Sir Peter Lely’s painting style was characteristic of his time; he set out to flatter the person whose image he was painting. In other words, if any of us were getting someone to do our portrait, he’s the guy we’d want.
But not the kind Oliver Cromwell wanted. When Lely was about to begin his portrait, Cromwell supposedly told the painter to ignore cultural norms and paint him accurately. “Paint me as I am, warts and all,” he said.
I’m not sure if the apostle Peter asked for a warts-and-all portrait of himself, but that’s exactly what he got. His embarrassing denial is one of a small number of events described in all four gospels.
Read Mark’s version of the story, and remember—this is the leading apostle:
And Peter had followed him . . . into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. . . . And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway . . . And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept (Mark 14:54, 66-72).
The closer you look at this story, the worse it gets. It escalates . . . when the girl first approached him, Peter said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” When she mentioned it again, Peter denied it repeatedly (the Greek text implies this). With the third time he punctuated his denial by invoking curses on himself and swearing.
Warts and all, indeed. Ugly gets uglier because Peter cowered before a servant girl, someone who was very low on the social class hierarchy. And, to make it even more inexcusable, Jesus had already warned Peter that this would happen.
Why is this story here? Why not just gloss over it and save Peter the embarrassment of having his story read again and again? It doesn’t make sense for documents that were written to create faith in Jesus as God’s Son to emphasize such an epic failure of an apostle. But that’s probably why it’s in our Bibles.
If one of Jesus’ most committed followers could fall into this trap, we’ll be tempted to do the same. In fact, you’ll probably find yourself warming your hands by a similar fire sometime this week, if not today. You’ll be faced with a choice: confess that you’re one of the Lord’s followers, or just blend in with everyone else.
Stand up or cower. Confess or deny. It happens at work, at school, at the ball park, even in the church lobby. Someone starts to gossip, a guy starts to tell an off-color joke, your boss asks you to relax your sense of ethics and cook the books, just this one time.
Peter caved in, denied Christ, and disappointed himself and the Lord. We’ll be put in a deny-or-confess situation very soon. What will we do? —Chuck