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The Message of Mistakes

Spiritual failure is the result of a long process of spiritual mistakes.

Have you ever wondered why there is so much failure recorded in the Bible? It's obvious to even a casual reader of this book that its pages are strewn with the wreckage of men and women who have failed in their faith.

These facts of failure tell me two very important things about this book. They tell me first of all that God, not man, wrote it. Man tends to gloss over the sins of his contemporaries. He whitewashes his fellow man. But not God. When he paints the portrait of a man, he paints him warts and all. But these facts of failure also tell me that the God who wrote this book is a God of grace who wanted me to profit from the experience of failure in the lives of others. So these failures are like flashing red lights that say, "Watch out," "Caution," "Danger," "It can happen here."

There is no more familiar failure in all the Bible than the one detailed in Mark 14, where you have a record of the defection of Peter. But I'd like to suggest for your thinking tonight that Peter's failure was not a blowout; it was a slow leak. In fact, it always is in the spiritual realm. Oh, I know it appears as if someone drops over the side of a precipice, but may I remind you that all you are seeing is the end product of a process that has been developing for some time.

I'd like to trace the process of Peter's failure so that you and I might not fall into the same trap.

Peter's first mistake was boasting in his flesh.

In verses 2731, Peter made the first mistake. That's the mistake of boasting too much. Our Lord said, "All of you will fall away, for it is written, 'I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.' But after I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee. But Peter"

Whenever Peter entered the narrative, it was always with a thud. This man had a tremendous facility for opening his mouth, putting both feet into it, and wondering why he couldn't walk. He had the original hoof and mouth disease. Peter said, "Even though all others fail you, I will not. Lord, I don't know about the rest of these men, but you can count on me."

And our Lord in grace attempted to stab him awake by saying, "Peter, it's sooner than you think. I tell you the truth, today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice, you yourself will disown me three times."

But Peter insisted emphatically, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And the writer added a P.S.: All the others said the same. Peter was merely the spokesman for the group. "Why, Lord, my devotion is so great it's willing to go to the point of death."

What was Peter's problem? Peter's problem was not insincerity. I think Peter meant exactly what he said. In fact, I seriously question if he was ever more sincere than he was on this occasion. As we're going to see in a moment, he was willing to take on a hundred men to back up that claim. No, Peter's problem was not insincerity. Peter's problem was ignorance, and that's also your problem and mine. Whenever you say, "Lord, you can count on me," you're about to step on a spiritual banana peel. You're going to sprawl in the faith.

Shortly after I became a Christian, someone wrote in the flyleaf of my Bible these words: "When I try, I fail. When I trust, He succeeds." There's a world of theology wrapped in that couplet. The flesh only knows one thing, and that's failure. God has no program for your flesh. If you should live to know Jesus Christ for 40, 50, even 60 years, you will still be capable of all of the heinous sins described in the Scriptures.

But the flesh is in contrast to the Spirit, who also knows only one thing, and that's success. And to the extent that you and I take each and every step by means of the Spirit, then and only then can we please him. Has the Spirit of God ever etched those six words that fell from the lips of our Savior on the ledger of your life: "Without me, you can do nothing"? Watch the danger of a misplaced confidence.

With such confidence, Peter prayed too little.

In verses 3242, we see the second mistake Peter made. He prayed too little. Mark the connection. Whenever you boast too much, you will always pray too little. You see, if I have adequate resources, why pray? If I've got adequate intellect, why pray? Prayer is the recognition that your need is not partial; it's total.

Jesus took a number of disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "My soul is deeply distressed and troubled. You stay here and keep watch." He went a little farther and fell on his knees, and then verse 37 says that "when he returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping." He said to Simon, "Simon, are you asleep?" In the Greek text, this is in the emphatic position and should be translated, "Peter, are you asleep? You're the last person in the world who should be asleep." But Peter was out like a light. And then he added that intriguing expression, "Could you not keep watch for one hour?"

Every now and then, someone builds a new church and asks me to suggest a verse of Scripture that would be appropriate for the front of their newly constructed auditorium. And I have thought. This would be a good one: "Could you not keep watch for one hour?"

You'll have to take this by faith, but I used to play baseball. This is back before the flood. I still enjoy a good professional game. Some time ago, in an effort to cultivate a neighbor for Jesus Christ, I invited him and his two boys to go with me and my sons to see a professional game. With all my interest in baseball, I've never seen a more boring game in my life. I just about fell asleep between pitches. But my neighbor was sitting on the edge of the chair, yelling his head off at what, I'll never know. Next Sunday we took him to church, and he was scarcely ten minutes into the service before he was in the second or third stage of anesthesia. Out like a light.

