There are many people in Scripture who have failed miserably and been restored and re-commissioned by God. Such people were assigned important tasks in the kingdom of God and achieved great things for God by His grace. It is important to consider the whole notion of ‘faith and failure’ from a Scriptural perspective and meet the people whose lives (including their mistakes and sins) are recorded for our instruction and edification.

On the evening of The Last Supper, Jesus foretold that Peter would deny Him. Peter, at that point in his experience, could not believe that such a thing would happen and so he argued with the Lord. During times of close fellowship with Jesus it is difficult for us to comprehend that it will not be long before we disappoint the one we profess to love. But inevitably such times come, all too quickly and frequently, until we eventually realise that faith and failure are part of the warp and woof of the fabric of our religious experience.

In response to Peter’s emphatic refutation of Christ’s prediction the Lord repeats his name, ‘Peter, Peter…’ in the same way as he had repeated Martha’s name, ‘Martha, Martha…’ when she too had preferred her own opinion to His. There is a note of tender disapproval in that simple repetition.

The Lord’s prediction of Peter’s denial was not merely a calculated guess based on observation of Peter’s temperamental and inherently flawed character. The Lord knew the events which were about to unfold and spoke of them with a precision that proved His divine foreknowledge.

Failure, foreknown and forgiven

In an extraordinary statement Jesus tells Peter that Satan has desired to have him and that He prayed that Peter’s faith might not fail. It is clear that there was a spiritual struggle for Peter. Satan desires to have his way with all the saints. We wrestle against principalities and powers. What are we to make of Peter’s denial of Jesus? Are we to conclude from this that Satan’s desire was fulfilled when Peter fell? Are we to believe that Christ’s prayer (that Peter’s faith would not fail) was ineffective? Jesus prayed that very night for the disciples (John 17). We cannot deny that Peter’s faith did fail, but it was a temporary failure, foreknown and forgiven.

It is clear from Scripture that Satan asks God to allow him to have his way with some people (Job 1:6-12; Zechariah 3:1-5). Job, Joshua and Peter were sought by Satan. We know why Jesus prayed for Peter and we know what he prayed. Christ continues to make intercession for his disciples because there are times when our faith fails and we fall. In Mark’s account Jesus predicts that all would fall away, which was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah: ‘smite the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered’ (Mark 13:7).

Peter declared that he was willing to follow Christ to prison and to death and ultimately he did, but at this point he was not ready. Simon’s self-confidence prevented him from understanding his frailty. His protestation of fidelity makes sad reading in the light of subsequent events. When we profess fealty we should do so in faith, aware of our feeble power to fulfil such vows. Instead we sing ‘though none go with me, still I will follow’. We do not sing it glibly in the same way as there was no shallowness in Simon’s boast. I have no doubt that he was as sincere then as we are now when we proclaim such loyalty.

Jesus said, ‘…this very night before the cock crows, you will disown me three times (Matthew 26:34). This was no speculation which second guessed Peter’s probable cowardice in the face on imminent danger to his liberty and life. Rather Jesus was able to foretell the exact moment when Peter’s denial would occur. It was not a vague prediction whereby the cock crowing was a general term for the dawn of a new day. In other words Jesus was not saying that in roughly twelve hours or so you will have denied me three times. Christ’s reference to the cock crowing is a detail that becomes embedded in Peter’s mind so that when he hears it his memory is triggered and the full realisation of his failure dawns upon him. How often the Word of God comes to mind bringing conviction of sin, sorrow and repentance.

Devastated but not destroyed

Peter is overwhelmed with grief but although he is devastated he is not destroyed. We cannot point the finger at Peter and think that we are without sin. John says, ‘if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves’ (1 John 1:8). However, he goes on to say, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9).

In Matthew 26:58 we read that Peter ‘followed afar off.’ No doubt he wanted to see what the outcome might be, but this was no idle curiosity on his part. It was love that drew him after Jesus. Peter was in a pressurised situation when he denied Jesus. Sadly we do not always do the right thing when we are under pressure.

