“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same.”
(Matthew 26:30-35 ESV)
How are Christians to understand their spiritual experiences? Reading through the account of Peter in Matthew 26 paints a rather stark contrast to how modern Christians interpret their spiritual experiences. Matthew notes some particularly eminent circumstances surrounding the hours before Christ’s betrayal and eventual trial & crucifixion, and especially how those circumstances relate to the apostle Peter.
Peter had just sat finished a meal with Jesus and the disciples in which Jesus radically transforms the Passover feast as referring now to his own body and work. One can imagine what an experience it would have been to be with Christ where such an act was done among them. Jesus throws his disciples a curve-ball in the middle of their time and says that one of the disciples will betray him and that all of them will desert him that night. Peter, in all his religious zeal, boldly (and albeit recklessly) declares to Jesus how he, among all men, would never do such a thing.
I can imagine what this time would have been like for the disciples: here they were with Jesus, he had just confronted all of the religious leaders in the previous passages and performed a complete rout of all their arguments and trappings they had laid out. Now Jesus had sat down and showed how would fulfill the passover with his own death. Immediately following this they all sang a hymn together in celebration of the Passover. Peter, the typically forward and overt disciple, was most likely deeply moved by all that had happened. In all of his religious zeal he counters Jesus’ own declaration.
Here was Peter, having witnessed the amazing works of Christ, having been personally counceled by him, having had a powerful “worship service”, now proclaiming his undying devotion to Christ. And in less that 24 hours Peter says this:
Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” (Matthew 26:74)
In less than 24 hours…
How can a follower of Christ go from one such extreme to another in a matter of hours? How could Peter’s heart and mouth betray his best of intentions? I can imagine someone saying to Peter, “What of the hours before where you sat and dined with Christ and ate his supper? When you sang a hymn with him? When you declared your undying devotion to Christ? Where is your heart at Peter?”
So often we are inclined to seek after and rest in the fact that we have had spiritual experiences. Certainly Christ gives us these times to refresh and instruct our hearts and souls, just as he had with his disciples. But God teaches us that we must be ever cautious not to rest upon those moments or despair at their absence, for you could in moments go from
Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you
I do not know the man.
The apostle Paul teaches the same truth in 2 Corinthians 12 regarding his spiritual experience. Paul was lead up into the third heaven and allowed to hear “things that cannot be uttered”. Paul goes on further to recount,
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (2 Corinthians 12:7)
Paul had, what may be regarded, as the most eminent spiritual experience in the history of humanity, except for possibly the select disciples witnessing Christ’s transfiguration. Yet God knew Paul’s heart and inclination to boast and rest in such an experience. Paul would have regarded such an experience as sure-fire evidence of his spirituality, his knowledge of Christ, his piety, his devotion. God was gracious to Paul and sent a tremendous affliction into his life for the sole purpose of restraining his evil of turning a spiritual revelation into an opportunity for the flesh.
God is so much the wiser than man. We look to our spiritual experiences to confirm and verify to us our spirituality, as a divine confirmation of our devotion. Yet Peter teaches us that in but a moment we could turn and deny Christ with swearing and heaping curses upon ourselves. And Paul teaches us that if it is not for the Lord’s restraining grace, we would find our satisfaction not in the grace and provision of Christ, but in the thing(s) he provides.
We are taught to learn that our faith, from first to last, depends upon Christ. Jesus said to Peter,
But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:32)
And we are taught from Paul that sufficient for our life and hope is the grace of our Lord Jesus, not our spiritual experiences:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
When Christ is pleased to give us times where our hearts sense his nearness, these are sweet and refreshing to the soul, but such times are not to be depended upon, or even looked and sought for primary confirmations of Christ’s love. Our spiritual lives depend not upon our zeal or pursuit of Christ, but upon his sustaining grace. We can find no ounce of reccomendation to him in anything we do but that we are recipients of what he gives. Peter received the grace and mercy of Christ’s prayer to sustatin his faith and Paul received the grace and mercy of a tremendous affliction to keep him from turning a grace into a source of self-pride.
It is possible that after Peter denied Christ, that in his weeping the Lord brought to him thoughts that may run like this hymn:
- My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
- On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
- On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
- When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
- His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
- When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found;
In Him, my righteousness, alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
“I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name”