Then Jesus added that intriguing expression, "Watch and pray, so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body, the flesh, is weak." If your experience matches mine, the one area in your Christian life in which you are constantly shot down in flames is your prayer life. How do you account for that? There's not a man or a woman listening to me who needs an exhortation to pray. Jesus Christ said, "Men ought always to pray" and never to throw in the towel. The apostle Paul said, "Pray without interruption." James said, "You have not because you ask not. You ask and receive not, because you ask it amiss, that you may consume it upon your own lust."

Our failure in prayer is not an accident. It's the product of cultivation. Satan doesn't mind if you witness for Jesus Christ, just so you don't pray. He knows, if you don't, that it is far more important to talk to God about men than it is to talk to men about God. Satan doesn't mind if you study the Bible; he loves it. Just so you don't pray. Because then you'll develop a severe case of spiritual pride, and there's nothing more lethal. Satan doesn't mind your becoming compulsively, neurotically active down at the local church, either; just so you don't pray. Because then nothing will ever happen of significance anyway, though you'll think that because you're active, you're really doing something worthwhile for the cause of Jesus Christ.

I've discovered over the years that the one thing you cannot do is popularize prayer. I can announce that I'm going to give a prophetic series, and people come out from under the rocks. I can announce to a group of Christian people that we're going to talk on marriage and the family and get a substantial crowd. But announce we're going to have a prayer meeting, and it looks like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. You can't promote it. No P.R. program will ever bring people out to a prayer meeting, because prayer is the recognition that your need is not partial, it's total.

And therefore, Peter acted too soon.

A third mistake Peter made is found in verses 4350, and that's the mistake of acting too soon. Again, mark the connection. Whenever you boast too much, you're going to pray too little. If you say, "Lord, you can count on me," you're not going to count on him. And if you don't count on him, you're invariably going to act too soon.

Judas and a band of men armed with swords and clubs came under cover of darkness to seize our Savior, and verse 46 says, "The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near" another of the gospels tells us it was Peter "drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear."

There's a lot of humor in the Scripture, and this is a classic case in point. Here was Peter, absolutely exhausted, and perhaps as a result of the brandishing of the soldiers' swords or the scuffling of their feet, he came into partial consciousness and saw they were seizing the Lord. He said, "Man, now's the time to go into action!" and he whipped out a sword.

He had a few problems, however. Number one, he was sleepy. I can identify with him at that point. Somebody called me up in my home in Dallas some time ago and wanted to know if this was Joe's Tavern. It was about three o'clock in the morning, and I'm not sure I had the right end of the telephone up, much less was coherent in my response.

In the second place, Peter was angry. I used to wrestle occasionally, and the coach would say, "If you can ever get your opponent angry, you can whip him, because an angry man is never fully under control."

And in the third place, Peter was a fisherman, and fishermen make poor swordsmen. Roman soldiers, on the other hand, were required by law to practice a minimum of an hour a day, taking out a sword, pivoting, and bringing the weapon over their heads so they could get full leverage coming down. The helmets were welded right down the middle, so if you could hit the weld with enough force and accuracy, you could split the helmet, obviously disposing of the victim.

There's no question in my mind that this is what Peter was attempting to do, but he was slightly off target. And it fascinates me to put all the gospel accounts together, because it was at this point that the Lord said, "Peter, put your sword away. You don't understand what it's all about. If my purposes were carnal, I could summon twelve legions of angels, and they'd be dispatched from heaven in a moment and liquidate the enemy. My purposes are not carnal, Peter. Put your sword away."

Do you see his problem? It's the same one you and I face every single day of the week, sometimes half a dozen times in the morning. He was active when he should've been passive. And he was passive when he should've been active. When he should've been active in prayer, he was passive in sleep. And when he should've been passive in resignation to the will of God, he was active with the sword.

Do you ever find yourself in that situation? Someone calls you on the phone and says, "Myrt, I know I shouldn't tell you this, but" That doesn't sound right, so we usually add, "In order that you might pray more intelligently," and then we unload the gossip. "But you wouldn't tell anybody?"

"Oh, my, I wouldn't think about it." You can scarcely wait to get off the telephone, however, so you can get back on and pass it on to somebody else. Then less than a half hour goes by and you've got the choicest opportunity to share your faith, but it's as if you've got lockjaw. You're silent in 27 languages. Active when you should be passive. Passive when you should be active.

I wonder what price we have paid in the body of Christ for people who spend so much time acting in the flesh. I think of a dear friend of mine whom I regard so highly, who ministered the word for 40 years with distinction and power, but he grew bitter. Right at the end of his ministry, in the last message to his people, he shot his mouth off in the flesh. I prayed with him on a number of occasions, and I've never seen hotter tears course down the cheeks of a human being as he said, "Howie, I'd give everything if I could take that message back."