Peter followed at a distance and in doing this he had become an observer rather than a disciple. There are those who follow Christ at a distance, not wanting to be too closely associated with Him, yet retaining a certain curiosity. Peter was trying to preserve his freedom while at the same time maintain a loose association, by proximity, with Jesus. Peter thought he was an unobserved observer but he was wrong because he was an integral part of the narrative. There are some today who think of themselves in this way and want to be on the periphery of things. They want a loose association because they do not want to endanger their ‘liberty’ or share the stigma of rejection and ridicule of those who condemn the unique and universal claims of Jesus. But in reality we are never on the periphery of things. The question is not whether we would be in the narrative but rather what part we will play.

The look of the Lord

After the cock crowed we are told, ‘the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter.’ It was a look that penetrated Peter’s heart. Peter must have experienced a range of emotions at this point. He had been afraid and perhaps also confused, disappointed and even disillusioned. Then Jesus established eye-contact and, ‘Peter remembered the word of the Lord…went out, and wept bitterly’ (Matthew 26:75). Christ did not just look at him, he looked into him. What a poignant scene. Here is Jesus, betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, deserted by his disciples[1] and despised by his accusers. What was conveyed to Peter in that look? Somehow I do not think it was anger or rejection rather I suspect there was pain and pardon in that look.

It is amazing that Jesus maintained sufficient focus in all this tribulation to deliver a look which pierced Peter’s heart. But the look of Jesus would have been wasted if Peter had not been looking at Jesus. Whatever trouble we find ourselves in let us keep looking to Christ for it is only there that we will come to understand ourselves and find the grace we need so much. It was a moment of intense realisation. I suspect too that these denials from his close disciple hurt Jesus more than the words of mockery and the physical blows from his avowed enemies. Surely this feeling of hurt must have registered on the face of Christ.

Broken to be blessed

We are sometimes broken in order to be blessed and this is what happened to Peter on this occasion. God, through His Word, shows us our true condition and strips us of our pretensions. Matthew 26:75 says, ‘then Peter remembered’ and the same verb is used in John 14:26 where the disciples are assured that the Holy Spirit will remind them of all that Jesus has told them. The Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, brings conviction and repentance. God brings His Word to mind, in the precise circumstances that suit His purposes.

Do we remember that first look from Jesus? If we want to understand our lives in spiritual terms we must look into the face of Jesus. Such moments are painful but profitable. John Dewey[2] said, ‘failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.’ If we are reflective and honest in our spiritual walk then we will grow through failure. Doctrine trains us but it is encounters such as these that transform us. The insights obtained in such moments cannot be easily assimilated in abstract lessons. The words of Samuel Smiles[3] seem rather apt, ‘It is a mistake to suppose that men succeed through success; they much oftener succeed through failures. Precept, study, advice, and example could never have taught them so well as failure has done.

At the moment when Peter’s eyes met the Lord’s eyes there was a dynamic interaction. At the very moment when Christ seemed most vulnerable and all must have seemed hopeless to Peter, that look confirmed that Christ was still in control. He knew this would happen and now Peter knew that Christ knew all this in advance for the words of Jesus were fulfilled with astonishing precision. Not only had Jesus read future events with astounding accuracy but he had also read Peter’s heart with equal exactness. Peter had heard Jesus preach, ‘he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God’ (Luke 12:9). Maybe he recalled those words at that point. But by God’s grace Peter was reinstated and he grew, not through faith but through failure. He had a real encounter with God. Potent and powerful witness is often rooted in the peculiar encounters we have with God.

To the women who were the first witnesses of His resurrection Christ said, ‘tell his disciples, and Peter’ (Mark 16:7). These words, and Peter, are loaded with forgiveness and hope. They tell us much about the gracious and compassionate character of Christ. They are simple and significant words that show consideration for one whose faith failed but who was still forgiven and loved by the Lord. They are words that ensure he is included in God’s plans. He is the God of second chances and new beginnings. In one account of the resurrection (Luke 24) we are told that nobody believed the women who had returned from the place where Christ was buried, ‘because their words seemed to them like nonsense.’ But Luke 24:12 of that chapter says, ‘Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb.’

