34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
36 Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards.
37 Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
38 Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.
Peter, ready to fight, was willing to lay down his life, but the Lord foretold his denials.
I remember studying The Life of Christ in Stereo about 30 years ago. The book is an effort to sandwich all four of the gospels together in a time line. If I recall correctly, the book makes a compelling case for Peter denying Christ not three times, but instead six times. Evidently John is only recording half of the conversation here, as it is evident elsewhere that Jesus makes 2 statements concerning Peter’s denial: 1) Before the cock crows, thou shalt deny me thrice, and 2) Before the cock crows twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. At first I remember thinking it was just a slight forget, the word twice, and that it would be expected of witnesses who may or may not have heard it directly.
But what is so compelling about the case is the number of people who accuse Peter of being one of Jesus’ disciples. There are many more than three, and when lined up in the harmonizing of the gospels, it is fairly evident that Peter denied his Lord six times. I think it likely, though the evidence is not there, that those hearing the conversation either only heard part of it, or only recorded part of it. I think most probably that Peter came back to the Lord, insisting that he would never deny his Lord, and it was then that the Lord says that before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times, thus suggesting to Peter that it would happen six times.
As I think on it, I realize I may never know, and I realize that is wonderful. Peter has had enough of his sins out there for thousands of years, and for millions of people to look at. I would find that embarrassing enough, without everyone trying to figure out after we get to heaven whether it really was three times, or was it six? I remember the promise of God, that He will cast our sins into the depths of the sea, and will remember them no more. What a beautiful thing forgiveness is! My sins, ever before me, will be forgotten as my Lord and my God makes me into a new creature!
By this, says Jesus, will the world know that you are my disciples, that you love one another. It is love for my fellow disciples that witnesses to the world. It is my love to my brothers in Christ that will have powerful pull on the unsaved. When I think of all the times we have not begun to find love, when it should have been the first thing to look for, I shudder to think of my personal failure. Recently I was reading letters from Wesley to Whitefield and back again. Both men were most careful to express love to each other even in their disagreements about election and free will. At least in that instance, both set an example that teaches me how I should behave towards my brothers: love first, and disagreements always set behind that love. As the Word reminds me, “love covers a multitude of sins.”
Only the last three verses of this hymn, because they are especially appropriate to the topic:
There's a Wideness in God's Mercy
10. It is God: His love looks mighty,
But is mightier than it seems;
'Tis our Father: and His fondness
Goes far out beyond our dreams.
11. But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
12. Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?
Lyrics: Frederick William Faber