Before The Rooster Crows
March 17, 1991
There are some sounds that we do not hear very often. One of them is the sound of a rooster crowing. In Chicago, you can hear almost anything, but you would probably have to go to a zoo to hear a rooster crowing. We have all the sounds that go with modern life—automobiles and buses, trains and trucks, sirens and whistles galore. In the crowded city you can hear kids yelling and music blaring, cash registers ringing and planes roaring overhead. But you will hardly ever hear a rooster crowing.
You have to go out of the city to hear that. Somewhere west or south of here. Somewhere out in farm country. Somewhere not as crowded or as frantic as Chicago.
If we heard a rooster crowing tomorrow morning at sunrise, we would hardly know what to do. Roosters don’t belong in the city. Everyone knows that. They belong out in the country where they can sound forth just before dawn and wake the sleepers with the news that a new day has come.
God made roosters for that reason. To serve as trumpets of the morning. To signal that a new day has come. To rouse the sleepers from their beds. To remind the kids to get up and milk the cows.
An Unforgettable Sound
Peter knew all about roosters. After all, you couldn’t live in a rural area like Galilee and not get used to the daily singing of the rooster chorus. He had heard roosters crowing since the day he was born. The sound was as familiar to him as the sound of a radio alarm would be to us today. The rooster’s crow meant, “Wake up! Get up! A new day is beginning!”
Over the years he had heard that sound a thousand times or more. But of all the times and of all the roosters, he only remembered one time and one rooster and one sound.
It happened one Friday morning in Jerusalem. The rooster crowed, and Peter never forgot it. As long as he lived, he never forgot it, and he never tired of telling the story. In fact, he told the story so often that it was written down four different times—once by Matthew, once by Mark, once by Luke, and once by John.
And the story itself was repeated over and over again by the first generation of Christians. They never forgot it and they never tired of telling it. It became one of the most familiar and best-loved parts of the gospel story.
And for 2,000 years this story—told and re-told, embellished with vivid detail—has encouraged Christians in every land. Wherever the story of Jesus’ arrest is told, the story of Peter and the rooster is sure to be told as well. We love this story because we understand it and because we can see ourselves in it. Few Bible stories speak to us as this one does.
The venerable old Matthew Henry—writing over 300 years ago—divided this story into two parts—Part 1—Peter’s Fall and Part II—Peter’s Getting-Up Again. We will follow that simple outline as we look at this story. As we do, let us thank God that, although Peter fell, he did indeed get up again!
It is late on Thursday night in Jerusalem. Jesus has just been arrested and taken away to the house of the high priest. Most of the disciples are nowhere to be found. They are gone, scattered, drifted off into the darkness, too shocked and too angry by the actions of Judas to do anything else.
When the crowd of soldiers led Jesus away, Peter decided to follow them. He had promised never to desert Jesus, and he wasn’t going to start now. In the confusion it was easy to tag along behind the crowd. No one seemed to notice him. Certainly no one recognized him as one of Jesus’ top men.
He followed the crowd to the house of the high priest. The house opened onto a courtyard which could only be entered through a gate near the alley. By the time Peter got there, the soldiers had taken Jesus inside to meet the high priest. The crowd had partly dispersed, it being late and the major excitement over for the time being. Some had gone home, others were warming themselves by a fire in the courtyard. It was early April and the temperature had dropped into the upper forties.
It was hard for Peter to tell exactly how many people were there. Fifty maybe, or maybe more. There were soldiers milling about and servant girls running errands. Plus there were hangers-on and passers-by (exactly the category Peter himself fit into) who were waiting to see what would happen to this fellow Jesus.
In order to understand what happens next, it helps to remember that it is now sometime after midnight. In the darkness Peter comes to the gate and waits to be admitted. No one there knows who he is (he thinks), so it should be perfectly safe for him to go in. True, he is now in enemy territory but it’s the middle of the night, and there’s no reason for them to suspect him. Armed with that thought, he brushes past the servant girl on his way to stand by the fire in the courtyard.
Denial By Deception
Just as he was getting to the fire, the servant girl spoke up and said, “You were with that Nazarene, Jesus from Galilee.” The words hit Peter like an electric shock. Somehow she recognized him. How did she know him? No one knows. It really didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter that she didn’t know his name. What mattered was that somehow she had connected him with Jesus.