The friend of failures

We could say that Peter was a failure and we would have to say he was not alone in this. King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and he commissioned the murder of her husband, Uriah, who was one of his most faithful and skilled warriors. David’s penitential prayer (Psalms 51) is one of the most poignant passages of Scripture:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me…Wash me and I will be whiter than snow…Hide your face from my sins…O Lord open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Jonah was God’s prophet and he wilfully disobeyed God but he was graciously re-commissioned. God is the God of second chances! As Christians we may appreciate the truth of Jonah as one might appreciate the aesthetics of a Shakespearean play but we may be very reluctant to apply these truths to real situations. Jonah is all the more mystifying because he is not pleased with the ‘success’ of his mission. In fact at the end of the book there is no evidence to suggest that he was remorseful for his wrong attitudes.

It would be unfair to describe Abraham as a liar and a coward. But there was on occasion in his life when fear caused him to lie. Jacob was a cheat. Noah’s drunkenness contributed to an incestuous incident. Moses was a murderer. Elijah became delusional to the point where he thought he was the only faithful servant of God, when in fact there were seven-thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal and he became despairing to the point where he wanted to die! This is not an apologia for apostasy but a reflection on the rehabilitative grace of God!

Scripture is full of examples of failures and the church is not a club for perfect people. Peter was passionate for God and Jesus wanted to reap what he had invested in this man’s training. The presence of such people in Scripture is not meant to justify complacency about human frailty or indifference to wrongdoing but rather to keep us from conceit and self-righteousness. We should rejoice that Jesus is a friend of failures. The process of progressive regeneration is often experienced in the intense heat of the crucible because it is there that the dross is burnt away and our refinement is perfected. There is no recorded objection to Peter’s reinstatement because who could conscientiously object? Who could say that they had not forsaken Christ? Condemnation is most likely to come from those with self-righteous attitudes who feel morally superior. Before we judge Peter or anybody else let us look into the face of the Master and learn of our need for mercy and grace. Let us be thankful that Jesus is the minder of mercy and guardian of grace for we are poor custodians of such perfect compassion.

I am inclined to think that Peter has got a bad press because in truth all the disciples had failed and deserted Jesus at this point and Peter alone tried to stay in touch. He followed physically but his faith failed and he ceased to follow as a disciple. This does not mean that he ceased to be a disciple; rather that he failed to follow spiritually at that point. In some ways Peter was a better disciple because he followed farther than most of the others (John was also present in the courtyard when Peter denied Jesus) at that point. Perhaps John’s presence emphasises the tragedy of the failure because Peter, despite having another disciple so close, still failed in such a dramatic way. We tend to remember that Christ rescued him from drowning but forget that his faith enabled him to walk on water. I doubt any of us would have behaved differently under the circumstances on the night Jesus was arrested. I think Peter is a hero of history from whom we can derive lessons in leadership. This is not to excuse his failure but to realise that heroes have faults and sometimes fail. Peter fell but he got up again. He lost a round in the great fight but he did not give up. He was knocked down but he was not knocked out.

Theodore Roosevelt once said: “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”[4]

The best was yet to come

When we look at the first-century church and consider the people involved in the mission of taking the gospel to the world it is amazing that God chose such people at all. How do we personally handle the tension between loving Jesus and failing him? What is God’s attitude to disciples who fail? Peter ultimately had the courage to continue his walk with Christ but in John 21 we encounter him once again as a fisherman on the Sea of Tiberias. He had returned to his occupational role after his sinful and shameful failure. But Jesus had other plans and did not allow him to remain in that secular and settled position. Peter was reinstated within six weeks. This is both comforting and challenging. Winston Churchill said, ‘courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm’. How true this was in the life of Peter.

