Imitate Their Faith

He Learned Forgiveness From the Master

PETER would never forget that terrible moment when their eyes met. Did he see in Jesus’ gaze some hint of disappointment or reproach? We cannot venture so far; the inspired record says only that “the Lord turned and looked upon Peter.” (Luke 22:61) But in that one glance, Peter saw the depth of his own failure. He realized that he had just done the very thing that Jesus had foretold, the one thing that Peter had insisted he would never do​—he had disowned his beloved Master. It was a low point for Peter, perhaps the worst moment of the worst day of his life.

All was not lost, though. Because Peter was a man of great faith, he still had an opportunity to recover from his mistakes and to learn one of Jesus’ greatest lessons. It had to do with forgiveness. Each of us needs to learn the same lesson, so let us follow Peter on this difficult journey.

A Man With Much to Learn

About six months earlier in his hometown of Capernaum, Peter approached Jesus and asked: “Lord, how many times is my brother to sin against me and am I to forgive him? Up to seven times?” Peter likely thought that he was being generous. After all, the religious leaders of the day taught that one had to forgive only three times! Jesus replied: “Not, Up to seven times, but, Up to seventy-seven times.”​—Matthew 18:21, 22.

Was Jesus suggesting that Peter keep a running tally of a transgressor’s actions? No; rather, by turning Peter’s 7 into a 77, he was saying that there is no arbitrary limit on forgiveness. Jesus showed that Peter had been influenced by a hardhearted and unforgiving spirit that was prevalent in those days, one that meted out forgiveness as if by an accountant’s ledger. However, divine forgiveness is expansive, generous.

Peter did not argue with Jesus. But did Jesus’ lesson really reach his heart? Sometimes we learn the most about forgiveness when we realize how desperately we need it ourselves. So let us return to the events leading up to Jesus’ death. In those difficult hours, Peter gave his Master many things to forgive.

A Growing Need for Forgiveness

It was a momentous evening​—the final night of Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus had much still to teach his apostles​—for instance, about humility. Jesus set an example by humbly washing their feet, a job normally assigned to the lowliest of servants. At first, Peter questioned Jesus’ actions. Then he refused the service. Next he insisted that Jesus wash not only his feet but also his hands and head! Jesus did not lose his patience but calmly explained the importance and meaning of what he was doing.​—John 13:1-17.

 Shortly thereafter, though, the apostles fell to bickering over who of them was the greatest. Peter surely played a part in that shameful display of human pride. Nonetheless, Jesus corrected them kindly and even commended them for what they had done well​—showing faithfulness in sticking to their Master. He foretold, though, that they would all abandon him. Peter countered that he would stick with Jesus even in the face of death. Jesus prophesied that, on the contrary, Peter would deny his Master three times that very night before a cock crowed twice. Peter then not only contradicted Jesus but boasted that he would prove more faithful than all the other apostles!​—Matthew 26:31-35; Mark 14:27-31; Luke 22:24-28.

Was Jesus close to losing his patience with Peter? In fact, throughout this difficult time, Jesus kept looking for the good in his imperfect apostles. He knew that Peter would fail him, yet he said: “I have made supplication for you that your faith may not give out; and you, when once you have returned, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) Jesus thus expressed confidence in Peter’s spiritual recovery and return to faithful service. What a kind, forgiving spirit!

Later, in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter needed correction more than once. Jesus asked him, as well as James and John, to keep on the watch while He prayed. Jesus was in emotional agony and in need of support, but Peter and the others fell asleep repeatedly. Jesus made this empathetic and forgiving observation: “The spirit, of course, is eager, but the flesh is weak.”​—Mark 14:32-38.

Before long, a mob arrived, bearing torches and armed with swords and clubs. Here was a time to act with caution and discretion. Yet, Peter rashly leaped into action, swinging a sword at the head of Malchus, a slave of the high priest, and lopping off one of the man’s ears. Jesus calmly corrected Peter, healed the wound, and explained a principle of nonviolence that guides his followers to this day. (Matthew 26:47-55; Luke 22:47-51; John 18:10, 11) Peter had already given his Master much to forgive. His case may remind us that “we all stumble many times.” (James 3:2) Who of us does not need divine forgiveness every single day? For Peter, though, the night was far from over. Worse lay ahead.