That happens in marriage, too. You wouldn't believe the things people say to each other in my presence. I wouldn't say them to a dog. But they say them to each other, and the other person never even flinches, because they've been hearing that for a long time. It's easy to get motivated in the flesh and decide, "Man, we've got to do something. Let's go into action." The result of such action is devastation, because we are not under the control of the Spirit and our actions are not bathed in prayer.

And Peter thought too little, too late.

Now look at the last mistake Peter made. Don't miss this or you miss everything. It's down in verses 6672. Peter made the mistake of thinking too little and too late. Verse 66 says, "While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by, and when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him and said, 'Hey, you also were with that Nazarene Jesus,' but he denied it. 'I don't know or understand what you're talking about, woman.' And when the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing by," more literally, she kept saying, "'This is one of them. This is one of them. This is one of them.'" Nothing like a persistent woman.

In a little while those standing near said to him, "Surely you're one of them, because you're a Galilean." I met a student at Dallas Seminary a few years ago, and the first time I ever saw him, we talked for a moment or two. I said, "What part of Canada are you from?"

He said, "How do you know I'm from Canada?"

I said, "Because I've beeeen there." You don't have to be around a person who has a true Texas accent very long before you know "Howdy, y'all." They've got the mark. And if you had a Galilean accent, it was thicker than a Bronx accent from New York. You could detect it just like that. But in verse 71, he began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, "I don't know this man you're talking about."

Who said that? The man who said, "You can count on me." The man who said, "My devotion is so great, it's willing to go to the point of death." And if you're sitting there saying, "Well, you know, Hendricks, that would never happen to me," you're already on the same road that Peter took.

Now look at the next statement in verse 72: "Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: 'Before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me three times.' And when he thought thereon, he wept." Peter thought, but unfortunately it was too little, and it was too late.

Julian the Apostate in the fourth century was determined to blot out every trace of Christianity. To his disgust, however, he discovered the law of spiritual thermodynamics. Namely, the greater the heat, the greater the expansion. The more he persecuted the church, the more the thing nourished. Finally, he got his scraggly band of disciples in an upper room and shouted to them, "Bah! Christianity provokes too much thinking. Why, even the slaves are thinking!" To a Roman mind, that was incredible, because the Romans said slaves do not think. But ladies and gentlemen, slaves do think under the impact of the Word of God. Do you?

The thing that disturbs me most about my own life and about the lives of my brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ is how often we are content to plow on through life doing the same things we have been doing without ever stopping and saying, "Hey, what's the significance of this? How does this line up with what the Scriptures teach?"

One of the wealthiest men in our community has the dubious distinction of having blown four children out of the saddle: one in prostitution, two in drugs, and the fourth one we've been looking for in every state of the union and 30 different countries for the last 10 years. He sat across from my desk one day and said to me, "Hendricks, I put my money on a dead horse."

If I were to say to that man today, "Sir, I will guarantee to get your four children back if you'll do one thing," you know what he'd say?

"What is it?"

I'd say, "If you will cut off your right arm, I'll guarantee to get your four kids back."

"Give me the knife," he'd answer. He's made that decision now, you see, but it's very late.

I believe one of the greatest needs in the body of Christ is for those of us who claim the Word of God to be the G truth to take time to think, How does this relate to what I am doing in light of eternity?

The most exciting thing about Peter's story is that his failure was not fatal. The first time the Lord met him he said, "Thou art Simon. Thou shalt be called Cephas," which by interpretation means "Rock." It took the Lord considerable time to get him Simonized, to get the Simon out of him and the Rock into him. But when he did, it was men of Peter's ilk of whom the pagan world testified, "These are they who have turned the world upside down."

If Peter could speak at Winona Lake at the Moody Conference, I think he would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, don't boast so much. Your need is not partial; it's total. Don't pray so little. Don't act so soon." Then I think he would pause and with a note of emphasis say, "And for God's sake, think before it's eternally too late."

Howard Hendricks is distinguished professor of Christian education at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas and chairman of the Center for Christian Leadership. His many books include Say It with Love, Teaching to Change Lives, and Mastering Teaching.

Howard Hendricks

Preaching Today Tape # 54


A resource of Christianity Today International

Dr. Howard Hendricks is chairman of the Center for Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also involved in ministry through books, publications, radio, and video.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Peter's first mistake was boasting in his flesh

II. With such confidence, Peter prayed too little

III. And therefore, Peter acted too soon

IV. And Peter thought too little, too late