In Acts 2 we encounter Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost and note that on that occasion three-thousand souls were saved! Peter was a passionate man of faith. He was driven by love and devotion to the Saviour. He left a settled business as a fisherman for an itinerant lifestyle as a disciple of Christ. There can be no doubting that his faith and love were genuine. There was, as is well documented in Scripture, a very dark period in this man’s life when he fell into terrible sin. Jesus warned of an impending trial and predicted that Peter would deny Him. But Peter was self-assured and defensive. He was distressed that Jesus doubted his love and loyalty. He probably felt that he was being misunderstood and misjudged. He felt he knew himself better than Jesus knew him. Scripture traces the terrible detail of his denial and its devastating effect on Peter. We read of how he wept bitterly when he realised the awfulness of what he had done. Peter’s fear was a flaw in his character and a chink in his spiritual armour exploited by Satan. He lied and cursed and denied ever knowing Jesus. What a terrible slide into utter failure!

Fear and failure

Fear is part of human experience: fear of rejection, fear of unrequited hope and love. There are phobias about almost anything. In one of Charlie Brown’s cartoons, Lucy, the so-called psychiatrist is trying to diagnose Charlie’s emotional problems. Assuming that his problem is ‘fear’ she lists several phobias in an effort to determine which one he has. Finally she says, “maybe you have a pan-a-phobia; the fear of everything! Not many of us have pan-a-phobia but most of us do fear something: it might be spiders, thunder and lightening, the dark enclosed spaces etc.

A common biblical exhortation is to ‘fear not’. Some people face many fears in this world; real or imagined. Some people live with the ‘what-ifs’ of life. What if that happens? What if it doesn’t work out? What if I am left all alone? Others are afraid of failing. Fear of failure makes some people work hard whereas it makes others afraid to try because if they do not succeed they will be labelled a ‘failure’. But failure is part of life and features in biblical history and narratives. The real question is not will we fail but what will we do when we fail? The failure rate for human beings is 100%. Nobody does what is right all the time. Paul puts it succinctly, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s mark of perfection’ (Romans 3:23). We all miss the mark at times. We can be well off target.

We do not always get where we want to go or achieve what we want to achieve or do what we ought to do. Many people feel they have failed: as parents, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, neighbours, friends or Christians. Some feel their testimony is bad and that they have let the Lord down (and perhaps this is true) but to fail is not the same as being a ‘failure’. We should bear in mind that failure itself is not the end of the world. It is not fatal.

The fear of failure can be more damaging to one’s life than failure itself. It is not trivialising spiritual failure to recall the words of the song: ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again’. However, the fear of failure can destroy your life. It can damage your abilities, hopes, relationships and it can haunt you for many years. To a church of such failures in Corinth Paul wrote: ‘We are hard –pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed’. J.B. Philips pictures it as a boxer who has been knocked down but not knocked out. Everybody fails but it is not failure unless you give up. Those who succeed are those who pick themselves up, dust themselves down and start all over again! Real failure is refusing to try again or refusing to try at all.


After thousands of failed experiments Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. He learned from his failures and was later to say: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.” I wonder if you are like that. No matter how many times we fall we must get up again and get back in the race. If you fall in a sprint there is no chance of winning and no point in trying but the Christian life is a marathon and falling does not rule out the possibility that you can still participate. Professional runners want to win marathons because that is their career but most people who run that distance just want to finish. They are not competing against others but against themselves. We must persevere toward the finishing line and that involves ‘forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead’.

We need to learn from our failures and come to see failure not as a positive thing in itself but something from which we can learn. Our mistakes can potentially teach us and cause us to grow. God does not just leave us in the place of failure. Even ordinary decent parents in the natural sense do not abandon or forsake their children for their errors.

One of the most beautiful passages in Scripture is where Jeremiah goes to the potter’s house and watches the potter working at the wheel. He sees the potter take the vessel that is marred and remake it. He refashions something useful and even beautiful from that same clay! That is what God can do for us! He can take our broken lives; our failures and faults and reshape them and remake us. He doesn’t give up on us when we fail.