Peter had to think fast. Instinctively, he muttered out the oldest dodge in the world, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” That’s right. Just play dumb. Act like you don’t know what she’s talking about.
It worked. Or at least Peter thought it worked. But as he stood around the fire talking to the soldiers, he noticed two or three people looking at him closely. Too closely. Too carefully. One or two were nodding in his direction and whispering.
Minutes passed and Peter turned to walk out of the courtyard. Things were getting a little dicey. As he did, a second servant girl (a friend of the first), suddenly spoke up: “This fellow is one of them.” Peter tried to act calm but he felt his heart pounding in his chest. Quick now, you’ve got to say something. Think. Think. Don’t just stand there. So he said, “I don’t know the man.” But when he said it, his face was flushed and he could tell the girl didn’t believe him.
“Dammit, I Don’t Know Him”
Peter knew that he was in real trouble. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s in the enemy camp warming himself around the enemy’s fire. If he tried to leave now, that would arouse even more suspicion. But if he stayed, they might find him out.
More time passed, with more looks and whispers directed at him. After about an hour, it appeared that Jesus’ interview with the high priest was about over. The guards were going to and from the house and the tempo in the courtyard picked up. Peter breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he would get out of this after all.
It was just at that moment that a man spoke up from the other side of the fire. He sounded more sure of himself and definitely more hostile than the servant girls. “Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove?” Peter looked up at him and tried to play dumb. This time it didn’t work. Evidently this fellow had gone with the crowd to arrest Jesus. Worse, he was a relative of Malchus, the man whose ear Peter had impulsively cut off.
Peter was trapped and he knew it. This fellow had seen him with Jesus. Plus, he was plenty ticked off about what Peter had done. When a man is backed into a corner, he will do almost anything to save himself. In this case, Peter began to curse and swear.
“Dammit, I don’t know him. Why don’t you leave me alone? May God strike me dead if I have ever heard of this man Jesus.” The words just came tumbling out, old words born of fear and exhaustion. Words Peter hadn’t used since his days as a fisherman.
At the very instant the words flew from his mouth, a rooster began to crow.
Afraid And Exhausted
Now that the story is laid before us, we should begin to ask some questions, chief among them being what possessed Peter to deny knowing Jesus. The answer is not difficult to find. Peter was scared and he was tired. That doesn’t excuse his conduct, but it does make it understandable. After all that had happened, Peter finally ran out of strength.
Consider the matter from his point of view. Jesus’ case appeared to be hopeless. The chief priests had him at last and they would not let go until he was dead. That much was clear. What point would there be in sticking your neck out?
Besides that, Peter is tired and lonely and cold and a little bit disoriented. Plus—and this is a big factor—he never expected to be questioned by a servant girl. Her question caught him totally off-guard, and he blurted out an answer almost without thinking. But once he denied knowing Jesus there was no turning back. He had to play out the string.
The Devil’s Hounds Run In Packs
That’s part of the irony of this story. Peter denied Christ to a servant girl. Not to the high priest. Not to a soldier. Not to anyone important. But to a menial maid.
I think Peter was ready to die for Christ that night. Just two hours earlier he was whacking off somebody’s ear. No, Peter was no coward. And he knew the risk involved in going to the courtyard of the high priest. And I think (though I cannot prove this) that if Peter had been brought before the high priest he would have said, “Yes, I am a follower of Jesus” and with a smile on his face, he would have followed his Master to the cross. That’s the kind of man he was.
What happened? He was totally unprepared to be questioned by a servant girl. She caught him off guard and he lied about knowing Jesus. But one lie leads on to another. As Alexander Maclaren put it, “One sin makes many. The Devil’s hounds run in packs.”
Peter’s Seven Great Mistakes
What happened to Peter was no fluke. He set himself up by a long string of bad decisions. Here are the seven great mistakes he made that night:
1. He talked when he should have been listening. At the Last Supper, when Jesus said that all his disciples would desert him, Peter impulsively blurted out, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.” Within 6 hours Peter would come to regret those brave words.