Peter’s Worst Failure

Jesus reasoned with the mob that if they were looking for him, they should let his apostles go. Peter watched helplessly as the mob bound Jesus. Then Peter fled, as did his fellow apostles.

Peter and John stopped in their flight, perhaps near the house of the former High Priest Annas, where Jesus was first taken for questioning. As Jesus was led from there, Peter and John followed but “at a good distance.” (Matthew 26:58; John 18:12, 13) Peter was no coward. It surely took a measure of courage to follow at all. The mob was armed, and Peter had already wounded one of them. Still, we do not here see in Peter’s example the kind of loyal love that he himself had professed​—a willingness to die by his Master’s side if need be.​—Mark 14:31.

Like Peter, many today seek to follow Christ “at a good distance”​—in such a way that no one else will notice. But as Peter himself later wrote, the only way to follow Christ properly is to stick as close to him as we can, imitating his example in all things, regardless of the consequences.​—1 Peter 2:21.

 Peter’s cautious steps finally brought him up to the gate of one of Jerusalem’s most imposing mansions. It was the home of Caiaphas, the wealthy and powerful high priest. Such homes were usually built around a courtyard, with a gate in the front. Peter reached the gate and was refused entrance. John, who was already inside, came and got the gatekeeper to admit Peter. It seems that Peter did not stick close to John; nor did he try to get inside the house to stand at his Master’s side. He stayed in the courtyard, where some slaves and servants were passing the chilly night hours in front of a bright fire, watching as the false witnesses against Jesus paraded in and out of the trial going on inside.​—Mark 14:54-57; John 18:15, 16, 18.

In the firelight, the girl who had admitted Peter at the gate was able to see him better. She knew him. She said, accusingly: “You, too, were with Jesus the Galilean!” Caught off guard, Peter denied knowing Jesus​—or even understanding what the girl was talking about. He went to stand near the gateway, trying to be inconspicuous, but another girl noticed him and pointed out the same fact: “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” Peter swore: “I do not know the man!” (Matthew 26:69-72) Perhaps it was after this second denial that Peter heard a cock crowing, but he was too distracted to be reminded of the prophecy Jesus had uttered just hours earlier.

A little while later, Peter was still trying desperately to escape notice. But a group of people standing around in the courtyard approached. One of them was related to Malchus, the slave whom Peter had wounded. He said to Peter: “I saw you in the garden with him, did I not?” Peter felt driven to convince them that they were wrong. So he swore to the matter, evidently saying that a curse should come upon him if he was lying. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a cock crowed​—the second one Peter heard that night.​—John 18:26, 27; Mark 14:71, 72.

Jesus had just come out onto a balcony overlooking the courtyard. In that moment, described at the outset, his eyes met Peter’s. It dawned on Peter just how terribly he had failed his Master. Peter left the courtyard, crushed by the weight of his own guilt. He headed into the streets of the city, his way lit by the sinking full moon. The sights swam before his eyes. The tears welled up. He broke down and wept bitterly.​—Mark 14:72; Luke 22:61, 62.

 In the wake of such a fall, it is all too easy for a person to assume that his sin is too terrible for forgiveness to be possible. Peter may have wondered as much himself. Was it so?

Was Peter Beyond Forgiveness?

It is hard to imagine the depth of Peter’s pain as the morning broke and the events of the day unfolded. How he must have reproved himself when Jesus died that afternoon after hours of torment! Peter must have shuddered to think of how he had added to his Master’s pain on what turned out to be the last day of His life as a man. Deep though the abyss of his sadness surely was, Peter did not give in to despair. We know as much because we soon find him in association with his brothers again. (Luke 24:33) No doubt all the apostles regretted how they had behaved on that dark night, and they brought one another a measure of comfort.

In a way, we here see Peter in one of his finer moments. When a servant of God falls, what matters most is not the depth of his fall but the strength of his determination to get up again, to set matters right. (Proverbs 24:16) Peter showed genuine faith by gathering with his brothers despite his low spirits. When one is burdened by sadness or regret, isolation is tempting but dangerous. (Proverbs 18:1) The wise course is to stay close to fellow believers and regain spiritual strength.​—Hebrews 10:24, 25.