Not only does God not give up on us when we fail but He uses failure to motivate us. He makes us change our ways and to think again about His purpose for our lives. God can take all the negative things in our lives and make them positive. God is not surprised when we fail. The psalmist reminds us that, ‘God knows what we are made of and He remembers that we are dust’. God knows that we are human. He knows our frailties and doesn’t expect us to be perfect. Importantly, God does not stop loving us when we fail. He does not see us by the world’s standards or judge us as others may do. Sometimes others can judge us harshly but God’s love is not dependant on what we do; it is dependant on who He is! We are valuable to God because He has made us and He has redeemed us and we belong to Him. We are more than His possessions; we are His people. We are more than His people; we are His family. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less. That is grace! He accepts us as we are. But He does not want to leave us as we are. He has a plan and purpose for our lives.

We all have areas of failure in our lives. Some may be more habitual or conspicuous than others. We stumble and stumble and stumble again. But God picks up and gives us a new beginning when we come confessing our faults and failings and asking for forgiveness. He never gets tired of forgiving us if we are spiritually sensitive enough to ask. God has nailed all our sins and our failures to the cross of Christ. Jesus died so that we need no longer fear the failure of our sins. The Christian life is not a failure–free life; rather it is a life of grace! Grace is the heart of the gospel and it is the heart of discipleship. God deals graciously with us. I will never tire of telling this to saints and sinners. Saints are redeemed sinners who still err. If you don’t believe this it is because you have strange and unscriptural notions about holiness. We are holy by God’s grace; not because we live sin-free lives.

What is the failure in your life that is gnawing away at you? Is it failure at work? Is it failure in relationships? Is it financial failure? Is it some other personal aspect of your life? Is it failure as a Christian? There is only one failure you need fear in life and that is the failure to find the grace of God. Failure to receive God’s grace as we go through life; rejecting His love; rejecting His Son; failure to find forgiveness and God’s power and help. Then you will really have failed because you will not have aspired to what the catechism calls, ‘the chief end of man’ and that is, ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’

Some people think that because they have failed that life is at an end. They think that if people really knew what they are like they would have no time for them. They think that God has no more time for them. This kind of thinking shows a poor understanding of God’s grace and love.

The Bible is full of failures that God used in significant ways. I’m not saying that one day you may fail. I am saying that you have failed. But you don’t have to be a failure. We need to come to terms with the fact that our failings have not thwarted God’s plans for our lives. We must begin to accept that ‘all things work together for the good’ (Romans 8:28). Mohandas Gandhi said, ‘Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.’ The same can be said about God’s grace: it is worthless unless it covers the sins of the saints. He is still the divine potter and He still takes that marred clay of our lives and reshapes it and remakes us. It is not only amazing grace which has saved a wretch, like me, but it is also amazing grace that has kept a wretch like me.

Did you mess up big time? God still has a plan for your life and a place for you in His kingdom. Tom Watson was founder and managing director of I.B.M. One of his most memorable moments in leadership occurred when a junior executive lost an enormous amount of money ($10million) on a risky venture for the company. Watson summoned the man into his office and as the man entered he nervously blurted out, “I guess you want my resignation?” Watson replied, “You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent $10 million educating you.” Just think how much God has spent on your education!

Alexander Whyte who was a minister of St. Georges Edinburgh in the late nineteenth-century and principal and New Testament professor of New College Edinburgh in the early 20-century, once said of Christians: “they fall down, they get up, they fall down, they get up…all the way to heaven.”

We should be thankful that God is the God of new beginnings. That new beginning is on offer to you today. We must persevere, in spite of our frailties. People who refuse to give up tend to achieve things. Thomas Edison is remembered for having invented the light bulb which brought light to this physical world but we too are engaged in a great endeavour; to bring spiritual light to this dark world. His perseverance was exemplary. He is often quoted for having said, ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work’.

I was having a meal in a restaurant recently when I saw a man outside the window having a conversation with another man. He was wearing a T-shirt which had an interesting take on the saying: ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’. His slogan read: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you!’ Obviously there are some areas of life where ‘failure’ is fatal but Christianity should not be such an area. If we fall let us get up and get back in the race.

