Dealing with repeated failure

Consider Peter’s failure in Galatians 2:11-14:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

We know the apostle Peter’s reputation as the biggest and best disciple because he shows moments of true greatness. He is the first disciple named in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels. He is the first disciple to clearly understand that he is not worthy of Jesus: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

His absolute moment of brilliance comes when he confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). He is the first to recognize who Jesus really is.

Following the crucifixion, he is also the first to follow after the women, and to rush into the cave tomb after the resurrection and realize that Jesus’ body isn’t there.

But just as well-known as his spectacular successes are his equally spectacular failures.

Peter has a habit of telling Jesus off, beginning with his implied complaint about Jesus telling him where to cast his net (Luke 5:5). Or the time early in Jesus’ ministry where he tells Jesus off for disappearing from public ministry to pray. “Everyone is looking for you”, chides Peter (Mark 1:37). Later he tells Jesus he’s not going to die, provoking from Jesus the response “Get behind me Satan” (Matt 16:23). And just before Jesus’ crucifixion, he denies Jesus three times in the High Priest’s courtyard. “I never knew him”, says Peter (Luke 22).

But then we have this story in Galatians 2. It’s something else again. Peter has been completely rehabilitated and Jesus has restored to him the job of making disciples. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he’s done a heroic and consistent job in the face of fierce opposition. He’s even gone out on a limb and preached to the Gentiles, seeing them become Christians before his own eyes, a fact he will testify to before the Jerusalem council.

Now though, his fellow Jews have put him under pressure, and he has slowly withdrawn himself from table fellowship with the Gentiles, his brothers and sisters in Christ. So much so that Paul, a junior apostle, publicly tears strips off him. It is all the worse because he’s been forgiven and restored from failure so many times previously. He even possesses God’s Holy Spirit.

Yet even now, the unstoppable love of God continues to be poured out. Later in life, the chastened Peter will joyfully suffer for his Saviour. Tradition says he was crucified upside down for his faith. Likewise, according to tradition, it is Peter who dictates Mark’s gospel; he writes two letters for the encouragement of suffering Jewish Christians. This repeatedly failing shepherd of the sheep is used to feed God’s sheep yet once more.

We too will fail, and fail often, sometimes disastrously. In the mercy of Christ, and by continued trust in him, God restores. God’s name can and will be glorified in our darkest moments.

By Gordon Cheng

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