Because he was with his spiritual brothers, Peter got to hear the shocking report that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb. Peter and John ran to the tomb where Jesus had been buried and the door sealed. John, likely a younger man, arrived first. Finding the door of the tomb open, he hesitated. Not Peter. Winded though he was, he went straight in. It was empty!​—John 20:3-9.

Did Peter believe that Jesus had been resurrected? Not at first, even though  faithful women reported that angels had appeared to them to announce that Jesus had risen from the dead. (Luke 23:55–24:11) But by the end of that day, all traces of sadness and doubt in Peter’s heart had melted away. Jesus lived, now a mighty spirit! He appeared to all his apostles. He did something else first, though, something private. The apostles said that day: “For a fact the Lord was raised up and he appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34) Similarly, the apostle Paul later wrote about that remarkable day that Jesus “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:5) Cephas and Simon are other names for Peter. Jesus appeared to him that day​—evidently when Peter was alone.

In the Bible, the details of that touching reunion are left between Jesus and Peter. We can only imagine how moved Peter was to see his beloved Lord alive again and to have an opportunity to express his sorrow and repentance. More than anything in the world, he wanted forgiveness. Who can doubt that Jesus extended it, and in abundance at that? Christians today who fall into sin need to remember Peter’s case. Never should we assume that we are beyond the reach of divine forgiveness. Jesus perfectly reflected his Father, who “will forgive in a large way.”​—Isaiah 55:7.

Further Proof of Forgiveness

Jesus told his apostles to go to Galilee, where they would meet him again. When they arrived, Peter decided to go out fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Several others accompanied him. Once again, Peter found himself on the lake where he had spent much of his earlier life. The creaking of the boat, the lapping of the waves, the feel of the coarse nets in his hands must all have seemed comfortingly familiar. Did he wonder that night just how he should direct his life now that Jesus’ earthly ministry was over? Did the simple life of a fisherman beckon? In any case, they caught no fish all that night.​—Matthew 26:32; John 21:1-3.

At dawn, though, a figure called from the shore and urged them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They complied and pulled in a great catch of 153 fish! Peter knew who that person was. He leaped from the boat and swam ashore. On the beach, Jesus gave them a meal of fish cooked over charcoal. He focused on Peter.

Jesus asked Peter if he loved his Lord “more than these”​—evidently pointing to the large haul of fish. In Peter’s heart, would love for the fishing business compete with love for Jesus? Just as Peter had denied his Lord three times, Jesus now gave him the opportunity to affirm his love three times before his fellows. As Peter did so, Jesus told him how to show that love: by putting sacred service ahead of all else, feeding and shepherding Christ’s flock, his faithful followers.​—John 21:4-17.

Jesus thus confirmed that Peter was still useful to him and to his Father. Peter would  fill a valuable role in the congregation under Christ’s direction. What powerful proof of Jesus’ full forgiveness! Surely that mercy touched Peter, and he took it to heart.

Peter faithfully carried out his assignment for many years. He strengthened his brothers, as Jesus had commanded on the eve of His death. Peter worked kindly and patiently at shepherding and feeding Christ’s followers. The man called Simon came to live up to the name Jesus gave him​—Peter, or Rock—​by becoming a steady, strong, reliable force for good in the congregation. Much evidence to that effect is found in the two warm, personal letters Peter wrote that became valuable books of the Bible. Those letters show, too, that Peter never forgot the lesson he learned from Jesus about forgiveness.​—1 Peter 3:8, 9; 4:8.

May we learn that lesson as well. Do we daily ask God’s forgiveness for our many errors? Do we then accept that forgiveness and believe in its power to cleanse us? And do we extend forgiveness to those around us as well? If we do, we will imitate the faith of Peter​—and the mercy of his Master.

[Blurb on page 22]

Peter gave his Master much to forgive, but who of us does not need forgiveness every day?

[Picture on page 23]

“The Lord turned and looked upon Peter”

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“The Lord . . . appeared to Simon!”