Qualified by grace

Returning to Peter we need to note how Jesus responded to his failure. Jesus did not forsake him. Christ eventually confronted Peter, surprisingly, not on the issue of his denial and cursing but rather, about his love. Failure did not disqualify him from the task God had set for him. That failure would always be a reminder of his weakness and increase his dependence on God. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” This is still God’s question at a time of failure because it is the ultimate prerequisite for service to Christ. Peter was graciously reinstated to service in the kingdom of God on the basis of his love for Jesus. He was to feed Christ’s lambs by being a servant to the people of God and a preacher of the gospel of grace.

I’m sure Peter learned a great deal about himself and about Christ from his experience and this meant that although he failed he was not a failure. Elbert Hubbard[5] said, ‘a failure is a man who has blundered but is not capable of cashing in on the experience.’ This is not to trivialise sin but to glorify grace. The gospel embraces failures.


The nursery rhyme says:
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

That was the end of Humpty Dumpty. His fall destroyed him. But our King is able to put us together again! The example of Peter shows how God deals with the repentant disciple. He graciously forgives and restores to a place of usefulness. The proof of that is confirmed by God’s choice of Peter to deliver what is perhaps the most important evangelistic sermon in the history of the church. Not only was Peter’s sin foreknown and forgiven but it was also forgotten by God because he chooses to not remember our wrongdoing. God is ‘slow to chide and swift to bless’

Love lasts

On the occasion of the last supper Jesus said to Simon Peter:

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).

What did Jesus mean by this? To sift means to separate the finer parts from the coarser parts or to refine in the manner wheat is sifted from chaff. This is the process whereby the husks are separated from the kernel of the cereal. The wheat or corn is valuable because it is nourishing and life-sustaining whereas the chaff is worthless. This procedure involved beating (threshing) with flails on hard level floor. The flail was a wooden staff with a short heavy stick swinging from it. The sifting process also involved tossing the wheat and chaff into the air whereby the heavier wheat would fall in a pile and the lighter chaff would be blown away by the wind. Peter was sifted. Christ’s desire was that Peter’s love would remain and everything else would be blown away. Satan’s desire, however, was that everything else would remain but that Peter’s love would be driven away! Thus the importance of Christ’s repeated question to Peter, “Do you love me?” As Paul reminds us, ‘Love never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:8). And Paul goes on to say: ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love’ (1 Corinthians 13:13). Love covers a multitude of faults and in the case of Peter, the most famous ‘failure’ of all; love was all that was left after the sifting had taken place. But love was enough. Love will always be enough.

The truth is that if Peter failed then Jesus failed too! Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. Was Christ’s prayer ineffectual? Clearly the answer to this question is a resounding no! The only logical conclusion is that Peter did not, ultimately, fail! We need to rethink our understanding of the whole notion of failure and to redefine it in the light of Peter’s experience. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ reign in all our thoughts and words and deeds in relation to this issue!

In the genealogy of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew we see that Christ’s ancestors included Rahab, a prostitute and Solomon the child of Bathsheba. In Luke’s Gospel Christ’s ancestry is traced back to Adam, a spectacular ‘failure.’

Differences and disputes

Scripture records a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas about Mark’s usefulness in ministry (Acts 15). Paul wanted to revisit all the brothers in the towns where they had preached the gospel to see how they were doing. Barnabas wanted to take Mark, his cousin (Colossians 4:10) with them but Paul thought this was unwise. When they had reached Perga, in Pamphylia, on the mainland of Asia Minor, Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Paul regarded this as desertion and thus Scripture records that Paul and Silas had such a sharp disagreement about Mark’s ‘usefulness’ or ‘suitability’ for ministry and so they parted company (Acts 15:39). Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus but Paul chose Silas and went through Syria and Cilicia. This issue was not an unholy squabble rather it was a matter of principle.