2. He didn’t appreciate his own weakness.
3. He ignored Jesus’ warning.
4. He followed afar off. He followed Jesus, but at a distance, when he should have been at his elbow. In this case, following Jesus afar off only got him in more trouble.
5. He warmed himself at the wrong fire. Peter had no business warming himself in the company of the enemies of the Lord. As one writer put it, “If his faith had not already frozen, he would not have needed to warm himself by the fire.” By consorting with those who had arrested Jesus, Peter was placing himself in a position where he would almost certainly be exposed. Peter warmed himself by the wrong fire until things got too hot for him.
6. He was unprepared when the attack came.
7. He compounded his sin by first deceiving, then denying and finally swearing. But this was inevitable. Peter set himself up for a fall and when it came, it was a big one. “O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” It is interesting to note that Peter fooled only himself. The others never really believed him. They sensed he was lying. Something in his face and the tone of his voice gave him away.
And so it was that Peter—the “Rock”—had crumbled in the critical moment. He had denied his Lord not once, but three times. It was a failure he would remember for the rest of his days. As we think of it, let us take to heart the words of I Corinthians 10:12, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”
Peter’s Getting Up Again
There were four steps in Peter’s return to the Lord:
1. The Rooster’s Crow. The gospels are unanimous on one point. The rooster crowed at the exact moment of Peter’s third denial. As the foul words flew out of his mouth—at that very instant—from some-where off in the distance a rooster began to crow.
The rooster crowed, and Peter remembered. William Hendriksen put it this way, “This hidden memory will pull the rope that will ring the bell of Peter’s conscience.”
Suddenly it all became clear. How rash he had been only six hours earlier, how cocky he had been, how confi-dent of his own strength, how sure of his own abilities. The sound of the rooster meant, “Peter, I warned you this would happen and you didn’t believe me.”
2. The Look of Jesus. Luke’s account of this story contains one detail the others omit. Luke 22:61 says that when the rooster crowed, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” Since this was the middle of the night, it must have happened just as the guards were taking Jesus from his interview with Caiaphas to his trial before the Sanhedrin. Evidently the guards were leading Jesus through the courtyard just as Peter was denying Christ for the third time. In that tiny moment of time, Peter cursed, the rooster crowed, Peter looked up and saw Jesus looking directly at him.
By this time Jesus’ face is black and blue, his eyes almost swollen shut, his cheeks bruised and covered with spittle. A trace of blood trickles from his lips. Even though it is in the dead of night, Peter can see him perfectly in the firelight. And Jesus can see him.
He doesn’t say a word. He looks at Peter who has denied him for the third time. Everything has happened just as he predicted.
A. It was a convicting look. “You said you did not know me. Look at me, Peter. Look at me. Do you not know me?”
B. It was a compassionate look. “Peter, how weak you are. Now you know that without me you can do nothing.”
C. It was a commissioning look. “Weep, Peter, and remember your words. Then go and strengthen your brothers.”
3. The words of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke all stress that when the rooster crowed, Peter remem-bered the words of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” It was this memory more than anything else that brought Peter back to God. Not only had Peter fallen, he had fallen after his vain boasting. It had happened just as Jesus predicted. Those words—spoken in love—had lodged themselves deep within the crevasses of Peter’s mind. So much had happened in those few hours that Peter had forgotten. But at the opportune moment, he remembered what Jesus had said.
4. Peter’s tears. The words used mean that Peter wept bitterly. They are a sign of his deep repentance. He realized at last what he had done, how far he had fallen, how his denials had hurt the Lord.
But Judas wept, too. His tears led to suicide; Peter’s tears led to repentance. Tears are good if they lead to a new devotion to Jesus Christ and a new determination to serve him. We may weep and weep, but if our hearts are not made tender and open before the Lord, our tears do us no good. For Peter, his tears signaled the breaking of his heart because of his sin. As the Psalmist said, “A broken and contrite heart, O Lord, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
His Courage, Not His Faith
I conclude from all of this that Peter was fundamentally loyal to Jesus Christ. After all, at least he followed Jesus into the courtyard. The rest of the disciples wouldn’t even do that. In the words of William Barclay:
Peter fell to a temptation that could only come to a brave man. The man of courage always runs more risks than the man who seeks a placid safety. Liability to temptation is the price that a man pays when he is adventurous in mind and action. (Luke, p. 270)
Peter didn’t handle himself well, but at least he was there. His failure was terrible, but at least he cared enough to try and follow his Lord. That doesn’t excuse his sin, but it does help us see the bigger picture.
