One of the best known “gotcha” moments in the Bible is when the rooster crowed the morning Jesus was crucified. All four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — tell about Peter’s bragging the night before. When Jesus told the disciples they would be “scattered like sheep” (Mark 14:27), Peter swore he would follow Jesus even if it cost him his life.
But before the sun rose the next morning Peter’s courage failed. Around a fire to keep the night chill away, Peter was accused of being a follower of the one on trial for his lifeless than a stone’s throw from where he stood. Peter’s response? “I never knew him,” even swearing that he did not know Jesus.
That is when the rooster’s cry pierced the night and pierced Peter’s soul as well. In various ways, each of the gospels describes Peter’s reactions when he realized what he had done — that he broke down and cried bitterly.
Luke’s gospel relates to another part of the story. Luke reports that when the rooster crowed, Jesus turned and looked straight at Peter. Most of us read those words as a “gotcha” moment, an “I told you so” moment, a condemnation for Peter’s failure.
But does our concentration on Peter’s denial before a hostile crowd cause us to miss part of the story, perhaps an important part?
Luke expands the conversation between Jesus and Peter in which Peter pledges his undying loyalty. The exchange begins with Jesus sharing that Satan asked to “sift Peter.” The Bible never defines what “sift” means but from this side of the story, we know that Peter was tested like no other follower of Jesus that night.
Jesus did more than share the bad news of what Peter faced. Luke tells us Jesus added, “I have prayed for you.” Think of that. Knowing that Peter faced trials, knowing that Peter would deny him, Jesus prayed for Peter. His concern was not anticipating an “I told you so” exchange. Jesus’ concern was for Peter and his service in the kingdom.
Jesus added, “When you turn back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). Denial did not mean that Peter’s faith failed. If his faith had failed perhaps Peter’s sorrow would have caused him to join Judas at the hanging tree. After all, both denied Jesus that night.
But Jesus said, “I have prayed for you that your faith does not fail.” Then he gave him a task. When you have overcome your failure (when you have turned back) strengthen your brothers, Jesus said.
Because we live in a world that relishes “gotcha” movements, we see that message in the locked eyes of Jesus and Peter across the courtyard. “I told you so.” That is how we would react.
But what if there were more in the message of that moment. What if Jesus’ eyes were filled with compassion? What if his eyes conveyed encouragement, even hope in the midst of such obvious failure? What if Jesus’ eyes reminded Peter, “I have prayed for you so don’t give up”? What if they said, “Turn back and strengthen your brothers”?
What if we have been wrong all this time and it wasn’t a “gotcha” moment at all? Peter still would have wept bitterly at his failure but the bitterness would be tinted by the unfailing love of God. Jesus had prayed for him. Jesus still wanted him, still had a task for him.
Wouldn’t that message make us cry if we heard it in the midst of our failures?
Mark hints at Jesus’ concern for Peter. When the women find an angel at the empty tomb on resurrection morning, the angel instructs them to “Go tell the disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7). John’s gospel recounts that the first to hear the report of the women were Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Peter had been sifted by Satan. Peter had failed. But God had not given up on Peter. God still cared for Peter and had work for him in the kingdom.
John’s gospel closes with another conversation between Jesus and Peter. This time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter affirms that he loves Jesus with heart and soul and mind and strength.
Each time Jesus responds with a command, “Feed my sheep.” The command is like a sledgehammer pounding a spike. It is clear, certain, and unmistakable. It was like what Jesus said that night in the upper room. “Peter, I have prayed for you. When you turn back, strengthen your brothers.”
Peter failed but God did not stop caring about him, did not stop using him in His kingdom. You and I fail, too, but God does not give up on us either. Failure doesn’t stop God’s caring. He calls us to “turn back” to Him in confession and repentance and then get involved in what God is doing in the world.