We remember how Barnabas brought the newly converted Saul to meet the saints in Jerusalem at a time when all the others were afraid to meet him (Acts 9:27). This shows the consistently compassionate and courageous nature of Barnabas. If we learn anything from this passage of Scripture it is that Christians will disagree on issues concerning the integrity, consistency, character and usefulness of those who ‘fail’ in ministry. It is clear that there can be legitimate differences amongst believers on such serious matters. Paul, the great theologian, rejected Mark but Barnabas, who was by name and nature an encourager, accepted him. The words of James Lowell come to mind: ‘mishaps are like knives that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.’ Many believers bear the marks of mishaps but these scars tell stories of God’s gracious dealings with them. Many believers are also able to take these mishaps and use them as tools in God’s work.

Marred but remade

The first council of the Christian church was held in Jerusalem in A.D. 48 or 49 to settle the dispute about the reception of Gentile converts into the covenant community. This is recorded immediately prior to the difference of opinion between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. This is one way of dating the dispute (the missionary journeys also give us an accurate timeframe). Mark was the first of the Gospels and therefore it can be dated about A.D. 55. This means that when Luke was writing Acts, at the likely date of A.D. 63, he was referring to the incident between Paul and Barnabas which had taken place fourteen or fifteen years earlier. More interestingly, Mark wrote the gospel six or seven years after Paul had rejected him.

Obviously God did have a future ministry for this ‘failure’ and what an amazing task he entrusted to him! Later Paul speaks of Mark as his companion in Rome and pays high tribute to his service. By the date of Colossians 4:10 Mark is in the company of Paul who was a prisoner (probably in Rome). Paul is apparently intending to send him on a mission to Colossae, so that he must have forgiven and forgotten the past. Philemon 1:24 also mentions Mark among the apostolic group. Paul (author of the qualifications for office in the church, 1 Timothy 3) later requests the assistance of Mark and states that Mark is ‘helpful to me in my ministry’ (2 Timothy 4:11). It is clear form this that there was no ultimate rift about this matter and that Paul had sent Mark with Timothy on the mission to Asia Minor.

Christ our credentials

It is possible that Jonah’s rebellion and punishment by God helped receptivity to his message. Had he come as a pious prophet from the heart of Israel he may have been flayed alive! But he bore the authentic marks of a man who was reluctantly constrained to engage in this mission and his body bore testimony to the fact that God meant business. His story must have been compelling.

Mark’s gospel demonstrates the deity of Christ through the narrative accounts of His ministry and miracles. Although it is the shortest of the gospels it is often the most detailed and one third of the book is dedicated to recording the events of the last week of Christ’s life. It is the first of the Synoptic Gospels and Protestant scholars have generally accepted its primacy. Thus Mark was the originator of the literary form of the Gospel. Mark’s account shows the power of Christ over sickness, sin, nature and death and is an action-packed, dramatic and crucially important presentation of the deity of Jesus to a Gentile people. Nobody is indispensable and God did not need Mark specifically to write the gospel. Nevertheless, God chose him from amongst others, who had, perhaps, a better claim to selection for such an important role. But love for Christ is the sum and substance of his credentials.

It was not Mark’s first time ‘failing’. We know that he and all the other disciples deserted Christ. However, the gospels record that: ‘A young man wearing nothing but linen garment was following Jesus. When they seized him he fled naked, leaving his garment behind’ (Mark 14:1-2). This ‘young man’ is usually taken to be Mark. The anonymity of the man in this ignominious incident fits with the idea that it was not customary for an author to mention his own name in such circumstances (see John 21:24 where John alludes to himself as the gospel writer without mentioning his own name).

There was a close relationship between Peter and Mark. Mark’s gospel is thought to be an account of the preaching of Peter. The themes, tone and treatment of the subject matter appear to be the distinctive voice of Peter. The New Bible Dictionary says, ‘even if the hand be Mark’s the voice is Peter’s voice, to judge from the nature of the incidents, choice of matter and manner of treatment’.[6] Here were two men conscious of their failing but still in love with the Lord.

