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Sorrow That Worketh Repentance

Midnight at the Mount of Olives. The full Passover moon is shining in the Syrian sky, bathing mountain, valley, hillside, plain, and the ancient city of David in its soft light. Below us is the valley of Kedron, and on the other side rise the huge walls of Jerusalem with their tremendous foundations and massive gates. Within the walls we can see the Temple of Herod, its great door of Corinthian brass – the Gate Beautiful – plainly visible in the moonlight. Silence reigns everywhere. Not a stir of life on this mountainside; not a light; nor a sound of traffic from the distant city.

But now the silence is broken. Walking down the slope of Olivet and through the Garden of Gethsemane, where the ancient olive trees cast their shadows over the ground, suddenly we hear a voice of anguish. It is the sound of sobbing. It is the voice of a man crying. I have heard all kinds of crying. I have heard the cry of a little child that was lost. I have heard the cry of a young woman betrayed and abandoned by a faithless lover. I have heard the cry of a mother over the grave of her child. And the Scriptures mark the pleading cry of a young bride whose husband has been lost in battle. But the cry that has always moved me the most is the cry of a strong man. That is what we hear tonight in the shadows of Gethsemane at the midnight hour.

Who is the man that is crying so strongly and so bitterly? It is Simon. The one called by his friend and his Lord in the Aramaic language… Cephas. He has come here from the palace of Caiaphas, where only an hour ago, he cursed and denied his Lord. That is the meaning behind these terrible tears and the voice of agony that echoes through Gethsemane.

What was it, Peter, that brought you to this place? Were there not other nearer, and equally secluded places where you could have gone and knelt alone in your anguish? Was it because you felt that the only fitting place for you to shed your tears was where your Lord shed His tears of blood while you slept, unhearing and unheeding? Yet in the echo of your sobs and cries, we hear the note of hope and restoration. Yours, Peter, is the sorrow that worketh repentance. Yours is godly sorrow.

For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation
2 Corinthians 7.10a

Peter had been well warned that night (Mark 14.38). One would have thought that the special admonition would have kept him awake there in the Garden when Jesus entered into His agony. And in a way, the Christ must have thought so too, for it was Peter’s name that He spoke. When the mob came and manhandled Jesus, it was Peter who drew a sword and struck a great blow at one whom he saw maltreating his Lord (John 18.10). There was no sign of cowardice or weakness. Here was a man who was ready to take on a whole Roman legion! He was ready to die. And yet, Peter is on the path to a terrible disaster and shameless fall.

Yonder is the procession down the slopes of Gethsemane, across the bridge over the Kedron, up the winding road, and through the gate into the city. You can see their torches dancing in the night, and the sound in your ears of the hoarse murmur of the voice of the mob. And there is Peter following, but afar off; now secreting himself behind a great olive tree; now crouching down behind a wall. He is determined to see where they take Jesus and what becomes of Him. Yet he is fearful for his safety as he is the only one of the disciples who dared to assault one of the bodyguards of the high priest.

He did not openly desert or forsake Christ, but he followed Him afar. Have you never done so? When an army is on the march in a hostile country, it is easy for armed bands to cut off stragglers. A straggler is easy prey. So the question becomes: How near are you to Christ? How wide is the gap between you and your Lord?

Peter was a friend to Christ, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. Playing the part of the hypocrite, he tries hard to make his provincial Galilean accent sound just like that of the Judeans among whom he is sitting. But there is something that always betrays the man: for thy speech betrayeth thee (Matthew 26.73).

The stage is now set for Peter’s fall. There is a sequence to sin. One sin opens the gate to another. He had commenced by denial and lying, and now it seemed to Peter that there was no other way for him but to brazen it out.

O, what a tangled web we weave

When first we practice to deceive!

Sir Walter Scott

Although some might label his actions of denial as hypocritical, his early devotion was not a lie. He was too devout and there were too many instances in his life of unselfish service to God and to others. A hypocrite never lives like that. No, his early life was not a lie, but perhaps, as he warmed himself by the fire outside the palace of the high priest, in a moment of weakness, some could argue that he was. But I would rather conclude that when he disavowed Christ, in his heart he knew that such a denial itself was a lie.

No story in all of the Holy Writ is more tender or human than the night Peter denied Christ. Peter fell from the Lord, denying the Christ three times. No sooner had Peter denied Christ the third time, the cock crowed, and Christ turned and looked at Peter. There must have been something in that look. That was the last look Peter saw from Christ.

And Peter said, Man, I know not what thou sayest. And immediately, while he yet spake, the cock crew. And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.
Luke 22.60-62

How many times had Peter heard a cock crow? But now it was different. The voice of God, the voice of conscience, was speaking in the crowing of a rooster, saying to Peter “Thou art the man!” Just the crowing of the cock. Yes, God can use events like that to speak to our soul; to make us remember; to make us weep the tears of repentance. And blessed be that sound. Whether it be a voice or a book or a sermon; a place; a hymn; an old portrait; a bit of lace; a worn Bible; an old letter. Gentle, sometimes subtle reminders that cause us to pause and take notice.

We are told that Peter cried bitterly. Later, after the Christ is resurrected from the dead, Peter again is brought to sorrow. Three times, Peter is asked the question, “Lovest thou me?” (John 21.17). The persistence of the questions deeply grieved Peter. In sorrow Peter had left the Lord, and in sorrow Peter was now forgiven by the Lord. His denial had been an act of the moment, a rash utterance spoken out of fear and thoughtlessness.

The fall of Judas, however, did not happen that way. From the beginning that Judas followed the Lord, there had been an evil within him.

But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.
John 6.64

And more than once, Jesus spoke to Judas about that evil within. When Judas denies the Christ, it is with a kiss. When Peter denies the Christ, it is with tears. Peter’s fall was immediate, sudden, unexpected; Judas’ fall was more gradual and silent and therefore, much more deadly. The lesson is clear. We do not have to leave the Lord suddenly to abandon our faith.

We need to take heed. Yes, our demise can come slowly, but when the final axe falls, our denial of Christ will become undeniable. Like Judas, we can venture out into the darkness of night.

Again, Christ looks. And for some of us it may be the last look. Will you answer it as cursing, swearing, denying Peter answered it of old that night in the courtyard there in Jerusalem? Or will His look move you to sorrow?

A sorrow that worketh repentance.

The note of hope and restoration.

“O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us: for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name: and deliver us, and purge away our sins, for thy name's sake.”
Psalm 79.8-9