In the end, it was not Peter’s faith that failed, but his courage. Jesus had told Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith might not fail.” (Luke 22:32). His prayer was answered. Peter never lost his faith; in the moment of crisis, he lost his courage.
It is true that Peter was loud, profane and vulgar that night. It is also true that underneath it all he loved Jesus and was there in the courtyard—with all his faults—keeping an eye on him. At heart Peter was a good man who failed to live up to the best intentions of his heart.
Three Abiding Lessons
1. Satan often attacks us at the point of our strength, not the point of our weakness. After all, had not Peter boldly said, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you?” If you had asked Peter six hours earlier to name his strong points, no doubt he would have listed bold-ness and courage right at the top. He would have said, “Sometimes I put my foot in my mouth, but at least I’m not afraid to speak up. Jesus knows that I’ll always be there when he needs me.”
But when Satan attacked, it came so suddenly, so swiftly, so unexpectedly that the “bold apostle turned to butter.” By himself Peter is helpless. In the moment of crisis, Peter fails in the very point where he pledged to be eternally faithful.
Should this surprise us? After all, why should Satan attack only in the point of your self-perceived weakness? If you know you have a weakness, that’s the very area you will guard most carefully. If you know you have a problem with anger or with laziness or with lust or with gluttony, will you not be on your guard lest you fall?
But it is not so with your strengths. You take those areas for granted. You say, “That’s not a problem for me. I have other problems, but that area is not really a temptation at all.”
Watch out! Put up the red flag! There is danger ahead. When a person takes any area of life for granted, that’s the one area Satan is most likely to attack. Why? Because that’s the one area where you aren’t watching for his attack.
It happened to Peter. It will happen to you and to me sooner or later.
2. God allows us to fail in order to strip away our excessive self-confidence. Never again would Peter brag on himself like he did that night. Never again would he presume to be better than his brothers. Never again would he be so cocky and self-confident. All that was gone forever, part of the price Peter paid for his failure in the moment of crisis.
It is a good thing that the Lord allows this to happen to us. By falling flat on our faces we are forced to admit that without the Lord we can do nothing but fail. The quicker we learn that (and we never learn it completely) the better off we will be. Failure never seems to be a good thing when it happens, but if failure strips away our cocky self-confidence, then failure is ultimately a gift from God.
A few years ago I was at a major turning point in my life. As I agonized over the choice I must make, some dear friends came to give me their candid advice. At the time I did not want to hear what they had to say. It was (I thought ) not given in love. I felt they were harsh and judgmental in the things they said.
As I listened I got angrier and angrier until I lost my temper and said some things that I came later to deeply regret. I used words that I would never repeat here. Anger boiled over within me and words spewed out like hot lava from a volcano. After it was over, I sat shaking in my chair, frightened at the rage that had been pent up within me.
Days passed and the anger within subsided very slowly. It was as though once the top had been blown off, I couldn’t get it back on again. My anger flared up every time I thought of that confrontation.
A month later while attending a conference in another state I happened to meet a man who was to become a close personal friend. One night we stayed up late and I told, in exhaustive detail, the story of my personal explosion. As I told it, I got angry all over again.
My friend listened to the whole sordid tale and then he spoke. “Ray, you are a lucky man. What happened to you was a sign of God’s grace.” I thought he was crazy when he said that, but he continued. “For many years you’ve had the image of a man completely in control of his life. You appear on the outside to be laid-back. If anyone had said, ‘Do you have a temper?’, you would have laughed and said, ‘Not really.’ You can’t say that anymore. It’s as if God reached down and pulled back the cover off your life and showed you your depravity. From now on you can never say, ‘I don’t have a temper,’ because you do. God let you say those terrible things to your friends so that you could never again pretend to be something that you are not. That’s the grace of God at work in your life.”
I believe every word my friend said was absolutely true. God let me fail in the moment of crisis and in so doing, he showed me a part of myself I had never seen before.
That’s what he did for Peter. Never again would Peter stand up and boast about his courage. In the future he would talk about humility instead.