Jonah was God’s appointed prophet and his preaching turned a wicked city to repentance. In spite of the fact that he was a very peculiar individual he was selected to be one of the most effective preachers of all time. Noah’s legacy is that of a ‘preacher of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2:5). Abraham is known as a ‘friend of God’ (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). The Petrine correspondence is included in the canon of Scripture and Peter played a very important role in the formative years of the church of Christ. Mark has left us the sacred record of Christ’s life and ministry in the gospel which bears his name. The fact that these patriarchs and key players have failed should make us mindful of our frailty.

Peculiar people

Jonah was indeed a peculiar person but he is not alone in this regard. Most of the Psalms were written by David. They give us a glimpse into the torments of the tortured soul. The Psalms speak to us in ways that are meaningful because they were not written in a vacuum. These wonderful songs come out of the crucible of the real life experiences of a real person. They are not the detached, theoretical reflections of a religious philosopher upon life. Rather they are the groaning of a real person in times of real difficulty, in the real world. They are the cries wrung out of a human heart. They speak of particular and universal yearnings and desires. We can identify with them because they echo our soul’s condition and articulate the deep things within; our agonies, ecstasies, failure and need for grace. Whatever the precise historical setting of particular psalms may be, they speak with clarity and relevance to our individual and societal situation especially with regard to the emotional condition we call ‘depression’.

In Psalms 42, for example, David says, Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?’ This cry of anguish and despair is the raw material that the psalmist works with. In this and many other psalms we see this material being quarried from the soul and processed and refined in the outworking of the psalm itself.

The church is a building crafted out of such peculiar stones fitted together to create a structure that glorifies God. It is wonderful to know that even our irregular shape conforms to the master plan of the divine mason. The chiselling and hammering is not meaningless, God is at work to enable us to find that special place reserved for us in the overall scheme of things. Thus the pain is ultimately profitable. The despondency is part of the grand design and the tears are the initial trickle that will ultimately bring a torrent of triumphant joy.

That which is marred can be remade in the Master’s hands. As Christians we believe in saving grace and sustaining grace. However, we tend to emphasise sustaining grace as preventative rather than remedial. In other words we tend to think that God’s grace will keep us from sin rather than cleanse us from sin. It is certainly true that God’s grace can and does keep us from sin but there are times when we do not avail of it. Sanctification is a process that will never be perfected in this life. If we are not aware that church is a fraternity of failures then there is a danger that we may appear to be more like society of Pharisees. We can never do anything to make God love us more and we can never do anything that would make God love us less. This is grace!

When we are conscious of our failure then mercy is our thought and theme. There is simplicity in the prayer of the tax collector who is aware of his failure; ‘Lord be merciful to me, a sinner’. This contrasts to the prayer of the Pharisee who is smugly conscious his ‘faithfulness’. May we always be sufficiently aware of our need for grace and mercy! The hearts of ‘failures’ are inclined to sing a different song which can be summed up in the words of that lovely Charles Wesley hymn:

Depth of mercy can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God His wrath forbear?
Me, the chief of sinners spare?
Jesus, answer from above:
Is not all thy nature love?
Wilt Thou not the wrong forget?
Suffer me to kiss Thy feet?
If I rightly read Thy heart,
If Thou all compassion art,
Bow Thine ear, in mercy bow;
Pardon and accept me now.

[1] John 18:15 reveals that there was another disciple present, probably John.

[2] John Dewey (1859- 1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, whose thoughts and ideas have been greatly influential in the United States and around the world.

[3] Samuel Smiles (18121904) was a Scottish author and reformer. Born in Haddington, Smiles was the eldest of eleven children. He left school at the age of 14 and was apprenticed to a doctor, eventually enabling him to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. While studying and after graduating he campaigned for parliamentary reform, contributing articles to the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and the Leeds Times.

[4] From a speech given in Paris at the Sorbonne in 1910

[5] Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) was an American writer, publisher, artist, and philosopher. He was an influential exponent of the Arts and Crafts movement and is, perhaps, most famous for his essay, A Message to Garcia.

[6] P.738

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