all the forces of Satan. It also should remind you that Christ is ascended and enthroned and now praying for you. Do you believe that? You see, when you have faith in Christ, it is the risen Christ you are to believe in. You are not just to believe in his death for you on the cross, central though that is. Yes, the saving work starts at the cross where Christ “made ... a full atonement for the sins of the whole world, offering once for all his one sacrifice of himself" - as we say in the Communion service."
But then Christ rose, he ascended and he is now reigning. And, says Hebrews 7.25:
“he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”
And Romans 8.34 says that Christ was the one, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - [who] is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Peter certainly should have known about Christ praying for him. According to Luke, Jesus said to Peter in this conversation that "I [Jesus] have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail." And that prayer, of course, was answered – ultimately when Peter was forgiven and restored. Do you wonder sometimes how you survive as a Christian in today's world?
Well, remember Christ is risen and he is praying for you and your problems and temptations.
I must conclude.
In dealing with temptation there has to be a balance.
On the one hand, you are to be warned by our passages and passages like 1 Corinthians 10 of the sad consequences of giving in to temptation. But such passages should not depress you. For, on the other hand, you are to remember that God will not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength. And you should be confident because Christ is praying for you. That balance is marvellously expressed in Paul’s words to the Philippians - chapter 2 and verses 12-13:
“work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
You have to work - but the good news is that God is working also; and he will achieve his good purposes for you, for the church, for the world and for his glory.