3. God can redeem your mistakes if you will let him. I notice two interesting facts about the way Jesus treated Peter: 1. He never criticized him and, 2. He never gave up on him. Jesus knew about Peter’s denial long before it happened. He knew what Peter would do, he knew how he would react, and he knew the kind of man Peter would be afterward.
There is an important principle at work here. A bone that is broken often becomes stronger after it is healed. Something in the healing process actually makes the break point stronger than it was before. The same is true of a rope that breaks. In the hands of a master splicer, the rope once repaired, will be stronger than it was before.
The same thing is true of our failures. God can take us where we are broken and make us stronger than we were before. Though we fall and fall and fall, and though our faces are covered with the muck and grime of bitter defeat, by God’s grace we can rise from the field of defeat to march on to new victory.
That’s what happened to Peter. His guilt was turned into grace; his shame into sympathy; his failure into faithfulness.
Here is the proof: Peter did much more for Jesus Christ after his fall than he did before. Before his fall, he was loud, boisterous and unreliable; afterward he became a flaming preacher of the gospel. Before he was a big talker; afterward he talked only of what Jesus Christ could do for others. He was the same man, but he was different. He was still Peter through and through, but he had been sifted by Satan and in the sifting the chaff of his life had been blown away.
This is what Peter lost in his failure:
His rash impulsiveness
This is what Peter gained after his restoration:
New confidence in God
New determination to serve Jesus Christ
A willingness to use his experience to help others
The things he lost he didn’t really need; the things he gained couldn’t have come any other way. In the same way God redeems our mistakes by removing the things that brought us down and replacing them with the qualities we always wanted but couldn’t seem to find.
Hope For The Fallen
There is much in this story that should encourage us. It was not the real Peter who denied the Lord; it was the real Peter who followed him into the courtyard. It was not the real Peter who cursed and swore; it was the real Peter who said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” When the Lord looks at you and me, he doesn’t look at us and see only our failures. He sees beyond our faults to the loyalty underneath. He sees our pain, our tears and our earnest desire to please him. He sees us in our faltering attempts to follow him.
To whom does this story apply? First of all, to you who are being tempted, who feel the pull of circumstances conspiring to draw you away from the Lord. Take heart! Do you feel weak and confused? Peter felt that way, too. Are you discouraged about your life? Peter felt discouraged, too. Do you feel backed into a corner? So did Peter. This story is for you.
Second, this story is for those who have fallen. Perhaps you gave way under pressure this week. Perhaps you carry a load of guilt from some thoughtless words spoken in haste. Perhaps you denied the Lord by keeping quiet at work when you should have spoken up. Perhaps you have used vile language this week—even if only spoken under your breath. Perhaps you have been where you ought not to have been. Perhaps you have found yourself in a relationship that you know is wrong. Take heart! Peter not only felt like you, he also fell like you.
Third, this story is for those who are coming back to God. Perhaps you know all about weeping bitter tears. Do you feel as if God is far away from you? Does it seem as if you are trudging across a vast desert all alone? Do you feel embarrassed and humiliated by the things you did and said that got you in the mess you’re in? Take heart! Peter felt that way, too.
No story in all the Bible gives us more hope. If Peter can fall, anybody can fall. If Peter can come back, anybody can come back.
“Look What Happened To Me”
One final point. Where did this story come from? How did it get in the Bible? Who told this story in the first place? It could only have come from Peter. No one else was there to tell what happened.
We wouldn’t have done that. We hide our mistakes to make sure no one finds out about them. Not Peter. Once he was restored, he couldn’t stop talking about what Jesus had done for him.
Peter still speaks to us today. “If you think you’ve fallen short, if you feel like you’ve denied him, look at what happened to me. Do not despair. God still loves you, and He loves you so much that it doesn’t matter what you’ve done. If God can forgive me, He can forgive anybody. He loves you, He always has and He always will.
There is hope for all of us—the best of us, the worst of us, and the rest of us. If you have fallen, he can pick you up again. If you are broken, He can make you whole again. If you have failed, He can make you useful again. If you have lost your courage, He can give it back to you again.
Take heart and believe the good news. If He did it for Peter, He can do it for you.